By Pajiba Music Writers | Music | May 13, 2009 |
By Pajiba Music Writers | Music | May 13, 2009 |
If brevity in artist names is your thing, then K is the man for you. I know very little about the Arizona-based K, despite the fact that this is his fourth album. First described to me as “post-rap,” I was apprehensive about his album, The Responsive Chord. Too many labels bother me, and the “post” label gets tossed around too much — “post-hardcore,” “post-punk,” etc. After a few listens, I suppose “post-rap” serves as well as any other, because the truth is, it’s a difficult album to classify.
However, if I had to describe The Responsive Chord in one word, that word would be: “chaos.” And I mean that in a good way. This album is sonic chaos. It’s an amalgam of hip hop, electronica, with traces of punk and rock, all chopped up, dosed with a steady diet of static and feedback, and spat back out. And I’ll be damned if that cacophonous-sounding mixture doesn’t work. K has taken a page from the DJ Shadow notebook, a kitchen sink approach to music that blends staccato beats, a dizzying electronic fusion, and made it sound like it’s being recorded in a sinking submarine. Again — I mean that in a good way.
The album starts off with a healthy serving of carefully mixed noise-art on “I IS”, with pounding bass grooves and high pitched background synthesized tappings in the background. It’s all so hectically woven together, it’s near impossible to tell what samples are what, but it merges together well.
The third track , “Band Aid,” is a surprisingly danceable number that features a thumping bass beat with sampled cymbals, mixed up with static, an echoing synth chord that serves as a smooth pace-keeper to an otherwise chaotic mixture. A morbid singsong chorus speaks to the damage people can inflict on each other (“Let me see your hand / let me see your wrist / let me slit that / flesh and bone”). Lyrically, it’s heady stuff — K is not fucking around.
It’s not perfect — “Jenga!” is a great song that nearly drowns in the static, but it’s saved by changes in his vocal timbre and the wild beats. The vocals are frequently poetic to the point of incoherent, but when it hits, it hits hard (“You got me locked in / you got me locked in cages / there’s something too contagious / and I’m surrounded”) Sometimes, it feels like K gets so wrapped up in his music’s madness that the songs start to lose the war against the static. “Notorious” is another prime example of that, only it doesn’t get salvaged by his vocals, which instead turn into more of a drone, instead of the powerful tool it is on some of the other tracks. And I’ll be honest — I can live without the interludes taken from wrestling dialogue. But then, as a general rule, skits on hip hop albums annoy me.
A couple of added bonuses — the artwork is fascinating stuff, a work of art in and of itself. Better yet, you can download the entire album for free here. Oh, I doubt it’s for everyone. But if you’re bored with what you’re hearing every day, if you want something that really does cast aside genres and styles, and creates something wholly unique, then The Responsive Chord may be the medicine you seek.
I have witnessed exactly one on-stage back-up dancer bend over and lick the neck of one my friends at a concert in my lifetime. I was no more than a foot away from the action and I shall never forget that moment. My friend probably more so, but I’ll take what I can get in the ol’ mental photo album. The performer at that event was none other than Fischerspooner, who in the studio is the duo of singer Casey Spooner and beatmaker Warren Fischer, but on stage is a veritable cornucopia of theatrically choreographed mindfuckery.
And for their first two albums, 2002’s cheekily titled debut #1 and 2005’s Odyssey, the duo achieved the unthinkable. They not only offered an out-of-this-world avant-garde live show, but they created two distinctly different yet equally impressive studio albums as well. In fact, to this day, they are the only band who I’ve seen understood the art of performing theater and the art of pleasing headphone-aholics for not one but two LPs. And with two unique voices at that. #1 was simultaneously frightening and seductive, with tracks like the smash cult hit “Emerge” proving that minimalism can sound monstrous and geeky can be sexy. I remember being skeptical when Odyssey came out, too, and while it doesn’t hold a candle to its predecessor, its more rock-oriented sound was welcomed due to Spooner and Fischer’s keen ear for crisp atmospheres and infectious melodies, particularly with songs like “Cloud” and “We Need a War”.
So color me all kinds of depressed when their third album finally arrives four years later and its best track is a single featured on a compilation I heard over a year ago. Especially when that song (“The Best Revenge”) kicks off the disc and gets me all revved to hear another slam-dunk for electro-pop with an attitude. But then the album veers into generic territory fast with the humdrum “We Are Electric”, a disappointment of a song where I can’t help but assume they meant inhuman and soulless rather than plugged-in and buzzing with energy. And, with a couple exceptions (most notably, the midway point “Supply & Demand” and closer “To The Moon”), it just goes downhill from there. “In A Modern World” tries to get lofty with a female guest spot from Ann Magnuson (of Desperately Seeking Susan and other films), but ultimately stays limp like the majority of the album. The keyboards scuttle or gurgle rather than buzz and bubble and the beats are either messily calculated or lethargically plodding. Whatever the case, it doesn’t make for a third new voice in their catalog of eclectic dance music. It instead comes across as lazy and uninspired.
After much reflection in an attempt to understand how this downfall occurred, the signs become glaringly obvious. Skeptical naysayers of Fischerspooner’s brand of dramatics-injected plasticized electronica have noted from day one the lack of genuine emotion in the outfit’s music. It’s all staged and acted out like a high-fashion photo shoot, so of course the actual honesty of the music doesn’t matter to them, they’d say. I obviously tended to ignore these claims - I still to this day find more emotive intensity in both of the aforementioned albums than I do in most mainstream-minded electro-poppers. When looked back at objectively, however, I can’t help but see their original point: these guys have clearly mastered feigning emotions in the interest of spectacle, so maybe I’ve just taken their bait this whole time.
Add this to the fact that as solid as I found the sophomore effort Odyssey, it was an easy route to choose. With the dance-punk craze almost phased out by that album’s release date, all they had to do was incorporate more loud drums and guitar and make it more clinical than their contemporaries to give it that sleek Fischerspooner edge. Yes, it was successful in my eyes, but where can they go in this newly formed landscape of indie-trendy music a few years later? At the beginning of this decade we’re now closing out, detached electroclash was the big thing. So Fischerspooner perfected it. At its midpoint, aggression was added to the popularity contest, and once again, those fishy spoony guys made a flawless example out of it.
But now…now things aren’t that simple. The celebration of electronic artists now contains a wide spectrum of styles and influences. The gamut runs from androgynous disco like Hercules & Love Affair to haunted dubstep like Burial. Sure, you could say the same thing about various electro gods from 2002 and 2005, but I think Fischerspooner simply got lucky back then predicting what would be the hallmark from each era. Right now they’re taking a stab in the dark and they’re failing miserable. There is no prevailing aesthetic to latch onto and we finally are seeing Casey Spooner and Warren Fischer’s true colors. And they just aren’t that pretty. Oh well. No big thing. Go back and listen to songs like “The 15th” and “Just Let Go” and appreciate them for what they did for the genre in their prime.
Owen Ashworth, the man behind Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, doesn’t make the sort of music I usually like. What I listen out for in music, a lot of the time, is passion and grandeur. I love it when people think big - like Kanye West setting brash soul samples to a symphony of strings arranged by Jon Brion, on his Late Registration album; or Sister Rosetta Tharpe matching the peels of her guitar with loud and crystal-clear singing, with high notes that vibrate with sheer fervor.
CFTPA - as I shall be calling them until I understand about tabs and shortcuts - play understated, lugubrious songs detailing little stories of loss and sadness, over a track usually consisting of simple piano and a hint of drums. It seems the exact opposite of everything I embrace. Yet I fell in love with Ashworth’s universe when I first listened to CFTPA’s 2006 album Etiquette: his songwriting is so perfect in its economy, and his lyrics are so delicate and precise. I’ve even grown to like the low murmur that passes for singing on his records: he sounds like Lou Reed’s young cousin with a bad cold.
Musically, this record doesn’t branch out too wildly from Etiquette. You find a collection of sparse songs here, featuring that skeleton of piano and some skittish percussion - varying from a bit of kick to some crashing cymbals or a shake of the old tambourine on the more light-hearted numbers. Ashworth throws in some very welcome organ on this record, which gives the whole thing a bit more weight, and there are also a few violins here and there. This is the case on the track ‘Traveling Salesman’s Wife Home Alone on Christmas In Montpelier, VT’, which tells exactly that story, in well-judged, sympathetic notes - piano and tambourine complement Ashworth’s voice, which sounds more ragged than usual and close to tears, while in the background some electric gives warmth to the whole enterprise and then kicks in for its own melodic strand. It’s a beautiful song, full of heart.
Heart - or empathy - is Ashworth’s greatest asset, as a writer. It makes his stories of lost people so heart-breaking, from the pregnant unmarried woman whose voice he writes in on ‘Harsh The Herald Angels Sing’ to the couple in ‘Killers’ who are pondering parenthood: “I think you’d make a good mother/But honey, look at us now - we barely support each other”. This couple realizes that bringing another life about would decimate their own: in this little phrasing, Ashworth brilliantly conveys the frailty of our existences. The pregnant woman of ‘Harsh’ gets a great line, too - displaying her ironic irritation at this situation of hers:
I guess I’ll just quit drinking
Guess I’ll just quit smoking
Guess I’ll need some names,
Alvin, William or James
Doctor, tell me you’re joking
What makes this record so great - and it’s really one of my favourites of the year, which is a lovely coincidence since I’d so confidently predicted it would be good - is the way Ashworth uses his storytelling voice to switch into a personal mode, which he does on the closing track, ‘White Jetta’. In it, he revisits a moment from his mother’s dying days, and sings in his typically wry delivery, “Mom’s been sick now for a long time/She says she hopes I’ll want a family after she’s died”. Gulp. Ashworth has a way of hitting you with moments of truth, crisply plucked from people’s lives, which leave you emotionally shattered.
I find the album’s title - Vs Children, i.e. against new life - to be quite shocking in this way. It seems to view children as detrimental to people’s liberty, and as a sort of sign of death - hence the title of the song ‘Killers’, which actually just deals with parents. The illustration of Bonnie Parker - pregnant at the time of her death and trying to carve out a mad, dangerous sort of freedom for herself - would support this interpretation. It’s a fabulously audacious view, at any rate.
Ashworth’s stories, told with such flair and always in the minor key, are worth every bit as much to me as the larger stylings of the Arcade Fire - and this is a terrific record.