Before we start, I just want to mention that Saturday is Record Store Day. It’s a new thing this year, bringing together a couple hundred independent music stores to promote what is, sadly, a dying breed. But it’s one I think is worth celebrating.
I vividly remember the day I first discovered there were whole stores devoted to music. Our local mall had a Strawberries (once an independent chain, then a Sam Goody franchise, then phased out), and I’d managed to get a job at the supermarket located a few yards away. The process went like this: I’d work for a week, I’d get my paycheck, and I’d walk right down to the record store and spend half of it.
This continued for years, until I moved up to Maine for college. It was then that I discovered the wonders of the independent store. It was called Bull Moose Music (still is, in fact), and it carried… everything. What they didn’t have, they could order. And the employees knew their shit. Unlike the blank stares I got at Strawberries, the Bull Moose employees usually knew what I was talking about when I asked for something. It was a revelation.
See, the Bull Moose folks knew that the local music store can be so much more than a place to buy CDs. It can be a hub for a local music scene, a place for lovers of music to get together and trade recommendations, find new stuff, see bands (local and otherwise), start bands, and develop a healthy arts community. I know music these days is all about specialized entertainment from the comfort of your own home, but that brave new world misses out on the communal spirit of the local record store.
And as much as I am fascinated by where the music industry is going, I’m already in mourning for the independent record shop. Downloading (legal and illegal) is killing the mom and pop music store. They already find it difficult to compete with the big box stores, who buy in bulk and can charge less. They’re finding it impossible to compete with digital delivery and a pervasive mentality that music should be free.
I currently shop at Kiss the Sky in Geneva, Illinois. It costs me more than it would if I were to just go to Best Buy every week, but I’m paying for more than just new CDs. I’m paying to support an idea, a notion that a record store isn’t just about notes burned into bits of plastic. It’s about people, coming together over their shared love of this otherworldly, amazing, life-altering thing called music. When the people are removed from the equation, music loses something irreplaceable. If you want to find that thing, just start shopping at an independent record store. Hang around long enough and it will find you.
For more information on Record Store Day, check out this site.
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If that isn’t enough for you, I’ve got five recently released reasons to stroll on down to your local record store right here. Of all of them, I’m most excited about the return of Ours, so we’ll start with that.
I will never forget the first time I heard Jimmy Gnecco sing. I caught the video for “Sometimes,” the striking first single from Ours’ first album, Distorted Lullabies. Here is what Jeff Buckley would have sounded like if he’d grown up listening to the Cure instead of Leonard Cohen. And when I say Gnecco sounds like Jeff Buckley, I mean he sounds exactly like Jeff Buckley – an incredible feat in itself. But Gnecco hasn’t pinched Buckley’s songwriting style – he writes heavy, intense music that showcases his incredible voice.
Gnecco basically is Ours, and his first album had me excited to hear what he’d come up with next. But he threw a curve ball – the second Ours album, Precious, was banged out too quickly, and suffered for it. And then Gnecco disappeared for six years.
You can hear all of those six years in the grooves of Mercy, Gnecco’s return from exile. In some ways, this is the first real Ours album, the one that fulfills its author’s potential. It’s not perfect, but it is the best thing Gnecco has done, and at least part of the thanks goes to Rick Rubin, the American Records mastermind who produced it. Rubin has an uncanny knack for bringing out an artist’s true sound, the one that fits them most naturally.
For Gnecco, that sound is massive, dramatic – almost epic. Rubin has flushed most of Gnecco’s unfortunate goth-rock tendencies, and pumped up the parts of his music that makes you want to shout from the mountaintops. Nowhere is that more evident than on “The Worst Things Beautiful,” which cribs from U2, but does it so authoritatively that you don’t care. And – here comes the heresy – Gnecco is a much better singer than Bono, and can really dig into these anthemic pieces.
There is much darkness to be had here – the record is subtitled Dancing for the Death of an Imaginary Enemy, after all. “Mercy” kicks off the album with a six-minute, constantly-building fever dream, Gnecco unveiling both his chilling falsetto and his jaw-dropping full-throated yell. And “Murder” is phenomenal, a pitch-black, creeping web of acoustic guitars, dissonant horns, ambient noise and thumping beats. Gnecco really lets it fly near the end – have I mentioned what an amazing singer he is?
If you need further proof of that, listen to “God Only Wants You,” a song that stretches Gnecco’s falsetto, then gives him the opportunity to carry the epic middle eight with his full vocal power. It’s just awesome, as is the screaming chorus of “Live Again,” and the memorable refrain of “Saint.” Oddly, the album ends by handing over vocal duties to someone else – Gnecco’s daughter provides the lovely coda to “Get Up.”
This is Gnecco’s best work, but it isn’t flawless – there are some tuneless numbers here, and some that go nowhere. But it’s a welcome return for an underrated artist with a singular talent. I was afraid we’d never see a third Ours album, so the very existence of Mercy makes me a happy music fan. The fact that it’s very good is just icing on the cake.
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Also making a welcome return this week is Phantom Planet, one of the only bands to inspire a retraction on this site.
Here’s what happened. I absolutely loved this band’s second album, The Guest, when it came out in 2002. I called it the third-best album of that year, and I still consider it a near-perfect pop record. It’s sunny and sweet and features glorious production from Mitchell Froom. I love it when modern bands show a love and respect for the craft of classic pop songwriting – you just don’t hear much of that anymore.
And then I saw the band live, and came away bitterly disappointed. I’m kind of surprised by my reaction now – I guess I wanted them to replicate the scrubbed-clean sound of The Guest on stage, and they didn’t. They were LOUD and aggressive and sloppy and abrasive, and they played these glittering little pop ditties as if they were Stooges songs. I left with a ringing in my ears and a sadness in my heart.
I suppose I should have expected at that point that their next album would initially disappoint me. Phantom Planet, released in 2004, carried over that on-stage energy to the studio. It was 11 sharp, shambling rock tunes in 35 quick minutes, with feedback-laced guitars, pounding drums, Alex Greenwald’s unrestrained wail, and nothing else. And I hated it.
But then, something funny happened – I listened to Phantom Planet. I mean, really listened to it, separate and apart from The Guest and my expectations. And I ended up liking it a lot. I was originally distracted by the screaming noise, the steamroller approach to everything they used to be, and missed what they had become. I immediately wrote a new review, praising the record.
I’m glad I came around, otherwise I may not have bought Raise the Dead, the just-released fourth Phantom Planet record. I have to say, as much as I still love The Guest, and as much as I grew to admire the self-titled, this is the album where it all comes together for Greenwald and his crew. Raise the Dead retains the rough-and-tumble energy of its predecessor while bringing back the sunny melodies I loved, and for the first time, Phantom Planet sounds completely comfortable in its own skin.
Now, granted, they’ve forged the Arcade Fire’s signature on the opening title track, Greenwald doing a decent Win Butler impression on the throaty vocals. It’s a surging, constantly building mini-epic, but it doesn’t exactly set the tone for what follows. The record really starts with “Dropped,” a kickass pop tune, and then doesn’t let up until the end. “Leader” incorporates a children’s choir, and it doesn’t suck – it’s actually terrific.
Raise the Dead finally provides a proper home for “Do the Panic,” an absolute winner the band has been playing for years. (It first appeared in a live version as a bonus track on The Guest.) You won’t be able to listen to this without singing the “come on come on” refrain in your head for hours afterwards. Older versions of this tune played up the piano-pop aspects, but this one goes for the guitar-laden gusto, and it’s all the better for it. This is the definitive “Do the Panic.”
The album’s second half gets more aggressive, pumping up the garage band side of the band’s sound. “Geronimo” is an awesome two minutes, with a bass line to kill for, and “Too Much Too Often” finds Greenwald affecting a snotty Brit-punk vocal over charging guitars and drums. But with “Leave Yourself for Someone Else,” they bring back the power-pop, and they end things with the sweet “I Don’t Mind.” With all that back-and-forth, Raise the Dead oddly doesn’t sound disconnected – it flows like an album should.
Greenwald has said he would like to see Phantom Planet change things up every album, and sound totally different each time. With Raise the Dead, though, he’s tied all his previous sounds up in a neat bow. This is more of a refinement than a reinvention – it’s such a confident, comfortable record that I wouldn’t be surprised if Greenwald and company just continued on this path for years to come. And like the last song says, I don’t mind.
There. I did the whole review without mentioning “California,” The O.C., or Jason Schwartzman.
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Every couple of months, there’s a new Next Big Thing. You know it’s the Next Big Thing because the indie cognoscenti at Pitchfork and other sites tells you so. Every 60 days or so, they find a new debut album and crown it the best album ever made. They fall all over themselves trying to out-superlative each other, to the point where you feel you have to have this album or your life will remain frustratingly incomplete.
Or, it would, if you weren’t already aware of the cycle of Next Big Things. Because every couple of months, there’s a new one, and the old ones are tossed aside. Should these bands have the gall to release a second album, that record will be called disappointing at best, and a betrayal at worst, no matter what’s on it. We don’t have time for career artists with evolving catalogs, we’re already on to the Next Big Thing.
This is a massive over-generalization, but I’m always bemused when it plays out. I talked a couple of weeks ago about how difficult it is to follow up an impressive and much-lauded debut, but sometimes it happens. Case in point – Tapes ‘n Tapes, who made a massive splash in indie-rock circles with their 2006 debut, The Loon. A rough-around-the-edges noise-o-rama, The Loon has some good grooves and an appealing looseness about it. But it sounded like it had been recorded in a weekend.
The follow-up, Walk It Off, doesn’t. It sounds worked-on, and lived-in. It sounds like a finished product, a crafted distillation of the band’s sound. I like it considerably more than the debut. And of course, I am almost entirely alone in that opinion, as the indie crowd has dismissed Walk It Off as a sophomore slump. All I can say is that this one doesn’t offer the same shabby charm as the first, but in its place you get much more complete songs, and sterling production by Dave Fridmann, taking a break from his work with the Flaming Lips.
This isn’t a brilliant record by any means, but it is an improvement, and it showcases just how tight this band is. I have to make special mention of bassist Erik Appelwick, who simply shines on almost every track. Leader Josh Grier turns in a diverse group of songs, with highlights including the sweeping “Demon Apple” and the closing stomper “The Dirty Dirty.” It’s a good album. Tapes ‘n Tapes are no longer the Next Big Thing, apparently, but Walk It Off is worth checking out.
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I still read Pitchfork and other sites like it every day, though, because sometimes, if you can peer through the cloud of smugness, you can get turned on to some good new stuff. Without Pitchfork, I probably wouldn’t have picked up Antidotes, the debut album from Foals, which would have been a shame. It’s also a really good record.
Foals are an Oxford band that rose from the ashes of math-rock combo The Edmund Fitzgerald. With their first album, they’ve found an appealing mix of math and dance – everything is in thumping 4/4 time, but the actual riffs and arrangements are deceptively complex. Plus, they add trumpets and saxophones to their guitar-based sound, but they don’t use them as accents – they’re orchestration, not cues for the upbeats.
First track “The French Open” unveils the sound – it’s a little like Isaac Brock fronting Minus the Bear as they cover Bloc Party. But not really. Things lift off with “Cassius,” an absolute tornado of a song that makes great use of the horn section. My favorite, “Olympic Airways,” creates an ambient cushion using nothing but bass and muted harmonics on the guitar. “Electric Bloom” spins a denser web with droning synths and lovely clean six-string. Over it all, singer Yannis Philippakis shout-sings in his thick British accent, adding a streetwise punk edge to the studied music.
It would be hypocritical of me to bestow Next Big Thing status on Foals, but Antidotes is a very good debut. It’s complex yet hip-shaking, very well produced, and full of inventiveness. The CD includes their first two singles, “Hummer” and “Mathletics,” as bonus tracks, and it’s easy to see why they built up the buzz in the U.K. I’ll be watching to see where this band goes.
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Which brings us to Nine Inch Nails. Or rather, back to Nine Inch Nails, as I promised a more in-depth look at Ghosts I-IV when I got my hands on it. And I’m looking at the monochromatic little bugger now, so…
Trent Reznor got a lot of ink for jumping on board the digital delivery train with Ghosts, but for me, it’s only now, with the physical disc in front of me, that I can get a handle on the scope and shape of this record. I do want to talk about the delivery, because I think Reznor had a good idea, but mucked up the execution somewhat.
You may recall that about a month and a half ago, Reznor released this album on his website, in a number of different formats. I decided to go for the standard 2-CD edition, with free and immediate download, but others chose to get the deluxe DVD and Blu-Ray edition, or the super-deluxe all-that-and-vinyl-too spectacular. My purchase was ten bucks, a bargain for two hours of new music. Unfortunately, I never got my download link to work, and numerous emails to the support staff were not returned.
I was fine with it, though – I procured the music from another source, and waited for my hard copy to show up. The release date was April 8, so I figured I’d get it around then. But no. My copy showed up a week later, leaving me seven days to stare at the thing on my record store’s shelf. Their price? $9.99. The folks who didn’t pre-order paid the same as I did, and got the album a week earlier.
I’m not truly upset about that, but I can see how some people might be. I might have been more miffed if I hadn’t found an alternate source for the music, and if that music had thrilled me. Ghosts I-IV is a 36-track instrumental collection, and I say “collection” rather than “album” there because it plays like a disjointed data dump. For a guy whose exclusive province is themed, cohesive records that pack a cumulative punch, Ghosts sounds like a clearing house of half-formed ideas.
They’re nice half-formed ideas, though. None of the tracks have names, and they’re broken up into three suites of nine songs each, but really, you could put this on shuffle and get the same effect. Some of the songs, like the opening two tracks, are piano-based. Some are made with thunderous beats and electronic noise. Some have the abrasive, processed guitars for which Reznor is best known, and some have the tinny, strummed acoustic he’s showcased in pieces like “The Downward Spiral.”
None of them have any real melodies, though. They’re all either chord-based or groove-based, and if you put Ghosts on in the background while you’re doing something else, you’ll find it pretty easy to ignore. The physical sound is wonderful – Reznor is a master producer, and he makes this dark ambient material pop out in 3-D. Strangely, though, that’s not enough to catch the ear. I quite like most of Ghosts I-IV as mood music, but few of the tracks feel like finished works, and over two hours, it gets wearying.
Admittedly, it’s not as wearying as two hours of With Teeth would have been, and I do hope Reznor carries back some of this experimentation with him to the next proper NIN album. But I’m afraid Ghosts I-IV will come to be seen as little more than a curiosity in Reznor’s catalog. I’m not knocking Ghosts – it is very good instrumental ambience, and it’s worth hearing. But next time he wants to shake up the music industry, I hope it’s with something everyone will be aching to experience. (And I hope he ships out the pre-orders well in advance of the release date.)
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Next week, we get Billy Bragg, Elbow, South… hell, it’s the British Invasion all over again. Plus, I’ll talk about Unwed Sailor’s great Little Wars. And maybe a Doctor Who review or two. Happy Record Store Day!
See you in line Tuesday morning.