samedi 16 juillet 2011

Sufjan Stevens - Come On Feel The Illinoise or "How to make the state of Illinois fascinating"

In our actual world, the rushed and assisted men whom brain is as fast as a jellyfish are surrounding us and it’s hard to escape. The Empire’s multi-nationals have for only goal to depreciate and enslave us by soften our brain with lukewarm and tasteless soups… Actually, I’m a bit harsh because, to be honest, they hide the piss aftertaste of their crap with less and less care. You just have to look at today’s menu to understand they definitely take us for dumbass with an atrophied pallet: veal à la Gaga or Britney’s steak, so no need to tell you that, according to me, junk food doesn’t just applied to physical food.

Today, I have chosen to talk about one of the finest intellectual and musical food of the decade. I had already mentioned Sufjan Stevens a couple of times in my ravings and it was time for me to take it seriously. To do so, I have no other choice than going against the current of our actual high speed culture and take my time as it has been done to conceive such a masterpiece. Indeed, that’s what this Come on Feel The Illinoise is. The first thing you need to know is that record is a concept album since all the songs are about the same theme. With the title, it’s easy to understand that we are going to talk about the state of Illinois, through songs talking about its cities, people or stories taking place in the northern America.

The second thing you need to know here is that Stevens locked himself in his apartment for long months and polished his work almost exclusively alone. He plays almost all the instruments and he’s the producer of the entire record. Finally, you must know that what we are ready to listen has nothing in common with all the known music and that we have here someone who understood that, even at our time, to make a step forward, you must take your time…

A piano, far away, sounds and starts the record. Weird flutes gather it, then the song begins and Stevens’ voice is harmonized by a choir giving the tune some extent. The theme is well led, soft and steady with magnificent sounds reminding me of some movie theme. The following track is surprising and tells us more about the epic we just started. With its choir and weird winds, The Black Hawk War, Or How To Demolish An Entire Civilization And Still Feel Good About Yourself is as unusual as its title. We have once again the feeling of being told a story and that it is more than just a simple theme. The snares slap together with the drums, trumpets resonate and we are thrown in the middle of an epic and conqueror theme altogether deeply critic and ironic. It’s fresh, colorful, surprising and yet familiar and we will find these impressions all along the record.

The title track of the album starts with a syncopated bass line made by the piano. Then again, the brass and drums get in together and mix oddly but efficiently. The song starts once the brass’ tumult calmed down and the song is launched. Here again, that’s an amazing tale that is told to us, a journey through Chicago, Illinois and its cities. We will this way go through the whole state in this bright album. The arrangements of this track are endlessly deep and the melodic wealth is limitless too. We have the feeling to hurtle down a road full speed and see the landscapes scroll, smell the freshly fallen rain and never stop. The frenetic rhythm and the concatenation of the bridges are as many different landscapes scrolling in front of us. The track quiets down slowly then to end up in a magnificent and warm strings arrangement. After a long journey, we get back home. Some guitar arpeggios keep a warmth quickly hinted by the cold and far piano introducing this John Wayne Gracy Jr. We are being told the sad story of a man apparently normal and nice who ended serial killer. This story is even sadder when you know it’s a true story. Indeed, the album is some kind of tribute to the Illinois state as we’ve told it before. This tribute is paid through historical tale as well as some dull and yet true stories like that, with a surprising look over the situation since we would almost pity this John Wayne serial killer (not the fat alcoholic cowboy). The sad and beautiful music increases this impression together with Steven’s conclusion explaining, in the end, him and us aren’t very different from this John Wayne Gracy Jr.

The violins of Jacksonville come to add a bit of joy and bring back the cities of yesterday’s the bright light on the dusky truth of the previous song. The strings hold a note suspending before they start a descending theme and are relayed by the piano taking care of the bass line, then the drums and the others instruments mixing to the whole. The song is launched, once again on the weirdest syncopated rhythm and yet it’s very efficient. The number of instruments and voices each following a different melodic line is unbelievable. However, the whole is well ventilated and very agreeable. We are carried by this unusual rhythm, these various breaks and this melodic wealth and endless arrangements again. The track calms down but doesn’t really end and we get directly on the next musical interlude. The violins of A Short Reprise For Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons vibrate and remain on the same tensed chord, building some kind of outro to the previous Jacksonville, like one last look over the city we just left and on the ending act.

The countdown made by Stevens starts the next part of this Illinoise and Decatur, or Round Of Applause For Your Step Mother! We start on shifted rhythmic almost reggae held by a banjo and an accordion. The 2 voices start the song together and won’t leave each other. Some other voices will quietly join in before we get to the chorus. We still have this pretty weird background sound made by the accordion and the voices supported by the banjo. The track ends in an extended cheering on the next interlude (One Last Whoo-hoo! For The Pullman) before we hear the bells ring, cold and bright, introducing the most famous city of Illinois, the mythical Chicago.  Then the violins introduce the drums along with the bass and guitars before everything calms down again, for we arrived in THE city. Stevens’ voice is supported by a simple Rhodes rhythmic. The violins appear quite often usually announcing the entering of a new instrument or the coming chorus, stimulating, a slap like a a dip in clear and fresh water. Here again, the arrangements are pretty complex and wonderfully orchestrated. We have a true energy coming out of it while having a nice and clear sound. We are immersed in the dementia of the big cities and in this tireless rhythm, grueling but that gives us in the end, the feeling of being truly alive… After a few notes made by the trumpets, we are once again out of the city and its dazzling lights. One last look back with the voices fading away little by little and we are already far from this magnificent yet terrible Chicago. 

We get back to the quiet with “Casimir Pulaski Day”, a simple and beautiful ballad made with the guitar that allows us to breathe after the oppressive city. The voices are beautifully harmonized and it’s hard to remain unmoved by the voice of Stevens. This track is a true fresh air breath despite the words’ weight. The trumpet appears in the middle of the song as if to warn us about what we should expect at the end of the track. Even if we are on a quite simple ballad, Sufjan Stevens always like to spice things a bit, and slowly, the song gets more intense with the addition of new instruments little by little. Everything is wonderfully nuanced. A break is done by the voices then mixed to the trumpet and rhythmic. Little by little, voices and instruments are added for this calm riot which ends this magnificent ballad.

The piano comes back in along with guitars and different sorts of drums. The trumpets come and join them for the sad “To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament”, which is a new interlude here to better announce us “The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Heart” which starts fast. We have a drum rhythmic that marks the tempo strengthened by the guitar that literally hammers it. Then the saturated guitars get in and bring something new compared to what we’ve had so far before everything calms down again with the acoustic guitar and the winds. The song starts on these quiet arrangements to which voices and brass come to blend in for the chorus. We are far from the agitation of the beginning. However, for the second chorus, the frenetic and saturated guitars come back to which are added some brilliant choirs for an invigorating mix that will then set place to the verse and the quieter arrangements again. This song is completely crazy and it is even more since it’s taken seriously. We have something big with this album. Sufjan Stevens shows he has nothing of a funny man and that he does pretty much whatever he likes with the rules and musical conventions. He mixes everything, shakes it well, adds a (huge) pinch of his madness and re-invents music under our eyes (or ears). This music is absolutely extraordinary and makes everything done before and that our generation can prevent from plagiarize, look old.

We remain in madness with the kitschy organ of “Prairie Fire That Wanders About” to which mix the bells we have already heard before. The interlude is once again very surprising, a mix of pretty much everything it’s possible and conceivable to hear. It is clear Stevens began this album slowly and has decided to give it some power a few tracks ago. We have something completely insane here and of a rare complexity while being utterly beautiful. What we have here is pure genius.

Then it looks like Sufjan Stevens is about to leave us some time to breathe and get our mind back with a new ballad of which he’s capable of. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” begins on a simple guitar-voice quickly joined by more voices but then, the madness comes back. Winds and brass mix in an unbelievable way for a bridge of an outstanding beauty announcing once more an astonishing finish but later on that… First we go back on a brilliant verse punctuated of new arrangements still as wonderful as before that introduce the chorus. Its structure is the same as the bridge’s one to which vocal arrangements are added before the trumpets come calm everything down for a while to then be joined by the voices and the orchestra. Stevens’ timbre is still there and admirably overflies the whole. It is just beautiful. The song ends on an unpleasant sound getting stronger up till the chord introducing the next song. Well my friends, if you believed we were about to stop here, it’s quite the contrary: we are far from it. Stevens blocked us in the corner and keeps attacking us, uppercut on uppercut, hook on hook. This “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!” is just like its title : a new UFO in the starry sky of Illinois. First, the chords are done with the piano before a surprising and funky bass line comes in. It’s then gathered by the drums, then the violins and the voices for an outstanding mix once again. Everything calms down and set place to the lead voice. This track puts back the limits of what’s known. The rhythm, arrangements and structure are unbelievable.

The true breath is done here on a string quartet interlude, caught back by the cold bells of before leading us on another interlude. I must say after the euphoria and the complexity we’ve been through before, the decompression is necessary. “The Seer’s Tower” comes quiet things down a bit. Grim chords start the track before Stevens’ penetrating voice takes the lead. The rhythm is slow and for once, we only get one piano, an organ supporting it and some voices. We are in something far less crazy and sadder than the rest. The track fades away on voices getting further little by little. We could then expect the end of frenzy and the stream of life that have carried us away up till now. “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulder” comes like an avalanche. We can hear it tint far away before the piano comes quickly followed by winds, brass and drums. Here again, the rhythm is crazy, repetitive and harmonizes itself little by little before a surprising break. The wealth and abundance take place before letting Sufjan talk. The harmonic wealth is endless and the shades of remarkable precision. Once again, we can see the various landscapes narrating the story scroll which makes us realize how talented its writer is. The track evolves beautifully here; several unique moments yet connected to each other mix in a complex and remarkable piece.

Another interlude introduces the conclusion to this epic tour of Illinois. “Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run” starts on a single note on the piano repeated and then completed by all the instruments that have taken part to the song throughout the album. The rhythm is hammered and we are evolving into some kind of organized chaos, nuanced. This is the goodbye of all the instruments that have transported us in the various landscapes of this record. The music is almost organic here, beautiful but without any specific direction. However, it keeps growing without being oppressive or heavy. It will fade away progressively to end on a single note, alone, beautiful.

This means the end of a very personal journey. With this sonorities worthy of a high school marching band and its arrangements from outer space, Stevens shows us it is still possible to innovate in musical creation and that all hasn’t been done yet. He becomes a symbol of the opposite of the trends of our time: he is a sustainable artist, taking its time and constantly going ahead, making things in a precise purpose. The result: we are struck in the face by pure poetry and it is good.


jeudi 7 juillet 2011

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here or "How to make a fish paranoid"

When we start the review of a record from a band like Pink Floyd, we must be sure we have understood all the stakes and the subtleties that represents. We have here one of the most mystical and yet unknown band of all time… We have to understand for instance that, without them, music and drugs would not really be what they are today. Pink Floyd’s music, their lyrics and behavior have influenced a countless number of people. I myself have discovered their music through this Whish You Were Here on a long summer night, on one of these endless South of France’s roads, in the car of a close friend, the kind of friend able to show you things that will influence you for the rest of your life. He had discovered the band during his childhood through his father, an admirer of the Floyds, who often watched one of their live. So Pink Floyd is more than just a band. It’s a legacy passed from beloved one to another. We can’t show safely this unique music to someone who won’t be influenced and changed by it like you have been. This music is an unusual experience; you must be able to accept it to understand it.

We have a strange context here. After they have conquered the world with the famous Dark Side of the Moon, the English quartet comes back between two world tours in the mythical Abbey Road Studios of London. What we need to take in consideration here is that, at this time, the band’s success is tremendous and its members have experienced everything during the last tours of 1973 and 1974. They are both cherished by the critic and the public (yes, at these times, people still understood some things… or used more drugs). They are rich, known and recognized; they own pretty much everything they desire. Moreover, during this period of time, the band is composed of strong and diverse individualities and each one of them seems to lock itself in a chemical bubble of a different shape and power. Syd Barrett, the band’s founder, who had showed the way for a while regarding experimentations of all kind, ended rejected (by the others and himself) because he was beginning not to be able to struggle against schizophrenia’s voices echoing in his head caused by the seas of acid in which he was drowning into.

The context in which the record has been written is not joyful and is pretty far from it. The band members don’t seem to take any pleasure with each other anymore, the drummer’s wedding flounders and above all, Barrett will pay a surprise visit to his former mates whom won’t be able to recognize him considering he has physically changed a lot. However, proof we have here the smartest band of the entire history of modern music, the work resulting from this particular atmosphere is up today, one of their best if not the very best. The album is being built first during the tours, particularly with a track that grows up little by little to end up lasting more than 20 minutes. We are talking about "Shine On You Cray Diamond", track the band will have all the troubles in the world to record and they will decide to cut into two parts. They will interpose three songs in between in order to lighten the record in a way but nothing is really light in the work of the four British. So it’s with "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" that Whish You Were Here starts.

Slowly, the music and organs rise, metallic and low as Hell. We remain on a single chord while the synth leads the music, quietly. The tension begins to rise, softly. We are still waiting for the second chord to show up but instead, it’s the guitar, snapping, which announces the ceremony’s opening. Everything is perfect, neat. The guitar’s strings lightly shiver in the highs before everything calms down to set place, after a silence that seems to last forever, to the four most worrying guitar notes in modern music history. There, everything is accelerating. The drums thunder and quickly ramp up to finally explode. The track is launched. The four notes keep on echoing but they are less worrying now the whole is on track. Guitar and synth solos end this majestic and grand 7 minutes long introduction. What we have here is something revolutionary for that time regarding the instruments sounds, the recording but also the composition. It’s hard to make something more progressive and yet, the song remains light and easy to reach. The song starts quietly with voice explosions beautifully harmonized. The impeccable and immutable rhythmic is supported by Roger Water’s bass making the perfect link between the complex harmonies and a basic but efficient rhythm. The whole is lead and shaded by the synths. Last but not least, the guitar as a conductor, leads the song along with the voice. We then get to the baritone saxophone’ solo that will strike you directly in the guts and that will announce a new rise underlined by the gloomy guitar arpeggios, materialized by the alto saxophone ‘solo and a change of rhythm. A quiet yet powerful explosion. We are guided, haunted by the whole fading away, little by little… Without realizing it, we just spent like that 15 minutes listening what looks like a perfect mix between jazz and prog rock regarding the solos and the structure.

The calm is quickly disturbed by weird and frightening sounds. We don’t quite know where we are before the guitar and voices start. The synths lead the whole with some sounds we’ll find back a few years later, in the musical darkness of the 80s. Let me just reassure you, theses sounds have nothing in common with any hit from Billy Idol unlike what music gave us later. They are beautifully and smartly used in Pink Floyd… This “Welcome to The Machine” is worrying and disturbing and we quickly understand that the sweet ballad of before was in fact just there to initiate the going down to the limbs of this title. We are in the real Pink Floyd spirit here, pessimistic and grey as reality and human madness are… The song ends as it started, with strange noises placing us in the middle of a noisy and happy crowd calming down little by little to set place to a bluesy guitar riff and a funky rhythmic. Here again, the synths darken substantially the whole making it gloomy. “Have a Cigar” remains in the typical Pink Floyd sound and spirit. It ends with an angry solo of Gilmour and once again, on weird noises: we have the impression of listening someone listening to the song, impression lasting all the record, of a music nested in something else… a great way to make the emptiest TV host (there is a redundancy here) completely schizophrenic…

We can then hear, far away, the introduction of “Wish You Were Here” that really starts at the same time than the acoustic guitar solo, simple and beautiful, bringing us back to the sound of the record. The ballad starts softly; the slide guitar and the piano would almost make it sound country. It is well shaded and led, dotted of some brilliant acoustic guitar solos. Some have tried to understand and interpreted the meaning of “Wish You Were Here” and its lyrics, allegedly written as a tribute to Syd Barret, founder of the band who has then been kicked out, so I won’t linger.

The record ends the same way it had started, with the following parts of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. The second part begins in a more worrying way than the first, which confirms the band’s will to drive us crazy. We had just ended a quiet ballad, and there we are, back in a thick fog again. We are pulled by the synths first, then the guitar. Both instruments mix oddly and we are constantly pushed forward by this aggressive bass. The whole calms down quickly then, and we get back in the sonorities and arrangements of the first part of the song which starts again where we had left it. It set place again to the same gloomy arpeggios leading this time to a groovy part led by the Rhodes and the bass, dotted with weird high-pitched… The whole set place little by little to the final part. When find back here the sound of the initial synths, some piano chords and an aquatic bass line support the quiet solo, immutable. We have the feeling everything run smoothly, according to plan, cold and efficient. The album closes on a major chord (the first?) for a hint of enthusiasm almost ironic.

This ends a very imaged and strong journey, spent almost too quickly and that we’ll soon do again. When listening to this masterpiece, we have the feeling of listening to pop-rock music while reading a classic of English or French literature. I’ll quickly speak about the technological and theoretical revolution this record means to modern music. This album is more than a simple record: it’s an epic that only you can live.


jeudi 30 juin 2011

Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha or "How to delve into the into the intricacies of the human soul"

It seems rather obvious nowadays that the musical/take away food industry no longer is what it used to be which was an industry able to make us dream while selling what once was a product AND art. It’s not really the case with the micro wave stuff we get nowadays in the nicely arranged stores of the local Virgin Megastore, HMV or Tesco. So you could then say that before, we were not completely protected against one or two subliminal message or, for the lucky ones, a bad acid trip, but it was still better than the soporific and hypnotic soup they serve us on the radios now. Fortunately, a group of rebels still resists, hidden in some independent labels still daring to let their artists express themselves. No magic tricks needed here or massive marketing campaigns, these people spread their sound the old fashion way: by performing all over the world, playing their music to the people. Among them, there is one who does that for nearly 13 years now and that, year after year, became one of the bests or even THE very best. It is in one of these performances that I have discovered the young man, in a small venue in the south of France where he bewitched the whole crowd, which was about 70 people that night. Two years later, I was happy to hear he was performing into the biggest venues of France (l’Olympia) in his tour promoting his new album, Armchair Apocrypha, the record I have chosen to review today. It’s thanks to the success of the previous The Mysterious Production Of Eggs and with this Armchair Apocrypha released less than 2 years later that Andrew Bird keep on increasing his public and critical success, but let’s cut to the chase.

The record starts with strength and dives us in its specific sound without letting us test the water temperature, this electric, echoic, almost glaucous sound that colors the major part of the album. That’s on “Fiery Crash” that the record opens. The track ramps up little by little. The appearance of violins and loops comes finally on the shape of reverse loops. We can then understand the birdman decided to push his experiments further than where he let them last time. The rhythmic guitar is direct all along the track, close of what Andrew show us on his live performances. We are in something rougher, less defined and way darker evidenced by the soft but low voice he takes on this track. We are warned here, this record is an excursion into the human soul and it will plunge us into the darkest sides of the human soul. We have a confirmation right away with the next track, "Imitosis", cover of his "Capital I", dealing with the famous cruelty of which are capable our lovely toddlers. With a wry attitude, Andrew keeps on telling us about the moist blackness of the human mind. We finally find back the pizzicato violin loops that we have been used to by the bird. The whole is efficient, not the best work of Bird though. We can however take note of the progresses made since last time regarding the production and the finesse of the arrangements, an infinite finesse of which we’ll discuss later. This said, we can maybe blame the lack of madness on the drum side of Martin Dosh, the new accomplice of the orchestra man. This mad scientist/drummer that is Dosh doesn’t really show us the extent of his talent.

"Plasticities" comes next, a pure birdian song. We are quickly bewitched by arpeggios that keep coming and the far whistles supplanted by the soft and light voice of Andrew. This title is the first thinning of this Armchair Apocrypha. We are however still in the same approach of the sound than previously, with a heavy guitar sound, close of the one he uses during his shows, arpeggios in the back and even further whistles.  The whole is supported by bass lines made on Rhodes. Anyway, a very specific sound that gives us the impression of being on the edge of an endless gulf in which we can’t really say whether we are about to jump to find out what’s in there or stay there and remain forever without the answer…

The next track seems a bit incoherent. “Heretics” is indeed quite different. Sure, we still have the same logic regarding the sound, a syncopated rhythmic which seems far away, but we’re still under the impression everything doesn’t mix as it should to be honest. The whole is a bit dull and suffers a lack of craziness according to me.

We then get to the album’s title. We can hear violins whine far away like wandering spirits before the guitar comes and calm that chaos. A theme is introduced by a weirdly sounding piano, almost disturbing. Then Bird comes softly put his voice on the violins worrying and morbid whispers. We then follow Andrew wondering where he is taking us. By confusing us, never really sticking to a melodic logic, this track is in a way a slow progression until the chorus’ explosion, similar to a wave slowly but surely crashing against a dam before everything calms down and goes back on something different again. So to be honest, we are quite confused. Apart from this sound so specific figuring all along the track, it’s kind of hard to find a reading direction to this "Armchair Apocrypha". We have the feeling we are immersed in the windings of a deep dream, incoherent and yet logical, carted in the deepness of the artist endless imagination which plunges us into the chaos of our emotions.

All that leaves space for an invigorating explosion that is "Dark Matter". Here again, the sound and structure of the track are in the line of what we have heard so far. However, the atmosphere here is much fresher and much more positive. We approach here a fast and beneficial ascension. We can feel the Bird’s got confidence since the success of his former albums, he’s chilled out and clearly takes pleasure in songs like this one.
We then get a real preview of what’s Martin Dosh (the drummer for those that have trouble keeping the track…) is capable of with this composition signed by the two rare birds. We remain in the ascension begun by Dark Matter with a weird robotic rhythmic to which mixes the warm and touching voice of Bird.
The fast ascension of which I was talking about before, just there, few lines ago, is stopped right away by the interlude that is "The Supine" and "Cataracts", simply beautiful. This track is a bit different of the others because of the comeback of the acoustic guitar which had helped build the success of the orchestra man, and the violins less far and that give this way, a less dramatic atmosphere than what we have had so far. That set place to the surprising "Scythian Empires" where the acoustic guitar and the closer violins are still present. This song is a real breath of fresh air after all we’ve been through on this album. It is for me one of the best tracks of the record (and in concert too). Bird has clearly enjoyed speaking about an unusual topic, the Scythians, a people of ancient Ukraine among the first to have trained horses, topic that fascinated him when he was in high school.

"Spare-Ohs", the last song of Armchair Apocrypha, is once again quite simple and positive. It is not of great interest but it’s still pleasant to listen. We will be pleased by the two voices harmonies reminder of the Weather Systems of the same Andrew Bird, or, thanks to some well thought shades before we hear the birds whistling announcing the end of the album. These very same birds present on the record’s cover or in the artist’s name introduce a calming and ironic "Yawny at the Apocalypse", a warming ray of light after the grueling crossing of the swamps of the human soul we’ve been through.

That closes Armchair Apocrypha which, without being the best work of Bird, will at least have the merit of making us think and change us because we don’t get out the same person of this/these listening/s. This is something quite unusual nowadays that has to be mentioned. 


jeudi 23 juin 2011

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues or "How can a band do some beautiful music while giving the finger to the majors"

In the sad musical landscape of our time, it is rare and remarkable to see a record to be worthwhile AND a commercial success. Worse! We hadn’t seen in a while a band capable of resisting and even humiliating a major label by refusing to sell its soul for dust money and cage bars. Yet, that’s what the Fleet Foxes did turning down a contract with Virgin and by admitting they own a part of their success (and of their audience) to illegal downloads. But who the hell are these Fleet Foxes, unknown three years ago and now acclaimed by critics and public? This is a band of six young men coming from Seattle, led by a charismatic singer and co-founder of the band, Robin Pecknold, and by Skyler Skjelset, other co-founder, guitarist and mandolinist.

Helplessness Blues is their 2nd record and almost two years have been necessary to give birth, in pain, to this magnificent piece of music. To get there, several recording sessions have been needed over a year as well as few health and personal issues. However, Pecknold says he wanted to keep spontaneity while recording the songs by proceeding in similar conditions to live performances conditions and this way accepting the presence of some errors. He wanted to preserve a certain sound coherence.

The album starts on some far guitar arpeggios and the voice enters with a strong reverb. We have the impression of listening a singer and its guitar, alone on stage. But then quickly, choirs start too and give event more depth to the whole. Finally, the bass and tambourines join everybody else. We are immediately immersed in this distant sound, as if it was talking to us from a different time, but everything sounds warm and nice despite the impression of depth and the pronounced reverb. The voice of Robin Pecknold is amazing and gives coherence to the whole sound while leading the music.

“Bedoin Dress” takes us on well known paths, remembering some of Simon & Garfunkel songs. However, the violin marks the difference with Celtic or medieval sonorities. Then the voices and instruments start and we slide in a bright neo folk warm and unpretentious. The arrangements are brilliant; the sound is perfect and full of relief with the reverb voices, the guitar are closer and all the rest is in-between. We can distinctly hear everything and it is pure magic. “Sim Sala Bim” begins also with arpeggios, a bit dissonant this time with sonorities reminding the Middle Ages again. This is confirmed when the tambourines enter along with the mandolin and harmonized voices. Then the guitar starts alone before exploding in a rhythmic solo invigorating and is quickly joined by the mandolin and tambourines. The calm comes back to go on again on “Battery Kinzie”, a simple but energetic song. We are in something more folk with a piano hammering the rhythmic and a melodic construction quite simple. However, we are still in something elaborated and nice. While listening to this album, I’ve been hit by the finesse of arrangements and melodic constructions. That makes you want to listen the songs again to understand them better but on the other hand, we are also immediately immersed and we love this music right away.

The quiet comes back with “The Plains/ Bitter Dancer”. We are on a music marking the tempo and supported by almost Indian sonorities due to the presence of the tambourine. The theme is growing little by little, harmonizing itself. These arrangements and sounds can remind us the great Sufjan Stevens. Everything calms down again to set place to the song. The theme is simple with several voices supported by acoustic guitars. For the first time in this album, all that oddly reminds the now old Crosby, Stills and Nash, the pioneer of the genre but we are far from a simple plagiarism. The track makes a break just before a new quiet explosion similar to those we’ve had so far. The song ends this way and set place, little by little, to the title of the album.
"Helplessness Blues" starts on a guitar rhythmic quite fast, quickly joined by the voice. The chorus sees a second voice entering and more guitars. The track is launched. The structure is pretty similar to the rest of the album’s tracks. This is a cheerful folk song, quite simple with two voices, two guitars and again a final explosion. I say explosion every time because I mean it. That’s really the impression given by the tambourine, cymbals and so on.

Some fast arpeggios and a theme made by the guitar and then harmonized by the mandolin start "The Cascades". Then come the usual tambourine and other bass and guitar before the calm comes back on an unresolved cord letting us on a tension, as if a question was being asked. The answer is brought by the drums introducing "Lorelai". The guitar enters with a repetitive theme before the song starts. Here is another nice pop-folk song even if the sound is a bit messy. However, the band catches up quickly by offering us a jewel with "Someone You’d Admire", a soft but poignant lament that Pecknold voices inhabits and haunts. We start simply on one guitar-voice before the second guitar-voice enters at the chorus one more time. The theme is absolutely magnificent and the harmonies complete it perfectly. 

The following is quite surprising since we have an insight of what Robin Pecknold is really capable of vocally speaking. I must say that tour de force shows the extent of his talent. Indeed, if the arpeggios starting "The Shrine/ An Argument" don’t have anything surprising, we quickly realize we are in some more bluesy sounds than what we have been listening to so far. The theme, once again brilliant and complex, spreads up till the bridge where we can hear a pure bluesy and raucous scream immediately followed by something bright and soft. The alternation of shades is entirely led by Pecknold who shows us what he can do. After a first break, we go on something completely different, a new rhythm, a new tone, another theme and different arrangements, a new song so to speak… What is unusual in this neo folk album, it’s also the way some songs have to evolve in a surprising direction as it is the case here. Nothing is really linked to the first part of the song apart from the lyrics. We have the impression of an odd dream, impression accentuated by the sounds of the harmonium in the back and the voices still far away. The incoherence is pushed to the extreme in the conclusion of this title with the sounds of flayed brass mixed to sweet and melancholic strings arrangements along with a weird jerky rhythmic… This closes the surprising journey that has made us go through a wide range of different styles and musical horizons in a single track. 

"The Blue Spotted Tail" which follows must be some kind of reward for the journey accomplished so far since we get in the end of Helplessness Blues. The reward is worth it since this is for me the most beautiful track of the record. For the first time, we stick to one guitar-voice all along the song and none of them has any reverb. They seem as close as a whisper and as soft as a summer breeze in the shadow of pines, somewhere in the Southern France. Pretty good…

The record ends on Growing Ocean, a fast song were we can find back the logic and sound of the rest of the titles.

So, what can we say in conclusion of this brilliant Helplessness Blues? First of all, that young bands are capable of a surprising maturity on every level (composition, arrangements, performance). Then that it is possible to resist the major labels and yet to be successful. Finally, we will maybe feel mixed on the several resemblances and influences we find here (Crosby, Stills and Nash, Simon & Garfunkel, the Beach Boys…); but even if these are well present, they almost never shadow the (strong) personality of this band and its record. Helplessness Blues is a very good record. I don’t know if it will be remembered, but it should make you feel quite good.


mercredi 15 juin 2011

Lanny May – Coloured Midi From Home / IRM Rec. or "How to make emotional Techno"

For several years, Lanny May has been the half of the German duet of producers Davis & May. To make it simple, these 2 lads have supported, amplified and sublimed the Deep Techno move which begins to take it over a Minimal sometimes unstructured in France as well as in Germany.

They have split up in the end of 2009, if I remember correctly, after their last production: SIX (a magnificent mini-album of 6 tracks). It’s something that has always saddened me because these guys were the most avant-gardist and brilliant duet of production of the current generation. Fortunately, they haven’t stopped producing and far from it.

Lanny kept on releasing tracks on their initial label, Maripoza, and on the dutch label Cinematique Records of which I’ll talk about some other time. While Ryan Davis multiplied productions with for instance hallucinogenic bombs on BackHome / Klangwelt / Absolutive Records / and IRM Rec. Our friends from IRM precisely, accomplish the feat of gathering our two producers under the same label, although their argument seems deeper than just a simple artistic feud.

The Golden team of Joff Logarts (Dawad, Traumer, Edward Henton, & friends), shake regularly their asses between Paris and Marseille, in order to perform in the e-Wine Bar in the south, or in the last and wonderful Soirée Play of Electric “king” Rescue. It often delivers us furious EPs like Narotron, Conversation With A Smoking Fish or even Team Session EP.

After a fabulous first mini album (Art Love Iam on Maripoza Rec. .), I can honestly say that I was waiting impatiently to revel in the new masterpiece of Lanny. And when I have learnt that would be an EP made of five tracks and signed under IRM, I wasn’t far from orgasm. A production from our Berliner friend is pretty rare and you take time to enjoy it. Indeed, our little guy, unlike his alter ego Ryan, likes to make us wait. Lanny is someone who takes his time, and we can find that attitude in his tracks.

My second feeling was that after Art Love Iam, which was so perfect according to me, it seemed rather hard for Lanny to release something as good.
Here are some emotions I have felt while listening to this record. I’ve been through quite a lot.

mercredi 8 juin 2011

Radiohead – King of Limbs or "How to make some money after four years of scarceness" "

After four years of good services, the good old Oxford quintet comes back, gets out the good old guitars and the fancy computers to deliver us an electro-cerebral album that will give us another brain fever. And if their release strategy is almost similar to the one of In Rainbows which first came out on the internet then, a month later, in every local distributor/supermarket, the similarity stops here. By offering the previous record to a variable price according to the buyer’s mood, the band had surprised everybody, this approach being then a real step forward in the downloading era. However, today it’s indeed with a fixed price that the album is delivered, a price that’ll have the desired impact in the budget of the nice but poor consumer (let’s not forget it’s the crisis…). So we come back here to something way more down to earth. The finger given to the majors and record labels is no more. We sit here, nicely, as we’re being told. That gives us a hint of what we can expect of this King of Limbs and there nothing to be thrilled about…

"Bloom" starts the album and sets the mood right away. We are on a dissonant electro music pushed to the extreme. The purpose is clearly to set up an uncomfortable atmosphere. It’s hard to tell where we’re going until the bass and voice get in. Nothing new here. A regular bass line supports a track filled up by a robotic rhythmic loaded of all kind of sounds and by Yorke’s voice highly reverberated. The whole mix is quite satisfying even if it doesn’t bring anything new, according to me, since we had already heard that kind of sounds and effects before with In Rainbows. Worse, I even think all that is less refined and finished than four years ago. I’ve heard here and there a few persons allegedly expert say this track sounds like Free Jazz or even Fusion! Well dear friends, let me tell you that what we listen here looks nothing like a jazz track. I’ve said it, I’ll say it again: all dissonant music is not to be considered as Jazz music. It’s a bit more complicated to make Jazz… The same way all drinks made of grape are not automatically a great wine or every person controlling all the media of one country, not respecting the laws and taking the power by himself is not to be considered right away as a dictator…look at Berlusconi… Anyway.

The next track, "Morning Mr Magpie" is already less pseudo-experimental. Here, the guitars and the rhythm assemble in a whole electro-disco frenetic, sick and efficient. We are still in the same logic of rhythmic and repetitive melodic aspects that are almost robotic and scary. The whole would be quite cold without the sound very specific of the guitars and bass which make this track quite interesting in the end. The conclusion made with bird whistles is there to convey the idea that Radiohead’s music, while being highly electronic and artificial, still remains organic, or even visceral.

The quasi mystical complain that follows, "Little by Little", suffers a lack of originality according to me. We are once again in a mini chaos coldly organized and framed by the machines. We can find once more the same melodic lines and repetitive rhythmic done by the bass, the same guitar effects. "Feral" brings us on the same paths than "Bloom" and starts right away by a rhythmic without any shade, regular, with a perfect sound, while Yorke and his crew try to confuse us by playing with their little computers and making us feel daisy with all the sounds they are putting in the song. Then, once again, the bass comes in. Repetitive and hypnotic, it gives a semblance of structure to the track. I might miss the interest of the song, I’m torn between the feelings I’m just being considered as an idiot or that the track has to be listened to without any analysis and it’s just to be felt without any thinking. From that point of view, "Feral" becomes very well orchestrated and the work on the sound is impressive. Apart from that, the interest is weak.

"Lotus Flower" goes on saner bases but there again, we will find the same kind of structure. The least we can say is that the lads aren’t really pushing it so far. Even if they might prepare us another album very soon, they could have delivered a certain amount of work and effort to give the buyer something new, that’s the least of all. The video clip that comes along with the album release is once again not very creative. We can see there a Tom Yorke alone (maybe is he trying to make the other members look like simple musicians) stirs like an epileptic on acid disguised as a conductor out from a Clockwork Orange. Here, the guitars have clearly left to be replaced by keyboards. The track is quite light with, once again, an unchanging rhythmic, the bass supporting the whole and Yorke’s voice. Next comes a nice ballad, piano-voice with weird sounds but once again, nothing transcendent or brand new. I’m under the impression the band woke up of long dream, Yorke and his palls have suddenly realized that what they had accomplished so far was big and that they are now trying willingly to do what they use to do naturally. So, we’re going backward instead of forward which is pretty annoying. I won’t dwell on "Codex", nice and weird complain, or on the pleasant acoustic "Don’t Give Up The Ghost" and its saturated voice loops and interesting echo changes but with an uninspired sound (remembering closely Devendra Banhart or even Sufjan Stevens), or finally on the conclusion that is "Separator".

I will end saying that, if this record is not entirely bad, it doesn’t bring anything new and it’s really far from taking us of as we were entitled to expect it. However, we can notice the care taken in the accumulation of diverse sounds that works efficiently without making the whole seem too heavy. The band’s experience is here, but their creativity not really…


jeudi 2 juin 2011

Miles Davis - Miles Ahead or "How to reach perfection in 10 steps"

Soon after the release of Birth of Cool, and for his second opus under Columbia Records, Miles and his new friend Gil Evans meet again in what is for me a master piece of modern music and probably one of the best record of the boxer/trumpeter. Here, we leave the biting and aggressive Miles aside to discover his bugle sound, impeccable and almost melancholic. I say “almost” since it’s without counting on Davis’ kindness of heart who, surprised to find on the original cover of the record, the picture of a young white woman on a boat, a “white bitch” to be precise and quote him, quickly had it changed by a picture of him.

The fact that Miles is here playing the bugle and not the trumpet is not the only singularity of this Miles Ahead. Indeed, not only is he the only soloist of the album but our good friend is also supported by an unusual orchestra for that kind of recording since it counts not less than 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 horns, one tuba, one saxophone and so on. Anyway, here, it is not about doing things half-measure. It sets the tone…

The record makes a fast start with this “Springsville” worthy of the greatest films noir. That shrill theme will come and haunt us all along the album. The track ends on a tense cord which is resolved straight away on the dull ballad that follows, “The Maids Of Cadiz”. The almost stifling atmosphere, symbolized here by Miles himself and his bugle, takes our breath away, like the calm after the storm. Little by little, the fog disbands, the atmosphere becomes lighter and harmonies more major. The runaway started right away by the decadent “Springsville” seems to terminate here at the Spanish maids’.  However, everything restarts in the end with these few double bass notes announcing the “Duke”’s arrival. We then expect a rough and frightening character with this tense upcoming chord that initiate the track, but the theme surprises us straight away. It is still led by the double bass which respond and mixes to the brass. The “Duke” sneaks all along the track like a cheetah, and starts talking through the bugle, on a rolling gait still supported by the double bass line. The orchestra seems to be willing to shout and confront the “Duke” all along the track, provocation which this one answers invariably with the same cool and descending theme.  

We then go on board of “My Ship” which slowly and gently takes off towards unknown skies. We are languidly swayed by the regular waves coming to break tenderly against the ship’s sides. We are slowly led to destination… Horns support the whole track and we are cleverly swung by the diverse shades before finally catching sight of the harbor. The repetition of the initial theme announces us the arrival of the majestic “Miles Ahead”, and there… and there my dear friends, we are at Heaven’s door: tickled by soft clouds tainted by a soothing sunset light. We are in good's hands, supported by an impeccable orchestra, we are being guided by the artist who just makes it enough, as usual, and that ends a first act during which we barely had the time to think about anything else but the unstoppable flow which takes us in some strange unknown waters.

Side B begins by bringing us back in the clouds. The descent is started by the majestic “Blues For Pablo”. A smooth atmosphere, even careless captivates and surprises us sometimes with some biting notes well placed. The bass line and the delicate rhythmic changes drive us along this track as good as the previous ones. A permanent struggle seems to take place here between the bass, the calm drums and the aggressive brass which intervene here and there until the final atmosphere change and the return of the powerful and serious theme which slowly let place to the surprising shouts and colors of “New Rhumba”. We are here gently rocked by a soft sea breeze. The track is led almost exclusively by Miles. He’s here more dominant than during the rest of the track and makes us dance quietly.

The following track, “The Meaning of the Blues”, meaningful title, is a slow lament, full of melancholy and heaviness just like the whole set of this album. However, we never fall in the pathos. We remain dignified thanks to a few waves of major arrangements that come lighten the whole and that create this surprising urban atmosphere giving us the feeling of wandering in the streets and seeing life following its way without being able to do anything, to assist at something big and yet usual.

The album ends almost up in the air with “I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed (By Anyone But You)”. The playful and rhythmic track discolors from the rest of the album. It is yet marked with numerous hard but crucial brass interventions just as in the previous titles, and it’s also built around a bass line and regular rhythmic sprinkled by almost aggressive setback to the tempo of the orchestra to finish on an extreme tension barely resolved.

The idea of mixing all the tracks in a way they follow each other without any break comes from Gil Evans and it’s probably what makes we are caught like that by this album and its almost tangible atmosphere. Miles Ahead is one of the greatest albums that exist, an outstanding musical moment of which few visible live tracks exist, in particular this concert at the Jazz Festival of Montreux in the 80s when Miles accepted to play along, a jazz orchestra behind him led by Quincy Jones for an historical moment. Miles himself exults and even smiles several times, every musicians here on stage fulfilling their dream, we attend in something big, the first and only jazz symphony. The few rich/Swiss lucky enough to be there that day are, to this day, the people of whom I am the most jalous…