Thursday, January 6, 2011

Albums of 2010, part four

Dirty Projectors + Björk, Mount Wittenberg Orca
I wanted very much to like this, though I suspected from the beginning I might not. I've never been a fan of Dirty Projectors: the things people say about them and some of the interesting ideas they've had make them seem like something I should love, but whenever I actually listen to them they just come off empty and bland. So, regardless of how wonderful I should find a concept album about whales and environmentalism, made in collaboration with Björk, I just don't like this. It strikes me as being about evenly split between good elements and dull ones, but all at the same time, and not meshed well with one another. Listen to a song like "On and Ever Onward": it's a good song, with, well, one good vocalist. As always, the main singer of Dirty Projectors (whichever one she is) has the type of grating voice that could be used interestingly if only she would realize it was grating; instead, she seems to think it is alternately beautiful and powerful, when in fact it is neither.

Emeralds, Does It Look Like I'm Here
I mentioned before that, along with hip-hop and R&B, drone and ambient is the other pair of genres which, these days, seems able to consistently create music with a great deal of vitality. Emeralds is a big part of that vitality. Much of their music might seem on its face to be "mere" revivalism, a derivative return to strains of electronic minimalism that had exhausted themselves by the beginning of the 1980s. This is, to me, incorrect for at least two reasons: first, as I have discussed elsewhere, there is a distinction between being derivative and radically rejecting the consumer capitalist need for constant novelty; while the location of the line between the two is always going to be subjective, I would argue that Emeralds is firmly on the right side of it. Second, while this music is in many ways a return to earlier modes of minimalist electronics, it is not by any means solely a return to fields already fully explored by Brian Eno, by Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Rodelius, by Mother Mallard, by Michael Stearns, and so on. Rather, tracks like "Science Center" or "Now You See Me" or really the whole album feel to me as though Emeralds are going back to where these musics left off, somewhere in the early 80s, and developing them from there in a different direction than they actually developed at the time--almost a sort of alternate history of music, one in many ways more exciting and fulfilling than the one that actually occurred.

Brian Eno, Small Craft on a Milk Sea
Speaking of Eno... If it seemed before that I was implying his period of vitality is long over, I'm deeply sorry to have given that impression. While he has released some near-stinkers, they are so relatively few (and disputable; I may soon learn to love even Nerve Net for all I know) as to be utterly unsignificant, and his genius (yeah, genius) continues unabated to this day. Small Craft begins with a piece of unassuming beauty, the piano-oriented "Emerald and Lime," which at times verges on the cheesiness of new age (a genre, incidentally, which I am glad to say seems to be in the midst of a positive reappraisal--when I say "cheesiness" I am not putting it down). Eno stays hushed for the next few tracks, but cycles through different moods--the quiet peace of the opener gives way to the quiet foreboding of "Complex Heaven" and the title track, the latter of which features some rhythmic elements reminiscent of Eno's work with David Byrne on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. These hints of movement then burst, shockingly, into violence on "Flint March," a short track which sounds just like its title but more so, and after that explosion the album takes what feels like ages to recover its equilibrium.

If Eno's reintroduction of lyrics, absent from his work for decades, on 2005's Another Day on Earth did not quite signal a break from ambient music, as many suggested, their reabandonment here likewise does not signal a return to it. The middle section of this album is loud, it insists on your attention, and it is not even beautiful according to the standard use of the word. It shouts, it skitters, it is at times fearful, at times frightful. "2 Forms of Anger" even features guitar and drums that wouldn't be out of place in Wire's later, louder, compressed work. Eventually things quiet down a bit, but it isn't until later on that anything approaching peace returns--interestingly enough, it comes at the point where the song titles, already thematically linked across multiple axes, begin explicitly echoing one another--where "Complex Heaven" marked the beginning of the album's departure from peacefulness, "Lesser Heaven" (an intriguing contrast, complex versus lesser) marks the beginning of its return. Of course, with the intervening violence, the peace is not as blissful as it was originally; it is trying, but it is uneasy. Thus, where "Emerald and Lime" felt as though nothing could ever go wrong, its twin "Emerald and Stone," superficially very similar, has an atmosphere of wariness and disturbed noises clattering under the surface. The album ends in the "Late Anthropocene," a title which feels perhaps autobiographical, though mysteriously so, considering that it is the track that most strongly resembles Eno's sound toward the end of his purely ambient phase. Along with Return of the Ankh, a contender for album of the year status.

Faust, Faust Is Last
This is a huge, sprawling, discursive, wonderful, atrocious album, and, appropriately, I can't think of anything coherent to say about it. Fascinating but tiring, excellent but silly, unprecedented but dated. "Hit Me." "I Don't Buy Your Shit No More." "Karneval." A few things I said (in gchat) to the Baronette when I first listened to it: "At first it kind of struck me as Pet Sounds redone as industrial music, but it sounds different now." "It's possible to listen to it in a way that makes a lot of it sound kind of silly and embarrassing, but I listen to it in a way that makes it really great." Much of it sounds like 90s goth industrial metal done by people who understand things differently than people who actually made 90s goth industrial metal. Not Faust's best album by a long shot, but considering what they've given us already (they are easily among the five best artists ever recorded, ever, and as late as 1999 they gave us an album that is seriously every bit as good as anything they did in the 70s) that's not a problem; I can't exactly recommend this album, but I wouldn't warn you away from it, either.

Perhaps the funniest thing about it is that it is clearly presented as a farewell: the title, the cover which parallels the cover of their first album, the retrospective quotes from admirers (members of the Monks and Kraftwerk, among others)...and yet as soon as the end of this month, they've got another album coming out. And I'm going to listen to it.

Fenn O'Berg, In Stereo
Bizarrely underrated, perhaps because it is such an utter change in direction for this collaboration. Which is to say that it is not a huge departure for any of its individual members--these sounds coming just from Christian Fennesz, or just from Jim O'Rourke, or just from Peter Rehberg, would still certainly be something new, but nothing beyond all expectation. But where their previous two albums sounded like a collage, or perhaps like the three members' methods mashed together (wonderfully, I should take care to point out), this one sounds like a synthesis. A look at the covers of the three albums--one, two, three--is revealing.

Even more bizarre, to me, than the fact of this album's relatively poor reception is the specific way I see it being criticized: Pitchfork, never the sharpest tack in the box, speaks of its "aura of predictability that never quite lifts, producing something that's hard to dislike but even harder to get lost in." Dusted, not quite as negative, still calls the album "sullen" and "dour." Coke Machine Glow, who I'm not familiar with but who I bring up because their criticism is perfectly representative, claims that, compared with the previous two albums, In Stereo "takes less risks, and so when it misses, it feels less earned." This is all utterly, utterly mystifying to me. In Stereo is a thrilling album, slow-moving perhaps, but no more predictable, sullen, or safe than, to reach for something similarly slow, a Tarkovsky movie. This music, which I realize I have only barely touched on directly, for which I apologize but recommend you remedy by listening to it yourself, feels new to me. Not in the problematic sense of novelty that I've discussed endlessly before, but truly exciting. In Stereo joins The Return of the Ankh and Small Craft on a Milk Sea as being one of the very best of the year.


Randal Graves said...

When I think of whales and environmentalism, I usually think of this:

Heh, to add to the bloggy serendipity, word verification: messes.

Richard said...

It's too bad it wasn't Mark Richardson who review the FennOBerg album for Pitchfork. He's really good and also does right by that kind of music, usually. A lot of the other guys are sort of interchangeably blandly annoying as reviewers.

Also, I need to pick up both Faust is Last AND Ravvivando... I always forgot about the latter.

Ethan said...

Richard, was it Mark Richardson who wrote that great essay on Gavin Bryars and Radiohead that you linked me to a while back? Because yeah, he seems like the sort you'd want reviewing In Stereo.

You know how the other day you told me I needed to listen to Miljard, like, last week? Yeah, same goes for Ravvivando.

Randal, as always, I wish I got metal. Nice album cover though.