Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Beck - Sea Change

Beck - Sea Change
by Lisa Oliver

For years I disregarded Beck. When “Loser” came out, I thought “novelty song” and dismissed it outright. Still, despite my best efforts via various accidental means (similar to my deal with Everyone Loves Raymond I utterly dismiss it, yet somehow I’ve seen it), I ended up hearing bits and pieces of Mellow Gold and it didn’t change my mind (see aforementioned Everyone Loves Raymond reference). Then Odelay came out and even with a few strong singles, I remained nonplussed by the key-fob sized Mr. Hanson. Plus, the cover of that album really got to me after awhile. I mean yeah, it’s kind of funny but it just looks like it’s totally aware of being a weird/funny album cover. And that kind of overly conscious, cultivated oddity works me into a right lather. Like doofuses who think it’s cool to collect John Wayne Gacy's paintings.

So I sat on the sidelines and outright ignored Mutations at the time (at the urging of my boyfriend, I recently gave it a shot and it’s not bad). Sounds like reanimated Syd Barret and a non-sucking Bowie, with dusting of post-krautrock Eno and Nick Drake's gossamer whisper. Midnite Vultures was fine, but never made it to heavy rotation; I only just realized “Debra” was on it.

Signal Sea Change. I heard “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and I melted. Then I heard “Golden Age” and was an utter goner; it never occurred to me that it was Beck. I got the whole album and I’m not really sure what the tipping point was–music, words, time in my life–but for some reason it all washed over me in a gorgeous, honey-hued haze. After further listening, with the initial infatuation gone, I realized that all the tracks have a similar aural range and the lyrics, well, aren’t great. They remind me of Foo Fighters lyrics in the sense that there are intense fragments of insight, but also an internal monologue that we don’t hear and ultimately, the lyrics and vocals end up acting as another instrument. I mean, yes, there is the obvious theme of Beck’s long-term relationship ending but the music speaks far louder than the words. The same slow tempo mimics the static blur of heartache and the mourning period that follows it. Most ballad-inclined musicians don’t realize how difficult it is to play slow music smoothly and have it land right in the pocket so it ebbs and flows seamlessly. Impressively, Sea Change flows as a body of work and sustains, like a book.

One of the reasons I moved away from big cities and back to my medium-sized hometown was that I had lost sight of the sky. In big cities, you are able to catch glimpses of it, but not whole sheathes. I still marvel at the expanse of sky now – despite the fact I’m two years into sky sightings. I played Sea Change in my car to re-inspire myself for this piece. As I was driving down the highway to go food shopping, I realized this album is like watching the sky – a thick patina of blue, white and gold. The swath of big sky, like the sea, shows no endpoint, no horizon line. Kind of like heart-break – it rolls on and on. With Beck’s help (of all people!), I can see the sky, the endpoint and the beauty of the stars. Can hear 'em too.

Lisa Oliver is a Columbia-educated writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Stylus, The Fly UK, Musicweek UK, Yahoo! Music, NME, Publishers Weekly, Domino and People.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Look Back in Anger #4

Look Back in Anger #4
by Justin Cober-Lake

What would you do differently if you could do it all over again? The intention of this column is to go back in the ol’ time machine to examine the albums that we personally named the best of a given year and see if we still feel the same way about them. Did they age well? Do we still play them? Did we leave off an album that we’re now kicking ourselves over? These are the questions we will be asking ourselves in this WWIA? Series.

This week, Justin Cober-Lake reexamines his Best of 2003 list.

I began my career as a music critic in 2003. I always feel compelled to simultaneously hide and confess the fact that I hadn't been a music nerd for too long before that. I didn't grow up poring through music mags or rounding up Velvet Underground. I had gotten enough of a handle on things by 2003 that I felt confident enough to start writing, but barely.

When it came time for list-making, I didn't really have much to offer. I had spent most of the year following trends, trying to learn what "good" music was. I'd have been insulted, of course, if you'd have suggested I was following the crowd, but I was to an extent, primarily by reading every article on PopMatters and Pitchfork and then downloading or occasionally buying whatever they told me to (eMusic was a blessing). When I went into my stacks to re-listen to 2003 for this article, I was struck by how much the music I had at the time could line up with the best-of lists of either particular magazines or Metacritic. Or were completely random albums I had reviewed.

Still, I think I did a pretty decent job putting together a collection of records that I liked, and it holds up reasonably well for me today (even if there's a distinct appeal to only one color/sex/style of person and no thought for spiritual music). I'll probably knock about half the list out of the top 10, but I still think they're all good records, and acceptable picks at the time. As is always the case, I didn't necessarily pick what had the most holding power, and that's one of the ways I can tell in retrospect which albums I really should have included.

Where I give myself away, though, is less with my list and more with my comments. Start with the fact that I had to include four "honorable mentions." I had probably heard 20-25 albums by the time I made my list, so it's doubtful that I needed to mention 14 of them in my top 10. Notice that for my last album, by the Unicorns, I mention how they knocked the Shins out of the final spot. It's a moment where I have to assert my familiarity with the landscape (because I'm questioning it internally), but also where I'm assuming that it's just conventional wisdom that the Shins are a top 10 pick. I need to explain not having them.

And so my list goes like that, with me trying to hide a lack of knowledge (of music in general and of 2003) and of confidence (in my taste), and secretly giving away both. One final note: I kept Broken Social Scene off my list because I was being a snob about the release date. I had ordered the Canadian release in 2002 and wanted to prove -- if only to myself -- that I knew when that album really came out.

1. Elbow, Cast of Thousands (V2)

I can stick by this pick. This was the second import CD I had ever bought (BSS being the first), and easily the most impulsive. I had streamed the album at some site online and was so blown away that I downloaded the previous album and immediately ordered this from Amazon UK. Note that it wouldn't come out in the US until 2004, but I was consistent with my dating system. I still love this one five years later, and imagine I always will.

2. Calexico, Feast of Wire (Quarterstick/Touch and Go)

Another one I don't have a problem with, and re-listening to it with this list in mind made me think that the gap between #1 and #2 here is smaller than I'd have thought. Burns and Convertino can't go wrong, but this disc just works better than the others, right from that opening line through the restlessness of "No Doze" (or, more fittingly, through the bonus tracks and "Fallin' Rain".

3. The Wrens, The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher)

I must have been caught up in the backstory and the different feel that this had in my louder, more raucous collection. It's a smart, beautiful album, but I've only played it a handful of times since 2003, and I can only hum two songs off it. It's an album I appreciate and respect more than I spin, and, in this case, that has to bump it down a little.

4. Exploding Hearts, Guitar Romantics (Dirtnap)

Love it. This should have been the last album I bought before I got married, but… it was just before two days of driving and shortly before my stop in the music store that I read about their tragedy [only one member of the band survived a touring van accident] and, out of nervousness, bought Grandaddy instead. This kind of music sounds like it should be easy to make, but if that were so, there'd be more bands this enjoyable.

5. Clearlake, Cedars (Domino)

The first half of this album is definitely top ten. The second half holds up well, but it's just not as strong. I really dig this band, but the gushing praise I gave this as one of my early reviews and its placement at number 5 isn't quite deserved.

6. Gotan Project, La Revancha del Tango (Ya Basta!/XL/Beggars Group)

This record fit perfectly in with my explorations of electronic music at the time, and especially in downtempo or lounge-y acts. The blend here still works really well for me, and, probably because of my limited palette, I haven't heard much that does what this one does as well as it does, mixing electronics and the tango. Discovering this record was fun, as was discovering that I could really like something like this record.

7. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Hearts of Oak (Lookout!)

Clearly I gave Leo my vote for Tyranny of Distance. As much as I like Leo, I don't know how this record snuck on. I don't even remember liking it this much, even though I went through a Ted Leo phase and still dig "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?"

8. Grandaddy, Sumday (V2)

An example of me liking something I was supposed to like. "Now It's On" remains a great cut, but I played this album too much at the time, and I haven't picked it up in years. Going back over it, it really is a good record and I don't mean to disparage it, but I think it benefited from me not having heard much like it at this point. The indie world was relatively new for me and I found something here I could connect with.

9. Four Tet, Rounds (Domino)

I don't know why I like Four Tet so much, and I've even been considering doing an article on this year's release with exactly that premise. Everything this guy puts out really connects with me, even though he's not operating in a genre(s) that I usually flip for. This release just has so much going for it in so many ways. It's easy to forget how many ideas are packed in here because Hebden does it so smoothly.

10. The Unicorns, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? (Alien8 Recordings)

Happy to be weird. I like that it's goofy and fun, and has some incredible pop hooks in the middle of it. I'm unsure what to do with it, because I think it's a blast and I have warm fuzzies from its appearance during the newlywed bliss period of my life. Even counting its brevity as a strength, though, it's still just a little too long. I might regret what I do with this one...

I haven't really broken away from what I recognize as circumscribed thinking from that period. My tastes expanded wildly after this point and I started listening to drastically more albums per year. Even so, I haven't shaken the connections I made with some of the albums from that period (and will confess that my Postal Service love might be influenced by the numbers of listens my new wife and I gave it on long car rides). My new list is only as fleetingly accurate as the first, but it does account for durability even if it marks a somewhat frozen moment of thinking. Interestingly, though, none of my honorable mentions even sniff this one.

New List:

Elbow, Cast of Thousands
Dave Douglas, Freak In
Calexico, Feast of Wire
Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It in People
Four Tet, Rounds
The Postal Service, Give Up
Exploding Hearts, Guitar Romantics
Gotan Project, La Revancha del Tango
Jason Moran, The Bandwagon
Derek Webb, She Must and Shall Go Free

Original list

Honorable mentions: The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow; The Heavenly States, The Heavenly States; The Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music; Over the Rhine, Ohio

Justin Cober-Lake is the interviews editor at PopMatters and has published fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and lyrics in a variety of places, including Stylus, Pastemagazine.com, Chord, and Trouser Press. He's been writing steadily for Wrong Note Media for several years, and his work made its first appearance on CD with the release of Todd Goodman's first symphony, Fields of Crimson.

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