Friday, August 04, 2006

In Rotation: Summer 2006

Just a few quick notes on what's been sitting in my stereo lately:

Built To Spill
Built To Spill, You In Reverse (2006):
Built To Spill have long been one of those indie bands I love on a song-for-song basis, but have never found any of their albums to be start-to-finish compelling. Maybe I just like 'em in smaller doses; more likely, they just wear on me over the course of an entire album once you factor in some of the lesser tracks. (In contrast, I put together a BTS single-artist mix awhile back, and it's one of my favorites -- proving they've got some of the strongest material around, once you pick the wheat from the chaff.)

So I was kinda surprised when, after a few years out of the limelight, they returned with what I think may be their best album yet. Ok, I still find it starting to drag a bit towards the end, but the front end is so packed with great music it's hard to complain. Some is the quality of the songs; some is the production, which, in a way I can't really explain, seems denser and somehow less jarring than some of their other material. Lead off track "Going Against Your Mind" is classic latter-day Built To Spill, an epic, build-and-relese guitar-thrashing rocker that, like some of their best tracks, seems stuck somewhere between Crazy Horse and prog. Then comes "Traces," a mellower, more melodic track, yet it ends up no less compelling. Most of the rest follows in a similar vein, alternating quiet, almost dirge-like ballads with Doug Martsch's trademark guitar frenzies. Are they a jam band? Are they 90's indie rock holdovers flying the Pavement/Pixies flag? A little of both, and it's a surprisingly solid combination. (Incidentally, if you ever get the chance to see them live, DO IT. Best live show I've seen in a long time.)

Maybe You In Reverse won't win any new converts to the band, but hard to imagine anyone who has seen the appeal in earlier works not loving this one.

Ambulance Ltd.
Ambulance Ltd., Ambulance Ltd. (2004):
A friend recommended this to me when it first came out a couple years back, and somehow I ignored his advice. (Sorry, Sahil.) Bad move. One of my favorite albums from recent years, and a truly stand-out debut. Like a lot of semi-mainstream-ish indie bands, you can pick out the influences -- Velvet Underground? Beatles (John, not Paul)? Luna? Stone Roses? Maybe a little of each (though probably mostly Velvets). Which I guess might make them sort of like the next Strokes, only I haven't listened to the Strokes' debut in years, and never even bothered with the follow-up, while I can't put this album down. It's a bit schizophrenic, like they're not sure if they want to be moody and atmospheric, or poppy and clean, but nothing wrong with that -- either sit down prepared for some mood swings, or program around it. The important (and unusual) thing, though, is that it's pretty solid from start to finish. Sure, you don't expect a ton of filler on a decent debut album, but it would be hard to narrow this down to one or two stand-out tracks. By the way, my version has an excellent cover of the V.U.'s "Ocean" as a hidden track at the end; not sure if that's the case on all versions, but you don't want to miss it.

Explosions In The Sky
Explosions In The Sky, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (2003):
Another one that entered my collection somewhat belatedly, this little piece of instrumental ambient music has been keeping me company quite a bit. Guitar-based background tinkling, but with some building distortion and sonic excursions here and there, this falls somewhere between Fripp/Eno and some of Sonic Youth's quieter instrumental breaks. Sleep-inducing, sure, but in the best way.

Stone Roses
Stone Roses, Second Coming (1994):
Talk about your belated purchases... here's a rare examples of why sometimes you should just ignore music critics (those assholes!). By now, the story of this album is pretty well-known: The band releases one of the greatest albums of all time, their amazing 1989 self-titled debut, then disappears for half a decade, lost in a drawn-out contract dispute as their well-deserved acclaim fades. By the time they finally put out the follow-up, their star has faded; the next generation of Europop has landed, and the album is deemed irrelevant and, worse than that, a typically embarrassing example of sophomore slump. (Plus, the title of the album alone merits significant disdain.) Or at least that was the story at the time. So, despite my continuing adoration for the debut, I took a pass on Second Coming.

I finally rectified that situation this summer. And, you know what? It's not half bad. Or, actually, it's only half bad. The other half is pretty damn good. Not Stone Roses good (and, to the extent it almost is in places, it's only where the songs sound awfully similar to prior tracks), but pretty damn good. A few of the tracks replicate the mellow, neo-psychedelic groove of the debut ("The Storey Love Song"). And some of the more upbeat dance/rockers ("Driving South," "Love Spreads") are pretty entertaining as well. Ok, sure, there's some flat-out crap here. But the ratio isn't terrible. Not essential, but for those who loved the debut but took a pass on this, might be worth rethinking that decision.


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