Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » February
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On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

One of Los Angeles’ most interesting bands, Autolux straddles the line between accessible indie-rock and artsy, explorative experimentalism on Transit Transit, their second full-length album and the group’s first since 2004’s acclaimed Future Perfect (Red Ink). Drawing from shoegaze, post-punk, and Krautrock, the band creates atmospheric, guitar-driven compositions using understated male/female vocals. A certain minimalist aesthetic permeates the album, leaving plenty of space and breathing room for listeners. Although My Bloody Valentine and the shoegaze genre those Brits inspired are clearly influences, Autolux also dabbles in beats and colors from the world of electronica. Sonic Youth’s another touchstone for this record, as “Census” uses a spare, angular guitar riff that would fit in on most any of the New York band’s albums.

Other instruments, apart from guitars, provide mood and color over the course of Transit Transit’s run time, though. Built upon blocks of melancholic piano chords, the opening title track and the languorous “Spots” are key-driven and at least vaguely reminiscent of Radiohead. Thom Yorke was impressed enough with this band, in fact, to invite them to open for his Atoms for Peace project on recent live dates.

Working in minor key moods, creating works of sophistication and atmosphere, “Supertoys,” the album’s first single, stands out and features a lilting vocal melody. Autolux isn’t really a catchy band despite “Audience #2” ranking as another memorable tune, even while the song’s melody is drenched in creatively manipulated guitar feedback. Evidenced by the group’s fan-base running from Silverlake hipsters to Trent Reznor and the Coen Brothers, Autolux is a talented lot. And while Transit Transit won’t completely blow you away, it’s a satisfying, accomplished release able to please fans and find appreciative ears.

Portland, Oregon, indie-pop band Little Beirut seem to have a thing or three to say concerning the pursuit of the fairer sex on the group’s third effort, the self-effacing Fear of Heaven. Frontman Hamilton Sims sings about a blue plate specialist who wants to dance to Roxy Music on “Cosmic Waitress,” the life of a former Olympian during “Nadia,” and the lingering scent of young romance permeates “Cigarette Girls.” This is not new territory – previous outing High Dive (2008) featured a song partially devoted to ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example – but Little Beirut have fine-tuned their focus.

Things haven’t changed much since 2004 when the group copped their name from a description for Portland which was used by then President George H.W. Bush’s staff after violent protests that occurred during his visits to Oregon in the early 1990s.

When Little Beirut began they sought to create unprepossessing pop music that could or would sneak up on listeners. Nothing weird or avant-garde, just cool little breaks and memorable hooks – the same aspects Big Star or The Posies once aspired to. Fear of Heaven retains the eminent harmonies and appealing melodies Little Beirut’s always supplied, pop supported by a rock foundation striking a careful balance between pop traditionalism and indie free spirit. With Fear of Heaven, Little Beirut reached their goals. This is a big, fat pop record with elements and influences that, at different points, evoke The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, or even Coldplay.

One of several highlights is the riffing “Nadia,” a jangly pop tune inspired by the biography of Nadia Comaneci, the14-year-old girl who scored a perfect 10 seven times in a row during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. As gymnastic fans might know, she led an unpleasant existence behind the Iron Curtain, defected to the West in the late 1980s, and eventually settled in Oklahoma. Sims’ oblique lyrics offer indirect details about an adolescent athlete who cracked under pressure, attempted suicide, and had to deal with a government who watched her every move.

Another famous personage may or may not have been the motivation behind a pair of  songs. During the somber ballad “Tallulah, How Long,” Sims has a heart-to-heart with a mysterious woman. “Welcome back to life / From dancing with the dead / Whet your appetite with the demons in your head.” The lines could allude to controversial actress Tallulah Bankhead, notorious for her sexual exploits, hard partying, and extravagance. Her inner-afflictions led to many prominent displays. One of Bankhead’s noteworthy film roles took place in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), and it’s probably no coincidence that Little Beirut’s imagery-tinted and metaphor-inclined piece, “Lifeboat,” uses the same name. Here, Sims’ text loses all sense of immediacy and instead relies on enigmatic phrases. “There’s a lifeboat on a tightrope / In my air-conditioned mind / There’s a lifeboat stuck in my throat / And I’m running out of time.”

However, on sprightly, mid-tempo indie rocker “No One Special,” Sims is more straightforward. There’s a bit of Ben Gibbard’s melodramatic flair mixed with a pop-happy rhythmic lightness, as Sims croons, “I’m a doormat, if you please / Your personal parentheses / I built the altar of devotion / Would you take my love to task? /And our splendor in the grass?” While the nod to William Inge may be accidental, Sims’ representation of a failed relationship is sincere. Sims is no Morrissey, but gets as close to espousing romantic angst as anyone else.

Throughout this 46-minute, 12-track project, Little Beirut and producer Chris Robley slip in nuanced pop ingredients that give the material instrumental depth, though it might be overlooked on the first listen. The brooding “Armageddon Rag” begins with a spooky organ accenting the end-of-the-earth demeanor. Another violence-sliced number, “True Swords,” opens with echoed harmonica and concludes with atmospheric acoustic piano, together providing a gauzy layer which emphasizes Sims’ broken down wordplay.

Fear of Heaven might not the biggest selling release this year nor will it win the college rock sweepstakes, but this is a Pacific Northwest band that understands pop know-how can reap rewards beyond the usual trappings of success.

Marcus Lambkin is a Dublin-born, James Murphy-blessed DJ now recording under the moniker Shit Robot. Lambkin met Murphy when they shared an office space and the two have been knob-twiddling together for over a decade now. It comes as no surprise then that, at times, From the Cradle to the Rave sounds a lot like an LCD Soundsystem spin-off.

“Tuff Enuff” opens the album and glides along effortlessly in a proto-Kraftwerk groove. It features Lambkin’s first ever stab at vocals. Murphy actually prompted him to grab the mic after making up the (admittedly minimal) lyrics on the spot. It’s a good example of the collaboration between the two, which clearly provides structural support for Lambkin’s first full-length release after about 20 years as a DJ.

Shit Robot clearly belongs within the DFA fold, but existing comparisons to LCD Soundsystem may frame Lambkin’s work unfairly. Regardless of Murphy’s assistance in producing From the Cradle and providing vocals for a couple tracks, Shit Robot doesn’t occupy the same dimensions created by the cerebral ruminations so often accompanying LCD’s better efforts.

Any love found on the floor of the discotheque in “I Found Love” feels a little clinical, even as the track’s clearly Kraut-inspired in its monotony. Initially somewhat infectious, that track grows grating after a couple of listens. “Triumph!!!” also proves a bland, noodly number despite featuring Murphy’s vocals. Unfortunately, what one lacks in inspiration can’t be made up for by exclamation marks. “I Got a Feeling” distills a little more soul, gradually escalating deep into house territory over its eight minutes. You hear Murphy’s and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Talking Head’s jingle/clank influence here, too. But Murphy’s imprimatur is nowhere more apparent than on “Take ‘Em Up,” the LP’s centerpiece and apparently Lambkin’s favorite track – think LCD’s “Get Innocuous” with Nancy Whang intoning “We can normalize” repeatedly. If the track’s guilty of sitting too closely to the LCD blueprint, who cares? It still provides listeners with some of the most gorgeous moments on the album.

Elsewhere, “Losing My Patience” benefits from Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor and his idiosyncratic vocal talent, whereas “Grim Receiver” offers the most grit, adding grinding guitars into the mix along with vocals by The Juan MacLean. “Answering Machine” has the greatest legs, though, incorporating sampled strings, a wickedly catchy refrain and pointed lyrics. “You’ve got to come and talk to me,” sings Planningtorock’s Janine Rostron, injecting a critique of our own increasingly robotic lifestyles. “It’s not going to work through that machine.” Her aching vocals encourage you to shrug yourself out of a digital cloud and long for corporeal appetites.

Imperial Bedrooms is a severely over written book.  Every sentence is the most effected version of all possibilities. Descriptions are over dramatic (CNN: “images  of a mosque in flames, ravens flying against the scarlet sky”) and characters don’t speak so much as declare with lines like, “Guys my age are idiots.” “I have news for you… So are guys my age.” And “We can’t talk over the phone.” “Why Not, Blair?” “Because none of these lines are secure.” – which occurs at the end of a chapter, to double underscore the sense of tension.  If those lines make the book sound unreadable, it isn’t.  In fact, it’s one of Bret Easton Ellis’ finest.

Most artists, professional or amateur, begin by aping their influences.  Jules Verne borrowed both idea and style from Edgar Allan Poe. Arshile Gorky’s early works are an amalgamation of Cézanne and Picasso.  Through some mysterious process of repetition and deviation, a personal style is formed and carried through the twilight of the artist’s career.  With Ellis, it seems the opposite holds true.  Less Than Zero was uniquely stylized when it was released in 1985, its closest match coming in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984), published too recently to allow for serious imitation.  The Rules of Attraction (1987) and American Psycho (1991) worked well, understandable given the similar content.  And then Glamorama (1998) was released.  Its quality is debatable, but if you enjoy Tom Clancy novels, odds are long you’d enjoy Glamorama.

His return to form in Lunar Park (2005) was not to a form his own.  Instead, Ellis’ last book channeled Stephen King with such uncanny ability, it came off as the sequel to Black House King never wrote.  With Imperial Bedrooms, the inspiration is Raymond Chandler, its setting a seedy Los Angeles ruled by a flawed and wealthy elite.  The protagonist, Clay from Less Than Zero, is not a gum shoe but a 45-year-old writer.

Much like Paul Auster did with his New York Trilogy, Ellis strips away noir’s excess baggage.  There’s no hooker with a heart of gold, nor is there an obvious villain.  There is a murder, but neither revenge nor justice matter.  There are two femme fatales, but the question of whether Clay will seduce them (he does) or be seduced by them (he is) seems peripheral at best.  Violence, traditionally perpetrated upon the protagonist by faceless goons as a method of engendering audience sympathy, takes place off screen – the only violent acts seen are perpetrated by Clay, and they’re too gruesome to elicit sympathy.

What, then, remains of noir? The pulpy writing, of course, plus moral depravity (reminiscent of filmic works by Jules Dassin) and, most importantly, noir’s defining characteristic, an unrelenting feeling of unease.

Ellis builds upon this feeling, fleshing it out with his own motifs.  From the book’s much publicized first sentence (“They had made a movie about us.”) readers are introduced to an off-key version of a familiar world.  The Clay of Imperial Bedrooms is no longer the Clay of Less Than Zero, but he still embodies the isolated, inhuman personality type seen in American Psycho. The egg shell business cards have been replaced by the green-glow of cell phone screens. In Ellis’ universe, though, both are used to distance characters from each other instead of bringing them together.  Zegna suits from Italy have been replaced with LA’s own Band of Outsiders, but brands are still used to distract, not define.

Imperial Bedrooms is pulpy noir; it’s a Bret Easton Ellis book.  It excels at both, but by this point those two genres, in and of themselves, will attract or repel most readers.  If you’re still unable to decide, consider that the book’s short enough to read within an idle weekend even as the ideas and feelings are presented with such skill, they’ll leave you feeling uneasy for much longer than that.

In Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic The Doors, there’s a scene in which the embryonic outfit retreats to the California desert to sample the mind-blowing effects of peyote. An intense moment of self-discovery, it sets the mood for the remainder of the film, serving as signifier for the band’s unbreakable, brotherly bond. A similar epiphany, it seems, befell UK space-rockers Klaxons during their sabbatical between debut and sophomore albums. Introduced to shamanistic South American hallucinogen Ayahuasca by a New York yoga teacher, the outfit went through a deep personal cleansing process during the writing and recording of Surfing the Void, their 2010 follow-up to 2007’s Myths of the Near Future (released in Europe last August, Void was only just released Stateside in a physical format in January 2011 by tinyOGRE).

Used as a religious sacrament by Peruvian Amerindians, Ayahuasca is a purgative psychedelic that opens up a window to the soul. Taken in the rainforest during intense, ten day vomit-inducing sessions, it’s far more than a recreational drug, producing a trance-like state in which the user is said to enter the world of the spirits. Name-checked by musicians from Sting and Paul Simon to Devendra Banhart and Paul Butler of The Bees, Ayahuasca has become the plant medicine of choice for a new crop of musicians eager to embrace internal self-discovery as a key part of the creative process. A huge influence on Klaxons guitarist Jamie Reynolds, it helped the band throw off the shackles of nu-rave and re-emerge as one of Britain’s finest rock bands.

A dense, lysergic maelstrom, Surfing the Void finds the former Mercury Music Prize winners refreshed and reinvigorated three years on from the release of their acclaimed debut. Recorded in Long Beach, California, with the Godfather of nu-metal Ross Robinson (Limp Bizkit, Korn, Slipknot, Vanilla Ice), this new offering’s far meatier than the poppy indie-disco on Myths Of the Near Future, embracing psychedelia, punk, electro, and prog. Written and produced in an intense four month period at Robinson’s house cum recording space, it’s a startling and original album laden with fantastical imagery.

Making the mistake of entering the studio with no new material, the four-piece wasted a lot of time and money during the early sessions for Surfing the Void. Contrary to reports in the British press, though, the band’s label, Polydor, didn’t reject an album’s worth of songs.  Concerned the first batch of tracks they’d recorded weren’t true to the spirit of Klaxons, the band made a decision to start again from scratch, ditching original producer James Ford (Test Icicles, Simian Mobile Disco, Florence & The Machine, Arctic Monkeys) in favor of Robinson.  Bringing with him a unique, soul-searching production style, the sessions with Robinson yielded some of the the band’s most accomplished material to date. From the breathtaking new-wave of lead single “Echoes” to the explosive electro-punk of the title track, Surfing the Void surprises and confounds at every turn.

Emerging from the overbearing glare of expectation, Klaxons have unleashed a ferocious blast of electronica-driven space-rock few would have expected. Fueled by a heavy dose of South American psychedelics, the band have firmly established themselves among Britain’s dance-rock heavyweights. With the addition of live drummer Steffan Halperin, Klaxons have grown into the tight, well-oiled outfit they never expected to be. Skyscraper caught up with singer/keyboardist James Righton to get the lowdown on the ensemble’s latest disc and what went into its creation.

Skyscraper: Firstly, how are things going?
James Righton: Things are going good; slightly jet lagged but good. We’ve just got back from a flying visit to Australia and Japan.

Skyscraper: You’ve also just released your sophomore LP Surfing the Void. What’s the reaction been like?
JR: I can only really gauge reaction from the shows we’ve played and it definitely feels like the new songs have slotted seamlessly into the set. You can tell people are still digesting the new record and trying to sing lyrics to songs that haven’t quite sunk in yet, which is cool. “Echoes” at present gets the biggest reaction in the set, which is a good sign.

Skyscraper: Tell me a bit about the album.
JR: It was recorded in Los Angeles with Ross Robinson between November and February last year. We lived and recorded at Ross’s house in Venice and spent an amazing four months under his watchful eye. All the songs were written beforehand so our time in LA was firstly spent in pre-production: tweaking and fine tuning. Once that was done, it was all about capturing the feel and essence of the songs.

Skyscraper: There’s been a lot of talk in the UK press about the length of time that elapsed since Myths Of the Near Future was released. Why’d you feel it was so important to not rush the follow-up?
JR: Because we had to write an album that we loved from start to finish and made sense as a whole. We didn’t want to put out a record we didn’t have a hundred percent conviction in or a record with a couple of singles and the rest filler. The album had to be something we all loved.

It’s quite strange, the fascination the UK press – and it is just the UK press – seems to have over the length of time the album took to make, especially when three years seems like a normal amount of time. You look at the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire, or The Strokes and you see that most bands spend a similar amount of time between records. Ideas and songs need time to grow before they’re ripe for release.

Skyscraper: You’ve said that most of the album was written pretty quickly. How important was it for you to capture that sense of urgency on record?
JR: The majority of the record was actually written in a couple of sessions over the course of a couple of months. the songs came quite easily once we woke up and remembered who we were as a band. The sense of urgency or relentlessness of the record is merely a manifestation of where we are at this moment in time. I also thing, you don’t want an album to let go of the listener and Surfing the Void doesn’t let go. The excitement of playing as a live band over the last four or five years and understanding what works probably had something to do with it as well.

Skyscraper: Tell me about your relationship with producer Ross Robinson.
JR: Ross is producer, therapist, and all round good guy rolled into one. He’s our collective father.

Skyscraper: You’ve said that working with him was very much a cleansing experience. Tell me about that.
JR: Working with Ross is a highly cathartic experience. Once you enter into his world there’s no hiding. Before any take, you all have to delve into what the song is about and why you are here making it happen. There’s a natural cleansing as a result of the honesty you all have to give.

Skyscraper: You’ve described lead single “Echoes” as a bridge between the two albums. How do you think your sound has evolved over the last three years?
JR: Our sound is bigger, more confident and more accomplished than its ever been. I also think it’s more soulful. “Echoes” bridges the gap as it maintains our melodic, pop sensibility.

Skyscraper: You arrived on a wave of near-universal praise with Myths Of the Near Future, picking up the Mercury Music Prize, NME’s Best New Band, and kick-starting the whole nu-rave scene in the process. Do you feel that the roller-coaster’s finally stopped and you can get on with the job of being musicians?
JR: I don’t know. Looking back that was strange, exciting and wonderful period of time. I do feel, though, that only now we’re starting as a band. It’s got a lot to do with the addition of Steff on the drums. For the first time we’re a proper band and not just an idea. We’re stronger as friends and better at our instruments. We’re in a good place.

Skyscraper: I read that you partied for a month after winning the Mercury Music Prize. What did you get up to?
JR: Just the usual hedonistic band things.

Skyscraper: How big an influence was Ayahuasca on the new album?
JR: I guess it was helpful in changing attitudes. I know Jamie felt a need to search for something and Ayahuasaca helped him realize there was no need as it was already there.

Skyscraper: What are your plans for the future?
JR: We’re touring for the foreseeable future, but we have one eye on the next record. There’s a collective understanding and desire for the next record to be the game changer.