February 15, 2009

Mirror Groups: Animal Collective

Posted in Music tagged , , , , , , at 9:16 pm by Andrew McMillen

Simon Reynolds discusses how Animal Collective have become a “mirror group” at The Guardian’s music blog:

…with their new album Merriweather Post Pavilion, they have been promoted to a bigger league, where they’re a talking point for a whole new set of people who, until recently, had no interest in their existence.

Just like when you pass by a mirror and can’t resist taking a glance, people are looking for the flattering angle, for a stance on the band and their music that makes the opinionator look good.

I like this concept of a mirror group. Reynolds cites MIA, Vampire Weekend and Kid A-era Radiohead as recent examples, though I’d argue that the release of OK Computer heralded Radiohead’s tipping point.

I’ll add Kings Of Leon to that list. Two mildly successful albums, and then a surge in popularity upon the release of Because Of The Times and its lead single On Call in 2007. But that album was nothing compared to the runaway success of 2008’s Only By The Night and Sex On Fire.

Reynolds is right about Animal Collective. They’ve flittered away under my radar for a couple of years, and I chose to ignore them, if only because I wasn’t pushed hard enough in their direction.

But that’s changed with the new album. Aziz Ansari linked to their excellent video for My Girls, which burns bright with kaleiodscopic joy. (The “woo!”s in the background of the chorus totally make the song, btw)

And that’s all it takes. A solid recommendation, and I’ll pay attention to a band for a song or an album or a lifetime. I downloaded the album and I like it. I’ll recommend it to my friends and see them when they tour.

At a deeper level, beneath the particulars of aesthetics and resonance, what’s really at issue is, I think, the status and function in our culture of “middlebrow”. With Merriweather, almost everyone is either castigating or applauding Animal Collective for their tentative steps into the middling regions of pop culture: that Kid A zone where mild experimentalism meets not-too-obvious melodicism.

The space between the underground and the mainstream is a tricky intersection for musicians to navigate. Stray too far from your roots, and you’ll be abandoned by your core fanbase – your tribe.

Primal Scream are a fine example of a band whose sound has varied wildly across their career, yet their musical diversity allows them to successfully embody many genres – or wear many masks, if you’d like – when performing live.

The Reynolds column is worth a read, even if he does wander several hundred words past his point. Then there’s Kevin Kelly‘s ‘1000 true fans‘ notion, which requires a new discussion altogether.

Many musical thoughts for a Sunday evening. An open question – which sounds are exciting you at the moment?

January 28, 2009

Eternally Yours, Addendum

Posted in Music tagged , , , at 9:31 pm by Andrew McMillen

As a postscript to my earlier post discussing the band and their music, here’s my review of the Laughing Clowns show in Brisbane last Friday, to be published in Rave Magazine #876 next week.

Laughing Clowns / Bob Farrell
Gallery of Modern Art, South Bank Fri Jan 23

Ed Kuepper pensively smokes a cigarette as a healthy crowd streams through the Gallery’s entrance. His eyes are focussed across the river, toward the city lights. Perhaps he’s thinking of the handful of shows that his Laughing Clowns have played since their reformation a fortnight ago at the Mount Buller leg of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival; their first full-band performance since 1984. En route to the venue, I’m nervous. Rarely do I approach a show with such trepidation: the Buller set was the apex of a weekend crammed with remarkable performances. Can Kuepper and his fellow musicians match my expectations? This question bounces around my head as we politely witness original Clowns member Bob Farrell toil through a languid half-hour split between piano, saxophone and seemingly stream-of-consciousness sing-song rants.

My apprehension is soon proven baseless. Kuepper and his four bandmates address the hundreds-strong audience with their unique saxophone-led rock style, which is augmented by keys and double bass. Their handful of studio albums are equally represented: The Flypaper, Nothing That Harms and Collapse Board are highlights, the latter of which Kuepper ironically cites as the “most depressing song in rock and roll”, while surrounded by an art exhibit named Optimism.

Immense-sounding signature tune Eternally Yours is a flawless set closer, but trust a jubilant hometown crowd to demand the band’s first-ever encore. Louise Elliott’s scorching saxophone melodies – equal parts soothing and scornful – are integral to the band’s timelessly electrifying sound: she trades sax for flute during New Bully In The Town, before Kuepper opts to close with Saints-era track Winter’s Way. Venue curfew is enforced; bassist Biff Miller is loathe to part with his instrument, but the five members reluctantly leave an equally reluctant crowd. Saxophone melodies are whistled long and loud as we disperse, smiling into the night. Classy, Clowns.

January 19, 2009

All Tomorrow’s Parties 2009: Eternally Yours

Posted in Music tagged , , , , at 9:51 pm by Andrew McMillen

That saxophone melody. I realise on the bus ride down the mountain that I could probably listen to it forever.

The band had the restraint not to play the song as on record, which frustrated me for several minutes. Here it is, in many ways a perfect song, and they have the nerve to modify it? 

Which is, of course, an entirely irrational line of thinking, and it was soon flung from my mind.

And so five humans stood before me, carefully dabbing with brushes at the canvas of a masterful creation. That saxophone melody fills me with the most extraordinary feeling of elation, optimism, joy, compassion. Some truly primal emotions were awakened within me, and as I don’t fully understand them, I feel inadequate to even mention them.

“See you again in 2034,” smirked the guitarist, as they left the stage.

Damn him. Damn him and his band and their talent and whatever remained between them for 25 years.  This was a musical experience on par with few others in my lifetime. I am thankful that I will get to experience a similar performance at least once more.

The above was written following the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival that took place at the Mount Buller Ski Resort, January 9-10 2009.  The band in question is Ed Kuepper‘s Laughing Clowns, and the song is Eternally Yours.

My short review of the weekend:

Friday is for wide-eyed exploration of the festival’s unique locale: hitching a chairlift ride just metres away from the main stage’s massive sound system is exhilarating. We bear witness to Bill Callahan as Smog, accomplished blues artist James ‘Blood’ Ulmer at the Ampitheatre and five Kim Gordons masquerading as Beaches – a compliment, make no mistake. Not-so-secret mystery act Grinderman squint into the afternoon sunlight and pound out a powerful set of masculine depravity, which provides stark contrast to the restrained brilliance of improvisational maestros The Necks.

Dirty Three greet the night with an edited performance of Ocean Songs, while The Saints re-enact 2007’s Pig City performance with striking accuracy and largely without passion. Guitarist Ed Kuepper is much more comfortable fronting the reformed Laughing Clowns on Saturday, who turn in an enrapturing performance of their jazz-affected post-punk and conclude with the towering saxophone melody and festival highlight of Eternally Yours. 

The aging faces of Silver Apples and Harmonia are visually anachronistic and aurally futuristic, yet this doesn’t stop the buoyant crowd from engaging with the pioneering electronic sounds of either act. This open-mindedness rates among the most attractive trait displayed by festival-goers; though, perhaps this willingness to trial uncharted sounds is more indicative of our trust in the curators’ judgement, which remains impeccable across two days.

The earth-shattering electronic distortion of British pair Fuck Buttons is sonically distant from the cute thrash-pop of Japanese girl duo Afrirampo, yet both acts win legions of new fans following outstanding performances. Greek lyre-playing wonder Psarandonis inspires mass-gypsy dancing as light fades on Saturday evening, before Spiritualized conquer the main stage with their powerful, gospel-inspired noise rock. Fourteen arms and fourteen legs comprise festival curators Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, who see off a memorable weekend in their affecting, incomparably badass style. 

While failing to reach venue capacity, All Tomorrow’s Parties organisers succeed in ensuring that the inaugural ATP Australian festival is smoothly-run and highly memorable. It’s heartening that this boutique event can cater for the more discerning music fan; the overwhelmingly positive consensus among attendees leads one to believe that the market for future events is only going to increase.

I reviewed the Brisbane Riverstage ATP show, too.

The Gold Coast Big Day Out yesterday was such a departure, or more accurately, a return to the reality of Australian music festivals. Unpleasant isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.

Where ATP was about open spaces, hand-picked artists, musical exploration and community, BDO represents crowded spaces, populist musical decisions, overt nationalist pride and exceeding one’s limits, ostensibly in the name of a good time. Like some kind of devolutionary race to the bottom.

I’m not complaining. I chose to attend, and I enjoyed myself. It’s just interesting to compare the objectives for but two of the dozens of festivals that dot the Australian summer calendar.

November 26, 2008

Gareth Liddiard on music writing

Posted in Music tagged , , , at 10:52 pm by Andrew McMillen

Music criticism, to quote Chuck D: “You talk about it but you can’t do it.” But now that there is all this blogging shit going on critics have become like mild mannered primary school teachers trying to control their bitchy little charges. Which is funny cause nine out of ten critics are at uni. Blogging has cut the balls off music criticism. But even when critics are being cool it’s still weird. Rock’n’roll is pretty retarded and writing about it is really scraping the literary barrel. Why would you bother? Do something useful for fuck’s sake.

Ampersand Magazine asked the singer from Australia’s best band to defend or attack any one of the following topics: eugenics, psychoanalysis, nudism, superstition, pop art or music criticism. He responded bluntly to all of the above. Props to Mess + Noise for the tip.