The "Difficult" Followup to "The Pop Breakthrough"

Fri Nov 09 2012

It’s a time-honored tradition, ever since The Beatles followed up Please Please Me with the experimental mindfuck of With The Beatles.  Sometimes the motivation is strategic: fearing a loss of cred, the sudden superstars show they can still get weird.  Come back, disenchanted fans who stood by us until we got famous!  Sometimes, it’s pure iconoclasm, or just an attempt to provoke.  Sometimes it’s laziness.  Sometimes, I suppose, that’s just where the creative minds of the musicians happened to venture.  This year, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, glitterati of the formerly freak-folk Brooklyn Empire (Yeah, I know Ariel Pink is an L.A. nutjob; he got famous thanks to discovery by AnCo and is now an honorary member of the family), pulled this classic maneuver all at once, perfectly timed to give music critics just enough time to let the challenging music sink in before their best-of list deadlines.  If the music is good enough.

How are you adjusting to life in a world where a new album involving Noah Lennox is not named “Best New Music” by Pitchfork?  Getting used to it?  Good, because Centipede Hz could never be mistaken for The Beach Boys and is therefore inherently inferior to Merriweather Post Pavilion by P4k standards, and there’s no telling how frustratingly un-Beach Boys-like the next AC album might be.  On the You-Phoria scale, this criterion is significantly less weighty; we just wanna be moved by the music.  MPP happened to be an overload on the priorities of both these bastions of internet music opinion, while CHz is a big miss in both categories.  It’s definitely at least a 9.2 of a wow-trippy factor, outpacing most of AC’s previous work, and the fun the band must’ve had making it shines through in most of the songs.  “Impressive” might sum the thing up better than any other word, but that’s not a characteristic that evokes much emotion unless it’s used to describe something you’ve made or someone you know.

My initial reaction of sensory overload was a cautiously positive one.  Familiar voices atop odd music is a good formula for me-likey, so it was liable to grow on me like most Animal Collective albums had.  But after a couple months of regular listening, familiarity bred contempt.  The hooks of “Today’s Supernatural” and “Applesauce” started to bug the crap out of me; I started hitting >>|.  Pretty soon I realized even my favorite song, “Monkey Riches”, wasn’t making me smile, or was it outrage they were going for?  Either way, I felt nothing.  How can that be, even with all the yelping?  A lot of fans missed the animalistic shouting and screeching of old on MPP, but we’re not buying that act any more, because there’s nothing primal about the music any more.  It’s deliberate and complex and modern, and you can’t just yelp over top of it and make it “raw”.  It sounds fabricated on this album.

It would’ve fit my unreasonably high opinion of Animal Collective much more snugly if I could’ve made myself love this album.  I even left it alone for several weeks and then came back; absence did not make the heart grow fonder.  Aside from “New Town Burnout”, the only absolutely phenomenal song on here, I could hardly wait to get to the point where I was fully convinced that it was doing nothing for me.  How can anybody honestly pay attention to all of “Amanita” knowing that it’s the end of the album?  It’s the ultimate ‘that was it?’ song.  I don’t doubt the artistic intentions or motivations of Panda and Avey and Deakin and Geologist, but here’s my theory: They convened in a studio a lot of times and had fun making a crazy record, no harm done.  Happy that they’re continuing to push envelopes and to make music at all.  Perhaps inevitably, this one’s a letdown, making it all the more likely for me to be bowled over by the next album, if there is one. 

It would be dumb not to acknowledge the way Yeasayer’s career path has mimicked AC’s, not that it’s intentional or the least bit reprehensible.  Nor is it coincidence.  But the arc is a lot sharper; in only three albums, it goes freak folk>electronic power pop>barrage of weirdness.  The difference is that Fragrant World is still stuck solidly on the wall of pop.  Unfortunately, my opinion of it followed a very similar path as my opinion of CHz: like it>like it a little more>get annoyed with some of it.  But that’s where the similarities ended; some tunes on FW make me feel happy or sad or something.  Chiefly, “Reagan’s Skeleton” and “Devil And The Deed”, which make me feel like dancing my ass off (that is an emotion).  And those aren’t the only examples.  But let me get back to the annoying part of the equation.

The first track, “Fingers Never Bleed”, would be a pretty sweet little clubby rave-up, except there’s this forced strangeness of a synthesized accordion (?) “hook” that is so sonically grating it utterly ruins the song.  Coming off a suuuuper sugary, accessible (and excellent) album like 2010’s Odd Blood, it’s understandable that Yeasayer wants to get a little obnoxious, but weird can and does also sound good when you do it right.  Like the odd start/stop bass/synth groove that ends “Blue Paper", that’s good weird.  Then there’s the Auto-Tune (okay, fine, MELODYNE) vocals that appear in half the songs and the dubstep elements that pepper “No Bones” and “Reagan’s Skeleton”, as if they’re trying to inch into Muse territory (#pleasegodno).  I suppose these faux pas could be viewed as antagonistic towards the hipster elite, who are allowed to like retro synthpop but dubstep is decidedly out, and only Kanye and Bon Iver are given passes to doctor their voices.  These gimmicks don’t detract from the songs, but they don’t improve them, either.  Yeasayer has always succeeded based on the strength of its melodies and beats and, occasionally, its lyrics.  On this album, all the things that sound bizarre at first don’t stick with you, but you remember the singing and the grooves of its best songs.  The experimentation is superfluous to the heartfelt tunes.

There’s a semi-haunting, semi-anodyne quality about the moaning “Henrietta” and “Glass Of The Microscope”, my other personal faves; they both give you the shivers but for completely different reasons.  That’s something Centipede Hz never accomplished.  The unabashed ebullience of Odd Blood is mostly gone; Fragrant World is much darker than its predecessor, even if Chris Keating and Anand Wilder can’t exactly keep their persistent musical joy hidden when they sing.  But it is a second consecutive dance pop album for Yeasayer, reclaiming a bit of the experimental nature of debut All Hour Cymbals but a far cry from it sonically.  Grizzly Bear did the opposite, eschewing the propriety and fragile precision of 2009’s Veckatimest and retreating into the grand, pastoral soundscapes of 2006’s Yellow House.  This partial return to a more primitive aesthetic accompanies an increased compositional sophistication, for better or worse.  Like AC and Yeasayer, Grizzly wasn’t interested in instant gratification; ‘They won’t get it at first’ they all assured themselves, envisioning the reviews; ‘it demands many repeat listens.’  They were right, I can’t deny it; it took several listens for any of Shields to grab me.

And then, I was overcome by the majesty of it all, captivated by the intricacies and the unassailable construction of it.  As a tapestry of sound, an arrangement of parts, it’s Zeppelinesque; some of the guitar riffs are even vaguely reminiscent of Zeppelin III.  The first track alone (“Sleeping Ute”) moves from harmonic emoting to thunderous percussion, with haunting Moog cadenzas and grinding fuzz-guitar stabs, ending in a lovely but uncertain acoustic coda.  It’s not quite orchestral in its grandiosity, certainly somewhat roughshod in terms of sonic variety, a bully of a tune.  “Speak In Rounds” recalls the propulsive acoustic powers of Yellow House’s masterpiece “On A Neck, On A Spit” and, farther back, Zeppelin I’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”.  Over and over, Grizzly Bear will wow you with Radioheadesque flourishes, noises that shouldn’t fit but do, gorgeous, inventive vocal harmonies, production that emphasizes every one of the band’s many fortes.  It’s, um, impressive.

As gradually as it all came together for me, it then began to unravel.  Beyond the sterling undeniability, it failed to sink in.  I memorized the songs, and the lyrics rang mercilessly hollow, obtuse analogous couplets, nonsense masquerading as wisdom or wistfulness.  Sixth-grade-caliber sentiments like “I’ll leave it all as it should be/Where you are you and I stay me” (“The Hunt”) might even be moving if they weren’t delivered with such a pallor of boredom.  The often weepy caterwauling of Daniel Rossen in particular strikes me as utterly dispassionate and shallow, as if his capacity to express emotion amounts to little more than passive-aggressive wordplay, and it leaves me cold.  If you want to make the case for but that’s what they’re going for then okay, I get it; you can have it.  I know when I’ve seen GB live, his and Ed Droste’s voices have reached something in me, but on this record, nothing.  Ultimately it’s like if there was no palpable despair lurking behind the icy chill of OK Computer.  I wish I could say that without projecting a terrible falseness onto Grizzly Bear, but it’s the definitive impression I’ve come away with, a great album that I can’t for the life of me glean the motivation behind.

And then there’s Ariel Pink.  By no means was Pink’s last album, the untouchable Before Today, “easy”; there was a ridiculously perfect pop single, “Round And Round”, and lots of supremely well-crafted tunes accompanying it, along with elephantine doses of the grotesque.  The new Mature Themes is, in a way, just as accessible about half the time, except in the most willfully retro-cheesy way possible that it couldn’t conceivably be construed as a conscious attempt at commercialism.  The rest of the album might have been arranged piecemeal through mumbles, hums and clicks in the Beefheart tradition.  “Early Birds Of Babylon” alternates genuine black metal guitar tones with a quizzical quasi-scatted chorus and an otherwise desolate, tinny groove led by a choogly muffled bass and not much else.  “Symphony Of The Nympho” is utterly pointless but luridly compelling all the same, similar to opening track “Kinski Assassin” in its nonsensical sexual misappropriations.  Nope, this is no pop album.

However…if it had been released in the mid-70s, he might have gotten away with it.  Drivel like “Mature Themes”, “Only In My Dreams” and obviously “Baby” (an obscure Donnie and Joe Emerson cover, well of course it is) could conceivably be taken seriously in a Seals & Crofts/King Harvest/Little River Band world.  Sublime dementia like “Schnitzel Boogie” could be written off as a rogue Zappa obsession. Even some of the "corny music + outrageous lyrics" stuff could probably make it through like a free-love holdover, a return of true psychedelia, man.  Pink could’ve been a retro-visionary in the 70s!  Okay, no; that was a fanciful musing but this album is obviously way too strange to be a hit in any universe or time.  Like, every song.  And you can be vaguely freaked out or grinning as if you were eating shit, but this album is worth plowing through to discover which oddity is up your alley.  It’s nowhere near as GREAT as Before Today but it’s more fun to listen to than anything else out of the Brooklyn stable this year.

Addendum: There is only one clear-cut winner in the Brooklyn sweepstakes this year (note: Stay tuned, Liars will show up on this blog before too long), and it's Dirty Projectors, who put their new Swing Lo Magellan out well in advance of their cohorts and are enjoying practically universal love.  It’s by far their least weird album, effortlessly lovely, still quirky but more grounded, like a dose of reality coming down off the fantastical extravagance of their previous trajectory.  I can definitely say that “Maybe That Was It” is one of the year’s most incredible songs.  And every time I hear that “Hey, Baby” in “About To Die” I jerk my head around thinking my wife snuck up on me.  I do like that one.  I mean, it’s a heck of a good album.  But I miss the weirdness.  What’s the use of having these singers who can wrap around each other’s voices in such unique and flabbergasting contortions if you don’t write that kind of music for them?  Fine, I won’t begrudge the Projectors their simple Americana album, their not-taking-themselves-seriously album, their winking-through-the-fourth-wall album (even though the lyrics to “Irresponsible Tune” are totally ridiculous in the context of that tune and this album), but I like these guys much better when they’re impressing me; as pretty and solid as this album is, it’s closer than any of their other ones to something anybody could make.  But I suppose it's a winner nonetheless.
  • All content © Copyright 2006-2018, Cal Roach. Do not reuse or repurpose without permission.