Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » April
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By now, it’s comforting to know what we can expect in a new Mogwai effort: the rising tension, the static release, the occasional stab at mumbled lyrics. So, when you pick up Mogwai’s latest release (presuming you’re still physically grappling with music at all these days), you can admire its striking cover photo of New York City from a strangely alien view on the Hudson, and you can safely make the purchase knowing Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will is a solid, if sometimes predictable, addition to the growing Mogwai canon.

“White Noise” makes for a smart opener. It sounds like a flower slowly unfurling, radiant, eventually exposing a thorn or two to glisten in the sun. It’s a grower, typical of Mogwai’s songs, but idiosyncratic enough to sound fresh, slightly pungent. Then, “Mexican Grand Prix” pulls into view. The robotic, stereophonic vocals, which soon break in, match the propulsive pace of the song, offering a few minimalist lyrics for those who demand such things, while really serving simply as texture, atmosphere. They also sound like something The Cars might’ve conjured up 30 years ago after partying with Kraftwerk – and not in a bad way. Indeed, it’s a funky (dare I use the “f” word in regards to Mogwai?) album highlight. Later, “George Square Thatcher Death Party” also features a stab at vocoded vocals. At 3:59, it’s not particularly long for a Mogwai song; nor does it prove particularly memorable. “How to Be a Werewolf” follows that, and it drifts along with a thudding beat, but even as it grows in intensity, it never pounces to sink its teeth in either. Mogwai phoning it in, I’m afraid. Slightly more compelling is “Too Raging to Cheers” which follows, bearing a lilting, vaguely Eastern vibe to it.

Additional highlights include “Rano Pano,” which falls into your music-which-could-appear-in-a-zombie-movie-chase-scene category, which is a good thing, since Danny Boyle probably has another installment of 28 Days Later in the works. Despite its resident, rising tension, however, “Rano Pano” maintains a subtle injection of levity, which may disqualify it from appearing in any horror movie soundtracks.”Death Rays” follows that and strolls through almost pastoral, faintly regal territory, chiming along before what sounds like organ. Those two songs, along with the more electrifying, if somewhat attenuated “San Pedro,” form a solid, more typically instrumental core for the album. “Letters to the Metro” rounds out this center and sounds incredibly delicate and ephemeral, romantic even, compared to so much of the Glasgow-based lads’ more visceral handiwork. If some fans find this center stretch of the album a little mushy, it’s still clear evidence that the band remains willing to explore new directions.

As for the effort’s closer, fans will know not to expect “You’re Lionel Ritchie” to sound nearly as saccharine as anything the esteemed Mr. Ritchie has ever concocted. Instead, it opens with some mumbled ramblings, not unlike the sampled street conversation you’d hear backgrounding a composition by Mogwai’s post-rock brethren Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Then, the tune slips into a slow, slinky rhythm of building guitars against light drumming, until, at precisely four minutes in, the heavier guitarwork breaks through forming the cloud of crunchy static you always knew was coming.

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.

Throughout their multi-decade career the instrumental California Guitar Trio has put a unique mark on other musician’s work, from Duke Ellington to Queen, while creating music which crosses and combines many genres. The trio’s newest release, Andromeda, however, is the first California Guitar Trio album comprised of all original compositions and dispenses with other artists’ material. Notably, the trio’s latest project also celebrates two anniversaries: the group has been together for two decades, while the title and cover art refer to the 20th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Paul Richards, Bert Lams, and Hideyo Moriya initially met in 1987 when they studied with guitar whiz Robert Fripp and subsequently toured as part of Fripp’s League of Crafty Guitarists. Afterward they reconvened in Los Angeles where they founded The California Guitar Trio in 1991. While the members no longer live in Southern California, they have maintained their geographically-specific name. Ever since the friends partnered, Richards, Lams, and Moriya have utilized acoustic – and on occasion electric – guitars to showcase their extensive tastes, retranslating or adapting folk, surf rock, classical, progressive rock, and other styles into a singular sound. Andromeda follows a similar path as previous outings, but the blend of acoustic (analog) and electric (digital) with various other influences is more pronounced.

The California Guitar Trio has never focused on eclecticism as the sole purpose for existence. The band’s myriad performance nature is just a means to an end. Like Frank Zappa’s oeuvre, there is a larger conception which connects the music. For example, doing cover songs is not a gimmick. For The California Guitar Trio, interpretation is related to progression, development and reevaluation: they shape familiar music, such as fan favorite “Bohemian Rhapsody,” into distinctive arrangements. Now the threesome has moved forward with 11 new tracks, which are a mix of through-composed pieces and integrated improvisational creations. The approach affords both spontaneity and careful consideration, music that is open-ended and also firmly controlled.

The 37-minute record starts out effectively with the chiming “Cathedral Peak,” which deftly merges a pastoral, acoustic tendency reminiscent of Steve Hackett’s solo work together with tempestuous sections which feature electric guitar and percussion. The bucolic inclination is echoed during the classically-tinged “Turn of the Tide,” where triple guitars repeat a melody over and on top of each other, resulting in ringing buildups where parallel notes are overlaid while arco bass glides beneath. Folk elements also ride through “Chacarera,” inspired by the Argentinean folk dance which is a rural counterpoise to the famous, metropolitan tango. The rhythmic tune uses the common pentatonic scale – five notes per octave – which furnishes cohesion to the competing chords so the guitars do not clash. The piece is also accentuated by percussion which has a vibraphone tone but probably is not. Another cut which has a dance disposition is the briskly paced “Hazardous Z,” which has a multi-tiered rhythmic sway due to a flamenco-stirred foundation. It also has a fusion quality which should appeal to Al Di Meola fans and provides food for thought: a California Guitar Trio and Di Meola alliance would be something to hear.

The expansively amplified material is subtly subversive. The acoustic/electric title track exploits reverb and digital loops to craft a wall of sound akin to Fripp’s sonic landscapes while distinctly nodding to minimalist Steve Reich. Play this track alongside “Electric Counterpoint,” Reich’s collaboration with Pat Metheny, to hear the comparison. Guitar harmonics are emphasized on the country-prog piece “Middle of TX,” which has a near razor-sharp electric attribute contrasted by a classical-music mood. The band neatly avoids a novelty effect which plagued outfits such as Sky, the 1980s quartet which endeavored to unite classical with pop or rock.

The briefest workings are the four dispersed improvisational cuts, highlighted by the too-short “Improv 8: Layered Circulation,” which uses repetitive figures to help form phased patterns; and the longer “Improv 9,” which displays the trio’s acoustic amiability. The one-minute “Improv 7” has promise but proves too undersized to be successful, while the album-concluding “Improv 1” has a proficient purity but edges too close to Michael Hedges’ new age territory.

As music fans and independent record store supporters prepare for the fourth annual Record Store Day this Saturday, April 16th, we here at Skyscraper thought we’d dust off this previously unpublished interview with filmmaker Brendan Toller, who directed, wrote, and edited the documentary I Need That Record!.

With over 3,000 independent record stores put out of business this past decade, Brendan Toller couldn’t help but notice all his favorite places to buy music were disappearing. So, he grabbed his video camera and hit the road to find out why stores were shuttering their windows all over America and what it means for independent businesses as a whole. The result is Toller’s documentary, I Need That Record!: The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store, which was completed in 2008 and released on DVD in 2010 (MVD Visual).

The film features commentary from many notable music figures, including: Chris Frantz (Talking Heads), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Bryan Poole (Of Montreal), Mike Watt (Minutemen), Patrick Carney (The Black Keys), Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group), Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers), Glenn Branca, punk author Legs McNeil, political theorist Noam Chomsky, and the heads of several record labels. Also included are the employees and patrons of record stores across the United States.

In this phone interview dating to the first Record Store Day in April 2008, Toller talks about his inspiration for this self-produced documentary, what he wanted the film to center on, and what the filmmaking experience taught him about where Americans spend money.

Skyscraper: Why’d you choose record stores as the focus for this film?
Brendan Toller: I grew up in Portland, Connecticut, next to Middletown, which was a bigger city, and they had a record store called Record Express. It was an independent chain across New England with about 13 stores, but around 2003 they were down to one store, which was the store closest to my house. I was actually in Los Angeles for an internship when I heard they were closing, and immediately felt like I needed to pick up a camera and do something about it. I sent my dad down thereand told him to interview the manager, Ian. He got all this footage of the store closing, the manager smashing the CD racks. It was weird when I got back to see the place just empty; it looked like any other room, and not the place that I always saw it as. It was was shocking to actually see it closed, and then to find out it was going to become a tanning salon – it just felt like a low blow.

That realization got the ball rolling. So, I had the idea, and decided to push through with it. I came up with a dream list of people to interview. I remember The Evens happened to be coming through Hartford, so after the show I stood in line to talk to Ian MacKaye [pictured below], told him about the movie and asked if I could get an interview. He agreed, so I kinda lucked out with that, because after you bring up Ian to certain people they agree [to participate], because they feel like they can’t say no.

Skyscraper: What kind of people did you try to talk to for this documentary?
BT: I have about 50 hours of interview footage, which is about 30 to 35 interviews. It’s a lot of record store people, some activists, some artists and writers, label people. But mostly it was record store people from across the country. I just went city to city, store to store, talking to people whose businesses were closing, people whose stores were thriving, and just trying to get a sense of what was going on out there. I think people’ll say the obvious answer is downloading, but I knew it was much deeper than that. There’re tons of reasons why these stores are closing, you know? Big-box stores, the state of FM radio, music journalism, major labels. It’s all these different reasons.

Skyscraper: How do you feel big-box music stores are affecting independent shops?
BT: It’s a much larger issue than just record stores. It’s the homogenization of the business world. How many cities across America do you see the same stretch of stores? The same McDonalds, same Best Buy, same Wal-Mart? The danger is that it’s taking the character of America away, and it’s threatening independent stores of all kinds. It used to be a dream to start your own business, and now it’s very, very hard to do.

As far as record stores versus big-box stores, I think it’s Wal-Mart that sells one-in-five of the CDs sold in the U.S. But you walk in and their selection sucks; it’s like two racks of terrible shit. You can’t even browse. And I wonder, “Do people even know there are still cool record stores left?” You’ll be lucky to find anyone at those big-box stores that’s going to give a damn about the music they sell. I remember Best Buy had some deal with a Paul Westerberg release. When I got down there to buy it, I had to wait an hour-and-a-half for someone to fish it out of the back room, and this was something that was promoted in their Sunday flier. I would have much rather gone to an independent store where people know who he is, and where they actually care about that kind of thing.

Skyscraper: But Best Buy and Wal-Mart always have the lower prices…
BT: Well, price is a huge motivator. When the Middletown Record Express closed, I apologized to the manager [Ian, pictured above], because for years I had gone to Best Buy to get certain titles. But he said, “Don’t be sorry, that’s your money. You spend it where you want.” It was in that moment I realized each time we spend money somewhere we’re casting a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.

Title Card & Film Stills: Courtesy Brendan Toller/Unsatisfied Films

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.

On their newest long-player, The Morlocks Play Chess, Los Angeles-based garage-punk rockers The Morlocks are not following in the steps of Bobby Fischer. Rather, The Morlocks plunder the back catalog of Chicago blues and early rock’n’roll label Chess Records.

The Morlocks have been around – off and on – for a quarter century and are regarded as one of California’s finest purveyors of down and dirty garage rock. Some may recognize that The Morlocks nicked their name from the subterranean cannibals who populated H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine. In a perverse rock’n’roll irony, The Morlocks’ own story would make a gripping book and/or movie: plot points include drug addiction, band members’ dissatisfaction, prison incarceration, an inaccurate announcement of the lead singer’s death, and the group’s subsequent reboot.

There’s a small but no less compelling chapter about how The Morlocks Play Chess got created. In 1999, Spin magazine incorrectly stated Morlocks singer Leighton Koizumi had overdosed and died. At the time, Koizumi was alive and well but near the end of a 10-year prison term for a botched drug robbery that involved kidnapping. Soon after leaving jail, Koizumi got sober and started to hit stages around Los Angeles with various bands, and a few years later reformed The Morlocks to tour and record: the upshot was the comeback album, Easy Listening for the Underachiever (2008), only released in Europe on the Italian label Go Down. However, copies did filter Stateside. Somebody in song licensing acquired a copy and the group soon found pieces of its catchier material used in television dramas and restaurant chain advertisements. One of the people who placed The Morlocks’ music in these mass media outlets went to work for Chess’ back catalog and initiated the idea that The Morlocks should do a Chess covers project, with this release on the Popantipop imprint the outcome.

While The Morlocks’ bluesy attitude appears well suited to such an endeavor, Koizumi relates that translating classic tunes like Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” and “Who Do You Love,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” and John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” was not an easy decision. The Morlocks researched many Chess-recorded songs, whittled the list down, and then rearranged the final choices in different ways – sometimes completely around until the group had something they could call their own. The 12-track, 31-minute result is music that avoids clichés by maintaining familiarity. The Morlocks do not stray extensively from the original songs’ foundation, but they do provide a stamp of individuality by marking each track with The Morlocks’ raw, fuzzy, and furious brand identity.

The Morlocks’ kick off madly with a stomping rave-up of “I’m a Man,” combining The Yardbirds’ psychedelic stance with Koizumi’s coarsened vocals that evoke Iggy Pop (one of Koizumi’s influences), as well as The New York Dolls’ David Johansen. When the guitars, drums, and bass escalate at the conclusion, it’s a sweaty blast of 1960s-laced exuberance. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” is another tune any Yardbirds’ listener should recognize, but rather than one more rave-up, The Morlocks turn it into a boiling blues shuffle that drips with dread and dismay: Koizumi does not replicate Wolf’s famous howl but does echo Wolf’s ominous intuition about what’s wrong with his woman.

One of the most renowned blues cuts here is John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” which British Invasion fans probably will point out was done by The Animals. The Morlocks execute it as a whomping and reverberating rave-up that is indebted neither to Hooker nor to The Animals, although smidgens of both can be heard in the low-down version, which is highlighted by Koizumi’s razorblade voice and a mud-splattered harmonica that rides atop the guttering guitar.

The Morlocks are not above showing how American blues had a huge impression on the British music scene and how blues songs were often built on other material. They introduce a gnashed interpretation of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Help Me” with the opening riff from The Who’s “My Generation,” which is a sly nod to the fact The Who covered Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” on their rock opera Tommy. Although The Morlocks’ performance is light years away from most other versions – it’s nothing like Van Morrison’s rendering, for example – the group does not disguise the fundamental main riff, which borrows heavily Booker T. & the MG’s “Green Onions.”

While there is no filler, The Morlocks seem more inspired on the blues configurations than the rock’n’roll oldies. Three Chuck Berry covers – “Promised Land,” “You Never Can Tell,” and closer “Back in the U.S.A.” – have a nostalgic tinge that lacks the impact and momentum of the blues-rooted pieces.

I’d lost track of Philadelphia’s Asteroid No. 4 over the years, but if their latest effort, Hail To The Clear Figurines, is anything to go by, they haven’t lost a step. Note to self: Investigate the back catalog items missing from my collection ASAP.

The group formed around 1995 and their debut EP from that year, CIA Took My Dog Away, as well as 1997’s full-length Introducing… Asteroid No. 4 (Lounge) and an assortment of compilation cuts, showcased an electrifying modern psych act bearing resemblance to Brian Jonestown Massacre and Spacemen 3. (Check out Asteroid’s stunning cover of the latter’s “Losing Touch With My Mind” on the excellent Rocket Girl label’s Spacemen 3 tribute album.) Since then the Philly based ensemble’s explored mod, garage, and the last time I saw them live in 2002, country rock. They were even sporting western shirts and suede jackets.

Hail To The Clear Figurines seems to incorporate a little of everything that’s made this band so good for so long, thus a fine starting point for the uninitiated. Opening the album with the hard-hitting “Wicked Wire,” a Nuggets-garage stomper, Asteroid No. 4 sounds like a perfect companion to The Standells. Nearly as great, “The Unknown” incorporates Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones with its tough guitar sound and sensitive supplemental harp. Speaking of Jones, “Ignition Slated For Eight” is reminiscent of another Stones classic, “2000 Light Tears From Home,” full of trippy effects and a hypnotic vocal melody drawing listeners in.

“Be Yourself, By Yourself” is the most “modern” sounding track on Hail, coming across as the perfect marriage of The Stone Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored” and Echo and The Bunnymen’s “Do It Clean.” “All False Reasons” is Byrdsian 12-string pop at its best, while “The Clear Figurines” could be a lost relic from Ray Davies’ finest hour on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. Another more obvious ode to The Kinks, “Sunny Day (One Afternoon)” is a perfect piece to play on a lazy sunny afternoons. Remember those?

Sick of zombies? This is different. Sort of. There’s no apocalypse in Vertigo’s iZombie series. Life is very much like our own day-to-day reality – no hordes of undead shuffling the streets, no small groups of human survivors. Everything’s pretty much normal, except for a girl named Gwen. See, Gwen’s dead. Aside from living in a graveyard and the fact that she eats brains once a month, Gwen passes as a contributing member of society. It’s an inversion of the typical zombie story. The world’s not overrun by decaying corpses. There’s just Gwen and the many others like her, few of whom are similarly zombies.

From the start of this first iZombie collection, Gwen’s almost always flanked by one of her two friends – a ghost and were-terrier. The ghost’s a girl named Ellie, a teenage mod who died in the 1960s. The twist on the typical werewolf is Scott, whom Gwen calls “Spot,” which the pup doesn’t mind, as he’s head-over-heels for our pale protagonist.

That’s hardly the least of it, though. iZombie has everything from a centuries-old mummy and monster hunters to a pack of female vampires who run a paintball business. Writer Chris Roberson packs so much into these first five issues of the series that finishing the graphic novel leaves a little to be desired. With all that’s been introduced, it’s evident that plot lines are going to start intersecting soon.

Despite all the many paranormal elements at play, though, iZombie is at heart a character-driven story about Gwen. She’s already dead by the time we meet her, and she has pretty much come to terms with her situation. Who she was before, how she died, and when she met Scott and Ellie are surely all things Roberson will get around to fleshing out in the future. And truthfully, the questions never really occurred to me until I started writing this review. There’s enough happening in these issues to keep those thoughts at bay.

In terms of actual story, this first volume of iZombie is something of a murder mystery. To keep from going full-on zombie, Gwen has to ingest brains once a month. Doing so allows her to hang on to her own memories, but also gives her the memories of those she eats. So, when she unknowingly cracks open the skull of a murder victim, Gwen feels compelled to get to the bottom of things.

The brain-eating is one of the more interesting aspects of iZombie and something which will no doubt make for interesting fodder in future stories. Still, the twist rings reminiscent of Image’s Chew; although, as with so much else about iZombie, Roberson so far succeeds at making this idea his own. Not to the book’s detriment, but that feeling of familiarity runs deep throughout this first volume – from the brooding main character with a quirk and the oddball friends to the forbidden love interest. At times everything from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Daria came to mind.

One complaint I have about this book is that it opens with a mini-story. In addition to collecting the first five issues of the series, the graphic novel also includes an iZombie short which appeared in the pages of Vertigo’s House of Mystery Halloween Annual #1. Although chronologically appropriate to put the mini-story at the opening of the book, it made for a rather redundant read. To open with the short story throws the book’s characters right at readers. It’s written in such a way that it almost assumes readers are familiar with Gwen, Ellie, and Scott. Having Issue #1 of the actual series follow this short ultimately does the inaugural issue somewhat of a disservice. Issue #1 of iZombie introduces Gwen and her supporting characters at an appropriate pace, but some of the big reveals in the issue, such as the fact that Gwen eats brains, are spoiled by the seven-page intro.

Overall, this first collection of iZombie is an enjoyable read with interesting takes on all the typical monster tropes. For a Vertigo series, though, it is sort of tame. But for as slow as the first few issues were in introducing the many characters at play, the fifth issue concludes the book with a hint that some really interesting stuff is on the way – having me on board for at least volume two.

Musicians have built records from wrecked manifestos for aeons at this point – hell, Woodie Guthrie cut the concept LP Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti in the late 1940s, beating out the self-serious path tread by Phil Ochs, Scritti Politti, Fugazi, and beyond. But few have cobbled together poli-sci bricolage with Ian Svenonius’ relentless scholarship and irony.  From the winking early 1990s youth revolution of Nation of Ulysses through The Make-Up’s gospel yeh-yeh, the theoretical self-mocking of his solo David Candy outing, and the stoned socialist fist-pumping of his Weird War, the singer’s made a career of tossed-off hipster affect, dressing up in retro pop clothing to scope style from within. Borne of the underground’s most authenticity-prone era, he’s somehow managed to remain pure persona, a Madonna or Prince-like closed space. Listening to Svenonius coo and shriek and lisp is to hear an entertainer erecting a recursive, ironic shell. Even when he yells, “Make me a feeling man!” (as on the Make-Up’s excellent “Save Yourself”), it sounds like pop’s emotional theater could actually exist in the real world. Any Gen-Xer worth his sneer knows rock music’s a crock of warmed-over id. And Svenonius proselytizes it. On his platters, feelings aren’t so much celebrated or bemoaned as they are confronted for internal paradoxes.

If this all sounds arch on paper, it’s not. At least, not completely.  Much like cultural critic/cynic forbears Lester Bangs and Politti’s Green Gartside, Svenonius takes a certain solace in figuring rock’s pathos, raking it over and rending potential evils impotent via deconstruction.  He has a gift for straight-faced absurdism, making Music’s Not for Everyone way more gleeful than it has any right to be. Where 2009’s Chain & The Gang debut, the rickety Down with Liberty… Up with Chains! (K), chuckled its way through theses both wonderfully deadpan (rock journ-baiting instaclassic “Interview with the Chain Gang”) and dull (a pile of anti-capitalist rambles), Everyone draws from an already developed essay – specifically, Svenonius’ “On the Misuse of Music” from August 2010’s Vice. Tenets established, he doesn’t have to invent anything here, just offer cheerfully dry eulogies for dead aesthetics and ponder pop music’s more nefarious, narcotic qualities.

That sort of freedom sets Svenonius loose as the most lucid guy in pop’s self-celebrating room. Opener “Why Not?,” with its a litany of indie-tropes, and the dead-eyed lecture masquerading as title track each examine rock music’s alluring abasement with modest arrangements, letting the composition shuffle with crippled will over haphazard grooves. “It’s a Hard, Hard Job (Keeping Everybody High),” almost a worker’s lament from the rock world, posits the musician’s task as pharmaceutical duty in society’s emotional dispensary. Puttering along at a flickering fluorescent light of a tempo, the song features a mournful duet with an anonymous female (though likely semi-famous one – his collective features a whole constellation of Pacific Northwest notables, including members of Dub Narcotic, Saturday Looks Good To Me, and Old Time Relijun). As an investigation of independent music’s psyche, “Not Good Enough,” packing a jumped up melody and tough love refrain, is Svenonius at his best and brashest, wielding an ego-frying brio.

The record wobbles, of course, and dips come mostly when it slips too far into the underground (i.e. “Detroit Music,” a two-part garage riff dump and tutorial for starting a Detroit rock band) or lays back on old ideas. Between rote class-commentary  like “(I’ve Got) Privilege” and multiple variations on “Why Not?,” as well as “Not Good Enough,” Everyone edges oddly close to a straight-up dearth of new ideas.  But when he’s on, Svenonius still probes like no one else, spinning his fresher gambits with an unflappable wit belying the resigned, cockeyed gaze he’s lately thrown at his day job.

Chain & The Gang may be a smoother cup of coffee than his last few bands, but the man can still work a meta mental-jolt like no other. At its best, Music’s Not For Everyone documents what makes Svenonius such a valuable part of our landscape. However well listeners think he pulls it off, they’re not likely to find another record so relentlessly engaged with its time or so obscurely concerned with the future of culture elsewhere in 2011’s oncoming deluge.

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. This is one of those.

When Swiss chemist Albert Hofman took the first hit of his newly synthesized drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, he could scarcely have imagined the impact it would have on popular culture. In the late 1960s, LSD dragged Britain and America out of a post-war monochrome and into a Technicolor age of new artistic possibilities. From Liverpool to Los Angeles, musicians began to recreate the woozy sound of their acid trips with extended instrumental jams, over-driven amps, and effects pedals. Pop grew up to become rock and anything, it seemed, was possible.

Channeling this golden age of psychedelia, Australian four-piece Tame Impala deliver a fine homage to Haight-Ashbury with their debut album Innerspeaker. In true stoner rock form, the band’s confessed to having little ambition to play their music outside a close circle of friends. That didn’t stop in-the-know Aussie indie imprint Modular from snapping them up, however. When the ensemble signed to the label in 2008, the band had no MySpace friends, one song in the player, and no self-released material. Three years on, Tame Impala’s self-produced debut has reinvigorated the antipodean Australian acid-rock scene in the wake of uninspiring 1970s copyists Jet and Wolfmother.

Fizzling with energy, Innerspeaker opens with queasy phased guitars sliding effortlessly over a snakelike Paul McCartney-esque bass line, soon giving way to hard-riffing pysch in the form of the explosive “Desire Be Desire Go.” “Alter Ego,” a tripped-out slice of sugary space-pop, recalls Lennon at his highest before “Lucidity” explodes in a fuzz-bomb of Jimmy Page power chords and Jerry Garcia solos. Lifting the riff from Hendrix’ 1967 classic “Manic Depression,” “Island Walking” is a bruising blues-waltz eventually morphing into a chilled out instrumental reminiscent of early Fleetwood Mac.

Album closer “I Don’t Really Mind” is an awesome exploration of the band’s substance-fueled vision. A séance for the ghosts of Syd Barrett, Lennon, Hendrix, and John Bonham, it’s a blurred vision of retro-modernity sounding like a long-lost garage rock classic while remaining utterly contemporary. Few current bands, Sacramento’s Ganglians aside, have made psychedelia sound so up-to-date. But if John and Paul had handed over the bus’ keys to George, Innerspeaker is the kind of taut acid-rock album the Fab Four would have made.

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.

In the mid-1990s, Berlin native Markus Popp began releasing music as Oval. The albums were refreshingly conceptual with the composer employing a John Cage-like philosophy. Popp’s work counts as archetypal of the period, informed by the avant-garde and merging with the then rapidly expanding digital technology fetish. Popp even wrote his own software. At the time, listening to Oval was like hearing every noise the future could produce ringing down krautrock’s forgotten autobahns.

On the whole, though, things have moved on from the time Oval was birthed. Contemporary electronic music, especially dubstep’s predecessors, see music today as an exploration of pleasure. Folks don’t name check Stockhausen or Xenakis, instead they call on the great pop gods for ideas and inspiration. Indie and the avant-garde have found themselves in the peculiar position of being ideologically bankrupt in the face of mainstream pop music that is thought provoking and riveting. What’s funny about all of this is how much Kanye West and Oval share in common.

What was surprising about Popp’s work, and what is maybe his surviving contribution to pop music, is his sound design. Minimal but surprisingly evocative, it manages to be the ears’ equivalent to minimalism that arrived in graphic design and computers around the same period. It was simple, inviting, and yet open to fun. Popp’s aural articulations, on albums such as Wohnton (Ata Tak, 1993) and 94 diskont (Thrill Jockey, 1996), are as memorable as the typography of highway signs or the design of your iPhone, and his sound carries a similar functionalist aspect too. Kanye’s world of iPods and Louis Vuitton speakers is possible because Popp and others (Aphex Twin, Autechre, et al), as innovators of what has come to be known as glitch, created a palette of tones able to remind us of tech culture’s value.

In the present, marking out a terrain of blips, the composer’s software, which still dates to the 1990s, essentially brings the highways Model 500 cruised on, the skies Cluster flew in, and Drexeyia’s submarine villages into higher resolution. If techno created chimerical landscapes, Oval produced entire rooms with characters. Popp’s music, though, has always employed electronica for purposes far different than use on the dance floor. The mood and melodies reference kraut groups, the processes taking surprising turns, and his songs sounding like Morrocan folk music or the beginnings of Chicago techno.

Where does this leave Popp’s first album in a decade? Surprisingly, nowhere. O’s music loses the unpredictability of earlier eras’ experimentation. What is gained, though, is solidity: these are songs. Popp still references serialism and his Teutonic forebearers to good effect. Moment’s of discordance are still pleasant, his guitar samples are nice, and the album looks back to a time in which music was about maudlin thoughts and sleeping on a couch instead of updating your website. More interestingly, this is an ethnic album. O sounds like a concordance of cultures in a covert digital haze. Running through it, Oval’s music has the tempo of an African band and the taps of a Middle Eastern group. A few tracks do sound like techno in the proper sense, but Popp seems more interested in holding your attention than directing your body. Grooves are long runners, compelling, but ultimately stagnant.

As a composer Oval is now mediocre. A few of these songs are great, but over two discs (and a companion EP, Oh), the work runs flat and becomes little more than wallpaper among your phone’s bleeps, your laptop’s videos, your friend’s calls – all the functionalist sounds that used to be techno.

Opera may be considered a dead-serious art form, but it’s also absolutely, patently ludicrous. There’s a reason why the first introduction to opera for most people in their late 20s and 30s came through Bugs Bunny: there’s something inherently cartoonish about the prospect of people getting dressed up in silly costumes, singing all the time, and stabbing each other. Excess is at the heart of opera, and it’s what’s kept me from giving it a shot – it’s always been just over that line dividing rewarding high art and the kind awash in pompous absurdity. Also, so much of it is just old, chock-full of sentimental allusion, and noxious frippery of the 18th and 19th centuries. Trying to relate to such stuff always seemed the height of overweening pretension.

I only learned living composers were still writing major operatic works in 2008, when Doctor Atomic, composed by John Adams (pictured left), debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York (top photo: Gerald Finley, as Robert Oppenheimer, and the cast). I was attracted by its subject – the Manhattan Project’s creation of the atom bomb in New Mexico – and intrigued to see how the things I was just beginning to value in modern classical music (dissonance, abstraction, and conceptual daring) would translate into a lavish, unwieldy spectacle of operatic form. I’m still not sure how I feel about that work, having not listened to anything much other than rock at the time, and was consequently unprepared for opera’s radically different musical world. It all seemed so stiff, somehow – the mostly static stage layout, the largely immobile chorus and the dry, almost affectless tone of much of the recitative. Some of this was probably the opera’s problem – the libretto (the words to the music), by Peter Sellars, consisted of snippets from contemporaneous historical documents surrounding atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer and his team’s cataclysmic breakthrough. While an admirable attempt to pay respect to a serious subject, sticking to the dusty stuff of record also sucked some of the dramatic air out of the work, leaving it, as a friend of mine appropriately described, “inert.”

To write a modern opera is to grapple with a basic conceptual question: How does one make something so dependent on the rotund absurdities of an aristocratic or mythical past comprehensible in an irony-soaked, media-saturated middle-class world? How are we, as an audience, supposed to process the attempt? It’s not totally unreasonable to just write the whole thing off, and stick to Verdi if you’re an opera fan, or to atonal symphonies or experimental set pieces if you’re into modern music. The opera leading me to reconsider my stance is also the opera making the form legitimate territory for modern artists: Philip GlassEinstein on the Beach, which premiered in 1976. It answered the questions just posed by mostly chucking the whole framework. To some ears, Einstein on the Beach is barely an opera at all. There’s not much real singing, at least in the lyric-based, emotion-driven sense that has always formed the meat of operatic experience. Rather the libretto is made up of odd scraps of free verse (which are spoken, usually), solfege syllables (do, re, mi), or simple numbers, chanted rhythmically with varying degrees of expression, to an assortment of synthesized drones and circular keyboard lines. Supplementing these are long, intensely repetitive and relentlessly paced musical segments, mostly relying on frenetic electric keyboards.

I must state here that I haven’t seen the opera (it was last staged in 1992, and is being revived for a short tour next year; you should totally go); I have only listened to the two full recorded versions, one made in 1979 by Tomato Records (pictured left), the other in 1993 by Nonesuch. So, I can’t tell you exactly what happens onstage, but the music itself and some cursory research have led me to believe that it has to be fairly bananas. There’s no plot, and the staging, by Robert Wilson, from what I’ve seen in pictures and brief filmed snippets, looks like a mixture of interpretive dance, multi-media-style projections, and neon-lit, grid-filled sets. A character with Einstein’s iconic  hair and mustache plays the violin, serving as the main character. In other words, it’s brazenly avant-garde, not so much interested in upsetting tradition as completely disdainful of it. Glass managed to incorporate his early affection for frantic, arpeggio-laden extravaganzas into a singular theatrical and musical language, which still sounds unearthly because it is so utterly unique. In choosing Einstein as a subject, Glass found a dramatis personae who reflected something laying at the heart of his music, a combination of science and mysticism, or rather the point at which formal theory becomes so abstracted it transcends logic and approaches the spiritual. Equations become spells, chemistry becomes alchemy, math becomes wizardry, time coalesces into a palpable mass. But if there’s a reason why Einstein on the Beach has remained a touchstone of modern music, it’s because, even as it scraps the conventions of classical opera, it also embraces and enhances all of the fusty old traditions. Think of the uninitiated listener’s idea of a stereotypical opera: long, shrill, and incomprehensible. Einstein on the Beach lasts around five hours, operates almost entirely in the upper registers, and while it’s not in a foreign language, it may as well be.

Like much of Einstein’s thinking, Glass and Wilson’s opera confronts paradox, creating something both unsettlingly new and eerily familiar. In doing so, it opened up the sealed world of opera to modernity in its jarring variety. All of this is a long way of getting around to the Met’s recent production of John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China, which premiered in 1987 and has arguably eclipsed Einstein on the Beach as the best-known representative of modern opera. It’s not hard to see why. Based on an intensively covered historical event and full of bold-faced names expressing vehemently powerful emotions, Nixon in China is many things that Einstein on the Beach isn’t: concrete, plot-driven, character-based. These aspects of the work have invited no small amount of criticism. Max Frankel, who was actually in China with Nixon, mused in The New York Times about the opera’s relationship to fact, arguing its attempts at “profundity may strike the well-informed as parody.”  Zachary Woolfe, in The New York Observer, opines that the libretto, by poet Alice Goldman, is too “willfully abstruse.”  Frankel complains the real Nixon “embodies a lot more intrigue, pretension, and paranoia than the smooth Nixon baritone up onstage,” while Woolfe wonders why, near the end of Act 1, the president suddenly begins muttering, “The rats begin to chew the sheets.” It doesn’t matter that this is an apt nautical metaphor (Nixon has just finished comparing America to a ship navigating tricky waters. The sheets in this case are the sails). The startling burst of cognitive and musical dissonance, with its vision of seething forces undermining the national fabric, not to mention the inherent sexual undertones, is as profound a portrayal of the era’s paranoia as any number of Oval Office tapes or movie scripts. Because it deals with people and events in living memory, Nixon in China has been treated differently than other operas. Frankel, for one, fails to consider the opera may be more concerned with perceptions than history, choosing to focus on the farrago of images, desires, memories, and delusions comprising the way we choose to view our time in the world.

The first major aria gestures in this direction. “News has a kind of mystery,” Nixon declares, later adding, “It’s prime time in the USA!” Adams’ music for this act takes Glass’ repetitive arpeggios and marries them to strong, brass-driven melodic lines, the briskness of which evokes both the martial rush of historical events and the underlying eddies of cosmic time, in which earthly notions of progress and change begin to dissolve. In a neat trick, the music and libretto manage to find a balance between reality and reflections, between the actual and the abstract. But if Act I – the President’s arrival, his first meeting with Mao, and an elaborate state dinner – hints at matters beyond the strictly literal, Acts II and III make this theme explicit. Act II begins with Pat Nixon waxing ecstatic about her childhood while touring Chinese factories and farms, accompanied by almost manically cheerful peasants. Does Pat sense something amiss in the visions of happy industry presented before her? “This is prophetic!” she sings, standing in front of the Summer Palace. “Why regret / life which is so much like a dream?” It’s here that Woolfe’s criticism about opacity could apply, even though the first line comes from a direct sound bite. What, exactly, is being prophesied is unclear, and we’re left pondering how Pat’s visions of an America filled with comedians, the Unknown Solider, and Gypsy Rose Lee could be foretold by an ancient Chinese castle.

Later, she and her husband attend a propaganda play, in which a character who resembles Kissinger (and is, in fact, played by the same actor) sexually assaults a brave Communist woman. We spend most of the act watching the Nixons watch this play, which is filled with dancing, crude theatrics, and peasants pretending to be brutal capitalist exploiters. Ultimately, the Nixons intervene in matters and chaotic shenanigans ensue, only to be reined in by a domineering Madame Mao shutting things down with a massive, thundering aria. It’s a welter of manipulation, ambiguous identity, and confused motives, overtly blurring the line between theater and reality. The music is louder and more traditionally dramatic, oscillating between Wagner’s stentorian syncopation and the Big Band-inflected bop of old radio plays. What would be powerful and moving in another context is undercut by deliberate artificiality of events the music is accompanying. Here a deliberately uncomfortable friction is being set up. And judging by the muttering and shifting of the audience that surrounded me at the Met, it does its job too well.

After all this storm and stress, Act III feels like an anticlimax, and I think many critics’ negative reaction to the opera stem from it ending on such an odd note. To music so slow and drifting it could be playing in the next room over, the Nixons, the Maos, and the Chinese premier, Chou En-Lai, all in their separate hotel-room beds, take turns singing of their pasts, alternating between the days before history thrust them upon the world stage, and meandering along  the bleak shores of the present. In a traditional opera, the last act brings together the primal, opposing forces that have driven the plot – human passion and the iron hand of destiny (or in a comedy, coincidence), to a titanic confrontation. Nixon, on the other hand, ends in separation, the characters cast off from their lives, the history they’ve made, and from each other. Indeed, the opera even separates from itself, when Madame Mao breaks the fourth wall and directly demands that the orchestra play a different song. Nixon in China doesn’t so much end as peter out with a sleepless Chou En-Lai memorably musing, “Outside this room, the chill of grace lies heavy on the morning grass.” That’s it. No revelations, no deaths or epiphanies, just the mysterious weight of nature, cold and inhuman. When critics like Woolfe suggest we should look at older works for the sort of satisfaction opera is supposed to bring, I think it’s this lack of catharsis he’s getting at. In choosing to wind down from a distance with disconnection, in a vague and enigmatic dissatisfaction, Nixon in China may actually be more true to current lived experience than it’s been given credit. And if that makes it a bit of a letdown, well, that should be chalked up to realism as well.

Top photo: Doctor Atomic at the Met; courtesy: Rialto Distribution. Portrait of John Adams: Margaretta Mitchell. Photos of Nixon in China at the Met: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.