Despite the return of Lightning Bolt (with the most anticlimactic release of the year), another Super Roots EP from Boredoms, the masterful drones of Sunn 0))), and the continued prolificacy of Merzbow, 2009 was all about accessibility, even in the so-called “indie” scene. That’s why Bitte Orca is considered to be the greatest album thus far by Dirty Projectors, even though it only slightly edges out 2007’s Rise Above, and why Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion is considered to be the Brooklyn band’s finest hour. Conversely, it’s the reason why Black Dice’s Repo and No Age’s Losing Feeling EP failed to attract any significant attention- both were fairly noisy efforts, with Black Dice failing to make the Animal Collective transition from epic free noise explorations to bouncy electronic pop, and No Age slightly backing off from the indelible melodies of 2008’s Nouns. And if 2009 was all about accessibility, then Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is without a doubt the album of the year. Despite the French band’s dedication to snappy and instantly catchy pop songs (the 2000 single “If I Ever Feel Better” still ranks among their best songs), their albums have always contained either embarrassingly 80’s pastiche tracks (On Fire from 2000’s United), anemic and hookless soft rock songs (roughly half of Alphabetical), or overlong instrumentals (“North” from It’s Never Been Like That). What this means is that while Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective made their most accessible albums to date by cutting back on their intriguingly experimental tendencies, Phoenix were able to make their most accessible album to date by simply cutting out the lesser tracks. The two aforementioned bands stepped down; Phoenix stepped up. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is short- less than 40 minutes long- and does not contain a single track that’s less than addictive. From the quick rip of “Lasso” to the extended jam of “Love Like A Sunset,” Phoenix cover a fair bit of ground, but keep it punchy enough to never sound desperate. All hail the French.
Archive for Phoenix
Today, I legally downloaded the first single, Boy 1904, from Sigur Ròs frontman Jónsi Birgisson’s side project with his lover Alex Somers, listened to it, and found the absolute nadir of ambient music.
It’s easy to see why people like Sigur Ròs; it’s absurdly beautiful music that’s also essentially meaningless. The lyrics are sung in a nonsense language made up by Birgisson, meaning uptight parents don’t have to worry about the band spreading any messages dealing with Satan, vegetarianism, or gay lifestyles, no one has to worry about getting the words wrong (it’s all phonetic anyway), and no one has to bother looking for any artistic message whatsoever. The good thing is that this it’s pure pleasure music, and thus pretty listenable. Boy 1904 is listenable too. But what makes it so much worse than Sigur Ròs is that it’s pretty much the same thing they always do; anthemic melody stretched out and slowed down, but never to mind-boggling lengths. The Ramones had more complexity than this. There are no layers to this music; repeated listening doesn’t reveal anything at all.
What strikes me most about it is how it’s even more meaningless than the usual stuff from the group; it features a recording of the last castrato singer, which doesn’t add anything to the song (Jónsi sounds like his balls were cut off anyway), the title doesn’t even pretend to be something in Icelandic, and worst of all, it’s treated to sound like some old record. The song wants the air of something antiquated and epic, but it just rings false. The album, Riceboy Sleeps should be more of the same.
Right after that song finished, my iTunes library switched to “If I Ever Feel Better” by Phoenix, which has pretty fluffy lyrics and might be just as meaningless. But it’s infinitely better than Boy 1904, simply because it has a beat.
AIR has a new song out too, from their upcoming album Love 2; like Boy 1904, it follows the same pattern, but it’s a hell of a lot more successful, simply because AIR is more fun to listen to than Sigur Ròs. Do The Love even indulges in B-movie synths and the cheesiest vocoding effects these Frenchmen have used yet. It’s an immensely enjoyable and lightweight track.
In the last month or so, there have been a flurry of releases that attract lots of attention, be it because the band is famous (Wilco, Sonic Youth), the band and/or record is really, really good (Phoenix, Dirty Projectors), or because the band is really good and Pitchfork gave one of its songs a 10 (Grizzly Bear). With all of this stuff getting released at once, you may be forgiven for not knowing which ones to pick up/which one should be first in your downloads queue. Thus, here’s a helpful consumer guide for the age where Robert Christgau gives everything an A-.
Wilco: Wilco (The Album): Jeff Tweedy (The Increasingly Boring Frontman) and co. serve up another scoop of vanilla songwriting, complete with cutesy lyrics (I’d like to believe that “Wilco will love you baby” has some level of irony to it) and the lack of a production job by Jim O’Rourke (The Guy Who Saved Wilco AND Sonic Youth). In addition, the death of Jay Bennett (The Foil) probably means Wilco (The Horrible Band) will only get worse.
Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca: The only reason it took Dirty Projectors this long to make an album this good is because their frontman Dave Longstreth insisted on doing things like covering Black Flag’s Damaged from memory and being diverse in an ADD kind of way. Now he’s past all that, and guess what? Bitte Orca’s great.
Sonic Youth: The Eternal: Actually, there are several good things about this album.
1) The length of the album is not in fact eternal, though sometimes it feels like it.
2) If you’ve ever gotten depressed by listening to a Sonic Youth album because you think you and your band could never do something as great as this, this album should be a good pick me up.
3) If you’ve ever felt bad about thinking Kim Gordon is sexy, this album should be a good cure.
4) Like… cool album art, dude.
Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix: Finally, forty plus years after the Beatles and the Beach Boys, the world produced a pop band that it’s 100% cool for everyone, from hopelessly square teenage girls to tragically hip Pitchfork bitches to enjoy. So, yeah; it’s a really fricking good album.
Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest: Whenever I can’t decide whether or not I should do something, like tell you to buy Grizzly Bear’s latest album, I make a list of pros and cons. And so…
Pros: Beautiful production, some great songs, New York band, guys in said band seem nice enough.
Cons: Not quite as good as their last record, silly cover art.
So the pros barely win out. But, the cons are pretty slight. Buy it.