Sunday, August 26, 2012

I Was Totally Destroying It - Vexations

Every time I see I Was Totally Destroying It in a small room, I'm sure it will be the last - that the next time, they'll be in a venue worthy of their size and I'll be surrounded by a thousand other people who finally have figured it out. Lord knows IWTDI have the songs and the chops to bend an arena to their will. Vexations, their fourth album, sees them moving beyond their diverse influences and claiming their own musical territory.

Last year I wrote about IWTDI's previous release, Preludes, a patchwork quilt of songs into which the band had obviously put a great deal of effort, but which they intriguingly announced was a placeholder for yet another album, which they were holding back. With Vexations in hand, that strategy now makes sense. It's not that the songwriting is stronger - Preludes was chock full of singles in waiting that will undoubtedly feature in their set for a long time to come. This may be simply a matter of production (Vexations is the first time the band worked with outside producers), but it was easy to spend Preludes playing name-that-influence, from Jackson Browne to Metric and many points in between - Vexations turns the corner to a band sounding like itself.

The explicit thematic inspiration for Vexations is Stephen King's epic Dark Tower series, with which I am unfamiliar. Judging from these songs, though, the books feature a number of ghosts, more than a little blood, and a lingering existential uncertainty that inhabits both people and places - an uncertainty that at times is vague and mystical, and at other times holds real lives in the balance. Startlingly poetic lyrics lie in wait in the middle of songs: "My love is an enemy that I let back inside." "Truth is a mirror, and a secret can carry us home." "We hold the candles high to burden the sky."

The musical palette to express these ideas is diligent rock of varying thicknesses, and the ornamentation that could be distracting on Preludes is more organic here. There is great subtlety throughout: acoustic guitars played against electrics, understated keyboard parts, and unexpected fermatas give these songs humanity and warmth, playing in contrast to the bleakness of the lyrics.

An interesting facet of IWTDI's sound is the interplay of John and Rachel's vocals, which on many songs seem to be arranged as instruments as opposed to he-said she-said dynamics. This works particularly well because these are not character songs, so when the two trade back and forth in places and harmonize in others, it adds dimension to the material. Both are capable of a number of satisfying voices, and neither are inclined to show off.

At the show last night the band spoke of their excitement to finally share this album and their affection for this latest work. It's obvious why; Vexations practically compels multiple listenings and provides new rewards each time.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

2011 - a musical autobiography

The year has been over for two weeks and I'm finally getting around to compiling this list. It is not a best-of. These are the new releases from 2011 which were high points in the sonic landscape of my year. (All are linked to a sound source.) Here's to an equally brilliant year of music in 2012.

Adele - 'Rolling in the deep'
Olafur Arnalds - 'Fyrsta'
Austra - 'The choke'
Blood Orange - 'Dinner'
Blouse - 'Into black'
Burning Hearts - 'Into the wilderness'
Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow (album)
Charli XCX - 'Stay away'
Cut Off Your Hands - 'Hollowed out'
Darkness Falls - 'The void'
Death Cab For Cutie - 'You are a tourist'
Beth Ditto - 'I wrote the book'
Esben & The Witch - 'Hexagons II (the flight)'
Escort - 'Makeover'
Exploding Boy - 'Torn'
Foster The People - 'Pumped up kicks'
Friends - 'Friend crush'
Girl In A Coma - 'Smart'
High Places - 'Year off'
Holy Ghost! - 'Do it again'
Horrors - 'You said'
I Break Horses - 'Load your eyes (Star Slinger remix)'
I Was Totally Destroying It - 'Fight / flight'
Ice Choir - 'Two rings'
Jessica 6 - 'White horse'
Joy Formidable - 'I don't want to see you like this'
Kindest Lines - 'Destructive paths to live happily'
Kitten - 'Chinatown'
Letting Up Despite Great Faults - 'Teenage tide'
Lykke Li - 'I follow rivers'
Low - 'Especially me'
M83 - 'Midnight city'
Memory Tapes - 'Wait in the dark'
Mirrors - 'Fear of drowning'
Miserylab - 'People'
Model Worker - 'Automatic love'
New Division - 'Opium'
Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - 'Heart in your heartbreak'
Parallels - 'Salome'
RAC feat Liz Anjos - '1979'
Rainbow Arabia - 'Without you'
Raveonettes - 'War in heaven'
She Wants Revenge - 'Take the world'
Soft Kill - 'Sea of doubt'
Music - 'Ghost hands'
Twin Shadow - 'Changes'
Washed Out - 'Call it off'
White Lies - 'Bigger than us'
Xylos - 'X-ray'
Young Galaxy - 'Cover your tracks'
Zola Jesus - 'Shivers'

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A little bit not in love

I wanted to see Lykke Li live, to the point that I drove three and a half hours to do it. Despite the fact that I've connected primarily with her singles and found her album tracks to be rather forgettable, I didn't have any reservations because she's racked up quite a few killer singles with just two albums: 'Little bit', 'Breaking it up', 'I'm good, I'm gone', 'I follow rivers', 'Youth knows no pain'... Even if the other half of the set list wasn't incredible, those songs alone would be worth the trip.

I think Lykke came out with the best of intentions, even if the taped music intro and accompanying light show was long and theatrical enough that for a moment I wondered if I had stumbled into a Pink Floyd tribute band by mistake. She started strong, and sounded great.

And then at some point, about a third of the way through, the edge seemed to come off.  I can come up with a number of reasons. The Orange Peel was quite full, if not completely sold out, but the audience was very uneven in its enthusiasm - there was some pockets of real fervor, but plenty of patches of low energy. Near the front there was an obscene number of people with cameras up, to the point that Lykke introduced a song by asking if everyone would turn their cameras off and just live in the moment.  It was one of the few times she addressed the crowd between songs, and while plenty of people cheered the sentiment, she came across as a bit dismissive. And it was Asheville, North Carolina after all - probably a prime candidate to phone in a show if an artist is running on fumes during a tour.

For one reason or another, by the halfway mark I was thinking at least once a song that Lykke was giving the impression she had more energy available to put into her performance than she was actually committing.  I could be misreading her - she obviously structures her show (staging, clothes, transitions, including a bizarre minute of drumming to a tape of the Knife's 'Silent Shout' that came out of nowhere and then left just as abruptly) to be on the edgy, dramatic side, and perhaps her attempts to look intense wound up making her look aloof. But there were plenty of moments when it felt like she was in a late stage rehearsal with the band, rather than a performance. My suspicions were only reinforced when she dropped her signature cover of 'Unchained Melody' from her encore, and gave us only one song.

So, in all, it was a bit unsatisfying, and I'd guess Lykke would say it was mutual.  In the meantime, though, she made some interesting choices, arrangement-wise. I can't say there were any home runs; 'Little bit' was overwrought and hard, losing its delicacy and playfulness. 'I follow rivers' managed to become monotonous, something I've never felt with the recording. 'Breaking it up' was missing completely. 'Youth knows no pain' was the solid rendition of the evening, but it came late in the set, and couldn't make it over the top.

I remember the New York Times review from a few months ago noticing the disparity between the toughness of Lykke Li's arrangements and the lightness of many of her lyrics, and I understand what they meant tonight. There seemed to be two dynamics: ballads done with minimal instrumentation and sophisticated harmonies, better suited for a theatre than a rock venue. The audience invariably whooped too much and too early, disrupting the moment and probably annoying Lykke. And then full bombast with few breakdowns - something easy to achieve with two drummers and as many as three other people doing percussive things at various times. I actually thought of industrial percussion ensemble Big Pig at one point; the banging was impressive, but ill-suited to the material.

I will continue to enjoy Lykke Li's singles; she shows much greater subtlety and sophistication in her recordings than I got from her live show.  I'm not closing the book on her as a live act, but I don't know that I'd drive three hours to see her again.

Lykke Li's official website