Sunday, June 27, 2010

we live on a mountain

this blog has been inactive for far too long, and although the chances of that fact being altered are slim as far as the long term goes, i can remain silent about dirty projectors no longer. in many ways inspiration has struck because, in my eyes at least, an incredibly fruitful, creative and successful two years have come full circle for this band. not only am i convinced that they are probably the best young band playing music today (and a group with few peers in general, regardless of the members' age), but they are possibly the most ecologically progressive band that i am aware of. as environmental health is an issue i'm perhaps more passionate about than music, it is this latter issue i wish to especially touch on, but really their entire story is just too good to not go into detail about.

2008 saw the band winding down from a substantial profile-raising release, rise above. lead projector dave longstreth had already released a number of idiosyncratic and staunchly avant-garde recordings as dirty projectors, most to little fanfare outside the nyc and portland, or underground scenes. as remarkable of a record as rise above was at the time (and still is), it was perhaps a little bit puzzling that a composer as unique as longstreth chose to make his then most eagerly anticipated recording consist of nothing but reimagined versions of tunes from black flag's hardcore classic, damaged. longstreth spent the subsequent time doing nothing to quell the notion that his true calling may have been as a unique interpreter; 2008 saw the band doing no more than touring the material from rise above ad naseum, writing new songs in private, and producing a sole studio recording. the website stereogum was in the midst of curating their third track-by-track tribute to a 90s gem, and the projectors' contributed track 2 to enjoyed: a tribute to bjork's post, "hyperballad." little did they or any of their fans know how that single recording would come to shape the trajectory the group has taken to present day.

the first half of 2009 saw dirty projectors profile increase even more. they performed a number of high profile gigs showcasing new material (SXSW, minneapolis' walker art center) and contributed a standout collaboration with david byrne to the most recent red hot benefit compilation. that april saw the announcement of bitte orca, longstreth and co.'s highly anticipated eighth studio release, and the group's debut for indie heavyhitter domino records. however, under the radar of all that profile-raising, stereogum staff curated a benefit for Housing Works, a nyc based non-profit that works on aids and homelessness issues, and whom else signed on to play the benefit but dirty projectors AND the author of "hyperballad" herself, iceland's own bjork. what's more is that the artists chose instead to perform entirely new material written by longstreth for both artists only a matter of weeks before the may 8th performance, instead of their own separate "greatest hits" sets. it is this suite of songs that constitutes the band's newest release (with bjork), mount wittenberg orca (cover pictured above).

clearly, ambition was not to be taken lightly at this modest little charity gig. it sold out, nyc's musical elite packed the house, the new york times wrote about it, but remarkably the magic of this performance was quickly forgotten, as bitte orca was soon released and became one of the most talked about records of the year by a band without an iteration of assorted mammalian or avian life in their name (animal, grizzly, phoenix). they also went on tour nonstop through the present and won over even more fans thataway. they were probably the best live band of 2009 and also put out the best record of 2009 (seriously, if you haven't heard it, remedy that quickly). the only hint that faithful fans ever got re: wittenberg having some eternity were sporadic performances of the song "when the world comes to an end" at shows, and as below on late night with jimmy fallon (all sans bjork).

with bitte orca having been available for digestion for over a year, and with the group on tour for much of that time, the prospect of new music from longstreth anytime soon seemed unlikely. and then, taking a page from bjork buddies radiohead, the two artists announced that mount wittenberg orca would be officially released within one week of announcement. the release was to be exclusively digital and all proceeds would go to assorted NGOs working to create marine protected areas, or MPAs. (the song cycle of mount wittenberg orca is entirely about a connection lead projectress amber coffman felt with a playful orca while watching it frolic from the ridgeline of the titular mountain in northern california. more info about MWO's inspiration and genesis here, it's another saga in and of itself).

in the age of catastrophic petroleum hemorrhaging, "carbon-neutral" destination music festivals, and a tanking recording industry governed by multi-billion dollar companies, this is a remarkably brave and innovative move from an equally remarkable and innovative artist.
every step this band has taken in the past twenty-four months reeks of the utmost integrity. their maxim is multifaceted: make your living tirelessly on the road instead of via record sales (but still make outstanding records), give back creatively and financially, and prosper inextravagently. the fact that this release is digitally exclusive is just but one example of how this band really gets the intricacies what it means to be "green" or "experimental." say what you will audiophiles, but that vinyl LP you so hypothetically covet is made from the same shit that's incessantly vomiting in the depths of the gulf, and that CD you would have bought ten years ago would make great fodder for this behemoth, both of which, mind you, aren't so great for the friendly orcas ms. coffman, ms. guðmundsdóttir, and mr. longstreth are so fond of.

for these reasons and more, bjork and especially dirty projectors should be applauded. as far as the music world is concerned, longstreth & co. truly have arrived where they first intoned they were through bjork's words over two years ago, "on a mountain, right at the top." mount wittenberg orca comes out june 30th. buy it here. seriously, stealing this record would be about the lamest thing you could do. it's only $7. in fact, the only gripe i can muster about this record is that as far as i can tell there's not a way to donate MORE than $7 for the music, as i believe it fully warrants it (why does it seem that no matter what, there is always more to learn from radiohead?).

astute readers will note that my actually having heard the record at the time of this writing would be an impossibility. perhaps i'll get around to reviewing the music one day, but the prospect of being critical about this project, and in effect this band's two year artistic journey, is so offputting that i look forward to simply enjoying it for what it is. witte orca, orca witte.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Coyote's Kingdom

"Isn't it great when bands know exactly what they want to sound like, and pull it off?" An air of frustration to his question, Patrick Seick, singer, songwriter + rhythm guitarist for Seattle sextet The Coyotes, poses this inquiry during an opening act's set. Puzzled, I turned and agreed. Undoubtedly, this statement is true; something The Ramones or The Hold Steady, for example, know all too well. An hour later, The Coyotes take the stage in what was now their 5th incarnation that I've had the pleasure of taking in. Their pastiche approach aside, at least during their most transcendent moments on record and in concert, The Coyotes are as distinctively excellent as any band in Seattle today.

Their sets have ranged from solo acoustic balladry to full scale aural assaults, but at their best The Coyotes' sound is relatively straightforward to describe. It is music for American outlaws. In large part, The Coyotes' songs are in line with mid 20th century country and western, with immediate chord progressions and hummable melodies, but Seick piles his songs with just enough reverb, gain and other assorted noise to take things just beyond the comfort of Porter Wagoner territory into an air of unease. Lyrically, he spins tales that are either entirely abstract or about the finer points of light subjects like alcoholism, bestiality, and drowning. Call it the eerier side of Americana.

If the Coyotes fancy themselves an amalgam of Waylon Jennings and Swans, I've always heard traces of Nick Cave and Calexico. Seick has a terrific ear for hooks and brings confidence and swagger to his singing in The Coyotes' most forceful songs. Rarely does their material trudge into dirgey grounds. When they retreat to a more plaintive and calm approach, Seick's singing is positively tender, healing. Often these turns take place within the space of a single song, and his band matches his turns in spades. Restrained drum patterns, simple basslines and atmospheric arpeggios pair with mellow croons, while orchestral drum cascades and furious rhythm and lead guitar lines accompany his cocky howls and snarls. From there, any combination of airy female vocal accompaniments, electronic noise loops and soprano sax are added to the mix for good measure.

Self-released and self-titled, The Coyotes 2008 debut takes cues from East German poet Peter Huchel, at times using carbon copies of Huchel's poetry to compose entire songs. It's a strange introductory statement, but also a testament to The Coyotes' admiration for the unconventional. Somewhat more devoid of the pop sensibilities they're capable of, and more restrained in its delivery, Coyotes' merit is in it's being a singular, cohesive work, albeit representing only some of the band's tendencies and strengths. It's hard to listen to the album and not miss earlier Coyotes songs that are still a part of their live oeuvre, like "The Pagoda," "It Was Always My Fault," and perhaps their signature song, "The Kingdom," a near retelling of Twin Peaks' initial incident.

By no means is Coyotes a failure, songs like "The Deafening Choir," "Psalm" and "Film Put In Backwards" alone elevate it to above average status, but the strides witnessed on the ensuing Triangle EP are indeed impressive. The title track leads off the record with a menacing shuffle that descends into a feedback wash, it's lyrics drawing from Akira. "How You Speak," one of Seick's earlier Coyotes compositions, gets a proper studio treatment and is ripe with his favorite themes and subjects.
The record's true gem though is the relatively new "Footsteps," which closes it out. Arguably the finest song the group has produced to date, it is anthemic in the best sense of the word. Somewhat channeling the spirit of the Brian Eno-produced U2 records of the 1980s, "Footsteps" presents soaring vocals that build over the song's five minute run time behind a simultaneously dense and vastly open musical backdrop. Like the best anthems, "Footsteps" feels positively rejuvenating at it's conclusion, yet it retains a characteristic Coyotes layer of mystique. And that is in regards to what the song is actually about, as this writer has no clue.

Perhaps Patrick Seick's implication was correct, and the Coyotes still have no idea what they want to sound like. Their adventurousness and chameleon attributes are part of their charm, as with this band you never truly know what you're going to get on a given evening or a given record. What is guaranteed at minimum is terrific song craft, passionate and competent delivery from it's creators, and an outlaw's refusal to be pigeonholed.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Portishead - "Third"

Portishead put out their first record in 1994. It was called Dummy. It sold a ton of copies, won the Mercury Prize and spawned a hit single called "Sour Times." It's also won the unofficial title of being the official "mood music" for members of Generation X. And although I'm not of that generation, I do remember hearing "Sour Times" on the radio when I was 9, and not giving it too much thought at the time. 10 years later I was of college age and met a handful of peers of the opposite sex who obviously were paying attention and taking careful notes on the mating habits of Gen-Xers. The extensive, groundbreaking research these ladies presented shifted biases, and suddenly Portishead was personally vital. I did a bit of research on my own and discovered that Portishead released a 2nd eponymous album in 1997, and a live album the following year, which are also quite good.

Then Adrian Utley, Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons were gone. Vanished without a trace. Here's what happened in the UK following their disappearance: Pulp, Blur and Oasis' popularity faded out as had that of the grunge stars in their native land; the UK music press got really excited about some new distinctively American bands called The Strokes and The White Stripes, both of which then really took off in America, making it drastically uncool for the UK press to like them any more. Then a bunch of hoopla was made by some white British dude trying his hand at rapping, some dope-fiend that worshiped at the altar of Joe Strummer, and a bunch of dickholes calling themselves The Arctic Monkeys. Coldplay sold a gazillion records, Radiohead remained important and The Stone Roses did not reunite, but apparently My Bloody Valentine did (and although tickets have long since been sold out to their reunion shows, I'll still only believe it when they actually take the stage). And as quietly as they'd left, the band that almost no one was clamoring for to reunite (like they do for The Stone Roses and My Bloody Valentine), Portishead, announced that they were playing their first shows together in 10 years and releasing a new album.

This brings us to Third, a record that retains some of Portishead's watermarks (programmed drums, Gibbon's vocals, a relatively mellow pace and air), but is as much of a debut record as one can imagine for a group that played such a key role alongside Massive Attack and Tricky in the genesis in one of the 90s most exciting subgenres, trip-hop. Here's "Sour Times":

And now here's BBC impresario Jools Holland excitedly welcoming the band back to perform their newest single "Machine Gun."

Wowzers. "Sour Times" and Dummy make you want to roll around with a naked partner on a feather bed with silky sheets and big pillows. By and large, Third, and "Machine Gun" especially, is music made to be listened to while bashing your head and torso into padded wall while draped in a straightjacket. It is intensely difficult, unsettling music, and lacks a significant portion of the sex appeal that in part made Dummy such a success. But guess what? Third is a brilliant record and could possibly be the best thing this band's ever released, but I don't quite know if I'm ready to subject myself to the cries of heresy in suggesting that this relative outlier in Portishead's musical cannon is better than their great bread and butter. I will concede that it's currently my 2nd favorite record that's come out in 2008 thus far, and could possibly take the number 1 spot in time (especially considering how Mark Kozelek's work tends to blend into one another, while Third sticks out like a sore thumb not just within the context of the artists' other releases, but music in general).

A lot of folks have suggested that Third is a strongly psychedelic record, but I don't hear this at all. While there's plenty to be scared of in the great psychedelic works of 13th Floor Elevators, Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Spacemen 3 and My Bloody Valentine, all of those groups' landmark records share a couple key elements that Third is entirely devoid of: the celebratory nature that accompanies the electric guitar any time it's played, and a certain rich, organic quality to the entire sound of their masterworks. Third is a mechanistic, cold, minimalist, almost industrial album that if it's psychedelic at all can only be described as the worst kind of trip possible, or the most oppressive of comedowns.

But good god does Third do this mechanistic, cold, minimal sound to a T. The closest stylistic cousin I can think of to this album is Joy Division's Closer, a record that shares Thirds' minimalist sonic touchstones of jarring keyboard stabs and ritualistic drum patterns. But more than anything, these are albums that are so dark they sound like they were conceived in catacombs by folks so alienated that they'd long forgotten what hope looked or sounded like. Closer proved to be Joy Division's swan song, let's hope that if Third does happen to be the last thing we hear from Portishead (apparently they're not currently planning on touring behind this record in the US), it's only the last thing we hear from them until 2018.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sun Kil Moon - "April"

The joy of musical surprise is rather unbeatable. Discovering a great new band is a terrific, if not a somewhat pedestrian experience for the 3 folks that actually care to read this laugh of a blog and self-identify as music dorks. Same thing goes for rediscovering work of an artist you already love but haven't listened to in decades. But a sensation that's altogether rare is when an artist you've nearly forgotten about and whose upcoming release you were only marginally excited about initially manages to blow you away and makes you wonder why you ever doubted them in the first place. It is within in this context that I present to you April by Sun Kil Moon, otherwise known as the best record 2008's heard thus far.

Evaluating just why I wasn't initially that excited for April has been an exercise in coming to understand just how unfortunately subject I am to the endless amounts of hype and fabricated excitement that guide so much of today's music coverage. Band leader Mark Kozelek isn't exactly a prolific musical chameleon genius like Deerhunter's Bradford Cox, a complete character and a great source for about 1000 music stories. In contrast, Kozelek puts out records at a relaxed pace and hasn't largely departed from his signature aural approach for the last 20 years, taking into account his work fronting the great Red House Painters throughout the 1990s. He tours sporadically and even holds a mixed live reputation, and in general is just a soft spoken, low key individual. These factors make it easy to take an artist like Kozelek for granted. In a stroke of perceptive genius, Sun Kil Moon took their name from a bantamweight Korean boxing champion, highlighting their ability to take a beating, but also to remain standing and occasionally triumphant. They are a band that generate work that is well received, but remain such a constant enigma that their vitality becomes easy to forget. April is the kind of record that will, and has, seen great reviews (a "Universal Acclaim" heading at Metacritic and "Best New Music" warranting from Pitchfork) but will be on few, if any, year end Top 10 lists.

Obviously, this is a very simplistic explanation of Kozelek as an artist and April as an album. There are differences between his newest LP and his previous work, some significant, although maybe they're only discernible to Kozelek fanboys such as myself. This is beside the point. April represents some of the best work the man has ever done in his long career and is simply 73 minutes of stunning languid melancholy. It is music for someone who finds solace in spending long periods of time gazing at the monochromatic, overcast landscapes that are so common in the backdrop of the city that Kozelek spends most of his time, San Francisco. As those scenes remain steadfast, so will Sun Kil Moon's music in its quality and vitality, long after other wave-of-the-moment acts have hit the mats.

Like cooked crack.

In honor of the day, and the accuracy of the statement, I feel there's no better way to begin this column than in the words of this man, one Jim Anchower.
Hola amigos. It's been a while since I rapped at ya.

Thanks Jim. It's good to be back.

Monday, January 28, 2008

An equation for happiness

R.E.M. + Modest Mouse + The National = easily the best package tour I've come across in ages.

here's some musical youtube stylings to get you kiddies esited!

Monday, January 21, 2008


To honor the day, here's U2's "MLK," the closing track from their 1984 masterpiece The Unforgettable Fire.
interesting trivia note: this is the song that director richard kelly initially wanted to use in the closing sequence of his film" Donnie Darko," but being that U2 are still as big today as they were in the mid-80s, their songs cost a lot of money. so instead he had to opt for some no-name guy with an acoustic guitar covering a tears for fears song.