Band Evangelist, ch. 5

It’s been over a year now since I wrote my last chapter of “Band Evangelist.”  How is that even possible?  Well, I suppose that sometimes there are periods of silence between the testaments, right?

In any case, here’s a run down of some of the really amazing music that is already available, or is coming out this year.  So far, I think it’s going to be a banner year for us indie-disciples…and here’s the why and what for of the first part of 2013 in music (skip to the end to start playing some tunes as you read along!):

  • Pedestrian VerseFrightened Rabbit (February 1):  Will definitely end up on my top 10 of the year.  These guys are reaching a level of infallible music-making that should secure their place in the pantheon of rock demi-gods (though I’m a strict indie-monotheist–as in “Glory be to S-FJ-N”–there is a certainly room for a henotheistic heavenly council).  Speaking of gods, FR are a bit rough on us believers on this album, as in MULTIPLE tracks talking about how hypocritical, naive, and oppressive Christians can be (a bit of cliche by this point, no?), but man can these boys write a beautiful song full of disdain.  Talent oozing like oil slicks on the North Sea.  Maybe the Prophet (Elijah) can give some insight into the Scottish Catholicism (?) that has turned these boys’ stomachs so deeply against Mother Kirk.  PS The deluxe version of this album has some solid bonus tracks and concert DVD material.
  • Country Sleep – Night Beds (February 1):  I have to give full credit to my boy Wade for turning me onto this gorgeous album out of nowhere.  I told him that they sounded like the prettiest of Ryan Adam’s mellow songs (at which point, he began playing a new Ryan Adams album I hadn’t heard…losing my prophetic edge here!) mixed with kind of a Bon Iver frozen hauntedness.  Highly recommend a full listen to this!
  • Us AloneHayden (February 5):  I always say that Hayden is an acquired taste, so this album is not for everyone & probably not even for his fair-weather fans.  More the real followers–the kind for whom his music is almost everything.  But great, mature songwriting, tasteful little jams, & uniquely clever musings all around.
  • The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand Matt Pond (February 5):  He lost the PA that used to follow his name, but he’s written an album that holds up to the best of his earlier work (Several Arrows Later, for my money).  If you can’t take lovely-throated, hook-filled indie-pop with sunny melodies covering dark lyrical waters, then look elsewhere.
  • guessing the others – swimming in speakers (February 5):  I can’t tell you how this strange, lo-fi, folky-electronic outfit with a whimsically beautiful female lead voice came to my attention, but it has become a go-to mood elevator in the same way watching Amelie can change my perspective from cynical to wonder-filled.
  • Days Into YearsElliott Brood (February 28):  Interestingly, though I am not a tremendous Ryan Adams fan, this band also reminded me of his smoky voice over Neil Young crunchy guitars and often a Band of Horses retro-rock cool.  I still need to sit with this album more, but I’d give it a solid recommendation already (also thanks to Wade).
  • Sub-VersesAkron/Family (April 30):  I would call myself a casual fan of this band–I have most of their albums and enjoy some tracks immensely while others are more solidly moderate.  But the two songs I’ve heard from this new release (below) produced a Pavlovian reaction of aural drool leading to one-click ordering.
  • Modern Vampires of the City Vampire Weekend (May 7):  I think there’s been sufficient backlash against VW that we can look past the hype, calculated affect, and branding to simply listen to some lovely tunes that integrate  things like the harpischord and loopy bass lines with fragile, self-consciously hi/low lyrics that nevertheless pluck at the heartstrings.
  • Trouble Will Find MeThe National (May 21):  Some of you will not like Matt Berninger’s voice.  That’s ok.  I do & I love everything else about this fraternally-formed, preternaturally talented group.  They have a musical golden touch.  If this is for you, it will be the kind of trouble you would want to find you.  If not, just keep walking.
  • CurrentsEisley (May 28):  Now I’m getting into murky waters.  I haven’t followed this band of mostly female family members for a LONG time (sorry Wesley Chung), but something in me feels like this may be the album that brings me back.  But don’t take my word for it–just an intuition.
  • The Weight of the GlobeLily & Madeleine (June 11):   This find came to me via the Asthmatic Kitty email update (an epistle from the indie One’s priestly cult) & if the beauty of these two young ladies’ voices, melodies, and ageless lyricism doesn’t merit a head-shaking double take in any listener, then I have no ear, no eye, no soul.
  • OverseasOverseas (June 11):  This is a new project with David Bazan (former frontman for Christian indie-heroes Pedro the Lion & a talented, but faithless solo performer in his own right) and some other hipster guys from bands that exceed my coolness pay-grade.  Don’t know that I’m recommending this, as much as just putting it on your sonic radar.
  • Kveikur – Sigur Ros (June 18):   Sadly, I was not among the admirers of their most recent release, Valtari, which felt rather aimless and amorphous to me; however, supposedly they are moving to a more “direct, aggressive” style–which I’m not totally sure what that translates to (the video below doesn’t bode terribly well for me).  I am a Takk/Hvarf man myself, so that’s what I’m secretly hoping for a return to.

There are a few other upcoming releases I have no details on, but believe should be amazing:  a new Arcade Fire album, surely one by Neko Case, and one by the lesser known but charmingly gifted Jeremy Messersmith.

Some misses of the year so far:  Josh Ritter‘s The Beast in it’s Tracks (a middling effort of post-divorce woe & rebound that’s mostly just depressing); I was utterly bored with the Thom Yorke project, Atoms for Peace; and don’t anyone tell my dear friend Matt Clatterbuck, but I sadly do not like the new Yo La Tengo either!

Question:  Did anyone get the new My Bloody Valentine?  Low’s The Invisible Way? The new Strokes?  Iron + Wine?  If so, what do you think?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations!!

Frightened Rabbit:

Night Beds:

Hayden:

Matt Pond:

Elliott Brood:

swimming in speakers:

Akron/Family:

Vampire Weekend:

The National:

Eisley:

Lily & Madeline:

Overseas:

Sigur Ros:

The Cloud Rank: ANIMAL COLLECTIVE

Sometime in late 2004 or early 2005, a girl whom I barely knew (Annabelle Feeney anyone?) made a mix for me that included a song called “Who Could Win a Rabbit” from a band called Animal Collective.  There have been few times in my life when I’ve been as startled, baffled, intrigued, and delighted by a song as I was upon listening to this collage of idiosyncratically rhythmic acoustic guitars, punctuated by driving tribal percussion and entwined with whimsical vocals and found audio samples.  I knew straightaway that I had discovered one of the greatest and most indelible indie bands of the 21st century.

Of the 8 Animal Collective albums that I have, at least 3 of them would rank on my top 100 albums of all time.  Though the band has moved into a more electronic mode on their last few albums, their experimental songcraft, eclectic instrumentation, earnest, impressionistic lyrics, and the alternately child-like and ecstatic vocals have rarely faltered to produce incredible albums.  That is, until now.

On September 4, 2012, Animal Collective’s latest album, Centipede Hz, was released.  Earlier in the year, the band had issued a double A-side single “Honeycomb/Gotham” that did not bode well for the album with its weak vocal lines and repetitive lyrics.  So as it came closer to the album’s release, my expectations were lowered from the height of anticipation built upon their last album from three years ago, the melodically rich and propulsive Merriweather Post Pavilion.

More like Centipede Zzzzz

As I listened to Centipede Hz, the first few songs gave me some hope—there were new sounds (thick, metal guitar chording; layers of bleeps and bloops) combined with some familiar ingredients (Avey Tare’s distinctive vocal tics; hypnotic synth lines reminiscent of Philip Glass scores), but as the album wore on, it became clear that this was going to be a miss.  After I listened to the album 10 or so times, I then ranked the songs: the first 4 songs were three stars each, then 1 star for the fifth, and two stars for the rest.  My favorites would probably be “Today’s Supernatural” and “Applesauce,” followed by the opener, “Moonjock.”

It breaks my heart to say this, but there were times that I thought I was listening to a more indie version of the rap/alternative rock band 311 (“Amber is the color of your energy”…[shudder]), especially on the song “Rosie Oh.”  It truly is quite sad for me to give this album a negative review, considering how much I’ve loved the work of Animal Collective, but I honestly have to say that it’s not worth adding to your record collection.

After making my assessment of Centipede Hz, I looked up some online reviews and found that the album is actually faring rather well with a variety of critics—I think Pitchfork even gave it an 8 out of 10!  However, I can only credit this to an “emperor’s new clothes” phenomenon:  when a band as talented and with as much indie cred as Animal Collective puts something out, it’s hard to believe that it could be this bad, so you praise it so that you don’t find yourself the only naysayer among the sycophants.  I think that Panda Bear, one of the founders of Animal Collective, also had this phenomenon occur with his last two solo works—they were highly praised, but seemed pretty minor works to my ears (his album Young Prayer, however, is one of the most earnest and poignant albums I’ve heard).

In any case, here is my nearly comprehensive ranking of Animal Collectives albums:

  1. Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009):  Just because this was their most popular album doesn’t mean that it isn’t their best.  It has its share of flaws (“Guys Eyes”) but the first four songs are beautiful bliss and the rest are consistently strong.  “In the Flowers” has practically become my life motto; even after being tragically overplayed, “My Girls” remains the apotheosis of AC songs.  Cloud Rank = MUST OWN WHOLE ALBUM
  2. Strawberry Jam (2007):  This album has actually grown on me quite a lot over the years (at first listen, I put it beneath Sung Tongs).  Seeing them perform songs from this release at a show was one of the most transcendent experiences I’ve ever had (if you ever have the chance to see them live, you really must go), so that may have added to its lustre.  The first five songs are genius (a trend that’s become obvious to me is their tendency to frontload their albums with the strongest material), but overall, it is aging terrifically.  Cloud Rank:  MUST OWN WHOLE ALBUM
  3. Sung Tongs (2004):  This album represents the heights of joyful creativity and experimentation, not only for this band but in the history of humankind.  Again, first five songs are absolute delight, but the sonic flops here are worse, making for a lesser album altogether.  “We Tigers” and “Leaf House” never fail to make me smile with crazy delight.  Cloud Rank:  MUST OWN WHOLE ALBUM
  4. Feels (2005):  My favorite AC song (and among my favorites ever) “Banshee Beat” is found here; other classics include “Did You See the Words” and “Grass” but there’s some real unpalatable music on here as well.  Cloud Rank:  MUST OWN CERTAIN SONGS
  5. Centipede Hz (2012):  See above.  Cloud Rank:  SHOULD LISTEN TO, PERHAPS DOWNLOAD CERTAIN SONGS
  6. Campfire Songs (2003):  A lo-fi recording from a front porch, this captures some beautiful moments of creativity, youthful exuberance, and natural talent.  Cloud Rank:  MUST OWN FOR FANS ONLY
  7. Hollinndagain (2002):  Pretty experimental and frequently minimalist with some crazy loud crescendos (one of which startled awake my friend Jess on a plane ride to Honduras!). “Forest Gospel” may give you a heart attack.  Cloud Rank:  SHOULD LISTEN TO, FOR FANS ONLY
  8. Here Comes the Indian (2003):  I don’t like this album.  Cloud Rank: SHOULD AVOID UNLESS A COMPLETIST

Albums I’ve Never Heard/Questionable Whether They are Truly Animal Collective Albums or Just Attempts to Cash In on Later Popularity:

  • Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished (2000)
  • Danse Manatee (2001)

EP/Single’s Rank:

  1. Fall Be Kind (2009): Two strong songs, “Graze” and “What Would I Want? Sky” with some ok b-side worthy material
  2. Water Curses (2008):  Mostly screwing around, but occasionally of interest
  3. Prospect Hummer (w/ Vashti Bunyan) (2005):  I like “I Remember Learning How To Drive,” but otherwise, her voice was grating on my cochlea
  4. People (2006):  The title song had me for a bit, then lost me.  The rest is painful.
  5. Honeycomb/Gotham (2012):  Avoid.

Thank you Annabelle Feeney, wherever you are.  Thank you Josh, Jess, and Erin for the shared experience of a live show (remember Wizard Prison?  Josh:  Oh, what a prison it was.).  Thank you Elijah, because I always must thank you.

Band Evangelist, ch. 4

I have neglected my musical prophetic calling as of late, but LO, I have returned to separate the melodic wheat from the chaff and to baptize you in the tuneful rivers of new music (the evangelist metaphor is wearing thin, I know). I have put together a mix of some of the latest songs to catch my ear–cleverly entitled “2012: My Own Apocalypse”–but since sharing music online is a dangerous pastime, I will simply offer to send you a link to the songs  (if you know me, shoot me an email; if you don’t know me, post in the comments section and I should be able to see your email…AND make sure you are not an undercover agent of the RIAA!).  Most of the following artists I’ve highlighted have a track on this mix…

To begin with, two years ago, in my first “Band Evangelist” post, I lamented the break-up of a band that I believed had great potential to be among the indie greats:  The XYZ Affair.  Well, the singer of that band has just released a free 5-song EP under the moniker Leonard Friend.  It’s a bit more quasi-ironic 80’s electronic poppy than I might wish, but this singer/songwriter’s talent cannot be hidden under a bush & heck, it’s FREE!

Another singer/songwriter–Ramesh Srivastava–from a similarly lamented & potentially epic indie band that broke up several years ago–Voxtrot–has just released a few new songs as well, which can be heard for now at his website (the song “The King” was on my best of 2010 mix).  I think Ramesh may someday rise again like the phoenix to the heights he reached with Voxtrot (whose must-have songs include “The Start of Something,” “Fast Asleep,” “Firecracker;” their self-titled album from 2007 is worth a purchase, though not essential), but for now, these few songs are all we have to remind us of what could’ve been.

Some of the kings & queens of indie-dom from years past also have new albums out/coming out that must be reckoned with:

  • Andrew Bird/Break It Yourself (out now):  I did buy it & I do like it thus far.  I’m sure it will grow on me even more (straightaway, I was taken with the penultimate 3 tracks quite a bit).  The man is so multi-talented (composing melancholic melodies, playing guitar/violin/violin like a guitar/whistling, etc.), he cannot make a “bad album,” but to be honest, I think he could stand to have a producer other than himself (it lacks a sonic fullness and critical perspective that a talented outsider could have brought), he should focus his lyrical impressionism just a bit, and, this sounds harsh, but he needs to drop his brushes/soft kick drum percussionist Martin Dosh, who, while an incredibly talented musician himself, I think, brings out a soft-rock mildness and self-indulgence in the Bird that keeps him from attaining his full greatness on record (when they play live together, as a two-piece, they are able to create an entire symphony of sounds through looping).
  • The Shins/Port of Morrow (out now):  After a few listens, I am uncertain what I will ultimately think of these 10 tracks.  Having loved the early Shins, it is hard to see this new line-up, sans any other original member than singer/songwriter James Mercer, as anything more than just Mercer resurrecting a “brand” that’s proven to sell records.  But his voice & lyrics are so great to hear again (though the instrumentation on this album may have been a bit OVER-produced) and the old sparkle does emerge in some of the attempts to recapture the old Shins magic (much more glimmer than I found in the Mercer/Dangermouse collaboration, Broken Bells).
  • Daniel Rossen/Silent Hour/Golden Mile (out now):  This lovely throated & absurdly brilliant songwriter from Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles has released a five-song EP that I have found wonderfully enchanting, lovely to the bones, and all other kinds of goodness.  Yep, you should buy it!
  • Sigur Rós/Valtari (May 29):  Now I have to admit that I am getting my hopes up ionospherically high for this forthcoming album–to the point that I do not want to hear any tracks until I have the album in my hands.  I was personally disappointed with singer/composer Jonsi‘s recent solo release, so I’m hopelandic (or Vonlenska, if you prefer) for a aural reconciliation between my fey Nordic friend and me.
  • Regina Spektor/What We Saw from the Cheap Seats (May 29):  I’m not totally sure what to think of this quirkstress any more.  I did love so much of her last album, Far, but the initial single for this album, “All the Rowboats,” is cloyingly precious (oh, poor paintings that want to escape from their museum prisons) and I fear the worst.  Still, she does have heaps of talent, a golden ear for melodies (until she kills them with an intentionally dissonant note to the throat), and a certain sweet naivete, so I’m certain I will give it a listen.
  • Other releases of note to check out or watch for include:  White Rabbits/Milk Famous (out now)–I don’t know much about them, but I love the song “Everyone Can’t Be Confused,” Damien Jurado/Maraqopa (out now)–“Museum of Flight” is pretty as all get out, Rufus Wainwright/Out of the Game (April 23), Silversun Pickups/Neck of the Woods (May 8), Beach House/Bloom (May 15)–the song “Myth” from this album is soaringly lovely, Best Coast/The Only Place (May 15)–get a free song off the album here, The Walkmen/Heaven (June 5), and a new Passion Pit album in June.  Post in the comments about any albums I missed!

SO those are releases from the KNOWN bands…but let me list out a few NEW (to me & perhaps you?) acts that I’d like to commend to you all:

  1. Sharon Van Etten/Tramp:  This singer-songwriter caught my ear with “Serpents” before I’d heard that The National‘s Aaron Dessner had played on/produced her album (which is reason enough to take note). Her voice is a mix between Cat Power, Kathleen Edwards, and Sarah Jaffe (who also shares a similar composing style & sound). This woman has an incredible future ahead of her.  I’ve been playing this album non-stop of late.
  2. Yellow Ostrich/Strange Land:  This LP is the apotheosis of indie-songsmithery.  Haunting at points (“Up in the Mountains,” “Wear Suits”), darkly epic at others (“Marathon Runner”) and hopping off walls at yet many other points.
  3. Pandercakes/Paint By Numbers EP:  I don’t quite remember how I heard about this band, but you can download some songs here.  Read this music blog to find out more about their sound, which I like immensely–densely layered & yet fun and catchy at the same time.
  4. Oberhofer/Time Capsules II:  I have only listened to one song of of this album (“Heart”) but it has set expectations quite high.  This song is a mix of Animal Collective, Explosions in the Sky, Page France, and Muse (the piano parts)–to my ears at least.  This kid is the next generation of indie genius.
  5. Dry the River/Shallow Bed:  A friend with impeccable taste just turned me on to this band via a set on KCRW.  Check out this quote from their online bio:

“This five-piece band has all the hallmarks of the latest folk sensation: elemental name, beards, acoustic guitars, even a violinist. But what sets Dry the River apart is a background in hardcore and post-punk bands, hence the tattoos, lyrics that read like a Steinbeck novel and a sonic palette that sweeps from gentle to giant like an incoming storm.”

Well, that should keep your ears busy for a short while…until our next gathering at the edge of the river, let the “Glory Hallelujah’s” roll!

Death Waltz Day

Six years ago today, my uncle, John Stump died.  Shortly thereafter, I discovered that he had been the author of a number of pieces of sheet music, including “FAERIE’S AIRE and DEATH WALTZ,” which had a kind of legendary status online and a cult following among fans of musical absurdity.  Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about John here on Lost in the Cloud in order to provide some actual information about him, being that he was somewhat of a mystery to the world (my younger brother created a Wikipedia page, which was up for a while, but the powers that be at that reputedly free and open encyclopedia closed down the entry for not having enough verifiable outside sources!).  In the less than 2 years since I wrote that post, it has had 164,631 views.  That number may not seem tremendously high for some websites, but Elijah and I are regularly astounded at the weekly average of 5,000 people who are interested in finding out more about John.

So, being that today is the anniversary of John’s death, I would like to celebrate my eccentric genius uncle by officially declaring January 20 to be Death Waltz Day and posting some random information and images from John’s life, beginning with his death certificate.

Some might think it in poor taste to post a copy of this document, but I disagree.  For one, there have been some people who’ve claimed that John is an invented person and that this all is a hoax, so a legal document demonstrating the fact of his existence by acknowledging the END of his existence seems appropriately absurd, given John’s sense of humor (this is a man who once sent me, in lieu of a Christmas letter, a sympathy card using a fake name–for both the recipient and sender).  Secondly, I’ve had a number of requests for information about John and his death from small magazines or blogs, so I thought I’d just put this out there as part of the public data about John.  Finally, I’m commemorating his DEATH on DEATH WALTZ DAY, so a DEATH certificate seems apropos.  There’s no need for us to be so tetchy about the end of life, my friends!  (Ironically, one of the only musical compositions of John’s known to have been performed was called “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” so John was clearly comfortable with the topic!)

I’m also including a scan of the program cover and inside content from John’s memorial service, which was held at The Vedanta Society of Southern California, where my other uncle lives and works.

Having the coda from “Hey Jude” as your funeral recessional is about the coolest thing imaginable.  I wish I had been there to experience this first hand–I honestly cannot even remember the trivial matter that kept me from attending his service.

Reflecting the other end of John’s life, I wanted to post the actual hospital bill for his birth (total cost = $64.8o!) & a photo of a precious young John, probably around two or three years old.

(Where can you get a $2 circumcision these days?)

I thought I’d also share some rather funny promotional material that John used to sell his works, which he referred to as “musical novelties” and “gag sheet music,” along with John’s business card from his days as a music engraver.

My father has been digging up some other treasures of John’s, including a short story that he wrote in 1978 called “Harold Blott and the Christmas Pumpkin” which I will post at some point, and I’m asking my dad to look for this absolutely droll booklet that John made for him for his birthday that was an illustrated story in the manner of Edward Gorey.  I will try to post these in time for John’s birthday in March…

Finally, I thought I would use the occasion of Death Waltz Day to clear up some confusion about a video on YouTube that claims to be the “Death Waltz.”  What seems to have happened is that someone took the music of another composer and simply put the title of John’s work on it, as if it were a representation of what the Death Waltz would sound like put to music.  One of the comments from my original post on John, by a reader called Will K., revealed what the actual song in the video was:

The correct name of this song is “U.N. Owen was Her”, remix by Cool&Create, piano version. The original author is Japanese composer Junya Ota, who goes by the alias of ZUN. He is known for his Touhou series computer games, from where the music comes from, which are extremely popular in Japan. More specifically, this bgm is from the game Touhou6: Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil. He is a very exceptional case because he is famous for single-handedly designing and programming his games AND composing all of the soundtracks, including this one.

Hope that helps clear that all up!  However, in honor of Death Waltz Day, I would like to issue a challenge to any music programmers out there to actually input John’s composition “Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz” into some musical software program and send us the results of what it would sound like.  It will probably sound like absolute cacophony and chaos, given that the composition was designed more for it’s visual and humorous flair and not for musical coherence, but we’ll never know unless we hear it for ourselves!

Thanks to all those who have shown an interest in John’s works over the years and hopefully this post will provide some additional enjoyment for his fans around the world!  I end this commemoration of Uncle John with some lyrics of George Harrison, which were printed on the back of John’s memorial service program:

All things must pass/none of life’s strings can last/
so I must be on my way/and face another day…

Past Forward: a penitential mix

SO, my supposed return to the world of blogging was obviously rather presumptuous, seeing that I’ve fulfilled all of ONE of my anticipated posts on LITC.  I have no explanation, no cause, no defense.  Somehow, I’ve just not gotten to it.  I hope you will believe that I’ve BEGUN to write, but alas, completion of any particular post has eluded me.

In lieu of a meaty slab of verbiage, I offer instead…a mix.  A mix the like of which I have never before made, namely, a concentration of electronica/dance-ish type songs.  Recently, I have perceived a deluge of retro-80’s synth/drum machine/gloom-pop tunes in the musical ether.  For instance, I thought I had stumbled upon an unreleased duet between Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush when I heard the song, “Somebody that I Used to Know” by Gotye (pronounced “gore-tea-eh” apparently) and Kimbra.  The synth line and flat drums of Class Actress’ “Weekend” transported me back to middle school, when I used to tape songs off of the radio (before my best mate Wade opened my mind to punk, proto-indie, and goth on vinyl).  There’s also some heavy 80’s influence evident in the new “chillwave” genre which seems to be gaining momentum amongst the hiptelligensia…thanks to my Portland DJ friend, David A. for the heads up on this scene.

With the help of my Shazam app, the RCRD LBL daily download, and my retinue of music blogs, I put together a playlist of some 19 songs roughly fitting in this emerging genre, in a mix entitled, “Past Forward (or, Addicted to a Certain Kind of Sadness)” which you may download here.

I have dedicated the mix to my co-blogger and close-as-a-brother friend, Elijah Wade Smith, to whom I owe a letter of epic proportions, with my deepest apologies for epistolary delinquency.  I hope you all enjoy and know that I am working on getting my blog-self into gear.  As a new internet meme declares…

Tracklist:

  1. Video Games/Lana Del Rey
  2. Days/The Drums
  3. Lofticries/Purity Ring
  4. When We’re Dancing/Twin Shadow
  5. No Reasons/VEGA
  6. Weekend/Class Actress
  7. Don’t Move/Phantogram
  8. The Suburbs/Mr. Little Jeans
  9. The Body/The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
  10. Throw Away This/Telepathe
  11. Polish Girl/Neon Indian
  12. Animal/Neon Trees
  13. Wait/Alberta Cross
  14. Old Friend/Caveman
  15. Somebody That I Used to Know (feat. Kimbra)/Gotye
  16. Destructive Paths to Live Happily/Kindest Lines
  17. Car Crash/Telekinesis
  18. You Have My Eyes Now/CLUEs
  19. Exit The Mine/Baths

The Cloud Rank: CHINA MIÉVILLE

It wouldn’t surprise me if many of our readers had not heard of the novelist China Miéville before.  I myself only stumbled upon a story of his in a collection a few years back, and had to read backwards from there to catch up with his writing.  Below, I’d like to share some thoughts about his newest novel, Embassytown and then list “The Cloud Rank” of all of his works that I have read, but before I do, here are just a few brief thoughts by way of introduction…

  • Miéville is primarily known as an author of science fiction/fantasy-esque novels, but they are eruditely creative, densely multilayered (political/spiritual/culturally reflective), and deeply engaging examples of those genres, that is, versus the kind that have implausibly-bosomed alien/elfin women in space/fairy bikinis.  Supposedly, there is a “school” of writing to which Miéville belongs called the “New Weird.”  I don’t know about weird, I just think it’s devastatingly clever. Except when it’s not (see Cloud Rank below for works that fall in the AVOID category).
  • He’s British and male, though his name seemed French and feminine when I first encountered it (he made himself the central character in the first story of his I read, mentioned above).  He is a avowed Marxist (I think? Maybe just a hyper-socialist?) with a PhD in International Something (Law? Economics? Can’t be bothered to fact-check anything floating about in my memory).  He has a shaved head, a plethora of earrings in one ear, and he’s far from either of the polar extremes one normally associates with the sci-fi/fantasy crowd (i.e. skinny nerd or fatty schlub). This last sentence is rendered wholly unnecessary by inserting…
    Portrait of the artist as a person you would hand over your wallet to

    His newest novel, Embassytown, was released in May of 2011, to mostly quite positive reviews.  It is set in the future on the most distant planet of the known universe, when human existence on earth is only a vague memory (or something like that).  I won’t go into the details of plot, character, etc.  All those things can be found in reviews elsewhere with considerable ease.  Instead, I’d simply like to tell you a few of my own impressions…

  • I initially found myself simultaneously intrigued and baffled by the world he created (aliens, technology, politics, etc.), yet I was willing to patiently uncover the meaning of words like “miab” or “immer” by their use in context.  However, I later became a bit bored with this lexical snipe-hunt, being that some words’ meaning seemed almost indeterminable.  Still, the wordsmithery of this writer cannot be denied.
  • The central character and narrator, a human woman called Avice, held my attention and affection throughout, though there was a disquieting passivity to her–intentionally, I’m sure, as Avice describes herself as a “floaker,” which is a neologism the author uses to define someone who is an underachiever/layabout/slacker combination mixed with a dose of elitist and a hint of mischievous social agitator.  I personally would hope to live up to such a description on my finest days…
  • In terms of literary pedigree, I found myself sensing the influence of two works quite strongly in his novel (though he may have read neither):  Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (if you’re ever in a used bookshop, look for this & buy a pulpy copy…it’s so worth reading) with its androgynous sexuality and ambassadorial politics, and C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra (I’m pretty sure that Miéville would not be a fan of Lewis, given his harsh words regarding Tolkien) with its re-imagined Edenic narrative and grand human themes.  If you liked either of those books, I think you would enjoy their offspring in Embassytown.
  • The book had the potential to be a microcosmic epic, an unveiling of life in a particular place that seemed to speak to the totality of universal existence.  But ultimately, it lost steam on this quest and became a story that was crushed by its own inability to live up to the grand vision it had promised.  And yet, this book is so much better than most of whatever else that is published every year, so it comes highly recommended nevertheless.

So where does Embassytown fall on the Cloud Rank of China Miéville’s literary output?  About the middle…

  1. The Scar (2002):  This is the second novel in the Bas-Lag trilogy.  It is a sci-fi sea novel (Miéville is also known for experimenting with hybrids of various genres) and one of the greatest stories I’ve ever read.  Cloud Rank = MUST READ (Note: this book can be read as a stand-alone novel, but why not start with…
  2. Perdido Street Station (2000):  The first of the trilogy, sometimes a bit bogged down by detail, but absolutely brilliant in its world creation, vivid descriptions (it can actually be a somewhat intense read with the violent accounts of the horrific “slake moth” monsters and what not), and deeply compelling storyline.  I was gripped by this book.  Cloud Rank = MUST READ
  3. The City & The City (2009):  This is a crime/noir novel set in an Eastern European-esque location which actually houses two distinct cities, existing in the same geographic space but divided by an ingrained, mutual disregard established in a elaborate set of rules that keeps one city from acknowledging the other.  Brilliant conceit, but the story lost the central suspense narrative (to my mind) at some point. Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  4. Embassytown (2011):  See above comments.  Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  5. Railsea (2012):  Sometimes, a bit hit & miss, this is a postmodern re-imagining of Moby-Dick with trains replacing boats in a futuristic world.  If you can stick to the end, I think you’ll find it is ultimately a satisfying read.  Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  6. Looking for Jake (collection, 2005):  A mixed bag of stories and other pieces, notable mainly for the post-apocalyptic vampire novella, The Tain, and a story in the Bas-Lag universe called “Jack.”  Cloud Rank = MOSTLY FOR FANS
  7. Iron Council (2004):  The third book in the Bas-Lag trilogy, half of it written in the manner of a classic western novel, other parts a narrative of class struggle, and yet other parts creepy sci-fi.  I was so deeply disappointed in this conclusion to the trilogy, I finished it only out of a sense of obsessive completism.  Cloud Rank = AVOID, UNLESS YOU HAVE THE SAME NEED TO COMPLETE THE SERIES
  8. Kraken (2010):  I could barely bring myself to keep reading a few chapters in–there was not much that I liked at all.  It felt like a D-grade rehash of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  And just to be spiteful, I will spoil the end here:  the whole thing with the kraken is just a red herring and the real villain is a former fundamentalist Christian who wants to erase the evidence for Darwinism. This is inexcusably bad.  Cloud Rank = AVOID AT ALL COST

Returning to the Cloud: Fall/Autumn 2011 Preview

Greetings to our faithful cadre of subscribers & readers…it has been some time since I’ve posted anything on our humble little weblog here (due to a overloaded class schedule at Fuller Seminary & increased summer childcare–all three little angels were home with me– combined with a new job at my church) but I am here to announce that a number of posts WILL BE forthcoming in the next weeks and months.  Here’s a preview of what you can expect on this site in Fall/Autumn 2011:

• A number of my favorite novelists have new books that have recently been or will shortly be published.  Along with a brief review of their latest work, I’d like to begin a new feature called, “The Cloud Rank” where I assess and position the rest of their oeuvre (or as many of their novels as I’ve read) against the new work.  Some of the novelists receiving this treatment will include: David Lodge, China Mieville, Tom Perrota, Julian Barnes, and graphic novelist Craig Thompson.

• You may also expect a response to this article about hell from the Summer issue of Biola University’s magazine.  I’ve largely worked through my issues with Biola, my former employer, so you need not expect a diatribe against the conservative evangelical establishment, and I find that I am generally opposed to the the Rob Bell book on eschatology that the Biola article denounces as well.  Rather, some points that the “expert” author makes about annihilationism are quite ill-founded and need a corrective voice to balance out, which I am happy to provide!

• I am also looking forward to reading the upcoming “multiple-views” volume on the topic of evangelicalism (about which John Stackhouse writes here) and adding some thoughts about the schism that seems imminent in the evangelical consensus and ways that we might avoid committing or being the victim of a “friendly-fire” tragedy.

• I am also hoping to do a Cloud Rank on the albums of The Smiths and Morrissey, hopefully publishing a Top 50 Smiths/Morrissey Songs list in the process.

• Finally, as we draw closer to the end of the year, you can count on Elijah and I to continue the long tradition of our best of the year in music here on Lost in the Cloud.

I offer my deepest apologies for this long absence and hope you will enjoy some of the posts in the days ahead!

A Random (P)review of David Bazan’s “Strange Negotiations”

I should wait and put a proper set of thoughts together on the new David Bazan album, Strange Negotiations,  that comes out on May 24 for regular folks, but which I received early due to the fact that I’m among an elite corps of Bazan supporters who actually chipped in some cash to finance the recording of this album (thanks to Glen of Someone Tell Me the Story for the heads up on this opportunity).  However, I’m not seeing much time in the weeks ahead for anything much more than a rather random collection of thoughts after about 5-6 full listens…so why not just put it out there now?

A brief background on Bazan:  he had a band called Pedro the Lion back in the 90’s-00’s that was pretty much the coolest thing in the world for a young evangelical Christian to like, though you were never sure if you were supposed to think of them as a “Christian band” or not (which, ultimately, is a good problem to have–DEATH TO CCM).  Bazan’s songwriting was always pretty cutting toward the church and hypocritical Christians, but there was a latent tenderness and spiritual longing underneath (see “The Secret of the Easy Yoke”) along with clever storytelling and wordsmithery (all of Control), and an ear for the lovely juxtaposition of vocal & instrumental melody.  Plus, some of his songs REALLY indie-rocked unbelievably much (see “Magazine”) and he would cuss with great aplomb (most brilliantly on “Foregone Conclusions”).  But his voice was rather sleep-inducingly mellow, his wit often a bit too acidic, and he seemed like his prophetic voice could often switch into Pharisaic condemnation or just plain whiny petulance.  Then, he killed PTL and did an electronic album called (and by?) Headphones that had some great cuts…and some not so great.  Finally, he came out under his own name with an EP (Fewer Moving Parts) that was all depressingly navel-gazing and narcissistic fantasy–I wondered if this would be the end of David Bazan…self-implosion.

Yet he came back with a full-length album Curse Your Branches in 2009 that was a masterpiece of him losing his faith; it is well worth the purchase & repeated listens, not only for the masterfully poignant/angry way he processes the experience of divorcing himself from God/Christianity, but also for his return to all the great songwriting and musicianship he’d evidenced in the past.  And that, in short, brings us to his second solo LP: Strange Negotiations.

That’s a naked woman and a geriatric man in pajamas next to a pool.

Some random observations:

  • Bazan’s voice is no longer sleep-inducing…it’s a sleep-DEPRIVED and mildly intoxicated growl and rasp (like a philosophical Kenny Rogers gone to seed) with certain words carrying a whiskey-flavored drawl that is becoming a Bazan trademark
  • I once heard it said that Bob Dylan wrote two kinds of songs:  one for Him (God) and one for “her” (the elusive love interest, I took it to mean).  I think Bazan writes one kind of song:  for himself.  His songs have become a Molotov cocktail of art therapy, bully pulpit, and bipolar self-aggrandizement/self-loathing.  He is a one-man 12-step group, endlessly telling his own story to himself and we just happen to be passing by the room.  Or he’s like a prophet who grew to love the taste of fiery denunciation, but forgot his audience and wandered off into canyons muttering woe and condemnation to the walls.  I remember thinking a few albums back that Bazan needed to get out of his own head, seeming like he was on an infinite, introspective spiral, destined for a solipsistic hell consisting of his own echo in an empty bottle.  I’m not sure in this album if he’s still heading there or on his way back, yet I still sense that damning self-absorption.  And yet, somehow, in the midst of all of that, he still sees things and says things in such a powerful, brilliant, and infectious way that I can’t help but listen.
  • I wondered if this would be his “post-Christian” album and a number of songs confirm this, but I am hesitant to read that into every song.  It will be interesting to see if he will ever make an album that contains no reference to his disdain for faith, conservatives, or his upbringing.  He definitely seems to want to alienate the final remnants of the old Christian music store fan-base with the naked chick on the cover, his transition in one song from the lyrics of “Be Thou My Vision” (which PTL covered on one album) to the line, “Fuck the gatekeeper, cause I’m fine outside the gate”, and repeated references to his new found way of seeing the world, free from the provincial boundaries of Christianity.  Again, it’s legitimate for him to process his rejection of faith, but he does it with such monomania.  Encountering the story of Captain Ahab’s hatred of & fixation with the white whale in Moby-Dick is powerful, but you probably don’t care to read sequel after sequel telling the same story, right?

In any case, this is supposed to be thoughts about the album, not a psychological study of Bazan.  The songs basically have two modes on Strange Negotiations:  crunchy electric guitars chording over a tight and driving rhythm, or reflectively quiet/ethereal, with the record heavily leaning to the former.  I offer below some thoughts on most of the tracks on the album, somewhat ordered according to how much I liked them:

  • People“–a hybrid of the two song modes, this is one part acoustic wistfulness looking back on a childhood in the church and one part scorching rocker about how he’s moved beyond all of that.  Besides being a beautiful tone/mood contrast, I think I love this because it’s about coming to terms with one’s heritage as a conservative evangelical Christian (“you are my people”) even as he talks about the cost of being a “truth-teller” in that community (which strikes one as rather patronizing, but still authentic to his experience).  It’s pretty judgmental overall, but it still captures that old balance between longing and disappointment that he had with PTL.
  • Level with Myself“–covering some of the same ground as the previous song, this melodic rocker pokes at the image of waking up in the morning and having a “quiet time” reading Scripture, but feeling like you have to “sell it to yourself.”  In contrast, he says he wants to “level with myself…my friends…and my kin…and be at peace with them”–which I take to mean that he’s trying to come to terms with the fact that he doesn’t believe anymore and he needs others to accept this as well.
  • Don’t Change“–this is an example of when I think Bazan dips into self-loathing, mocking himself and his efforts at self-improvement.  It’s got a lovely vocal and guitar melody over a molasses thick bass line.
  • Strange Negotiations“–haunting (ethereal mode), timeless ballad with echoes of Scripture (prodigal son, writing on the wall, cutting off one’s limb) about inter-personal conflicts.  Includes a lovely acoustic breakdown with Bazan’s lonely howl wordlessly communicating the pain of relational struggle…
  • Won’t Let Go“–what does Bazan have now that he’s chucked his faith and alienated himself from “his people”?  This song points to his marriage as the new anchor in his life.  Another ethereal mode with the EBow all over it.
  • Virginia“–this is the most poignant song on the album, looking back from a position of having lost faith at someone else in the family who was “unsaved” (“we wondered about your personal salvation/was it heaven or hell you saw when your eyes closed?”), but who modeled a transcendence beyond religious categories (“you smiled at us/floating high above the question/like you knew something we didn’t know”) that Bazan now has an appreciation for.  This is a delicate piece, full of deep regret at time wasted on such pettiness (from his new perspective)–which you can hear most tenderly when Bazan’s voice cracks at 3:36…
  • Wolves at the Door“–this seemed to be about religion again, but it could also be more broadly about conservative values.  This opens the album and sets the condemnatory/accepting synthesis with the line, “You’re a goddamn fool…and I love you.”  This is the last of the songs that I actually liked…but that makes 7 out of 10, which sounds like a pretty strong record if you ask me!

If these comments seem very critical, let me balance them all by saying that I think Bazan is one of the best living songwriters and generally a brilliant thinker and lyricist.  I will keep buying his work as long as he puts it out, but I also need to be honest to vocalize my concerns about his self-destructive fixation on himself.  Perhaps this is one of those cases where unhealthy neuroses lead to great art.  I don’t know, cause I can’t do what he does.

However, I need to end my ruminations here…but I would love, so very much, to hear YOUR thoughts on this album when it comes out (or if you already have it).

UPDATE:

Here’s the actual tracklist…

1. Wolves at the Door
2. Level With Yourself
3. Future Past
4. People
5. Virginia
6. Eating Paper
7. Messes
8. Don’t Change
9. Strange Negotiations
10. Won’t Let Go

Band Evangelist, ch. 3

BEHOLD, the kingdom of heavenly music has come near!!  I come to you once again with the proclamation of good taste, so that you may keep your ears open for bands that are bearing good fruit–and I’m talking about music that will baptize you with the Indie Spirit!!

A voice calling out in the sonic wilderness…

The Dears/Degeneration Street (February 15):  The Dears are among that coterie of artists whom I will probably always follow, based upon the brilliant songsmithery of Murray Lightburn (the Afro-Canadian Morrissey), most gloriously displayed in their impeccable 2006 album Gang of Losers.  Their last outing, Missiles, was a bit hit-and-miss, but I have greater expectations for this new album based on what I’ve heard so far.  Download free song here, along with pre-order information. [UPDATE:  The whole album is streaming here!]

Bright Eyes/The People’s Key (February 15):  Supposedly, this may be one of Conor Oberst’s greatest albums, solo or with Bright Eyes (I am partial to their 2002 masterpiece Lifted).  I am going to wait to hear this when I get the physical CD in my hands (I’m old-skool like that).  You can stream the full album at NPR’s webpage.

Elbow/build a rocket boys (March 7):  Ah, there is an eternal soft spot in my heart for this band…their last album, The Seldom Seen Kid, was a masterpiece, though previous efforts have been spotty.  I have no idea what this album will sound like, but on faith, I’ve ordered the deluxe import edition on Amazon.  Not sure if there will be an American release or what…

Josh T. Pearson/The Last of the Country Gentlemen (March 29):  Pearson was the genius behind the one-album legendary band Lift to Experience (The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads was #2 on my top albums of the 2000’s).  This guy has a haunting magnetism in his voice, lyrics, composition, and instrumentation that is rare as a blue rose–I’m hoping to see him live in Scotland at the end of March as his shows are apparently life-changing.  You may get a free download of an alternate take from the album here for the simple price of your email address. [Update:  there is a version with bonus CD available on Rough Trade! And here‘s another free download.]

Cass McCombs/Wit’s End (April 12):  This guy always intrigues me–I can’t quite place his genre–it seems at moments that he belongs to another time–but I am fascinated by the unique and enigmatic work he consistently puts out.  You may check out a track here.

Low/C’mon (April 12):  Slowcore gods (they’re Mormon, so I guess that’s not as blasphemous to say) that have long been able to produce hauntingly beautiful songs with nary an excessive note in the mix.  Download the lovely track “Try to Sleep” here.

Panda Bear/Tomboy (April 12):  I’m not quite sure if this will live up to some of the work he’s done in the past & most likely cannot touch his contributions to Animal Collective‘s albums (if you’re unfamiliar with them, I’d recommend Feels & Merriweather Post Pavilion).  I’ve got the title track and it has a fun groove, if not rather loose and loopish.

Fleet Foxes/Helplessness Blues (May 3):  After all the hype died down, I found that I really did like these guys quite a great deal (as well as side projects White Antelope & J. Tillman).  From the sound of it, this is going to be lush lovely in the same vein as their eponymous LP.  Download the title track of the new album here.

There you have it, 8 amazing releases in just a few months time.  I really couldn’t be happier for the state of music in 2011 (supposedly Radiohead has a new album that should be coming out this year, as well as a new U2 album–don’t roll your eyes, and a new Coldplay album–ok, you can roll your eyes now, but I’m sure I’ll still buy it).

Any other impending recommendations that I’ve missed?

[Update:  The Low Anthem, whose previous album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin was brilliantly lovely and intriguing, has a new work, Smart Flesh, coming out on February 22, which can be streamed in full here]

The Only Book I Will Buy This Year…

I have made a commitment/resolution not to buy any non-required books in 2011, being that the number of volumes I bought in the last quarter of 2010 ought to provide me with enough reading material for this entire year (you may find my current reading list here) and I was finding that my ongoing Amazon book purchases were becoming a sort of addictive behavior (experiencing a little dopamine hit at the click of “Add to Cart”.)

However, I am going to break my vow for one book that is coming out in June of this year, entitled God Behaving Badly by David Lamb.  I took a course with David this past summer at Fuller Seminary on the book of Genesis that somewhat revolutionized my view of “the God of the Old Testament” and even my approach to Scripture as a whole.  David has a contagious passion to help people understand Scripture (from his days on staff with InterVarsity), but also open-mindedly engages critical issues and theological tensions in the Bible (from his time at a little school across the pond called Oxford University).

In the course I had with David, we were able to read some of the early chapters from this work and the content is outstanding.  You may check out the many endorsements at the IVP page on the book, including ones from Scot McKnight (who is making this required reading for undergrads), John Goldingay, and Alan Hirsch. I’ve included a brochure for the book below that has a pre-order code for 40% off which can be used from now until April 30, 2011.  If anyone wants to do a reading group on the book, I’m game!  Here’s to breaking my vow!!