Category Archives: RECORD REVIEWS

Phoning It In: “No Cops”

TMBG

They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

This week’s song, “No Cops,” is not sung by John Flansburgh or John Linnell. “No Cops” is sung by a person who goes by the name Corn Mo. Please excuse me while I wash my hands and disinfect my keyboard after having to type the disgusting, disagreeable combination of words that is “Corn Mo.”

The aforementioned vocalist is kind of like They Might Be Giants’ own version of the Magnetic Fields’ LD Beghtol. And “No Cops” is similar to “Theme From Flood”—self-referential and probably best placed at the beginning of an ostensible year-in-the-making 52-track album. (Notably, that’s still 17 tracks shy of the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs.) The song therefore has a purpose in the context of a Dial-A-Song playlist. Its central conceit—that the audience is about to be trapped in the concert venue with  a sinister TMBG—is just dark enough to put this over the .500 mark.

File-A-Song: 6/10

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Phoning It In: “Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel”

TMBG

They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

There might be a fan club. A secret They Might Be Giants fan club that I’m forbidden to acknowledge. I am also compelled to frame just how unlikely it is that I would belong to such an organization in the first place, not being a natural joiner in any way, nor a particularly acute “fan” of TMBG in the sense of being fanatical. But let’s suppose this fan club offered an insanely good deal, an exchange of money for material goods that ultimately led me here, to these reviews. Does a secret They Might Be Giants fan club exist?  Oh, I don’t know. You must be thinking of some other band.

If you’d rather shoot a woman than a man, this is the song for you! “Madam, I Challenge You To A Duel” is the sum of its title and its McCartneyed piano/drums instrumentation. It’s a bit of a comedown from last week’s high-energy “Erase,” bordering on lassitude; trim the song in half and it would be an excellent snippet in the larger context of an album. “Madam” has a tough time standing on its own. Instead of further dissection, let’s remember another song about dueling, “Glove Slap,” from maybe the greatest Simpsons episode ever.

Important Update: All ratings will now appear at the end of the review under the “File-A-Song” designation. I know! I just thought of it.

File-A-Song: 5/10

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Phoning It In: “Erase”

TMBG

They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

Let’s abort this whole thing and start reviewing movie trailers. Because that’s essentially what happened last week, with the critique of what now appears to be a teaser track in the 2015 Dial-A-Song campaign. It turns out “Got Getting Up So Down” and another short track, “I Wasn’t Listening,” were late-2014 appetizers for the real thing. So eliminate those two songs from the canon, and realize there may be 53 posts in this series. Welcome to Dial-A-Song’s terrifying new math.

Everything in “Erase” starts off staccato—the drums, guitars, John Linnell’s vocals—but the song has two other gears, both of which are extremely rewarding, chorus-y bits of vocal harmony. (Diversion for a future post: analysis of the two Johns’ vocal harmonies.) The subject matter of “Erase” reminds me of “They’ll Need A Crane” from 1988’s Lincoln: In relationships, especially toward the end, people do and say and think terrible things they regret forever. In both songs, the singer is addressing the other person in the relationship, and Linnell is great at writing self-aware bits of the conversation.

From “They’ll Need A Crane”:
“And there’s a restaurant we should check out where the other nightmare people like to go/I mean nice people, baby wait, I didn’t mean to say nightmare.”

From “Erase”:
“Think of this as solving problems that should never have occurred/Please don’t call it strangulation, that is such an ugly word.”

The bar has been set high. Should there be a rating system? Fine. 0-10, with 0 being terrible and 10 being “the best I think They Might Be Giants can get.” Because there are no external forces, only Dial-A-Song. “Erase” is a 9/10. And that is a blue swatch on a field of blue at this point. As such, all ratings are subject to adjustment and recalibration until Dec. 31, 2015.

It appears TMBG are posting a new song each Wednesday. These posts will appear on Wednesdays, too, reviewing the previous week’s song.

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Phoning It In: “Got Getting Up So Down”

TMBG

They Might Be Giants have resurrected their ingenious Dial-A-Song concept by streaming a new song each week of 2015 at www.dialasong.com. MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch reviews them all.

What’s up, music website readers? This is the exposition. Please refer to the exposition before commenting in October 2015 that I don’t know Flansburgh from Linnell, Flood from Lincoln. Actually, I do know those things, but my point is that I am not a They Might Be Giants superfan. More on that in later posts. A few years ago on this site, I wrote 120 posts about music videos from the golden era of MTV’s 120 Minutes; before that, I wrote a weekly series of posts about The Best Show On WFMU that didn’t last too long because it was killing the thing that I loved; and more recently I attempted a year-long, multi-part review of a depressing Flaming Lips album that I felt was misunderstood. I’m Sarah Koenig, and this is Serial.

Some housekeeping items before we begin. Item number one: Just because we’re entering a long-term relationship with TMBG’s music, these will be objective, critical reviews. Item number two: As far as I can tell, all the songs will be streaming and archived for free at www.dialasong.com. Go make your own opinions. I cannot help you download a Flash update.

OK, enough of that. On to the review. Wakeup anthem “Got Getting Up So Down” might be the music in a commercial for Papa John’s Kale-n-Chorizo Breakfast Jammers. It might be running through my head on future mornings while my fingers try to separate a coffee filter from the impossible stack of stuck-together coffee filters. Flansburgh recites some morning-routine lyrics over a spy-movie synth-bass line. This song is too literal and purposeful. I wonder if these are all going to be two-minute ditties, in which case I’m not sure that will create the requisite emotional resonance for long-term listening investment. It’s early. This is only 1.9 percent of the year’s projected output, or one playing card in a game of solitaire. In the just-invented Solitaire-Based Music Rating System, we deal “Got Getting Up So Down” a six of clubs.

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Record Review: Anders Parker “There’s A Bluebird In My Heart”

AndersParker

Anders Parker flexes all of his considerable creative muscles with his latest—and perhaps best—solo album.

Looking back over the breadth of Anders Parker’s two-decade career, there is little he has yet to accomplish or prove. The stylistic range encompassed by his Varnaline work alone is evidence of Parker’s determination to explore, illuminate, absorb and transcend every musical influence he’s experienced, from alt-country and raw folk to pastoral Americana and baroque art rock. And Parker’s catalog under his own name has been equally diverse, be it the transitional familiarity of 2004’s Tell It To The Dust or the ambient instrumental guitar wash of 2010’s Cross Latitudes. Throw in his recent pairing with Mascott/Sparklehorse multi-instrumentalist and longtime cohort Kendall Meade, and you’ve got an impressive and intimidating curriculum vitae.

Parker’s latest contribution is a welcome return to his Varnaline/early-solo sound, perhaps in reaction to his recent experimental streak. Opener “The Road” is a visceral eight-minute core sample of Parker’s most closely held inspirations, starting in a soulful pop vein and careening to a blistering Crazy Horse conclusion, while “Animals” cross-pollinates Parker’s Youngian love of twang bar blues with a stomp-and-holler ethic that could be mistaken for Jack White. Parker is equally comfortable with the kind of quiet intensity that can be as unnerving as it is soothing (“Unspoken,” “Don’t Let The Darkness In”), then counterpoints it with the epic and nearly prog-paced roar of the exquisitely titled “Jackbooted Thugs (Have All The Best Drugs).” After several years of wandering in the sonic wilderness, Parker has returned to his roots with a velvet-fisted vengeance.

—Brian Baker

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The Flaming Lips Almost Killed Me: Reign Of Terror

FlamingLips

Will repeated listening to the Flaming Lips‘ dark, depressing and intense new album drive you insane? MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch aims to find out. Welcome to the Terrordome.

As should be obvious by the gaping chasm between posts in this purportedly regular series, The Terror is over (if you want it). Reviewing The Terror for weeks on end didn’t exactly kill my enthusiasm for the album, but it didn’t intensify it, either. Being on the receding limb of musical enjoyment isn’t much fun; it was time to put the Flaming Lips away for a while. Besides, there’s a new Bill Callahan album to obsess over—that guy has been killing it for the last four LPs, by the way.

In my first post, I promised a hastily conceived infographic, and I will keep that promise. The visual interpretation of “You Lust” below is not only hastily conceived but also poorly executed. There’s not even a legend or key, so just know that this maps out every time the jarring “lust to succeed” sequence happens (represented by the Swami head) and highlights that long middle section where I forget what happens.

YouLust

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Record Review: Nirvana “In Utero (20th Anniversary Edition)”

Nirvana

Twenty years later, In Utero reigns as Nirvana’s poetic, grimy apex

It’s always the question with Nirvana, the most important band in the history of alternative rock save for only possibly the Velvet Underground: What’s left to say? Now documented and immortalized with its third boxed set, the band’s studio swan song was the ultimate follow-up, with Steve Albini on hand to destroy the pop goodwill Nevermind’s runaway success imbued the trio with for David Geffen, and such agreeable titles as “Rape Me” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” to greet program directors previously besotted with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” We know In Utero turned out to be anything but poisonous commercially, with the string of “Heart-Shaped Box,” “All Apologies” and “Dumb” ensuring this wasn’t the Bad to Nevermind’s Thriller.

On In Utero, Kurt Cobain’s lyrics opened up like never before, nearly as poetry when he sang of a “Leonard Cohen afterworld” or an “umbilical noose,” but also developing his keen obsession with femininity, from themes of childbirth and the female anatomy (“Pennyroyal Tea” was selected as a subject for its assistance in inducing abortion) that extended to the famous album artwork, as well as bringing Cobain’s feminism to the forefront. (“Rape Me” was a chilling protest, a martyr plea from a privileged white male to unload some of the burden of women’s collective fear and pain.)

What this two-decades-on look back opens up is not how abrasive the album was, but rather how subtly its melodic foundation supported its thrashy intentions, especially on the “Live And Loud” disc from a 1993 concert that showcased new vistas in the backing harmonies of “Sliver” and “Pennyroyal Tea” and eschewed album thrashers like “Very Ape” and “Tourette’s” in favor of an earlier, electric take on Bowie’s delicate “The Man Who Sold The World” before the definitive Unplugged performance, veering pop-friendly on typical selections like “Drain You” and “About A Girl,” and only going off the grid for the brutal bookends of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and blinding mess “Endless, Nameless.” The well-known b-sides now collected in one place (“Moist Vagina,” “Sappy,” “I Hate Myself And Want To Die” and Dave Grohl’s “Marigold”) comprise a strong EP with completely unreleased, surfy jam “Forgotten Tune”; only the debris-like “Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flowing Through The Strip” fails to create a context for itself.

Then you have alternate mixes that grow confusing, from Albini and Scott Litt’s original treatments of tunes that now have alternate choices, to mysterious “2013” mixes meant to simulate something not very distinct from the finished album at all, to the decidedly un-illuminating LP demos (unless you really need to know how much distortion was originally called upon for “Scentless Apprentice”). Diehards and students of audio recording will certainly be able to identify the here-and-there tidbits of difference between these warehouse-cleaning takes. Since most people can make do with the excellent new live set, and it only comes with the triple-disc option, spring for the separate DVD. The album proper already excellently spoke for itself 20 years ago.

—Dan Weiss

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The Flaming Lips Almost Killed Me: Is It Gettin’ Heady?

FlamingLips

Will repeated listening to the Flaming Lips‘ dark, depressing and intense new album drive you insane? MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch aims to find out. Welcome to the Terrordome.

In the previous post, I interrogated Jonathan Valania, the author of MAGNET’s recent Flaming Lips cover story, and discovered, well, more about myself than about Wayne Coyne or The Terror or the location of Michael Ivins’ missing sunglasses. A brief aside about the Wilco comparison in that entry: I nearly forgot that, when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out and the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart revealed the deep rift between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, I had a crackpot theory that the album’s call-sign abbreviation, YHF, translated when spoken aloud to “Why I Hate Jeff.” Maybe Bennett knew his days with Wilco were numbered. Maybe he didn’t even come up with the title.

These are the odd scenarios you concoct when an album becomes part of your life. Last month, I spent an evening with Quentin Stoltzfus, ostensibly interviewing him about his new band (Light Heat, whose excellent album just came out*) but often talking about other bands, albums, the Philly psych-rock scene circa 1999 and what he called “deep listening.” We fought like hell not to let the conversation devolve into a kids-these-days lament about short attention spans and the internet, but Quentin shared two things that speak exactly to that theme. One is an anecdote about a night featuring repeated playing of a Stereolab/Nurse With Wound split to a member of Fleet Foxes and blowing that dude’s mind. The other is that Quentin is friends with Alec Ounsworth; he helped him build his studio and engineered his solo album. He saw the furious internet attention paid to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah circa 2005, and then saw the relatively gross internet negligence to anything Alec or his band did exactly one year after that—even though the music was basically the same. It’s not like they made a radical change.

But guess who did? The Flaming Lips! And yet the Lips’ generation of fans—let’s be honest, even Wayne is going gray—has largely stuck with the band, or at least paid attention. Because there’s a history. A discography. Parts of it that I despise. Parts that I don’t even know (yet). Parts that I spent my money from an after-school job on in 1993 and was nearly tethered to.

Next time we’ll get back into, y’know, the actual songs on The Terror. In other Terror-related news, here’s a new interview with Wayne Coyne; some very good insight into the track “Try To Explain” toward the end of the piece.

*Light Heat is basically Quentin Stoltzfus (whose former incarnation, Mazarin, made him the prince of Philly psych-rock) plus the Walkmen. It is unfair to other bands that this fortuitous pairing was allowed to occur, and the resulting album sounds like JAMC’s Darklands, the Velvet Underground and, well, Mazarin and the Walkmen.

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The Flaming Lips Almost Killed Me: Jesus Shootin’ Heroin, Etc.

FlamingLips

Will repeated listening to the Flaming Lips‘ dark, depressing and intense new album drive you insane? MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch aims to find out. Welcome to the Terrordome.

You can only navelgaze about an album for so long. Turns out I actually know someone who went to the source of The Terror, so I decided to ask him about it. Jonathan Valania interviewed Wayne Coyne at his Oklahoma City compound for MAGNET #98’s cover story; he also did a MAGNET cover story on the Lips circa The Soft Bulletin.

A short preface to this Q&A: I have a little theory that The Terror is heavily influenced by drummer Steven Drozd’s drug-addiction relapse, and that it is akin to the influence that Jay Bennett had on the recording of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Maybe there was a little bit of chemical dependence going on, maybe it drove some of the darker, more experimental tendencies. Seeing as how Valania also spent time with Wilco circa Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I decided to float this theory by him as well.

The cover story you wrote—when it came time to discuss The Terror, you told Wayne Coyne, “I like it, but I’m not sure anyone else will.” Sounds like faint praise. What do you really think of the album?
Valania: I like it for what it is. A return to the bad-trip psychedelia of yore, but much more skilled and accomplished. It asks a lot of the listener: a) That you listen to it beginning to end because it doesn’t really work in small doses, and b) that the listener wallow in the album’s unrelenting bleakness. Both of which are a big ask in these times of fractured attention spans and unrelenting bleakness that most people turn to music to forget about.

Things got pretty emotional with Wayne toward the end of the piece, when he’s talking about the psychic. Outside of what you already wrote, what were your impressions of Wayne’s state of mind during the time you spent with him? Do you think The Terror is manufactured gloom, or do you think it’s real?
He was charming and witty and friendly and funny as per usual, but there is obviously some deep well of sadness that broke to the surface when he was relating the psychic experience. I got the sense that he is pretty raw emotionally these days. And no, I don’t think the album’s gloom is manufactured; I think it comes from an honest place.

I’m too lazy to read the whole article again, but did you discuss Steven Drozd’s relapse and what effect that might have had on the album’s mood? I have a theory that is basically Drozd: The Terror::Jay Bennett: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. There’s just the same kind of change of dynamic that happened with Wilco, where two guys converge on an experiment in the midst of grief or addiction or whatever.
Not so sure about that. Best I can tell, Drozd has been pretty much writing/performing all the music on Lips albums, except bass, since Ronald left after Clouds Taste Metallic. I think Bennett played a hugely important role in the greatness of Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but by the end nobody in the band, especially Tweedy, could stomach his presence. I don’t think those interpersonal issues apply with the Flaming Lips. As for Drozd’s relapse impacting the album, I learned the hard way that you can’t expect an addict to tell a relative stranger the truth about their addiction. When I did the first Lips cover story around the time of The Soft Bulletin, Drozd assured me he had kicked heroin. After the fact, I came to learn that wasn’t true. So I didn’t even want to go there this time and instead focused on Wayne.

You did a Lips cover story circa The Soft Bulletin as well. What’s the biggest difference you could sense in the band between then and now?
This time around, I didn’t have any interaction with anybody in the band outside of Wayne, so I couldn’t really say. However, it is clear that Wayne enjoys being Wayne, which is good because nobody does it better. He was built for rock stardom and had it not arrived after years and years of hard work, he’d still be manning the fryer at Long John Silver’s (which has long since been converted to a Pho, by the way).

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The Flaming Lips Almost Killed Me: At War With The Critics

FlamingLips

Will repeated listening to the Flaming Lips‘ dark, depressing and intense new album drive you insane? MAGNET’s Matthew Fritch aims to find out. Welcome to the Terrordome.

Anyone read anything about the new Daft Punk album? What? My sarcasm is tiresome and strained; it both mocks and plays into the future that Daft Punk is already reflecting back at us? Fucking robots. Let’s talk about the Flaming Lips.

Specifically, let’s talk about what other people have talked about when they’ve talked about The Terror. There are two routes here; surveying the entire internet (or just Amazon, where The Terror racks up 3.5 stars in its customer reviews section and makes me question why Consumer Reports doesn’t hire Anthony Lane and Robert Christgau to pen narrative reviews of toasters and microwaves) or choosing your battle. I choose, Iron Chef kitchen stadium style, to battle Jim DeRogatis’ review: “The Flaming Lips Drop A Depressing And Dismal Dud.”

DeRogatis has more cachet than you or me where the Flaming Lips are concerned. That he wrote a biography of the band entitles him to the vantage point he describes in the first half of the review. If you want ad hominem attacks, proceed directly to the comments section—you won’t find them here. DeRogatis’ actual criticism of The Terror is mainly twofold, asserting that: a) the Flaming Lips are not trying hard enough, and b) the theme and tone of the record are insincere and gimmicky.

Maybe there’s no arguing with the first point, as a matter of taste. I don’t know what specific lack of effort DeRogatis is referring to, but plenty of krautrock bands have stretched a monorhythm over eight or nine minutes and avoided being called lazy. And there are new adventures here; Wayne Coyne sings almost the entire album in a falsetto. There is a weird electronic-rock melancholy reminiscent of Air circa 10000 Hz Legend and the Virgin Suicides score. When the guitars get brittle and white-noisy, you can hear a little bit of Flying Saucer Attack. Nobody disparages Flying Saucer Attack, do they?

As for the second argument—that the album’s downer-ism is not genuine—well, that’s a dubious sentiment (or simply a misplaced one if you believe, as I do, that the Yoshimi/At War With The Mystics/Christmas On Mars-era Lips is mostly a farce). I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, so I don’t know what corporate chariot the latest Flaming Lips album flew in on. It’d surprise me if any of these songs got anywhere near the Super Bowl. Coyne’s wife of 25 years left him. Drummer Steven Drozd was, by his own account, going through a drug addiction relapse. Bassist Michael Ivins lost his prescription sunglasses at an Applebee’s in Lawton. The Terror sounds like a reckoning of those events, cycling through the requisite disbelief (“Try To Explain”), sadness (“You Are Alone”) and anger (“Turning Violent”). If that doesn’t come across as “real” enough—a valid question in Daft Punk’s world—then DeRogatis is picking and choosing which parts of the Flaming Lips discography he wants to believe.

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