Snap Sounds

Snap Sounds: Richie Cunning


Listening to local SF rapper Richie Cunning’s new song Pure Imagination has proven to be terribly infectious, as I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

A quote from A Bronx Tale about talent sets the stage as Richie takes you on a journey of his dreams and doubts in the rap game. I never thought a sample from 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory could be made into a rap song, but with a breakbeat layered on top it has a nice relaxing vibe. This is definitely a track to chill out to while thinking about one’s dreams.

Download the free song here


Snap Sounds: PJ Harvey


Let England Shake

It’s not really a subtle couplet, “Weighted down with silent dead/ I fear our blood won’t rise again,” but with it the title track for PJ Harvey’s newest offering Let England Shake sets the stage for the songs to come. A surprisingly melodic exploration of the still reverberating effects of World War I on England’s shores and English mores, Let England Shake is both a call to arms and a plea to lay them down again. And despite its deliberate focus on atrocities past, the album can’t help but to implicate all current and future wars within its narrow rifle scope.

At the core of every song in the collection lies a degraded yet determined Britannia, plowed with “tanks and feet,” shot down, blown apart, bitter, bloodied, and bowed. Yet despite the ignominy, it’s a land that inspires almost absurd loyalty -— in the singer as well as the soldier. “I live and die through England,” Harevey confesses on the song “England,” as if she can’t quite believe it herself, “to you…I cling.” It’s hard to imagine an American rock star pledging allegiance to any state on that soul-baring level, and it’s part of what makes Let England Shake a fascination for an American listener. Its uniquely British nationalism, built on a foundation of grief, defies direct translation.

The instrumentation is a melancholic mélange of spare, driving percussion with plenty of cymbals, reined-in, jangling guitar riffs, an autoharp, subtle layers of piano, occasionally awkward brass, and a cornucopia of extras: a xylophone here, a zither there. On the album’s third song, “The Glorious Land,” the clarion call of a war bugle insinuates itself into the otherwise stripped-down drum and guitar track while Harvey’s clear voice swoops through, a flock of startled birds surrounded by the muck of war.

Harvey stretches her register to its upper limit on track six, “On Battleship Hill,” leaving all traces of her trademark low gravel behind with a clarion call of her own. On songs such as “The Last Living Rose” and “In the Dark Places,” Harvey drapes herself not only in her flag but in soldier’s drag, evoking the hopeless trenches and “damned mountains” as if observing them first-hand. The album is not without flaws, a seemingly random sampling of Niney the Observer’s roots-reggae jam “Blood and Fire” on “Written on the Forehead” does the original no justice, and the sing-song quality of “England” jars somewhat after the considerably more powerful “On Battleship Hill,” but overall, Let England Shake stands out as a cohesive ode to a complicated love.

PJ Harvey, “Let England Shake” (from Let England Shake):

Snap Sounds: Jessica 6


“White Horse” and “Fun Girl”

Siren of the dance floor Nomi Ruiz is looking and sounding even better outside of Hercules and Love Affair; in fact, depending on the petty commercial whims and deeper prejudices of the world, she could be the most alluring pop diva since Aaliyah. Washing in on peerless cymbal-sprays, “White Horse” comes on like the 21st-century answer to Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” while also notching top spot in the current Madonna revival. Its video sashays through the kind of N.Y. nighttime sleaze that just about disappeared with the Gaiety, and does so with style. The older “Fun Girl” has traces of the Hercules sound as well as Janet Jackson’s and Aaliyah’s feline flirtations with guitar rock, and a warped horror-tinged sound that make sense when one considers Jessica 6’s original name was Deep Red. Check out the flawless combo of windblown hair/keyboard at 1:14. Can’t wait for the album. Videos after the jump.

Jessica 6, “White Horse”:

Jessica 6, “Fun Girl”:

Snap Sounds: Arnaud Fleurent-Didier


La Reproduction
(Columbia/Sony Music)

If you’re a lover of chanson-tinged pop and you found Benjamin Biolay’s recent double-LP a letdown, then there’s bittersweet relief to be found in this song collection, which covers similarly vast instrumental terrain with an ease that the ostentatious Biolay didn’t manage. Fleurent-Didier reminds me a bit of Gerard Manset, but not quite as brooding — there’s modernity and whimsy to his compositions and vocal delivery. The interplay between vulnerable voice, acoustic guitar, piano, electronics, and orchestration in “Reproductions” is flat-out gorgeous. The Contempt-inflected music video for that song is one of the best I’ve seen in quite a while. Totally, tenderly, tragically, after the jump.


Snap Sounds: Silk Flowers


Ltd. Form

There’s something endearingly ungainly about Aviram Cohen’s singing, but Silk Flowers is most successful in instrumental mode, and the majority of Ltd. Form steers clear of the morbid imagery and Michael Gira-like or Andrew Ridgely-type baritone posturing that characterizes three of the album’s tracks. The highlight is “Small Fortune” (which I keep wanting to call “Small Wonder”), an electric dream Phil Oakey would covet. It cries out for a dramatic pop vocal, yet likely is more resplendent without one. Listen in after the jump.

Silk Flowers, “Small Fortune”:

Silk Flowers, “Small Fortune” live on WFMU:

Snap Sounds: Beach Fossils


What a Pleasure
(Captured Tracks)

Beach Fossils’ music possesses a brisk energy that — while sonically akin to great ’80s records on labels such as Postcard and Sarah — feels contemporary, or at least youthful. The group lost a guitarist after its debut album last year, yet its guitar sound remains its strong point: the jangly melodicism of this eight-song EP’s title track is early Johnny Marr-caliber, and the harmonic momentum of “Fall Right In” results in maybe the best Beach Fossils track to date, a declaration of affection that’s winning in its simplicity.

After “Out in the Way,” a plainly lovely rendering of abandonment that includes an instrumental contribution from Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum, the latter half of What a Pleasure strays into darker terrain, exploring melancholy and, as the title of the last song puts it, adversity. The sighing, rolling pattern of the EP’s instrumental opener creeps into the conclusion of “Adversity,” bringing a suggestive a hint of nostalgia as well as hypnotic suggestion (is it time to start all over again from track one?) to the song’s languor. There’s an urge to look backward while moving forward through life, and it suits the band’s sound.

Beach Fossils, “Fall Right In”:

Beach Fossils, “Out in the Way”:


Snap Sounds: Peter Gordon


Love of Life Orchestra

With Arthur Russell duly sainted, the New York City avant-disco revival turns to this extensive, expansive studio project and its lush, sax-dominated epics. Blessed with the mastery of a conductor, Peter Gordon brought together a community of musicians — including Russell, David Byrne, David Johansen, Art Londsay, and vocalist Rebecca Armstrong — with distinctly lavish and madcap results. “Extended Niceties” and “Roses on the Dance Floor” are as terrific as their titles, and “Beautiful Dreamer” is exquisite. Two tracks after the jump.

Peter Gordon and Love of Life Orchestra, “Beautiful Dreamer”:

Peter Gordon and Love of Life Orchestra, “Extended Niceties”:

Snap Sounds: Forest Swords — and the spirit of Aaliyah


Dagger Paths E.P.
(No Pain in Pop/Olde English Spelling Bee)

High on the “Ideas I Wish I Had” list is Forest Swordscover of Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew,” a different (if equally idiosyncratic) take on R&B than that of fellow Olde English Spelling Bee act Autre Ne Veut. The group’s M. Barnes taps into the recessive, almost ghostly shade-throwing of the original — one reason why Aaliyah was a unique pop phenomenon — and slows it down to near-Gothic stasis, while adding another twist to the lyric’s romantic intrigue by flipping the gender of the vocalist. The spirit of Aaliyah haunted dubstep and its mutant kin in 2010, thanks to Forest Swords’ “If Your Girl,” and also James Blake’s “CMYK,” which sends the vocals of her best-known hit, “Are You That Somebody?,” through a series of flying-floating transformations. Check out the originals and covers/updates, as well as some more ruminations about this phenom, after the jump.

Of course, Aaliyah’s influence has been seeping into non-pop or R&B places for some time, from the Gossip’s live interpretation of “Are You That Somebody?” (which followed in the footsteps of Northwest no-bass counterparts the Spinanes cover of the same song)  to Gang Gang Dance’s professions of love for her around the time of Saint Dymphna. The vinyl version of The xx’s debut album includes the group’s cover of “Hot Like Fire,” which, like “If Your Girl Only Knew,” comes from Aaliyah’s 1996 album One in a Million, where her lithe mystique found a perfect home within Timbaland’s shadowy and spacious yet rhythmic production.

It’s tempting to view Aaliyah’s eternal return as an outgrowth of the fact that some if not many of these artists (and others) were probably kids swept up in radio love back when she was a major phantom of the airwaves. But as time passes, the summer and fall of 1998 — when “Are You That Somebody?” was topping the charts, Missy Elliott’s songwriting was in full effect, Brandy and Monica were fighting over a boy, and R. Kelly was beginning to explore musical narratives with Sparkle and Kelly Price — is starting to seem like a halcyon era of R&B pop. While I like some of the tributes to Babygirl I’ve just outlined, I can confidently say her originals stand supreme.

Forest Swords, “If Your Girl,” from Dagger Paths EP:

Aaliyah, “If Your Girl Only Knew,” from One in a Million:

James Blake, “CMYK,” from CMYK EP:

Aaliyah, “Are You That Somebody”:

Snap Sounds: Prefab Sprout


Let’s Change the World With Music
(Tompkins Square)

Strange world we live in, where the likes of Björk and Stephin Merritt have written musicals, but we don’t have one by Paddy McAloon, whose songs far outdo contemporary Broadway’s best in terms of melody, emotional poignance, and poetic wordplay. It’s a tragedy that a composer and vocalist of such unashamed purity has been stricken with Ménière’s disease, which effects hearing. But it’s a blissful pleasure to hear previously-unreleased music by one of the late-20th century’s greatest pop songwriters.

McAloon honored and even eclipsed the spirits of Elvis, Moondog, and ABBA on his masterwork, 1989’s Jordan: The Comeback, throwing in a pair of sublime songs about Jesse James, to boot. In the tradition of 1989’s Protest Songs, Let’s Change the World with Music is a remastered version of a previously-unreleased collection of demos, dating from 1992. It presents romantic music as religion, and for an atheist or agnostic or unsparing anti-sentimentalist, its fervor can be off-putting. But the loveliest moments — “God Watch Over You,” “Music is a Princess,” “Angel of Love” — are the stuff of conversion, as tuneful as Paul McCartney, and with a lot more integrity.

Prefab Sprout, “Music is a Princess,” from Let’s Change the World With Music:

Prefab Sprout, “God Watch Over You,” from Let’s Change the World With Music:


Snap Sounds: Darwin Deez


Darwin Deez

(Lucky Number)

Phoenix is the most obvious reference for Darwin Deez‘s crisp, clean, and commercial tunefulness, with occasional traces of El Guincho — and Beck’s hipster clowning, which makes sense, as Deez made an unofficial 2009 video for Cornelius’s 2001 song “Fly.” (I’d hazard a guess that both Phoenix and Deez are influenced by the light beauty of Lô Borges.) My favorite aspect of lead member Darwin Smith’s songwriting and recording is the melodicism of his guitar sound — counter-melodic grace notes whirligig through the air on songs like “Deep Sea Divers,” “The City,” “Up in the Clouds,” and “Bed Space.” His lyrics and look are way too precious for my taste, but I might succumb with the repeated listens the better songs here attract. Guitar pop alert: In addition to some Deez clips, after the jump you’ll also find Damon Packard‘s HILARIOUS video for Buva’s “Hide Away,” with absolutely unparalleled animal control puppetry!

Darwin Deez, “Up in the Clouds,” from Darwin Deez:

Buva, “Hide Away,” directed by Damon Packard:

Darwin Deez, “Bed Space (Paramore-Style Music Video),” from Darwin Deez:

Snap Sounds: Demdike Stare


(Modern Love)

There is the fraud that is witch house, and then there is the musical spell cast by Demdike Stare, a duo that takes its name from 17th-century accused witch Elizabeth Southerns. Tryptych gathers three near-LP-length EPs, and its highlights are numerous. While Liberation Through Hearing delivers on the title’s promise, my pick of the trio might be Voices of Dust, thanks to the swelling charge “Black Sun,” the frenetic “Hashshashin Chant,” and the seductive dirge “A Tale of Sand.” These songs conjure dark visions on their very own, but after the jump, check out some montage videos that Jonny Redman of the European cult movie site has created for Demdike Stare tracks. If you can I.D. any of the amazing source material he’s using, I’d love to know.

Demdike Stare, “Forest of Evil (Dawn),” from Tryptych and Forest of Evil:

Demdike Stare, “Hashshashin Chant,” from Tryptych and Voices of Dust:

Snap Sounds: Charanjit Singh


10 Ragas to a Disco Beat
(Bombay Connection)

Pure zaniness: acid house from 1982 — up to four years before the genre was invented — that demonstrates Bollywood composer Singh’s intuitive and innovative proficiency with the genre’s prototypical Roland keyboards and drum machines. This reissue removes the word synthesizing from the beginning of the album’s initial title, to downplay the kitsch factor, I guess. The mix of repetition and raga variation runs from meditative to maddening and is sometimes outright revelatory. One of a kind. After the jump, check out a comic and informative short movie from last year in which an enthusiast seeks out and meets Singh, and a few tracks from the album. As one online commentator suggests, it’s time to put a bindi on the acid smiley.


Charanjit Singh: 2010 (short film):

Charanjit Singh, “Raga Bhairav” (from 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat):

Charanjit Singh,  “Raga Megh Malkar” (from 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat):


Snap Sounds: James Blake


James Blake

This is probably the most-anticipated album of 2011, thanks to the promise of Blake’s lavishly praised EPs, which have conjured the ghost of Aaliyah (“CMYK” draws brilliantly from “Are You That Somebody?”) while deploying a innovative sense of dubstep’s space and silence. (See the starts and stops and teasing not-there quality of “I Only Know (What I Know Now)” for an example.) Here, Blake adopts a more traditional pop vocal songwriting approach akin to his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” which is included. The result teeters between Kid A-era Radiohead angst and something a lot more interesting and unique — a singular interplay between the possibilities of composition and production.
Whereas most recording artists are at best producers or composers, Blake fuses the two, wielding textural shifts like chord changes. The studio version of “Wilhelm Scream” isn’t as revelatory as the one from his recent BBC session, but other tracks on James Blake share that songs’ effective foregrounding of a simple, endlessly reworked, three-or-four-line lyrical mantra. The offhand conversational honesty of “I Never Learnt to Share” — entire lyric: “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me / And I don’t blame them” — goes from confessional solitude to Stevie Wonder-like funky freedom, remaining compellingly unhinged from start to finish. Where he goes from here will be interesting to see — and hear.

James Blake, “The Wilhelm Scream” (Live BBC Session):

James Blake, James Blake album sampler:

Snap Sounds: Bill Orcutt


A New Way to Pay Old Debts
(Editions Mego)

Recorded at 24th and York in SF in the early summer months of 2009, these 14 songs are characteristically live enough to give the impression of hanging out in the same room as Orcutt, or an adjacent one, rather than hearing him filtered through a studio. The approach suits the furious storms of broken-neck blues — literally: Orcutt plays a repaired acoustic Kay guitar with two strings removed — that are unleashed from start to finish. Along with the Berkeley Guitar compilations and recent solo albums by Ava Mendoza and Sean Smith, A New Way to Pay Old Debts is a sure way to prove the Bay Area is a guitar nexus. Check out a track from the album after the jump.

Bill Orcutt, “My Reckless Parts” (from A New Way to Pay Old Debts):

Snap Sounds: Deerhoof


Deerhoof vs. Evil


Why “vs.” evil, Deerhoof? Wouldn’t Deerhoof is Evil be more challenging? No matter, while navigating familiar territory, the 12 songs here show the band is still inspired, and more graceful. The melodicism and gleaming decorative touches of “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness” and “No One Asked to Dance” match a romanticism that is winning. “Secret Mobilization” is a straight-up rocker, and the time-lapse bloom of “I Did Crimes for You” is just about gorgeous. In moving further beyond a Jane Birkin-meets-1990s-noise realm, East Coast counterparts Blonde Redhead seem to have gotten lost as of late. Not Deerhoof. A song from the album and album release show info after the jump.


Deerhoof, “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness” (from Deerhoof vs. Evil):


with Ben Butler and Mousepad, Fred Frith and Prhilip Greenlief Trio
Fri/28, 9 p.m.; $16
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
(415) 885-0750

Snap Sounds: Reuber



This is the most characterful techno album in a long, long while. Instead of obeying minimalist trends, Reuber goes for something epic — Ring is Kosmische, but much more enthusiastic and lively and cheerfully vulgar (the finale verges on trance) than anything that sound’s huge cluster of revivalists have put forth in the past few years. The surging syncopation is Moroder-esque or Tangerine Dream-y rather than studious, and the album’s energy verges on gonzo, from the coiling, roiling metro-ride momentum of “Ringer” — the centerpiece and highlight — to the tribal fervor that lingers at the far edges of the two tracks before and after it. Performance clips of his Tuvan throat techno after the jump!

Reuber live — Nov. 16, 2008 (clip 1)

Reuber live — Nov. 16, 2009 (clip 2)


Snap Sounds: Munly and the Lupercalians


Petr and the Wulf
(Alternative Tentacles)

Munly J. Munly has long been one of the most enigmatic yet prolific figures of the Denver Music scene. And with his latest lineup, concept band The Lupercalians, he’s tapped into a treasure trove of possibility. Ostensibly the first of a series of albums focusing on the imaginary world of the “Kinnery of Lupercalia,” Petr and the Wulf is a dark retelling of the Prokofiev children’s symphony, whose characters are trapped by circumstance and each other in a deadlocked circle of vengeance and fear.

Reminiscent of, yet literal worlds apart from, the down-home fire and brimstone twang of Munly’s other projects (particularly Slim Cessna’s Auto Club), the musical arrangements of Petr and the Wulf are far closer in nature to the original symphony than to a hootenanny: strings, flute, organ, and even a tuba are represented in the mix along with multiple percussionists, a solitary banjo, and intense vocal layers. The last track, an eight-minute spoken-word soliloquy against a wailing wall of percussion-driven sound, exalts in the Wulf’s unrepentant ways: “If I am to be your reprobate,” he intones, “I shall at least enjoy the malefaction,” a phrase that seems just as easily applied to Munly himself.

Munly and the Lupercalians, “Grandfater”

Snap Sounds: Wovenhand


The Threshingfloor
(Sounds Familyre)

Whether it be the western plains or the Appalachian highlands, David Eugene Edwards of Wovenhand has long looked to the American landscape for inspiration, crafting songs which weave these diverse geographies together into a bold tapestry of richly textured sound. And yet, dating all the way back to the early days of 16 Horsepower, Edwards has never shied away from sifting a few foreign elements into his bold Americana. With The Threshingfloor (Sounds Familyre, 2010), he sets his gaze eastward, blending elements of Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and Romani gypsy music into his stark melodies and faith-layered lyrics.

From the driving oud of the title track, to the celestial Hungarian flute of “Terre Haute,” from the singing grass to the orchard gate, The Threshingfloor is the musical incarnation of the toil and bonebreak of a late-summer harvest: a passionate reverberation of hard physical labor and a harder metaphysical reward.

Wovenhand, “The Threshingfloor”:

Conjuring sheaves of wheat from desert drone, and scorched earth from fertile finger-picking, Wovenhand continues to establish itself as the thinking fan’s indie band, constantly morphing musically yet never losing touch of its essential intention or intonation. As always there are a couple of songs that poke into the nether edges of its versatility: in this case “The Truth” plays like one of Edward’s early new wave-styled tracks from his Bloodflower days, and the straight-up cow-town rockabilly of “Denver City” serves up war whoops and vocal distortions. But the tracks that linger long after the CD ends definitely rank among the most rooted in devotion, particularly “A Holy Measure,” “Behind Your Breath,” and “Terre Haute.”
With Git Some and Common Eider, King Eider
Tues/25, 9 p.m.; $13
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF
(415) 621-4455

Snap Sounds: La Plebe



Brazo en Brazo

(Kool Arrow, 2010)

Don’t be fooled by the melancholy acoustic guitar that opens the new La Plebe album, Brazo en Brazo, for all of a few introductory notes. Just as soon as the ear is lulled into world-music lullaby-land, the horns and drums quickly pop up, until, like a day at the races, the full blaze of La Plebe’s instrumentation blasts through, and they’re off!

A band firmly established as being politically and passionately aligned with the dispossessed and disenfranchised, this new album expands beyond the barrio, to explore the state of plebe on a global scale. Songs such as “Venas Abiertas” (Open Veins) and “Guerra Sucia” (Dirty War) describe the states of oppression that keeps Latin America on unequal economic and political footing while “Opresión” speaks more generally to the human costs of war. If those don’t particularly sound like themes to rock out to, the happy accident of La Plebe is that rocking out is actually what they do best. No dweeby-hipster-peaceniks, these, their tight ska-punk rhythm, scorching horns, and rapid-fire guitar hooks, can make a libertarian’s toes tap as freely as any anarkid’s. It helps to think of their music as a kind of call to arms — it won’t go away, and can’t be ignored.

It helps too, that lines such as “corporations that control/at the multinational level/continue robbing and enslaving/those that are suffering most” (from “Venas Abiertas”) simply sound less didactic in the Spanish that all but two songs of ten are written in. One of the remaining two, “Been Drinkin,’” is a spare acoustic jam mourning a life drowned in liquor and honky-tonk. The other, “Bella Ciao”, is a punk rock rendition of an anti-fascist Italian ballad, a partisan’s final farewell to his “beautiful”. If any language could be more musical and poetic than Spanish, it is surely Italian, and La Plebe’s version is an invigorating, Romany-esque reel. I couldn’t help notice the recycled riff in “Campesino” which appears quite emphatically in Hasta la Muerte’s “Mi Tierra”, but at least it’s a good riff. Maybe it’s a sequel

Snap Sounds: Clubroot




(LoDubs, 2010)

Purposely constructed anonymity as a reaction to this supposed Internet Age of Information is by now pretty passe in music circles (cf. Silver Columns, jj, Burial). So some may have rolled their eyes when future dubber Clubroot went that route with his first releases, even though the music was intellectually sensuous and the first full-length release received raves from Dubstepforum to Pitchfork.

Indeed, it seemed that Clubroot was following a little too closely in Burial’s footstep — no photos, no live sets, no given name — yet the music was tweeked slightly from that brainy dubstep god’s blueprint and showed a unique promise. But by now we’re all trained for the big, and in most cases anticlimactic, reveal. Since Clubroot’s been promoting a second album on Portland’s LoDubs label, he’s come out as 25-year-old Dan Richmond of St. Alban’s, UK, and is hitting the road for some live shows — ditching the reclusiveness (even though only obscured pics of him exist, and I wonder if he’ll be disguised for his upcoming show at Triple Crown). All signs, however, point not to anticlimax but to dance floor swoon.

II MMX is a 2 CD set that contains much of first album Clubroot, but the newer stuff advances beyond earlier hyper-cerebral and sometimes too-gloomy intentions for a trip into the deep forest. Yes, tracks like “Orbiting,” “Waterways,” “Dust Storm,” and the unfortunately titled “Cherubs Cry” channel some good ol’ pan flute sounds, tablas, and disembodied choruses that may call to mind New Age label Wyndham Hill or groups like Deep Forest, Enigma, even Enya. This is not a kiss of death — there’s a Balearic-derived trend blowing through right now that’s excavating those once-tacky sounds and making something fresh with them. It’s a neat trick, quite pleasant, and Clubroot is pulling it off. Call it dubstep’s version of chillwave.

While he can still show some spooked-out dubstep teeth on tracks like “Whistles & Horns” and “Physically” (and in his live mixes, like the one above for the inimitable Mary Anne Hobbs), Clubroot’s forging ahead in the pursuit of the thing every critic is calling post-dubstep, but which none can properly define. Good for him. Pack up that warped urban sitar loop and lead us into the trees, Clubroot — whoever you may be.     

(Reports from Seattle’s Decibel festival last week indicate that the live show’s a keeper, a LoDubs showcase that really stokes the diverse crowd. It’s not all ethereal — check out LoDubs head Jon AD’s killer lazer house-y set from the fest here. ) 

CLUBROOT With DJG, Djunya, and Jon A.D. Thurs/30, 10 p.m., $10. Triple Crown, 1760 Market, SF.

Snap Sounds: The Walkmen


By Landon Moblad


(Fat Possum)

You & Me, the Walkmen’s excellent 2008 album, showcased how strong the band could be while working within a mellower, more plaintive framework. Not that they’d ever been entirely void of it before, but that album’s wistful horns and lyrics dripped with melancholy that hardly let up. Early publicity about its follow-up, Lisbon, hinted at the group’s desire to revisit some of the more raucous material they toyed with on earlier albums and then fully succumbed to on 2006’s track-by-track cover of the Harry Nilsson/John Lennon album, Pussycats.
Inspired by the Memphis Sun Studio sound of the ’50s, Lisbon was written off-and-on during various trips to the Portuguese title city and then recorded in Philadelphia and New York City. The final product is an album of 11 songs (whittled down from a whopping 28 they recorded) that confirm the Walkmen’s status as one of the most consistent rock bands working today. To think these guys were initially lumped in with the wave of awful one-off bands ripping the Strokes in the early part of last decade is laughable now.

But is Lisbon the overhaul in style that advance word suggested? Well, yes and no. Standout “Angela Surf City” alone rocks harder than pretty much the entirety of You & Me. It also gives drummer Matt Barrick—the band’s secret weapon, in my opinion—a chance to attack his kit with a ferocity not heard since “The Rat” from 2004’s Bows + Arrows. Elsewhere, “Woe Is Me” is the Walkmen at their breezy up-tempo best, while “Follow the Leader” makes a lot of racket but unfortunately doesn’t really serve much of a purpose.

Ultimately, however, the sweeping, dreamy tracks again carry the majority of Lisbon. The appropriately titled “Torch Song” is a beautiful vessel for Hamilton Leithauser’s voice—a bourbon-soaked lovechild of Spoon’s Britt Daniel and early Rod Stewart. With its lullaby-like verses and old-fashioned backup harmonies, it’s also the most glaring example of the inspiration pulled out of those early Sun albums from the likes of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison.

Lisbon probably won’t be remembered as many fans’ favorite Walkmen album—it’s not as flashy as earlier recordings and it’s not quite as unified as You & Me. But when a band has created a catalog as front-to-back strong as theirs has become, picking favorites starts to feel a little ridiculous anyway.

Snap Sounds: The Books


By Landon Moblad

The Way Out
(Temporary Residence)

During the far too long half-decade wait between albums, it became easy to wonder if maybe Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, together known as The Books, had lost some of their creative juices. Luckily, one listen to The Way Out proves the wait was well worth it. If anything, this is an album so meticulously thought out and crafted that the two years (they officialy began recording in 2008) it took to create makes complete sense. It’s clear now that it wasn’t a lack of ideas, but rather a surplus of them to work through that caused the delay. And the final product, 15 tracks spread over nearly 55 minutes, is some of the finest work of their career.

For those uninitiated, The Books create a sort of cut-and-paste mix of cello, guitar, found sounds, male and female vocals and manipulated samples. The seamless blend of acoustic, electric and plain bizarre elements is unlike anything you’ve ever heard before, yet somehow instantly accessible. And at the core, underneath all the technical prowess and headphone trickery, lies the two things that separate The Books from their peers—a sense of humor and an ability to conjure up a broad range of emotions through their use of samples. Both are wonderfully intact on The Way Out.
Drawing inspiration this time around from self-help and hypnotherapy tapes, The Way Out is full of samples of new age mantras and cheesy therapists. Opener “Group Autogenics I” floats along on a base of sparse guitar and piano plunks while hypnosis instructions snake in and out. At one point a man says, “You may just possibly detect from my voice that I am Irish. And now, I leap forward in time.” As the last line is delivered, his voice echoes off into the distance and a tacky sci-fi whirl pops up. It’s small moments like this throughout that serve as the nudge and the wink to remind you that The Books aren’t taking any of this too seriously, and neither should you.
One of several highlights comes early on in the form of “A Cold Freezin’ Night.” The story goes that Zammuto and de Jong found an old Talkboy (the Walkman/tape recorder used by Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone 2) at a thrift store with a tape still inside. The content of the tape was a hilariously twisted conversation between what seems to be an older brother and his little sister. The frantic, quick pulse of music The Books created for it meshes perfectly while never drawing too much attention away from the strange source material. “I could kill you with a rifle, a shotgun, any way I want to,” the brother taunts. “Probably by cutting your toes off and working my way up. Towards your brain!” His sister replies with a defeated, “I wish I was a boy.”

Elsewhere, “I Didn’t Know That” is a lively piece of Books’ style slice-and-dice funk and a reminder that these guys can craft awesome grooves. Tracks like “Beautiful People” and “Free Translator” prove that Zammuto has harnessed his limited vocal range to impact the lyric-driven songs in a positive manner, which is something he struggled to do on 2005’s Lost and Safe
But what makes The Books distinct in a genre that can often seem cold or detached is their respect for — and ability to extract emotional elements from — samples. Take the recorded announcement of a pregnancy at a group dinner followed by celebratory applause on “All Our Base are Belong to Them” from their 2002 debut Thought For Food. Or the Japan Airlines flight attendant samples that lace “Tokyo” from 2003’s The Lemon of Pink. Coupled with music, these samples conjure up emotional responses and a vivid sense of time and place in a manner similar to similar a film.
The Way Out has several of these vivid moments, but the best is probably “Thirty Incoming.” The song’s title refers to a series of messages from a man left on a woman’s answering machine. “Hello Mary. Called to wish you good evening. And, uh, wish you good rest. And tell you how much I enjoyed your company last evening. And, uh, it really felt good to lie down next to you. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed that feeling.” Several more snippets of messages are played as the track shifts from distorted dial tone samples, to tribal drum breaks and swelling tremolo strings. It’s one of the most beautiful tracks the group has ever made.
The Way Out is another spectacular release from a group that continues to set its own personal bar higher and higher. And even though we may have had to wait a little longer than we’d have liked for new material, it’s hard to argue with the results. You could tell me the follow-up won’t come out for ten years next time around and I wouldn’t be upset or wonder why. I’d just patiently start counting down the days.

Snap Sounds: Björk and Dirty Projectors


Mount Wittenberg Orca

Mount Wittenberg Orca is neither the first nor last time Björk sings about oceans, mothers, and plant life (re: “Oceania”). But now, she has the genius of the Dirty Projectors ­– in particular, producer and Dirty frontman David Longstreth – looking at Mother Nature, too.

On Orca – and I don’t mean Bitte Orca, the Dirty Projectors’ 2009 indie instant-classic  – the Icelandic songstress and Longstreth have teamed up to produce an album for charity. This is a 20-minute, seven track release – short, but oh how sweet ­– whose proceeds all go to the National Geographic Society. It’s the first time we’ve been able to hear studio recordings of these tracks since Dirty/Björk played a benefit concert last year at Housing Works in New York.

Perhaps the titular mountain is our very own, in Marin. Either that or, judging by the album art, it’s some Middle Earthian alternate world. The eponymous orca – a killer whale – holds especially pertinent ground for Björk since, back in the Aughts, she developed some kind of maritime obsession on Medulla and the Drawing Restraint 9 soundtrack. It’s also interesting to note that, back in 2005, Björk’s hubby Matthew Barney gave ambergris, aka whale shit ­– one of his many fetishized materials – a starring role in Drawing Restraint 9. If you want to connect the dots even more, Barney was born in San Francisco.

Reminisicent of Medulla, Orca is like an epic chamber piece: harmony-heavy, flippantly sliding up and down scales, often ending up in a round of disparate melodies. Both Björk and the Dirty Projectors foreground imaginative vocal arrangements, and thus, the vocals here are strong and full of nuance.

The opening track, aptly titled “Ocean,” features some frightening feedback and disquieting vocals that wouldn’t be out of place in Krzysztof Penderecki’s scariest nightmares. Later, the bouncy “Sharing Orb” showcases the Dirty girls’ piquant “eh eh eh”s to match Björk’s Yoko-like, banshee-wailing “waaaaw.” “How do you say ‘love’?” she asks. Well, I know how I say it, Björk, and it’s definitely not the same way you do (“laaaaaave”). But as on the rest of her canon, her Neanderthalic cadence is totally successful in the context of the album’s conceit: A return to nature and the elements, a vision of an a priori universe of sound, to create modern, tightly woven aural textures.

“No Embrace” sounds like typical Dirty Projectors fare: spooky, yet wistful. Longstreth and his leading ladies – Angel Deradoorian, Hayley Dekle, and Amber Coffman – never clash with Björk’s typically dominant voice. The two work well in concert (both in the literal and figurative sense if you’ve seen the performances) yet you can still tell who’s singing and when.

The best song is “All We Are,” the final track and also the Björkiest. It almost sounds like a b-side from Medulla or the separated Siamese twin of “Sonnets/Unrealities XI.” The choir-like incantations, offering plenty in the way of falsetto, wax ethereal beneath Longstreth’s romantic lyricism. But like the best of Bjork’s Icelandic-to-English words, beauty is met by danger, and emotions are met with undermining qualifications (“I looked out for you/But looking never meant less”).

Mount Wittenberg is a pleasant, lovely climb, both brisk and a breath of fresh air. It’s enough to satisfy fans of either Bjork or Dirty Projectors, and you’ll most likely freak out if you’re a follower of both like myself. Yet at 20 minutes, it still leaves you wanting more. You can purchase the mp3s at for pretty cheap, or you can stream the album on YouTube.

Snap Sounds: Wavves


King of the Beach
(Fat Possum)

With King of the Beach, Nathan Williams, Billy Hayes, and Stephen Pope have finally stopped adding “v”s to their name. After Wavves (2008) and Wavvves (2009) of unpolished lo-fi, these San Diego-based upstarts have elevated to a dreamier, more whimsical sound (re: “When Will You Come”). Yet Wavves also hearkens back to Blink-182, Sum 41, and the bygone days of summer in the ’90s. The new album’s delightful pastiche is thanks, in part, to Dennis Herring, who’s produced the likes of Counting Crows, Elvis Costello, Modest Mouse, and the Hives. Goodbye dissonant noise; hello pop punk!
Williams has been Pitchforked to on- or maybe even above-the-radar status, and the media frenzy brought to cold, hard light his alleged substance abuse issues. Druggy themes are present within the music (or at least the song titles), especially “Post Acid,” whose nasally croon and carbonated licks quite literally scream DeLonge, Hoppus, and Barker. “Green Eyes” displays a similar harum-scarum musical attitude, where Williams doesn’t care how derivative he sounds. The freewheeling “Convertible Balloon,” with its effervescent chorus and prickly percussive textures that just stick to you – as any fizzy-lifting-thing does – is pure PG-rated fun.

A reference to a Nintendo game in “Linus Spacehead” makes the heart grow even fonder for the ’90s. There’s an esoteric boyishness at large that makes King of the Beach, strangely, more precious than the band’s previous releases. The tinges of melancholy and nostalgia in a song like “Mickey Mouse,” along with some chilling vocal reverbs, reflect a band that’s still young, still having fun, and yet starting to grow up. Even if at the end of the beach, Wavves crash on an overproduced note (“Baby Say Goodbye”), Williams is among the least pretentious of a current breed of rockers who can be found on the corner of Indie and Internet.