Albums of the Year Pt. 2

Alex G - DSU5. Alex G – DSU

For a long time Death Cab for Cutie were my favourite band; Ben Gibbard had this great talent for conveying what were often pretty standard melancholy-dude-with-a-guitar tropes into something immediate and propulsive. Although I’ve grown out of a lot of those ideas (a recent Pitchfork piece summed up my thoughts), I still find myself pining for the same feelings those songs stirred up in me, but without any of that childish emotional baggage. Enter Alex G’s DSU. Alex G has the same sensibilities as Gibbard’s earliest work, albeit more fully formed than All-Time Quarterback, and DSU is the result of a shy and isolated artist fiercely confident in what these qualities should sound like.

Before we go any further let’s acknowledge that Alex G isn’t Ben Gibbard. It’s unlikely we’ll see him on our TV’s in the background of a California based soap any time soon. Alex G doesn’t have that same top 40 tendency Gibbard does, and DSU’s use of low-fi textures is much more playful and experimental than Gibbard or Death Cab ever were. ‘After Ur Gone’ starts the album with a hesitant, laconic guitar line with hushed vocals hiding amongst the other instruments. This is something Alex Giannascoli works with throughout the album, his voice is never the focal point, instead occasionally popping its head round the corner. In ‘Black Hair’ the vocal melody is easily pushed to one side by guitar feedback and in ‘Axesteel’, he’s struggling to fight off an especially dry, shrill guitar. What elevates DSU beyond a simple low-fi tapestry of sound is Giannascoli’s wonderful ear for melody. This album is 13 vignettes that all feature moments promising to ingrain themselves in your head – it could be a gleeful piano break, a staggered guitar line or Giannascoli singing something typically sad-sack like ‘I won’t remember who you are’.

DSU is a low-fi earworm, it’s short, with each song continuously exploring new ideas, but with so many memorable moments that hardly seems to matter.

4. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead

I’ve already wrote about You’re Dead on here, but the more I listen to it, the more I end up unpacking and noticing, for example I’ve been listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane recently, and her influence is all over Flying Lotus’ latest musical odyssey.

Like DSU, You’re Dead is brief, and initially, as someone who thinks Cosmogramma is probably the best thing Stephen Ellison will ever make – I was disappointed. I wanted him to go for that grand scale of album again but as it turns out, 39 minutes turns out to be just right for You’re Dead. It explores so many ideas, goes in so many different directions and completely envelops the listener in its meticulously crafted and layered sound.

You’re Dead is an exploration of death but at the same time it’s an exploration of the music behind Stephen Ellison the man: what influences him, how he sees genres fitting together, what he can communicate with the art form and where he can take listeners.

3.  Freddie Gibbs and Madlib – Piñata

I must have listened to Piñata at least once a week since it was released in March – it’s easily my favourite hip-hop album of the year. Gibbs buttery smooth flow is as relentless as ever and there’s the perfect combination of self aware reflections on a life lived: ‘Maybe you a stank ho, maybe that’s a bit mean / Maybe you grew up and I’m still living like I’m sixteen’ along with the ridiculous images that make him such an engaging rapper beyond that effortless flow: ‘Took it in that, hit that wish I could say it was accidentally / Like I stepped on a banana peel and fell in that pussy’. But even though Gibbs is front and centre on this album, my favourite part of it doesn’t actually feature him. ‘Watts’ features Gibbs’ uncle Big Time Watts, and underneath his vocals, there’s a sample of this song by Bobby M; I tracked the sample down, got the album and have been listening to it ever since. This wasn’t the first time this has happened with this album, and definitely not with Madlib either. It reminded me that even after listening to this album to death, Madlib’s ear could lead me to new and previously unknown gems. Other albums were more lyrically dense, more politically aware and more diverse but Piñata was it’s own unique treasure. Cracking it open was fun, finding out what was inside was even better.

2. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else

I would have been happy with just another Attack on Memory to be honest. Cloud Nothings’ second album, released in 2012 was one of my favourites from the year and one of the first things produced by Steve Albini that really clicked with me. The guitars all had this distinct scratchy, treble heavy tone to them, leaving only the bass and drums to make up the low end. Drummer Jayson Gerycz’s interplay with the guitars was another highlight, sounding like he was about to smash his kit into a thousand pieces on every song. As the release date for Here and Nowhere Else came closer I wondered if they would mine this particular sound for another record, which would have been fine by me, or try something different.

Here and Nowhere Else turned out to have the best of both worlds. It’s got a new production aesthetic the whole way through and there’s a much greater focus on blending the previously treble heavy guitar bass and drums, while having frontman Dylan Baldi’s vocals slot in between the instruments. Baldi’s voice has improved and he shows great variety here, going from a Greenday pop-punk inflection during the verses of highlight ‘Psychic Trauma’ before letting loose with hoarse screams for the chorus and outro. Album closer ‘I’m not part of me’ is has the kind of song writing genius that makes you think Baldi could easily write top 40 pop hits after Cloud Nothings.

Here are Nowhere Else does that rare and brilliant thing, it builds on its predecessor in every way, leaving me with a distinct feeling of deja vu – ‘Can it really get much better than this?’

1. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

I’ve already written about Benji and the snapshot of moments Kozelek offers, these are often sketches of characters combined with Kozelek’s own thoughts, both from the past and present. What’s remarkable about these is not the overarching themes that appear but the small details that this album is filled with. They help transform Benji from an essay on remembrance and death to something more personal and intimate. It’s an album that strikes the rare balance between universality and confessional journalling.

Even though later on in the year Mark would get involved in some pretty cringe worthy get-off-my-lawn type outbursts, it was a testament to how immediate and personal Benji was that I didn’t feel a need to tarnish the experience of the album itself. Benji is also such a clear portrait of the man that it all kind of makes sense. Of course the singer of a line like ‘There’s a thin line between a middle-aged guy with a backstage pass / And a guy with a gut hanging around like a jackass / Everybody there was twenty years younger than me’ would take a simple angry outburst too far. Of course the man who lamented ‘The Sopranos guy died at 51 / That’s the same age as the guy who’s coming to play drums / I don’t like this getting older stuff’ would hate The War on Drugs, a band full of members that evoke that image.

When I originally wrote about Benji, I compared it to Winesburg, Ohio and the way that both use vignettes of people to carry a greater narrative (fun fact, Winesburg, Ohio ends with George leaving Ohio and Benji begins with Mark returning to the town). With Anderson, it’s the story of a kid leaving a town to make something of themselves, with Benji Mark doesn’t have the same lofty goals, in fact Benji often borders on the mundane, it’s the story of a man coming to terms with death and the relationships he’s had over the years, but it’s so perfectly formed that it becomes this beautiful example of music’s transformative ability to turn the mundane into the captivating.

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Albums of the Year Pt. 1

10. Taylor Swift – 1989

It’s a strange verb to use but Taylor Swift’s 1989 really battered its way onto this list. Upon listening to it for the first time I immediately knew what had happened. and so for the next week or so, at any one time I had around 6 perfect pop hooks circling in my head. It became a real problem when they only got more ingrained as I listened to more. Just the other day I came across a tree line in a park, obviously my subconscious makes that link and ‘ARE WE OUT OF THE WOODS YET ARE WE OUT OF THE WOODS YET’ starts going, and that’s me done for the next couple of hours.

I didn’t mind this, Swift’s album is clean power-pop at its best – I honestly like to think of it as a better version of the Chvrches debut. It shares a similar production aesthetic and turns that records pop leanings all the way up. 1989’s control over my head never feels like a curse though, with hooks this good I genuinely feared that they were going to be stuck in there for a long time. ‘So it’s gonna be forever?’ Goddamnit.

9. Mac Miller –  Faces

Two years ago this would have been a joke, but slowly Mac Miller has transformed from frat rapper to this weird stoner, philosopher aficionado. 2013’s Watching Movies With The Sound Off was a huge step for Mac, enlisting the help of artist friends from LA. Faces is the next stage in Mac’s development, a glorious drug, fuelled romp through 17 songs that show off everything interesting about him.

Mac’s move to LA has meant a constant deluge of new music, and Faces is the disjointed, ADHD high point of this. It’s exactly the kind of album you’d expect from Mac’s rather weird situation. There’s slow songs about lost loves and ridiculous tracks like ‘Insomniak’ – Mac’s version of ‘Worst Behaviour’. It features a bizarrely nonsensical Rick Ross verse and the song seems to exist solely to show the kind of money and status he has now. Elsewhere songs like ‘Wedding’ deal with the fact that Mac doesn’t really understand what a relationship is. He talks about how he’s messing up, but that the main problem is his fame, it’s self-aware in a way that he didn’t have before. He knows this whole argument and apology are just rubbish, and so the chorus is just him begging for a shred of pity. It’s all handled in this conversational style that Mac’s got a really strong hold over, like it’s the end of a party and someones just wasted, pouring out their feelings to you. There are tons of little moments like this on the album, that show a real growth in Mac, 2014 was a good year for Mac but he didn’t even release an album, with a major label deal now who knows what 2015 holds, but I’m all ears.

8. Dark0 – Sin EP

Dark0’s Sin EP was a constant of mine this year. It tapped into a powerful nostalgia that most music I listen to stays the hell away from, that liminal space where video game music wasn’t 8-bit bleeps and midi loops, or the movie style soundtracks you see in AAA titles today, but something in between. The Playstation and N64 soundtracks I grew up with still hold a powerful grip on my listening habits and the Sin EP rejuvenated all of that this year.

This was music for the best video game you never played, it reminded me of staying up playing Final Fantasy 7, deathmatches in Goldeneye and the goddamn water temple. It wasn’t simple nostalgia, these weren’t callbacks but rather evoked a time by the use of certain synths and patterns. The Sin EP was a short project, but nothing else this year recalled such great memories and inspired me to track down music I’d long forgotten.

7. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time

No album this year has given me as much ‘shuffle joy’ as Todd Terje’s brilliant It’s Album Time. Every time one of the songs on this album comes on I have a ridiculous urge to listen to the whole thing front to back, and I’m almost always smiling the entire way through. It’s Album Time is infectious in the best way possible, and throughout you’re never far away from a groove, songs seem to be building to a crescendo constantly and this record was probably the most well sequenced album of the year.

Above all else, It’s Album Time just sounds fun. There’s nothing here that falls flat simply because it’s so happy go lucky, rating it or giving it a serious critique almost seems like a waste of time. It’s the musical equivalent of someone saying they’ve got work tomorrow, before laughing and grabbing another beer.

6. Real Estate – Atlas

Real Estate’s sophomore album, 2011’s Days, quickly became my go to album for the summertime. Its bright perfectly formed guitar jangle lent itself perfectly to loafing around in a park, or walking around just before sunset. After 3 long years, they’re back with an even better album, Atlas. Real Estate’s sound is based around the dynamic between singer Martin Courtney and guitarist Matt Mondanile. On Days the two were in constant conversation with each other. On Atlas, Real Estate’s sound has grown. Atlas is a more nuanced record than Days and the production is much more layered, at times almost ornate sounding. The beautiful opener ‘Had to Hear’ being a prime example. Even their brighter songs are more deftly handled. Compare Days highlight ‘It’s Real’ to ‘Crime’, one of Real Estate’s best songs, the interplay of clean and dirty guitar tones, well as dirty as you’d expect from Real Estate, during the solo cap a brilliant pop song.

Real Estate detractors will often point to the fact that they’re a ‘boring’ or ‘samey’ band, but because Real Estate’s music sounds lackadaisical their obvious songwriting prowess seems hidden. Atlas is a stunning album, and one for all seasons. I’ll be listening to Days a lot less now, and that’s ok.

Interstellar, 2001 and narrative bloat.

This will contain spoilers for Interstellar, please don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film.

The Prestige and 2001 are two of my favourite films, so when Interstellar was announced, I was justifiably excited. I was hoping Nolan would take the grandeur of the Batman trilogy and translate it to the beauty and ambiguity of 2001. This isn’t what Interstellar is. It isn’t the smart blockbuster sci-fi epic that I thought Nolan was capable of either. But it’s still an enjoyable, beautiful, and sometimes very moving bit of cinema.

Interstellar gets a lot of things right. The beginning sequences on earth look gorgeous. It’s a decaying world, with corn being the only viable crop – the lifeblood of a dying planet. One  scene has Cooper and his two children driving through a cornfield chasing a drone, they’re happy and there’s a childlike wonder when Cooper eventually gains control of the drone in the oversaturated green fields. It’s a big contrast to the scenes inside, on a farm plagued by a dust cloud called the ‘blight’ which threatens to put an end to humanity. Nolan gets the portrayal of a dying planet spot on, it’s not forced, and the characters don’t seem particularly hopeless either. This opening largely revolves around the relationship between Cooper and his daughter Murph which goes on to become the centre of the movie.

Their relationship is another early highlight, her inquisitive nature is balanced against Cooper’s own fascination with technology, it’s set up that their relationship will be the driving force throughout the movie, unfortunately this has the unwanted effect of making Cooper’s son seem like a bystander. Tom is never given the time to develop and seems like an afterthought. His complete disappearance from the last section of the movie seems bizarre and makes his earlier inclusion seem even more unnecessary. The last scene on earth as Cooper drives away from the house is mixed with the launch sequence of the endurance, it’s a great little scene that perfectly conveys that for Cooper, being away from Murph may as well be the same thing as leaving the entire planet. Character development out of the way and, beyond the NASA base, there’s not a bunch of unnecessary exposition going on either in Interstellar’s opening, which, sadly ends up becoming the movie’s main downfall.

For all of Nolan’s talent, his movies tend to over explain a criminal amount. There are times where he gets away with it; the pacing, or the characters are so well done you don’t notice that he’s basically just explaining plot for the audience who don’t quite understand what’s going on. Inception was great at this. Watching that movie for the 2nd and 3rd time, you really start to notice just how much of it is explaining various ideas and plot details to the audience. Hell, there’s even a bit in the Dark Knight where The Joker says ‘I’m an agent of chaos’. Interstellar is full of this. There’s segments that are just characters talking about the next scene in the film, or ensuring the audience knows what time dilation is. Nolan is a universal filmmaker and Interstellar, by the end deals with some pretty complex subject matter; but there’s no real need to tell the audience over and over again how a concept works, or a character’s motivation.

It’s easiest to show the adverse effects this has on the film as as whole by comparing Nolan’s creation with its biggest inspiration – Kubrick’s singular 2001. Cooper’s journey into the blackhole leads him to the tesseract, a construction made by humans in the future. It’s a scene that should inspire awe and wonder, the visuals are great, and you immediately realise that Cooper was the ghost in the movie’s first act. This starts as a beautiful moment in the film, it’s the ocean view after the rocky drive. 2001 has the exact moment, Dave goes through the wormhole, albeit he takes a much more stylised avant-garde route, and ends up in a mysterious room. In Interstellar, Cooper punctures the ambiance and wonder by starting a conversation with the robot TARS, who can still hear him for some reason. During this conversation the two explain exactly where he is and why, Cooper then goes over it again just to make sure, mumbling to himself. It’s irritating and removes the sense of isolation, confusion and wonder that the ending of 2001 evokes. There’s this famous Kubrick quote ‘When you say something directly, it is simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it themselves’ It’s an obvious idea, and one completely ignored by Interstellar. Before you have a chance to fully appreciate the concept, revel in any possible ambiguity, Nolan removes it. He hands you the explanation. It’s like someone giving you a puzzle and saying ‘Here’s the solution, how clever is this?’ before you’ve even been given a chance to solve it.

Interstellar’s characters are also packed with unnecessary information. Anne Hathaway’s character is a typical Nolan female, she’s bland, her one big decision she makes for the group is too ’emotional’ and thus shot down for the logical choice. It’s a shame. Besides Murph and Cooper too many emotional parts of the film simply don’t reach any kind of meaningful crescendo, instead arriving with a whimper. I was really reminded of Ted Chiang’s stunning short story ‘Story of Your Life’, in regards to how Interstellar deals with complex subject matter through the use of a parent-child relationship. It’s one of my favourite pieces of literature. It’s a similar kind of story in that it deals with aliens that experience time in a non-linear way; like looking at a picture, they take it all in at once. Pushing the narrative along is the relationship with one of the humans, chosen to communicate with these aliens in an attempt to understand them, and her daughter. That’s it. There’s no narrative bloat and it makes the final emotional resolution that much more meaningful, when you’re simply following one character, her interaction with the alien species, and her relationship with her daughter.

Despite all of this however, I’d really recommend Interstellar, it’s a summer blockbuster that deals with advanced physics and is incredibly giddy about it. You can almost see Nolan grinning while making this movie, shoving concept after concept at the viewers face, and although it ends up overwhelming at times, and a bordering on pantomime at others (‘Love is the 5th dimension!’) Nolan has made something interesting; it’ll prompt discussion, and look damn good in the process.

Archetypes, Gone Girl and Carter Beats the Devil

Stories are often structured around archetypes. Aesop’s fables used snakes as shorthand for sneaky, evil characters and even something as culturally pervasive as Star Wars is completely full of fairy tale archetypes, like the wise old man giving the young hero, full of potential, life changing advice. Archetypes function as shorthand for characterization, but they also speak directly to our own desire to fill in a predetermined role, to take a path that has led to success in the future. Because it’s often easier to place yourself in a role that exists or one you feel you should occupy rather than deal with the actual complexities of being yourself.

I recently went to see Fincher’s Gone Girl, which has this idea of trying to fit into another version of yourself at its core. Amy’s early diary entries have the smooth dialogue both sides of a relationship wish they could deliver off the cuff. Compared to later where they stutter over their own words, seemingly caught up in space between their real self and a projection. A chunky and gloriously shady Ben Affleck is simply a man attempting to fill roles he doesn’t quite understand. He is dull and clearly doesn’t ‘get’ his wife. With Fincher’s shady motel lighting as the aesthetic centrepiece in the movie, his camera is always perfectly still, representative of the underlying tension in Nick and Amy’s minds as they attempt to make sense of their partner’s next move, whilst attempting to keep that ice cold exterior up.

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Gone girl begins as a thriller, character’s motives are shrouded and the mystery is piled into the centre of the movie. But as it unfolds Fincher’s film starts to develop its own sense of humour based around the discrepancies between who Nick and Amy projected themselves as and who they really are. Of course the performative nature of relationships isn’t a particularly new idea but Fincher really brings out the inherent seediness in having two completely different personalities. What’s perhaps most impressive is he doesn’t accomplish this through the gritty filters and earth tones that characterized the look of a film like Se7en, but through the stylized and slow, steady camera work of the back end of The Social Network, where relationships begin to falter and break down.

While I was watching Gone Girl, I had my current book, Glen David Gold’s ‘Carter Beats the Devil’ in the back of my mind. It’s a good read if nothing special. It really shines when the obviously huge amounts of historical research come to the forefront. The protagonist, magician Charles Carter is an illusionist who from an early age used magic as a sort of shield from others. He has an obvious talent but seems to be constantly searching for something else. The book follows his life and the eventual marriage to a woman named Phoebe Kyle, Phoebe is blind and Gold uses this to show that fitting into the beloved magician archetype doesn’t have to make up Carter’s entire personality. Kyle can’t see the magic Carter is famous for and Carter loves her for this, she’s the perfect validation he’s been searching for his entire life. Explaining their relationship like this makes it seem as though Carter is selfish, simply using Kyle to validate himself and nothing more, but this is just one part of their exceptionally well done relationship.

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Carter Beats the Devil is a humorous thriller, about an assassinated president and the invention of a device that will change the world. Underneath all this is subtle commentary on the idea of the Magician/ Entertainer archetype which is something that has extreme resonance following the death of Robin Williams. Carter loses part of his hand which means his magic will obviously be affected at the end of the novel, but its brushed over, relegated to a side comment because to him, magic is just a sidenote now, he has love and a self image he’s happy with. It’s easy to forget that for entertainers there’s a massive tension inherent in their stage personas and actual personalities. Gone Girl and Carter both explore in very different ways how we all perform. What happens when the archetype, and who we really are, collide.

Flying Lotus – You’re Dead

You’re Dead is Flying Lotus’ mortality album, kind of. Artists normally approach the theme of mortality through trying to figure out how to cope with the impending end but Flying Lotus instead chooses to focus on the next stage, what happens after we die.

Sonically and structurally You’re Dead hits the sweet spot between Cosmogramma and Until the Quiet Comes. Cosmogramma sounded like a soundtrack to Olaf Stapledon’s sci-fi classic Starmaker, in which a human loses his physical body and becomes able to travel across the universe, discovering and learning about new species at will. It has sketches of songs that would find grooves, but quickly move onto the next song. Until the Quiet Comes was a much more insular album with Flying Lotus using more conventional song structures but still retaining his now well known sound. You’re dead has the structure of Cosmogramma but with the insular sound of Until the Quiet Comes.

You’re Dead sounds gorgeous. It’s rich, the mix is layered beautifully and vocals are treated as another instrument, used to add depth and not be the singular focus. This idea is exemplified in the single ‘Never catch me now’ where Kendrick’s unique rhyme patterns intersect with Flying Lotus’ jittering beat. This begins a stunning three song stretch, with Dead Man’s Tetris and Turkey Dog Coma bringing an end to the frantic start of the album, which conveys the surprise and shock of death. Turkey Dog Coma in particular is a highlight. Thundercat’s frantic basslines intersect between synths, pretty sax lines and angelic falsetto. This leads into the album’s centrepiece – the soul infused stomp of Coronus, the Terminator, with it’s shifting bassline and angelic vocals, this is a song where the protagonist of You’re Dead might finally be coming to terms with death.

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The final third of the album loses the sense of structure that the first few songs have, instead each song is informed by its use of negative space. Final track ‘The Protest’ takes a minute before locking into a groove. It hints at a protagonist coming to terms with death and letting go of previous feelings and memories. You’re Dead is a wonderfully accomplished album, its proggy inclinations are always kept in toe and Steven Ellison never lets one song or idea outstay it’s welcome. It serves as a reminder that in Flying Lotus’ world, death isn’t a state but a process.

Why I won’t be buying a smartwatch (yet)

Note – This isn’t one of those anti-technology ‘wah our smartphones control our lives and are making us anti-social’ type of rants.

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The Apple watch, one of the few images that showed it actually looking like a stylish, desirable device.

With Apple’s announcement of their watch now out there, the main smartwatches/wearables for the next year or so have all be shown in some detail, it just remains for consumers to make their own decisions.

Personally, I feel like we’re a long way off a usable, desirable smartwatch. There’s a gap in between what we hope our smart watches will be capable off and what they currently can do.

Let’s start with the function of a smartwatch, what exactly should it be able to do? It’s clear from the form factor a smartwatch should not be a content creation or consumption device. It should exist solely to show you glanceable information. You don’t want to be stuck looking at a tiny screen, therefore the information presented on it should avoid anything that has the user looking at the screen for anything longer than a few seconds. Reading a lengthy email on a tiny screen would be irritating, but a simple sms is absolutely fine. These are the important distinctions that need to be made when considering software.

Apple showed good examples of this glanceable information in the keynote, maps, music and text replies are all perfect for the watch form factor. Both Google and Apple seem to understand this – for the most part. Apple showed off their photos on the screen, this is slightly worrying as it makes pretty much no sense. If you want to look at your photos, surely you’d just get out your phone with it’s big, high definition display and use that? Especially so when showing other people. This photo demonstration was also used to show of the capabilities of the ‘crown’. A small rotary device you use to interact with the watch that raises it’s own problems.

Apple may have cancelled the beloved iPod classic but an archaic part of its heritage has made it into the apple watch, the click wheel. I understand on a fundamental level that putting in the ‘crown’ would automatically liken the apple watch to normal watches, but there’s a reason that normal watches don’t require you to use the crown very often. As an input device, it’s small, annoying and is simply placed too close to your own wrist to avoid being awkward to use. I feel like any sort of touch gesture, no matter how small the screen, would be better than this. Perhaps a swipe with a finger from edge to edge? From the top to the bottom? Even a convoluted gesture system would be miles ahead of this anachronistic implementation.

For the most part, the Moto 360 seems like a great answer to these complaints. Android Wear’s use of cards and simple gestures is clean, useful and tasteful. The watch itself isn’t too bad looking either. It’s just the battery life that fails it. Not lasting a whole day is criminal but even requiring nightly charging using a cable seems like its own irritation. This may seem fussy but carrying around two devices that need to be charged every night is a bit of a pain. Ideally, these devices really should have some sort of wireless charging built in so before I go to bed I can dump my phone and watch onto a surface and not worry about them. Until then, for a device that’s supposed to make my life easier, the first and last memories I have of it in the day are reminders of a fundamental annoyance.

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This is all pretty negative stuff, but I do recognize that like every other new product launch things will improve very quickly. If you pick up a first generation iPad now you’re shocked at the weight and bulk of the thing, remember picking up the second version and noticing how much thinner and better constructed it was, and then the newest Air? Similar jumps will be made with smartwatches, and the dream device of something with a couple of days battery, a slim profile and intuitive touch based gesture system is somewhere in the near future. Every new consumer product has its growing pains and wearables are no different; it’s going to be an exciting road ahead.

Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World

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You’re a Woman I’m a Machine, Death from Above 1979’s first album was very much of it’s time. Fellow ‘Dance Punk’ bands such as LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture were huge and released great albums while Death from Above 1979 stood on the more punk oriented side of this movement. Now that LCD Soundsystem are gone and the Rapture seemingly MIA. Death from Above 1979 have returned after a 10 year hiatus with a new album.

The Physical World is very much a DFA record. It’s all familiar territory, stomping, overdriven bass, drums that sound like several wild animals trapped in a steel drum, and screaming, hoarse vocals.  There’s a change in producer though and it does make a difference to what this album does successfully and what it misses from their debut. The veteran Dave Sardy takes over producing responsibilities and his work attempts to emphasize the interplay between Vocals, Bass and Drums. Sebastien Grainger has never sounded louder, clearer and more in charge of the songs. Unfortunately this has its drawbacks, You’re a Woman I’m a Machine was an incendiary listen because Grainger’s vocals were constantly at war with the other instruments. He screamed and screamed and  towards the end of the album he sounded exhausted, and you could really see why. It was that moment in ill-fated rehearsals where someone attempts to bark orders over an enthusiastic drummer put into angry, musical form. It gave the album a feeling similar to Japandroids recent album Celebration Rock where you feel a connection with the lead singer as you’re both just taken aback by the rush of instrumentation in the songs. The Physical World doesn’t really have this and for the most part Death From Above 1979 sound fully in control of their craft, something that sadly diminishes it.

The new production values also open up new avenues for songwriting, ‘White is Red’ is a good example of this with a wistful guitar riff that sounds like bassist Jesse F. Keeler forgot to engage his overdrive pedal, it’s an odd change of pace for the band that strangely works, there’s enough tunefulness in Grainger’s vocal but where the track falls down is where the band reverts to their familiar stop and start stomp for the chorus. It sounds generic, disparate and sounds like a band going through the motions.

You’re a Woman I’m a Machine’s constantly high tempo songs meant that it was an album that seemed to last even shorter than its 35 minute runtime. The Physical World doesn’t have this quality. ‘Virgins’ opens with a huge swaggering riff, the thing is, it sounds exactly like the kind of thing these dudes would’ve hated on their debut. It’s generic and the verses resort to a stomping riff that sounds they just heard Tame Impala’s ‘Elephant’ for the first time. There’s also the dreadful ‘yeahs’ delivered with absolutely no emotion at the end of this song. It’s a dirge of a song, too slow and is just a culmination of the worst parts of the album.

The Physical World has come a decade after its predecessor, so change is inevitable, and to its credit much of the same things we all fell in love with their first album have made it over in tact. The problem is with the rest of their Dance Punk classmates gone, Death from Above 1979 seem lost. The Physical World is a throwback that’s also trying to update their sound and it just ends up as proof that for Death From Above 1979, lightning really doesn’t strike twice.

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton and reading for pleasure.

I’ve just finished my MA thesis. It’s a 40 page monster on metafiction in the context of postmodernism; how and why authors expose the fictionality of their texts. It’s a piece of work that gets right down to the very nature of reading and touches on a lot of critical theory whilst doing so.

It’s also the culmination of 4 years of studying literature, a time where I haven’t really been able to read for pleasure. I’ve read other books that weren’t course related but they were either challenging reads; or I ended up reading into them anyway because I was in that particular state of mind. A couple of days ago whilst finishing up for the day I decided to take my mind of literary theory by picking up something different, something I knew I didn’t have to critically engage with. I ended up choosing The Lost World, the second Jurassic Park novel.

The first film is one of my favourites of all time and to me represents Spielberg at the peak of his powers. I also have fantastic memories of the book. I remember being ill from school one day and bed ridden. Looking through a stack of old books in the house I came across Jurassic Park, having loved the film as an even younger child I thought it might be fun to read and pass the time with. Fast forward to around 3am and I hadn’t put the book down. I ended up finishing it in a day and super eager to read more. Crichton has a way of writing that pretty much all depends on pace, his descriptions, characterisation and plotting are all stripped down to the bare minimum, intentions are always clear and you can tell how certain character arcs will go as soon as they are introduced, but none of that really matters. You hardly think of these things before the plot moves along and you’ve got something new to focus on. There’s a scientific thread going through The Lost World, about how the dinosaurs evolved exactly and it’s reasonably enjoyable. New encounters with dinosaurs act as evidence for different theories and its interesting enough and more importantly, never gets in the way of what is essentially an action movie with dinosaurs.*

Ok, The Lost World isn’t a great book. It’s one of those distinct page turners that gets by for 400 pages solely on ‘What happens next?’ Each chapter predictably ends on some type of cliffhanger which is the only thing propelling the reader forward. The characters are one dimensional, predictable and often simply state what’s currently going on in the plot. None of this really matters though, The Lost World reminded me that reading doesn’t have to be an interpretive process. Sometimes reading is just finding out which dinosaur is gonna kill which person next, and that’s great.

 

 

*Speaking of movies, The adaptation of The Lost World is an absolute mess in so many ways. There’s a short section in the book where a T-Rex attempts to rescue its child that the main characters have taken into their mobile trailer. In the novel, it’s tense but only lasts a chapter at most, there’s a life or death situation involving the dual danger of dinosaurs outside and the precarious position of the main character’s trailer being positioned on the edge of a cliff (of course). Crichton tears through this section with a pace that mirrors the adrenaline rush of the characters, however in the movie, it’s the stage for one of the most frustrating scenes in cinema I can remember.  This is only 3 minutes of a scene that’s around 15 minutes long. It’s the same thing the entire way through, will these people fall to their deaths (of course not) and will a dinosaur end up eating a non-main character (of course they will). Now the entirety of Jurassic Park is incredibly predictable but slowing the pace down removes the one thing that is stopping the audience from sensing that. That’s one of many things wrong the movie see also the scene in which a small child kicks an adult sized dinosaur through a window.

 

Weezer – Back to the Shack

Weezer – Back to the Shack

On The Blue Album, ‘In the Garage’ was Rivers Cuomo’s homage to rock as escapism, a way for a young, nerdy teenager to believe he was on top of the world. The garage was a sanctuary where Cuomo was a rockstar, he didn’t have to deal with any actual pitfalls of fame like expectations and all that. In real life, Weezer didn’t deal with expectations – and their fall from grace was particularly bad.

Weezer’s decline has been the subject of much ridicule over the years, how a band that made two seminal records could end up with an album called Raditude, another named after a character from Lost, and songs called ‘Where’s my sex’ (He’s totally looking for his socks guys haha!) is still rather puzzling. Weezer’s newest lead single ‘Back in the shack’ is a pledge to return to the music of those first two albums, and a dismissal of the music they have now become known for.

And guess what? It kinda works. For a guy who often laid it bare on his first songs, River’s has slowly become a recluse in terms of those great insights he peppered the first two albums with instead just turning in generic lines like ‘Where did all these smart girls come from/ someone tell me where to get me some’ So it’s nice to here Rivers coming out and saying he wants his band to get back to where they were. ‘Back in the Shack’ isn’t a bad song by any means, Cuomo’s knack for details is back; there’s something poignant about the line ‘Strat with the lightning strap’ that evokes teenagers playing their first guitars, or more likely, teenagers listening to The Blue Album and then picking up their first guitars. The lightning strap was an odd kind of signifier in the 90s and early 00s that showed you definitely didn’t play the guitar for a living. It was a emblematic of the kind of person eager to be a rockstar in the 90’s rather than someone who just seemed cool enough to warrant being one; so it’s fitting that someone like Rivers would wear one.

‘Back to the Shack’ probably won’t be the return to the glory days for Weezer, but perhaps being a bit more self-aware could help roll back the years.

Alvvays – Alvvays

Alvvays – Alvvays

The debut album from Toronto beach pop group Alvvays is a sun drenched affair that sounds like it was made in the heart of California. That’s not even mentioning lead singer Molly Rankin’s eerie vocal similarities with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino. While Bethany is concerned with the sun, the beach and her cat, Rankin is much more introverted, instead focussing on the minutiae of social communication in the modern age. ‘Alvvays’ begins with a rush of guitars on opener Adult Diversion this is an intro which sets out the sound Alvvays mine throughout their LP. This formula reaches its apex in the next song, Archie, Marry Me. The best song on the LP, Archie highlights everything right with Alvvays; it’s got a great hook, emotive intonation and it’s a perfectly composed pop song, verses, chrorus’ and bridges all seem to bleed into one another effortlessly. The problem with Alvvays is that there’s simply not enough of this throughout. The main reason Best Coast’s  ‘Crazy for You’ was a critical darling was the excess of hooks, it did one thing, and was lyrically pretty much the same ideas the whole way through, but it got by with  sheer pop songwriting chops. Alvvays don’t quite have that yet. It’s a sparse occasionally pretty album, but lacks real warmth. Alvvays have crafted an album that lives and dies by its hooks, unfortunately there’s just not enough of them here.