My reviewing system is pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll take a moment to explain why I’m reviewing the albums that I review and how I judge them. Ideally I’d only review albums that I like, but this system would neglect the central duty of a reviewer, and in fact it’s often much easier to write articulately about albums that I find disappointing, horrific, whatever. My comments and criticisms will frequently reflect my somewhat idiosyncratic musical priorities. I tend not to focus on lyrics as much as some, which might speak to my interests primarily as an instrumentalist. I generally dislike the trend towards more academic, rigorously researched music reviews, which often emphasize networks of influence, artistic trajectories, genre distinctions and strict categorizations. These are essential but almost universally overemphasized aspects of analyzing music. Albums should exist and succeed as distinct works of art, and what people primarily care about is whether the music is good. On the other hand, I’m sure I’ll violate my own rules and contradict my philosophical priorities many times in the future, so take what I say with a grain of salt. Here are this week’s reviews.
Cloud Nothings –Attack on Memory[Carpark] 4/5
Attack on Memory is slickly produced but raw (admittedly a stale and almost meaningless expression that still seems crucial in this context). It has some great songs. It is, as critics, commentators and the band itself have noted innumerable times, an “attack on [the] memory” that people had for what the band formerly was (its sound and, apparently, collective emotional state were radically different). I hope and suspect that the title has some less overt, more profound intended meanings. Opener “No Future/No Past” is a masterpiece of the restrained slow-build structure. A few tracks, particularly “Fall In,” edge a little too close to the generically bratty pop-punk aesthetic. “No Sentiment” is a rough hewn anthem that succinctly articulates the themes of the album. A well-built piece of rock.
Lilacs & Champagne – Lilacs & Champagne [Mexican Summer] 2.5/5
Lilacs & Champagne is such a surreal, eerie record that even its weakest, most self-indulgent moments are grudgingly lovable for their weirdness. The album’s not massively innovative stylistically — much of it is standard beat-making, and some of it verges on anachronism — but the source material for the production duo’s prolific sampling is so diverse and unexpected that the musical result can be pleasantly unsettling. Still, much of the album casually meanders from one echo to another, and there are large swaths containing little more than barely engaging atmospherics and reverb-soaked instrumentals and the distant sound of seagulls. Even momentary gems “Everywhere, Everyone” and “Lilacs” rapidly lose steam. It’s an odd, occasionally brilliant, often tiresome listen.
Leila – U&I [Warp] 4/5
U&I is a strikingly minimal album of solid IDM. For the uninitiated, IDMstands for intelligent dance music, a distinctly snobbish term that’s largely transcended its more specific connotations and now generally refers to electronic music with dance-y motivations but an elevated focus on musical complexity and some experimental sentiments. I use the term here in the broad sense — there are only hints of, for instance, the rhythmically intricate esoteric blips of Autechre — but U&I is full of literally crackling tension and hypnotic synth lines and absorbing rhythms, with evocative vocals from Mt. Sims occasionally recalling, at least in my freely associative mind, some of the more lyrical passages of Liars’ Drums Not Dead. Crunching, frenetic tracks like “Welcome to Your Life” coexist easily with expressively ambient tracks like “In Consideration.” A hearty yet thoughtful electronic album for people who like thoughtful yet satisfying electronica.
Napolian – Refuge EP [Mexican Summer / Software] 3/5
Com Truise’s Galactic Melt with a less celestial aesthetic and more swagger? Well, not really — the artists share an affinity for compressed kick drums and warped synths and not much else — but the comparison is revealing. Though Refuge doesn’t contain any beats quite as fascinating as, for instance, “Cathode Girls,” it is more varied and richly textured thanGalactic Melt, grounded in reliably satisfying soul samples, bubbling bass and drums that display a broad array of influences, from 80s synth-pop to hip-hop to dance music and beyond. Refuge is a compelling EP.
Lana Del Rey – Born to Die [Interscope] 2/5
This album provokes several questions: How is it possible to make 50 minutes feel like such a long time? Who thought it was a good idea to produce an LP containing “Video Games,” lushly understated as it is, amid tracks as obnoxiously melodramatic and vapid and practically identical as “Diet Mountain Dew,” “National Anthem,” “This Is What Makes Us Girls,” etc. etc.? Born to Die’s defining characteristic could be inconsistency, but labeling it merely inconsistent would be giving it too much credit; there are only three genuinely good songs on the album: “Born to Die,” “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games,” which are the first, third and fourth songs on the album respectively, quickly leaving the album to drag on and on for an interminable half-hour of generic pop with intensely annoying hip-hop beats, vaguely but ineffectively gesturing towards trip-hop, and songs with only marginal resemblance to the wistful melancholy of “Video Games” et al. It probably doesn’t help that those songs are already so thematically similar. LDR’s style evidently does not apply well over an LP.
The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World [Haft] 4.2/5
The languid and distorted sounds of piano jazz ballads unfurl slowly and deliberately amid vinyl cracks and hisses and the quiet hum and rush of recorded sound. The Caretaker’s engaging, quietly odd music frequently emphasizes the passage of time and basks in the lush, spare sounds of the past. This album isn’t especially recent — it was released last year — but it rewards repeat listens and the slight irony of reviewing an album about nostalgia and memory a few months too late makes doing so marginally acceptable. Actually, The Caretaker just released a new album, which still doesn’t change the fact that this album deserves to be heard. A blissful album for people with a healthy tolerance for the soft and ambient and who like Woody Allen movies for their soundtracks.