For those of you who were expecting the ‘jazz-twiddling’ that normally satisfies your cravings every Wednesday, we must apologise. Alex is still not with us. Sad news we know but for the third week running Alex is somewhere in the States. Nobody has heard from him since he set off and any attempts to contact him have failed. Normally we would be worried but to be fair the safest pair of hands for anyone to be in is Alex’s so he should be looking after himself nicely, hopefully getting into awkward and hilarious situations along the way. Instead Jake Lawson has kindly written a post profiling two of his favourite and slightly obscure bands..
The focus here will be on two particularly creative exponents of music on the periphery of mainstream rock, both in style and popularity. The artists are also ones with releases in this year of 2010- Broken Bells and LCD Soundsystem. I have to add the artists in question also happen to have released two of my firm favourite albums in recent memory so please expect and excuse regular and complete lapses into subjectivity.
The musical brainchild of James Murphy, the co-founder of dance-punk record label DFA records (home to Hot Chip) and sometime DJ and producer, LCD Soundsystem have been consistently innovative and reluctant to pander to mainstream trends of electronic rock music. In fact, putting them in the box of “electronic rock music” kind of negates the eclecticism inherent in the music.
With only three full studio albums in about the ten years they have been in existence, the musical output hasn’t exactly been high frequency – the mantra of quality over quantity is probably most applicable when it comes to LCD soundsystem. The three albums LCD Soundsystem (2005), Sound of Silver (2007) and This is Happening (2010) were all released to widespread critical acclaim.
The music snob within me quite likes the less commercial and ultimately self serving aspect of LCD Soundsystem, yet I can’t quite bring myself to accept that less exposure of this band is a good thing. Though there are notable and somewhat numerous exceptions, many bands that embark on fan and industry pleasing musical ventures find themselves (in this bloggers opinion) compromising their musical integrity or at least what made them great in the first instance- see Kings of Leon’s 4th album, Muse’s sub-queen pomp rock and errr… Scouting for girls.
The infamous line “I preferred their earlier stuff” often interchangeably, “I preferred them before they sold out”, uttered in many a conversation about music is most likely one less often applied to LCD Soundsystem than other musical acts. The discussion as I have found it has tended to centre around the relative merits of the work they have released, each with their own feel and share of great songs. Take All My Friends from their first record:
Sometimes humorous, sometimes heartfelt, more or less always in the region of understated genius, the lyrical content of much of Murphy’s work echoes the inventive peculiarities of his hero Mark E Smith of the Fall. For example, the 7 minute ode to the ways in which he was losing touch with present and developing musical realities in Losing My Edge, extols the best of the humorous element to Murphy’s work:
“I woke up naked on the beach in Ibiza in 1988…
But I’m losing my edge to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent.
And they’re actually really, really nice.”
I piss myself whenever I hear that bit..
Equally, in a response to those fans that wanted LCD soundsystem to go a little bit more the way of the mainstream, Murphy responded with the equally witty You Wanted a Hit..
“You wanted a hit
But maybe we don’t do hits
I try and try
It ends up feeling kind of wrong”
The music doesn’t really sound like anything in particular to me, the most immediate comparison in my mind would probably put them on a spectrum of somewhere between Talking Heads and New Order. Though perhaps not particularly useful as LCD Soundsystem are almost as creatively far apart from these bands as they are close to them, it gives an idea of the creative fusions going on in their records. For example, in a conversation earlier this year I was told that the following track was reminiscent of the White Stripes:
I struggle to see it myself but I’m willing to include it for argument’s sake. Great song too, with a particularly interesting take on the subject matter at hand.
If I could fault LCD Soundsystem in any way it would be that the music is not always an immediate pleasure, some of the songs are more intricate and drawn out and require a little work. See New York I love you, but you’re bringing me down or the whole 45:33 concept album release as good examples of the more difficult side to LCD Soundsystem. On the other hand, old favourites like Daft Punk is Playing at My House and North American Scum alongside newer tracks such as Drunk Girls find LCD Soundsystem occupying an alternative dance-punk disco which is altogether more immediately accessible. You get both. I like it all.
I’d love to think they will come back with and album in the next three years but I’m not convinced that will happen. I do get them at Leeds festival though so I’ll have to make do with that…
Next up- the collaborative effort by James Mercer, frontman of US folk/pop/country rock group The Shins and Brian Burton, also known as Danger Mouse– one half of Gnarls Barkley and DangerDoom, erstwhile producer of Gorillaz, The Black Keys and Beck amongst others. The self titled debut from Broken Bells is my favourite album of the year thus far. Please forgive me if I go over the top on this album- I have a tendency to get a bit titillated at the prospect of another listen to it. I’m like a sugared-up toddler whizzing through Toys R’ Us on a segway.
I recall on my first listen that I found it a fairly low key affair- its charms, like many outstanding albums, were not immediately apparent. The depth of quality in the album revealed itself to me fully on third listen… I think it was half way through Trap Doors that I properly got it:
I find something to keep me interested in each one of the ten tracks on the album, be it Mercer’s intelligent and varied songwriting, his somewhat weirdly adaptable and infectious vocals (from the funky falsetto of The Ghost Inside to the monk-like chant-warbling of Your Head Is On Fire) or the sublime musicianship and production leant to the record by Brian Burton.
For example the bass groove and compact drumming repetitions on The Ghost Inside seems borne of a slow tempo union of earth, wind and fire and kraftwerk. I actually can’t work out what that would sound like myself. See if you can work out what I mean:
Great as Mercer’s work with The Shins has been (see below), the direction this record takes him in a distinctly different musical direction- one unexpected when the nature of his previous work with The Shins is taken into account. In an era when the point at which the Kings of Leon become a worldwide success is also the moment they release an album in the overblown ‘stadium rock’ spirit of U2 and Coldplay whilst twatting Christmas bells at the record in production (sorry for the second Kings of Leon bash of the blog, Only By The Night wasn’t really that bad I’m just still bitter from the disappointment it served me. Oh and see the track “17” for the fucking bells), that there are still musicians like Burton and Mercer doing genuinely exciting and interesting things is something of a source of optimism for the musical pessimist.
What I’m going for here is the great thing about Broken Bells- they offer something genuinely creative and unique. The Lo-fi tones of the record stand up tall even if its record sales stand somewhat shorter.
Rumour has it the duo have plans to record a new record in the foreseeable future. On this evidence, a new Broken Bells record would be a lovely Christmas present. I might write a letter to father christmas…
I feel it necessary to refer to James Mercer’s other musical self- his band The Shins. My main experience of The Shins is their early 2007 release, Wincing the Night Away– an album which brought me a lot of aural pleasure and still does on an infrequent basis. Both by way of comparison to the music he is making with Broken Bells and as a great record in its own right, Wincing the Night Away is a great example of good music living a relatively discreet life.
There is something of The Smiths/Morrissey in the clever intricacy and often intimacy of the lyrics and anglicized yet experimental musical stylings. Take the lyrical content of Turn On Me:
“You can fake it for a while,
Bite your tongue and smile,
Like every mother does an ugly child.”
“’Cause you had it in for me so long ago.
Boy, I still don’t know,
I don’t know why and I don’t care,
Well, hardly anymore,
If you’d only seen yourself hating me.
When I’ve been so much more than fair.
But then you had to lay those feelings bare”
This kind of sardonic account of broken relationships has been missing from the music world since the descent of Morrissey into “Ringleader of the tormentors”-styled oblivion… Perhaps the best bit being that the vocalist/songwriter was born in Honolulu, probably about as far from the British isles as is humanly possible.
This record almost has too much density to figure in popular record charts, at the points at which you feel the record could burst into a more popularist vein, a weird coolness seem to restrain it from ever doing so. Take the wistful, easy chiming of Phantom Limb: