Stack Project Update, October, 2015

See this post for information about the Stack project.  This is another update covering the last two months, consisting of mini-reviews for a bunch of albums.

  • Death Cab for Cutie.  I have several albums, mostly early material, which I got from a friend years ago.  I can easily understand how a great Death Cab fan is made — there is a particular sense of style that I could easily imagine latching on to.  However, I don’t particularly latch onto it.  As a result, I find the majority of Death Cab for Cutie to be similar and relatively boring.  Apologies to all the fans out there, but it’s not really for me.
  • Deep Dark Woods.  I have their eponymous album.  In all regards, this is an album I should like more than I do.  It feels like my musical tastes are exactly the target audience of this band and this album.  And I do like the album, just not that much.  It’s enjoyable but forgettable.  
  • Depeche Mode.  I have the album Construction Time Again.  I don’t think I’ve every really listened to it before — it felt like an entirely new experience.  A new and very enjoyable experience.  I really like this album.  I don’t know much about the history of industrial and related movement in electronic music — I understand that there is derision for Depeche Mode in parts of that community.  I’m not sure if they are inovative or derivative, but I like the light electronic/industrial aesthetic.
  • Destroyer.  I’m already a fan, but I recently acquired a copy of City of Daughters, a much older Destroyer album. Listening to it was an adjustment after the very polished Destroyer albums of the last few years — City of Daughters is much more raw, much younger and more quizical.  The poetry is the same in general principle as his later material, but more exposed and even more chaotic.  I don’t like it as much as the later material, but I did enjoy it.  It’s also fun to see where he started and how his ouvre has developed.  
  • The Dukhs.  This is a pop/celtic band which I’ve seen at folk fest once or twice.  We have the album You Daughters & Yous Sons.  For some reason, sometime in the past I wrote them off as boring and derivative celtic-light easy listening music.  I’m glad I went back to this album, since this old mental assessment it quite unfair.  I really liked this album.  It has a neat mix of styles and influences, a great ambience and solid musicianship.  
  • Echo and the Bunnymen.  There has been a series of interesting 80s entries in this project already (Depeche Mode, The Cure), so I guess this is the next.  I listened to the album Ocean Rain.  Even though I was a child in the 80s, I have no personal memories of any of this music.  I’m approaching it all for the first time.  In any case, Ocean Rain is great.  It’s a neat poppy aesthetic with interesting (if sometimes strange or cheesy) lyrical content.  I like it.
  • Elliott Smith.  I have Either/Or, Figure 8 and X/O, the last three of the five albums released during his life.  Of the music on this project, these albums are some of the most familiar to me.  I did listen to them in some depth many years ago.  I put them on the stack, so to speak, since I have few specific memories of the tracks.  Having listened to them again, the reason is obvious: it all blends together smoothly into a single sound and single memory.  I still like it, if I’m in a particular mood, but it is all very similar and uniform.  
  • Elvis Costello.  I listened to his very early album My Aim is True, and really like much of it.  It took a bit to get over the voice: there is a very bright, shrill male pop/rock voice style that I have a hard time with and Elvis comes very close to that voice style.  (Think Van Morrison — I really can’t stand his voice.  I doesn’t make sense, since I like plenty of other strange and somewhat ugly sounding voices, but who can explain aesthetic sense?)  I like the goofiness of the album, and the points in between where it is sincere and moving.   Some of the tracks got old very fast, and I don’t think I’d like the album on repeat for hours, but I’ll fondly remember many of the catchy songs.
  • Eurythmics.  More 80s content, though I didn’t like this as much as much as Echo and the Bunnymen.  (Not that it’s really a reasonable comparison, but whatever).  I listened to Be Yourself Tonight and a Greatests Hits collection and found little that I really enjoyed.  I found it curious, since I quite liked the Ani Lennox solo offering earlier in this project.  Maybe she needed time to mature, maybe the group had other influences, maybe it’s just not my taste.  
  • Feist.  I’m quite familiar with Let It Die and The Reminder.  We purchased Metals when it came out, but I never took to in on first listen and forgot to return to it. Now that I have, I really like the album.  I like how Feist has worked on her particular style — refined and polished it.  I miss the loungy feeling of Let It Die, but the more crisp metallic sounds on the appropriately named Metals is something I could also grow to enjoy.  There’s good stuff here.
  • Franz Ferdinand.  I loved the eponymous album when it first came out a decade or so ago.  Somewhere along the line, I got a copy of You Could Have Had It So Much Better, but (as with other on this list) never gave it much attention at the time.  That’s a shame, since it’s a solid album, nearly on par with their first disc. I really like the two or three quieter tracks and the effect they have on the rocky feeling of most of the music.  For the rest, it’s awesome just like the original Franz Ferdinand album was, for the simply guitar-based catchiness of it all.

The Stack Project – September 2015

See this post for information about the Stack project.  This is another update covering the last two months, consisting of mini-reviews for a bunch of albums.

The Cardigans – I listened to two albums: The First Band on the Moon and Life.  Neither really grabbed me.  There was some nice hooks and pleasant poppy melodic structure, but the lyrics didn’t inspire.  It’s not that they weren’t interesting — I think this band has a curious, quirky lyric style — it’s just that they didn’t draw me into the songs.  In short, I found both albums quite forgettable.

Cat Power – I was very negative on Cat Power after seeing her give a terrible show at the Folk Fest Mainstage some years ago.  I shouldn’t have judged her so harshly.  I listened to The Greatest and You Are Free, and both were excellent.  Marvellous mood, engaging lyrics, insteresting song structures.  I’m all for it.

Cibo Matto – I’ve loved the album Stereo Type A for many years, ever since someone gave me a copy in my late teens or early 20s.  Cibo Matto is excatly the right kind of bizarre and whimsical.  I also have a copy of Viva! La Woman, which I haven’t really listened to until now.  It’s just a strange as expected, being almost entirely composed of songs about food.  I loved it.  White Pepper Ice Cream is the standout track, with bonus points for a mournful and eerie cover The Candy Man Can (a song originally written for the 1971 Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – I knew that their debut eponymous album was a big deal in the indie scene.  Now I understand why.  I’d listened to two tracks previously (Details of the War and Over and Over Again), but never really listened to the whole album.  Now, I think that half of it is on my favourites list.  Really great stuff.   I also listened to their sophomore release Some Loud Thunder.  It has a couple lovely tracks, but doesn’t live up to the debut.  As an aside, the vocalist really does deserve the award for the worst diction in all of popular music.

The Cure – I’ve always known about The Cure without every really knowing their music.  At some point in the past years, I acquired a copy of Disintegration, which was next up for the Stack project.  The album is really great, in a strange synth-driven 80s way.  Even with the 80s snare, which usually drives me crazy, I really liked the sound.  Lyrically, I found it ran the gamut all the way from effortlessly sublime to immaturely saccharine.  More or less what I expected from their reputation.  I should probably listen to some of their other classic albums.

Damien Rice – Ah, Damien Rice.  So ridiculously emotional, overwrought, self-indulgent.  That said, I quite like the album 0, which I’ve listened to frequently in the past.  The pathos is just believable enough to move me, when I’m in a certain mood.  Unfortunately, the album 9 which I listened to for the Stack project was simply terrible.  Just as overdone as 0, but without any of the saving graces.  There is nowhere to hide from the angsty grade-9 lyrics.

Danny Michel – I bought In The Belly of a Whale after seeing Danny Michel at Folk Fest years ago and loved it.  It’s aged a bit poorly, but I still think it’s a good album.  For the Stack project, I listened to a second old acquisition: Tales from the Invisible Man.  It was a lovely listen.  It’s most a pop-rock album, but the songwriting is incredibly solid.  The best track on the first half of the album is the amazing pop anthem We All Fall Down.  I particularly like the voice overdubbing, which strangely works well with his quirky voice.  The second half of the album has a couple nice stylistic variations,  including the amazing use of saxophones on the very traditional miner’s tragedy folk song Thunder in the Mountain.  Good stuff.

Dar Williams – We have a strange non-retail promotional release of a live album version of Out There, which I really love.  I’ve listened to it many times but still tear up every time I hear The Christians and the Pagans.  For the Stack Project, there were two Dar Williams albums previously ignored: My Better Self and The Beauty of the Rain.  The latter I found really quite disappointing, other than the stirring opening track.  My Better Self is much more consistent in quality; I really like the majority of the album.  The opener Teen for God brought back a bunch of my own strange memories of Christian summer camps and managed to capture a great balance of mixed emotions towards the experience.  The cover of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb is also particularly excellent, mostly due to the simplicity of Dar’s treatment of the song.

Dave Matthews Band – I’ve decided that I find DMB boring.  Sorry, all the big DMB fans out there.  Doesn’t do much for me.

David Essig – Somewhere along the way, we acquired the EP titled A Stone in my Pocket.  Other than the track Declaration Day, which I already knew and enjoyed from the album of the same title, there were six new tracks here.  Most were forgettable, but I have to talk about the first track, Walk Back Into Town.  For the first 2.5 minutes of this 4 minute song, you think it’s a simply lovely folk/country love song, giving the account of how a fellow originally bonded with his future wife when their car broke down and they had to walk miles back to town.  However, over halfway through the song, without any warning or change in tone, it suddenly changes into a song about police brutality, where the same character (now a police officer) takes some violent offender to a field out of town and leave him to freeze to death.  (I don’t know if this is mean to be fictional or an account of such incidents which have occurred on the Canadian prairies.)  It’s incredibly dark and depressing.  I feel that David Essig should be fined for abuse of his songwriting privileges; such a setup is simply cruel to the listener.  I was caught totally unaware.  Even now, I believe it is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard.

The Stack Project, July 2015

See this post for information about the Stack project.  This is and update covering the last couple months.

  • Belle & Sebastian: I was already a fan, mostly due to the album `Fold your hands child, you walk like a peasant’ which I borrowed from a friend in 2003 and listened to extensively. My exposure to the rest of the catalogue was limited. I understand this is odd, since most fans look back to `If You’re Feeling Sinister’ as the early masterpiece. I listened to that album, as well as two other early offerings: ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ and ‘Tigermilk’. On each, I adored a number of tracks and found most of the rest to be pleasant filler. I also listened to the (slightly) more recent `Life Pursuit’ and was quite surprised by the change in style. Before looking at the dates, I assume that it was a very early recording and represented a style which the band had abandoned. Instead, it was an experiment with a new sound. All in all, I prefer the older sound. I find that smooth and polished, light vocals and harpsichord, all-things-twee style of Belle & Sebastian adorable.
  • Blue Rodeo: My previous experience with Blue Rodeo is limited to a few popular singles and performances at Folk Fest. The latter was very positive; they are a great live act and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both times I’ve seen them. However, I’ve never really listened to their albums. I started (foolishly perhaps) with a Greatest Hits disc, which was, unsurprisingly, the most familiar. It was alright. I also listed to the classic and popular album `Five Days in July’, which was also alright. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the more recent (still 15 years old, though) `The Days in Between’. There are a number of great songs on this album.
  • The Books: I spent over half of our Europe trip listening to four albums from the strange quasi-electronic band The Books. I am super-impressed. The music is strange, to be sure. Most of the songs are composed of four elements. The first three are relatively conventional: acoustic guitars and other string instruments; softly sung folksy vocals; and acoustic drums (at least they sound acoustic — I have no idea if they are played live or sequenced). The fourth component is samples, mostly of monologue or dialogue from films, speeches, newscasts, and other random old sources. These components are all electronically put together to produce a very unique and enjoyable effect. `The Lemon of Pink’ is the strongest album, followed by ‘Thought for Food’. ‘Music for a French Elevator’ is a truly bizarre collection of short works; in one track, all the samples are off-hand comments from characters in a British mystery/horror film; in another, an old self-help tape is mixed up to comic effect.
  • Bright Eyes: I am very fond of two albums: `I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’ and `Lifted’. For the stack project, I went back and listened to the debut album `Letting Off The Happiness’. In short, I feel that he improved greatly by the time he recorded the later albums. I can see the seeds of future brilliance, but `Letting Off The Happiness’ itself is entirely forgettable.
  • Bruce Springsteen: Bruce Springsteen is great. I mean, I don’t always go for the 80s rock-pop anthems, but Dancing in the Dark is amazing. I know this isn’t news to anyone.  However, I’ve always been familiar with Springsteen by his reputation instead of his music. High time I remedied that problem. I listened to a Greatest Hits CD, which was heavy on the 80s content but still excellent. I also listened to and enjoyed the more recent (comparatively) disc `The Rising’.
  • Calexico: I listened to `The Black Light’ and `Convict Pool.’ This is amazing mood music. I’m not particularly fond of any of the tracks as songs in themselves, but the atmosphere of the whole recording is amazing. It feels like background or soundtrack music, but in the best way possible.

Music Review: Beat the Champ

Beat the Champ is the latest release (April 2015) by The Mountain Goats.

This one is very biased; I am very fond of the Mountain Goats.  That said, there was perhaps a chance for an unfavourable reception due to the subject material.  This is a concept album about professional wrestling.  My interest in professional wrestling is basically zero; in my childhood, I might have thought that André the Giant was cool, but it was entirely due to his depiction of Fezzig.  I liked Aronofsky’s film ‘The Wrestler’, but that hardly counts.  Could The Mountain Goats write an album which nostalgically celebrates and revels in professional wrestling while still appealing to my musical tastes?

Turns out that John Darnielle is more than up to the challenge.  I loved the album, in spite of the ridiculous pro wrestling content.  Maybe sometimes because of said ridiculous content.  I listened to ‘The Legend of Chavo Guerrero’, a tribute to childhood Darnielle’s favourite wrestler, about ten times on repeat.  As all good poetry does, the lyrics transcend their immediate purpose (here describing wrestling scenes) and move on to sublime and transcendent reflections on the human condition.  Chavo Guerrero isn’t just a childhood hero; he’s the contrast with the horrendous stepfather: “You let me down, but Chavo never once did.”  Amid a injust, ambiguous and complicated childhood, Chavo’s victories are moral hooks on which to hang hope: “I need justice in my life; here it comes” into the chorus of “Look high, it’s my last hope // Chavo Guerrero, coming off the top rope.”

This effect continues throughout the disc.  ‘Heel Turn 2’ is about losing ethical integrity in the moral vagaries of general existence as much as it is about playing the villain in the ring:  “You found my breaking point: congratulations // Spent too much of my life now trying to play fair // Throw my better self overboard; shoot him when he comes up for air.” The album culminates in two of the three tracks which explicitly get behind the superficials: ‘Hair Match’, which perfectly captures a deep empathy for the defeated; and ‘Unmasked’, which literally get behinds a persona by removing the mask: “Peeking through the eyeholes // Seeing the real you.”

I have no idea what it is about Darnielle’s poetry than I’m so impressed with.  My appreciations of The Mountain Goats is certainly lyrically driven, though the musical aspects of the songwriting are certainly solid.  Consistently through the ten or so albums I’ve listened to, the poetry always finds a sweet spot.  Even here: I didn’t think a bunch of poems about wrestling would speak to me, but these ones certainly do.

The Stack Project

Several years ago, I was feeling silly about all the books I’d purchased, placed on my shelf, and never read.  One inspired day, I took all unread book off the shelf and made a very large stack beside my bedside table.  I decided that books didn’t go back on the shelf until I’d read them.  The project took me well over a year (might have been two, I don’t quite remember).  Since then, I only shelve books which I’ve read at least once.

I’m not suggesting that reading all your unread books is a universal moral imperative.  I recognize the desire to collect and I know the feeling of endless possibility gained by looking at a shelf of unread books.  However, the stack project worked for me — it made me happy knowing that I didn’t own a bunch of books I’ve never read.

Though the material is hidden inside hard drives and lacks the physical presence of a bookshelf, the same general problem exists for my music.  I had many albums which I’ve owned for years but I’ve never listened to.    I decided this winter that the music collection deserves its own stack project.  I’ve made a list of all the albums I’ve never listened to (or listened to very briefly such that I had basically no memory of them).  I’ll be working my way through this list over the next year (perhaps more — it’s a long list).

As silly and obvious as it is, a major help in this project is my (relatively) new iPhone.  I’ve owned portable music devices before, but I’ve never been in the habit of carrying them around and using them with any frequency.  I do this with the phone.  Moreover, our livingroom stereo system goes through the computer.  If Steph is on the computer, that means no stereo in the main room.  Previously that would mean not listening to music; now, I just listen through the iPhone.

I purchased a decent pair of headphone as well.  Again, remarkably obvious, but good headphones improve my music experience.  Listening to old favourites, I’ve found details and subtleties I’ve never noticed.

I’m working through the stack alphabetically (by first name, even, mostly because I’m using iTunes and some of its organizational decisions are ridiculous).  Sticking with this arbitrary pre-imposed order seemed easiest, and I have no strong preference about how I make progress.  I’m in the middles of the B’s so far.  I hope to write some substantial reviews as I go along, but here are some notes so far:

  • Alasdair Roberts’s “The Crook of My Arm” seemed odd on first listen, but grew on me quickly.  He has a lovely, mellow style for interpreting old British folk-songs.
  • Ani DiFranco is mostly amazing, with the odd miss for me.  “Not a Pretty Girl” is a great album, but “Evolve” left me disappointed. I don’t really have any of her material from the last decade, but I may purchase some.
  • The Arcade Fire is actually as good as everyone says, at least judging from their first two albums.  I think I prefer Neon Bible to Funeral, though that might be heresy.  I’m informed that their other two albums are also amazing; I will likely acquire them.
  • Basia Bulat is amazing!  We only have one album: “Heart of my Own”, but it has been my favourite of the stack project so far.  I remember getting it three or four years ago and being unimpressed after once through.  I never went back to it.  How foolish I was!  It’s a lovely album, and I hope to buy more of hers.
  • After being a huge Björk fan up to Vespertine, I lost track of her material starting with Medulla.  That’s four albums to catch up on: Medulla, Volta, Biophilia and Vulnicura.  I listened to these before I started the stack project.  (Mostly likely, going back to these albums was the inspiration for the project in the first place).  There is some amazing material here.  Volta is the most forgettable, though it has a couple nice tracks.  Medulla and Biophilia are excellent, with multiple sublime and transcendent tracks.  Vulnicura has quickly become one of my favourite albums in any category.

It’s been a month of two of the project, and as I said, I’m halfway through the B’s; there is a lot left to consider.  I hope to be posting updates as I go along.