[17 December 2004]
|10|| MODEST MOUSE |
Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)
Indie rock stars often perch on a tenuous tightrope, a precarious position that requires juggling wankery on one end, and accessibility on the other. However, in Modest Mouse’s latest effort, they have found a most reliable balancing pole—by making all that self-absorption irresistibly catchy, they cause the weird to be wonderful in a VH1-friendly way. There is an undercurrent of poppish melodiousness running from opener “Horn Intro” all the way to “The Good Times are Killing Me”, layered with trademark Isaac Brock nervous-manic vocal tics and swirling psychedelic atmospherics, pleasing both radio and critics respectively. Finally, who can resist the album’s first single “Float On”, which I personally decree the “Hey Ya” of 2004? With this successful album-wide balancing of both success and cred, Modest Mouse will indeed float on alright.
When I bought this album at a weird little out of the way record shop near the campus library where I was working at the time, the clerk made an odd declaration. He said, “This record is going to be big, not Norah Jones big, but big.” I honestly had no idea what would make him say that. Having been a long time fan I could hardly picture Isaac Brock and his inelegant staccato yelped strangeness plastered all over MTV2, but as soon as I heard “Float On” I was floored. Spring was turning, the sun was out, and those three minutes of pure pop joy were the perfect accompaniment. And what is even better is that “Ocean Breathes Salty”, “The View”, “One Chance”, and “The Good Times Are Killing Me” are just as perfect.
Just when it looked like radio was dead, along comes Modest Mouse’s “Float On” like an 18-wheeler barreling down the highway at speeds too dangerous to even consider, convincing scores of mainstream radio-listeners to buy Good News for People who Love Bad News, the outright oddest album they’ve ever laid their hands on. And all was right with the world. Isaac Brock’s David Byrne meets Anthony Kiedis meets the Tasmanian Devil vocals are laid on top of an ever-morphing, dense, claustrophobic wall of sound. It’s a constant meditation on death and the worth of life. It features those other darlings of the indie scene, the Flaming Lips, doing production work on its final track. Best of all, your best friend’s little sister has it, stuffed on a shelf between Chingy and Blink-182. What could be more charmingly contradictory, or worthy of a year-end best-of, than that?
Madvillainy (Stones Throw)
Such a powerful, sturdy alloy can only be the product of gold and iron. Madlib’s golden digits are easily the necessary counterparts to the metal cast MF Doom, and Madvillainy couldn’t be a better example of this fruit-bearing partnership. Doom’s royal, pop culture-laden flow matches Madlib’s beat-mining expertise as perfectly as everyone knew it would. Madvillain’s kingdom is lined with the trickery of two masterminds, steeped in an unexpected post-weed willingness to create, rather than retreat to the couch with snacks. In 2004, there hasn’t been a hip hop outing that’s this rich in both cite-worthy lyricisms and memorable beats. Seriously. There hasn’t.
The 22-track concept album Madvilliany features the partnership of sonic cut-up artist Madlib (Otis Jackson, Jr.) and rapper MF DOOM (Daniel Dumile). The duo takes on the mask of super criminals as a way of tying the one-to-two-minute bits together and to show our shared fears by making light of them. Madlib provides the soundtrack as he combines sound effects and dialogues from old horror movies, cartoons and TV shows with cheesy Farfisa organ fills, off-kilter piano riffs and distorted sax solos—all of which sound as if they were recorded from behind closed doors. Doom’s verbiage flow as if spouted by a drunken Robert Stack from The Untouchables era, with an authority that both satirizes and reinforces their meaning. When Doom says he’s gonna “Slip like Freudian”, you know he’s right and that his words have a deeper meaning. Like Freud, Doom knows the relationship between jokes and the unconscious. He’s prepared to show the dark side of our thoughts and the connection between “the comedic and the relentlessly horrifying” to show how our collective dreams have become an American nightmare.
Have you EVER, in hip-hop’s three-decade history, heard of a 40-minute 22-track record? Hell no. That’s like sacrilege in some circles. Yet it’s one of the greatest things about Madvillainy: this is hip-hop’s rawest presentation—no more, no less. Madlib’s production is still a thousand miles an hour and as a complex as a jazz ensemble, and Doom still spits like Method Man’s pathological cousin. It’s the record’s blunt tenacity, and it’s complete affront to hip-hop’s dinosaur ego, that truly sets it apart.
Tim Stelloh :. original PopMatters review
A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch)
It is a testament to what Wilco is to American rock music that this record will inevitably end up on many Top 10 lists. A Ghost Is Born didn’t blow anybody’s ears off and, frankly, it was expected to. The follow up to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was supposed cement Wilco as America’s preeminent rock band. Perhaps it was Wilco overload that started the mild critical backlash. Greg Kot’s fawning book Learning How to Die coupled with the impending release of A Ghost Is Born either created impossible expectations or left many listeners ill prepared for the lengthy distorted guitar jams, lengthy silences, experimentations, and quiet ballads that Tweedy and producer Jim O’Rourke were cooking up. The truth is that if any other band had released this record it would have been hailed as a minor masterpiece. A Ghost Is Born will, in the long run, be given far more repeated listenings than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot because A Ghost Is Born will rise beyond the simple attraction of an interesting (nay, legendary thanks to I Am Trying to Break Your Heart) back story. It will stand purely on the songs, which just seem to get better and better. America’s best rock band? A Ghost Is Born is most disappointing in that it leaves that question very unanswered. But in 2004 who put their necks on the line more than these guys?
Another great rock and roll record is born, and again it belongs to Wilco. Listening to this among the top contenders of 2004, it’s obvious that with the exception of Nick Cave, no one has come close to this grand scope of artfulness and emotion. A Ghost Is Born, Wilco’s fourth classic in a row, cannot be overrated, even with Jeff Tweedy’s unapologetic feedback patience-tester. Whether crooning about human (dis)connection or excitedly sending up a garage rock count-a-long, Tweedy disarms with sincerity. If there was a better moment laid to tape (hard drive) this year than the gorgeous repetition giving way to semi-controlled rocking-out in “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, I certainly did not hear it. Marrying modernity with punk and classic rock history, Wilco remains the most thoughtful of bands in existence today. Other musicians may claim influences of Neil Young and Neu! in the same sentence, but the smallest percentage are able to pull it off in this unpretentious (yet always smart) and seamless manner. This is what it sounds like to be alive.
I got to spend an afternoon with this record on the day of its “official” arrival into the world. Off from work, I strapped on the headphones and spent several hours walking around Philadelphia letting the music act as mirror to the city in summer. Seemingly all at once, the record proved to be disarmingly quiet, recklessly frantic, unceasingly rhythmic, beautiful, joyous, and tragic. There are and were so many moments worth mentioning, but, given my allotment of space, I will only mention my favorite: in the middle of “Wishful Thinking” everything disappears leaving only a void of weak morning light surrounding the year’s most devastating lines: “open your arms as far as they will go/we take off your dress/an embarrassing poem/was written when I was alone/in love with you.”
Jon Goff :. original PopMatters review
7 THE STREETS
A Grand Don’t Come for Free (Vice)
“It was all supposed to be so ea-sy…” Whether A Grand Don’t Come Easy is a better, more important record than The Streets’ 2003 debut Original Pirate Material, I’m not quite sure… though it’s certainly more ambitious in concept. The latter served as a series of brilliant sketches, while the former aspires to a broader, more wide-ranging canvas. The term ‘concept album’ seems oddly quaint when used in conjunction with an album as contemporary sounding as this one, yet that’s what A Grand Don’t Come Easy plainly is. Essentially it offers two tales, one involving lost money, the other lamenting a girlfriend first discovered, then lost also. It doesn’t sound like much of a comedy, but in the hands of Mick Skinner, what else could it possibly be? It’s one aspect of his work—the wry humor—that marks Skinner down as a singularly British talent. Oddly, few great records I recall possess cringe-inducing moments in the way A Grand Don’t Come Easy does. These moments are limited to Skinner’s penchant for delivering rhymes in in-furi-atingly chi-ld-like patt-erns—an occasional proclivity that seems wholly unnecessary given his more natural, more naturally effective flow. Perhaps it’s the idiot standing up to the savant? Still, these moments seem utterly inconsequential when measured against the brilliant, utterly original vitality of the remainder. Beyond innovative music steps, Skinner’s real art is one of observation. The most accurate comparison his work might draw is not with another album, but with a book—Trainspotting. As with the more successful literature of Irvine Welsh, Skinner is delineating a British youth culture that few have been able to accurately transcribe. In doing so, he’s making extremely complex storytelling appear deceptively simple. If you’ve ever tried writing a story that involves the ingestion and descriptive effects of drugs, you probably know how silly you end up sounding. Typically Skinner makes it work for him—as witnessed here by “Blinded by the Light”. A considerable part of Skinner’s success is that he’s completely unafraid. He’s quite prepared to run the risk of sounding silly, which is why “Dry Your Eyes”, a song which potentially has ‘sappy mess’ written all over it, is in fact beautiful and honest and touching. Like most good literature, it’s honest to the point of cruelty… which, in a nutshell, is what makes The Streets such riveting listening.
John Davidson :. original PopMatters review
On the follow-up to the great Original Pirate Material, Mike Skinner shifts the focus from his creative, no-frills UK garage beats to his supreme lyric writing skills, and in a very bold move, produces a carefully conceived concept album with a remarkably fleshed-out storyline. A stunt as brash as this could have been a recipe for disaster, but to Skinner’s credit, he succeeds, skillfully crafting an engaging story about a young man’s mundane life, his money woes, his problems with his girlfriend. His lyrics are wry (“It Was Supposed to Be So Easy”), hilariously observant (“Fit But You Know It”), and often sweet (“Could Well Be In”), but it’s the last two songs, the devastating “Dry Your Eyes”, and the climactic eight minute closer “Empty Cans”, that has Skinner pulling out all the stops, both emotionally and musically. So rarely does a rock opera (hip hopera?) work so well. It’s one of the most moving concept albums in recent memory
Adrien Begrand :. original PopMatters review
“Today I have achieved absolutely naught”: so goes the set-up, and ultimately, resolution, of Mike Skinner’s sophomore effort, a front-to-back “concept” album in the conventional sense. The Streets’ debut Original Pirate Material offered a snapshot of Skinner’s neighborhood; A Grand Don’t Come for Free is a fluid, crudely cinematic day in the life of one of the neighborhood’s geezers. Skinner zeroes in on the drama of the mundane, an existence most of us can relate to, charting a day filled with such banalities as an unreturned DVD, some misplaced money, and the perils of cell phone reception. Skinner’s success lies in his ability to create in the moment, allowing the listener to invest emotionally through a palpable presence: pill-popping in the club, cell phone dying mid-conversation, and a tussle with the TV repairman all feel like they’re happening as they’re recounted. Throw in Skinner’s highly unorthodox phrasing (less rap and more like rhyming spoken word), and you’ve got one of 2004’s artistic hallmarks.
6 TV ON THE RADIO
Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes (Touch and Go)
How you feel about TV on the Radio probably has a lot to do with your tolerance for muted, low-end droning rock. Built mainly on post-rock throbs and pulsing rhythms, the fuzzy, murky backdrops of the music would initially seem to have a limited audience appeal. But the thing that seals the deal and makes TV on the Radio a bright and vibrant light for challenging but appealing music is Tunde Adebimpe, the band’s lead vocalist and lyricist. His long, slow-burning vocals combine with Kyp Malone’s voice to give the band it’s indie rock-doo wop fusion sound, but Adebimpe’s voice remains the central focus, drawing you in and leading you through the complex imagery of his lyrics. “The Wrong Way” and “King Eternal” are startling in their immediacy, almost in spite of their processional pace, while “Ambulance”, “Poppy”, and “Wear You Out” form a complex triptych of love rarely heard in pop music. Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes is a solid, enveloping successor to the band’s Young Liars debut EP, and were it not for the more densely murky production values of the full-length, it would be the most engaging album of the year. As it is, some of the crispness of the EP is lost, but TV on the Radio remains one of the most impressive and unique voices in music today.
Patrick Schabe :. original PopMatters review
Every once in a great while, something comes along that knocks you off your socks and restores your faith in the healing power of rock and roll. Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes is just such an album, a dynamically different and radically invigorating shot of intellectual rigor into a moribund retro-rock scene. Now, this album is not without its flaws: it’s maybe a little flabby in places, and maybe the songwriting is less than perfectly honed in others. It seems at times that the group is too dependent on the ability of its unique textures to carry the incipient songcraft. But when it clicks, as on “Staring at the Sun”, it clicks hard. Hopefully, TV On The Radio will be around for a long time, and this will prove to be merely the first in a long line of eclectic and revelatory albums. They’ve already proven they have the chops to top it with the release of this fall’s New Health Rock EP, which somehow managed to boil down Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes‘s ambition into the space of a three-minute-and-change rock & roll anthem. I wouldn’t have guessed for the life of me that the Next Big Thing would be electronic rock & roll with punk guitar and barbershop vocals, but there you go. The best part is, as good as Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes is, the future looks even brighter.
Tim O’Neil :. original PopMatters review
My constant struggle to describe this band’s sound always ends with the rather weak “Imagine Peter Gabriel singing over Pretty Hate Machine-era Nine Inch Nails beats.” They’re obviously more than that, though, cobbling together a blend of post-punk rock, doo wop vocals, electronica, and art-funk. Some folks might know them from their associations with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a link that does nothing to shed light on what TV on the Radio are accomplishing. True, a falsetto-fond vocalist can be a trial in the best of times, but from the saxophone-skronk-laden electric fuzz momentum of “The Wrong Way” to the pulsing beat and swirling vocals of “Staring at the Sun” to the straightforward glower of “Don’t Love You”, TV on the Radio feel like a band that, at any given time, can launch off in six fascinating directions at once.
Andrew Gilstrap :. original PopMatters review