Monthly Archives: April 2015

Music Memoirs: The Tigers Have Spoken

New feature! I’m calling it Music Memoirs. Like a lot of people, every once in awhile, a song will make me think of some random event in my life. Maybe the song was playing at the time or maybe it just reminds me of that event because of the lyrics. I kind of did this before, although I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, when I talked about “Poke and Destroy.” So this isn’t just going to be “Oh! This is the song that was playing during my first kiss!” I’ll keep this feature more interesting than that.

So let’s get into it! Today’s Music Memoir involves the song “The Tigers Have Spoken” by Neko Case, from her live album of the same name. It’s a great song, very Neko in its nature/animal themes, but a very sad one too. It’s self-explanatory from the first verse: “They shot the tiger on his chain.” Its a true story – not necessarily in that Neko read about one particular incident in the paper and then wrote this song, but in that this is something that happens on occasion. People keep exotic animals illegally, even big dangerous ones like tigers, and when things go wrong, the animal is killed.

I know this because it happened right around my home town. Ten years ago, a tiger escaped from an illegally operated animal sanctuary in a town called Moorpark, about an hour northwest of Los Angeles. I wasn’t living in Moorpark, but I was going to school there. I was a freshman at the time, and I was only in my second semester when I heard about this escaped tiger. It was all over the news. I don’t remember being particularly worried since the sightings were all in the hills around horse ranches, parks, houses at the edge of town, etc. My house wasn’t anywhere near the sightings and the school was in a busy area. It was backed up against the hills as well, technically, but I figured a tiger would have no interest in wandering around a giant paved area, i.e. the parking lots that surrounded the school. Still, others remained on alert. Years later, I would learn from a friend who was living in Moorpark at the time that she was extra vigilant because she owned a dog.

The tiger kept the entire town on edge for weeks until one day it showed up in someone’s backyard and they called the authorities. I guess it wound up wandering too close to a school (I remember it being in the morning) and they figured it posed a threat, so they shot it dead. It was incredibly disappointing to learn that that was how it ended.

All the other animals in the sanctuary were transferred to other sites and the couple who had owned them were arrested and charged. The whole affair ended up being a lot more dramatic than I knew (or at least remembered) at the time. It wasn’t just an escaped tiger – it was spooked horses running onto the road, one of them being hit by a car and causing a human fatality. It was a wife who allegedly attempted to shoot her husband during a domestic dispute (they owned the tiger). And it wasn’t just one tiger, but two more, as well as three lions, a snow leopard, a lynx, a bobcat, and more running free around the property rather than in enclosures. It was probably one of the most dramatic events to ever happen in that sleepy little town.

And now I think of it every time I hear this song.*

*(Includes a funny story by Neko at the beginning before it punches you in the gut with sadness! Wahoo! You’ll probably turn your volume up during the speaking part, but right after she laughs and says “But we’ll still play it for you,” you’ll want to turn it down again because the song is a little louder by contrast.)

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Felt Mountain

This past Saturday was Record Store Day! Did you get anything? I did!

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The Neko Case LP is limited edition red vinyl and it’s the first time it’s been released on vinyl in over 5 years! Meanwhile, the Goldfrapp LP I got was so exclusive, it’s the first time it’s EVER been released on vinyl in the US and I got one of 4,000 pressings! I was extremely happy to get both of these.

I’ve already talked about Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, so today I’m going to talk about Felt Mountain! This is Goldfrapp’s first album – and it was my first Goldfrapp album. I mentioned before how I was introduced to it via a college roommate. I was hooked the moment I heard the haunting whistle that introduces “Lovely Head.” It still gives me the chills when I hear it. It’s got a very classic Hollywood noir sound to it, a theme which pretty much describes the entire album, but it’s touched with more modern, alien electronic flavors too. This song remains one of my favorites for its haunting beauty. Allison is channeling Marlene Dietrich for sure, but she becomes distinctly Goldfrapp when she sings through a vocal processor at about 1:15. There’s that alienness I mentioned before.

A lot of the lonely, haunted sounds on this album come from the fact that Goldfrapp recorded and produced this album in a bungalow in the English countryside. Allison spent a lot of time alone there, surrounded by mice and spiders. The experience really got under her skin and into her brain, and that’s something that comes through in a way that does the same for you. It’s beautiful but eerie and uneasy too. There’s a touch of danger at times – shadowy figures seen at the edge of your vision, a strange noise in the dark, a light brush against your skin when there’s no one there, a chill running down your spine for no discernible reason.

Being their first album, Felt Mountain isn’t perfect. The next track “Paper Bag,” while nice, is kind of a let down after the amazing track that precedes it. There are some interesting sounds going on, and Allison’s voice is seductive and soothing, but it’s not a stand out track.

“Human” makes up for it. The production on this track is just GREAT. It’s a perfect fusion of classic orchestral sounds and electronic noise. It’s absolutely seductive, even though the lyrics are submissive. It’s begging and full of desire. It’s one of Goldfrapp’s best. I can practically hear it in a Bond film. I’m actually surprised it didn’t make it on their greatest hits album, The Singles, even if they would go on to make better songs.

“Pilots” I think is one of the best of the “quiet” tracks on this album. It’s a very classy and jazzy tune and I like the way that works here. It almost reminds me of a Sinatra song, though I can’t think of which one. There’s another round of singing through the vocal processor that let’s you know it’s definitely Golfrapp. The whole track feels like floating on a cloud – appropriate considering the lyrics and title!

“Deer Stop” is the other great “quiet” track. I can hardly understand the lyrics, but somehow that doesn’t matter here. It’s all about the sound of it. And it sounds like it was recorded in the dark, maybe with a dying flashlight in hand. Maybe you thought you saw the light reflected in pairs of eyes peering out from between the trees, but then they’re gone when you turn back to look for them.

The following two songs are the title track “Felt Mountain” and “Oompa Radar,” both instrumentals with Allison lightly singing nothing over strange noises. The first track is more playful and whimsical. The second is sinister and carnivalesque. Both seem like they could fit into the soundtracks of two very different movies – and yet they fit together on this album wonderfully. The singing is kept to a minimum, which allows you to take them in as aural landscapes. They are cinematic in a way that much of the rest of Felt Mountain is.

Next we come to “Utopia” which is really the one that became the hit off this album. I’ve heard it used in commercials for at least two TV shows in the last several years, so it can be said that it has staying power for sure. It’s the most dramatic track off this album, both in lyrics and in sound. It almost doesn’t belong though. Where the rest of the album has an older, classical sound, “Utopia” seems like it was beamed down by aliens or sent back in time by a future civilization. It’s beautiful, overwhelmingly so, and I think I can see why it’s the one that’s lived the longest. It’s probably the best predictor of the direction Goldfrapp’s sound would head in future endeavors.

The album fades out with “Horse Tears,” which for me is another track that is kind of a let down, seeing as how it follows a much better one. Honestly, “Utopia” could have been the closer, but I guess I can see why they chose this one. It brings the album back full circle to its original lonely, noir themes. Even though it uses a bit of that vocal processor, it just doesn’t do much to save the song. The violin is nice – it punctuates the sadness of this song – but mixed in with everything else going on, it’s all a bit overdone.

Though Felt Mountain has a special place in my heart, it is not a good beginner’s Goldfrapp album! I would not recommend this to a first-time listener! This is one for the more advanced Goldfrapp listener. It’s really great at showing how far they’ve come and seeing what still influences them. Felt Mountain is good, and it even has some SPECTACULAR tracks, but they got so much better. For me, I’m still excited to have this one on vinyl! It’s going to sound great.

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Debut

I recently bought Björk: Archives, which is billed as a “mid-career retrospective.” I didn’t think much of it, until the specificity of the “mid-career retrospective” was pointed out to me. Björk is nearly fifty years old and has been making music since she was a child. She studied classical piano and flute when she was six years old and recorded her first album when she was eleven. That means she’s been making music for about forty years, give or take. Does this mean she’s planning on making music when she’s pushing ninety? I’m sure she is! At least, I hope so!

So today, I’m going back to the start: I’m going to talk about her first solo album (not the one she made when she was 11) Debut. While this album is significant in its own right, it’s probably my least favorite album of hers, next to Biophilia. Björk herself has even said it’s not her best. She’s produced far better albums, which isn’t to say that Debut is a bad album, but it is very dated. You can tell by the sound that it’s an album of the 90’s. It also doesn’t really have a cohesive or unified theme, except that there are a lot of love songs. It’s an album that’s the result of someone taking their first steps into a solo career. Björk had a very quixotic, child-like pixie persona and image at the time, another thing that’s apparent in this album. There’s a lot of playful innocence in the lyrics. Some of the songs had been written years before she recorded it. “Human Behaviour” was written when she was a teenager.

And hey! There’s our first track! I’ve talked briefly about “Human Behaviour” before (here and here). Though Debut is not her best, this song definitely is. Not only is it one of the best, it was the best song to pick as the leading single and first track of this album. It bursts into your ears and rattles around in your brain. It’s weird and uncanny and primal and unrestrained. And it’s unmistakably Björk.

I never really cared much for the next track “Crying.” In fact, I usually skip it. It’s just not very interesting. It’s kind of corny and it’s probably the most dated song on this dated album. Eh, I just don’t really have much to say about it! Let’s move on.

“Venus As A Boy” is a classic. It’s a Bollywood-influenced track that makes a lasting impression with lyrics like “His wicked sense of humour/Suggests exciting sex.” There’s more to the music video than Björk fondling and frying an egg – the imagery was inspired by her favorite book at the time, Story of the Eye. However, the egg was actually supposed to be boiled, not fried. (Read the NSFW Wikipedia plot summary of the book and you’ll see why.) Björk is an absolute angel in “Venus As A Boy,” both vocally and visually, even if she’s a bit of a mischievous one. It works so well.

“There’s More To Life Than This” is still a dated track, but it’s kind of fun! The credits for this song say it was recorded in the bathroom of the Milk Bar, a club in London, where Björk was living at the time. That would explain the sound of stall doors slamming about halfway through the song. I like the idea of sneaking out of a party to go have some real fun. It’s also pretty danceable. It is a dance track, after all!

“Like Someone In Love” is actually a cover of an older song from 1944. The minimalistic sound is nice – and appropriate – here. It’s just Björk and a harp, with incidental background noises and some very light and faint strings toward the end. It makes it sound like she’s walking down the street late at night, pondering and singing about love. It’s one of the best love songs on this album.

I really like “Big Time Sensuality” – the Fluke Minimix version, that is. The one on Debut is okay, but I heard the other one first and got really attached to its big, overwhelming sound. This is just one of those songs where the sound matches the lyrics extraordinarily well. It’s got this feeling of nervous excitement, like the moment right before you plunge down the top of a roller coaster, or the feeling immediately after a first date that’s gone really well. Fun fact: Did you know that this song is about friendship and enjoying life and not sex?

I’m fairly certain that “One Day” is about her son, Sindri. It seems pretty obvious, even if the baby sounds at the beginning don’t quite make sense – Sindri was about 7 when this album was released. Still, it’s a sweet song from a mother to a child. It’s kind of inspiring and motivational. I have a random version of this song called “One Day (Endorphin Mix 52.5 Bpm)” that’s slowed down and actually pretty nice. It makes the song sound a lot more introspective and thoughtful. I think I even like it better.

“Aeroplane” is another song I don’t care too much for. It’s got a weird, quirky sound, but it’s no “Human Behaviour.” It’s a little boring, actually. I like the jungle sounds at the beginning and end, and even the melancholic xylophone at the end, but that’s really about it.

“Come To Me” is hypnotic and seductive. I like this one, but it’s got that dated sound that keeps it from becoming a classic. It wouldn’t make my favorites list, but it’s not one I’d skip right away if it came on and I was in the mood for it. It’s a slow burn of a song that’s satisfying. Again, not her best, but not her worst either, when you consider it in the frame of her earliest work.

“Violently Happy” is one of the other great love songs on this album. Where “Like Someone In Love” was quiet and contemplative, this track is intense and unrestrained. “Violently happy/’Cause I love you” is a pretty accurate way of describing the euphoric feelings of a new relationship. It even gets to a point where it’s dangerous at times – “I’m driving my car/Too fast/With ecstatic music on…” “I’m daring people/To jump off roofs with me.” The beats go well with the lyrics. Even if, again, the sound itself is dated, it’s another great dance track.

The album closes with “The Anchor Song,” which is one of my favorites. The minimal sound fits it so well. Just Björk and a couple of saxophones. It’s got a sort of homesick sound to it – or rather the sound of someone whose homesickness has been relieved by their return to that home. It’s quietly content, like snuggling into your own bed after a long and exhausting trip abroad. I like this one a lot. It’s a good feeling to be reminded of home, wherever you make it.

Debut is not even close to the first album I’d recommend. In fact, it’s probably one of the last I’d recommend. But for a Björk enthusiast, it’s essential listening. It’s fascinating to hear where she started and how far she’s come. It seems like her voice hasn’t really changed that much since this album was released 22 years ago. If anything, it’s gotten richer and she’s gained more control over it. Listening to Debut is like peeking into a time capsule. It’s astounding to hear how much she’s evolved.

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The ArchAndroid

I feel like I’ve been taking too many weeks off lately! Well, I had some kind of stomach bug that’s been going around, I guess, so I actually needed the week off for health reasons. I’m better now! And I’m ready to talk about Janelle Monáe and The ArchAndroid.

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Janelle Monáe is one of those artists I knew about for awhile, but it took some time before I looked into her music. It’s only been a couple of years (at most) since I first picked up Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), which I really, really liked. I think I bought The ArchAndroid not too long after that (the timeline is a little fuzzy in my head), but it didn’t hook me right away. I listened to it again recently and came around to enjoying it a whole lot.

Let me preface this by saying this isn’t going to be an in-depth review. It’s mainly going to be a review of the aesthetics of the album. Because there’s a LOT going on in this album and I would need to study it some more before I start exploring its themes and influences, one of which is the 1927 classic silent film Metropolis – which I have not seen yet. I know! I know. I’ve been meaning to for ages. (It’s on Netflix, by the way!) I feel like it would be a great disservice to this album to call this post a comprehensive review, so let me repeat that it’s not.

Now let’s start at the beginning. I absolutely love the first 13-ish minutes of this album, which is to say the first 4 tracks. They flow into one another flawlessly, like the first four chapters of a book you can’t put down. If I start this album at the beginning, then I can’t skip anything until I’ve listening to the first 4 tracks. It would be too hard for me to pick a favorite out of these. It’s like watching one of those Alfonso Cuarón long shots.

I keep comparing this to other mediums, but it really is like experiencing something grand and even cinematic! Pop music in general is kind of made to be enjoyed in bits. You can listen to a track here, a track there – it doesn’t have to be all at once. Which makes sense because pop music gets its exposure mainly through the radio, so you want it in bits. But this album is a work meant to be enjoyed in its full unabridged form, so it’s hard to take it in pieces at times.

But let’s move on. After this blitzkrieg of an intro, we get some respite with the soft and sweet, romantic “Sir Greendown”. It’s a very old-fashioned sound. I think it’s early 50’s era pop or doo-wop influenced. Anyhow, it’s a short respite, because then we jump into the plaintive and fast-paced “Cold War.” I love the way Monáe sings “This is a Cold War/Do you know what you’re fighting for?” again and again because it sounds different every time. There are even moments, to my ears, where she hits notes with the vocal richness of Beyoncé. Really! It’s fantastic. Instrumentally, we get some call backs to Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), specifically “Many Moons.” It’s a real treat for those who enjoyed the EP.

Then we get to what is one of my favorite tracks, “Tightrope”! I really like the way it just jumps in. And her singing is stellar in this track. The words roll off her tongue with so much confidence – that’s what this song is all about, anyway. I love how she rhymes “alligators” and “rattlesnakers”. She makes it sound so natural, you don’t even question it, but it does give you pause when you realize it. Having Big Boi feature in it gives it a very OutKast vibe that I enjoy – but it’s still a Janelle Monáe song.

To the uninitiated, “Neon Gumbo” is some kind of scrambled message song. To those in the know, it’s the last minute and a half of “Many Moons” (again, from Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)) played backwards, with some storm sound effects at the end, which brings us into “Oh, Maker.” It’s not my favorite track. It’s got this sort of sing-songy melody, like a showtune or something. I don’t care too much for it. But it precedes “Come Alive (War of the Roses)” which is fantastic! It’s completely wild and unrestrained and yet it’s perfectly composed. It makes me think of classic Universal monster movies for some reason – DraculaFrankensteinThe Wolf Man. There’s something dramatic and sinister yet kind of playful and campy about it. Definitely one of the best tracks off this album.

Next up, we get a great slow track, “Mushrooms & Roses.” I actually like the distortion of Monáe’s voice here. I think it fits the slow burn of the song very well. There’s something soothing about it. I melt right into it. “Suite III Overture” is almost a reprise of “Mushrooms & Roses” (and some of the other previous tracks) and it’s just as soothing. It makes a great transition into the uplifting and happy “Neon Valley Street.” I also like the rap in the middle, especially the verses “We met alone forbidden in the city/Running fast through time like Tubman and John Henry.”

The soft spoken words at the end of “Neon Valley Street” make the following track “Make the Bus” a little jarring – but it’s easy to get into it! It’s a funk-influenced sound, and Of Montreal’s vocals are so much fun to listen to, especially with lyrics like “You’ve got ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ under your pillow” and “I’m standing over you eating juicy fruits till it gets in your eye!” It’s weird and delightful and kind of awkward in an endearing way.

Then we get to “Wondaland” which is just as weird and awkward and delightful and endearing! This one is easily another one of my favorite tracks. Monáe’s vocals are so fun here. You can really hear how versatile they are. There’s lots of made-up animal-type noises too – I love them all. This is the track that most feels and sounds like an android composed it. The strangeness makes the next track “57821” another nice respite, with its gentle folk ballad sound. I picture some futuristic android bard singing this song in the alley of some futuristic dystopian setting – appropriate for the themes and story behind this album, and most certainly what Monáe wanted to evoke.

We’re winding down with a love song – “Say You’ll Go” – as the penultimate track. Verses like “Love is not a fantasy/A haiku written in Japanese/A word too often used but not believed” manage to sound poetic without being corny. Even though it’s sung soft and sweet, you feel the passion with the words “Let’s find forever/And write our name in fire on each other’s hearts.” And that last bit with the chorus crooning over “Clair de Lune”? Brilliant.

We end with “BaBopByeYa” and strikingly dramatic finishing track. I love Monáe’s voice here. It’s rich and heavy, which matches the noir attitude of the song. Best of all, it’s very cinematic – it literally sounds like the song that plays during the end credits of a movie. I think it’s the perfect finale.

Before you listen to The ArchAndroid, I’d recommend giving Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) a quick listen. As an EP, it’s not that long – only 5 tracks totaling 17 and a half minutes! (That’s not counting the extra 2 tracks from the special edition – which I’d recommend as well. They’re nice! But that’s a review for another day.) I guess it’s not required listening, but it’s not like it’s that difficult to do. Anyway, these are the first 2 out of 3 albums that are part of a concept series. And I’m kind of a purist, so I’ve listened to them in order. I just think you should too! But I won’t hold it against anyone if they don’t. This album is still an aesthetic treat all on its own.

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