Play One Note

Psychedelic music blog covering psychedelic, folk, drone, metal, and all other forms of out music.

Posts tagged with ‘Post Rock’

Labradford – Labradford

November 9, 2011

labradford self titledIt has been a year of rediscovery for me, and Labradford ranks as one 2011’s two most breathtaking re-unearthings.*  Prior to giving them another listen, I’d categorized them in the same mental box I put Jessamine, Third Eye Foundation, Quickspace, Cul de Sac, and so on:† servicable, moody, and occasionally (but not consistently) fascinating.  I thought I appreciated them, and I listened to them on occasion, but I never really fell in love with anything I heard.  I would visit and revisit Labradford’s Mi Media Naranja perhaps yearly, find its spaghetti Western-tinged bleakness arresting at times and overly mannered at others, and then forget about it.  But that staid, prim respect I paid Labradford is no more, and I have their self-titled album to thank for that.

To paint it with an extremely broad brush (more of a roller, really), Labradford’s career is a progression from the deliberately rough to the finely burnished.  There were variations and gradations within and among albums that bucked this trend, but again, by and large, that’s how their career worked.  And Labradford caught them right in the middle of this transition, presenting the late, great band in a particularly versatile and varied light.

Now, I mentioned Labradford’s ever-evolving career arc, but there are more constants between records than there are differences.  These include a masterful sense of pacing as deliberate as it was inexorable, a deep and abiding affinity for particularly dust-blown Spaghetti Western guitars, and a resolutely nocturnal atmosphere.  And when I say “nocturnal,” I mean it as much as I’ve ever meant that used and abused word and then some.  This stuff is dark, begging to accompany a solo behind-the-wheel nighttime exploration, wan headlamps vainly casting their guttering arcs into the monolithic inky void, marking time against some serious internal thought processes hashing themselves out.  Car washing music this is most certainly not.

The mood on Labradford ranges from the sinister nocturnal menace of “Midrange” to the lovelorn nocturnal dissipation of “Pico” to the stately nocturnal melancholy of “Lake Speed,” but Labradford is hardly monochromatic.  Rather, the band mines the fine gradations of nighttime introspection as good as anyone, assembling an aural case study examining the subtleties of each shade of black.  The result is an engrossing, hypnotic exploration of an already-preoccupying set of emotions.

Don’t forget to turn off the lights:

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*The other being rediscovering Zelienople.  It was truly a year of stumbling across forgotten gems.  Also, I understand that there are still almost two months left in 2011, but my appreciation for these bands has been deep, long, abiding, and consistent, and unless I happen across something in these final 100 days that, I don’t know, fundamentally alters my socioeconomic beliefs or makes me want to get like facial tattoos, I feel comfortable sticking with the asterisk’d statement above.

†I really could go on, but that’s the point: Labradford was another member of a perfectly fine but otherwise undistinguished crowd of dark, textural post-rockers.

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Th’ Faith Healers – Imaginary Friend

January 30, 2011

th faith healers imaginary friendIn a perfect world, Th’ Faith Healers would be as popular as the Pixies.  Critics would gush about the noise-pop perfectionism of the band’s three Too Pure releases, Lido, Imaginary Friend, and L’.  Th’ Faith Healers would be millionaires, or at least hundreds-of-thousands-aires, and they’d go on world tours and tear up the festival circuit as headliners or near-headliners.  Girls would flip.

Alas.

At least we have what we have from them, and that’s three records of nearly peerless aggro drone-pop mastery.

Th’ Faith Healers were part of that mid-90s Too Pure stable that included such lush and luscious bands as Laika, Mouse on Mars, Stereolab, Seefeel, Rothko, and Pram, among others.*  Most of those bands were known for introspection, atmosphere, and texture.  Th’ Faith Healers were one of the few bands that broke that unity of sound, emphasizing concrete crunch over abstracted abstraction, and they arguably did so more than any other labelmate.**

Though I alluded to the Pixies, and though there’s an obvious and undeniable affinity, there’s more to Th’ Faith Healers than aggressive, quirky pop.  The squalls of noise, despite being resolutely lo-fi, are much more abrasive than anything you’re likely to find on anything Black Francis has had a hand in.  The songs themselves owe much more to the chugging, hypnotic repetition of Krautrock than the two-minute sugarbursts the Pixies excelled at.  Perhaps most notably, the sense of bouncy, in-your-face fun that characterizes the Pixies has been swapped out for a foreboding weirdness.  All these changes, I should note, are to the vast betterment of Th’ Faith Healers.

Imaginary Friend is sequenced carefully.  Th’ Faith Healers start off with a muscular brand of amphetamine-fueled pop and then methodically eviscerate it, stretching it out and making it progressively moodier.  Opener “Sparklingly Chime,” with its chunky bassline, spoken vocals, and wailing guitar lead, could conceivably be the quirkiest song on, say, a Breeders record.  Somehow, though, I don’t think anyone is going to mistake the menacing, propulsive, seven-minute-plus “The People,” complete with cathartic caterwauls of noise and murmured falsetto, with “Mr. Grieves.”  (Guess which song I prefer?)  And Black Francis at his absolute ballsiest would have been terrified of the half-hour Kraut-punk jam “Everything, All At Once Forever/Run Out Groove,” which is sort of like the 90s version of “This Dust Makes That Mud”—unapologetically indulgent, meandering, and positively hypnotic.

Though Th’ Faith Healers were, sonically, a bit out of place in comparison with their contemporaries on Too Pure, they really did share a number of aesthetic sensibilities with their labelmates, including a fascination with the possibilities of sound and an emphasis on nontraditional song structure.  Imaginary Friend, in all its threatening, noisy glory, is a testament to that, a nocturnal, creepy, joyfully menacing piece of work.

*Christ almighty!  Every time I look at the Too Pure roster, I get chills.  Too Pure is, pound for pound, my favorite record label.

**Though McClusky comes close.

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Pram – Sargasso Sea

September 1, 2010

pram sargasso seaA Pram review!  The first of many, I’m sure.  This one’s about Sargasso Sea, their third album, and the first that consistently mines the sound they’re now most closely associated with.  That sound is, of course, their own incredibly unique, underappreciated thing, and it consists of jazzy exotica, light, Krautrock-derived electronic experimentation, and loungey film music, all tinged with equal parts of childlike whimsy and childlike dread.  That’s not all, but that’s as close as I can come.

There’s one important thing that I’d like to point out that my valiant description neglects, and that is the effortless groove at the heart of Sargasso Sea—actually, of all post-Helium releases.  There’s an effete and mannered swing that’s fundamental to these songs, and it’s incredibly addictive and inviting.  Incidentally, it’s a also a big part of what makes Pram so easy to lump in with fellow British post-rock band Stereolab.1 (Like any one-to-one band comparisons, as far as Pram’s concerned, though, it’s a lazy one.  Instead of the komische rhythms and the Francophone/chanson influence that are Stereolab’s hallmarks, there are exotica and soundtrack echoes.)

Back to that groove: It’s important to point out that the key adjectives I used to describe it were “effete” and “mannered.”   Pram hardly trades in rough, sultry, Keb Darge-approved deep cuts of funk.   There’s no shouty call-and-response, no handclaps, no chickenscratch guitars.   What there is is a stately, reserved head-nodding-inducing swing much more suited to langorous body-swaying than a sweaty dancefloor workout.   I’d be tempted to use the term “white funk” if that didn’t conjure up just the most awful connotations of spastic post-punk specialists like Gang of Four, James Chance, or, more recently, Out Hud and the Rapture.   Nothing against those bands,2 but Pram couldn’t be anything farther from that sound.   Remember, we’re talking effete and mannered, not anthemic and angular.

This implicitly groovy sound is one of Sargasso Sea‘s (actually, Pram’s) winning traits.  It’s what makes the luxuriously paced, bubbly meander of “Little Scars” and the cutely ramshackle percussion and burbling bassline of “Loose Threads” so alluring.   It deepens the mystery of the resolutely spooky “Serpentine,” and it makes the breezy (or should I say Air-y) “Crystal Tips” more than just a pleasant diversion.

Sargasso Sea is an excellent record, one I can listen to from beginning to end with pleasure, but it’s not on par with Pram’s subsequent masterpieces, The Museum of Imaginary Animals and Dark Island (and is a couple notches below The Moving Frontier), as there are a few missteps.   Though Pram is known for childlike aesthetics, “Three Wild Gorges” gets a little too cutesy, and features an embarrassingly corny horn sample.   And the band seems a bit unsure of whether to steer “Crooked Tiles” back toward their noisy, Gash-era days, or to keep it in line with Sargasso Sea‘s overall mood.

Bah.   Minor quibbles hardly worth writing down.   The overarching point is that Sargasso Sea is great, often approaching brilliant, with its defiantly unique toybox/mini-cinema/exotica/lullaby aesthetic.   Pram would go on to do much better things than this, but this marks the first time the band really brought everything together.   Pram’s sound might be a difficult one to describe (which, I have to say, is a testament to their uniqueness), but it’s a treat to listen to.

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1Though I go on to downplay the value of this comparison, there is an explicit connection between the two bands with the collaboration project Monade, which combines the songwriting efforts of Pram’s Rosie Cuckston and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier.  And let’s just say Monade’s worth checking out, y’all.   Trust me.   Monade’s debut fulfills everything you want out of a side project.  It’s small-scale, adorable, sounds like it was fun to make, and represents a perfect halfway point between the two collaborators.

2Well, except for the Rapture.  Lots against that band.

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Pram and Their Lonely, Exotic Carnival

May 13, 2010

Pram nominally operates in post rock, which is–or, at least was, for a long time–a critical darling of a genre.  In post rock, bands are known for their willingness to experiment and hybridize nontraditional influences in rock.  It’s kind of the point.  Right?  (We’re talking about the first-wave stuff here, that proud and brave and aurally delicious era from about 1992-1997.)

pram band

Anyway, within a field already packed with unique-sounding bands, Pram is a long-running one whose influences–John Barry-esque soundtrack music, Martin Denny-esque exotica, dub, light 60s psychedelia, & nursery rhymes, all filtered through a uniquely childlike sense of unease–blend together to form something absolutely like nothing else.  On paper, they’re the perfect band for some serious critical wanking, but if they’re ever given a positive writeup, it’s almost always faint, reserved praise.  Just as often, they’re torn apart, or worse, ignored.

You ready for this question?  Okay, here it is: why?

I have some theories, but they all kind of depress me.  Perhaps the biggest thing holding Pram back from wider critical acclaim is that the music the band makes is not capital-i Important.  Rather than constantly reaching for any serious-faced major artistic statement, Pram makes resolutely small-screen and unselfconsciously strange music, traits that don’t typically earn awed respect.  We want our Artists to make Statements, and Pram doesn’t do that.  (That what they do is at once entirely unique, immediately recognizable, and yet consistently fresh over a nearly two-decade career is beside the point, of course.)

Which brings me to a second point about the general dismissal of Pram as a major force: they are not groundbreaking in the sense that there are a legion of followers tilling away at the path they blazed.  You can’t point to a scene or band of note that’s indebted in any overt sense to Pram.  This also works against them, because, again, “important” bands spawn other bands.  Pram hasn’t done that yet, and after 17 years of being around (and with post rock being, for all intents and purposes, a legacy genre), I doubt they will.

Many “important” bands that don’t receive a lot of credit are “difficult.”  Is Pram “difficult?”  It naturally depends, but I don’t think so.  They’re one of those bands that I fervently love and cheer for incessantly.  Like Long Fin Killie, Movietone, Spacemen 3, and Bark Psychosis, I push music by Pram on all of my friends whenever I can, especially their two early-2000s releases, The Museum of Imaginary Animals and Dark Island, which are their two most accessible albums.  I’ve played records by all these bands for any and all of my friends willing to put up with my obsessions, but the only one that has been universally liked has been Pram.

Sure, the songs on even these two albums are “weird,” but to nearly anyone with more than a passing interest in music (as in, not your mom or little nephew), it’s a safely exotic, alluring weirdness.  Yes, many songs, especially on Dark Island, are “eerie,” but it’s a childlike, whimsical eeriness that you find in some of the darker, more impressionistic children’s films.  Unsettling, sure, but still okay for general consumption (“general,” in this case, meaning the rare few of the populace who would ever care to make it this far into a piece about any non-mainstream musical act).

Navel gazing ad nauseam.  There’s obviously a bigger question to tackle here–why some bands get lauded and others passed up–but I neither feel able to answer it nor fully up to the task of tackling it right now.  You can understand, I’m sure.  Rather than going there, I leave you with some spectacular, Prammy deliciousness.

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And I’ll be bringing some more Prammy deliciousness to the table soon.  Reviews I’m definitely doing are for Sargasso Sea, Dark Island, The Museum of Imaginary Animals, and The Moving Frontier, all kind of latter-day releases.  I may go deeper and hit up some more stuff for you all.  If I do, I’ll add them in here and link up appropriately like the good guy I am.

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Long Fin Killie – Houdini

April 18, 2010

long fin killie houdiniHoudini, Long Fin Killie‘s 1995 debut, is an absolutely relentless display of technical virtuosity grafted onto a typically British post-rock sensibility.  That means elements like spaciness, repetition, attention to texture and mood over melody, and a general disregard of verse/chorus/verse are all in effect.  Those elements, however, are rendered secondary to Long Fin Killie’s demanding barrage of metronomic instrumental interplay.

Witness, for example, the minor-key, vaguely folky acoustic guitar lockstep that is “Corngold.”  It’s got all the hallmarks of a typical British post-rock song from that genre heydey: there’s a circular song structure, semi- or entirely unidentifiable instruments and sounds (I would be shocked if that was a cimbalom panning around in there, but it sure as hell sounds like one), and an extremely strong, well-developed aura of mystery and space, but it’s all detail sprucing up the driving purpose of the thing, which is kept central.  “Corngold” remains hypnotic, but it’s in a decidedly focused, honing way, not in a diffusing, dreamy one.

The same could be said everything on this album, even “How I Blew It With Houdini,” a gorgeous, pristine centerpiece burbling with layer upon layer of complexly intertwined instrumentation.  Though it’s a profoundly mellow, relaxing song, rich with detail that slowly unfolds and unwinds over its nine minutes, it never feels dense or unfocused.  There’s a purpose here, too.

Psychedelia is usually considered “drug music.”  The reasons for this are many and obvious, with the otherworldly moods both psych and drugs evoke being the primary one.  It’s perhaps unusual, then, that Long Fin Killie’s music, undeniably psychedelic, evokes a nearly aggressive sobriety.  Even at its dreamiest moments, of which there are many, songwriter Luke Sutherland’s music maintains an almost inhuman precision.  The same occurs when the band swings the other way, unleashing nearly unhinged blasts of aggression (such as on the dizzyingly busy “Flower Carrier”) that are nevertheless, ultimately, tightly controlled.  Instead of mind-melting, space-expanding solos, the band’s skill is harnessed inward, making repetitive riffs of astonishing intricacy and detail, with the complex, airtight drumming patterns in particular recalling jungle’s surgical exactitude.  (This comparison isn’t a reach on my part; Long Fin Killie’s final album, Amelia, made this connection explicit with live-drumming Amen breaks all over the place.  It’s really kind of breathtaking to listen to.  Sutherland’s subsequent project, Bows, is also indebted to jungle.)

I’m tempted to be lazy here and just quit without explicitly explaining just why/how Houdini is “psychedelic,” but, given my previous paragraph, I must.  Here it is: There’s no druggy feeling, sure, but that reaching-beyond element is absolutely 110% in effect here, not just in the final product itself (the songs), but in the way those songs are constructed, which demonstrates a restless, heady curiosity.  Also, the hypnotic introspection characteristic of so much psychedelia is completely present and dazzlingly effective.  Long Fin Killie in general, and Houdini in particular, demands close listening.  Ultimately, what Houdini is about is a group of musicians taking their considerable instrumental skills, merging them through their synergistic dynamics, and methodically building a platform to stand upon and touch the sky.

Too Pure: A Note About the Record Label

Houdini was released on Too Pure, a UK-based label that had a staggeringly impressive post-rock/electronic run in the mid-90s, releasing classic albums by Moonshake, Pram, Stereolab, Laika, Seefeel, Th’ Faith Healers, and Mouse on Mars.  This lineup, with its fearless approach to experimentation with new sounds and new studio techniques, epitomized what made the era (from roughly 1994-1998, with outliers of a couple years in either direction) my favorite in the history of music.  Houdini is just one brilliant star among many in the Too Pure firmament.  (For the record, Too Pure might have the best, deepest stable of underrated releases, pound for pound, of any record label I’m aware of.  Might be fun to write about…)

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