The Roundup: June 2017
It is so hot in Texas, it is unbearably hot. Please send help. Music is beginning to melt, sound vibrations are turning into goo and it all sounds like a Chromeo show now. If you are also wondering why the list is short this month its because I listened to mostly Otis Redding and Charles Mingus and you didn’t need a bunch of reviews worded “this is better than any music on your Spotify list”. It is pretty insane how good Otis was. His albums are all like thirty minutes too. Just go listen to them. Seriously. Ignore this list go listen to Otis. Then your tiny unsophisticated brain will be ready for Mingus. God bless Mingus. Mingus is your lord and savior. All glory to Mingus.
The Presidents Of The United States Of America – The Presidents Of The United States Of America
Want to ensure your one-hit wonder status? Produce a catchy, albeit quirky song that will get you a lot of brief attention, but then will immediately turn you into a joke. While The Presidents had minor success with Lump, their runaway hit has always been Peaches, a song about…well….peaches. While Peaches is a well written mid-90’s grunge-infused hit, its tongue-in-cheek song content doomed the band to joke status. It is a shame too, not that The Presidents were going to be a runaway success, but they easily should have been able to carve out a niche for themselves, perhaps opening for slightly more diverse, but similar bands like Cake. Reality is, this album may not be a hidden gem, but it is hard to deny that its southern rock and grunge influenced sound is unique compared to its peers of the era. Considering my genre ambivalence to 90’s grunge and wall-of-sound style guitar drone, I really appreciated this group for injecting some culture and genuine personality in their music. Even their cover of MC5’s Kick Out The Jams was a welcome breath of fresh air that was immediately drowned out by Nirvana sound-alike bands. Are you going to walk away a better person? Probably not, but will you walk away content? Absolutely. Once in a while, content is plenty good.
King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard – Murder Of The Universe
The latest from King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard is not saying much, as the band seems to release a new album every 45 minutes. I only hopped on the Gizzard train recently, being enamored by Nonagon Infinity, but I’ve grown to adore this ambitious, slightly off the rails, group of Aussies. Murder Of The Universe has a similar sound to Nonagon, similar guitar tones, similar mixing, and even related lyrics (such as chanting Nonagon Infinity quite a few times). Am I missing information about some secret Lizard Wizard expanded universe? I mention all of this as Murder has a bad case of the leftovers department. There are way too many times as you listen to this psychedelic garage stampede that you feel you are getting B-sides or scrapped parts from the much stronger former album. The lyrics, never the King’s strong suit are at their weakest, and this is coming from a band that had a song where they just said Rattlesnake for 7 minutes. Songs are reduced to extremely weak ABAB rhyme scheme poetry and aggressively repeating song titles. It would be natural to assume I did not enjoy this insanely titled album, but you would be wrong. Yes, not their strongest, yes, the lyrics are somewhere around the category of wretched, but all that considered it is still a completely bonkers treat to sink your ears into. King Gizzard, is the pioneering rock band of our age. No new group is as progressive as they are currently. Progressive music was once indicative of forward moving music, brave and wildly creative, not just insanely intricate, convoluted, and pretentious. King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard is Post-Progressive, it is the future of rock music which is a dying breed.
Portugal. The Man – Woodstock
Then we come to a band that once was considered a hard-charger in inventive rock music, but has since politely thrown that out the window in a bid to become a big player in the pop-rock world. Portugal. The Man has an iconic reputation as psychedelic, folk, jam pioneers; making catchy music that had plenty of eccentric twists to make them the darlings of young Dead-Heads, prog-lovers, and stoner kids. Somewhere along the way Portugal. The Man decided they either wanted more money, were tired of this style of music, or a bit of both and veered toward a significantly more conventional and commercial path. Their newly released Woodstock is a perfect observation point in this venture of cleaning their image. Gone are the jams, the freak-outs (mostly), and in their stead are rap interludes, drum machines, and big sing along choruses. The dedicated fan may see this as the most fowl of betrayals, a hard leaning into the corporate wind as they attempt to catch some of Foster The People or Alt-J money, while less aware fans may find this a well toned pop-rock record. I find the answer is in the middle. This is a very strange venture for the group, especially when compared to earlier, far stranger outings. Yet, despite this I never hated the music. I found it to be catchy summertime musical candies: sweet, a bit void, but not insulting. I think in the long run if this is their new direction it will come to haunt them. I do not think this band has it in them to continue down this path, but as a one-off experimentation, sure, why not try to make a pop record. Don’t worry old-fans, I am sure you can trade bootlegs and complain on the internet for years to come.
Buffalo Daughter – New Rock
Japanese experimental music is always going to be a dice roll. Their penchant for bold and outrageous exploration tends to have a positive net-result although a few casualties will undoubtedly be made along the way. Buffalo Daughter is no exception either, New Rock is a wide ranging, genre-bending amalgam of ideas and themes. New Rock shifts violently from garage rock to acid to cutesy acoustic numbers. The break-neck speed in which ideas form and quickly dissipate can be startling for the less committed, but in reality isn’t that what the experimental tag is for? It is a giant warning sign that you need to take time and attention to really figure out what is happening in front of you, like a steep mountain road. Sure, experimental music may not kill you as casually, but without focus and dedication you will quickly lose site of the bigger picture and get lost in the violent erraticism. All of this does not take away the critical question of what is this music representing. Strangeness for strangeness sake has a way of inadvertently exposing itself as such, an attempt to shock the audience without a reason to do so. Buffalo Daughter’s mixture of future dance beats and traditional rock sounds is a meeting of past and future, which could be considered a perfect analogy for Japanese culture in general. Despite their impossibly punctual and futuristic trains they are still entrenched in centuries old cultural norms. New Rock plays into that, with a bold “welcome to the future, but here is hundreds of years of baggage to go along with it”.
Tobacco – Sweatbox Dynasty
Tobacco’s strange Betamax nightmare is relentless in its effort to distort and dismay. The twisted tendrils of his nightmare electronica are not meant for the dance-floor, but for your broken speakers in your 1995 Toyota Corolla. Sweatbox Dynasty is unpleasant, not in that its a bad album, but in its presentation. Tobacco has a knack for creating unsettling gross music that you should not enjoy. The parts themselves are wretched, but when combined into a whole they create something truly outstanding if not only to gross out the listener. A song like Wipeth Out is a dogpile of grindy sawtooth synthesizers that eviscerate the music into shredded pieces of audio flesh. Songs like Hong and Suck Viper sneakily fall out of step, with down beats coming in just a hair late leaving the listener disregulated. You anticipate the to bob your head on the one beat and instead are trying to catch up on the ‘and’. My second outing with Tobacco has the same issue, however, with my first. I admire his music, I really do, but I don’t enjoy the experience. I find him to be a genuine creative force, but perhaps not a force I really want to stand in front of. Regardless of this, I hope he finds an appreciative audience. His ideas for the future of electronic based music need to be spread.
The Streets – Original Pirate Material
The Streets were another one of the many mid ’00 darlings that I never fully explored when they were pertinent. I had heard a few singles when working in college radio, but never threw myself into the well-regarded Original Pirate Material. 15 years on and here I am finally exploring what was regarded as one of the best of the decade. I can see why too, indie hip-hop had not really taken off in popularity at this point, so the notion of a smooth talking Brit in the sea of braggadocios Americans must have been surreal. That leaves us with the ever important question of was it context or quality that led to the rise of The Streets. The answer seems to be both. MC Mike Skinner certainly has a unique talent of delivering painful truths in the driest of manners. His voice rarely rises above peeved, and his ability to rapid fire verbal attack is laudable. It is undeniable though that for as politely savage as he can be he often does not have much to say. Some songs have aged terrible like The Irony of It All which comes across as a college freshmen’s thesis on legalizing marijuana which borders on embarrassing. I also can’t help but note the bizarre amount of times he says the word “geezer”. Even though not everything was a hit, it is impossible to deny the cultural impact it served, which can make an album more important than its actual execution. Original Pirate Material redirected the culture of hip-hop and helped shine a light on the heroes of the genre that were being ignored like El-P and Aesop Rock. It is a piece of music history, and therefore worth the visit.
Frank Zappa – Little Dots
I was apprehensive to include the latest gluing together of Frank Zappa pieces on this list as it seems hard to determine whether this is a genuine love letter to fans or rather a fast cash grab. Fans of Zappa are aware that his estate has devolved into a furious fight pitting artistic integrity and a quest for quick cash which taints any future releases from his expansive vault. As a result it is impossible to dodge this issue in evaluating future additions to his discography which is slowly creeping on having more time in existence in his death than his life. I say all of this because Little Dots had a tough road ahead of itself in order to make it onto this list. I was not sure how I would take apart this larger family issue as it related to the music itself. It is hard to separate the two. Fortunately, ever so fortunately, this concern was quickly resolved as the music itself was so astounding I was able to leave the baggage at the door. Little Dots is a gluing together of live jams from a short lived Zappa line-up dubbed “The Petit Wazoo”, a 10 piece monster that juggled rock and jazz like it was a circus performer. Late era Zappa was heinous for how aggressively tight-knit and uniform they were, almost incapable of making a mistake. Here, in a more innocent point in his career Zappa welcomes improvisation. His band rockets off into tight knit jams that blend genres at rapid pace. For anyone beyond the most devoted of Zappa fans this recording will come as a pleasant, albeit startling surprise. For the uninitiated, this is not the best starting point for his discography, but as a piece of music it is impossible to deny how delectable these jams are. We are seeing a band in rare form, capable of wandering in all sorts of directions with little guidance and not fall apart. Even bands that have that as their main focus struggle to reach the level that Zappa’s group does here.
Hawkwind – Hawkwind
Say what you will about the internet age ravaging profits from musicians (this is true), but as a consumer it is impossible to deny that we are living in a golden age of discovery. For new artists we have the unbelievable bandcamp which makes finding new albums a breeze, and for older niche artists the internet age has allowed their music to be exposed to new audiences thanks to message boards and Facebook groups. Hawkwind is easily one of those groups. Aside from the cult hit Silver Machine, the acid tinged space rock group never made it to the main stage, and barely made it as a mid-card contender. Thus is the fate of a band that relies on phase effects like they are life force. Blue acid and grilled cheese jokes aside, their debut album is no slouch. Hawkwind launches themselves right out of the gate with Hurry On Sundown, a folky affair, with harmonica catchy cowboy chords, and a throbbing bass drum. Very quickly things change as The Reason Is? morphs the album in a amorphous force of cymbals and ethereal vibes. The rest of the album continues to shape-shift and morph creating a definitely confusing, but inspiring album, especially when you consider it was being released in 1970. It is not a purely psychedelic record of the 60’s, as it is injected with a greater feeling of heavy metal, giving it a bit more force than the flower children like Arthur Brown. I understand why this album wasn’t winning massive awards, but here in 2017 we can go back and appreciate this niche influential album.
Cluster – Curiosum
As I brave through the Cluster discography I am discovering it is far more experimentation than composition. The early albums were massively experimental, with nary a hint of song structure and the latter were focused groove oriented technological jams. Curiosum, the last album the group released before an extended hiatus is almost the musical Ouroborous, as it saw the group returning to the more formless nature of its initial works. Along the way, however, Cluster decided to ditch the 20 minute long drone epics and in its place are shorter pockets of analog synthesizer experimentation. These are short little grooves, catchy beats that are quickly muddled with and then cast aside. The only real issue is that the monotonous grooves of the Kraut movement benefited from their marathon run times as they allowed the listener to get completely lost in the unfolding madness. Too often on Curiosum an idea is over before we are able to get truly lost in it. It is unfortunate too as some of these ideas are really intriguing, creating something akin to a hybrid of a soundscape and a prototype trance song. Being released in 1981 this was released at the final moments of the Kraut era, and it does the era justice, by sending it off with nods to the future of electronic dance music while paying homage to the creative forces that made the era of music as iconic as it has been known to be. This is definitely not their greatest release, but as a metaphorical swan song to an era it is a fitting farewell.