Saturday, November 04, 2006

Langhoff Unpublished: Cesium 137's Intelligent Design

Another gem from the Metropolis goody wagon. I sent this off to Chuck shortly before he was canned, and he replied with a diplomatic "Probably not, but I'll hang onto it if space opens up." Understandable, as this review is long and nobody else has heard of these guys and Metropolis seemed not to care about this release at all, instead focusing their attention on Gary Numan's awful new album. When Harvilla came aboard, he said he'd try to run this review, and thus did I love him--but to no avail. Anyway, somebody oughtta hear this CD, cos it's one of my three favorites of the year... possibly. I still need to figure that out and listen to Pitbull. So, all you anonymous commentators who keep talking shit about Carman, go out and listen to Cesium 137, will ya?

Oh, and in re the final paragraph, I wrote this shortly after the '06 Grammy awards, at which U2's "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" won Song of the Year and Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" won Record of the Year. I hate both songs.

Cesium 137
Intelligent Design

What if there was a godlike computer that could quantify impossible data? I’d first ask it: During my life, what song have I heard the most? If it’s the Friends theme, how much should I hate myself? Is “Bizarre Love Triangle” really my favorite song? When writing music, what’s the most beautiful chord that could possibly follow the notes I just put down?

Philly’s dynamic darkwave duo Cesium 137 seem to have accessed the computer for that last one--or maybe they are the computer. Whoever came up with the chords on Intelligent Design, their answer seems to have been, “Throw some 7ths and 9ths on top of some IV’s and vi’s, maybe a suspension every so often, and you’re set! Humans eat up that shit.” It’s true, I do. Cesium’s chords oscillate through waves of yearning, and every chorus is lovely, if not necessarily memorable.

I’m not fool enough to think these overwhelmingly diatonic chords and tunes are interesting, but the songs’ forgettableness isn’t usually a problem. Cesium’s point isn’t the chords so much as all the different synth parts providing notes for the chords. This is, simply, some of the busiest pop polyphony I’ve ever heard. Four or five repetitive patterns of laser blasts, alarm clock shrieks, and bass farts are usually flying around the melodies. The patterns often sync up with the basslines to provide those split-second 7ths and 9ths and whatnot that people, through centuries of musical evolution, associate with anguished prettiness. But as soon as the synth lines hit their marks, they’re gone, back about their business until the next pleasure moment locks into place.

Not that this is anything new. Counterpoint’s been around for-freakin’-ever; classical and pop musicians love exploiting the tension between independent horizontal lines and what those lines are doing vertically with one another. Since Cesium’s counterpoint uses diversely timbred non-melodic patterns more than hummable melody lines, it often feels like something new, but the difference is more one of quantity than quality. That is, I’m amazed they’re able to coordinate all the different elements of each song, without anything sounding extraneous or random. Each part plays its necessary part, and the precise interactions bring the songs to life as organic wholes, like beehives or something.

Take “Gravity,” which is not a scientific treatise! The bassline gallops out the Lone Ranger rhythm from Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” only shifted a fourth of a beat earlier. When Cesium pair this up with the 16th note squiggly pattern speeding through the song, the composite sounds remarkably like Angus Young’s bouncy “Thunderstruck” riff, no doubt a big influence. Then there are the two different synth melodies--one a mirror of the vocal refrain, played by both thick techno chords and airy legato synths, and one a shriller filler during the verses. Over the top runs an ethereal line that performs the same function as the strings in a Johnny Mathis song. Put it all over the relentless cymbals and snares and the big old backbeat--there’s one in every song; the Cesiums clearly learned from Chuck Berry and Huey Lewis--and you get a whole mess of stuff that somehow coheres into a fine chipper melancholy.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Cesium 137 will never win a Grammy for Song of the Year. Based on the evidence of Intelligent Design, their songs divorced from instrumental context--the way you’d find them in a fake book--aren’t much. At least I can remember the chorus of that damn U2 song! But since Cesium’s music is all about production, performance, and intermeshing synth lines, tunes like “Gravity” and “Forsaken” should be a lock for ‘06 Record of the Year. “Forsaken”’s 1999-era drums, two levels of bass throb, and three revolving synth patterns swell around the climactic line, “Divine inspiration isn’t worth much these days,” which is more moving than anything in that idiotic Green Day song. I should now admit that I have no idea what these 10 magisterial songs are “about”. How much do I care? Let’s ask the divine computer…

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Another review of an offensively named band!

Would you like to read a review of the Revolting Cocks and Ministry? I thought you might. This was edited by new guy Rob Harvilla, in what turned out to be a pleasant exchange.

As it's June and we're halfway done with the year, I'd like to point out my favorites from the pitifully small amount of new ('06 or late '05) music I've heard. A public service for no one.

Yolanda Perez's Esto Es Amor (I think; can't find it) seems to do something new (but whaddo I know?) by mixing banda horns and tunes with reggaeton beats. The opening horn riff is really exciting, and when I listen to the title tune I'm transported into some spiralling blissful heaven. The coda just keeps singing about love and repeating itself over and over, and it's really happy. But the kind of happy that makes a man cry.

Damone's Out Here All Night is MySpace hair metal with a chick singer and a fine power ballad, "Stabbed In the Heart." Their modulations in all the right places make me laugh. You know, I was marvelling the other day at how Neptunes beats are funny in and of themselves, because they're somehow self-aware. This is not a phenomenon I can currently explain; I dunno if it's just because they sound like they're referencing past kitsch or what, but whenever I hear Britney's "Boys" or Mariah and Snoop Dogg's latest hit (sorry--"Say Somethin'"?), I laugh not at the singers but at the backing tracks. So those Neptunes really know how to tap into our pop-kitsch zeitgeist (ouch!), I surmise, and Damone seem to do the same thing, but with rock. Not that they're any more ironic than, whoever, Little Richard. They mean it and I mean it, but their musical (not even lyrical) funniness lets me know we speak the same language. But some of the later songs are pretty rote. They do make me wanna get a MySpace, though.

The Coup's Pick a Bigger Weapon is standard issue Commie goodness from them, and I really like how "I Just Wanna Lay Around All Day in Bed With You" (words separated for your ease) builds and builds and sounds really evil. Haven't listened to this in, like, a month, so it may be better or worse than I remember.

Falkenbach's Heralding the [something]blade is earth-scorching one-man Viking metal from some cold European country that also has a triumphal oboe riff (ok, maybe a trumpet) on the first song. Reading these synopses, who else is amazed that I've ever made money writing record reviews? I guess I usually do more research. But Falkenbach's loads of fun, and when Mr. Falkenbach isn't growling his singing voice is charming, like Dan Fogelberg or someone. Not that I've ever heard Mr. Fogelberg, but the Dan Fogelberg of my mind sounds like Dan Falkenbach.

The Brazilian rock albums by Nacao Zumbi and Cabruera have some fine grooves, and Julius Eastman's Unjust Malaise comp is fascinating and enjoyable post-minimalism, or probably just minimalism in some cases. I need to listen to all those more.

OK, but that's it. A disgrace! I mean, I've heard some more, but that's all I can wholeheartedly endorse at this point. Pitiful, not the "state of music," but me! Some fine singles on the radio now, though, including the Mariah and Snoop listed above, Ne-Yo's "When You're Mad" and "So Sick," Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie," Nelly Furtado and Timbaland doing "Promiscuous," Sugarland's "Down In MS and Up to No Good," and the All American Rejects' "Move Along." And whatever gospel song I keep hearing on WGCI, "Just Can't Make It Without You." I'll go research at Radio and Records now.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Langhoff Unpublished: Electric Six's Senor Smoke

Metropolis is the only label I get promos from on a regular basis, so I was excited to see this one come down the pike. A real album that people care about! Man, was I gonna write the heck out of it! And I think I did--at least I got off some good lines and I didn't say "Jack Black." So imagine my chagrin when I sent it to Chuck at the Voice without Googling first, and he replies that Mike Barthel's review of the damn import already ran last August! "Don't be a fool: use Google," is my message to all you aspiring freelancers! So then, desperate to beat all the other freelancers no doubt chomping at the bit while feeding at Metropolis's trough, I sent it off to the still no-go Matos at Seattle Weekly, who kindly replied that it was already assigned. Sure enough, the affable Anthony Miccio's review appeared before too long, furthering my envy if not my embarassment. Neither Chuck nor Matos still works those jobs. Now, I'm not saying it's because they didn't run this thing, but...

Electric Six
Señor Smoke

Dance rock is here to stay! How do I know? Because fully a third of the songs on Electric Six’s Señor Smoke use the words “dance” or “disco”! And their drummer, the “amusingly” named Percussion World, occasionally plays some syncopated hi-hat! Which is the universal signifier for “disco”! Seriously, I’ve heard Nonesuch recordings from distant corners of the world with disco syncopatin’ that’ll knock yer boots off!

Much more than disco, though, the Six aspire to the hope and the curse implicit in Loverboy’s Get Lucky album cover. A parody of the iconic cover shot, of fingers crossed behind a red leather butt, appeared in Charlie’s Angels II, whose soundtrack featured the Six’s first hit, “Danger! High Voltage,” thus establishing the kitschy trash-rock connection. The fingers are crossed, of course, in the hope of “getting lucky,” and we all understand what that means to the leather-clad. Leather’s uncomfortable! You wanna take it off!

But you also cross your fingers when you lie--well, I do--and that coy insincerity mixed with horniness is all over the Six’s music. The mixture usually comes out sounding like forced aggression to which the band realizes they have no real claim. The same mix is all over Loverboy’s muisic, too--don’t think they didn’t understand the double meaning of their album cover, or that their lyric “When I say jump/ You better jump!/ When I say walk/ Well, you better get ready to say goodbye!” wouldn’t fit seamlessly into les Six’s repertoire. All it would need is Dick Valentine rasping the ends of the words into curls like Captain Beefheart doing Tom Jones, and ironi-hipsters everywhere would laugh their leather asses off.

Truth is, Valentine’s better than nine of ten rock singers today. He’s got attitude, recognizable sound and phrasing, good pitch, and Lord knows he sticks to themes. Throughout Señor Smoke, he’s able to use the depth of his tone and his overwrought vibrato to marshal the sound of his band into a legitimately rockin’ force. Even on Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga,” the combo of distorted guitars, decent drumming, synth squelches and the Valentinian voice spirals into a dark potency. But of course, the song still uses the word “ga ga.” If former label Warner indeed forced them to cover it, that’s plenty worse than all the shit they did to Wilco.

So are there any good songs, you ask? Sure! Churning arena rockers with solid backbeats and fun rhymes? See “Bite Me” and “Rock and Roll Evacuation.” Synthy sci-fi rockers that the Epoxies should cover? Sure, “Future Boys” and “Vibrator.” Pretty decent stabs at, yes, disco rock, to which I’ve invented some lovely dances? Yep, “Devil Nights” and “Dance Epidemic.” A song that sounds like fake Talking Heads Africana? Well, “Future Is In the Future,” if you must. And if you were looking for a song that sounds like the guy from Crash Test Dummies singing Bush’s “Glycerine” with lyrics that name presidents and cite the Backstreet Boys and Don DeLillo, there’s one of those too. Though it doesn’t work.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Hello to the beautiful world!

New: a nearly comprehensible review of the We Are Scientists CD!

I'm currently sick of music, going on three weeks, so I've been listening to a book on CD in the car. It's by Tom Wolfe. It's good. Hopefully my sickness will end soon, as I've got a Riot CD and a Frank Kogan book at work waiting to be bought, plus a couple thought-provoking Morton Feldman CDs I wanna listen to some more. Plus a paper on Carman to write. His fundamentalism is much more entertaining on tape than it is in book form, so if you were thinking of shelling out a penny to buy Raise the Standard from Amazon, save it for the toll instead.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Right... new posts!

A recent Brandi Carlile review!

My favorite music of 2005!

If I had more gumption, I'd create an Imaginary Popscape 2005 page to include the above. Gumption and time, though, are currently at a premium. Plus, somewhere in the distance, a baby cries. More soon!