writing about music and movies among other things in hopes of selling ad space in the future or getting a job writing about music and movies among other things

Friday, July 23, 2010

Luke Grapples with Let's Wrestle

Artist: Let's Wrestle
Album: In the Court of the Wrestling Let's
Label: Merge
Year: 2010

Coming in first place by a long shot for album-title-of-the-year is this young-but-old-souls British band. The album itself, while an enjoyable-enough snark fest with catchy melodies and clever lyrics, unfortunately has catching up to do.

Merge's sticker promises "scuzzy pop genius" on the front of the high-school bad-on-purpose cover of this album. Pop is right on the mark, genius hyperbolic, but the word that sticks out to me is "scuzzy." There is very little that is scuzzy about this band. Even the song "I'm in Love With Destruction," with its chords left ringing and muddy in the bombastic opening, fails to come off as anything but scrubbed clean. Even the voice of singer Wesley Patrick Gonzalez, while in the vein of Robert Pollard, sounds more hallowed-halls University chap than drunk hooligan. In "Tanks," though most of it is sung at a holler (much like the rest of the album), the guitar and bass act as a sort of precision instrument with the drums keeping metronomic time. Everything is immaculately placed and not the work of a band who is drunkenly pounding through their songs about love and record collections. Rather, it is the work of a band who has studied being raucous, and has managed to create a worthwhile facsimile of the sound their heroes (presumably Pavement and Half Man Half Biscuit) slammed out in between beers and football matches (respectively).

The single, "We Are the Men You Will Grow to Love," does not sound like a band who is rocking out with great sincerity, warts and all. It is meant to be a blog-bomb-newsfeed-all-your-friends-"liked"-this single. It is self-aware, a tongue-in-cheek mission statement, but all too revealing that this is an indie band who would probably look right at home on the cover of NME. There is very little rawness on display, especially on songs like "Song For Old People," whose sing-along chorus of "doo doo doo" sounds like this may be a group of boys pretty sore that their debut didn't manage to break as big as the Libertines' did.

There are some great tunes here. In "Tanks," while it may not live up to being very genius or scuzzy, its skinny tie precision leads to a very memorably charming pop song. Though a bit cute, lyrics like "Not a fleet of policemen/ or faith or religion could give me the guts to talk to you again" are great moments of the kind of vulnerability that will always make pop enjoyable to people. There are a few other moments this pleasant, though mostly in the first half of the album. Afterwards, some meandering interludes and stabs at far too many facets in a band that seems to only really have the one trick. And lastly, the title track which one would hope could live up to its innate awesomeness. I really hoped the band would try to do their own silly version of King Crimson, a well-thought-out execution of clever, epic, prog-parody pop. Instead I get the rawest, scuzziest jam on the album, something to possibly live up to Merge's high-hopes promotional sticker. Instead, it's the most boring part of the whole thing. The album fizzles out with some kind of Yo La Tengo'd jam to which there seems to be no point. A mission statement of its own, stabbing at epic heights, until finally settling for something mediocre. At least it sounds like they had fun playing it.

Luke reviews the new Menomena

Artist: Menomena
Album: Mines
Label: Barsuk
Year: 2010

The loop software Menomena has used since its inception is an easy element of the band toward which to gravitate for any music writer. It is originally what made them sound so interesting when I first came across a review for their debut. On a recent NPR blurb, the software alone takes up an entire paragraph. And it's taken up one of mine as well, which is interesting because Mines is the first album of theirs' where the last thing I thought about is how they composed and arranged it. How does one of pop's weirdest and most composition-based bands sound when they finally just get together to kick around some riffs? We still may never know, but Mines is a compelling approximation.

With Menomena's second album, Under an Hour (still not off their history yet, sorry), they had recorded music specifically written for a trio of dance pieces. It was interesting, but had the drawback of sounding like what it was: a series of calculated "pieces" by a band whose strength would later prove to be their "songs." With "Taos," the band uses their now-trademark brass punctuations and extensive vocal harmonies in a way that doesn't invade the songspace, but rather enhances Danny Seim's vocals. The main vocal is able to carry cohesively from verse to chorus to bridge while creating an illusion that they're all one single melodic phrase that skitters wildly along one thru-line. The lyric "Now I'm a social pest,/ but not yet willing to put my walls to rest/ till I'm done filling these/ Holes/ I bet I know/ what you like..." for example follows a verse into a chorus within the middle of a sentence. The accomplishment is even more effective because it happens with no pomp whatsoever, quietly existing as an unadorned song writing miracle.

The album is full of these twists on pop theory, and yet none stand out from the songs themselves. They're there if you look for them, an album worth really dissecting if you have a mind to, but ultimately these are big brains more in touch with making a good song. The instrumentation is all top-tier. The rhythmic interplay between the bass and the drums is perfect, the piano is driving and at times gorgeous, the guitar soars over it all crazy and regal at once, but none of them stand out from one another. Everything is to serve the greater good, which in this case means songs that carry you along to various emotional checkpoints of joy and melancholy, which for all their calculated nature still hit hard. These are songs with more emotional heft than usual, songs able to explore and expand not only the limits of musical tradition but of what it is to be a weird complicated human. The sort of sustenance most crave in a band that has so often been described as "pop." In "Tithe," Seims sings in a truly haunted tone about roads that lead nowhere, the rapture, a world in upheaval. All in a constant groove that drives past the melancholy of lines like "Someone retired/ on a percentage/ of the tithe that paved these roads./ They lead to nowhere, but they're still gridlocked made of Solomon's pure gold."

The mash-up here of musical depth as well as raw expression causes one to reminisce on the days when bands like Arcade Fire and TV On the Radio were still members of a "burgeoning" wave of new artists. And yet Menomena has been there with them the whole time. But never quite "there" until now. Ladies and gentlemen, from Portland, Oregon, I'm very pleased to introduce: Menomena.