There were only a handful of articles worth perusing this week, but be sure to read this piece by legendary Rush drummer Neil Peart for TeamRock. The piece is a response to a compliment from Queens of the Stone Age/The Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore for one of Peart’s solos, and Neil explains the narrative behind the solo. It is fascinating to see the amount of effort and backstory that went into its creation, and also shows that indeed there is some “craft” to drumming.
Alternative Nation had another interesting piece with this interview with ESPN sportscaster Kenny Mayne in which he discusses his relationship with Pearl Jam, and includes some great anecdotes about seeing the group’s famous Benaroya and Wrigley Field shows, among others.
Finally, a couple of anniversary pieces from Stereogum, though you may want to skip over them. First, there’s a tenth-anniversary retrospective of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self-titled debut, which is used as an excuse to bash on the concept of “blog rock” and take some undeserved shots at the group. The twentieth-anniversary appreciation of Blur’s The Great Escape is a bit better, though it is not one of the band’s best works. However, it does have the appropriate appreciation for “The Universal”, which is easily one of the greatest songs that Blur ever recorded.
New music, new videos, and other time-wasters to kick off your week…
Fans of Aphex Twin should be thrilled with the massive amount of free music that he released today. There is a zip file with over 2 GBs worth of music available for download, as well as a YouTube playlist of over 200 songs, though the amount of overlap between the two has yet to be determined. We had seen evidence before that Richard James was hard at work in all those years between releases, but it is great to finally hear more of the results.
Courtney Barnett is an artist that has been receiving a huge amount of buzz lately, especially after her recent appearances at SXSW. We have been rather skeptical of the praise so far (our reaction to her recent single that has begun to get radio airplay is that it sounds like “Molly’s Chambers” with a female version of Mark E. Smith yelling over the top), but we have to admit that we enjoy the fun video that was created for “Dead Fox” that was released today.
And finally, have fun with a variety of useless lists this week. The most ambitious is SPIN’s 300 Best Albums of the Past 30 Years, which if anything is at least diverse, and at least makes an attempt in a lot of cases to avoid merely following along with consensus opinion. Diffuser provides a handy list of 19 Influential Grunge Musicians that they claim “you’ve never heard of,” but whatever the accuracy is of the second part of their claim, it serves as a handy guide for diving into the Seattle scene beyond the Big Four. Then there is NME’s contribution, a list of the original titles for famous albums, which has more than a few mildly amusing anecdotes.
Rust Is Just Right is not a very large operation, so we may overlook some albums when they are first released. However, when we eventually catch up and listen to some of these records, we are not going to let the fact that we are ten months behind stop us from writing a review. The point of all this introductory nonsense is to explain why we are reviewing the debut album from Ought in February of 2015 even though it was released in April of 2014, but the only necessary reason should be that More Than Any Other Day is a fantastic rock record that electrifies the listener with both its furious energy and its thought-provoking experimentalism.
The quickest description that I could use to describe Ought’s sound is “Alec Ounsworth fronting a Fugazi-inspired punk band”, but as you should expect, relying on the reductionist rock-crit namedrop cliche does not paint a full picture. Tim Beeler’s vocals do mostly recall Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but that doesn’t cover the spectrum of emotions and contortions that his voice undergoes to match the twists and turns of the music. For instance, Beeler’s use of dynamics in songs like “Clarity!” bring to mind the theatrics of the Violent Femmes, and that dramatic touch helps create a memorable, slow-burning epic. He may not have the the most extensive vocal range, but his speak-sing style is effectively used in a song like “Around Again”, as when the band stops and Beeler asks “Why is it you can’t stare into the sun but you can stick your head into a bucket of water and breathe in deep?”
Musically speaking, Ought blurs the line between punk and post-punk, and in the process does an excellent job of making the lives of critics that much more difficult–in other words, it is not as easy to define the distinction as it is with, say, Viet Cong. Ought often does engage in the full-fledged fury of a more traditional punk band, but they still allow room for experimental sonic elements that makes it hard to pin down to a single genre. Consider the catchy and frenetic “The Weather Song”, which veers from a jittery verse into frenzied finish that is reminiscent of Wolf Parade (especially with the unusual presence of keyboards), as well as “Forgiveness”, whose use of a violin as a drone adds in a touch of the Velvet Underground to the band’s sound. I am unsure what is more impressive: the fact that from song to song, it is almost impossible to pin down where Ought will go next, yet the band switches gears in a way that doesn’t give the listener whiplash, or the fact that despite the fact one can spot all these diverse influences rather easily, the band organically incorporates these elements into their sound so well that one cannot pin the “copycat” label on them.
Though only eight songs long, More Than Any Other Day is a dense but rewarding album that reveals itself on multiple listens. Initially, the most striking element of “Today, More Than Any Other Day” is probably its dramatic tempo and stylistic shifts. Then you may notice the odd lines of “I am excited to go grocery shopping. And today, more than any other day, I am prepared to make the decision between 2% and whole milk” that is referenced in many reviews, but you go back and see that it’s not merely a non sequitur but in fact a riff on the previous line that “I am excited to feel the Milk of Human Kindness”, either an allusion to Macbeth or the Caribou album, and now you have to reconsider how all these elements fit together. The good news is that the album is so great that it is worth the extra effort.
Every year there is a band that inexplicably rockets out from the depths of obscurity and ends up on all the year-end lists after riding months of breathless critics’ praise. Though the music industry is now so fractured that these groups often don’t push themselves into the mainstream, they still become an annoyance to people like the people who run this site who devote time and energy to seeking out new music. It may be a matter of only switching the station the four times the band is actually played on the radio, but there still is an irritation when you see the countless plaudits for a group that could best be called “boring”. This year, that group is Future Islands.
We alluded a bit to our issues with the band in our review of Spoon’s show last week at the Crystal Ballroom where Future Islands was one of two openers, but we let our criticisms remain vague so as not to consume too much time railing against a weaker part of the night in favor of letting Spoon’s fantastic performance remain the focus of the review. Our problems with the band began not with their performance on Wednesday, but way back in the spring when their performance on Letterman had a lot of music journalists and fans buzzing all over social media. Being the diligent researchers and devotees of music that we are, we checked out their performance of “Seasons (Waiting On You)” and were left utterly perplexed how a combination of a boring bassline, a basic disco beat, thin synths, and a comical vocal performance punctuated by comically theatrical dance moves could result in such universal praise. We checked out a few more songs from their album Singles on YouTube, and were left realizing that this same combination was present in all songs. We remained nonplussed by all the adulation.
Now, we would like to stress that our criticism is not meant to take away from anyone who genuinely enjoys the music of Future Islands–life is too short to rip on what other people enjoy. Our problem is with those who spend countless words trying to convince others that the band is “good” when it is nearly impossible to find something to truly recommend about their sound. My first reaction to the band’s style was we don’t need a post-ironic take on Roxy Music’s “More Than This”, we’re just fine with the original thank you very much. The band’s goal seems to take all of the artificial sheen that marked the worst of music from the 80’s, lay it over a never-deviating disco beat, take out all semblance of hooks or a worthwhile melody, and toss it behind a frontman with all the charisma of a guy who believes that karaoke on a Thursday night at the local dive bar is the highlight of anyone’s week. It adds up to a package that I don’t know whether to take seriously or mock, and I’m not sure if the band or critics know which one is the correct approach.
Though I occasionally tried over the next few months to give them multiple shots, I still had the same nagging criticisms each time. However, I still approached their opening set for Spoon with an opening mind; several journalists had raved about their live performance, and it felt like it would be unfair to the band to write them off without seeing them at their full potential. Instead, the show confirmed all my suspicions of the band’s talent, and then some.
Each song brought up the same pattern: a basic disco beat, basslines that went nowhere, and synths that were so airy that they forgot to provide chord structures or even suggestions of melody. Each song bled into the other, the formula never wavering. In one of those year-end reviews someone compared the bass to Peter Hook’s work with Joy Division, and I would hope Peter read that and got on a plane and smacked this critic in the face–it’s an insult to compare Hook’s innovative melodic and rhythmic contributions that were integral parts to the brilliance of Joy Division’s music to this guy plugging away at root notes at an eighth-note clip. People were looking to dance and get moving, but when it’s the same oom-cha straight beat for forty minutes it gets a little dull; it wouldn’t kill whatever it is that you’re going for to throw in a variation every couple of measures, pal. As for the keyboards, it’s hard to come up with a better suggestion than just “do something.”
The vocal performance, which most devotees point to as the band’s strength, was its own sort of awful. I can love and respect artist who put all their energy into delivering a show, but everything about Sam Herring’s actions made the entire affair seem like a “performance.” There was no semblance of genuine human emotion coming through in any of his vocals or dance moves, and every movement and inflection came across as painfully rehearsed. That is to say nothing about the deliberately weird affectations like the attempt at a human phaser effect by dipping into the lower register to deliver Cookie Monster-style vocals for an odd phrase here or there. It was unclear what the point of the entire enterprise was. I’d rather see Milosh the fresh-off-the-boat Eastern European immigrant deliver a passionate-but-fractured take on Styx’s “Come Sail Away.”
There was one moment in the show last week that proved the sheer disparity in talent between Future Islands and their fellow denizens of the Best Of lists, and that was when Spoon kicked into their hit “I Turn My Camera On.” Spoon was able to effortlessly switch gears, and the rigid stomp-funk of “Camera” not only got the audience dancing but was a seamless part of their set. The song has never felt like a genre exercise for Spoon (or a shameless stab at popular relevance), but a natural part of the band’s catalog, no matter how superficially different it may seem. Contrast that with Future Islands, who spent their entire set trying to cultivate a similar style, and not conveying a genuine emotion for a single second, or even a competent dance beat.
What may be most distressing is that one can easily see how in three years that Future Islands will go from critic’s darling to a passe joke. The most apt comparison may be Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but as we have argued elsewhere on this site, even at their most seemingly simplistic there was genuine artistic merit to what CYHSY produced. At the very minimum, they at least knew how to provide variation to their basic drum beat.
Things had changed a bit since the last time Clap Your Hands Say Yeah visited Portland on an official tour–the band’s lineup had changed significantly, with only frontman Alec Ounsworth and drummer Sean Greenhalgh remaining from the original version. The show also moved to the more intimate confines of Mississippi Studios, a shift from the larger (but grimier) Hawthorne Theatre. Despite these changes, the venue was still packed with the faithfully devoted, and the band delivered with a live performance itself that was as good as ever.
The novice fan would probably be surprised to learn that the guys helping out on bass/synth and guitars/keyboards were new to the group, because the band as a unit was as tight as it’s ever been. The band seamlessly moved between material from throughout their catalog; when listening to their records, each release is distinct from one another, but when performed live a common thread is more readily apparent (beyond the obvious connection of Alec’s distinctive voice). It made for a cohesive show that kept the crowd consistently engaged, even if some of the most excited reactions were reserved for the early stuff.
Just barely able to get the whole thing to fit.
The setlist emphasized both new material from their just-released album Only Run and their much-beloved self-titled debut, whose highlights like “In This Home On Ice”, “The Skin of My Country Yellow Teeth”, and “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood” inspiring both raucous cheers from the crowd and a lot more dancing than per usual for a Portland show. Though the band only played a couple of songs off of Some Loud Thunder and Hysterical, their inclusions in the set fit perfectly, with “Satan Said Dance” and “Ketamine + Ecstasy” causing the entire crowd to make the show a dance party. However, the biggest surprise of the night was a totally re-worked version of “Some Loud Thunder”, which tossed out the jagged, heavily-distorted rock for the more bedroom-pop style of Only Run, with only the lyrics cluing in the audience as to what they were hearing (though considering how unclear they were in the original, it was a tough task in and of itself). Though I’m a fan of the original, the new version was probably worth the price of admission on its own.
Keeping the Mississippi Studios crowd entertained.
The crowd was in a good mood, having enjoyed a bit of fun with the opener Adventurous Sleeping, a solo project of John Bowers from Nurses, though due to a miscommunication early in his set he was referred to as “Gron” for the rest of the evening. We’ve been seeing a lot of solo acts relying on loops in recent years, but Gron kept it interesting with unusual melodies over spacey beats that intrigued and captivated the audience, and at the very least kept people in the room. It was very much in line with the material from Only Run, so there was a nice connection between the opener and the main set.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s albums themselves don’t immediately stand out as “must-see” live material, but I can say with confidence after seeing multiple shows over the years that the band consistently puts on a great show. Songs that sound sparse or twee on record get an additional heft when played in a live setting, and the sparseness actually becomes a benefit because each distinct part is easier to appreciate, and you don’t have to worry about different instruments bleeding into each other. The group also keeps the show light with a nice touch of self-deprecating humor, and it seems that they’re still genuinely appreciative of the fans that have kept following them over the years. Let’s hope that devoted following remains strong.
The story of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is one we’ve seen countless times before, and just as unfair as with many other cases–band debuts with huge buzz and overnight success, becoming a shorthand for the Hot New Thing, difficult followup alienates the tastemakers and the band’s profile begins to dwindle, band now exists in shadow of former glory and is now shorthand for “hey, weren’t we crazy back in [insert year]?” Granted, since we’re talking about indie rock bands in the new millennium, the full scale of their trajectory is of a much smaller scale than previous decades, but it’s a familiar pattern nonetheless. Even we here at Rust Is Just Right, fans of the band that we are, have added insult to injury by letting their most recent release pass by without much comment, letting it get lost amid a sea of other stellar releases that week.
However, since the newest iteration of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is set to play Portland this Sunday, now is the perfect time to correct our previous omission and attempt to put the band’s career in context, and also to help give the band a needed reassessment.
The story of the unexpected success of the band’s debut is still remembered today, as the band was able to sell over a hundred thousand copies of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah even without the benefit of record label support, based purely on the power of word-of-mouth and shares through music blogs. The album eventually made its way into the hands of various critics, and with a helpful push particularly from Pitchfork, the band became indie darlings and were selling out big halls while at the same time individually mailing out copies of their record. To give you an idea of their success at the time, the opener on their tour was The National, who were supporting their just-released classic Alligator. Today, it’s a different story, as The National can headline festivals while CYHSY plugs away at tiny clubs, but there’s no hard feelings–Matt Berninger does a guest vocal spot on the band’s new album.
While the story remains compelling, many might be surprised that the actual music still holds up years later. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah didn’t exactly spawn a legion of odd-voiced, delicate indie-dance rock imitators, so their unique sound stands out even today. The sparse arrangements serve the songs well, and the melodies remain strong and filled with hooks. If I hear “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood” or “In This Home On Ice” pop up on my iTunes, I can still sing along with ease.
It was with their next album, Some Loud Thunder, that the band began to lose support; you can probably pinpoint the exact moment, which is when the heavily-distorted title track opens the album. I believe that initial impression turned off most people, as many probably reached for their album once it started playing and asked “Did I get a warped copy?” However, I personally eventually found some charm to that abrasive opening, and admired the ballsiness of the band’s maneuver to dare people who were merely hoping to catch the tail end of a trend to keep listening. The opening lines are also a brilliant response to the incredible hype that the band had received: “All this talking, you’d think I’d have something to say, but I’m just talking.” There was no hidden agenda; the guys were just interested in making music.
The album also features a couple of the group’s best singles, the twisted-but-goofy “Satan Said Dance” and the dramatic “Yankee Go Home”, but they failed to gain traction outside of a devoted fanbase. Otherwise, the album was filled with dreamy textures and various sound experiments, which work well if one is committed to listening to the album but can present problems for the casual listener. But when you strip away all the extra layers, there are still beautiful songs below the surface. For example, here’s a gorgeous if haunting solo acoustic performance of “Underwater (You and Me)”.
After the intentionally confrontational Some Loud Thunder, the band regrouped with the bouncy and fun Hysterical, trading experimental rock for more keyboards and a dance beat. It’s certainly an enjoyable record, and one that works extremely well live, though only a handful songs leave any sort of lasting impression. “Same Mistake” is an energetic rave-up, and “Adam’s Plane” is a nice dramatic ballad that builds to an epic finish, but in between those two songs the album merely seems to float from one track to the next.
Even with a pivot toward more crowd-pleasing material, the band’s audience continued to shrink. During the Some Loud Thunder tour, they sold out the Roseland Theater, one of the biggest venues in Portland; for the Hysterical tour, they downgraded significantly to the Hawthorne Theatre. Despite this, the band’s performance actually improved, as the smaller size of the venues seemed to be a more comfortable fit. The band was also helped by the fact that the people who showed up to see them were actual devoted fans, who had a great time providing an energetic response to the material and dancing along to the music, and yelling out the lyrics as needed.
After a few years off, the band returns in a radically different form, existing in recording form as basically a duo. Alec Ounsworth and his distinctive voice remain as he tackles most of the guitars and keyboards as well, with some help from drummer Sean Greenhalgh. The result is a careful, more subdued record that falls more in line with recent bedroom-pop-like efforts, and one can sense an element of restraint throughout the album. The result is an unusual combination of an air of calm mixed with a bit of unease, as the sounds themselves are soothing but they’re seemingly pushing against an unseen force to prevent a full explosion of emotion. Keyboards are a more dominant presence on the album, with single-note guitar lines cutting through to provide some edge and movement at particular moments, such as in the single “As Always” (embedded above) or to propel the momentum forward, as in “Coming Down”.
Overall, it’s an intriguing step forward for the band, and one that shows that while the band may be content to have a lower profile, the important thing is that they are still committed to releasing new music. Looking back, it was clear that the “living room” tour that the band did a few months prior to the release of Only Run was an indication of this new direction, and perhaps a sign of things to come. The band has shifted to an even smaller venue this time as it passes through Portland, as they perform within the intimate confines of Mississippi Studios. But if previous events are any indication, it will be an even better experience.
Our primary goal here at Rust Is Just Right is to spread the love of good music, generally through a careful and informed examination of precisely what makes certain music “good”. We like to think we’ve done a fairly good job of this, through detailed album and live reviews as well as features like “Feats of Strength”. But even with our best efforts, we haven’t been able to share all the great music we’ve heard so far this year. So, we’re going to put a twist on a standard practice of most other music publications: instead of posting a Best of the Year (So Far) list, we’re going to list albums that we love but for some reason or another haven’t given the proper attention.
Albums from bands that deserve more recognition, but this wasn’t the one that would put them over the top:
Tokyo Police Club – Forcefield
We Are Scientists – TV en Francais
Album from a band that we didn’t really appreciate before, but really liked their new stuff
Wye Oak – Shriek
Great album from a band where we know the drummer
Slow Bird – Chrysalis
Great Hip-Hop albums we love, but we really suck at writing about Hip-Hop
Atmosphere – Southsiders
The Roots – …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
Great Heavy Metal album we love, but we really suck at writing about Heavy Metal
Mastodon – Once More ‘Round the Sun
Album that we meant to review as part of a larger feature, but haven’t yet
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Only Run
Album that is so great that we’re kicking ourselves for not writing about it sooner
Chris Cornell gave a quick interview to Rolling Stone talking about looking back to the days of Superunknown. The best part of the interview was the discussion about his interactions with Artis the Spoonman, giving new insight into their relationship.
Finally, I think that I need to inform our audience that a banjo cover of Slayer’s “Raining Blood” exists. And it’s not bad.
We’ve got a lot of fun videos and other distractions for your pre-Memorial Day week, so let’s get going.
First, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah released an intense and haunting video for their new single “As Always”. The song is an interesting change in direction for the band, with spare guitar melodies filtering in and out of a spectral synth track, and propelled by a galloping drum track that stutters a bit with its inventive use of ghost notes.
Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, and even more groups) released his solo debut Everyday Robots a few weeks back, and while we’re still processing the spare and melancholic nature of the album, that hasn’t stopped Damon from releasing a video for one of the more upbeat tracks on the album. He released a video for “Mr Tembo”, a song about an orphaned baby elephant he met in Tanzania, and the video features clips of the little guy in action. I think this is one of the few times I would prefer less footage of the musicians, just so we can get more baby elephant scenes.
AllMusic conducted an interview with The Dandy Warhols, where they do the usual thing of talking about influences and songwriting goals, which actually are rather revealing when you consider the trajectory of their career. In addition, they have the premiere of the lyric video for their classic “Bohemian Like You”. It’s actually the version from their recent release Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia Live at the Wonder, and features some goofy animation. So, there’s that.
SPIN has an article talking about the first public performance of the reunited Slowdive and includes some video footage from the secret gig. It’s great to see the band together again, though expectations should be tempered a bit considering the (understandably) low quality of the footage.
We’ve got a lot of new music to news that you need to be familiar with, or you’ll be completely lost at the water cooler this week. And nobody wants to endure that potential fate, so we’re here with the links.
Probably the biggest news of the week first broke on Friday, when The Black Keys employed some unusual means of announcing to the world that they’re about to release a new album. The initial tweet came courtesy of Mike Tyson, but the bizarre video that accompanies the tweet did not include him (unless that is one fantastic makeup job). The Black Keys then held up their end of the deal, releasing the track “Fever” today, in advance of the May 13 release of Turn Blue. The single sees The Black Keys further evolving their sound, away from their ragged blues to a more dirty funk/soul sound that was found on the album tracks of Brothers and El Camino. Old school fans may be alarmed at first, but I hope they succumb to the groove.
The other big news today was the long-awaited announcement that the Pixies are finally releasing a new album. Pitchfork has a lot of the details of the upcoming release of Indie Cindy, but a lot of the songs should be familiar to Pixies fans, since it includes the songs from their recent EPs (with EP-3 being released today). There are a lot of special editions of the album coming out, including a double-disc edition which features a hardcover book and a compilation of live tracks from their recent US tour (with bassist Paz Lenchantin).
We’ve mentioned our previous love of Cults before on this site, so it’s no surprise we’re going to put you in the direction of this video interview that the band did with Salon. It’s great to get a little insight into their development as a group over the last few years, thanks to a few good questions.
Finally, we don’t want to end on a bum note, so here’s a video of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah performing on their recent “living room tour” at their stop in Portland. No, I wasn’t one of the lucky few that got a chance to see it, but it looks like I missed out on something pretty special. Here’s a performance of “Underwater (You and Me)” from the criminally underrated Some Loud Thunder.