Columns

The Week in Reviews

Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
When we knew that Reflektor, or something like it, was coming – when we walked out the front door of our house under the train line to see it stamped on the railway bridge – we dusted off the old Arcade Fire albums to listen to at every opportunity. They became the soundtrack for the clearing up of backlogged dirty dishes, for rounds of Wii golf, for post-trivia smoking sessions. The unconscious process of lyrical accumulation this triggered was rewarded when Reflektor arrived with those first lines, the ones about the prism/prison of light, that immediately recall ‘Sprawl II’ from 2010’s The Suburbs. Already an affecting song, this one becomes more so when considered as an important prologue to ‘Reflektor’; while the sound is less insistent, far from urgent, there is much more at stake in the earlier song. But something happens in the intervening three years, and the rejoinder ‘Reflektor’ makes to Régine’s appeal for darkness is depressingly conclusive. ‘I need the darkness someone please cut the lights,’ she implored, but the only darkness she gets in response is no darkness at all: the band finds themselves ‘alone in the darkness of white,’ trapped for good in the unnerving condition of this reflective age.

Shlohmo – Fine, Thanks
When I first heard Fine, Thanks I thought it was a new release. Not, as I found out halfway through writing this review, that it was a reissue of a heretofore extremely rare EP from 2010. And while I guess it says a lot about Shlohmo’s work that a release from six years ago can sound so new, what was interesting about Fine, Thanks when I first heard about it, and remains so now, is how thoroughly it seems to synthesise the best aspects of Shlohmo’s later major efforts. Like in 2011’s Bad Vibes some of the songs (‘Dear Axe,’ ‘(Inside),’ and ‘Blur Face’) initially play out like arrhythmic collages of sound only to be made coherent when a backbeat slips in or a sample starts looping in just the right spot. Others (‘Generation Loss,’ ‘Been Thinking’) have their textures thickened by feedback made by guitars over more apparent rhythms, both of which are redolent of 2015’s Dark Red (albeit nowhere near as distorted, although ‘Not Here’ definitely prefigures both the aforementioned LP and the Bad Vibes cut ‘Trapped in a Burning House’). But there differences too. For one, Fine, Thanks is sample-heavy in a way that Shlohmo’s later work is simply not – bells, (what sound like) gamelans, and snippets of spoken audio fill the large part of the EP’s sonic space and often shimmer like neon lights seen through heavy rain (‘Corners,’ ‘Been Thinking’). Another difference is embodied entirely in one track, the subtle droned-out and beautiful ‘In the Dark.’ It’s like nothing I’ve heard from Shlohmo, or anyone, and really nails down just how (despite it’s similarity to his later work) different Fine, Thanks is, and while I might be six years too late to the party, it may well be my favourite of his work.

Features

ETA (feat. allswans) – ‘secondwind’ (SONG PREMIERE)

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The first thought I had when pressing play on ETA’s new ‘#desert wave’ track, ‘secondwind,’ was of Nick Cave & Kylie Minogue’s duet ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’: A man and woman, a love lost. And of course, sultry vocals.

But perhaps it’s not the most apt comparison—‘secondwind’ is thematically far more cryptic, and musically it’s fairly simple, albeit in the best sense of the word. Co-produced with Jazzbo—ETA’s former Buffaloes bandmate—the trim instrumental relies on a cinematic, Western guitar twang, with echoes of a spooky synth  (the key criteria for #desertwave, perhaps?), all backed by a lethargic, reliable drumbeat.*

These elements provide platform for the vocal performances, which I find most compelling. As the persona chants (“I never saw her again”) a woman, voiced by allswans, begins to hum and soon joins the duet. She is a destabilising presence—is she the disappeared woman, now returned?

As the track continues and male voice disappears, she continues—taking control of his story in his own words, perhaps from within him, playfully making them her own—the drums stop and her vocals layer themselves into a ghostly texture. It is haunting, almost cruel, yet beautiful in a classically romantic sense (much like ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’) and thanks largely to the quality of the vocalists and the heady instrumental, ‘secondwind’ is as pleasant and listenable as it is challenging and tragic.

Listen to ‘secondwind’ on Soundcloud.
Photo: Tony Manis


* Remarkably for how self-assured it comes across, ETA tells us that this was the first beat he ever made—about seven or eight years ago.

J Sijnja

The Goobs! – Date Night (ALBUM REVIEW)

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Here is one of those wonderful narratives that starts in the middle, only to end up right back at the start. The penultimate song shares with us the romantic platitude that ‘you just don’t rush the start’ (‘Takin’ it Slow’), but this seems to be exactly what the EP does. It is far from a bad thing—more a canny expurgation of impure thoughts (like a wank before a date) than anything else—and if you paid attention only to the hook in ‘Body Parts,’ the album’s triumphant opener, you might think you were on the right thematic track. ‘I don’t want your heart, I want your body parts,’ Carson Brom sings, but the message is not nearly as lascivious as this lyric could suggest: instead of an expression of carnal desire, it is a lament for the pain of another at the same time as it is a study in self-deprecation, ending with a repeated ‘pretty sure I wasted all your time.’ The music belies the introspection evident in the lyrics, and the buoyant mood it creates continues into ‘Beef Burn Rd.’ (an offbeat ode to the transcendent power of meat, and as a direct result my favourite track on the album) and beyond.

In ‘Picture Day’ this mood again confuses the existential concern at the heart of the track: ‘can you tell me why I don’t want to die for you, or any of the others?’ She won’t tell him why, and he tells us this in that familiar four-tone trip up a major scale that efficiently evokes the sound of all the garage pop that came before it. But as we reach the big night, things take a turn for the mellow. Most of the songs on Date Night adhere to a simple chorus-plus-two-verse structure, and this structure is most effective in ‘Date Nite!’ as it weaves together longing and regret, flattery and a subtle kind of manipulation, ending in a slightly unexpected but wholly reassuring resolution. Date night is over, but on the whole it seems to have gone reasonably well. After the brief instrumental ‘Pete’s Flat Top Shop’ plays us out, Date Night, too, is over, but unlike the real thing, this is one that we are allowed to play over and over again.

Hear/buy Date Night here.

Columns

The Week in Reviews

Alan Vega

Suicide – ‘Frankie Teardrop’
Alan Vega died this week. I don’t have much by way of an obituary. I never knew much about him. I knew more about Suicide, but mostly that I liked them. I was seventeen when I found a copy of their self-titled album on my high school’s art computer and spent that night listening to it constantly.

Eventually I was looping the ten minutes of pain that was ‘Frankie Teardrop,’ wondering how I could make something like this. Not long after I stopped writing melodies and bought a loop pedal to make my guitar sound like a drum machine.

It was years before I got a real one, a drum machine, and I still can’t get it to sound like Vega and Rev did – like something being sequenced way off in the distance with an energy that felt machinic and frantic – the bass and synth moving with it, tempo-wise, but with Vega’s vocals and the song’s samples appearing out of the song, independent of the rhythm, and better for it. Where the rest of Suicide’s tracks sound like processed pop music from the last 20 years to that point, ‘Frankie Teardrop’ was sparse, paranoid, and angry in a way that I don’t think existed before and haven’t heard since.

It changed how I wrote music, and Suicide may well be the only artist where I haven’t sought out their other releases because the album I had was enough. But a lot of what I’m saying here is retrospective – I’ve been listening to ‘Frankie Teardrop’ constantly for the last hour and each time I’m hearing something that I’ve had in my head and am shocked at how much an artist I (admittedly) don’t listen to that much so thoroughly shaped my tastes and musical direction.

I still wish I could get that drum pattern right and sing over it like Vega does, I wish I could sound so ahead of my time like Suicide does. But time caught up with Alan. Rest In Peace.

Juelz Santana – Back Like Cooked Crack 2
Inspired by Pitchfork’s ‘Top Mixtapes of the Millennium’ list, I’ve been spending some time browsing DatPiff and LiveMixtapes in search of the best free music from the past decade-and-a-half. Perhaps it would be a stretch arguing that this Juelz Santana tape is up there with the best, but unlike a few choices on the otherwise solid Pitchfork list (i.e. offerings from Drake & Chance), it’s actually a free mixtape (I don’t quite buy the “if the artist calls it a mixtape, it’s a mixtape” definition) and a highly rewarding listen. In the past I’d glossed over Juelz as a Cam’ron/Lil Wayne sidekick, somehow forgetting his impassioned guest spots on tracks like ‘Nothin On Me’, ‘Hey Ma,’ and ‘Money Over Bitches’. Jules is charismatic and his stilted-yet-smooth flow is the perfect metaphor for the less-polished mixtape format. He complains about his label, raps over some popular beats (sometimes for just a verse), there’s a big single (‘Mic Check’) and a few badly-mixed skits, some good moments are cut short (‘Yup Yup’) yet the whole thing goes on for too long. Like any good mixtape it’s perfect for a listen or two before you pick your favourite tracks to return to later (for reference mine are ‘Back Like Cooked Crack’, ‘Bandana’, ‘I’m Hot You Ain’t’) and it’s a great reminder that free often equals good.

Columns

The Week in Reviews

Young Dolph

Young Dolph – ‘Facts’
There’s something vaguely threatening about the production on King of Memphis, a subtly sinister, carnivalesque taunt that runs through the album and makes itself known almost immediately in this opening track. If I didn’t know any better I would try to link the sound to the place, to the South; of course this is fallacious reasoning, unsettled as soon as we recall (for example) the grime correlation. But the impulse to do so is grounded in (and hopefully made legitimate by) a desire to see some stronger connection to Memphis in the tracks following on from ‘Facts.’ Dolph raps that he is to Memphis what Drake is to Toronto, but there is little sense of the inverse, that Memphis is to Dolph what Toronto is to Drake.And the frustrating thing is that he does such good work in this opener to situate himself among his forbears and contemporaries, to stake his claim, before he comprehensively shifts his concern, for the rest of the album, to the pursuit and realisation of a slightly more hackneyed goal (one best summed up in the following lyric from ‘Get Paid’: “Rule number 1, get the money first / Rule number 2, don’t forget to get the money”). Listen to ‘Facts’ for its swells of confidence and its surprising mixture of audacity and vulnerability; listen to the rest of King of Memphis for a less ambitious echo of the later part of the ‘Facts’ hook: “Bill time comin’ up and guess who pay the rent.”

Columns

The Week in Reviews

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Devin the Dude – ‘Georgy’
Devin the Dude is the kind of rapper who is less a ‘rapper’ than a good talker. He style is simple, and his delivery lacks the enthusiasm that comes naturally to most rappers. It often feels like he doesn’t give a fuck if you’re listening or not, but he’s a natural storyteller and his lackadaisical approach undoubtedly increases his appeal as the everyday “dude” (see Devin’s album cover or The Big Lebowski for context). ‘Georgy’ is a prime example of this talent. My favourite aspect was initially the beat, which faithfully replicates a sample from Toto’s ‘Georgy Porgy,’ a monster disco/rock track that in all fairness I probably like more. But whereas Toto’s original is a repentant love song, Devin plays narrator in the story of the “two-time cheat” George, who is “taking them, breaking them, faking them out / He just be kissing the girls and making them cry.” I find it’s easy to miss Devin’s lyrics, which comfortably wash over me, but his storytelling is rewarding when I’m included to listen more closely. So by listening to ‘Georgy’ you have two very agreeable options: you can happily lose yourself in your thoughts, soundtracked by Toto and Devin’s infectious calmness, or you can enjoy focusing on Devin as he describes George meeting his grisly end (“In the bed wit’ no clothes just waitin’ to die”).

Madvillain – Madvillainy
The quiet town of Motuoapa lies on the southern shore of Lake Taupo, a fifteen-minute drive from Turangi’s Burger King. The location is magnificent: waterskiing and fishing are just down the road, in the lake, and the slopes of Mt Ruapehu are less than an hour away. My parents, sensing its utility, bought the house on Parekarangaranga Street in 1993.

It – the house – is not much to behold. It has a stick-on brick exterior, and a lounge room that captures better than any words could the concept of New Zealand kitsch: above the fireplace, in pride of place on the wall, hangs a stuffed trout caught in the lake. In 2013, convinced we needed a break from our work, two of us headed there, lighting fires even though it was perhaps too warm, in September, to do so; we spent the week mountain biking, playing tennis on courts so concrete that our new balls were almost dead after three sets, making fun of the names of boats in the marina.

Indoors, experimental fingers were laid on the piano only to find that it was ten years out of tune; games of Scrabble were played and, by me, all too often lost. We watched Shallow Grave on a laptop screen, slightly improving upon the basics by plugging in a set of speakers, only one of which faultlessly worked. We would drink gin one night and whiskey the next, starting always with some choice New Zealand beer. Dinner was too often noodles with a fried egg on top, and after one such meal I heard Madvillainy for the first time. On the drive back to Auckland we listened to a lot of Nick Cave, and I wonder now how conscious an attempt this was to restore the cultural hierarchy – or the balance we were raised to believe was tipped in Australia’s favour.

Columns

The Week in Reviews

Kodak Black

The Nevada Strange – ‘Crawlspaces’
There was a time, around 2007-2010, where Sydney looked like it was directed by David Lynch. What were hardcore bands found cowboy hats, reverb pedals, cut their tempos in half, and for a time dressed in such a way (black, mostly) that they were easily confused with Orthodox Jews. The shows were badly lit, smoky, and the songs seemed lit by neon – lyrics about violence, sodomy and addiction written in such a way that invited incredulity from anyone who didn’t know the person who was singing. It burnt out soon enough, heroin will do that, but not before The Nevada Strange released Drowned By Law.

Really, the EP is the scene’s headstone: Some people died, others went to rehab (or Melbourne), and The Nevada Strange broke up soon after it came out. Come 2011, I found myself 18 years old with nothing to go to.* But it had to end, and now I’m glad it ended the way it did, with Drowned By Law’s last track: ‘Crawlspaces.’

Beginning with a bassline that circles like a predator, the song’s sense of fucked-up lethargy hits with the snare drum and ultimately defines it. It’s a journey from some unnamed club into lyrical and musical abstraction: From fixating on a disco ball to climbing through someone’s window to self-harm. Musically, from clean (vaguely threatening) tones on the guitar to distorted incoherence. And like in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the unhinged guitars (and the images it invokes) are juxtaposed with the metronomic rhythm section, generating the same sense of weird, substance-mediated hedonism that we see in this scene.

It’s the sound of an ending, of the EP and ultimately the scene. There was meant to be an album (so I was told in 2012), but it’s never come out and this scene strikes me as one of the more under-recorded moments in Australian music. But at least it was summed up in the shape of ‘Crawlspaces’ before it all ended. And what an ending it is.

Kodak Black – Lil B.I.G. Pac
Like many rappers, Kodak Black doesn’t stray far from the work of the legends who inspired him. As many others have commented (including Kodak himself) the Florida rapper belongs strongly in the lineage of Gucci Mane and Boosie Badazz, who not-so-coincidentally are the only two rappers joining him on this tape. Kodak however is more than just your average biter; he manages to emulate these heroes, even if he chooses to reference two other icons in the mixtape’s artwork. Like Gucci, Kodak has a knack for flows that morph naturally into great hooks, and to introduce Gucci on ‘Vibin In This Bih’, Kodak does his best Gucci impression: “Hitting licks, now I’m dropping hits, mouthpiece cost a brick”. Like Boosie, Kodak’s bravado and introspection constantly intersect as he raps in his similarly distinctive Southern tone. ’Can I’ is the best example, a medley of contradictions about fame, money, confidence and sex, blending matters of life and death with the prosaic: “What if the trolls roll up on me right? Should I run? / Can I take you out to lunch?”. In these musings Kodak never feels aimless or lost; instead he builds a self-portrait of strength and resilience, suggesting that like both Boosie and Gucci, Kodak will likely be able to construe his latest adversity – his current incarceration – into another mythos-building episode. To quote Gucci’s verse,“[I] walk around the club like I walked around the yard.”


* Bar the odd show by Brisbane’s Slug Guts,who managed to stick around for another two years and put out their best work, Howling Gang, in 2011. This blurb, however, is about Sydney.