Tuesday, April 12, 2011

NICOLAS JAAR: Space is Only Noise

Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only NoiseOn his debut album, released earlier this year, Nicolas Jaar creates caverns like King Tubby, sputters kicks and clops like Flying Lotus, sings like a young Leonard Cohen, samples soul voices like RJD2, plucks at pianos like Max Richter, cyberneticizes like Kraftwerk and locks organic sounds into electronic grids like Ricardo Villalobos. These reference points are handy, but misleading. This is a cohesive suite of tracks that all sound like Nicolas Jaar; playful and patient in wide open spaces. It's a lazy record; not artistically lazy (Jaar's ingenuity is obvious), but relaxed and dreamlike. When you were a kid, did you ever play outside first thing in the morning? That feeling of still-heavy eyelids and dawning possibility is what it feels like to listen to Space is Only Noise.

What roots Jaar most firmly in the "electronic music" camp is the way many of these tracks are structured according to the addition and subtraction of layers. Like Legos, each element is designed to fit with every other element. Jaar's pacing is uncanny, never hurried, never tedious, and when something new is added it is not just an insular earworm - it alters what is already present by subtly shifting context. During "Keep Me There" a piano part cycles and cycles, and when an extra sprinkling (of three simple notes) is dashed in, the original piano cycle is suddenly new again, changed by its relationship with the surrounding elements.

This isn't just a series of loops and grids, though. Not only does Jaar play some lilting live piano (meticulously edited, it seems, but basically live) on "Sunflower" and the two similar tracks that bookend the record, he performs some bona fide pop songs (the whimsical "Problems With the Sun" and the monochrome neon synth-pop gem "Space is only Noise if You Can See"). It’s a testament to Jaar’s big-picture cognizance that these tracks sit so nicely alongside things like the marshmellow synths on "Colomb" and that vocoded Demis Rousso soundalike crooning through "Balance Her In Between Your Eyes".

I hate this guy a little, because he's only 21 and this record accomplishes everything I've tried (with a tragic lack of success) to accomplish in my own paltry attempts to make electronic music. What a jerk, right? I mean, the audacity! It's a safe bet that Nicolas Jaar isn't interested in burrowing into one little niche and staying there. Future projects could take him anywhere, and envy aside I hope they do.

Friday, April 8, 2011

RADIOHEAD: The King of Limbs

Radiohead - The King of Limbs Since everyone is going to assess this only in relation to previous Radiohead releases, I'll just be upfront:
1. Kid A
2. OK Computer
3. In Rainbows
4. Amnesiac
5. The King of Limbs <---------------- (Not bad!)
6. The Bends
7. Hail to the Thief
8. Pablo Honey 

I never thought I would describe a Radiohead record as playful and sexy, but here it is. When I was in junior high, OK Computer hit me like a freight because I was paranoid and pretentious and it was too. Hail to the Theif came out just as I was developing an interest in (and by that I mean "a chip on my shoulder about") politics. In 2011 I've mellowed out quite a bit, and even if I wouldn’t describe myself as "playful and sexy" I will say I’m far less concerned with sneering technocratic rebellion than my teenage self. Like so many of their previous records, this one kinda hit me at just the right moment. I came home on a Friday after an emotionally exhausting substitute run at a local high school, found out it was available A DAY EARLY and collapsed to it. Just what I needed.

This is a good one. I even like the latest installment in Thom Yorke's quest to write "Pyramid Song" as many times as possible (this one's even better than "Pyramid Song"!).

I saw Radiohead do a webcast on the internet in 2007 or so. Part of it was the band acting as DJs and they played Fela Kuti, M.I.A. and Burial. MF DOOM claims he's making an album with ThomYorke. "Excuse me, I noticed you like the same bands I like - let's be best friends forever." See, Radiohead take influences from all these different things I like (Penderecki, Autechre, Can, Mingus, The Stone Roses - even Flying Lotus on this one) and then spit them back out as pretty pop songs. I'm on board with that project, and I think it's fine that Radiohead's influences (the usual stuff loved by insular music nerds like you) are so prominently displayed on the sleeves of their fashionable fair-trade jackets. This band is like a filmmaker who is so immersed in the oeuvres of the auteurs that his own work is covered in Bergman sauce and minced Ozu. What's-a-mattah, you don't like a little Ozu on your pulp?

We were playing this at my after-school job and these were the reactions:

First Coworker: "I don't like this. It's just a bunch of sounds."

Me: "That's what music is - a bunch of sounds."

First Coworker: "Yeah, but this is too... different."

Second Coworker: "It's like being in a tripped-out video game."

Third Coworker: "I'm glad we're listening to this because this music makes me feel really good."

Third Coworker wins.

My girlfriend, upon discovering that after three years of silence Radiohead put out an album that is 38 minutes long, said "That's all they've got after three years? In that time, I earned a doctorate." She did, too, and I perfected my Thom Yorke impression. It scares little kids and old people.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Earl Sweatshirt - EARL Earl Sweatshirt is a member of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, a collective of rappers and producers from California who have been attracting attention with their voluminous releases given away for free online. Their notoriety has grown so much they’ve been on network TV, backed up by the Roots. (if you watch that video, note the enthusiasm displayed by Mos Def as well as Jimmy Fallon’s delighted grin.)

Check out this excellent and astute write-up from Feminist Music Geek. I agree with what she said and won’t bother to repeat, but I would like to ask one question: When we talk about this album (and let’s be honest, provoking analysis, criticism and controversy is a big part of Odd Future’s creative endeavor) are we contributing to the delinquency of a minor?

The video for Earl’s eponymous track (the one where he raps about using roofies to commit date rape, using a trumpet to sodomize a girl, eating human flesh mixed with feces and how his purpose on this Earth is to commit hate crimes against Catholics) features Earl and his friends mixing an assortment of substances (pot, apparently, some cough syrup, liquor and something from a prescription bottle) in a blender, drinking it, and vomiting before injuring themselves skateboarding, having seizures, and bleeding from their eyes, nostrils, and nipples. A kid pulls off his thumbnail. A kid pulls out his own hair. A kid pulls out his own teeth. A lot of it is probably fake, though I doubt Odd Future would admit that, and if it isn’t fake, this is child abuse because Earl was SIXTEEN at the time.

Sorry to be the square, but maybe we should be a little more concerned about what happens to a kid who grows up surrounded by the voices of music-nerd hipsters praising him for his hostile, bigoted hate-speech and his dangerous antics.

His mother’s rumored decision to send him to boarding school, keeping him away from his Odd Future friends, seems like the logical, responsible thing to do. Smirking bloggers and Odd Future fans crying “Free Earl” are suggesting that they would be willing to deprive a teenager of an education and a healthy life just so they can hear some more music that they will like. That attitude is callous and hateful.

I heard someone praise Heath Ledger recently for “Basically giving up his life for his art.” I don’t buy the premise that the method-acting that went into Heath Ledger’s work on a Batman sequel ended his life, but if it’s true, then I wish that movie had never been made. When an artist suffers for his art, that art (no matter how much other people like it) will never outweigh the suffering. The well-being of any person is more important than any work of art. I realize that some suffering can’t be avoided, but some suffering can. If I find out animals were intentionally killed during the production of a movie, I won’t watch it. That movie shouldn’t exist. If I find out a kid’s life was derailed by his participation in the making of some rap music, I won’t listen to it. I’m not saying this is the case here, but it might be.

I am in no position to diagnose Earl or tell him what to do, but the possibility that his lyrics cross the line between shock-theater and symptoms of serious psychological problems, or the possibility that his participation in Odd Future could have a damaging effect on his educational and professional future is reason enough for me to bow out.

In the song discussed above, Earl snarls at his critics: “Try talking on a blog with your fucking arms cut off.” I guess he’s talking to me so I’ll respond: Earl, try applying for a job when typing your name into Google brings up the rape-obsessed rap music you made as a teenager.