Bryce Dessner & Sō Percussion: Music for Wood and Strings (pt. 1)

Dessner

Dear Matt,

Let’s have a change of pace. This week, you’ll be listening to something brand new.

Bryce Dessner is the guitarist from The National (the band, not the newscast), a group that I think you and I have about equal experience with — that is, not much. However, Dessner has been on my radar for a while in his other capacity as a composer. He’s written music for the Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can, and even the LA Phil. Nothing I’d heard of his really hit home — until this past May.

Music for Wood and Strings is a 35-minute composition for the New York percussion quartet Sō Percussion. Sō is a group with a similar spirit to our old friends Brooklyn Rider. They fall broadly under that nebulous umbrella of ‘art music’ — they’re a bunch of Yale grads — but they’ve got a sense of adventure and a penchant for working with composers on developing new repertoire. (I’m especially fond of their recording with Canadian composer Nicole Lizée.)

This collaboration with Dessner has the added dimension of being written for entirely new instruments. Dessner and the instrument maker Aaron Sanchez (from the DIY pop duo Buke and Gase) designed a contraption that they’ve creatively named the ‘chord stick.’ It’s kind of like an amplified hammered dulcimer that you’re meant to approach much more as a percussionist would than a guitarist. Sō strikes their four chord sticks with everything from drum brushes to the pink erasers at the ends of lead pencils.

I’m not going to say a whole lot more, because I’m still processing this music myself. I have to say, though: a few listens in, I’m totally sold. This is the best new music I’ve heard all year. You’ll recognize a distinct influence from minimalism, but composers of Dessner’s relatively recent vintage tend to use the innovations of people like Steve Reich and Michael Nyman as one ingredient in a more complex stew.

I think you’re going to like this. I’ve already recommended it to a few people, and I’ve only had positive responses. I wonder how your first impression will compare to mine?

— Matthew

M.I.A.: Kala (pt. 1)

Kala

Dear Matthew:

If you’ll recall, I once posited on this blog that Kate Bush was the Seinfeld of female art-pop stars. (New readers: in context, this is more flattering than it sounds. I promise.) When I talked about the modern female art-pop stars she influenced, I mentioned Björk and Fever Ray, but mostly I was thinking of M.I.A. This week, you’ll be listening to her album Kala.

Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam — get it? M.I.A.? — is a British-born Tamil who grew up in Sri Lanka during the outbreak of civil war, something that has underscored much of her artistic career. She makes a chaotic sort of electro rap pop type of music that is often highly political in nature. She also draws on many other genres from around the world, from dancehall to baile funk to Bollywood film scores. A trained visual artist, she’s also known for the striking visual elements of her music, including videos, fashion and art. Combine all of these traits, and you have someone almost destined to get huge if she happened to be around at the advent of the digital music revolution. And hey, guess what?

Her first album, Arular (named for her father, a prominent member of a militant group called EROS), caught the ears of all the hip music bloggers when it came out in 2005, right around when music bloggers were starting to become a thing. But it wasn’t until Kala (named for her mother) that she really blew up, and blow up she did — you are hopefully at least passingly familiar with the Clash-sampling mega-hit ‘Paper Planes‘. Kala is also when she first teamed up with producer Switch, and also features further collaborations with Diplo, who was still relatively unknown at the time (and also her boyfriend). In contrast to the comparatively stark beats of her bedroom-produced debut, it’s a lush, worldly collage of sounds — owing to the fact that it was literally recorded around the world. It’s a bombastic, idiosyncratic, in-your-face record, and it solidified her place in the pantheon of internet pop stars. It was probably about as successful as you could ever ask a ‘difficult sophomore album’ to be.

I’ll be honest: Kala is not my favourite M.I.A. album*. But this assignment isn’t about listening to her ‘best’ album — this is about the context. I want to hear your thoughts on one of the first big albums of the digital era, an album that arguably couldn’t have been made in any other era. I want you to really dig into Kala‘s mashup aesthetic. I want you to see how many musical allusions, references and samples you can identify in its sonic collage, and to know how you feel about them. And, of course, I want to know if my Kate Bush analogy is grounded in any sort of reality.

M.I.A. isn’t for everyone. She’s about as subtle as a landmine, and her politics certainly rub a lot of people the wrong way. But her music is like nothing else out there, and that’s more than most can say. Even if you don’t love it, I hope you at least find it interesting.

— Matt

* For the longest time that was Arular, but it’s been recently supplanted by the extremely good Matangi. I’ve warmed up a lot to /\/\ /\ Y /\ over the years, too. In fact, now that I think about it, Kala might actually be my least favourite M.I.A. album. But again! Not the point.

Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick (pt. 1)

TAAB

Dear Matt,

So far in this project, I’ve endeavoured not to advocate too hard for the albums I’ve assigned you, to give you a bit more room to say your piece. I have mostly failed. This time, though, I’m throwing that whole notion to the wind because there’s no point in even trying.

There was a time in my life when I tried to purge myself of favourites. I’d say I had no favourite movie, no favourite book, no favourite composer, no favourite album. The idea was to embrace the vast and untameable diversity of stuff out there and not reduce it to a select few exemplary works. Or some bullshit like that.

Needless to say, it didn’t take. I was lying to myself the whole time: I have a favourite everything. My favourite movie is Brazil. My favourite book is At Swim-Two-Birds. My favourite composer is Mahler. And, beyond a doubt, my favourite album is Jethro Tull‘s Thick as a Brick.

People are often taken aback when I tell them that, because Tull is widely seen as a bit of a novelty act: that rock band with a flute player. But Ian Anderson’s flute playing doesn’t actually have that much to do with why I love Jethro Tull. Anderson isn’t just the guy who invented rock flute playing. He also has one of the most boundless and versatile imaginations in rock. The rest of the band is fantastic too, but they’re utterly dominated by Anderson — in a way that King Crimson, for instance, has never quite been dominated by Robert Fripp.

That’ll have to do as a primer on what Jethro Tull is, because Thick as a Brick itself requires quite a lot of explanation. The famous backstory goes like this: Tull’s major commercial breakthrough came in 1971 with ‘Aqualung,’ the title song from their fourth album. The album itself got a lot of attention, and some critics called it a concept album, because it had a couple of major lyrical themes running through it.

This was news to Anderson, who saw Aqualung as ‘just a bunch of songs.’ Moreover, concept albums were the province of prog rock, which Anderson regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. He saw Jethro Tull as an unusually adventurous blues-rock band — as different as you can get from the psychedelia-tinged pastoralism of Genesis, Yes, and early King Crimson.

So, when it came time to record the followup to Aqualung, Anderson decided to announce that difference in a characteristically outlandish way. He would produce ‘the mother of all concept albums’: a sprawling parody that would take all of the trends in progressive rock — longer and longer songs, circuitous and cod-philosophical lyrics, elaborate packaging — far beyond their logical conclusions.

The resulting album came with a satirical newspaper that took longer to produce than the actual music. It possessed a sly backstory wherein the album’s lyrics were written by a precocious (and fictional) eight-year-old named Gerald Bostock. And the record itself consisted of only one song, which spanned the entire length of the album. The fact that the technology of the time functionally prohibited this (you have to flip the record over mid-song) only adds to the absurdity of the premise.

It even manages to shoehorn a bit of elitism into the equation. The first line drips with open disdain for the listener: ‘Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.’ It would be offensive if it were serious.

But, the whole affair has ‘satire’ written all over it. Anderson has always claimed that he was basically taking the piss with this album, and that presumably spared him a great deal of vitriol when the early punks came along five years later. You seldom hear Jethro Tull cited as one of the key offenders in discussions of 70s bombast. They were just having a laugh, after all.

But here’s where that narrative falters: Thick as a Brick is the best progressive rock album ever made. It is bursting with energy, it is structurally ingenious (with almost all of the section transitions being based on the opening riff), and the lyrics are just as trenchant in their critique of England’s class system as they are in their parody of Pete Sinfield. And it’s fun. It’s just fun.

I mean, that word ‘best’ is subjective, clearly. But, among prog fans, rock fans, critics and everybody else, the idea that Thick as a Brick is in the top tier of prog masterpieces is completely uncontroversial. This, in spite of the fact that it’s ostensibly a piss-take.

And that is why you are listening to this album at this point in our correspondence. When you described Mr. Oizo as “taking the piss out of [dance music] and its fans — while still producing outstanding examples of it,” my mind immediately jumped to Thick as a Brick.

Your experiences with Van Der Graaf Generator, Magma and King Crimson should be enough to demonstrate what prog is like in sincerity mode. So, what do you think? How much irony is there in Thick as a Brick? And do these trifling matters of authorial intent make any difference at all?

And, most importantly, do you like it?

— Matthew

P.S. I once proved that Ian Anderson is a good singer, using math. You know, just in case you’re not sure how far my loyalties extend.

Mr. Oizo: Lambs Anger (pt. 1)

lambsanger

Dear Matthew:

Sorry for a third straight week of bleeps and bloops, but bear with me — this one is somewhat time-sensitive.

This is another multi-part assignment. But don’t worry — the parts are pretty small. The first part of the assignment is to watch this:

That’s the opening scene of a 2010 film called Rubber. It’s about a tire that comes to life and starts killing people with its mind. It was written and directed by French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux, and it’s a better summary of his approach to art than I could ever hope to write myself. You see, in addition to making films, he also makes music under the name Mr. Oizo (pronounced ‘oiseau’, as in the French word for bird), and this week you’ll be listening to his 2008 album Lambs Anger.

If the Rubber clip and the blatant Luis Buñuel reference weren’t enough to spell it out, Dupieux deals heavily in the absurd and the surreal. His only real ‘hit’ was the 1999 track ‘Flat Beat’ — the video, directed by Dupieux, features the yellow puppet and de facto Oizo mascot Flat Eric, who graces the cover of Lambs Anger. Dupieux eventually fell in with the Ed Banger crew, a French record label and loose collective of electro producers who rose to prominence in the mid-2000s (mostly on the backs of the band Justice). His early music was already pretty left-field, but when he joined the Ed Banger roster, his sound shifted noticeably toward more club-friendly four-to-the-floor electro sounds — but his surreal sensibilities became even more pronounced.

That’s what’s so fascinating about Dupieux as a producer: he really does know how to make good dance music, but it’s always done with his tongue planted so firmly in his cheek its a wonder he can still talk. His entire career, especially since joining Ed Banger, has essentially been about taking the piss out of the genre and its fanswhile still producing outstanding examples of it. His production is ridiculous to the point that it feels like he’s playing a game of chicken with the scene, seeing how far he can go and still have people call it dance music. (I love it, obviously.)

Lambs Anger is Dupieux’s first full-length release on Ed Banger, and it’s probably the best jumping-off point for really getting into the Mr. Oizo headspace. Like his films, his music has a very strong sense of continuity to it — a canon, even. Repeated phrases and hooks, synthesized speech, Uffie, some of the most obnoxious techno music you’ve ever heard — Lambs Anger has it all. It even manages at times to actually be pretty listenable. It’s even got that rarest of rarities: a good hip-hop cover. This is peak Oizo.

I’m not going to lie: this is going to be a challenging listen for you, especially given what I know of your opinion of electronic dance music. But given what I know of your taste in art more generally, I think you’ll at least be able to appreciate the ethic with which Dupieux is approaching the genre. He’s making a new pair of clothes for the emperors of EDM. He’s drawing a musical moustache on the Mona Lisa. He’s the DJ of Dada.

Why?

No reason.

— Matt

PS: I almost forgot the third part of your assignment! After you’ve listened to the album, head on over to http://oizo3000.com, and just experience it. If you enjoyed Lambs Anger, great! You can download his EP Stade 3 for free from the website, and it’s a good next step. If not, poke around the website anyway — according to his Twitter, he’ll be shutting the website down for good soon. It’s a damn shame.

PPS: Even if the music doesn’t speak to you in the slightest, you might still enjoy his films. The aforementioned Rubber is a good start. If the music does speak to you, Id suggest checking out Wrong Cops at your earliest convenience.

King Crimson: Red (pt. 1)

red

Dear Matt:

Time for prog rock round three.

King Crimson is for some reason the coolest of the classic prog bands. You seem to have picked up on that yourself, given your opening remarks in your Magma response. I have a few theories as to why that is. Bullet points!

  • It could be because they were first. Their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King is widely regarded as the first proper progressive rock album, which would serve as a model for Yes, Genesis and their ilk.
  • They avoided certain dated genre tropes. They never made a concept album. They didn’t mount over-the-top stage extravaganzas. They generally didn’t dress like this.
  • Robert Fripp wasn’t a hippie. He was, and is, an aloof intellectual who’d rather hang out with Brian Eno and Terre Roche than Rick Wakeman and Greg Lake (who he reportedly once threw out of a limousine).
  • They constantly reinvented themselves. The first eight King Crimson albums all feature different lineups. Fripp had a tendency to dissolve the band and reconvene it with entirely new members and a dramatically different sound.

That last point brings up something important: King Crimson isn’t really a band in any meaningful sense. They’re a series of bands, at best — with a leader in common. Fripp has described King Crimson as ‘a way of doing things,’ which is just one example from his lexicon of strange ways to talk about his band. King Crimson doesn’t break up; they ‘cease to exist.’ And they don’t re-form; they ‘return to active service.’

Picking an album to assign was no small task, given that not many of them have much in common. In the Court is probably their most revered album. But, it’s also the wellspring of a particular kind of prog that I know you don’t enjoy. Discipline, perhaps? Nah, too easy. It’s practically Talking Heads with polyrhythms.

Red, then. This version of King Crimson, my personal favourite, made three albums in ‘73/’74, of which Red is the last. True to form, Fripp couldn’t maintain a steady roster for all three albums: they lost their auxiliary percussionist after the first and their violinist after the second. So, on Red, the band contains three official members: Fripp on guitar, John Wetton on bass and vocals, and Bill Bruford on drums. This is the leanest that King Crimson would ever get, although the album features guest performances by a number of ex-Crimson members on various orchestral instruments.

I won’t get into the music on the album too much: I’ll leave that to you again. I can’t resist a few remarks, though. More bullet points!

  • “Providence” was recorded live. It’s one of the band’s famous free improvisations. Their willingness to just go out onstage and jam is one of the things that sets them apart from many of their prog contemporaries, who tended to stick to the script.
  • “Starless” is, for my money, one of the five or six best tracks of 70s prog. It takes a completely unique and surprising approach to making a 12-minute-long song.
  • Astonishing though it may seem, Fripp is possibly the least technically accomplished member of the band at this point. Bruford is the best jazz drummer who barely ever played jazz (he came to Crimson straight out of Yes), and Wetton is a true bass virtuoso, although he gives a fairly restrained performance here.

Okay, I was going to try to be finished at this point. But, given your response to the prog you’ve encountered so far, I do have just a bit more to say.

People often assume, as you have at times in the course of this blog, that prog fans enjoy this music primarily on an intellectual level because, to quote you back at yourself, ‘it’s very technically impressive that you can play in weird keys and modes and flawlessly stick to bizarre time signatures.’ And, I’m sure there are fans out there for whom that’s the primary appeal. Certainly, complexity and technical proficiency are factors that enter into every defence of prog that I’ve ever read.

But, I’ve always found that defense a bit self-defeating, because for most listeners, complexity and technical proficiency are not values in themselves — nor are they necessarily even discernable. And I don’t actually think that those are really the reasons why prog appeals to most of its fan base. I think that it’s like any other kind of music: some people just respond to it intuitively, and others don’t. If this album doesn’t provoke that kind of intuitive response from you, I’m not sure there’s any prog that will. (Which doesn’t mean that I won’t keep trying, naturally.)

My challenge to you as you listen to Red is the same challenge that the MC offered the audience at the Magma concert we attended: don’t try to intellectualize this music. Contrary to its Apollonian image, that is not what it’s for. There are bits of this album that are in 13/8 time. Do not misconstrue that as being ‘the point.’

I await your response with even more anticipation than usual.

— Matthew

The Micronauts: Bleep to Bleep (pt. 1)

bleeptobleep Dear Matthew:

Since we’re talking about minimalism, I have some more bleeps and bloops for you — literally.

Though the Micronauts is now just one guy (Frenchman Christophe Monier), it was a two-piece (Quebecker George Issakidis) when they recorded one of the most strangely compelling electronic albums I’ve ever heard: Bleep to Bleep. It’s like they set out to make a nice little techno jam to play at their next rave, but just didn’t stop. The album is literally just the same song for 45 minutes. (Or, to be more specific, four takes of the same song, broken up with two noisy interludes.)

That sounds like it would be awful, but the repetition becomes the most fascinating feature of the album. The definition of minimalism that you gave me last week was ‘small amounts of musical material animated by obvious patterns’, and it describes the Micronauts perfectly. Monier and Issakidis are indeed working with an extremely limited palette — a drum machine, some very basic synthesizers, a sample of some strings and a smattering of miscellaneous percussion — and for 45 minutes, they build up an arrangement, then disassemble it, then rebuild it in a slightly different way, then take it apart again, tweak it, put it back together… they build and destroy, build and destroy, build and destroy for three quarters of an hour. It’s the same song throughout, and yet it’s never the same song for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s the musical equivalent of the Ship of Theseus. It’s riveting.

Keep in mind, too, that this was the late ’90s, so they’re working with the real deal here — they’re using actual synths and samplers and drum machines, they’re not just some kids messing around with Garage Band for an afternoon. So this is also a fascinating album if you’re at all interested in the technical aspect of electronic music production, especially before the era of the laptop DJ.

Now, this is definitely some straight-up ravey acid techno bullshit. Given your reaction to the dance music you’ve encountered so far over the course of this project, I’m not sure how you’ll react to it. It’s entirely possible that you’ll hate this album. Worse yet, you might be completely indifferent to it. But all I know is, I find this album totally captivating. And since you’re into a guy who makes music by looping slightly-out-of-phase recordings and swinging microphones over speaker cones, hopefully you will too.

— Matt

PS: After you give Bleep to Bleep a spin, it’s worth checking out the single that was released from the album — essentially, the entire album distilled into something you can play on the radio. It’s called ‘Baby Wants to Rock’, and its running time? Three minutes and 19 seconds.

Michael Nyman & Motion Trio: Acoustic Accordions (pt. 1)

Acoustic Accordions

Dear Matt:

Let’s not bury the lead, here: this week, you’ll be listening to neo-classical minimalism played on accordions.

Alright. Now, let’s take a few steps back. Michael Nyman is an English composer whose career took off in the 70s. I think of him as England’s response to Philip Glass. Both are generally classified as composers of ‘minimalist music,’ though Glass disdains the term. Nyman is thought to have coined it.

Minimalist music, to oversimplify ludicrously, uses small amounts of musical material animated by obvious patterns. It can yield strikingly varied musical results, depending on the bag of tricks possessed by a given composer. Steve Reich does minimalism by way of phasing. Glass does it (in spite of himself) by way of additive and subtractive processes. Nyman tends to do it by swiping bass lines and chord progressions from the likes of Purcell and Mozart and just repeating them over and over again with textural variations. The source material makes it feel more ‘classical’ than any of the other minimalists, but it still has the same directness and drive.

Nyman writes a lot of music for his own band, which has a really distinctive sound that informs the way he composes. A big part of that sound is that they do not play in tune, to such an extent that I can only assume it’s deliberate. Their terrible intonation gives the impression of a troupe of Saturday morning cartoon characters having found themselves in a Victorian novel and trying to act naturally. It’s fascinatingly grotesque.

The esoteric little album I’ve chosen for you this week does not feature the Michael Nyman Band, but I feel that you should know what they sound like, just for context. So, I’m appending a 12-minute prelude to your assignment proper. (After last week’s tripartite Amon Tobin marathon, I feel no guilt whatsoever.) That prelude is the tremendous funeral march, Memorial.

Like most of what you’ll be listening to this week, Memorial appeared in a film by Peter Greenaway, a director that Nyman collaborated with on 11 films. Greenaway’s directorial sensibility is so painterly that in the movie Memorial appears in — The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover — he had his actors wear different costumes in different rooms so that they’d fit the colour scheme. His movies represent a perfect blend of the very modern and the very Baroque, making Nyman the perfect musical counterpart.

(Apparently, Greenaway is at least partially responsible for Nyman’s constant Baroque references. He often requested that Nyman reference very specific pieces by composers like Heinrich Biber.)

Now. On to Acoustic Accordions. The Motion Trio are three Polish accordion players who you’re more likely to find playing Penderecki than polka. This album finds Motion playing Nyman’s music with the composer himself plunking along on the piano (with occasional interjections from Nigel Barr on trombone and euphonium). It mostly consists of music that was originally written for the Nyman Band and featured in Greenaway’s movies.

There are two notable exceptions: Nyman takes a solo piano turn on “The Heart Asks Pleasure First,” which is from the movie The Piano (very much not directed by Greenaway) and is probably his most famous melody. And, the album’s final track, “Silence,” actually has nothing to do with Nyman at all, except in an anxiety-of-influence sort of way. It was written by the Motion Trio’s own Janusz Wojtarowicz, an accomplished composer in his own right. Wojtarowicz is also responsible for the arrangements on this album.

I have lots to say about this music. I could get really analytical. But, it strikes me that this album, obscure as it is, comes completely unencumbered by cultural baggage. So, let’s run with that. I’ve given you the context; I’ll let you supply the opinions.

As always, I do hope you like it.

— Matthew

Amon Tobin: ISAM (pt. 1)

isam

Dear Matthew:

I feel as though we should move directly into the bleeps and bloops at this point.

Amon Tobin is one of my favourite musicians maybe ever. He got his start in the 90s as part of that wave of chilled-out British drum and bass that formed the entire soundtrack of shows like Spaced, a sound that his label Ninja Tune (with whom he is still signed) practically invented. He worked with samples, usually of old jazz records, cut up and mashed together to create new songs altogether. After a few records like this, however, Tobin began to get bored, and started going increasingly further afield when sourcing his samples, twisting and processing them further and further beyond recognition. His sound started to get darker, bigger, and crunchier. Then, like Eno before him, he started getting conceptual. He started doing soundtracks. He did an album where he recorded all of the samples himself. And then, in 2011, he released an album created entirely with synthesizers he created himself digitally — many based, of course, on his own field recordings. The album was called ISAM (Invented Sounds Applied to Music), and that’s what you’ll be listening to this week.

ISAM is incredibly ambitious. The aural palette Tobin creates for himself is absolutely massive, and the range of emotions he’s able to evoke with it is equally broad. ISAM is bombastic, haunting, ponderous, playful, and everything in between. Some tracks are more like experimental sound design than anything you could reasonably call music. It sounds nothing like any of his previous work, and yet it’s still unmistakably his work. It was never going to be a crowdpleaser, but if people are still talking about Tobin in twenty years, my money is on this album being why.

Now, when you release a new record, your label usually wants you to go on tour to support it. But what do you do when you make electronic music that is, for the most part, completely impossible to dance to? In the 90s, Tobin’s solution was to learn to DJ so he could play music that people actually would dance to, and he soon started pushing technological boundaries there, too. (He was one of the first big names to embrace vinyl emulation software like Serato, which is now industry standard.) But ISAM was such a completely different beast that touring it that way just didn’t make sense.

So, he didn’t.

isamlive

Surprise! This week’s assignment is a double bill. After you listen to the studio version of ISAM, you’re going to be watching a film of ISAM Live, the show Tobin and a team of engineers, artists and programmers created to tour it.

I’ve always found live electronic music to present an interesting dilemma. A lot of producers start off as DJs, so their live show usually follows that sort of spontaneous, semi-improvised format. But when your music isn’t designed for the dancefloor and you can’t feasibly recreate it live, how are you supposed to perform it? Do you just sit down on stage in front of your laptop and press play? Daft Punk seem to have found the answer in 2006, which I’ve written about elsewhere: you create an arena-sized audiovisual experience. But, when you do that, you have to plan everything out in advance, and if you’re a DJ, that makes you nervous. So there’s this interesting sort of cognitive dissonance you have to navigate within the scene, and you can get a lot of grief if people think you’re doing it ‘wrong’.

I will state unequivocally that, for my money, Amon Tobin is the greatest DJ in the universe. But ISAM Live is about as far from live DJing as you can get. The set is a blocky expanse of cubes covered in techy, psychedelic projection-mapped video, and Tobin is up there in his control pod pressing buttons that are presumably connected to something, but when you get right down to it, you’re not watching something spontaneous — you’re watching a tightly rehearsed performance. This might not seem strange to someone with your background, but remember that most electronic musicians start as DJs, so for them, this approach is highly counterintuitive. With ISAM Live, Tobin was at the forefront of a new take on live electronic music, one the broader scene still hasn’t quite wrapped its head around.

I’ve already written a lot, so at this point I should probably shut up and let the music (and video) speak for itself. I am extremely interested to hear what you make of all this.

— Matt

PS: ISAM Live includes the first encore from the performance, but both times I saw it (shut up, he toured with a beefed up version of the show a year later), he did a short DJ set as a second encore afterward. And, since I did claim earlier that he is the greatest DJ in the universe, I’m also going to have you listen to that second encore from the second version of the ISAM Live tour, which was released as a free download. It’s got stuff from other artists, but it’s mostly tracks by Two Fingers, a side project of Tobin’s where he takes all of the insane stuff he does in his solo career, like building a bunch of digital synthesizers from scratch, and makes straightup dancefloor devastators with it. God, I love Amon Tobin.

PPS: Check out the original artwork for ISAM. Like the final artwork and the artwork for the single ‘Surge’, it comes from an installation by visual artist Tessa Farmer called Control Over Nature, created specifically for the album. God, I love Amon Tobin.

Brian Eno: Another Green World (pt. 1)

Eno

Dear Matt,

This week, you’ll be diving into the definitive album by a figure with whom you have a passing familiarity already: Brian Eno’s Another Green World.

To our generation, Eno’s best-known creation is probably this sound, here. Insofar as his name means anything, it’s probably ‘massively prestigious record producer.’ Eno helped to craft some of the most acclaimed albums by David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2, amongst others.

But, at the time of Another Green World, he was not yet the Eno of legend. This was five years before Remain in Light, and 12 years before The Joshua Tree. In 1975, Eno’s career basically consisted of two albums as a synth player with Roxy Music and a couple of pretty straightforwardly glam rock solo albums — which, by the way, have two of the most fantastic titles ever: Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).

Another Green World was a turning point for Eno in that it was the album where he stopped focussing on writing songs, and started focussing on making rules, instead. Reading about the way this album was made is just maddening: Eno basically hired a bunch of top-flight musicians (John Cale on viola, Robert Fripp on guitar, Phil Collins on drums…) and invited them into the studio without having written any music.

Then, they’d just try stuff. Eno would impose arbitrary rules, like ‘the microphones will hang from the ceiling, today,’ and he’d hope like hell that it wasn’t all a tremendous waste of money.

I have no idea how those methods could have resulted in this album. Another Green World is an astonishing feat of musical craftsmanship. It is unbelievably detailed; even in comparatively minimalistic tracks like ‘Zawinul/Lava,’ there’s so much going on in the background to produce musical tension.

Also, the fact that Eno abandoned all traditional methods of making an album might account for why Another Green World is so weirdly ageless. I’m not sure I’d be able to tell what decade it was made in if I didn’t already know.

This will also conveniently serve as your introduction to a figure you’ll be hearing more from in the near future: King Crimson’s guitarist and leader Robert Fripp. I love King Crimson, but when I just want to hear Fripp playing the stuffing out of his instrument, I’m most likely to put on a Brian Eno album. Because, Robert Fripp’s ability to play the guitar is second only to Brian Eno’s ability to play Robert Fripp.

That’s what makes Eno kind of unique in all of music. He describes himself as a ‘non-musician’ (he even tried to get that listed as his occupation on his passport), but he’s been able to spearhead some of the most staggering albums of the past fifty years, just through the sheer power of lateral thinking and clever leadership.

By the way, the small crisis I seem to have experienced after Belle and Sebastian failed to knock me flat has basically passed. You mentioned to me shortly after I posted my response that Belle and Sebastian isn’t the kind of band that does knock you flat on the first listen; it takes a while to sink in. After a couple more listens, I can feel it happening already, and I have renewed faith in my ability to appreciate new music.

I bring that up mostly because Another Green World is very much the same in that way. It took me years to think of this as anything more than ‘fairly good.’ I don’t know another album that benefits more from living with it for a while. So, listen to it once and tell me what you think. Then maybe ignore it for a bit and whenever it comes to mind unbidden, try again.

Since the beginning of this project, I’ve been looking for an album that will grab you by the throat and start you up on new and unexpected musical journeys. This is not going to be that album. But, I’m pretty confident that, given your other tastes, you’ll eventually love this.

— Matthew

Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (pt. 1)

belleandsebastian

Dear Matthew:

How do you feel about Feelings? Because it has come to my attention since my last post that you’ve never listened to any Belle and Sebastian.

You may recall that I have previously described the Glaswegian indie pop legends as one of the staple bands mopey college kids were listening to in the mid 2000s. Along with Rilo Kiley, LCD Soundsystem, Bright Eyes, Tegan and Sara, etc., these guys were the bread and butter of a particular variety of melancholy music nerd when I was finishing high school/starting university — I know you know the type. Belle and Sebastian are more than a little twee, and the word ‘wistful’ seems to have been invented specifically to describe both the lyrics and delivery of frontman and main songwriter Stuart Murdoch — who, as previously discussed, may in fact be some sort of ageless time traveller who has been making pop music in Great Britain since the ’60s. Belle and Sebastian is a band that runs entirely on nostalgia and hooks. I love them, obviously.

The hardest part of this assignment has been deciding which album to start you out with. Most B&S diehards will tell you that their second album, 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, is their undisputed masterpiece, and that you should start there. That’s what I did initially, though, and I wasn’t exactly blown away. I filed them away as one of those bands that other people love fanatically that I just don’t ‘get,’ like the Smiths or Bob Marley. It wasn’t until I gave 2006’s The Life Pursuit a spin that I really got hooked. It’s a much peppier, catchier, less despondent, more energetic, more radio-friendly affair than — well, than any of their previous records, really, while still being undeniably a Belle and Sebastian record. Sure, it doesn’t have any ‘classics’ like ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap‘ or ‘I’m a Cuckoo,’ and the first track is a bit of a slow burner compared to the tremendous numbers that start their two most recent albums. But if I was going to list what it has got, I would just end up writing out most of the track list. This is a very easy album to like, and I want you to like this band.

This brings up an interesting question about ‘getting into’ bands with big catalogues and huge fanbases that I’ve struggled with for a while. Most such bands do have a particular album commonly agreed upon as their magnum opus that most fans will point you toward: Daft Punk has Discovery, the Beach Boys have Pet Sounds, Pink Floyd has The Dark Side of the Moon, etc. But as often as not, a band’s so-called ‘classic’ album doesn’t end up being the one that hooks me. I didn’t get into Tegan and Sara until I listened to Sainthood and I didn’t get into Rilo Kiley until I listened to Under the Blacklight, which to ardent fans of those bands is kind of like saying I didn’t get into Talking Heads until I listened to … I don’t know, any album that isn’t Remain in Light. It’s ass-backwards from the conventional wisdom, is what I’m saying — and also what I’m assigning you here. So we’ll see how it goes.

So, like many a white kid before you, let these pop hooks and pleasing chord progressions grab you and pull you into a world of utterly enjoyable despair. Really get some catharsis happening. And try to make it last, because two weeks from now, you are going to be listening to some of the most insane bleep-bloop electronic bullshit I know.

—Matt