I gotta admit, more frequent blogging was not one of my new years resolutions for 2011. I’ve had a real hard time writing as many reviews as I’d like to this year, and part of the blame lies in my own poor handling of procrastination and the like, and another part of the blame is that there’s been simply too much good music to write about. I was really excited about the Smith Westerns album when it came out in January, and I wanted to write about it — but it had to wait until I finished writing about Tennis. When I had already begun putting notes together for a Smith Westerns review, the Siriusmo album dropped. Then Radiohead came out. As soon as I knew I had to review each of them, I couldn’t begin reviewing any of them. It only got worse as more time elapsed.
So instead, I’ve decided I’m going to write mini-reviews for all my favorite albums of the first quarter of 2011. I must admit there are a number of significant releases this year that I haven’t gotten the chance to really listen through, as well as records that haven’t been fully digested. But the following are the records that have been getting all of my attention in 2011 so far.
(I’ll be doing this in multiple rounds — I initially intended to make this one monster post, but I’ve had these first few reviews sitting in my Drafts for over a week, so I thought it would be best to do over several postings. My new excuse – I’ve recently become gainfully employed! This is extremely exciting for my personal life, but makes blogging time even harder to come by.)
A+ It’s no secret on this blog that I’m an enormous Siriusmo fan, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I’m in love with this record. Although the quality and consistency of Siriusmo’s last EP, The Plasterer of Love, was as solid as ever, the record found the German producer in a transitionary phase, stylistically, and I wasn’t sure how he was going to end up defining himself on his first-ever LP (after a decade of singles and EPs, for those who haven’t been following his career). Luckily enough, upon hearing Mosaik for the first time, I remembered I should never doubt Siriusmo’s perfectionism and meticulous process. As the electro genius explained in a recent interview with Electronic Beats, he pays his bills with the money he makes as a painter, and as such his music is simply a labor of love. After ten years making music casually and blowing off friends like Modeselektor trying to get him to go on tour, Siriusmo is finally ready to release a true album, and he’s even lined up a few European tour dates with Modeselektor and crew. Naturally, then, he certainly has the music to back up his emboldened actions. This is an incredibly exciting time to be a Siriusmo fan – since I first started listening to the guy in 2007, I’ve been waiting for him to get over his stage fright and go on tour — so he might eventually somehow end up in the United States, preferably the East Coast. In 2011, Siriusmo is finally taking his music career as seriously as I have been.
And Mosaik is a gorgeous record. Here are productions as beautiful and intricate as Siriusmo has ever produced, every track dripping with sonic tightness, colored in the rhythmic flourishes and morphing synth melodies that make up the producer’s enviable fingerprints. Siriusmo is flexing all over this album, putting every dubstep artist in the U.K. to shame on the track “Bad Idea”, a perfect balance of thick unrelenting bass, and insistent yet restrained syncopated rhythms. On mirror track, “Good Idea”, as well as on the brilliant album-namesake track “Mosaik”, Siriusmo raises the bar (that he himself has set) in the genre of melodic electro music, assembling bouncing synth melodies, whistles, hand claps, and choppy drum beats to points of aural catharsis and revelation, harnessing euphoric, hypnotic beats. There’s also an exceptional balance on this record, bringing back past hits like “High Together” and “Nights Off” for your heavy chill-out tracks (ala Daft Punk’s “Voyager” or Justice’s “Valentine”), backing “Bad Idea” up with heavy electro-bangers “Feromonikon” and “Feed My Meatmachine” (which sounds exactly like it sounds), and giving into pop penchants on songs with frequent collaborator, vocalist Dana, “Einmal In Der Woche Schreien” and “Goldene Kugel”. Siriusmo also maintains a constant sense of playfulness and experimentation on the record, like on the jilted glitch number “Lass Den Vogel Frei!” or the contemplative “Signal”, which moves intermittently between a thumping house beat and a rolling drum march to accompany its warm, twinkling synths.
I can’t say enough about this record, except that it’s an incredible delight from my favorite producer, and is without a doubt my favorite record of the year so far. Anybody who considers themselves a fan of music owes it to themselves to check out this remarkable, extraordinarily underrated producer named Siriusmo. His latest, Mosaik, is a masterpiece.
A This is a really brave sophomore album from the Smith Westerns. Similar to Tennis, this is another group whose momentum was boosted by sonic allegiances with a greater hype – in their case, the lo-fi garage sound. But as they proved here on Dye it Blonde, and explained to John Norris in an interview on Noisevox.org, the lo-fi sound on their first release was truly an aesthetic chosen out of financial necessity. Here, on their second attempt, with a label’s backing and a professional recording studio, this is an entirely different Smith Westerns — the band, it turns out, that they were trying to be all along. And I say it’s a brave album because Dye It Blonde is, essentially, a fairly straight-forward rock album released to an indie fanbase in 2011. And for the past few years in indie rock, that’s been a somewhat difficult thing to pull off. Similar to Free Energy, the principle influences on this record are classic rockers like Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, and those influences are felt throughout the record, in the specific choices of guitar tone and drum beats that breathe classic rock nostalgia through the entire record.
I’d say what sets Smith Westerns apart from a band like Free Energy, however, is in their brilliant songwriting and a more realized character of sound. Dye It Blonde is a record with a personality and a soul, as cheesy as it sounds, but it’s a real achievement and something I have to comment on. And by honing their own specific voice as such, the record sounds modern just as it reminds us of the past. It’s also in the psychedelic overtones and flourishes that color the record, and a good deal of Wilson and Lennon/McCartney-esque harmonies and song constructions. The sound on this record is at times huge, the polar opposite of their former lo-fi scene, and as disastrous as that all should be, it comes together beautifully and brilliantly. Fantastic pop songwriting, plain and simple. Couple that with a sophisticated understanding of their pop and rock predecessors (each decade, 60s-00s are all specifically referenced here), and the boldness and taste to reference these sources in an enchanting, intriguing new way, and you have yourself one of the most exciting new voices in indie rock today. I’m expecting really big things for these guys, beyond the hype they’ve already managed to build for themselves.
A+ Sorry Gaga, but there is only one queen of pop, and the seat is already taken. Britney defends her title in 2011 with the strongest album of her career, by far. You have to understand what is incredible about this album, beyond the fact that it’s a collection of catchy, original pop hits and dance floor bangers without a single filler track. It lies in two principles that I have discussed more than once on this blog: 1) That based on a single-heavy music industry and an irresponsible handling of talent by labels and producers, making a good album, even if you’re a talented artist, in today’s pop music world is near-impossible. And my definition of a “good” album in this context is an album that you can listen to, start to finish, without wanting to skip to the next track, or stop the turntable. An easy example – I think Rihanna’s recent singles “The Only Girl In The World” and “What’s My Name?” are some of the best of her career – and “S&M” is pretty catchy too. But they’re also 3 out of only 4 tracks on Loud (2010) that have any replay value whatsoever. And Rihanna is one of the most talented pop artists around today – though she doesn’t have the deep tracks to prove it, and never has.
2.) That ever since circa 2007, when club music was suddenly trendy again (partially picking up the slack for mediocre hip-hop, partially the emergence of fresh new talent), and every DJ was playing Justice and MSTRKRFT songs and people were going nuts, the pop industry has decided that they had to commodify electro-house and trance music into all of the current artist’s records. And for the past 4 years, I’ve been listening to all of these assholes get it completely wrong. I suppose producers were told to go “more electronic” and had no idea what that meant – most referenced the cheesiest of 90s club music, and absolutely no one used pleasant-sounding synths or made any attempt to hone their beats. They just changed their old melodies over to different midi sounds and over-produced the shit out of it. As this was also during my own personal heyday of electro, house, and techno obsession, it was a constant source of frustration to hear nimrods get paid to bastardize a perfectly good opportunity to take catchy, commercially viable dance music and let someone famous sing over it, make millions. So naturally the first time I was listening to pop radio and “Womanizer” came on, I was jumping out of my seat.
The truth is Britney Spears and Rihanna are the only artists in the past few years to incorporate electronic dance influences tastefully into their sound, and do so in a natural way. I suppose to be fair, as much as I hate him, will.i.am is also someone who gets it, but he still intentionally blands out his productions to give them broader appeal and make more $$, which is part of why he’s so dastardly in the first place. Will.i.am produces and is featured on one track on Femme Fatale, “Big Fat Bass”, and it might be my least favorite track on the record, and that might just be personal bias — but it’s still not a bad track. For will.i.am it’s actually remarkably tasteful. But I digress.
So if it’s not painfully predictable, what’ remarkable about this new Britney Spears album is that A.) it is a pop album with a cohesive sound, fluid progression, and no filler tracks. Even Circus, with its incredible roster of singles, was about 40% filler. B.) It is a pitch perfect handling of electro-house, dubstep, and trance influences and incorporating them into a pop persona like Britney Spears’s character and sensibilities. Without a doubt, Femme Fatale‘s lead singles “Hold It Against Me” and “Till the World Ends” are the standout tracks. I expect to see “I Want To Go” follow as the next single, “Inside Out” or “How I Roll” after that. They’re all brilliant pop songs – and more than that, they’re a dynamic set of tracks, compelling melodies and skillful production. All the sounds and tones are spot on, every bass drum kicks, every break delivers. I know I could do a track by track, and I haven’t really discussed the actual music on this album that much, but these are supposed to be mini-reviews and this is probably my longest one yet. If I haven’t convinced you to check this album out yet, fuck it. You don’t deserve it.