Saturday, September 25, 2010

Modern Classics: "Fleet Foxes"

Some great albums take awhile to get into. The initial listen can seem like work rather than recreation; it can sometimes take another two or three spins before the newness of the sound begins to rub itself off, becoming more comfortable and familiar with each successive listen. And then it soon becomes obvious: "This is a great album - why did it take so long to realize it?"

Fleet Foxes' self-titled 2008 LP is not one of those albums. It's greatness is apparent upon the first listen. Indeed, the immediacy of the music can be startling, in part because of what was already stated: even great albums are usually discovered gradually. Fleet Foxes, rather, is akin to sitting in the woods on a pleasant fall afternoon and breathing in fresh, organic mountain air - there's no gradual discovery of how great the experience is, it just is.

A cursory categorization of Fleet Foxes pure, organic sound would be a form of folk-indie rock. But to really get to the heart and soul of the album's sound, one must start with the lead singer, Robin Pecknold. His voice is an effortless, pure tenor that anchor's the band's songs in such a way that recalls vintage 70's folk. Pecknold's vocals are recorded with an echo-tinged effect a-la John Denver, and they are similarly free of any pretension whatever. And while their earnestness is plain to hear, there is also a delightful gentleness to them, that at times can seem like they are imparting mountain lullabies for adults.

To pigeonhole Fleet Foxes as nostalgic folk, however, would be a mistake. The album delivers a series of delicious musical surprises throughout, beginning with the opening track "Sun It Rises." After a brief old-time folk verse intro, lush acoustic guitars fill both speakers, with the theme plucked lightly over them. Keyboards gently fade in in the background, and after the first verse, a banjo joins the peaceful melody. But then, after a harmonized chorus, a fuzz-tinged electric guitar rings out the theme sharply, instantly turning folk into rock. On the next track, a gorgeous vocal harmony-driven song called "White Winter Hymnal," a surfer-style electric guitar again sneaks its way in between verses, following along with a vocal line. And then there's the wonderful third track, a flat-out danceable rock song "Ragged Wood" that features a tempo change midway through, done with such a deft hand that the change doesn't seem at all gimmicky and fits perfectly.

Although the tone of Fleet Foxes could be described as one of furrowed reflection judging by what seem to be intense lyrical themes, the feeling of peace one feels while listening to the album is rarely disturbed. Even when Pecknold speaks of "staggering through premonitions of my death" and "turning myself into a demon" as he does in "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," he immediately follows with a gently-sung series of "la-da-da's" that fade out the song. In "Your Protector," a beautiful flute opens the song which later contains a starkly orchestrated passage involving the accusatory lines "You run with the devil." But even this doesn't hold sway with the reoccurring themes of waiting for a lover to return. Later, in perhaps the most poignant track on the album, "Blue Ridge Mountains," all concerns seem to be cast aside as Pecknold sings affectionately of a getaway with a brother to the "country side." In the song's unforgettable chorus melody, a familial challenge will be taken up, amongst a "quivering forest," frozen rivers, "moon glow," and finally "morning light."

In the album's final track "Oliver James," Pecknold sings with considerable vigor about a family caring for the body of a deceased brother. Even with seemingly foreboding hints of "ancient voices ringing soft upon your ear," there still seems to be peace in the body "washed in the rain no longer." It is here that Pecknold's voice ends the album a capella, which at first comes across as abrupt, but is perhaps a fitting conclusion in its austerity. Rarely does an album come across so naturally and so true, from beginning to end.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Modern Classics: "Carnavas"

Silversun Pickups’ 2006 LP Carnavas is an album that pulsates with energy. The guitars buzz and wail, the drums pound, the bass throbs, and the keyboards swirl. It is indeed a hard rock album, even bordering on alt-metal. But it doesn’t make the mistake of being noisy for noisiness’ sake, as many hard rock bands tend to lean toward. Silversun Pickups deliver this set of songs in rich, voluminous layers. With added volume, they become thicker instead of merely louder. And with repeated listens, their richness becomes increasingly evident.

What are also evident are the band’s influences, chief among them being the Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins. The heavy, layered buzz of the guitars and lead singer Brian Aubert’s high-pitched tenor indeed bear a certain resemblance to Billy Corgan’s early 90’s work. But where Corgan’s vocals often seemed whiny, Aubert’s are instead almost ghostly and a bit wistful. And where the Pumpkins tended to wallow in gloominess in order to elicit sympathy from the listener, Silversun Pickups draw the listener in to a soundscape that feels mysterious and ethereal, yet is somehow striving for clarity and truth. Indeed, the otherworldy quality in Aubert’s voice sometimes bursts into an aching wail that somehow drives home the importance of the song. At times, Carnavas seems like a sustained quest for the band, one where they are intent on sifting for insight while surging relentlessly forward with guitars and drums blazing, but leaving the listener free to interpret the song for its own sake.

Carnavas is indeed a heavy album that will fill out every part of a speaker system, but somehow it doesn’t feel heavy. The album’s opener “Melatonin” sets this tone—it starts loud and it stays loud, but it crackles with positive energy that compels the song forward and keeps the listener in its grip, thanks in part to a head-nodding beat by drummer Christopher Guanlao. The next two songs are great examples of the band’s talent for striking the right balance between loud and soft dynamics. Midway through “Well Thought Out Twinkles,” Nikki Monninger’s driving bass line and Joe Lesters’ atmospheric keyboards are left alone for a few measures, before being joined by Guanlao’s drums, and then Aubert’s vocals. This layering effect tempers the song and ends up giving more weight to a searing guitar lick that happens a bit later. “Checkered Floor” slowly builds from soft keyboards, a steady guitar part, and a measured vocal line to an explosive chorus that culminates in a driving guitar solo, but then comes down to a softer guitar and drum part for the outro, accompanied by soft murmurings from Aubert. These dynamics are crafted expertly throughout the album, and are a large part of why it doesn’t leave the listener feeling worked over by the end, as many hard rock albums tend to do.

The non-heavy heaviness of Carnavas is also due in part to the lyrics. To say that they are vague would probably be an understatement—they certainly don’t seem to make much sense at face value, and it doesn’t help that they aren’t printed in the liner notes. But in their own way, Aubert and Monninger (who contributes a great female vocal counterbalance in a number of tracks) are able to convey a sense of depth and meaning through the way they emote them. In fact, there are times throughout the album where they seem to make perfect sense simply by the way they are emphasized. However, repeated listens tend to confirm the fact that they are very much open to interpretation. This in turn helps avoid a heavy-handed edge to the album and very much fits its mood—one of ardent striving yet alluring mystery.

When broken down, Carnavas is a wonder to behold of pure rock and roll craftsmanship. Even in its “noisiest” outings, one can discern the layers of detail and the intricacy with which it was recorded (at least three separate guitar tones can be discerned at the same time in “Melatonin,” for instance). The drums are a particularly striking feature of the album due to the variety of their sound. At different times, they echo, shimmer, and seem slightly muted, and at other times are firmly in the forefront. In “Three Seed,” for instance, they are given a striking clarity—at one point you can actually hear the snares vibrating against the drumhead, as if the listener is sitting in the studio next to the drums.

What’s unique about Carnavas is that it is a muscular and hard-driving rock album, but still has the ability to wash over the listener with a subtle yet energizing ambience. This is no easy feat, and there’s nothing quite like it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Modern Classics: "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots"

Herein is the first installment of an ongoing series that I will call "Modern Classics." This series will take a closer look at some of my favorite albums that have come out in the last ten (or so) years. I consider them so good, in fact, that I have deemed them "classic." I realize that it may seem like an oxymoron to call a relatively new album a "classic," but that's ok. That's why these are "modern classics." ;)

I'll admit that I had my doubts about the Flaming Lips' 2002 LP Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots after reading about it in a Rolling Stone "Best of the Decade" list. How could an album with such a ridiculous name be any good? Would it be some kind of geeky tribute to a Japanese anime show? My doubts were quickly laid to rest with my first listen.

The music itself is an intoxicating combination of super-catchy vocal and guitar hooks that are set to a relaxing vibe of electronic effects, unusual guitar tones, and head-nodding beats. It's hard to over-emphasize the delightfully easy-going mood of these songs (with the exception of the explosive fourth track, the instrumental "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 2"). Lead singer Wayne Coyne's voice has a lot to do with this--it is high-pitched yet syrupy smooth, and there is a subtle quality of wonderment and innocence in them, despite some often heavy subject matter in the lyrics (which we'll get to later). The musical theme of the album is characterized by softly-layered textures of electronic hums and beats that are combined with live guitars and drums, but done with such a deft hand that the songs are seamless and imbue a warmth that leaves the listener soothed.

The comforting, dream-like quality of the music ends up being especially effective in giving weight to the lyrics, oddly enough. In the album's opener, "Fight Test," Coyne seems to be grappling with the concept of manhood, with lines like "to fight is to defend/if it's not now then tell me when would be the time that you would stand up and be a man." The cheerfully-relaxed melodies of the chorus enhance a humble reflection about finding the answers: "I don't know how a man decides what's right for his own life - it's all a mystery." In the hypnotic "Do You Realize??", Coyne combines amusingly obvious (if slightly morbid) observations ("Do you realize - that everyone you know someday will die") with endearingly positive ones ("you realize the sun doesn't go down/it's just an illusion caused by the world spinning 'round"), which are backed by happy string arrangements and vocal harmonizations. The combined effect proves to somehow be life-affirming.

What's odd about Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is that half the songs are self-examining reflections, and the other half seem to be vague, sci-fi-themed ruminitions, as if the band were making a single-themed concept album and then changed their minds halfway through. But somehow, it all works. The centerpiece of the album is the title track "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, pt. 1". It should be the most tongue-in-cheek song of the lot, with its children's-story lyrics like "she's gotta be strong to fight them - so she's taking lots of vitamins." But Coyne delivers the vocals with the same innocent wonder that is present throughout the album. The song ends up being perhaps the catchiest tune on the album, with it's bouncy, infectious chorus (that will remain in your head for days) and a funk-style beat that's difficult not to dance to. That a song like this can seem normal amongst the others speaks to the strength of the album as a whole--no song seems out of place, despite themes that seem to be all over the map.

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots can indeed seem like a strange trip initially. A psychedelic vibe sometimes peaks it's way through by way of an occasional trippy lyric and odd electronic sound effect. But it's an album that gets better and better the more it is experienced, which speaks to its greatness. Once begun, it's hard not to get lost in its atmosphere. It's a strange but wonderful trip.