Tag Archives: 2013

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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Fare Thee Well: The Story of Inside Llewyn Davis in a Single Song

*SPOILER WARNING: This review ruins some key moments in Inside Llewyn Davis, so beware if you’ve not seen it yet!*



Ever since the day after I got to see the Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack almost incessantly. What struck me in some of my repeated listens were two versions of the same song that more or less bookend the album – “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”. In thinking about it further and reflecting on the movie afterwards, that this song actually encapsulates much of the character development and plot found in the movie. Indeed, much of the movie actually revolves around this song.

We’re introduced to the song when Llewyn puts on the album that he and his now-deceased partner Mike Timson put out (played in a vocal cameo by Marcus Mumford). It’s the cut we hear from the album and, presumably, it was the lead track/single, as the first four words of the song comprise the title of the album (“If I Had Wings”). Despite its slightly somber title, their version has a fairly upbeat poppy (for 60s folk) arrangement in 4/4, with some interlocking fingerpicking parts with a guitar and banjo and a break for a fiddle solo.With Mike taking the high parts in their two-part harmonies, his voice easily dominates over Llewyn’s lower one. This is, essentially, the type of music bigwig Sal Grossman tells Llewyn he should be involved in in Chicago after Llewyn plays him a song from his solo record, and, it seems, the exact type of music that Llewyn wants to get away from.

While it doesn’t seem that Llewyn was particularly glad of his partner’s dead, it’s clear that he did see it as a chance to establish his own voice, and play the way he wants to play, as evidenced by the scene in which he’s staying over at the house of a professor friend of his. He and his wife ask Llewyn to play a song after dinner, to which he begrudgingly obliges. He begins to play “Fare Thee Well” (a very different version, which we’d hear later) and the wife begins to sing the high harmony, which causes Llewyn to stop playing. “But that was Mike’s part!” she claims, to which Llewyn responds “Fuck Mike’s part!” He then goes on about not wanting to do what he does for a living on command, for free just to entertain people. The idea of being beholden to his past career and replicating what worked in the past to gain any sort of attention or acclaim in anathema to Llewyn. He wants to do it absolutely his way, which why he says no to Sal Grossman.

Towards the end of the film, we see Llewyn’s performance from the opening of it, but where one song was omitted at the beginning, here we get to see it in full – “Fare Thee Well”. It’s stripped down to just its basic chords, and put in a more insistent, more lyrical 3/4, as we get to hear the melody soar for the first time, with Llewyn putting his heart into it. “I have a man/who’s long and tall” has been changed to “the woman I love/is long and tall” as Llewyn tries to put as much of himself in the song as possible (his semi-requited for love for Jean, chiefly), also adding the stanza “one of these mornings/it won’t be long/you’ll call my name/and I’ll be gone” that wasn’t in the first version – Llewyn clearly doesn’t want to stick around Greenwich Village forever after the time he’s had. At the same time, performing that song live and accepting it back into his life after his history with it allows him to literally say goodbye to his partner and that chapter of career and go forward his way, for whatever fortune that brings him.

Llewyn likes his folk pure as he can get it, (as you see his disdain for the quartet of minty-sweatered college boys singing “The Auld Triangle”) and is trying to be both successful and honest in a world which rarely rewards both in the same way. The stark contrast in the different versions of “Fare Thee Well” go a long way in showing Llewyn’s attitude towards music (ostensibly,  his life) which, in turn, gives an insight into why he often seems to make the odd decisions he does in the movie and ends up where he does.

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#21: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito

(Interscope Records, 2013)


(Image from wikipedia.org)

I’ve got to keep my eye (or, rather, ear) on Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The last I checked in with them was, admittedly, 2006’s Show Your Bones, where they had simmered the wildfire that was their debut album (2003’s Fever To Tell) down to a more precise blaze, eschewing the wilder parts of their sound for focused riffs and stronger melodies. They still, however, kept their guitar-drums-vocals punk instrumentation intact. A mere seven years later, I stumble onto Mosquito and find codas jammed with choral vocals (“Sacrilege”), a simmering slow-burner set to the beat of the clack of a subway train (“Subway”) and electronic beats all the while? You can’t go home again.

That’s not to say the urgency of the early albums is lost – the title track, under layers of guitars and, of all things, bass moves along at quite a clip, with Karen O as the master of ceremonies, as always. Gone are the shrieks and the orgasmics of the band’s early days, but certainly not her energy dynamics – she’ll still place a whisper where you expect bombast or twist a phrase up into her nasal sneer when she sees fit. But as the sound of the band introduces more and more instruments and techniques, and overlap further and further with some of the other electronic/synth acts of the day (Metric in particular comes to mind), her vocals as a focal point become increasingly important to hang onto. “Slave” opens with a loop of what sounds like horns honking, followed by a smooth, kinetic bassline and drum machine smacks going off every which way (the instrumentation of the band turned inside-out), but it serves to underpin the vocals just as deftly.

That’s not to say that Nick Zinner can’t come up with a good riff or three any longer. On “These Paths”, an incessant, ghostly synth line sets the tone and haunts the rest of the song as the other elements slowly build, causing a hiccup in the percussion in the beginning every time it occurs (to which the beats eventually become immune). The line is not the pinhole path that would take you through the song in the band’s early days on a jagged riff, but a noted presence nonetheless, around which the whole feel and energy of the song emanates – the race to the end has been cancelled and the participants all sit in a circle trying to come to terms with their feelings.

It would seem that Yeah Yeah Yeahs have, as one does with age, become more thoughtful in their approach, and gone from freewheeling 2-minute raucous rides to a more atmospheric feeling –  not that there’s anything wrong with that. Each distant echo, strange beat and synth patch plants their stake further in the ground; their sound infinitely more personalized than a straight drum beat and power chords with the occasional riff. They’ve moved, in the interim during which I wasn’t listening, from a small excursion into punk for me and plunked themselves down again amid the formidable indie electronic/synth acts of today that I find on my rotation quite regularly. This a great document of a band moving and progressing with the times while keeping the flavour that got them noticed in the first place.


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