Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review: Avey Tare *Down There*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

In a recent interview with Spin, Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare) was asked how Down There was different from his work with Animal Collective. He responded with coyness worthy of Dylan: “It’s easiest to say there’s something about Down There that makes it more like Down There than anything AC has done.” Thanks for clearing things up, Dave. Statements of the obvious aside, the answer is technically accurate. Down There is a dark tangent broken off from the acoustic experimentation of Animal Collective’s early albums. Portner, being the primary artistic force behind the band, can’t escape certain elements of Animal Collective’s singular sound. Yet taken as a whole, Down There is different kind of beast.

The last we heard from Portner was the terrific Animal Collective EP, Fall Be Kind, which was an autumnal response to the Day-Glo summertime exuberance of Merriweather Post Pavilion. The EP was a shift in tone – complete with a spirited pan-flute jig and a Grateful Dead sample – but it kept with the pop continuity that began with Feels. Down There, Portner’s first solo album, is a retreat from Animal Collective’s catchier forays. Whereas bandmate Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) explored his (Brian) Wilsonian side on his third and most-recent solo album, Person Pitch, Portner is using Down There as an outlet for his more outré and abrasive tendencies.

Down There’s opening track, “Laughing Hieroglyphics,” begins as spacey jazz and devolves into a sonic collage of corn-popping-in-a-kettle percussion and swirling electronic noise, played backwards, forwards, and sideways. Uncomfy in Nautica? You bet. “Laughing Hieroglyphics” is followed by the equally disorienting “3 Umbrellas,” which features loud, processed guitar strumming over a pretty melody that’s nearly lost in the cacophony. Any hope that Down There would be Avey Tare’s version of Person Pitch is laid to rest here.

But just when you think Down There is going to be the inscrutable ejaculation of an artist eager to fuck with his fans, everything suddenly comes into focus. (Remember that album Portner recorded with his wife, where every song was played backwards? Me neither.) “Oliver Twist” is a riot, and given the right dance floor, an out-and-out stomper. The twin acoustic instrumentals “Glass Bottom Boat” and “Ghost of Books” are gentle and inviting, both reminiscent of Sung Tongs’ “The Softest Voice.” “Cemeteries” sounds like a séance at Wayne Coyne’s house, with a choir of the living and dead singing backup. If it weren’t for Portner’s distorted vocals, the driving mid-tempo “Heads Hammock” could be a radio staple. Well, a satellite radio staple. On the indie channel.

Down There concludes with its two best songs. “Heather in the Hospital,” a mournful and gorgeous dirge, was inspired by Portner’s sister, who battled a rare form of cancer (she survived). It’s profoundly moving, even if you don’t know the story behind the song. The warm extended tones that fill the song’s first half give way to synthesized harp arpeggios, like the transition music for a dream sequence, suggesting the stupefaction that accompanies repeated hospital visits and the potential loss of a loved one. “Lucky 1” is closest to being an Animal Collective song, which is probably why it was selected as the album’s first single. Portner sings, throat open, over a guttural electronic chug: “There have been days you feel so sad/ Glad you could feel better shape/ Today you like the lucky one!” “Lucky 1” is about how good news makes the bad instantly irrelevant. Though “Heather in the Hospital” is named after his sister, “Lucky 1” is dedicated to her.

If you’re still reading this review, it probably means you’re a diehard Animal Collective fan. Which also means you’re going to buy (or, god forbid, illegally download) Down There anyway. So this summation is for you: Down There is a strange, disjointed mess. You’ll love it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I Agree, a Thousand Times Over

Greil Marcus, on the greatest album ever:
Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (1965). No matter how many times you might have heard it, a different song will appear as primary, the star around which everything else revolves—it could be “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”, one day, “Ballad of a Thin Man” the next, the title song for the next year, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” a year later, each different song casting all the others into a different relief. Then “Desolation Row” might make you forget that there’s anything else on the album at all. But if the album were simply “Like a Rolling Stone” and 30 or 40 minutes of silence, I still might pick it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: Kings of Leon *Come Around Sundown*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

Fully admitting that there are a number of worthy candidates, and only if pressed, I would have to deem “Back Down South” the worst moment on Kings of Leon’s Come Around Sundown. Not that it’s the album’s worst song; on the contrary, it’s arguably the most sonorous and pleasant track of the bunch. But “Back Down South” so perfectly represents the phoniness that courses through the album’s 48 minutes that it deserves special attention. You can almost hear the Followill boys carefully plotting their new record’s SOUTHERN SONG during rehearsals: “y’all, there needs to be a fiddle, a slide gee-tar, and just in case folks don’t remember we’re from down yonder in Tennessee, let’s remind them in the song’s title.” Lest you think I’m being too harsh, consider the “impromptu” caught-on-tape hootin’, hollerin’, and high-fivin’ at the song’s end. I can’t help but think Kings of Leon are weirdly aping a song like Wilco’s “Casino Queen,” which has an identical hootenanny coda. But where “Casino Queen” is 2:45 of rollicking joy, “Back Down South” is wistful and downbeat: the self-congratulatory ovation at its end is beyond baffling. Were the boys so thrilled they made it through the take that they simply couldn’t contain themselves?

If a band has to fail, it’s always best when they fail spectacularly. There’s something almost pleasurable in witnessing an overreach so great that it’s not merely a train wreck, but a catastrophe that distracts you from a train wreck. The source of the pleasure isn’t schadenfreude, but a nagging question played on repeat: what the fuck were they thinking? At the very least, the listener is still engaged in the music, and in some perverse sense, that amounts to a minor success. Alas, Kings of Leon don’t even throw us that meager bone. Oh Come Around Sundown is plenty bad, but it’s also really boring. Worst of all, it has moments so cloying that I repeatedly had to stop listening to cleanse my aural palate with the sound of street noise.

How did a band once so wiry and scrappy transform into the worst sort of rock-radio pabulum? King of Leon’s debut, Youth and Young Manhood, by no means a great album, at least had the vigor typical of the garage rock revival of the early-2000s. Kings of Leon presented themselves as a capable, promising, and fun bar band. Instead of exploring their rawness, they polished their sound with each successive album, taking their cues from U2’s bombast rather than the Some Girls-era Stones sound that inspired their best early songs. The result was great commercial and critical success, in the form of the multiple-Grammy-winning “Use Somebody.” And they deserved the plaudits. “Use Somebody” sounds like a hit in every way. However hammy Caleb Followill’s vocal, “Use Somebody” is tuneful and cathartic, a worthy imitation of U2’s best. Unfortunately for Kings of Leon, a truism of the natural world applies to Come Around Sundown – lightning doesn’t strike twice.

That Kings of Leon are still being compared to other bands five albums into their career is not a result of critical laziness, but of the fact that behind every note is a zero, a non-entity. They were never worthy of their “Southern Strokes” moniker, but the U2 comparisons, however belabored, still apply. The Edge’s shimmering guitar delays, so iconic, abound on Come Around Sundown. “The End,” one of the album’s better tracks, begins with an inverse replica of the solo drum opening to “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and then goes on to borrow, via guitar, the low-high-low synth hook of the Killers’ “Smile Like You Mean It.” While most of Come Around Sundown’s residual checks are owed to Bono & Co., a few are also due to Aerosmith’s Nine Lives for “Mary,” Pearl Jam’s self-titled eighth album for “No Money,” and Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream for “The Face” and “The Immortals.” Remarkably, even those sub-par albums are better than most of what’s on Come Around Sundown.

If Kings of Leon have an LVP, it’s lead singer Caleb Followill, whose affected vocals and foolish lyrics provide Come Around Sundown’s best howlers. Caleb’s vocals, in the past tossed-off and charmingly lackadaisical, are now wrought with fake squeaks and painful flourishes. Where another vocalist would sing “fight,” he sings “fay-ah-yah-hayt.” Sure, it’s an acceptable embellishment once or twice, but does every vocal delivery require a bucketful of extra syllables? We get it, Caleb. You’re pained. Really, really pained. The lyrics are even worse. The aforementioned “Back Down South” contains the following hand-me-the-rhyming-dictionary singsong:
Underneath the stars,
Where we parked the cars,
Ain’t showing signs of stopping.
Pretty little girls,
Naked to their curls,
Ready to lay in the coffin.
On “Mi Amigo,” Caleb Followill delivers a lyric that sounds like “she wants my asshole to sing a song.” In other words, a fart. It’s an unfortunate mondegreen – and the most apt description of Come Around Sundown that I can think of.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

That’s So Gay/Lesbian/Straight!

[Originally written for Swish Edition.]

OKTrends, the research arm of the online dating and hookup site OKCupid, recently released a statistical analysis of the “hundreds of millions” of its gay and straight user interactions. The findings were presented in a blog post entitled “Gay Sex vs. Straight Sex,” which is a worthy read for Christian Rudder’s wry observations alone. The results are fascinating, and sometimes counterintuitive. While Rudder presents the study as one about sex, its most interesting findings are about the personality differences (and similarities) between gay and straight men and women. The site analyzed the “essay text” of its users’ profiles for phrases “most correlated to a particular sexual preference.” In other words, the most common phrases OKCupid members used to describe themselves, given their gender and sexual orientation.

I’ve taken the most common user phrases from the site and put them into a simple table* (see below). OKTrends broke out the results into four categories: gay, lesbian, straight male, and straight female. I’ve displayed in bold any response that refers to a specific artist or artistic work (be it a book, movie, play, or TV show), rather than a generic word or phrase (like “my band” or “baking”). Also, I’ve highlighted responses that represent matches between the categories with the following colors: yellow for gay/lesbian, pink for gay/straight female, green for gay/straight male, purple for straight male/straight female, and blue for the one instance of an intra-gay match (thanks to a spelling quirk).

Let’s take a closer look at the results.

The first thing you’ll notice is that gay men are most likely to refer to a specific artist or work in their profiles: a whopping 84% of the responses. Gay men are followed by lesbians (54%), straight males (31%), and straight females (20%). So a gay man is most likely to define himself by his taste in culture, while at the other end of the spectrum, a straight female is most likely to define herself by a more general descriptor (“independent,” “church,” “close with my mom,” “flip flops” [?!]). The top phrases for each category are

Gay: The Devil Wears Prada
Lesbian: The L Word
Straight male: Band of Brothers
Straight female: “My girlfriends”

Remarkably, only straight females have actual human beings as their top phrase. Apparently gay men prefer to mention the fictional bitchiness of Miranda Priestly over the flesh-and-blood bitchiness of their closest friends.

There are a plenty of quirky choices here, and I could spend all day picking them apart. For brevity’s sake, here are some highlights by category

Gay – While the usual suspects are present (Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Project Runway), there are also some genuine surprises. How to explain the handful of straight boy fetishes? X-Men, Final Fantasy, and Kill Bill are all mentioned here, but not on the straight male list. Notably, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald appear, while the stereotypical standbys Cher and Bette Midler are MIA. (Though M.I.A, herself, is ninth on the list.)

Lesbian – In his post, Rudder notes that “The L Word” is by far the top phrase among gay women. Seems about right. Yet, while gay women so identify with their cable TV show, gay men don’t with their analogue, Queer as Folk (which doesn’t even make the list). The general phrases on the lesbian list add up to a perfectly descriptive whole when read together: piercings, social justice, a girlfriend, writing poetry, my animals, tea, obsession, mom, drama, sex. Sound like anyone you know? By the way, the word “sex” only appears on the lesbian list. Go figure.

Straight male – I thought professional sports would dominate the list, but only one appears unambiguously: UFC. It’s unclear if the other sports are listed as activities the guys enjoy doing (like hunting, fishing, poker, and golf) or as purely spectator sports. Still: no football, basketball, baseball, or hockey. What gives? Perhaps, since this is a dating site, straight males are trying to signal something unique about themselves…and in turn are coming up with the exact same answers. Also, notice “a few beers” makes the list, rather than just “beer.” As far as physical descriptors go, OKCupid must have an inordinate number of “tall, dark, and handsome” gentlemen. Natch.

Straight female – There must be a good reason why “lip gloss” is second on the list, ahead of “wine,” “horseback riding” and Jane Eyre. I mean, lip gloss is great, but wine is so much better. Maybe that explains why I’m a gay man and not a straight woman.

I realize I’m being divisive by accentuating our differences. So let’s take a look at what brings us together. Keep in mind that OKTrends weeded out the non-statistically unique responses. That’s why no phrase appears on all four, or even three, of the lists. But a few responses unite two of the lists:

Gay/Lesbian – No surprise that the highest percentage of the matches are between gay men and gay women (34%). All are artists or works, except for two: “came out” and, adorably, “cuddling.” Somehow, Stephen Chbosky’s novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower appears on both lists. Personally, I’ve never heard the novel mentioned by anyone I know – gay or straight. Is there a subset of homosexuals who adore MTV-published novels from the ‘90s that I don’t know about? This demands more research.

Gay/Straight female – Both are looking for “Mr. Right.” Lesbians and straight males, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about “Ms. Right.” They, perhaps, just want skanks. Who can blame them?

Gay/Straight male – Just kidding. Both gays and straight males mention “the right guy” and “the right woman,” respectively. So only lesbians are looking for skanks. Again, who can blame them?

Straight male/ Straight female – There are a bunch of country boys looking for country girls, and vice versa. I assume the country they’re looking for is the US, but one never knows nowadays.

Gay/Gay – “The theater” and “the theatre” both appear on the gay list. However they choose to spell it, gays love the stage. Someone alert the New York Times!

*Data courtesy of OKTrends:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Yes He Can! Can't He?

The case: Log Cabin Republicans v. United States of America. The result: the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Well, at least until the Obama Justice Department inevitably appeals Judge Virginia A. Phillips' injunction, that is. What a topsy-turvy world! A Republican group scoring an important victory for gay rights? The Democratic administration fighting to keep the deeply unpopular status quo?

What the hell is going on here? Admittedly, matters more complex than I'm making them sound. The Log Cabins are generally out-of-step with their party. Yet, arch-bogeyman Dick Cheney favors gay marriage. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is bound by precedent to uphold the current law of the land. Yet, liberal-savior President Obama is against gay marriage.

Again, what the hell is going on here? Politics, of course. Regarding gay marriage, the Log Cabins, who have little sway, are hardly the voice of their party. And Dick Cheney has nothing to lose now. Obama, on the other hand, made what is most likely a politically motivated statement while campaigning, to appeal to the center, and now has to stick to it.

I doubt Obama actually believes gay marriage is a bad thing, and I think most Americans, be they for or against gay marriage, agree with me. Obama has already condemned DADT. He even pledged to end it this year. Yet, if Obama holds to a politically expedient position, what does that say about him? Will Democrats applaud his so-called integrity?

This is Obama's moment. I'm no fan of his, but I hope he lives up to his promise to end DADT. Obama has a choice: politics or principles. Now that he has the chance, let's see if, yes, he can make the right decision.

Update: Andrew Sullivan makes the same points, more eloquently of course.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Review: How to Dress Well *Love Remains*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

I went through three stages of emotion while I listened to Love Remains, in preparation for this review. My first few spins were filled with anger toward Tom Krell, the man whose nom de studio is How to Dress Well. I thought the album’s aural hand grenades – the overly muddy mix, the shrill squawks that appear out of nowhere, Krell’s reverb-heavy vocals, the endless buzzing distortion – were unnecessary, pretentious indie window-dressings. Were I not reviewing the album, I would have given up and thrown it aside then and there.

As I dutifully listened on, my anger turned into disappointment. Krell’s indelible melodies began to sink in. If it weren’t for its insufferable production, this could have been a great album, I started to think. Still, I remained intrigued.

It was “Decisions,” one of Love Remains’ later tracks, that led to my mini-epiphany. Halfway through the song Krell sings a cappella to a girl; he reminds her to check her cell phone for his call, and then, suddenly, with layers of tracks bleeding into each other, a glorious wall of wailing falsetto enters. At that moment, I learned to stop worrying and love Love Remains.

Love Remains sounds like a transmission from another dimension, one permanently frozen in 1992, where ghosts not only exist but also record radio hits. These songs are incredibly familiar yet never-before-heard. Tom Krell has so thoroughly synthesized the sound of late-80s/early-90s R&B that the album seems like plagiarism. In this sense, Love Remains reminds me of Ariel Pink’s Before Today, an album that has yacht rock coded in its DNA. But where Pink appears to have his tongue firmly in cheek, Krell plays it straight. And however lo-fi its production, Before Today sounds like Let’s Talk About Love next to Love Remains.

There are moments of pop immediacy (“You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Goin’” and “My Body”) and a few booty shakers (the terrific and pulsing “Walking This Dumb” and “Mr. By & By”) on Love Remains. But Krell is at his best as a Rhythm-and-Blues Midas, somehow turning ethereal chorales into slow jams. “Ready for the World,” ”Lover’s Start,” and “Endless Rain” are alternate-reality R. Kelly singles par excellence.

When I first heard Love Remains, I was certain Tom Krell was hiding his flaws behind the murk of lo-fi studio trickery, as an unskilled pop singer would hide behind the false gloss of Auto-Tune. The truth is, the album’s production is the co-star on Love Remains. As near-perfect as these songs are, the whole overshadows its parts. Brilliant and beautiful, haunting and singularly original, How to Dress Well’s Love Remains ranks among the year’s best albums.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I’m Only Gay for You, Bro

[Originally written for Swish Edition.]

Has science finally caught up with the high fantasy of gay male porn? Here’s the scene, in its most fundamental form: two rippled, straight Adonis-types are showering in a locker room, most likely after football (or even better, rugby) practice. Eyes wander, linger uncertainly, and then fix upon the most manly features of the other’s too-perfect body. The next thing you know these two oh-so-very heterosexual men are engaging in acts of near-brutality. (The believability of the scene is inevitably marred by the sudden appearance of an industrial-size bottle of lube. So much for cinéma vérité.)

The source of the scene’s appeal, its fantasy, is that it would never happen in real life between two straight men. Most people -- peering through a Porky’s-style hole in the wall, no doubt -- would conclude that the two guys going at it in a locker room, no matter how adamantly straight-identifying in their normal lives, are really, really gay. After all, college girls hold a monopoly on sexual fluidity and experimentation. Long prison sentences notwithstanding, the following is the dogma of male sexuality: straight is straight, and gay is gay, and never the twain shall meet. Not so fast, says a recent national sex survey published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.

Slate’s William Saletan summarizes the study’s findings on homosexuality:
Apparently, a lot of people try gay sex, but only about half stick with it. By ages 18-19, 10 percent of men say they've performed fellatio. That number drops among men in their 20s and 30s. But among men in their 40s and 50s, 13 percent say they've done it, and 14 percent to 15 percent say they've received it from another man. Meanwhile, 11 percent of men aged 20-24 say they've received anal sex. For unknown reasons, that number declines in the next higher age bracket but then steadily rises in succeeding brackets, leveling off at 9 percent among men in their 40s and 50s.

Remember, these are "have you ever" questions. When men aged 20-59 are asked whether they've performed fellatio in the past year, the number is more like 6 percent. And only 4 percent say they've received anal sex in that time. But that's a big jump from 1992, when only 2 percent of men admitted to sex with a man in the preceding year.
Saletan doesn’t go the extra step and present the residuals between those who said they’ve engaged in gay sex at least once and those who’ve done it in the last year: the difference is 4% - 9%. Of course, this also includes gay guys who just haven’t scored in the last twelve months (believe it or not, they’re out there). Still, these numbers show there is a sliver of the heterosexual male population who have walked on the wild side and haven’t caught the gay bug and moved to Chelsea with their twink boyfriends.

Two more things to consider. The findings were, necessarily, self-reported. The effects of taboo and sexual-identity preservation means the number of straight-identifying men who have had gay experiences is likely to be higher. It takes a mighty secure straight man to admit to having once performed fellatio. Even so, the study’s findings do not represent a sea change in how we ought to understand male sexuality. We’re still talking small numbers (not even 10%), and it is only one study.

The Onion once published a hilarious satire of overly macho closet cases entitled “Why Do All These Homosexuals Keep Sucking My Cock?”. The “author” of the article, Bruce Heffernan, laments his numerous unwitting encounters with gay men:
Look, I'm not a hateful person or anything–I believe we should all live and let live. But lately, I've been having a real problem with these homosexuals. You see, just about wherever I go these days, one of them approaches me and starts sucking my cock.

Take last Sunday, for instance, when I casually struck up a conversation with this guy in the health-club locker room. Nothing fruity, just a couple of fellas talking about their workout routines while enjoying a nice hot shower. The guy looked like a real man's man, too–big biceps, meaty thighs, thick neck. He didn't seem the least bit gay. At least not until he started sucking my cock, that is.

Where does this queer get the nerve to suck my cock? Did I look gay to him? Was I wearing a pink feather boa without realizing it? I don't recall the phrase, "Suck my cock" entering the conversation, and I don't have a sign around my neck that reads, "Please, You Homosexuals, Suck My Cock."

I've got nothing against homosexuals. Let them be free to do their gay thing in peace, I say. But when they start sucking my cock, then I've got a real problem.
So: closet case, or regular old straight guy? Thanks to science, we may never know for sure.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review: Four Tet *There Is Love in You*

[Originally written for Pretty Much Amazing.]

The closest approximation of pop construction on Four Tet’s There Is Love in You first appears 4 ½ minutes into “Love Cry” and ends about a minute and a half before the song does. Wave goodbye to the nice Approximation of Pop Construction, kids! Good riddance, I say to my own astonishment.

Though nothing on There Is Love in You will be lighting up the pop charts anytime soon, the album is never formless. In fact, form is everything here: the constant repetition of sonic motifs, the contrast of shifting timbres and sounds, the perpetual thumping of a beat. That said, the album is pretty much hookless, at least in traditional sense. Yet Kieran Hebden, the sole member of Four Tet, does something clever; he compensates with musical elements that do a hook’s job: the bouncing 8-bit beeps in “Sing,” the crystalline harp plucks in “Circling,” and the lyrical guitar line in “She Just Likes to Fight” all act like hooks, when they’re too just repeating motifs.

There Is Love in You is, for the most part, instrumental. In the few instances where a human voice is heard, it’s still usually just another element in the mix, like a hand clap or snare tap. Hebden keeps things to the essentials, adding nothing extraneous to these minimalistic tracks. The album has the elegance of a well-constructed sentence: it conveys its ideas clearly, unencumbered with unnecessary embellishment. Few musical voices speak at once, and when a new one enters, it usually means another has just exited. Yet each track reveals new depth with every listen. It took eight spins before I realized that I heard what I think is a sample of the opening line to the Chiffons classic “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On (In My Mind But Me)” playing on the horizon four minutes into “Plastic People.” This ambiguity (is that really what I’m hearing?) is even better than the sample itself.

But enough with all this technical analysis, what makes There Is Love in You a remarkable album is its hypnotic beauty. How does music this digital evoke such real emotion without having to delegate the heavy-lifting to a soulful gospel sample? I’ll leave that question to a neuroscientist. Or perhaps the best answer is another question: who cares? However the means, all that matters is There Is Love in You packs enough emotional wallop to make an emo band blush.

Still, this is not music for the casual fan of the electronic genre. As much as I find There Is Love in You compelling, even brilliant, many will find it boring and repetitive. It’s a demanding album – not to be taken with your Ritalin – which never veers into the day-spa-soundtrack territory of so much instrumental electronic music out there. That’s not to say that Four Tet has assigned the listener homework, either. Meet There Is Love in You halfway, and you’ll find that underneath all those blips and beeps thumps a very human heart.