Posted in Music on September 24th, 2010 by Tom

At the start of this past summer, I spent a little time with Dynamo, the 2008 debut of Faded Paper Figures. My initial draw to the record was because of the odd place it falls on the tempo spectrum. It’s upbeat, but is it dance music? A lot of people will compare it to the now-defunct Gibbard-Tamborello Postal Service project, and while that’s a good starting point, it really doesn’t tell the whole story.

For one, it’s less industrial. Give Up was (over?)populated by clicks, snaps, and clacks that always evoked images of machinery for me on some level. Faded Paper Figures, in this dimension, is softer, almost more ‘acoustic,’ if you can think beyond the synth for a moment. That said, if you like synth, this band has it in spades, and while their use of it isn’t groundbreaking or experimental, it is really, really pleasant to listen to. An example is in order:

[ mp3 ♫ ]

This is a quintessential FPF song: tempo moves along at a quick enough clip, elegantly simple application of synthetic beats, and a guitar riff that is just smooth as hell. The above ‘Metropolis‘ as well as the opener ‘North by North’ are the band at their most listenable, and are relatively upfront, representative samples of what the group has to offer.

‘Logos’ is a little darker, a bit more abstract than its cohorts, but follows the same schematic. If you want a full record of easy-listening, slower songs like ‘B film’, ‘Polarioid Solution’, and ‘Being There’ will help prolong the magic, but some of these don’t stand as well on their own. This is perhaps in contrast to the lyrically interesting ‘Geneva’s Gone’ and ‘The Persuaded‘.

‘The Persuaded’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

The same catchy hooks are present in this song, but the contrast of the verses with the fuzzy sound of the chorus instrumentation makes this an edgier (both in sound and lyrical content) surprise towards the close of the album.

And while the end of the record really sputters with the political couplet of ‘Speeches’ and ‘Red State’ (the former of which is solid, but not fantastic), Dynamo is a worthwhile investment of time.

Switch it on, and let it fill the silence behind whatever you’re doing. I really enjoyed it because I tire occasionally of haveing to work so hard to like some music, and Faded Paper Figures was a welcome reprieve from that.

Faded Paper Figures – Dynamo

NOTE: FPF actually released a new record around the exact time I started listening to their debut, so I’ll try and log some time on that and get a post on it up before the year is out.


Crystal Castles

Posted in Music on September 10th, 2010 by Tom

To say that “I don’t get Crystal Castles” would be about as correct as it is unhelpful. By no means do I want to stand up on a soap box and be all, “This is just noise, you kids should go download some Brahms up in that,” …but I was ever so slightly tempted.

This is Crystal Castles’ second record, self-titled like the first, which I have zero exposure to. However, having heard and enjoyed ‘Celestia’, one of the tamer songs, I thought it would be worth a shot. What I found was striking: a series of discordant and harshly loud, nerve-grating electronic tracks, complete with matching shrill-scream vocals, punctuated by the occasional song I like.

With CC there’s certainly a spectrum of crazy-to-less-crazy, but initially I was so off-put I set it aside to collect digital dust. What caught my attention was when I heard ‘Not In Love‘ in a store somewhere, and it caught my ear. Further investigation led me to realize I already had the song, and so I committed myself to giving Crystal Castles another shot.

‘Not In Love’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

While I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, if you want experimental, edgy, (scary?) electro-pop, these seem to be the people you want. Another pretty cool track was ‘Vietnam’, which you could dance to? I think maybe my problem is that I like some of the songs, but am still in the dark as to their function. Am I supposed to dance? Is there some emotional content to be had? Do the lyrics mean anything? Should I be screaming along, or silently reverent? Got me.

What’s really keeps me coming back to this album is the track ‘Baptism‘. The synth and beats are damn near flawless, and you can even almost understand what singer Alice Glass is saying. Maybe I just really liked the hook, but this is my favorite song on the album.

[ mp3 ♫ ]

Crystal Castles is ultimately good for two things: low volume background noise that is vaguely rhythmic, or high-volume ear-splitting dance tracks that you just have to thrash to for the sake of cutting loose. …I guess that’s what you get from a band whose name references He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles


The Suburbs

Posted in Music on September 8th, 2010 by Tom

It’s been a long, long time since I posted, which gives rise to this terrible complex wherein the longer I wait, the worse I feel, and the less I want to post. Having completed my move, and begun school (more or less) though, I’m out of excuses.

Part of the reason I felt bad posting this was because by no means is news or commentary on The Suburbs something unknown to the internet at this point. I was also so incredibly excited about the record that I didn’t want review to be clouded by the giddiness of the initial release.

No chance of that happening now, though. In any case, it’s so true that it bears repeating for the nth time that The Suburbs is a fantastic piece of music, hands down one of the year’s best, and the first album I’ve heard in a long while that really demands to be listened to. There are three main aspects I want to focus on, the first of which, and a favorite of mine, is thematic structure, next is stand-out tracks, and the final one is the ‘We Used To Wait’ video.

If you’ve read pretty much any other album review of mine, a thing I harp on again and again is that the ordering of songs have some type of logic, some rhyme or reason to it. In an increasingly iTunes-99-cent-single-driven musicscape, the art of crafting a sequence of tracks is often paid only lip service, or forgone entirely. Bless Arcade Fire for providing such an explosive counterexample. The Suburbs is composed of 16 songs, divided into roughly two equal halves (credit: this idea came from Stuyvesant Parker’s staires! entry).

Though subtly different in scope and tone, both sections contain a surprisingly overt quantity of references to the album’s main themes (wasted time that isn’t a waste, driving in the suburbs, nostalgia for one’s childhood home, journeying into the night, etc.). By no means is the above list exhaustive, and a little time scanning the lyrics quickly lays bare how definite the connections between songs are, but it’s a decent sketch.

A perfect example is that the line

In the suburbs I, I learned to drive
And you told me we’d never survive
Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leaving!

from the title track appears, almost verbatim, in ‘Suburban War‘, the emotional conclusion to the first segment of the album:

‘Suburban War’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

Immediately before that line, you hear the lyric

Living in the shadows of your song

which is repeated later in the album’s definitive climax, ‘We Used to Wait.’ This technique, which is dangerously simple, was executed so perfectly that it unifies the record to an extent only seen in the likes of Cloud Cult, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Decemberists. The difference here is that those were true concept albums, whereas this… is something else.

As far as stand-out tracks go, ‘The Suburbs’ and ‘Ready to Start’ are a jolting rush to get things started. ‘City With No Children’ for some reason sounds slightly different from the rest of the set, which makes it particularly memorable, and ‘Suburban War’ as mentioned above is also quite powerful.

From the second half, I’m not a huge ‘Month of May’ fan, and the slow pace of the two tracks that follow it makes ‘We Used to Wait’ just that more more powerful. The paired ‘Sprawl I/II’ songs give you (I) a chance to catch your breath (it’s also maybe the saddest track on the album, resembling some manner of a funeral dirge, no pun implied), and (II) the opportunity to lose it all over again, ten-fold.

‘Mountains Beyond Mountains’, (whose title was taken from that of Tracy Kidder’s book about Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti) is a landmark work for the band. The unfettered synth coupled with Regine’s best vocal performance to date, along with some of the album’s best lyrics makes for a knockout in the record’s 11th hour.

Perhaps my biggest, and really only, disappointment was the reprise of ‘The Suburbs’. At 1:28, it barely counts as a song, and doesn’t really add anything to either its source or the album in its entirety. It’s a huge buzz-kill after ‘Mountains’, but perhaps that’s by design. A record so intrinsically melancholy would be remiss to leave you feeling so optimistic…

The final point in what has blossomed into a huge entry concerns both the track and video for ‘We Used to Wait‘. I have no hesitation whatsoever in categorically stating that this the best song on the album. Nothing else captures the urgency, frustration, and perceived tragedy of adolescence so clearly as this song does. It’s five minutes of everything I ever wanted from Arcade Fire, and when fully embellished by the rest of the record, is a force to be reckoned with.

‘We Used to Wait’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

On top of that, the band has worked together with filmmaker Chris Milk to create a highly inventive use of music and the web in the ‘We Used to Wait’ music video, located at TheWildernessDowntown.com.

It begins simply enough, with images roughly congruent with what you’d expect, given the content of the song. Where it gets really crazy is when the application begins to lay the video’s images over photographs, courtesy of Google Maps, of where you used to live as a child. The effect is touching and eerie, nostalgic and chilling. There’s also an interactive portion, where the video asks you to write a postcard to your younger self!

The whole thing works really well (best viewed in Google Chrome, much as I’d like not to admit that), and I want to applaud everyone involved for pushing the envelope.

This recent effort is Arcade Fire hitting their stride like never before. Undoubtedly, people will continue to trumpet Funeral as the Once and Future King of all AF albums, but The Suburbs is the strongest evidence to the contrary one could ask for.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs