Thursday, 30 April 2009

Minus the Bear - Highly Refined Pirates (2002) & They Make Beer Commercials Like This (2004)

I thought it might be about time that I did something on two of my favourite records in the world. Minus the Bear are probably the coolest band ever. They write glitchy, complex songs full of lots of complex and often really gorgeous guitar tapping, but they sing about the simple pleasures in life: booze, cars, swimming pools and sex. Let's face it, if you hate them it's only because you're jealous that your life isn't that great. Because what kind of person doesn't like those things? Oh, and as a bonus, their songs are pretty catchy too.

When I was first getting into Minus the Bear with Highly Refined Pirates it was with the real hits of the record: 'Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse', 'Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!', 'Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo' - explosive pop songs that pack hooks big enough to land blue whales. But while most of the songs on this album have an ostensibly feelgood vibe with lyrics about booze-soaked good times, there's an underlying romanticism behind it all, a nostalgic or even longing feeling for the things described in the lyrics. The real beauty in Jake Snider's lyrics is in the subtlety and the simplicity of his attention to small but beautiful little details, like in his description of an encounter with a girl in 'I Lost All My Money at the Cock Fights' where he ends on the line 'Her hair streaked her shirt with rain/and that did something to me'. Nothing verbose or elaborate, just subtle, understated beauty. Another real highlight of this aspect of his lyrics is 'We Are Not A Football Team', which perfectly captures those rare moments of comfortable silence that speak more than anything else could:

She was sitting on a swing
and dangling her feet

like the leaves of a tree

I think I heard her singing.

We're still out at 10 in the evening.

I knew her in the way that

I knew not to speak.

Quietly took a seat

and thought I'd stay for a week.

Highly Refined Pirates

'Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo' is one of the record's real highlights. On the face of it, it's just about someone struggling with a lifestyle filled with stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation. The way that it's delivered, though, means that the listener can relate and fill the gaps themselves, giving the song a much deeper, more personal meaning. The chorus is the most poignant bit:

You said, "My life's like a bad movie"
I said, "That's true
of all us"
You said, "I've got to wake up so fucking early"

And I said, "Maybe the director's turned on us"

The album's closer 'Let's Play Guitar in a Five-Guitar Band' took a long time to creep up on me but is currently my absolute favourite on the record. Jake sings about an encounter with an ex-lover who has left him emotionally fraught, maybe his "one that got away". It's all described very simply: he sees her through a shop window, which evokes fond memories of him when he was with her "just having sex and listening to jazz/and that was the life", but he tells himself not to involve himself with her again and to move on, nervously lighting up a cigarette as he walks by. The real ache of the song is in the longing of the repetition of the last few lines "I should go back to/see if she's still there/standing like a statue". Perhaps this is just me relating to a feeling that I've felt a lot, but that final repetition is really emotionally exhausting. The feeling of knowing that someone who's passed you by was special, but that sometimes you have to move on and leave those memories behind. The simple power of the images here mean that the song doesn't need any over-the-top embellishment to be hauntingly powerful.

They Make Beer Commercials Like This

The follow-up EP to that album, They Make Beer Commercials Like This, is similarly brilliant and summery, with Minus the Bear's most danceable song 'Fine + 2 Pts' and several other great songs, but I'm mainly posting it because of my love of two songs: 'I'm Totally Not Down With Rob's Alien' and 'Houston, We Have Uh-Oh'. The former doesn't really need a lot of explanation, just resonates with me a lot as one of the most relaxed and beautiful songs I've ever heard. 'Houston We Have Uh-Oh' has a real sense of underlying melancholy to it that makes it one of Minus the Bear's best songs, albeit oddly one that was originally just a b-side. Anyone who's ever travelled much will be able to identify with this song: it captures the isolated feeling of being a tourist, of being separate from your surroundings, and the kind of subtle disorientation and loneliness that can bring up. As someone who's spent a lot of their life moving between places and, more recently, revolved their life around relocation and travel, this song means a lot.

people used to live here
and lived their lives on this ground

raised them in these fields

and lost them in the future

and we just take pictures

of hearts that stopped beating

sometimes you're a tourist with a camera

stealing souls for scrapbooks

sometimes you've got a life back home

sometimes you're really alone, you're really alone

Minus the Bear - Highly Refined Pirates
Minus the Bear - They Make Beer Commercials Like This

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Madlib - The Beat Konducta Vols. 5 & 6: Dil Cosby Suite & Dil Withers Suite (2009)

since you've been away so long...

It's practically unanimous opinion among hip-hop fans that J Dilla was not only a great producer and beatmaker but a very influential one too, shaping the face of contemporary hip-hop with a sound dubbed by many as "neo-soul". Since his death, numerous tributes have been scattered across his peers' and mentees' records. Arguably, though, none have been quite as respectful, understanding, entertaining and strangely touching as this one. Certainly if you believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, at any rate. Madlib's latest two records in his Beat Konducta series - records where he takes the time to focus on and explore various styles of music and convert them into his own distinctive brand of instrumental hip-hop, with varying but often brilliant results - are dedicated to his old friend, peer and collaborator James Yancey.

madlib: doing what he does best

It's no secret that through tape-swapping and, sometimes, direct collaboration - as seen on the impressive Jaylib album Champion Sound - there was a two-way pattern of influence between Dilla and Madlib that showed itself as their sounds continued to evolve, one record always informed by another. And, to an extent, particularly Madlib's Beat Konducta records have always mirrored Dilla's last masterwork, Donuts, with their short soundbite-like tracks and their particular way of structuring samples, basslines and drumbeats together. This latest release, though, is altogether more faithful to Yancey's sound, the clearly meditated-upon result of a close study and deep understanding of Dilla's production style. The Dil Cosby Suite is particularly stunning: it feels like Madlib's own stab at Donuts, but, with Otis Jackson Jr.'s own particular style also evident, it comes across, to me at least, as at least as soulful, sincere and musically fantastic as the record it borrows from. Sometimes there's the boom-clap ruckus of Dilla's rowdier stuff, but the prevailing mood is a rather gorgeous, mournful kind of calm, particularly on songs like 'Floating Soul (Peace)' and 'Sacrifice (Beat-A-Holic Thoughts)'. Every sample is picked meticulously here, always contributing perfectly to the album's flow, the vocal samples often giving across a touching message - such as the introductory track's clear homage to Dilla, 'Infinity Sound's provocative "If the world should end tomorrow, have you lived enough today? Has each hour been fully tasted..." or the closing 'Anthenagin (?)'s burning cry of "Emptiness is all around". Nevertheless this still has Madlib's trademark sense of humour, evident in some of the spoken samples and also his musical sample choices, like his bizarre manipulation of a Buzzcocks song in 'The Get Over (Move)'. This combination of brilliant beats, touching tributes and subtle humour makes this record not only a rather moving one when properly listened to, but also a wonderfully entertaining listen from start to finish.

dil cosby & dil withers suites, respectively

The Dil Withers suite is somewhat more aggressive in approach, taking influence from Dilla's funkier side (but also, quite clearly, Madlib's own love for the green stuff) and doesn't flow quite as well as its counterpart, as it seems like the majority of the best beats were slipped onto the first record for maximum impact, but it's still a great instrumental hip-hop record and has highlights of its own, like the cavernous 'Smoked Out (Green Blaze Subliminal Sounds)'. One could forgive him for the fact that he starts to run out of steam on this disc if you consider that 41 tracks is an awful lot to make when focusing on a very specific style, and it is a pretty exhausting exploration of Dilla's work as it is. If you're only going to listen to one record here, make it the Dil Cosby suite, which is one of the best instrumental hip-hop releases since lord knows when. But even as a combined piece of work, the Dil Cosby and Dil Withers suites are some of Madlib's best work so far, a brilliant tribute from one stellar noughties beatmaker to another, and should be heard by anyone with a passing interest in instrumental hip-hop.

Madlib - The Beat Konducta Vol. 5: Dil Cosby Suite
Madlib - The Beat Konducta Vol. 6: Dil Withers Suite

Friday, 17 April 2009

Mount Kimbie - Maybes (2009)

Mount Kimbie is a duo of relatively unknown young musicians from the south of London working together to craft electronic music. Listening to their debut EP Maybes, however, you get that gut reaction of excitement - the feeling that you've stumbled across something fascinating that has no real contemporary or equivalent in the current music scene - like that first time you heard Burial or Flying Lotus. Ok, so that's probably silly hype. And, to be perfectly fair, I chose to namedrop those two acts in particular for a reason: Maybes feels like a perfect meeting point between the two: lush, soulful but moody electronic soundscapes filled with the loveliest clicks and blips imaginable. The music is informed by all sorts of current electronic trends - dubstep, garage, hip-hop, the so-called "wonky" - while never quite conforming to any of them. There is also a decidedly downtempo, atmospheric feel to the music too, one that evokes the British trip-hop scene of yore, so if the words "Bristol" and "1990s" mean anything too you then this is worth investigating. The EP packs some really lovely chopped-up vocal samples - see the astounding title track or 'Vertical' for prime evidence of this. The beats are very inventive, using all sorts of unusual whirrs and clicks to create something that's really satisfying to listen to. One real highlight is in the last minute of 'William' where the track takes a sudden but nevertheless subtle tempo shift as the beat kicks in and transports the song to an even more gorgeous place. It is very tempting to lazily slap an 'IDM' tag on this as a way of pigeonholing it, but that is overlooking what this really is: a brilliant release that takes the rudimentary elements of all sorts of electronic subgenres and adds its own ideas to create a satisfyingly unique and emotionally resonant voice in electronic music.

I normally provide download links but people should try and buy this EP if they can. You can find details on how to order it here.