Saturday, February 26, 2011

James Blake (James Blake) (2011)

Getting the Memo

A quick look at James Blake before spinning his debut album on your headphones will only prompt you to look him over again. Like, real slowly. We are, of course, not talking about the African-American tennis player but a white Brit dubstep producer who sounds like black neo-soul via southern gospel. It shouldn’t be a surprise because most young white musicians have grown up influenced by black American soul singers whereas the reverse is true. So, while Santi White may have a secret shrine somewhere dedicated to The Clash, we can deduce that Adele falls asleep nightly listening to Aretha Franklin.

James Blake listens to them all and incorporates the best of both worlds into one coherent stew on his debut LP. He’s been whetting out appetite for a year now with mini-releases and remixes. Last year’s Klavierwerke EP featured funky grooves and electro hi-claps parading as actual songs and radical concepts. Here though, he’s lessened his producer role and brought out his own soul, juxtaposing both into what may very well be the best debut album we’ll hear all year.

Unluck expertly mixes his slowed vocals with not one but two divergent beats that are like fissures of ice thawing slowly into each other. The fuzzy bass line only grows louder—a perfect foil for his raw sound as it strains through what can only be described as musical trauma. Wilhelm’s Scream is even more deceptive; luring one’s ears into a swelling reverb before blowing the best soul load since D’angelo’s last album. The track peters out with Nintendo-like sounds reverberating over his admission of hopeless love. His remake of Feist’s Limit to Your Love removes her sweet delivery and instead we’re treated to a haunting refrain that I’d never thought the original contained. Give Me My Month is just short of two minutes but its fey vocals put Antony Hegarty to shame. ‘I never told her where the fear/comes from’, he croons over a simple piano. It’s the sole track without any electronic frills but it’s the most heart-breaking moment on the disc. To Care (Like You) slips on his producer’s jacket again but the comfort of the fit is evident in the seamless transitioning of all the parts. I Mind winds down slowly, replete with the typical fissures arty types use for chillwave. Then comes the gospel-influenced Measurements which appropriately is solemn yet soulful at the same time.

Blake’s minimalism is sure to put off quite a few listeners though especially as nothing here snaps as immediately as a 2010 track CMYK. But, in his defense, the showman aspect of this LP is more impressive. Even the more straight forward tracks have a gloss to them that is interesting: I Never Learnt to Share, for example, pulls out a weird techno stream towards the end that feels out of place but kookily so. Lindesfarne I doesn’t quite pull off its aim but the result of Lindesfarne II hits home.

It’s all something new but then again, any artist is unto something genius when the establishment doesn’t initially get it: Geoff Barrow’s indirect Twitter snipe at Blake earlier this year sadly proves this point. Barrow, a member of trip-hop band Portishead, seemed dismayed that BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll was heralding the rise of a ‘dubstep meets pub singer’ genre. That, ironically, is how one could describe Beth Gibbon’s vocals on any of Portishead’s albums. The only difference is that Gibbons no longer sounds like early Tori Amos on acid but now rather more like how Amos currently sounds—established, bored and only occasionally brilliant.

Blake now stands at the start of an exciting, brilliant career, one that is erasing norms and rewriting possibilities for a genre that’s in need of a shake up. This mirrors the rise of trip-hop some sixteen years ago with Portishead and Tricky. It was daring and risky back then but I’ve yet to read of Massive Attack (the godfather band of both genres) deriding either for taking the music to a different level. That is, after all the purpose of art and vision. Given the overwhelming critical praise he’s been getting so far, I hope by the time year-end lists thrust him even further into the spotlight, doubters like Barrow would have gotten the memo by then…

RATING: 8/10

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


James Blake (James Blake) (2011)

The best genre albums are those that don’t even sound like what they represent. The dubstep artist James Blake has been making quite a name for himself and now here, at last, is his astonishing debut. Surely critics will have the best new artist award already with his name on it and who can blame them: Unlock is a marvelous and soulful amalgamation of diverse sounds entwined and masterfully set in motion. Give Me My Month puts Antony Hegarty with a stunning falsetto set to piano. It’s more soulful and sincere than anything on contemporary R&B radio in ages. The diversity on display by this 22 year old Brit is the real treat; I Mind sounds as if it’s being stir-fried from outer space while Wilhelm’s Scream is the best soul any man has done since D’angelo. 8/10

Anna Calvi (Anna Calvi) (2011)

There’s no escaping the PJ Harvey comparisons. Not only has Calvi enlisted Harvey’s long-time drummer Rob Ellis to tweak the album, but her phrasings are reminiscent of Harvey in her younger, less oblique days. In fact, some of the tracks—Desire, The Devil—cover the same torturous terrain. But therein ends the similarities if one delves deeper. Calvi is more melodic and incorporates more refined sophistication in her music. She doesn’t have the rawness that was once uniquely Harvey’s nor the will yet to wreak havoc without a script in hand but this is one terrific debut. Calvi has the working-girl’s appreciation of Kate Bush as well. The standout is Blackout, the first release and it is a gushing ride of pop perfection. 7/10

Outside (Tapes ‘n Tapes) (2011)

Though critics continue to deride their efforts, the fact is that Tapes ‘n Tapes continues to pull through some pretty decent music. Outside is no classis but the guitar riffs are heavy and laden with promise. The issue therefore is lyrical content; the riffs on Freak Out propel a new direction but we’ve heard these situations before from the band. They seem to have been stuck in a warp but every now and then—the soothing People You Know—they spring a sweet surprise. Their career arc is reaching out for a blues revisit and once they succumb to those urges then a real gem may yet appear. 6.5/10

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Rolling Blackouts (The Go! Team) (2011)

Though they run the risk of not being taken serious, the fact is that after all the fun subsides in your listening of this album, The Go! Team has presented a pretty good album. Several tracks underperform in terms of lyrics but the production is vibrant and booty-shaking (see Voice Yr Choice). They haven’t managed to shake their British textbook pop approach but there is more natural brilliance in The Running Range than in half of the new North American releases this year. Plus the band has grown to cover more ground: the title track is cavernous and grows with each couplet. All this while retaining their core playfulness.
RATING: 7.5/10

The King is Dead (The Decemberists) (2011)

After the prog disaster that was the Hazards of Love, I seriously wondered if Colin Meloy could recover. Now I can worry no more because his band has hopped upon their Michael Stipe fetish once again and returned to form (or uniform) with the excellent The King is Dead. The music here is so lush and deep—from the glorious guitar work providing the backbone of This is Why We Fight to its wise minimalism on Rise to Me. Meloy is more than a mere Stipe clone however and the album proves his own dramatic rebound even if it overreaches a few times and features R.E.M. drummer Peter Buck on a few cuts. The aforementioned Rise to Me is melodic yet not sappy. It’s a rustic album, one that encompasses Americana and this is Meloy’s forte even if he claims not to be taking it all on as stated on the epic opener, Don’t Carry It All.
RATING: 8/10

Fluorescence (Asobi Seksu) (2011)

One of the problems I have with Xiu Xiu is that they’re a band stubbornly clinging on to an initial idea and refusing to delve deeper than what they’ve unearthed. I feared the same fate would pass down to Asobi Seksu because they’re so in awe of everything Jaime Stewart does. Fluorescence, thankfully, manages to slightly challenge out perception of this band. Yes, the same minimalism that has guided them in the past is still here but there’s more focus now and the music production doesn’t feel as aimless as before. Tracks like Pink Light and Counterglow are mere noise but damn if things aren’t slamming on them. Of course a lot rests on lead singer Yuki Chikudate and her vocals but unlike their last album (Hush) she finds solid ground here, the type that indicates the band is stepping up their game. RATING: 7.75/10

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cape Dory (Tennis) (2011)

Sailing Away

The cover of Tennis’ debut Cape Dory is extreme in its deception. Alaina Moore (one half of the band) strikes an awkward pose in a loud blue strapless pantsuit. Her right leg is cocked high upon the other while her auburn hair cascades down her back. Perhaps the most shocking detail though isn’t the retro, country-ish texture of her stare but the fact that she isn’t tanned. For someone who’s been at sea for along time that’s highly suspicious and distracting.

Tennis is Moore and her husband, Patrick Riley and their story of how they even started to create music is one thing but setting up for the outcome is, admittedly, lined with cynicism. Most indie bands can only initially offer theoretical experiences, thus the self-consciousness of lyrics and drumming is inevitable. Luckily, they eschewed this by circulating a free mp3 while on their sea voyage, only to return to put the whole journey down on record. A sea voyage (through the Eastern Seaboard) made possible after selling out everything they had except their passion for adventure. They spent seven months away then returned to start recording.

Great material for a novel but it’s the music that’s truly remarkable: beach pop that isn’t strained under any delusions as to how sun-soaked it should sound. There are the unending lo-fi riffs as well as breezy melodies that serve as hooks deep enough to come off as pretty but not saccharine. The album embodies the sound of 1960s girl groups like The Shirelles but in a very modern way. Moore’s vocals have been likened to Bethany Cosentino (Best Coast) by many critics but she oozes more genuine tenderness in my view and besides the latter is terribly overrated anyway.

Moore knows what to do with her songs naturally: Take Me Somewhere—appropriately the lead track—sets us gently on our way. ‘Sitting in the sand/ waiting for you/to return to land’, croons Moore but though it’s a pretty track, the urgency of it is fraught with feminine wiles that you know her lover won’t figure out. She berates him for leaving her behind, depriving her of the adventure too, but her real motive remains hidden. Moore’s voice works a mesmerizing spell whether it’s heartbroken (Long Boat Pass) or playful (the ecstatic title track). Like Victoria Legrand (Beach House), she knows how to juxtapose her voice to atmospherics and create harmony, instead of being drowned out. Marathon oozes into the same tropical riffs that Vampire Weekend has perfected but this is so much better than anything they’ve produced. Moore is backed by a lush production that makes me wonder if Riley isn’t secretly a member of Grizzly Bear as well.

If Cape Dory suffers from anything then it’s the inevitable comparisons it’ll draw to recent twee pop masterpieces like Summer Camp’s Young EP and Beach House’s Teen Dreams. It sounds like a hodgepodge of both those discs but it’s neither as strong nor demanding. The ten tracks clock in less than thirty minutes and it’s all a bit too homogeneous for one to gush over so early in the year. That means there is no standout but that’s usually the case with beach pop albums. But then again, Tennis isn’t working with ornate production or pop culture references here, just their involvement with the sea and each other. Its pleasure is in its mere being and that’s a hard sell to listeners ever clutching and waiting for the next big thing. Cape Dory is at every turn simple yet filled with self-gratifying moments that can gut-check even the hardest cynic once they don’t close their hearts to it.

RATING: 8/10

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Black Swan (2010)

Paranoid Android

We first meet Nina (Natalie Portman) in a dream. In it her perfectly executed movement is juxtaposed to shades of light from a theatre, where she is the Odette, the princess in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. It is the scene where she must thwart the advances of the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. She does so, fluttering gracefully around on tip-toe before the scene fades out.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream), Black Swan is a jarring, extensive look at the effect of fears upon the psyche, whether real or imagined. Nina, a veteran ballet dancer, is good enough to get recurring roles but just not the biggest one. That changes though when the theatre’s artistic director Thomas (a lusty Vincent Cassel) decides to cast a younger face into the role of the Swan Princess for their upcoming version of Swan Lake. Initially, he lies to Nina in telling her that Veronica (a delicious, bitchy turn by Ksenia Solo) has got the part. As she is about to leave, he shuts the door and delivers a frank summation of her dancing technique before kissing her. She bites him as a reflex action but with this one gesture, Thomas is apparently inspired to give her the role.

Of course, he does not tell her this but the look on Nina’s face when the roles are finally posted begins her ascent to stardom and rocky descent into madness. She quickly experiences highs (her mom’s unabashed approval) as well as lows (the word ‘whore’ scribbled on a bathroom mirror). It is at this point that her dreams start to get darker. She starts to pick at her skin and fingernails. This is followed by bulimia and, finally, neurological projection. The film’s brilliant cinematography works in tandem with Aronofsky’s idea of showing her inner conflict as primarily black and white and their conflict upon each other as dual forces, coursing throughout Nina. It captures the isolation that surrounds her, making her every move knife-edged. Portman—in the role of a lifetime—delivers deftly: along with Clint Mansell’s score, she is the constant that allows Aronofsky to pull off what is a totally engrossing film.

Aronofsky’s lens only gets dicey when it refuses to explore fully the duplicity of everyone. Erica (a frighteningly-good Barbara Hershey) watches over her daughter’s career in an unbearable manner. Her apartment serves as both prison and shrine to Nina’s accomplishments. The extent of her envy though is obvious but never tested. Beth (Winona Ryder), whom Nina envies, is hellish because she only sees younger versions of herself literally willing to suck up to Thomas for stardom. Then there is Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina’s shadow for the play, who is carefree and sensual...all the things Nina is not. The range of envy with the latter two is never revealed either but it’s clear that they too are knee-deep in basic insecurities. The type that forces them to spend so much time together but never truly pulling them closer to any sort of bond, just tense rivalry at every turn.

Black Swan never approaches a truce or communal peace, just a result without emphasizing it. ‘All the dedication, for what?’ Thomas asks Nina at one point and she remains speechless. What she should respond with is obvious but even clearer is the fact that she must not say it or else things may change yet again. Thomas, modeled after the legendary George Balanchine, waits for her to gather up the courage but realizes that she’s just not ready yet. But she will be one day because he’s seen this all before. What he hasn’t figured out yet is why his stars end up psychologically scarred nor the extent of his hand in it. He merely pits them against each other and hopes for the best.

Of course no one who sees Black Swan will forget the exquisite torture Portman brings to her role. If every Aronofsky film features a central performer struggling for redemption--the delusional Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) in Requiem for a Dream, Randy the Ram’s (Mickey Rourke) painful meltdown in The Wrestler—then Nina is the result of what happens when there is no happy ending, just heavy delusion. Aronofsky takes a step deeper into the psychotic thriller genre with Black Swan—the point at which he’s no longer mimicking classics but attempting his own. He does borrow heavily from Polanski’s Repulsion but he’s taken that film’s silent idiosyncrasies and turns them into contemporary, transmogrified terror. Whereas Polanski jabs repeatedly at the androphobia gripping Carol (Catherine Deneuve) but fails to reveal its source origin, Aronofsky manifests Nina’s hallucinations at every angle the camera allows him to. And even though we’re robbed of time to witness the full Freudian damage, we know what Nina’s demons are capable of and she will ultimately pays the price for daring to achieve perfection.

That ultimately sets Black Swan up for a lot of personal interpretation. More terrifyingly though it reveals a well noted psychosis and its often-times overstepped limits. It demands outstanding direction from Aronofsky and he delivers and he in turn throws back a fanatical dare to its star, Portman; engulfing both in a hectic pas de deux that ultimately should land her an Oscar. In the process, Black Swan revels smugly in its own controlled world of conflicted emotions that takes no prisoners or cry-babies, just absolute prince and princesses when the curtains go up—or down.

RATING: 8/10