Friday, May 25, 2007

Off the cliffs and way, way down.

Guillemots, From the Cliffs (2006) [5.3]
Much like the Fiery Furnaces' early 2005 release, Guillemots' From the Cliffs is an EP in theory far more than it is in practice. Clocking in at a little over 40 minutes, it stands as being several minutes longer than a handful of recent full-lengths. While this move is very economical in that it provides listeners with more music for less moolah, hindsight proves it would have been the best thing for the band to just create an actual 20-or-so minute EP and save their listeners the chore of having to sit through the remainder of the present material. The problem is obvious: although we have an LP masquerading as an EP, we only have enough inspiration to fill the shoes of the shorter medium. And the way the band chooses to reveal this to us is to place all of the really good stuff right at the beginning, then immediately plunge us into a giant pool of soporific boredom.

Ignoring the pointless first track (which clocks in at a monstrous 39 seconds and goes nowhere, making it by default one of the album's best tracks because it wastes no time going nowhere), the disc kicks off with what I honestly consider to be one of the finest songs yet produced by any band this decade, the devastatingly well-written "Trains to Brazil." A brilliant pop song that is both lyrically poetic and musically appealing, it details the reactions of one man as he learns his friend has died in the London subway bombings. Even though I placed it at #4 on my Best Songs of 2006 list, it still felt like I was criminally underrating it. Following this song on a tracklist is an unenviable task for any other track, but the boys do a surprisingly good job tackling the challenge. "Made-Up Lovesong #43" is perhaps one of the most idiosyncratic love songs in recent memory, but its charm rests entirely within that quality. The only problem I have with the song is that it's a full minute longer than it should have been; a truncation at the 2:45 mark would have been far more effective than the draggy, slowed-down conclusion they actually put on it. Nonetheless, this is nitpicking.

What isn't nitpicking is that the rest of the album is populated with a bunch of really, really, really long songs (we're talking multiple 7-9 minute tracks, here) that are sloooooow and almost entirely unsatisfying, not to mention unmemorable. By the time the last song is over, you have slipped so far into a disinterested stupor that it's nearly impossible to believe this disc, this wretchedly boring disc, actually houses two A-grade songs. But at that point it won't really matter. Your only concern will be to see that it gets taken out of the CD player and to assure that it will not return there for a long, long time.

Standout(s): "Trains to Brazil," "Made-Up Lovesong #43"

Godspeed for this Black Emperor.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada EP (1999) [9.7]
Shakespeare once wrote that brevity is the soul of wit. Nowhere is this statement better applied than in reference to Godspeed You! Black Emperor's 1999 EP, which at a mere 28 minutes is likely the best intrumental rock album ever recorded. From the slow-burning, sweeping crescendo of "Moya" to the more ambitious and overtly political "Blaise Bailey Finnegan III," the band never makes a misstep and never overstays its welcome. Godspeed, especially when their individual compositions reach the 20+ minute mark, often suffer from being overly repetitive and long in the tooth, but these two tracks melt together into a seamlessly cohesive mini-symphony of ideal length. With seemingly no effort at all, this well-populated Canadian outfit has created something that is emotionally powerful, epic in scope, and damn near perfect.

Standout(s): To be swallowed whole.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Ambience from the Field.

The Field, From Here We Go Sublime (2007) [7.4]
I am not going to knock the goodness of this record; I think the high quality of the music is, for the most part, undeniable. Certainly when taken in context with the ambient techno genre, From Here We Go Sublime stands head and shoulders over the majority of other releases. Objectively, I can easily see why this has remained the most acclaimed album of the year so far. It's the subjective aspect that trips me up; namely, as much as I adore electronic music, I just don't think I'm cut out for this whole ambient techno thing. I can appreciate it, sure, and it might even be something I would consciously want to listen to from time to time, but I doubt it's something I could ever go completely ga-ga about in the same way I would approach, say, an Underworld or Kraftwerk album.

That having been said, From Here We Go Sublime can be maddening as hell if you don't approach it the right way. If you sit with the headphones on and attentively try to capture each nuance of these 66 minutes, your brain will probably warp itself into some boredom-induced stupor. Ambient techno is one of the most reactionary genres imaginable: one of its most basic tenets is that development and change are entirely unnecessary. If you have a 7-minute track you can rest assured that what you hear in the first sixty seconds is more or less what you'll be hearing for the next six minutes. Paying scrupulous attention to this level of uniformity for well over an hour cannot be good for anyone's health, especially if the only goal in mind is to simply enjoy an album. The best way to tackle something like this, then, is to do the opposite: not completely ignore it, of course, but use it as tranquil, air-filling background music. While doing something else, the mind will no doubt drift onto the music for a couple minutes, be sufficiently wooed, and then drift off again, creating exactly the type of mindset necessary for listening to this. Little by little it will crawl under your skin and work its subtle magic, creating a trance that -- while not exactly sublime -- is undeniably alluring.

Standout(s): "Over the Ice," "A Paw in My Face," "The Deal."