Tag Archives: rock

Toxic Pop Syndrome: The Strange Case of Dr. Oates & Mr. Hall

Welcome to Toxic Pop Syndrome, so named after the Britney Spears single that just seemed far and away in another category from the rest of her songs.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, per se, of Hall & Oates. I know a few of their big singles, and that’s pretty much it. They were pure 80s pop and did what they did very well. “Private Eyes”, “Kiss On My List”, “Maneater” and so on. But for some reason, every once in awhile, every single element comes together in a perfect storm and creates that pop song that it is impossible to sing, to groove with, to get up and dance to. “You Make My Dreams” is just such a song.

It is the only one that manages to surpass that “I’m listening to an 80s pop song” feel, and just move into “I’m listening to some damn good music” as I start throwing shapes like nobody’s business, bobbing my head back and forth and howling the lyrics without even knowing what most of the lyrics are. And it all has to do with that magic organ and its interplay with the beat.

The song opens with the organ by itself, the better for you to soak in the glorious riff it’s layin’ down. It fills up the sound nicely, but hits those offbeats heavily, which gives it that lurching feel – it’s always sort of leaning forwards to the next beat and gives that urgency and immediacy. The backbeat almost stands alone as the keys and guitar crunch down the chords on that offbeat. You can hear it when the electricity disappears for a second on the “Listen to this!” part, where they come down on the normal beats and it sounds a bit more like their other hits.

Just before the initial vocals come in, all the instruments stop to let them come in solo, creating much of what Queen called ‘hot space’ (on their album, Hot Space, where they got funky), the vocals going on their own half a step longer than it normally would, because the organ comes in on the offbeat. Leaving the listener hanging for that split second creates a great tension and excitement for when the instruments come back in.

Preliminary research (thanks, Wikipedia) tells me that this song wasn’t even one of their #1 Billboard singles, which boggles my mind. It’s basically the only Hall & Oates song I would consider to be a party in a can. Yeah, I can nod along to “Private Eyes”, but it doesn’t quite hit the same high. “You Make My Dreams” is, like, “Superstition” level (which, come to think of it, has that same offbeat feel). It gives a bit more of a peek into the duo that might have been. Even so, most groups don’t even get that effervescent moment.

Bravo, Messrs. Hall & Oates, bravo.

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#17: Nanobots – They Might Be Giants

(Idlewild, 2013)


(Image from theymightbegiants.com)

It’s always nice to hear from They Might Be Giants. For nearly thirty years now, the quirky duo of Brooklyn Johns have been putting out the highest quality music that you’re embarrassed to tell your friends that you listen to. Yeah, they’ve heard “Particle Man” and a more than a few people will confess a fondness for “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, but if only they knew “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” or “Lie Still, Little Bottle”. If only they had been there to share your outrage when they ‘sold out’, dropped the drum machine and acquired a real band on John Henry.If only they noticed that copy of Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) you have sitting on your shelf.

I’ve been a fan of TMBG after picking up Apollo 18 on a whim and loving the hell out of every quirky track (particularly “The Statue Got Me High”), including the enigmatic “Fingertips”, which comprises 20 tracks of the album, with each track only lasting about 5-10 seconds. It gave the effect, at the time, of flipping down the dial on a radio and each station being equally goofy as the last. This is the most evident touchstone for their 2013 effort, Nanobots. With 9 tracks lasting under a minute and a couple only a few seconds long, the rush to get the hook and the meaning in in that time gives a little thrill and so rears the ugly head of the realization that they are attempting to recreate/recapture the feeling of x album (as opposed to the idea that a band working constantly over a span of thirty years is bound to sound like itself at some point). Fingertips, however, was more of a structured experiment. The short tracks (in this case, I reject the term ‘throwaway’) on Nanobots is simply the band playing its game of chicken with the listener and losing. TMBG have always been a band willing to and almost needing to experiment on just about every release that they make. On this album, for the first time, there is a sense of not what will work and what will not, but for how long it will work for.

On “Sleep” (my favourite of the sub-minute tracks), the song is interrupted every line by a wordless, harmonized “ahhhh” (as in every other instrument stops to allow this to happen). If this were to go on for three minutes, the charm would be lost – but at a svelte 43 seconds, it’s memorable, hilarious and even a little bit catchy. Similarly, the 16-second “Destroy the Past” paints a fantastic and horrifying picture with its sole lyrics comprised of the couplet “Let’s go backwards and destroy the past/How long will your oxygen last?” Any more information would ruin the story. The closer “Didn’t Kill Me” with John Flansbergh singing acapella I found reminiscent of “Her Majesty”, the unexpected closer for the Beatles’ Abbey Road.

The album doesn’t float on its gimmick, however. Excise all of the short songs, and you would still have a solid collection of quirky and, at times, complex tunes. The Johns have always been solid songwriters, belied quite hard by their funny lyrics or instrumental tricks. Their palette feels like it’s expanding even more in recent years, with John Linnell’s surprisingly deft turn on the bass clarinet on Join Us’ “Cloisonne”, or the layered saxes on the same album’s “The Lady and the Tiger” (my favourite track of 2011). The brass and winds are sprinkled liberally  throughout Nanobots, but the blowaway moment is the entrancing “The Darlings of Lumberland”. Fuzzed out percussion lays the bed for a rip-roaring interlocking melange of flutes, saxes and clarinets (and accordion) that fits together with shocking precision, each instrument a staircase in Escher’s Relativity. This sits in stark contrast to the incredibly hip drum and bass (not Drum n Bass) verses. A beautifully cut jewel that serves as a stark reminder of the power TMBG can unleash is they keep their faces a little sterner.

Even the knowing way they deliver their lines can change the shape of a song entirely. On the title track, the backing vocals delivered with a monotony (and a blocky harmony) that somehow gives it a slightly reggae flavour nails the feel of the song as it waves from straight-laced to exuberant. The sound of John Linnell’s tongue wrapping around the line “what is that certain je ne sais QUOI?” on “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat” with such glee moves the song that much more to get the grin plastered onto your own face.

Check this album out. This is a couple of mature songwriters writing fun as hell music that is funny if you listen to the lyrics or satisfying musically if you don’t. They have yet to rest on their laurels.


In addition to my review, I had a conversation with longtime friend, fellow blogger and TMBG enthusiast Nick Zacharewicz about the band and about Nanobots:

MCJ: So Nick, you’re an avowed, nearly lifelong TMBG fan. What keeps you coming back to the fold?

NZ: My love of everything strange and wonderful, certainly. Though I must admit that Nanobots completely slipped under my radar. I guess because I though the band was too busy touring in the States.

MCJ: Yes. In the States exclusively, I might add. When you did come around it, what did you find strange and wonderful in Nanobots?

NZ: Well, as you mentioned in your review, “Sleep” is definitely a standout track because of what it does with sampling. But overall, the whole album really reminds me of their early stuff. It’s a collection of songs from various musical styles that all tell a story. Plus, I’d never thought that I’d hear TMBG do a song with the sort of surf sound that “Call You Mom” has.

MCJ: It sort of beggars belief, the amount of styles they’ve co-opted over the years and felt comfortable enough to turn into their own brand of amusing little song.

NZ: Definitely. I think that’s really their best quality. And, really Nanobots has just about every style they’ve ever played with covered: from Reggae to Jazz. I don’t think they’ve done much with Funk, though.

MCJ: They’ve switched to using a lot of horns, but nah, I don’t think they’ve ever gone quite funky. It’s got to only be a matter of time, though. How did you react to the presence of the ‘short’ songs on this album?

NZ: Oh, the short songs. After hearing about all of the theories for “Fingertips” on Apollo 18, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any meaning to them here.

MCJ: As far as I know, it was simply a matter of the band stopping when they didn’t see anymore to write of the song. Though I’d be interested to see how people attempt to weave “There” into any sort of narrative.

NZ: It’s disappointing that the band hasn’t come out and said that there’s any meaning to them, but that’s never stopped fans before. I think there’s something about them, though, even “There,” which is suspiciously placed after “Nouns.”

MCJ: I think they [the band] just get a kernel of an idea, and then run with it, leaving the fans to fill in all the gaps, which they do quite amply. Has a favourite track emerged for you?

NZ: The fans definitely do, myself included. On my first batch of listenings “Circular Karate Chop” really stood out for me. I liked its fun pace, and the goofy spoken bit in the middle of the song sounds like something from ‘They Might Be Giants’ or ‘Lincoln.’ But then, I started to get into the second half of the album, since I can’t help but hear a break after the clump of short songs running from tracks 13-16. So, now the standout track for me is the jazzier “Replicant.”

MCJ: Yeah, there is definitely a sort of side break – a musical sorbet of short little songs that get you over to the material on the other side and make you question how invested you should get into each song.

MCJ: “Replicant” is an excellent song, and probably one of the best genre switches on the whole album. The “do do do dos” really sell the mellow swinging jazzy feel. Also, I believe it’s the forebear to “The Darlings of Lumberland”, which is a track that, correct me if I’m wrong, doesn’t sound like anything they’ve done before. Those tracks usually end up being my favourites.

NZ: Yes, “Replicant” comes in before “Darlings,” making for a curious transition. “Darlings of Lumberland” is a weird song. It doesn’t sound like anything they’ve done before (it has the same sort of ghoulish atmosphere as “The Edison Museum” from ‘Long Tall Weekend’), but it definitely sounds like TMBG.

NZ: And, even though they’ve never really done much with swing/jazz, it’s like they ventured from unfamiliar territory into an absolutely uncharted place moving from “Replicant” to “Darlings.”

MCJ: Diving off the edge of the world, so to speak.

NZ: Definitely.

NZ: Can you describe what you like about it?

MCJ: It’s crazy – coming at you from every angle. You have a bunch of different woodwind instruments, each playing fairly complex passages but layering over each other and interlocking perfectly. Not what you would assume of the writers of “Particle Man”.

NZ: That’s very true. A lot of their songs have gotten more complex since their drum machine days, but it’s good to see that they haven’t lost their quirkiness.

NZ: Actually, you mentioned in your review that they’ve experimented with their own playing before (Linnel on the bass clarinet on “Cloisonne”), do you think that they’d be making the same sort of music if they’d never added a band to their line up?

MCJ: Nope. A band offers a completely different angle. I’m sure there are a few tracks that came from a groove the band made or whathaveyou. I can’t say which tracks, and the Johns are certainly leading the charge, but they would not have been able to be nearly as versatile, genre-wise, if they didn’t have the band.

NZ: Maybe they would have gone into seclusion for a while, but I wonder if they would’ve just come out with fully digital stuff along the same lines of what they’re putting out now. There must be some high fidelity Garage Band-like program available to musicians of their calibre.

MCJ: There’s no telling what they would have come up with. They’ve certainly been paving their own way ever since the technology barely existed for them to be able to do so. But we never would have gotten “Marty Beller Mask”.

NZ: (laughs) Good point!

MCJ: Nick, where can we find you on the internet?

NZ: You can find me at my video game and book review blog Going Box by Box (at http://goboxbox.blogspot.ca) and my dead language translation blog Tongues in Jars (http://tonguejar.blogspot.ca). Or you can follow me on Twitter, I’m @the_penmin.

MCJ: I will remind any readers reading that Going Box by Box is updated twice DAILY. Thanks for the chat, Nick!

NZ: Thanks for inviting me onto your blog, Malachi! I’m always happy to talk about TMBG.

And there you have it. Be sure to check out Nick’s tireless blog efforts!

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#16: The Next Day – David Bowie

(ISO, 2013)


(Image from Spotify)

Mr. Bowie, you didn’t have to do that.*

It starts with the cover. By now firmly entrenched in popular culture, David Bowie doesn’t go anywhere without his enormous celebrity and legacy following him wherever he goes. For The Next Day, he acknowledges that by grabbing the only thing I assume he has left to write on – one of his militia of hugely successful records (not to mention one of his most iconic covers), blanking out the irrelevant parts (the title, his then-likeness) and replacing them with newly relevant ones (the back of the album is similarly the back of the “Heroes” LP with a big white square on top listing the tracks for The Next Day). Nothing he’s going to produce at this point is going to completely come out from under the shadow of his massive career. Honestly, as I listened to the album, I was trying to decide on which album each track would fit on.

Which is not to say The Next Day has just trod upon old ground. It can be viewed as a retrospective is taken through the lenses of all the different styles Bowie’s done, but I see it as him stretching the creative muscle he hasn’t flexed in ten or so years.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that is isn’t a midtempo, solemn affair that many of music’s elder statesmen produce looking back on their career on life. I would go so far to say that The Next Day would even work well as an introduction to Bowie for new fans. The album moves through several different moods and, employs quite a few different instruments (keys, saxophone, strings, contrabass clarinet) and flourishes to give each song its own personal coat of paint, but some of the best moments come from the straight ahead rocking of a simple guitar/bass/drum three-piece (“The Next Day”, “(You Will) Set the World On Fire”), impeccably arranged and leaving neither the muso or headbanger wanting – angular guitar riffs leaning on the precipice of feedback (including Bowie himself and Bowie band alum Earl Slick, class of 1976),  and heart-thumping but at the same time nimble bass-playing (Bowie band stalwart Gail Ann Dorsey , Grand Vizier of Session Bass Players Tony Levin, and Bowie’s long-time producer Tony Visconti, who produced some of the best basslines I’ve ever heard on Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World album). The sound doesn’t particularly evoke the old Spiders, but it’s a fantastic display of what the Spaceman can do even when wielding a simple power trio.

Of course, The Voice is a dominating presence on this album. Swarms of chorusing Bowievoices swoop in and out of the ears, coming in at every angle and pitch, brushing a moment of clarity with just a tinge of malice (similar to “Blackout” from “Heroes”). Hasn’t lost a damn step, though. He can belt it out, but doesn’t hang the record around his ability to do so. He takes you by the hand and pull you into each song and keeps you sane as you boggle at the landscapes (even if he starts singing in nonsense syllables, a la “How Does the Grass Grow?”).

It’s hard to separate this album from its position as the culmination to a comeback that nobody was even expecting – it’s brand new Bowie (which we haven’t had in a decade), and it’s fantastic. No gimmicks, just pure songwriting and performance as only The Thin White Duke (and Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, the Goblin King, Thomas Jerome Newton) can deliver. What can I do but throw my hands up then start applauding?


* At just about fifty years into his incredible career, David Bowie does not owe the ‘people’, the music industry and what-have-you any more music.  His decades-long career had provided fans and critics alike with more than enough euphoria a subtle head-nodding, respectively for anyone to have been satisfied at the the close of 2003’s Reality that he had truly given his due. But then he goes announcing one his birthday that “oh yeah, got an album coming out in a month or so.” A secret he managed to keep from EVERYONE. So you figure that, at this point, he’s not just producing albums as a way of keeping himself in the public eye. He producing ’em because he wants you to hear ’em.

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#15: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

(Bad Seed, Ltd., 2013)


(Image from Wikipedia)

Mr. Cave is back with another reading from his horrorshow tome. Though his songs have become less overtly macabre and hellish than they were in the Bad Seeds’ earlier days, there’s no doubt that Nick Cave can send a chill down your spine like he was ringin’ a bell. On Push the Sky Away, it seems that fear and sin are less the orders of the day than tension and queasiness. There’s nothing relaxed or laid back here – every track is bent double, sitting on the edge, waiting for a release that usually doesn’t come. They just go on, like little snapshots from an ongoing, frustrated life. “Nowhere to rest/nowhere to land” croons Cave in “We No Who U R”.

Cave is, obviously, the master of ceremonies here. Very seldom does he let himself boil over into throwing vitriol – he just presents the facts as they are (to him) in a low moan that has you already mourning. “Ah, the local boys” he reminisces during “Water’s Edge” (the highlight of the album for me), recounting their horrible encounters with the “girls from the capital” in a delicious use of repetition as both parties “reach for the speech/and the word to be heard”, as drummer Thomas Wydler unleashes some inner fury, contributing only sporadic, arrhythmic fits and refusing deliciously to hold down any kind of beat. The only time he breaks his icy resoluteness is on “Higgs-Boson Blues”, which is by no coincidence the longest song on the album. It’s the only one long enough to give Cave the chance to boil over and when he finally loses the game of chicken he’s playing to keep his composure to the end of the song and starts spewing his own unique brand of dark inanities: “Hannah Montana does the African Savannah/As the simulated rainy season begins/She curses the queue at the Zulus/And moves on to Amazonia/And cries with the dolphins.”

Apart from that track, there aren’t too many that could be called rockers on this album. The moods are groovy, often quiet as if holding onto a secret that they’ll only allow themselves to get a few chords into before smiling and wagging a finger. The fuzzy electric piano is Cave’s weapon of choice here, plunking down sharp, shuddering chords (“We No Who U R”) or meandering between harmony and melody (“Wide Lovely Eyes”), while Warren Ellis’ guitar stays rhythmic and brooding without ever unleashing its considerable power. Almost everything is played in a percussive capacity, creating a nice melange in every bar of a variety of timbres popping and cracking right on queue. The occasional flute (“We No Who U R”) or string section (“We Real Cool”) glides right on top.

Push the Sky Away is a great example of Cave’s potency. As his career has progressed, he’s become less interested jumping out in front of you, casting fire and brimstone in your face while laughing, and more apt to point out the devil sneaking up behind you as you pass the tip of his lit cigarette in a dark alley. At first listen, this album seems like a relatively sedate affair, but constantly walks the line between haunting and creepy. Even the simplest arrangements have no way to earn good will here. Cave muses aloud and we crane our necks to listen, in spite of the fact that we likely don’t want to hear it.


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#12: Tegan & Sara – Heartthrob

(Warner Bros., 2013)


(Image from Wikipedia)

I’m going to be honest, the first couple of times I listened to this album, it came as a shock to me when it ended. A lot of that I can chalk up to the relatively short running length of the album (it falls a few minutes short of the 40-minute mark). It bears the hallmarks of a classic pop album in that way – sub-40-minute running time, no songs past 4 minutes (“I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” and “Now I’m All Messed Up” being the exceptions, tipping the scales at 4:19 and 4:09, respectively), and each a solid, densely-packed little nugget of catchy melodies and ear-catching tones exploring personal themes of love and heartbreak. It also all kind of sounds the same.

There is an insistent beat that moves throughout every track of the album, moving it along at a reasonable pace, doling the bass drum out fairly and liberally which serves to sort of flatten a lot of the proceedings – you never get a chance to forget you’re listening to a pop song; there’s no sort of “out” moment that makes you cock your head and say “wait a second…”, there’s no sharp chord or quail that juts out.  It’s all determined by the straightforward beat.

The glossy production has a lot to do with the uniformity of the sound. The details within the tones of the songs have been tweaked to within an inch of their lives. The synthesizers are buzzing with just enough gain to be noticed, very occasionally pulling back their lips and baring their teeth, but never with malice. Every corner of the aural space is filled right up most of the time, leaving no space for extra emphasis or ‘heightening’ come the chorus (the slower piano-based “I Was A Fool” provides a couple moments of respite).

Having a homogenous sound is detrimental in some ways, but can afford the listener a different perspective on things. Since each song is using the same set of instruments – the same constraints – it’s easier to focus in on the differences that do exist between each song. In the case of the sisters Quin, it’s the melodies.

The melodies themselves are quite engaging – swooping down, stopping and starting, charting an actual interesting course through each song, in sharp contrast to the ‘bed’ upon which the melodies sit. These comprise the heart of the album and the rewards to be taken away from it. They are surprisingly heartfelt and would sit just fine on top of a threadbare acoustic guitar as they do in their original context.

When blended together, Tegan & Sara’s voices actually sound like a patch on a very articulate synthesizer, which provides a solid vehicle for delivering the melodies – a very rounded, whole sound with the harmonies woven into the structure as opposed to just sitting on top of the ‘real’ melody.

Overall, I found this album fairly disappointing. The core of the songs are quite good, and would not be out of place in a singer-songwriter context, but are confronted on all sides by instruments taking up the vast amount space that exists between the headphones and a glossy sheen that lays on top that would rather you dance instead of getting too close.


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