This is a monthly music column. The format is a blatant rip-off of Nick Hornby’s books column in The Believer (see just how much), but I’m invoking the old adage mothers use when their son’s science fair project’s been stolen by some unimaginative cheat: ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’

A few brief notes: I won’t have space to discuss everything in the catalog below (Albums Acquired, etc) but most will get written about eventually. This installment favors newer music—released in the last year, if not the last few months—but much of what I explore is not timely, and not meant to be. Everything cycles around.

:: :: ::

a monthly music column

Albums Acquired
Matilda, Stateless
21, Adele
Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors
Angles, The Strokes
Salon des Amateurs, Hauschka

Music Listened To
Matilda, Stateless
Isla, Portico Quartet
Las Meridanzas, Alex Dupree and the Trapdoor Band
Disco Worship, YACHT
Dust Lane, Yann Tiersen
Ítrekun, Mugison
Treats, Sleigh Bells
21, Adele
Abbatoir Blues, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Artists Seen
Hauschka @ Schuba’s
John Vanderslice @ Schuba’s

:: :: ::

We live in a time when two young people who render themselves thusly—


—conduct a “Band, Belief System, and Business” that holds triangles sacred, mandates its name be spelled in all caps, i.e. YACHT, not Yacht (someone should tell the Chicago Reader), “believes “Free Wi Fi” is not an advertisement of services, but a political statement” and “encourages online dissemination of all things,” has a tattoo policy on its website (“The equilateral triangle is not the only option for those seeking a YACHT tattoo, however. A popular choice in the past has been the “classic” YACHT anchor insignia.”), and released a while back Disco Worship: Music for Meditative Dancing.

This hour-long mix was originally released as a cassette tape, by Portland’s Gnar Tapes and Shit, then offered online for free. It is: “a concise unit of rapturous, ego-eclipsing dance music framed loosely around the idea of the spirit.” It includes: snippets of “Krishna Dharti Pe Aaja Too” by Bappi Lahiri, “Up Jumped the Devil” by John Davis & The Monster Orchestra, “Jesus is Just Alright (Techno Mix)” by DC Talk, “I Chase The Devil” by Max Romeo, and “Spirits In It” by Patti LaBelle. And it is good. There’s no denying it. Download it here.

But this is just an odd detail of our time. It isn’t representative. When anthropologists in 2150 study music in 2011, they might find YACHT, but they’ll also find that we’re making a lot of our music in much the same way we have since the dawn of the 20th century [1]. And let no one, from 2150 or otherwise, say it’s a rotten, regrettable thing.

For instance, Yann Tiersen. People know his name because he did the Amelie soundtrack, and they might say he’s going backwards putting out a rock-and-roll album. But one listen to Dust Lane and their minds will change. The 8-track-yet-46.5-minute album is a dusty, experimental pop thing, dissonant in its imperfections—meaning at times things don’t line up as precisely as we’ve come to expect them to, which gives the album a raw, unfinished quality—though I doubt very much the aesthetic isn’t intentional, just like the broad instrumentation.

Palestine” is my favorite. BBC reviewer David Sheppard called the recurring spelling of the word “laborious,” but I find its robotic incessancy appropriate. The dark, spoken vocals appear elsewhere too, and among other things, it is this voice—or voices: a woman narrator repeats her broken, staccato thoughts throughout “Dust Lane”—that tie the tracks together, none of which really feel like individual songs, but more like movements, written intentionally to create the larger form they compose.

Tiersen's Rock Album

Matilda, the Newest from Stateless

Also from across the pond came Matilda, from electronic-art rockers Stateless. If it’s Dust Lane‘s imperfections that make it a work of art, it’s nearly the opposite here. Matilda is practically perfect—in a way that might offend some (those who prefer lower-fi, more experimental stuff). Stateless harnesses just the right amount of world music [2]—Ghanaian guitar in “Ariel,” doumbek (or something close) in “Visions,” and Eastern European violin styles in “Song for the Outsider” and others—and offers a perfect balance of ethereal instrumentals to single-worthy tunes. “Red Sea” is a spacey meditation, “Junior” a slow-burning R&B ballad, both of which add depth and moments of reflection between stuff like the fuzzed-out but ultra-catchy “Visions” or the hard-hitting frenzy of “Assassinations.”

Which brings up something I like about this album: though they are few, there are moments when the band isn’t afraid to get heavy. “Assassinations” erupts in a cymbal-smashing synth torrent that is worlds away from the saccharine “Miles to Go.” And yet no matter what’s going on around them, Chris James and Justin Percival’s voices are gorgeous, and their harmonies are as slick as Damian Taylor’s production. Additional reasons to respect what these guys are doing: the video for “Ariel.” The band hired a professional dancer to choreograph a pseudo-improvised battle between the title character and the devil and then motion-captured it.

Another fascinating look at Brits making great music is this video of Portico Quartet’s “Line.” Don’t watch it on a laptop or else it looks like Milo is miming the bass part. A few helpful hints:

a) the opening instrument is a hang, a Bernese instrument invented just a few years ago in Switzerland;

b) it’s intentionally played at a different tempo than the drums, to create texture;

c) Duncan Bellamy uses only his snare and ride the entire song, in an incessant pattering of doubles (2 right, 2 left in quick succession); and

d) nothing changes a whole lot for the 8 minutes of the song—if you don’t like it at minute 2, don’t expect to be in love by minute 6.


I fell in love with these guys fairly instantaneously. It was three years ago, Allison and I were on our honeymoon in Ireland, and we picked up, for 5 euros, a compilation of that year’s Mercury Prize winners—kind of like the British Grammy’s but better (Radiohead won for In Rainbows that year). Included was “Cittagazze,” Portico

Quartet’s first single, and I’ve been a fan since. Their latest, Isla—which I reviewed for ALARM—is twice as good, and interestingly enough, the differences between the debut, Knee-Deep in the North Sea, and Isla can actually be summed up by their respective album covers.

Album No. 1

Album No. 2

“The debut’s sparse arrangement of rectangular shapes is indicative of its fresh sound but relative simplicity,” I wrote in ALARM. “With Isla’s intricate, colorful, cubist collage, listeners are given a hint of the group’s evolving sound: thicker layers, more saturated hues, and complex nuances.” “Line” is just one example of it. The album is a great work, and you don’t have to know a lick about jazz to enjoy it.

Then there’s Sleigh Bells, who sound pretty much like what you’d expect with this cover:

Sleigh Bells' Treats

I actually couldn’t really get into them until one day they come on as I biked. Apparently some sort of sport is required to fully appreciate their rhythmic approximation of pep-rally cheers and the juvenile sound of ultra-fuzzy guitar.


:: :: ::

[1] Obviously much has changed, but I find it interesting that for all our genre demarcations, most popular music uses guitar (including bass guitar) and percussion as primary instruments. Electronic and hip-hop are two that have eschewed this line-up, and it’s no small thing that they’ve done so. I simply have neither the time nor the space here to go into it. Suffice it to say, few new instruments have been created in the past 50 years. And therefore bands who use instruments other than computers use instruments similar to the Blues men of the early 1900s.

[2] The term “world music” has long been understood to represent a highly ethnocentric view of music. Western music is categorized by genre and sub-genre and sub-sub-genre, yet everything south or east of North America (not including the UK and France) is lumped together. Interestingly, the same can be said of music older than the past 150 years. From an essay in n+1, “The rise of generic distinctions has lately reached a climax of absurdity, such that we can name off the top of our heads: house, witch house, dub, dubstep, hardstep, dancehall, dance-floor, punk, post-punk, noise, ‘Noise,’ new wave, nu wave, No Wave, emo, post-emo, hip-hop, conscious hip-hop, alternative hip- hop, jazz hip-hop, hardcore hip-hop, nerd-core hip-hop, Christian hip-hop, crunk, crunkcore, metal, doom metal, black metal, speed metal, thrash metal, death metal, Christian death metal, and, of course, shoe-gazing, among others. Meanwhile, 1,000 years of European art music is filed under ‘classical.’”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: