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Monday, May 19, 2008
Sigur Rós - Untitled #8 (Popplagið)

As you probably already know, Sigur Rós has built a career out of selling nonsense—vocalist Jón Birgisson sings in “Hopelandic,” a made-up language that occasionally blends together bits of Icelandic and English, but mostly it just departs for the moon while you’re not paying attention because you’re still trying to figure out what the the last sentence was about.


In doing so, they raise an interesting question about the role of language in mainstream rock music.  Can it be communicative without being semantic?  Or alternatively, if the semantic value is imposed by the listener, is it still useful?  If so, maybe that’s the reason bands with obtuse Nirvana-esque lyrics still manage to connect with audiences who learn to sing along with every word even when none of the make sense.  Treating the human voice as an instrument is not a new approach, but treating human language as such is still largely unexplored territory for most of us.


Since his was the first band to totally base their gimmick around the idea that a properly-delivered hard plosive can smack you up just as readily as a kick drum, Birgisson is usually the focal point, but at times the other members are the ones that keep things ticking.  Sometimes the supposed gibberish starts to seem a little too conveniently tied to the English phonetic equivalents (the part of their site with all the free music is labeled “dánlód”), at which point Hopelandic threatens to collapse into the same sort of caricature as teenage txt msgs and l33t h4x0r sp33k.  Some of the tracks on () were guilty of that, but at the end drummer Orri Páll Dýrason came to the rescue.


It’s been six long years since the snowstorm during which I trudged around for days listening to (), but since Takk was such a heinous misstep aside from “Gong,” I still consider the album’s closing number, “Untitled #8,” the band’s crowning achievement thus far.  Since () was so verbally abstract—there were no titles at all, not even Hopelandic ones, and it came with blank liner notes in which listeners could write their own interpretations of the “lyrics”—fans desperate for a tangible handle have since taken to applying unofficial secondary names. This one is “Popplagið,” but since we’re still in Hopelandic territory there, the alleged translation would be “The Pop Song.”


You’d think that’d be a harder sell—the notion that a band which insists on singing in gibberish syllables which sound like scat on shrooms could have a pop hit, I mean—but if there’s a more universally beloved Sigur Rós tune, I certainly haven’t met it yet.  Maybe the “pop” here means “popular in terms of raw numbers” instead of the more obvious “musical genre diametrically opposed to inaccessible art-rock.”


OK, that’s probably enough.  There’s not a shred of semantic coherence in the subject matter, but my word count on this post keeps rising.  Oh, the irony.


Tagged as: sigur ros
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Monday, May 19, 2008
Four Tet - Ringer

The most remarkable thing about “Ringer” is its E Pluribus Unum factor. Probably more than anything else in recent memory, the title track from the latest Four Tet EP weaves itself together from forgotten bits and blips and and pieces and plunks, any one of which seems like it might have fallen off a cheap Nokia if taken in isolation. But digital wunderkind Kieran Hebden’s aesthetic sensibility had him working on officially sanctioned Radiohead remixes by his early 20s, and here it weld the disparate blobs together into a whole that makes you forget the fact that you’ve been listening to the same three notes in the soprano line all along. At ten minutes long, it’s obviously guilty of the cardinal DJ sin of stating every last phrase in powers of four, but right when I’m about to lose interest for good those drums kick in and carry it through the last two minutes. After spending several excruciating years with a cell phone more or less strapped to my face, I’m finally thinking about changing my ringtone.


Tagged as: four tet
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Friday, May 16, 2008

Though Diplo has reigned supreme as the underground ying to Timbaland’s overground yang, for my buck, one of the best beat magicians slicing and dicing today is Montreal’s Ghislain Poirer.  His non-instrumental work with MC’s, such as the collaboration with Abdominal (“City Walking”) brim with alleyway menace and threatening intricacy.  For Poirer, it’s not a matter of just finding the groove and then just striking over and over again in that same sweet spot.  Poirer’s beats are knotty, itchy and architectural.  “Don’t Smile, It’s Post Modern” sounds like a particularly fast and difficult Tetris game where patterns are assembled and dissolved at a furiously glitched pace. 


The video is little more than a one-joke stretch, but as Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” proved, you can create an infinitely entertaining video out of the rapt fascination people have with dance moves.  (the quality seems to be a secondary issue) Even the Ipod silhouette commercials recognize the magnetic currency of raw movement, proving wildly popular despite the fact that they are little more than outlines pulsing to an upbeat song.  I think this video similarly succeeds in part by playing on all the hilarious tensions of the situation coupled with the freedom and joy of just watching some fool, in this case, possessed by the need to dance.


First off, it seems to be shot with a club-drug lens, a fact emphasized by the superimposition of the germy spots which glide across the toilet surfaces.  For anyone whose ever abused/used these drugs, the effect is a familiar one as is the almost painfully fluoresced tile and uncomfortable urinal silences.  I’m sure someone has analyzed the weird tensions involved in the men’s restroom where sexual panic, fear of inadequacy and free floating erotic tension mix.  It’s probably somewhere in Camille Paglia’s footnotes.  Perhaps the best part of the video is that it makes a dance routine out of post-micturition convulsion syndrome, a shiver/tremor sensation that a large percentage of men have after or during urination.  For me, that’s funny enough to make the video one that bears repeated viewing.


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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

David Remnick of the New Yorker offers this list of 100 essential jazz albums. Note that many of them are not albums but mammoth multi-disc retrospectives covering vast spans of time. It would be interesting to see what a list like this would look like if you decided to only include actual albums of original material: i.e., all things like “Dexter Gordon, Our Man in Paris (Blue Note, 1963)” and no “Django Reinhardt, The Classic Early Recordings in Chronological Order (JSP, 2000; tracks recorded 1934-39)”. Is there a case to be made for a jazz album qua album? Probably a better one than can be made for rock records.


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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

“Louisville is death you’ve got to get up and move, because the death do not improve” – Silver Jews “Tennessee” from the album Bright Flight


In a recent interview I conducted with David Berman, renaissance man of the Silver Jews, he was thinking of changing the aforementioned lyric for the upcoming tour. He also claimed he’s never been able to play it in Louisville, obviously. But this is a lyric that needs to be heard by the people of Louisville – and they need to be confronted with it directly. Mr. Berman beating around the bush is going to do no good as far as a songwriter goes – because during his near two decade career and many one-liners – this is one of the most prominent lines, one which struck home with a lot of people (including myself) in the town.


If you’ve never spent a decent amount of time within the city, than this line may just be another bundle of words that sound meaningful coming out of Berman’s growl. But let me let you in on a little secret – Louisville, as Berman claims, has had a “dark star” hanging over its head for quite some time now. Not quite as bad as it did back in the ‘90s, but it’s still dangling in sight. The town is full of a never-popping bubble of musicians that attract a wider audience for a local show than a national show – some may say this is a good thing, but by alienating themselves from the rest of the musical world, it only hurts a musical community. This mentality has kept a lot of musicians within the city from getting widespread acclaim. The one’s that have made it generally dispersed to outside cities such as Nashville and Chicago to get in with a different crowd of musicians, such as Tortoise and David Berman himself.


With this said, Louisville has somewhat detached of this clique mentality over the past several years, mostly because so many different genres are coming out of Louisville and bands find themselves not working on common ground. The town needs to take to heart Berman’s words and not fall inside the hole they once created.


Tagged as: silver jews
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