29 Nov 2010

Everything Is New #2: Swanlights and the Ghost in the Garden

So now it's Antony and the Johnsons' turn to completely undermine one of my exhaustive analyses with a new album and a new direction. October's Swanlights is quite a different work from the earlier records that I discussed in my last post about the band, but to be honest, it does represent the following-through of the kind of stylistic changes that 2009's The Crying Light indicated. Already, by then, Antony had knotted his sheets together, or tressed and meshed some long flaxen wig, preparing to escape the dark attic room of his Gothic mode, descending the tower walls and taking refuge in the grounds. The Crying Light was Antony's first outdoors album, with its fixation (both musical and lyrical) on the natural - snow and dust, light and earth, birds and streams. Swanlights continues this trend - it is a druidic ritual of minerals and water.

25 Nov 2010

One Saved Message: On the Retirement of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone/Munch Munch - 14th November - The Haymakers, Cambridge

Back in September, Owen Ashworth announced his decision to retire Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and move on to new projects and monikers. As much as I always admire a musician who has enough sense of integrity and focus of intention to divide their creative career into distinct projects, this is still a sad event. With CFTPA, Ashworth explored the unique pathos of lo-fi electronics, and throughout the last thirteen years, he has remained fixed on this powerful aesthetic.

16 Nov 2010

Extended Pleasure, or How To End A Song

Sometimes we kid ourselves that our particular taste in individual songs and songwriters is based on some intangible personal connection - with projected nostalgias, secret meanings which only we pick up, or a melody or lyric that is all the more perfect for its unaccountable perfection. However, in my case, just a little consideration can quickly shatter this pleasant illusion. There are some quite basic material features that reappear in many of those songs that mean the most to me. I'm going to discuss one of the most prevalent, with reference to its occurrence not only throughout the work of my favourite artist, but also in my decided 'song of the year' (so far) and in one of the songs which I'm quite sure I'd have played at my hypothetical funeral. These are all monumental musical beacons in my life, and yet they are united (though not completely defined) by a simple structural trend, specifically the introduction of a new vocal countermelody over a looping chorus or coda in the final moments of the song.

11 Nov 2010

Everything Is New #1: The Age of Adz and Extraterrestrial Parasites

At some point in the last year or two, aliens laid eggs in Sufjan Stevens's brain. Evidently, these eggs hatched just as the gorgeous, harp-like guitar texture of The Age of Adz's opener - 'Futile Devices' - draws to its delicate close. Yes, Sufjan has gone electronic, but the style that is introduced on second track 'Too Much', along with most of the rest of the album, is not that of the trippy, explorative, unbridled Sufjan of his latest EP, of Enjoy Your Rabbit, or of his other most alien moment to date: Dark Was The Night's 'You Are The Blood'. Sufjan is back in song mode (against all odds, even album mode) and somewhere behind The Age of Adz is another perky songbook of pioneer fanfares and cheerleader folk choirs. There are some brilliant upbeat melodies; 'Too Much', 'I Walked' and 'Get Real, Get Right' are all, in their way, relentlessly pop. Moreover, most of his familiar troops are out in force: the girl choirs, the flute scales, the triumphant brass. It's upbeat Sufjan at his most distinctive - and yet, what's that crawling down the inside of his spinal column? Sufjan's sound-world has been quite literally invaded by a huge new alien palette.

4 Nov 2010

Synthetic Theatre: Xiu Xiu and Zola Jesus and Former Ghosts

Xiu Xiu/Zola Jesus/Former Ghosts - 1st November - XOYO, Shoreditch

I had always considered both Former Ghosts and Zola Jesus to be 'sub-Xiu Xiu' acts, having approached Former Ghosts through Jamie Stewart's involvement, and thence Zola Jesus through Nika Rosa Danilova's own involvement in that project. Seeing them all together in a line-up which stressed their equal standing (with big 'AND's inserted between identically capitalised band names) seemed to confirm their musical affiliation, but in reality the two younger bands don't seem particularly interested in borrowing from Xiu Xiu's work. If Former Ghosts occasionally recall Xiu Xiu's sound, it's solely because of Stewart's own penchant for certain synth and drum machine timbres. No, these bands are more purist in their influences, digging right back to when synths became cold enough to solidify a new goth aesthetic.

2 Nov 2010

Lyrical Anchorage

So I've been going back and forth to Cambridge over the last month on trains and coaches, and for most of those journeys I've been listening to Surfer Blood's Astro Coast on loop. Now it's November and rather than talk about another summer album, I'm instead going to focus on one song from Astro Coast, with particular reference to a small structural feature.

Pop songs, miniature and regular as they are, work on a scale by which such small features can completely define or transform them, yet such moments are rarely defined or discussed. Most pop commentary tackles music at album-level, making reference to individual songs as units, perhaps occasionally highlighting different sections within songs. But the intoxicating effect of pop operates on a much smaller scale: in intervals, two-chord relationships, one-word gestures, little motivic licks, or the emergence of some new timbre, which is then contextualised within the larger structure of the song as a unique happening, as a marker in a cycle or arc which will then anticipate its return, or as the progenitor of a new, looping texture.