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    Vinyl Review: “Lonerism” by Tame Impala


    2012 - 10.20

    I skipped writing a review on Innerspeaker, the first album by Australian psychedelic-rock band Tame Impala, because of a variety of reasons; it seemed like everyone already knew about it and I also did wonder if it was a one-off. Innerspeaker was an impeccably well written group of songs with such a delicious coating of 60s sheen that I doubted the band could replicate the same thing twice.

    And with Lonerism they did not replicate it–they took the same sound and stepped a new direction, which is exactly what you want to see for the staying-power of an artist. Somewhere on the web I saw a critique of Innerspeaker that said “phasers were made for this album”. Troof! One thing Tame Impala fully excels at, is using reverb, delay, and them whirling, creamy phasers, to archetypal trippy effect. That heavy, dreamy phasing is back and sounding as good as ever here.

    It should be mentioned right out of the gate that the mastermind behind the operation, multi-instrumentalist Kevin Parker, has seriously got to be a lost love-child of Paul McCartney. It would be an understatement to say his voice is eerily similar to a young Paul. It is a closer match than ‘uncanny’. Which is an integral part of the draw here–a magnificent centerpiece to the band’s palette, summarized on amazon as using “the aid of gear and production techniques that sounded like they hadn’t been dusted off since 1968″. Indeed, some of the cuts could probably fool a blind-listener into thinking some forgotten late-60s vintage gem of an LP was spinning on the turntable.

    My favorite track on the album still has to be the aforementioned “Apocalypse Dreams” with a mesmerizing minimalistic breakdown at its center, lyrics that oscillate between hopeful or sarcastic, and giant, piano-pounding chords anchoring a fuzzed-out version of the lyric melody on guitar, forming a truly epic ending that seems to float off into the sky as the slow fade brings you out easy. They should have ended the album with this one. This is the only cut on the album which was jointly composed by Parker and bandmate Jay Watson; whatever flavor that’s being produced by the combination of these two minds, I hope to hear more of that in the future.

    Possibly a close second for favorite track on this outing was “Mind Mischief” which makes prominent use of synths that sound more like something Neon Indian would use; a touch of 1980s Tears For Fears, in some sparkly, slow motion nostalgic way. Maybe Neon Indian would use that same synth, but they wouldn’t fully submerge it in the calling-card phaser/flanger treatment it gets here. The moment at 2:48 where the new chord progression starts is a particularly wonderful spot for me. There is a good deal of phasing leading up to that moment but right then it somehow gets even thicker and bigger. It’s a great example of ‘just when you thought they couldn’t take it to another level, they go and take it to the next level.’ I would really love to know what kind of gear they are using to achieve that rich, warm effect they are getting.  Just Magical.

    As an aside, isn’t the back cover art awesome?  I included it here at full-res, so you can scan around the image and check out this mountain of toys he’s working.  Sweet picture…

    That same Neon-Indian-esque vibe is also present in spades on “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?” and it works well. The infusion of this synth-heavier, vaguely 80s influence is what I was alluding to at the start when I mentioned a new direction for the style. I dig it. There were maybe hints of this on their first album, but Lonerism brings it to the fore. Another overarching theme here is the great usage of pauses in the music, where there is a short interval during which all instruments stop playing, only to resume in unison a second later. That’s a classic ‘cheap trick’ in songwriting that always works.

    A major feather in the cap of Innerspeaker was the fact that it was 100%. No filler songs, no fluff, no annoying tracks you will skip every time they come up. They didn’t quite achieve the same level here, although the mark wasn’t missed by far. “Sun’s Coming Up” is sort of an amateurish-sounding screw off that offers a view of what sounds like Kevin messing around in the lab/practice room. Which is maybe interesting on that level, but it sticks out like an awkward sore thumb when placed next to all the finished-sounding polished compositions preceding it. The fact that this whimpering should-have-been-a-B-Side closes the album is regrettable–this is not the conclusion it deserves. “She Just Won’t Believe Me” is also something of an odd interlude that’s not really a song. And the constant plodding quarter note chords on every single beat of “Keep On Lying” can definitely get old. I like to picture ‘keyboard cat’ playing that background part. Hahahaha

    But we’re delving into nickpickery now. Viewed from afar, Lonerism is a glorious, billowing flag planted atop a sand dune on a sunny afternoon at the beach. That is to say it’s magnificent. I have been looking forward to the release of Tame Impala’s second album ever since I heard the unimpeachable Innerspeaker, and it’s with a combination of relief, intrigue, and delight that I say they’ve got a worthy sequel here. As I’ve grown older, the amount of new rock music as a percentage of my music collecting has frankly plummeted  Blame it on a perpetually diversifying taste for different genres and styles, blame it on oversaturation as a youngster with cookie-cutter bands that all used the same radio-friendly hard-rock formula, blame it on the sheer number of bands which use bass/drums/guitar/vocals, maybe a keyboard… and never anything else. Maybe I’ve gotten bored with it, maybe I need more variety, or maybe for me to enjoy rock like I once did, it has to have some kind of compelling ‘twist’ beyond the plain-vanilla form.

    Tame Impala has that compelling twist, in the form of a young Paul McCartney doppelganger, spot-on vintage mastering, unparalleled tastefulness with rich phasers, and solid songwriting to showcase their novel, psychedelic sound that leans heavily on late 60s rock influences; the progenitor of the whole genre to begin with. These guys have gone back to the source and tapped into something equivalently timeless as it is overlooked in the sprawling “rock” section of today’s music stores. This band is something special, and I hope they produce many more excellent offerings along the path set forth by these superb first two.

    Album Review: Tiny Blue Biosphere by Rhian Sheehan


    2012 - 10.04

    Like “Arboreal” by The Flashbulb, this album is one that immediately seized me and has maintained a lasting draw, despite the fact that there are a few tracks on here that are definite throw-aways for me.

    This album came out in 2004 and the album name suggests the tone within; a whole lot of riffing on space and cosmology. But unlike, say, Symphony of Science, this guy makes use of wickedly cool nerd samples without being cheesy about it. I do love me some Symphony of Science, but let’s be honest; it’s cheesy. What’s on this album is a hipper approach to melding science and music…

    I should clarify what I said in the opener: the tracks on here with the female vocals really sound dated, to my ear. They’re something reminiscent of 1990′s BT production. Which I listened to maybe a few times too many and now I’m just finished with that sound. So perhaps to someone else, those cuts wouldn’t grate as hard.

    But oh man, when Sheehan gets it right, he nails it. And in a way that I’m super into. It’s electronic music through and through, with something interplanetary in the sound palette. It shares that “we’re totally in outer space while we’re listening to this” vibe that Visit Venus had, but it’s not a retro 60s sound, it’s more of a late 90s, early 2000s electronica sound. Upon hearing this album, I went and checked out the rest of his catalog, but was unable to find anything like this album (again like the Flashbulb, the thing I latch onto seems to be a one-off).

    Sheehan makes good use of ambient sounds. Which makes sense because film scores are apparently his main thing. The intro track to the album is a dreamy ambient affair with the muffled sounds of airport announcements in the background. It’s something that sets the tone, making you feel like we’re about to depart somewhere. Somewhere dreamy.

    Track two busts right into the meat. Carl Sagan’s distinctive inflection questions: “How… Did the Universe… Arise? …. What was around… Before that? … Might there have beennn. No… beginning? … Could the Universe be… Infinitely. Old?” There’s some kind of surreal but subtle effect on his voice too that seems to precede his words in a captivating way. Then the beat drops and Carl Sagan gets peppered around for a while as the vibe marinates. At 1:50 when that first quote gets reintroduced, it feels good; like it’s something you could be piloting a futuristic space fighter over the surface of an alien world to, looking all badass.

    Track four, Phobos, weaves together a lovely multicolored yarn of samples, with subtle piano, hand drums, etheral vocals, and maybe a couple other electronic sounds I can’t put my finger on. Then it ends with this long-ass movie quote with minimal music behind it, neither building up nor breaking down, which something which I always find tedious (I’m looking at you James Warren). Fortunately this long-winded speech is the exception to the rule on this album.

    Cut number seven, entitled “Cosmology” opens up with a set of 4 repeating chords from a string section, building into a grooving lounge-type beat with vibraphone and guitar. And booyah, Carl is back, this time offering “the current scientific story of the universe” in which he explains the big bang theory as only he can. Although it certainly doesn’t hurt that Carl has masterful oratory skillZ (that’s skills with a capital Z), I think a key component here is the fact that the music builds and swells along with what he is talking about. The energy changes as his discussion goes on, which is kind of a fascinating format that I wish I knew more examples of. It’s like a long speech about interesting things, wrapped inside of a changing groove that switches density to add or subtract emphasis from the speech. That’s in contrast to what I was complaining about before, where a long expository quote tramples over the music; the equivalent of a one sided conversation where the music just can’t get a word in. That the music flows in tandem *with* the oratory is a pivotal distinction.

    “Degrees of Freedom” is also worthy of note; a pleasant, flowing groove that uses acoustic guitar above a mellow four on the floor beat.

    And then there’s my favorite jam on the album, called “System”. We hear astronaut samples for the first time, and it works so beautifully I really wish there were more cuts just like this. The song uses acoustic guitar and strings alongside a series of synthetic sounds in a very impressive melding of these disparate elements. The mood it sets is one perfectly suited to the “magnificent desolation” as Buzz Aldrin described. A kind of yearning but still graceful and full of wonder.

    This is a great album, full of musical cues that transport the mind on a journey across space and time, unlike anything else I can name. The two tracks marrying Carl Sagan samples with sweeping music that neither overwhelms his words, nor falls limply behind them–all while avoiding coming off as cheesy–make it a memorable listen alone. That Sheehan goes on to populate his odyssey with other compositions which stand on their own merits as clever sci-fi/science-y mashups make this album required listening for all nerdy types. This one is a touchstone for me, for all the reasons detailed herein.

    Vinyl review: Goldfrapp ~ “Ride A White Horse”


    2011 - 07.10


    Direct from Greece comes this awesome 12 inch with only 2 songs on it.  I believe this record is out of print, although I don’t think it’s really what you’d call rare.  The Greeks had the lowest price on this single that I could find, so I took the plunge.  Good move… although I knew this in advance!

    Side A is really the main attraction here, and it bears a title as gigantically long as the track itself: Goldfrapp – Ride A White Horse (Ewan Pearson’s Disco Odyssey Parts 1 + 2).  Ewan’s remix of the Goldfrapp tune is worthy of the ‘Odyssey’ in it’s title, as well as the divider into two halves.  The affair begins with a simple 4 on the floor accompanied by hits from a stiff square wave-synth that forecasts the direction we’re headed.  There’s a smattering of sounds throughout the mix that have an 8-bit/lo-fi videogame bent, however the combination with the Goldfrapp vocals and some dance-oriented drums keep the tune club-friendly.

    What makes this such a standout track is what happens halfway through: the mix has appeared run its course, having already used the full palette of vocal samples and drawing things down, WAY down to a simplistic beat that would seem to indicate a conclusion is at hand.  But that’s not what happens.  The energy simmers on it’s lowest setting for a good stretch of time, and slowly, parts of the track that dropped out long ago begin to return, some with a different rhythm, and a limited number of new but similar sounds begin tracing out a very slight shift in direction.

    It IS subtly different, yet it’s enough the same that you feel like we’ve unlocked some secret bonus stage of the original track.  Indeed to carry the videogame metaphor, the second half of the mix has that same triumphant feeling of almost meeting your end–narrowly avoiding death–and then returning from the brink to explode your high score and squash lots of bad guys!  Indeed at about 13 minutes when the vocal samples come back in, it feels like fireworks should be going off in the sky.  The second half never quite climbs to the same heights that the first half does, but

    What makes this track so hot is that it embodies what a lot of long-winded electronica is supposed to be all about: taking you on a massive journey that feels like a celebration, with highs and lows which stretch to uninhibited lengths.  A ton of stuff out there attempts this, but it’s rarely achieved convincingly or authoritively.  For that reason, Ewan’s Odyssey’s been something of an instant classic for me; it’s a remix with a quality original vocal, and he uses that vocal in some creative ways, letting Goldfrapp’s high notes stretch out long and wide.  There’s a ton of neat, bubbling synth sounds complete with warble-y basslines, cascading laser sounds falling from above, and buzzy punches festooned throughout.  The percusion is lively with good use of clave and tom samples, and the beat is a club dancebeat, although it’s not really your stereotypical “uun-tss uun-tss” typa beat.

    The B-side to this record was a nice surprise.  It’s a François K remix of another Goldfrapp track called “Disco Whores (FK Dub)”.  Being a big Grand Theft Auto fan, his name was recognizable to me from his DJ work on the “Electro-choc” radio station in GTA IV.  I’m sure someone  out there will laugh at that comment, seeing Mr. K’s giant legacy in the early days of House.  Anyhow, the track itself is sort of a creepy St. Germain thing almost.  A slowed down house beat with a long, grinding riff on the vox from the original.  Nice.  (but this was just a bonus cut for me)

    Vinyl review: “Ten Years On” by The New Mastersounds


    2011 - 06.04

    Where do I start with this album?  This review will probably be as much of a broad testament to my affinity for the band and recollections of concert snippets as much as a treatment of the album itself.

    Like any act that has retained my interest over an extended number of years and releases, the Mastersounds are perpetually expanding into a different direction.  Not genre-bustingly or radically, like an artist such as Beck does with each successive disc–but in their own way NMS has probed off into opposing directions while remaining within the contemporary funk vein.  Not just “rooted” in funk like so many bands who are jacks-of-all-trades-but-masters-of-none, but actually remaining IN contemporary funk, as in, this entire album, track-by-track is nothing but funk.

    The second or third time I had seen the Mastersounds I was at the Double Door club in Chicago with my good friend Vincent.  Several songs into their set, the band dropped down into a minimal groove, with Simon Allen settling into a 4-on-the-floor disco beat while the energy simmered on low heat.  Just as the lighting guy engaged the ‘tripped-out’ function, Vincent turned around with a big smile on his face and shouted “They do THIS?!”

    Ten Years on is a bit like that for me.  I remember the first time I heard the tune “The Road to Fuji Rock” was at a live performance, and after the show my buddy Bill asked me what the highlight was.  I answered ‘their new tune that sounded like a Greyboy thing’–and he knew which one I was talking about.  Ten Years On has a number of tracks that are quintessential Mastersounds style (San Frantico, Make Me Proud, Chocolate Chip) but a solid chunk of the album sounds like the band convoluting itself with another favorite act of mine, the Greyboy Allstars.

    What I mean by that is that raw, ripping vintage sound of “102%” has been largely traded in for mellower timbres here, allowing us to check out an equally soulful and virtuosic version of the band in a more relaxed atmosphere.  The compressors and the reverb have been dialed back a couple notches and thus we have an album that could be an ideal soundtrack for a leisurely drive around town on the weekend, or companion to a cold beer at 6pm on a Friday evening with no real plans for the night.  Simultaneously, it remains dance-able with plenty of get-up-n-go.  It’s that rare two-headed monster, like Thievery Corporation’s “Outernational Sound”.

    “Soulshine” is the first hint of where things are going–Simon lays down those skins with bravado while Roberts sports his new, more relaxed approach.  Pete’s bass playing jumps up high for some dashes of clever groove punctuation while remaining rocksteady down low, intertwined transparently with most of Roberts parts as he is for the majority of the time.  From here the association gets more obvious: “Flimsy”, with Joe on the Piano (as opposed to B3 or rhodes) with the whistles and the Nawlins-flavored drumming is overtly reminiscent of “Quantico, VA”.  The aforementioned ‘Fuji Rock’ calls to mind the same type of calm but persistently driving energy of “Happy Friends” from Greyboy’s classic album, A Town Called Earth.  But don’t take that to mean that Ten Years is a knock off of the so-called left-coast boogaloo, or even a consistent tribute–aside from the assertively characteristic NMS flavor on San Frantico and company as previously mentioned, there’s a whole other slew of colored-gels through which to see the band.

    That disco-beat flavor which caught Vincent off guard is in here on “Cielo”, with Roberts working his signature style backed by Tatton with a tapestry of buzzing synthesizers and what sounds like a bit of ring-modulator.  Call it electric-funk disco.  It’s only a small stretch to say NMS dishes out a bit of Sound Tribe Sector 9′s territory on this one.  I’d definitely like to hear more of whatever spawned this composition.

    The following cut “Ooom” features guest avant-sax master Skerik in a decidedly mellow idiom.  Typically I associate this guy with crazy freakouts and wildness-for-the-sake-of-wildness, but instead the Mastersounds have him playing minimal lines with overdubbed harmonies and a slow, deliberate solo, as if each phrase had been obsessively contemplated in advance.  It’s like the got him into the studio and said “okay, now you’re the man and everything… buuuuuuut we-need-you-to-be-more-like-Rob-Lowe-on-102.”  This is a Skerik I could come to love.  His airy, thoughtful delivery is a stark counterpoint to the raucous squawking, and shows his talent sans the avant-insanity, which I can live without.  A gem.

    “Dusty Groove” is a tribute to the Chicago record store which was the first outlet to carry their albums in the USA; a fact I learned through the band’s charmingly extensive between-song banter at one of their shows.  And speaking of those shows, this is one cut that slices hard and thick when thumping out of a live PA.  Roberts glides deftly through those blues-scale riffs and comps with aplomb heavy as anywhere in the catalog.  We also get a delightful taste of Tatton’s funky “ON” setting as Allen lays into his ride.  This is the Joe Tatton I love.  The first time I ever saw the Mastersounds, outdoors at Wicker Park Fest in Chicago, his keys blew me away.  A riff in his solo on their cover of “Six Underground” was my phone ringtone for over a year.

    Since then, I’ve gone back and forth about Tatton on those keys, at times complaining about his demeanor as detached and bored during the live shows, an attitude mirrored with accordingly lazy playing.  Sometimes I feel like Joe is content to simply phone-it-in on those off-nights, of which I have seen a couple.  I was bemoaning this wooden delivery in their first performance at the Bear Creek music festival last year and my friend Bill was having none of it.  In the latter performance at the same festival Tatton was the opposite beast entirely; making lots of eye contact, and getting very tenacious with his riffs.  A few bars before the conclusion of “San Frantico” he slipped in a cascading jab in the space Roberts’ melody left open, so dense and tricky that Bill and I literally both raised one eyebrow high and looked at one another for a split second with the identical expression, speechless really, before looking back to watch the ending, dumbfounded.  It was a priceless moment.  The guy’s clearly got it, at least when he wants to dish it out.  I wish he would display such ambition more often.

    That much said, previous Mastersounds albums have been, for me at least, utterly dominated by the genius of Eddie Roberts guitar playing; his tone, his mastering techniques, his clean articulation and his tasty comping.  If any one man leads the pack in today’s school of contemporary funk guitarists, it’s Eddie Roberts.  Eric Krazno may be a better soloist, and Elgin Park may have the perfect guitar tone (I think it’s that big, curly telephone-style cable he uses to connect to the amp) and Sergio Rios of Orgone may have his own unique thing going, but Eddie Roberts is the only guy who’s got it ALL: The best rhythm playing you could ask for, masterful use of gear for a signature tone, great solos, a pitch-perfect producer, and a goofy, endearing stage presence to boot.  Roberts does on the guitar what George Porter does on the bass–steals the show, even when you’re not supposed to be paying attention to him!

    Given my admiration of Roberts, Ten Years On may be the first NMS album where I’ve felt equally captivated by the creativity of what’s going on in the keyboard parts.  I refer to 102% often, as the prior high-water mark for the band, and it is.  Update: (corrections/additions after chatting with Simon!) On 102% and prior albums, keys were performed by Bob Birch, an avid collector of Hammond equipment.  A good chunk of Plug & Play was vocal-oriented, which didn’t give a lot of room for the kind of instrumental exploration and long-windedness (which is why I sign up for this stuff) like you’ll find on Ten Years.  So thusly, this is Tatton’s first outing with the group where he really get space and license to stretch things out and paint with the full palette of keys.

    A few extra noteworthy details on those keys: Plug & Play was recorded with a Nord Electro, which does sound surprisingly good, as I return to that album for another listen.  That Nord is really quite the excellent keyboard, for what it is.  Not a full B3, but admirably close!  On Ten Years, a variety of B3/leslie combinations were used.  I must say, the tone of the organ sounds great on this disc, to my ears.  The presence of the other keyboard types in here (piano/synths/& a good scoop o’ Rhodes) makes the Ten Years landscape more sonically diverse and gives the able Tatton more voices with which to tell a captivating tale.  (Only thing we’re missing is some clav.)

    A question I’m sure someone reading this has, is how does the vinyl copy sound compared to the CD?  Indeed on the back of the record jacket, it says “Vinyl mastering by Pete Norman at Finyl Tweek.”  Comparing my CD copy I bought a while back with this new vinyl version, the LP sounds brighter, more articulate.  Particularly with the organ, I hear more subtle details of the B3 attack on each note. Now, it may be that what I’m describing here is simply the timbrel characteristics of my turntable.  But for what it’s worth, that’s the difference I hear when doing A/B comparisons between the two masterings, on headphones and a great set of loudspeakers.  For those so inclined, check out a spectral analysis comparison of the first 2 bars of Fuji Rock below.  These graphs show the frequencies present in those 2 bars; not as informative as an actual Frequency Response chart, but it gives you an idea of the difference.  Note the smoother curve on the vinyl version, both down low at 150Hz and again up at about 15kHz.  Click to see it full size if you want to probe deeper.

    I’m happy to see Tatton out front with bombastic solos, playing more keyboard types with a tweaked-up B3 tone.  As much as I adore the all-out assault of full-on Eddie Roberts, it’s a joy to see him kick his feet up and take it nice’n'easy here.  Allen and Shand are as locked-in as ever; so effectively that most of the time I find myself considering the “groove” instead of the bass playing or the drumming.  With Ten Years On, it sounds like the band has hit it’s stride–confident and well-worn with a tightness that belies years of musical camaraderie.  They come out sounding like they’ve got nothing to prove (as indeed they have already proven it!) but they are anything but finished saying something.  Instead, the musical conversation has matured into an exposition of both greater nuance and wider stylistic breadth.  For a band Ten Years into their career, it’s inspiring to see them produce a record like this: expanding into new territory while still retaining the original appeal, writing funk that could be equally appropriate for chillin on the couch with a good brew or sweatin on the dusty dance floor of a music festival in Florida.  While I look forward to seeing what direction the boys take next, intuition tells me this LP will remain my favorite album from my favorite band, for a good stretch of time to come.

     

    Album Review: Arboreal by The Flashbulb


    2011 - 01.21

    I’ll be right upfront about it: this album has totally blown me away.


    Now for the caveats: there are some disposable tracks on here, there is one track which sticks out for not belonging, and there are even some sections which I find grating and annoying–BUT!!–This disc has at least 6 tracks on it which are, if I had to pick one word, inspirational. And that’s a big compliment. I use the word inspirational in the sense that as a musician, listening to this album makes me want to run off and try to make music that sounds like this does. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; I’d like to spend a while flattering The Flashbulb.

    Okay, so funny thing is, I went through this guy’s back catalog (partway) and didn’t really find ANYTHING similar to this album, or that really moved me much at all. That seems strange to me. I can’t remember the last time I discovered a badass new artist and it was ONLY their most recent disc that interested me. But that would seem to be the case here. Let’s start with the good stuff:

    Tracks 5 through 9 are a fucking masterpiece. They vary in genre… wildly. “Meadow Crush” (5) has gentle strings and some pleasantly-chill guitar playing over a bed of very active electronic drums which I’d place in the IDM category. “A Raw Understanding” (6) takes things up a notch with a fuzzy driving rhythm guitar background and in-your-face drums with lots of stutter effects, slicing and chopping. This track definitely qualifies as “breakcore” and it’s a well-done example. Intense, but not over-the-top or grating to listen to, the way breakcore can be. The sparse instrumental work over the top of this madness really lends a triumphant, masterful feel to the sum total. At the end of the track, there’s a mellow piano outro which lets you down easy; it lets you way, *WAY* down into track 7, “Dread, Etched in Snow”. It’s essentially piano only, with a delicate bed of electronic murmuring blurred out behind it.

    Track 8, “A Million Dotted Lines” comes in with a gentle, cascading synthesizer which gets filled out with some pads and a sparse but well-crafted melody. The feel of this song (and the previous one) is almost kind of nostalgic or wistful. It delves into some lush, reversed-sounding echos before a fading off into the distance, carrying us into my favorite track:

    “Once Weekly” (9) opens up with mellow pads establishing the chords. Before long, a kaleidescope of glitch-esque electronic drums buzzes and crackles to life, in some of the most badass drum sequencing work I’ve heard since Telefon Tel Aviv. It’s a mind-boggling cacophony of sound that fizzles and bubbles away over the smooth calm of the continuing pads and strings. At 2:27 there is a piano breakdown that just hits me so hard. Like a ton of bricks. Emotional bricks. It sounds like a melody you once heard but forgot, narrowly existing in some faint memory. It’s gorgeous. I have not been able to stop listening to this track. The finely-crafted drums, the delicate and emotive piano playing… awesome. Just. Awesome.

    As for the rest of Arboreal, there are some other decent tunes on here as well. 1, 2, 10, and 11 are good, 13 starts out neat then gets too heavy handed for me, and 14, 15, and 17 are great tunes I really enjoy as well.

    Now for the bad:

    Anytime he gets heavy with the guitar distortion, I don’t know, a voice in my mind just goes “NEXT.” Maybe I don’t dig his tone, or maybe I’m just oversaturated and therefore ridiculously picky when it comes to hard-guitar music. In any event, tracks 3, 4, and 16 just are not for me. Dislike. And then there’s track 12, “The Great Pumpkin Tapes” which is, exactly as you might guess, music from the Charlie Brown Halloween special. My reaction to it now, having listened several times, is precisely the same as my initial reaction: “what the hell is this doing on this record??” It’s well done and all but it’s just… baffling. It doesn’t fit in, at all, and it jolts you out of the album. Suddenly you’re straight up listening to a jazz rendition of Charlie Brown. No. I love B-Sides, but this is a B-Side that doesn’t belong, and consequently detracts from the whole.

    So! To recap, Arboreal is an album with badass electronic drum programming of the highest degree. It doesn’t upend Telefon Tel Aviv as the champs of wild sequencer masterworks, but it does do something they don’t: bookends, and in some sections overlaps, intense, high-minded IDM/breakcore drums with sweeping, organic piano and synths. This unusual combination of high electronica against the very rich, “real” tones of gentle instrumental work is what makes this disc very much worth a listen. And it it’s most glorious moments, worthy of emulation.

    I’m going to give this disc two scores: if you cut it down to just tracks 1,5,6,7,8,9,14 and 15 then I would give it probably a 9.2/10. If you include the whole album, Maybe more like a 7 or 6.5/10. When it falters, I kinda groan, but at it’s peak, I’m utterly enthralled. Give it a spin and judge for yourself!

    Album Review: Mushroom Jazz 7 by DJ Mark Farina


    2010 - 12.29

    As many of you know, I am a big fan of the ongoing Mushroom Jazz series by San Francisco-based DJ mister Mark Farina. We’re currently up to number seven and I have to say, it may be the best yet!

    For the uninitiated, “Mushroom Jazz” is a term that Farina coined as an alternative to “Acid Jazz”. By contrast, Mushroom Jazz is strictly electronic in production, and falls somewhere between triphop, lounge, and downtempo. Farina incorporates a certain amount of hip hop into his compilations as well. The result is a continuous-mix, steady-grooving sound that rarely peaks into what I’d call energetic, but never really dips into mellow territory either. It fits into that narrow range of music that could be appropriate for either a party atmosphere, or just chilling at home by yourself on a Tuesday night. It’s a persistent energy level that rides straight through, great for putting on while you’re getting stuff done, or working on something.

    Rewind to several years ago: I discovered the series shortly after the release of installment #4. Upon learning of it, I went back and listened to all the previous ones, which are all great albums by their own merits. My favorite may have been 3, that is until the release of MJ5, which, in my eyes, dominated the rest of the collection. Five was also the most energetic though, and incorporated slightly harder beats with more hip hop, so you may argue that it was a departure from the formula somewhat.

    Another commonality amoung the series is the use of repeated and/or related samples sprinkled throughout the whole album, tying it all together. These can be hit or miss. I was talking to Tyrell Williams, a house DJ in Chicago whose opinion I respect, and he said he thought MJ2 was the best, because of the subtlety in the sample work. Having listened to all of them many times, I admit, I find the samples in MJ2 to be overly repetitive, and not that great of a sample selection in the first place. We had to agree to disagree.

    The release of six saw me sorely disappointed in Farina. The track selection was just not up to the level he had set in the rest of the entire series. There were maybe two tracks on the whole album that I would say belonged on a MJ record. Disappointing. As my buddy Luke said, “(it) kinda faded into the music collection pretty quick.”

    Mushroom Jazz Seven represents a return to form for Farina, with the interspersion of many samples (awesome ones, about mushrooms!) and a bevy of fresh new tracks that fit neatly into his previous canon, while maintaining an excellent groove. I tend to be overly critical when it comes to vocals, and I’m happy to report that only one track on this CD (“Live Forever”) qualifies as “kind of annoying.” On the flip side of that preference, I actually dig the vocals on “Colorblind” and “Stressin.” “Introduce” brings in a nice helping of that MJ5-esque hip hop flavor, and “Living for the Rush” is a nice diversion into a more atypical beat for the MJ series.

    The ending track is not as solidly chosen as “Bath Music” from MJ4 or “Nic’s Groove” from MJ5, but Farina does deliver a great sample to close it out: “When this program began the question was, were the claims of the mushroom true, or false? Well for those of us who made the journey, the answer is true.” Nice!

    MJ veterans will ask, “but how are the beats?” They are knockin. Probably nothing as hard as MJ5′s “Modern Women’s Short Stories” (the pinnacle of an ‘up’ Mushroom groove, to these ears), but the overall groove on this album is relentless and solid. Those are good adjectives in the context of this series, and although it’s too soon to say for sure, I think this may be the best installment of them all. It’s got great samples, it’s true to the Mushroom Jazz pedigree, there’s a ton of replay value, and the mixing is solid. Track selection is nearly perfect, and the overall atmosphere is right where it should be.

    Shortly after the release of 5, I had the good fortune to catch Farina playing a live Mushroom Jazz set at club Zentra in Chicago. I remember him playing the track “Listen” from MJ4 and I could have sworn at the time that there were added drums to kick it up a notch for the live version. It seemed a lot more energetic and dancable. Upon checking out a bootleg of the show afterward, I compared it to the album and there was nothing added! I would love to hear some of the jams from MJ7 in a live venue. I bet it’d be happenin.

    Score… hmmm, maybe 8.5/10 (ie. it’s awesome, definitely check it out)