Author Archives: Brendan

[review] Fennesz // Endless Summer


Is it possible to write for a music blog and not cover new music? I don’t know, but I haven’t been fired yet, so I am going to keep rolling. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s summer. That means it’s time for Endless Summer.

Fennesz’ Endless Summer has meant more than me than almost any seasonal record that comes to my mind. Why has it kept me captivated with such predictable regularity? I mean, I don’t listen to “Tuesday Afternoon” every… Tuesday afternoon. Released in 2001 on the Mego label, Endless Summer has been a staple of my summer listening, and I am always rewarded.

Endless Summer is a different kind of great record. The timeless clarity of Christian Fennesz’ laptop-processed guitar feels timeless. Not to overstate the importance of the album (cue shameless overstatement) but Endless Summer may be the closest thing to a Kind of Blue that I have seen in my lifetime.

“Made in Hong Kong” brings us into the record with the initial warmth of digitally processed guitar. The title track follows with its shifting emphasis between raw guitar chords and artificially manipulated sound. This is the surf music of the Sandals, the Beach Boys, etc. but warped into a subtly crafted artifice by a postmodern wizard. On top of that, the moment when the song pauses and the unfiltered chords pop out might be the most singularly beautiful moment on this record. “A Year in a Minute” could easily be my favorite song, and I always find myself playing it on repeat. There’s so much bubbling under the surface and then the track goes haywire. It’s striking. Following that, “Caecilia” is pure, unadulterated sonic bliss, almost to the point of being saccharine.

If there’s a flaw, it’s that the album doesn’t end there. While that may seem like a damning comment, I simply mean that the first four tracks would have been a flawless EP. “Got To Move On” picks up the second half of the album, however, without a struggle. It’s a great track in its own right. “Shisheido” is a lovely fragment that could have worked as a five to seven-minute piece; I’d go as far as saying that a little development to “Shisheido” could have bolstered the second half of the album. “Before I Leave” is a song that might take work to enjoy. I get it; it has its place; I’ve grown accustomed to it. “Happy Audio” is the 11 minute closer to the album that doesn’t quite close the album. My only real criticism would be to move “Happy Audio” between “Caecilia” and “Got To Move On” and making “Before I Leave” the closer. It plays better for me, strengthens the overall listening experience and makes more sense considering the synthesis of the analogue and digital sounds. The album ends better that way, in my humble opinion.

So yeah, I don’t really get it. I love the record, but my better instincts are screaming to cut the hyperbole. But I refuse to diminish the importance of the album to my sonic palate. There’s an aesthetic quality in the record that I have rarely seen. Certainly not in the field of straight electronic music. In the purest sense of Miles Davis, it was a new direction in music. I revisit it every Summer, and it never disappoints me. I hope you enjoy it!

Fennesz – Endless Summer

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Fennesz – A Year In A Minute

Fennesz – Caecilia

[review] Passion Pit // Gossamer

I am not sure if I am actually a fan of Passion Pit. There’s a petty bone in my soul that resents the infectious popularity of their act (part band, part one-man show). I mean, how many great electropop bands flop without breaking the mainstream, while Passion Pit is universally considered “the tits?” That said, “Sleepyhead” was an extremely catchy song that deserved its crossover appeal (I have to admit), and Michael Angelakos obviously has an ear for pop hooks.

So Gossamer… To begin, it’s a damned good record. I expected a loud, infectious and massive slice of joyful electro. But Gossamer is kind of a downer when you actually listen to what Angelakos is singing about. My solution: I choose to ignore the lyrics.

The beauty of electro is that you can largely ignore it while you dance, or do stuff around the house, or walk along the road smiling at people. The simple fact is that I really don’t want an electro “think piece,” so I have been pretending that it’s an all-around happy record.

Gossamer is not close to being an electro answer to What’s Going On, but the largely autobiographical tales of economic struggle, loss, alcoholism, abuse, suicide, mental breakdowns and regret feel a little out of place in the context of the music. So the simplest response I can imagine is to avoid thinking about what Angelakos is singing about half the time.

So in my make-believe world, Gossamer is comprised of a bunch of happy songs punctuated by “ohs” and fun break-downs and quirky sampling. The saddest songs on my imaginary version of Gossamer (that I enjoy on nightly walks) are about break-ups.

But honestly, the songs aren’t particularly “good” enough for me to take in their emotional entirety. I can see how the album could truly excite someone in its totality, but I just don’t like Passion Pit enough to completely digest the record. In my mind, this is a “happy record” that works well enough on its own, but I am irritated by its saccharine overtones. I am content to live in that universe, but the larger reality of the record’s themes are just not attractive to me.

In Angelakos’ defense, I have been listening to Gossamer a lot this week, so I won’t deny it’s place as a killer album. I just hope you can all share in my misreading of the record’s themes, since you’ll be happier in the long run.

[retrospective] The Band // Music From Big Pink

For this post, I would like to go way back to the Band’s Music from Big Pink. Released on July 1, 1969, Music from Big Pink was an extension of the almost equally amazing Basement Tapes from Bob Dylan. For all the hubbub over the British Invasion, Big Pink threw an hearty slice of Americana into the face of the late 60’s zeitgeist; ironically, the Band was almost entirely Canadian.

Soaring organs, disjointed guitars and a little bit of echo define this classic gem. The vocals are fragile and wistful, while the harmonies simultaneously find a perfect unity and pull apart at the seams. Combined with Dylan’s run of John Wesley HardingNashville SkylineNew Morning, the Rolling Stones’ albums where they chased down the Memphis sound and the string of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young records, the pristine, late 60’s folk rock vibe has a half-life that extends beyond my lifetime. It’s a total folkapocalypse…

The horns dominate “Tears of Rage,” while they nail the guitar/organ combo. “Tears of Rage” is one of three Bob Dylan penned tracks on the record, along with “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “I Shall Be Released.” “To Kingdom Come” has a more rollicking backbeat that opens up the vocal interplay that defines the rest of the record. “In a Station” features a nice slide guitar part that sounds like it could have been played by George Harrison; not surprisingly, this is the song that most closely ties this album (and the hearty slice of Apple Pie it represents) to the sound of the Beatles. “Caledonia Mission” is a great story-song. “The Weight” is the best-known song on the album, and it would be a highlight on any great album. “And… and… and… you put the load right on me.” It doesn’t get much better than that, right?

Well, “We Can Talk” comes pretty close, except for the lyric “But did you ever milk a cow? (milk a cow) I had the chance one day, but I was all dressed up for Sunday” which always jumps out as being a standout slice of oddness. “Long Black Veil” may very well be my favorite song on the album. I should repeat (so it’s painfully clear) that I am a sucker for a good story song. Then after that wistful rush, the constant creep of the organ on “Chest Fever” rolls in. Yet again on “Chest Fever,” you can see spartan but unorthodox use of horns, so I would put for the argument that without Big Pink, you would never have a record like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. “Lonesome Suzie” is another story song ballad. “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “I Shall Be Released” close the album on an insanely high note: a double-shot of Dylan.

I can’t imagine a better album to listen to going into the Fourth of July. Big Pink is such an American record that I can hardly recognize it. It’s a record for Buffalo Bill or Calamity Jane. Each song is a portrait of a time and a place that I can only relate to on an abstract/imaginary level. This is John Ford’s America, but I can’t stop listening to it. I recommend listening to this on a portable CD player, drinking a beer, while laying out it on your yard looking up at the stars. It’s the kind of record you can get lost to. It’s beautifully cinematic and emotive. It ebbs and flows perfectly though each song, and it begs for a repeat.

[Editor’s note: Brendan had this queued for the 4th, we just didn’t get it up on that day. Sorry.]

[television] The Newsroom


I’ve decided to shake things up a bit for this week’s post by writing about a television show. Normally and predictably, I take the time to share my thoughts on sort of musical artifact, which is not surprising considering this is a blog dedicated to music. That said, I’d like to try my hand at covering The Newsroom on HBO. So I hope I won’t ruin anyone’s day with an unsolicited rambing.

I’m a bit of a sucker for Aaron Sorkin vehicles. The West Wing, Sports Night, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip have been favorites of mine, so I don’t shy away from admitting that I would gladly watch anything he writes. So I was ecstatic when HBO announced The Newsroom.

The Newsroom fits nicely into the Sorkin mold, and it highlights why I am enamored by his work. Sorkin’s shows succeed beyond the level of people talking fast and walking around doing important things. At his best, his shows feature two defining strengths: the importance of the subject and the value of good work.

The broad subject of his shows (the White House, a sports show, a sketch comedy show or a cable news show) are always celebrated for being integral to American culture. He has a talent for making the world of his shows the most important place to be. Even something like a sports show can be pointed to as being culturally relevant, even though it’s something we may all take for granted. Without a doubt, I have watched PTI more than any show over the last decade, but I would never think of it as “one of my favorite television shows,” like The Wire, Mad Men or Arrested Development. This odd situation is something that was not lost on Sorkin during the run of Sports Night. (Think back to the moment early in the show when the ex-South African prisoner who had his legs broken in torture set the world record for speed walking: it validates the whole reason why I watch sports.)

The value of good work comes out when you consider the basic premise that the subjects he writes about are always institutions with social and political primacy that have somehow lost their way. Sorkin’s heroes are intelligent, motivated and professional folks that manage to take on the powers that be and right the ship on those wayward pillars of American life. Through the combination of a commitment to their job and the idealistic belief that they fix a broken system, his heroes win. They lose in real life, which is why watching The West Wing during the Bush administration was so hard for me. A Washington that is defined by partisan gridlock, a sporting world ruled by thugs and charlatans, or a media enterprise ruled by corporate interests are no match for people doing good work. I’m a sucker for that world.

The Newsroom is not without flaws. Three episodes down, and I am still wondering why certain characters exist or why certain characters do the things they do. But really, the characters are irrelevant. Sorkin’s shows are about atmosphere and institutional change more than the people who cause the change. A good Sorkin show pulls you into the characters, while a “normal,” good show pulls you into the cause through the characters. He always seems to work in reverse.

Again, I have problems. Will McAvoy lives in a box where he is either a short-sighted douche or a visionary. MacKenzie McHale might be the most ridiculous name for a character on television. (Oops: that honor went to Sloan Sabbith in the second episode) I can’t see why Don Keefer is on the show any more, other than being an awkward foil. These are small problems.

My big problem is that it feels cheap to set the show two years ago. The Newsroom is a painfully necessary critique on American journalism, but the move to the immediate past does nothing more than allow Sorkin to paint the picture perfectly. The Deepwater Horizon spill, Arizona immigration legislation and the Tea Party movement have all been covered with the benefit of hindsight. That’s great, but it seems like a shortcut, and it plays into the age-old criticism that Sorkin writes only the arguments that he can win. I would much rather see the show exist as a counterpoint for stories that have more immediate relevance.

But still, I am a sucker for a world where you could sit down and watch the news without the ridiculous slant of corporate ideology. If nothing else, it gives me both a show to watch now that Game of Thrones is over and a way to feel semi-intelligent after watching True Blood.

[retrospective] My Bloody Valentine // Loveless

Once again choosing to embrace the path of midsummer nostalgia, I would like to look back to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, since we are hot on the heels of the re-release of the MBV back catalogue. The catch with this assessment is that I will try to keep myself from being concrete, ignoring the actual songs and avoiding the storied history of the recording.

Loveless may very well be my favorite record. None other entries pop into my head to contend for the spot, and while such a thing may seem ridiculous to say, I see no reason to disagree with myself. It is my White Album. If formats for delivering music were to change ten times in the next ten years, I would own 9 out-dated copies of the release with the good one sitting on my desk.

The strength of the record isn’t so much in the songs (which are great) but from the fact that the songs are ideas about songs. They are impressions of form and structure that are tied down loosely by rhythms that are themselves submerged in the beautiful mirk of the album. Songs flow into each other, and the transitions inside the songs are riddled with the relentless tinkering of Kevin Shields’ sonic mixology.

Guitars (surely no other record captures the glory of a guitar like Loveless!) fight for dominance with the vocals of Shields and Bilinda Butcher. The Shields-Butcher tandem can merge into one voice or split into a spectacular counterpoint. Each voice is individually (and distinctly) masculine or feminine and androgynous when combined. The collective and the individual find homes on Loveless. And that’s just how the vocals sound, saying nothing about how the lyrics (which I have never tried to decipher) come together into profound statements that I always immediately forget, like waking from a dream. This feeling never leaves me when I listen to the record. And I cling to that impression like a believer to the words of a mystic.

This album taught me more about listening to music than anything I can think of. What makes Loveless so great is that you have these killer songs that could easily have been played with a straight, rock angle, but those songs are presented more as sonic landscapes with jagged rock’n’roll cliffs. Like the lyrics, the music feels like a complete thought when you hear it, but that sense of completion dissipates the deeper you get into the songs. The more I hear, the more I forget thanks to the staggering immersiveness of the music.

It’s gorgeous, haunting and inescapable. Totally unique and painfully final. If MBV could have made a leap like going from Isn’t Anything to Loveless, where could they have gone next? But that’s the point when you leave on a high note; otherwise, you look like the Stone Roses.

My Bloody Valentine // To Here Knows When
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