Category Archives: Album

Tales From the Third Floor: Phantogram’s Voices

So there I was in the frightening third floor of the HMV in Toronto. For those not in the know, the third floor houses all of the sort of ‘fringe’ genres compared to the ubiquitous Rock/Pop which can be found on the first floor. Up there, you have punk, metal, EDM, hip-hop, folk, jazz, classical and so on and so on. Sort of a cross-section of ‘scene’ genres. If you’re into the scene, then you know what’s up and what you’re looking for. To the casual jewel-case flipper, it’s daunting. I know specific names and have heard of specific albums, but even triumphs of the genre can seem daunting if you’re not that familiar with the genre. Every song that’s played when I walked in there has had people screaming in it.

I am a pretty big fan of a lot of the electronic music that I’ve heard, but I am absolutely clueless when it comes to genre classification beyond that point. Labels like “ambient house” and “local prog-trip-hop” darted out at me and as I read the labels, I would nod slowly to myself. I would say “man…I like prog,” or “I can dig some ambient music”. Really, I have no idea what is going on there, but it’s such a thrilling combination of words! Presumably they’re not mashed together too often, or they wouldn’t have labels beside them. “This some deep shit,” I think (it probably also has a cool cover, which helps). Of course, I don’t know what I’m talking about – but if I listened to it, then perhaps I would. Those descriptions would suddenly be illuminated as I match the words to the music, not considering that I don’t have much of a vocabulary to discuss electronic music (mostly I check Wikipedia after the fact and go “huh, that’s what I’ve been listening to”). Also, I could hate it.

I put the CD back down and retreat over to the listening station. After a moment of “man, these are just the artists with the best marketing”, I stuffed that bullshit away and reassured myself that a) it is a genre-specific listening station and b) it has ten albums on offer! A lot more than the standard three.

To cut a long story short, the one that ended grabbing me was Voices by Phantogram. I dig their name, I dig their aesthetic, and I dig the gnarly riff that opens the album on “Nothing But Trouble”. It reminds me of the Flaming Lips “Race For the Prize”, where the riff sounds like it’s coming from in between notes and emanates from the machine it’s played on by pulling it apart rather than by playing it on its own terms. While this would prove to be the exception rather than the rule, I was nevertheless hooked.

The connection between this band and the Lips is not the last one to be made, either, as Lips member Steven Drozd makes an appearance on “Never Going Home”, the verses of which employ a Radiohead-esque forlorn guitar part with what sounds like a drunken buzzing underneath, putting the song off-kilter at just the right angle for the close-harmony vocals of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter (Phantogram themselves) to come in, but it strangely pulls up where you expect it to dive, to an uplifting chorus of “If this love/I’m never going home”, awash in synthesizers.

For the balance of analog and electronic instruments, experimentalism and pop hooks, this album is a fascinating listen. It’s not a new game that they’re playing at, but the execution is excellent. Sarah Barthel has the kind of voice that would have had a synthetic orchestra thrown behind it in the 80s, but instead of bombast is ducking and weaving from riff to riff, synthesizer to guitar to beat and pulling you through by the hand and bringing you out to the other side. Josh Carter, who shares the vocal duties with Barthel 50/50 lives much of the album under effects but also provides some of the most anthemic moments on the album (on the aforementioned “Never Going Home” and “I Don’t Blame You”)

The sense of dark and light that is depicted so clearly on the cover on both members’ faces is evident in every song on the album – nothing here is pure happiness or pure melancholy, but always somewhere in between, in flux as the songs go on. The constant movement forward ensures that the album is bereft of dull moments, and makes the 43 minutes breeze by. Often times, I get really excited at the outset of an album, as I’ll hear the first track and note so many different things this band is doing and establishing their sound in my mind. Twelve songs in, however, and I’m already over the sound and all the elements have been gone over multiple times. Of course, an album produced by all the same people at all the same time is going to have a cohesive sound but sometimes there just isn’t enough variance in the tracks. Not so with Voices. It’s a fairly eclectic and thoroughly modern album – one I’m glad I braved the third floor for.

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A “Supergroup” Belies Its Contents: Blackfield’s IV

The main new sound that I’ve had in my ears this week has been an album I’ve been looking askance at in the store for awhile, but only recently purchased: Blackfield’s Blackfield IV. The main reason I had such an interest in it was that it was being promoted in-store (insofar as it was available to listen to at one of the listening stations), yet the line-up, as advertised on the front, seemed to be made up entirely of modern prog rock musicians (including the prog world’s Jack White, Steven Wilson). The juxtaposition had me curious, so I wanted to investigate.

What had happened is that I fell into the Asia trap. Asia is a band that could probably be considered a prog supergroup – Steve Howe from Yes on guitar, John Wetton from King Crimson on bass and vocals, Carl Palmer from ELP on drums and Geoff Downes from The Buggles and Yes on keyboards. There’s a lot of musical musculature there, and the assumption based on the line-up would be crazy ten-minute solos and key and time signature changes to make your head spin. But no. They made “Heat of the Moment”. Produced like crazy, harmonized arena rock fist-pumpers instead of seven-movement suites. And what’s wrong with that?

Looking at the pedigree in a supergroup, you can only understand what’s it’s going to be like in terms of each member’s previous bands sort of pasted together and shaken up. Really, though, the group could have been formed for any number of reasons, under any number of auspices. It may be an attempt for the members to go madly off in a different direction (see David Byrne & St. Vincent’s Love This Giant, which made ample use of horns for which neither musician was famous). By the 1980s, most of the prog rock bands were sick of the longwinded noodling they were famous for, and wanted to shorten things up to see if they could hang with the next generation of bands coming in. It could be that the members just interact musically in a way they hadn’t foreseen and they just decided to go with it (Elvis Costello and the Roots recently put out Wise Up, Ghost, which seemed to come out of almost nothing as Questlove approached Costello after he performed on Jimmy Fallon one night). It could just be that they wanted to play some less serious music and just have a blast in their comfort zone and gettin’ mad radio hits. There’s no way in hell that “Heat of the Moment” is not fun as hell to play (and, quite honestly, it ain’t a simple walk in the park to do so either – it’s just not at the apex of difficulty like prog was in the 70s, which was often to the detriment rather than benefit of the songs)!

With all this in mind, I feel sort of silly for looking down on Blackfield IV for not being the electrifying prog record I was hoping that it would be (at the same time, however, that was foolishly why I bought it). What it does sound like is orchestrated pop (none of which I’ve any problem with, mind you – Panic at the Disco’s Pretty. Odd. and The Dear Hunter’s Violet EP come to mind), with a lot of jangly guitar picking thrown in and some pensive vocals, though it’s the meticulous production that is mainly what makes it sound flat to me. Though it didn’t necessarily need any ‘showy’ bits, it sort of failed to capture my attention vs. my expectations. I should not have been surprised, however, as the whole prog rock ethos is based around the integration of more ‘grown-up’ genres into rock, with classical music being a big part of that (Yes, ELP), as well as keen studio tweaking.

Even so, I find that with repeated listens, such an album improves vastly, as you can kind of shake away what you thought the album might have been, and concentrate on what’s there. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself humming something that you heard without knowing it, and you’re in.

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Frankly, Mr. Shankly, I don’t give a damn: The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead

For a dude who has an eye towards a solid knowledge base of rock music, it took me a long time to get around to The Smiths. First off, someone told me that Morrissey always sounds like he is yawning when he singing, which I couldn’t NOT hear anytime I heard a track he was singing on. Secondly, I’d sort of sussed for myself that The Queen Is Dead was the preferred album of the knee-huggers in the corner with the too-big sweater set, which really isn’t my deal. Specifically, I thought that their entire oeuvre sounded like “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”, which is a two-minute slice of jangly twee pop on this album which works fine for its length, but I figured a whole album of that would be too cute by half. I kept my distance for awhile.

They are frequently included, however, in the discussions of best 80s bands and guitarist Johnny Marr seems to be as venerated as much as, if not moreso, than Morrissey (he played on Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and No One’s First and You’re Next, among other collaborations with bands comprised of young Smiths fans). I eventually decided that it was me the problem was with and that Strangeways, Here We Come was a cool album title, so I scoped a track off of that (“A Push and A Rush and the Land Is Ours”) and found myself pretty engaged. I figured the next step was to get into an album, so I picked myself up a) their only album at HMV I was at that wasn’t a compilation and b) their seminal album, The Queen Is Dead.

After a single grande olde English chorus of “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blightly”, the band launches into the title track and they are, if I do say so myself, rocking out! Mike Joyce pounding on the toms in anticipation as Marr sends out a few electric washes from the guitar to get everyone in the mood before hitting the ground running. To my surprise, Morrissey doesn’t start off entirely introspective. He does state that “Life is very long/When you’re lonely”, but has a few ideas as to why that might be and takes aim at what he sees around him driving the rampant loneliness of 80s Britain with the aggression of the band backing him up, the bass never staying in one place for too long, in fear of being found: “Passed the pub that saps your body/And the church who’ll snatch your money/The Queen is dead, boys!”

After that first song, I was ready to pick up whatever the Smiths were putting down, as I found that my assumptions about them were totally wrong – they are a much more versatile band than I gave them credit for. Knowing what they have in their quiver, I was just happy to see what they chose to notch. It turns out I didn’t even give “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” a fair shake after I paid closer attention to what the rest of the band was laying down underneath Morrissey’s foppish vocal on that song. Not that the band needed to rock out to get my attention – I just didn’t mark their versatility when I dismissed them early on.

I also noticed they bore more than a passing resemblance to one of my favourite all-time bands, R.E.M. It’s the conversational tone of the lead singers reporting on the state of the world and how it affects them, combined the the guitarists’ knack for creating textures and atmospheres with intricate picking and sliding, making a quiet, ‘busy’ sounds to ably back-up and harmonize the vocals instead of a big loud one. The Smiths of course with a big dollop of Britannia on top, whereas R.E.M. deal chiefly in Americana.

Now that The Smiths and I are getting to be fast friends, it’s time to hit up that discography. Wait…four albums? Only four? Oh well. Such are the surprises that hit when a band gets a decent amount of fame over a short period of time – their reputation grows much larger than their body of work could hope to. Simon & Garfunkel only had five albums. Ditto The Police. Hell, The Sex Pistols only had one! Nevertheless, I think it’s time to turn my attention to the rest of Strangeways, Here We Come which, as it turns out, was their swan song.

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