Life and Death of an American Fourtracker
John Vanderslice's new concept album, swiftly following last year's Time Travel is Lonely, has the former MK-Ultra member and erstwhile folk guru chronicling a musician's decline and fall through his surviving home recordings. One would expect an album whose subject produced his music privately and cheaply to have a lo-fi aesthetic similar to the protagonist's, but that's not the case here. These songs have a noticeably professional qualitycomplete with horns, strings, back-up vocals, and special cameos from members of Spoon and Death Cab for Cutie. Everything about this record seems so intricately planned that Vanderslice may as well have listed his San Francisco studio, Tiny Telephone, as an instrument. The added polish is a good thing, however: songs dealing with rejection and isolation are difficult enough to listen to without analog hissing and misplayed chords creating a phony sense of realism. While Vanderslice's talent is evident throughout this album, the songs are nevertheless a mixed bag. Standout efforts like "Me and My 424"a meditation on the fourtrack recorder itselfand "Amityitriptyline" are effortlessly memorable. Other songs, however, tend to run together after a few listens. A number of them, and I am thinking particularly of "Fiend in a Cloud," both the opener and closer, are the sort of heavy-handed "art" that is the unfortunate stock-in-trade of Vanderslice's singer-songwriter genre. Quoting directly from William Blake's "Infant Sorrow" (author's aside: this marks the second week in a row that I have reviewed something that works in William Blake, after last week's The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Is this lingering post-millenial anxiety? Whatever the reason, they're approaching Dead Man levels of quasi-literary desperation.) Vanderslice's attempt to bookend his story will have casual listeners thinking he's just beefing up to LP length with a lot of flabby poetry. The two instrumental interludes that come at rather arbitrary points in the story will only reinforce the notion that American Fourtracker is not enough of a concept for an entire album.
Finally We are No One
Fat Cat Records
The members of Múm supposedly met while working on a children's theatre production in Iceland. While this story probably wouldn't suit the scandal-mongers at Behind the Musicwho I'm sure think that the origins of Motley Crüe are the most entertaining imaginablebut it's a fine way of explaining how Finally We are No One can be so genuinely sweet and disarming. These songs may not make you smile, but they will make you sigh with relief. While their work is often described as dance music, Múm is comprised of honest-to-God musicians and their music is slow, experimental and suitable primarily for people who don't like to dance. Thus, while this may not charm drugged-out stockbrokers on Ibiza, Finally We Are No One is nevertheless one of the most affecting albums to come along this year. Combining live instrumentation, studio effects, and found sound samples, the songs have a veneer of pure nonsense, both musically and lyrically. Indeed, titles like "Don't be Afraid, You Have Just Got Your Eyes Closed," and "I Can't Feel My Hand, It's Alright, Sleep Still," suggest both an imperfect grasp of the English language and the kind of meaninglessness you can only expect of bands from, well, Iceland. If the songs are meaningless, though, they are meaningless in an especially transcendent way. Even a cursory listen to some of the best trackslike the superb "Green Grass of Tunnel"will have you thinking that nonsensical is the only way to be. More jaded music fans should not scoff, however. The density of the compositionswhich loop between beats and are only loosely tied together by Gyda and Kristin Anna Valtysdottir's lyricsensure the rewards of multiple listens and can be appreciated for their professionalism alone. So put aside your Pumas and black lights for a little while, and experience the joy of forgetting yourself.
Labels are founded for as many different reasons as there are labels. Some are genre-specific, while with others the only similarity from one release to the next is that the company (read: BMG, Universal, etc.) hopes to profit from all their artists' work. But of all the record labels I've come across, none has such an interesting mission statement as Cycling '74, which releases works only by artists that utilize their Max/MSP software. Obviously this organizing principle brings up numerous questions, such as "To what degree will the different releases sound alike, all having been crafted using the same technology," but also "how much can they vary?"
Even the briefest of listens to the label's recent sampler reveals the answer to the latter: quite a bit. For instance, the crushing drums and high-frequency buzz of the Freight Elevator Quartet's "Pomoerotic" are miles away from the atonal swooshes of "sedan" by interface, just as the watery alien blips of Kim Cascone's "Dust Theories 2" suggest none of the eerie drone of "Picnic Site" by Amnon Wolman. It's a brilliant experiment that makes the label itself as much a work of art as its individual releases.
The piece at hand, William Kleinsasser's "Available Instruments," attempts to fuse live virtuosic performance with computer manipulation, and succeeds on all counts. The blend is seamless, such that the eddies of gurgling computer noise never intrude on the piano, yet are never merely a background over which the more traditional instrument is played. As alien as the computer noises are, they are actually transmogrifications of the original piano music. At any particular point the listener hears not only the "live" piano, but also distorted, elongated, and contracted versions of the same. The title track thus disrupts our sense of temporal unity, like a film in real-time being overlaid with a sped-up and slow-motion version of the recorded event. Thus it is not only the atonality of the piece which evokes mystery and fear, but also the queer sense of elasticity.
Kleinsasser's "Double Concerto" is arguably even better, seamlessly combining dense swarms of flute trills, ominous cello and energetic piano with the dentist drill of Kleinsasser's computer. As in "Available Instruments," here Kleinsasser uses some prerecorded and processed sound files, but much of the computer music is also generated in near-real-time as the live music is recorded and then filtered by the Max/MSP software and woven back into the fabric of the piece. Hence, with technological assistance, improvisational music that responds almost immediately to its input source has become not only viable, but also attractive. William Kleinsasser stands in the vanguard, illuminating possibilities that are sure to fascinate for years to come.
RockFour excels at ripping off the Beatles and late-'60s psychedelia. Does that make them good? Well, that depends entirely on where you stand in the old "originality" debate, which is contemporarily relevant given the "garage rock revival" currently invading mainstream radio. The way I see it, I embraced the Strokes not because they were innovative (they weren't), but rather because the older artists they so clearly emulated could lay few claims to superiority. The Strokes may have been rehashing '70s rock, but their catchy product conveyed an urgency that permitted no deferral. In terms of sheer quality (not taking inventiveness into account), they were equals with their forebears. Such is not the case with RockFour, a new Israeli band that, while not offensively bad, never reaches the same heights as its influences. I'm tempted to conjecture that RockFour was a Beatles cover band before they began their "artistic" careers, but if such is the case, they may as well not have bothered, considering their new album is not "another beginning" for the late-'60s, but rather another nail in the coffin.