I knew I was not going to have time to write comments during the week so I began to write my comments in advance and I wrote a long review about "Animals" but there's no sense to post it now, finally it was "VU" the album that went to the semi-finals. I someone is interested I could post the comments for "Animals" later…
4. Grimes - Art Angels (2015) vs. 1. The Velvet Underground - VU
Mmm, so a collection of rarities and leftovers is my favourite album of the semifinals? Are the rest of the albums so unremarkable? Well, I'll try to explain my votes…
Let's begin with my #4 of the semifinals, Grimes' "Art Angels," the album that eliminated in quarter finals my only remaining nomination (yes, I was the one who nominated the divisive "Desire"). "Art Angels," even if it's appearing lower on the EOD lists than "Visions" (Grimes previous effort), is an album that could perfectly define the sound of the 2010s. At least in two very important aspects: (1) the preeminence of female artists during the decade of MeToo, especially on the second half of the decade when the critics lists features more than 50% of female acts and (2) the poptimism as the dominant current music criticism, that replaces all the traits that the rockist/nerdy criticism considered positive (authenticity, anti-commerciality, seriousness, proficiency) by a new paradigm, considering newness, inclusion, pluralism, commercialism and (especially) fun like the new positive traits. The latest Pitchfork EOD list and the inconsistency with its own previous lists is maybe the most obvious proof of the change of paradigm on music criticism. The limits between alternative and mainstream are now more blurred than ever before. "Art Angels" may be the quintessential example of that, an artist of indie background stepping unashamedly into mainstream pop. Not many years ago Grimes would have been labeled surely as sellout for making an album like this one, while the critics now almost unanimously praised her audacity and boldness, showcasing the fact that she was the album producer.
Probably the critics were quite indulgent on that point, being your own producer is not something new at all, probably she benefited for the fact of being a young girl taking a stab at mainstream pop without the help of a famous producer. I also find quite indulgent the position of some critics about the "genre exercises" (using Claire Boucher own words for the album), when an indie artist uses consciously uncool styles. Just like The War on Drugs with 80s heartland rock or Bon Iver with 80s soft rock (like in "Beth/Rest"). But Grimes herself has not been indulgent with her own album. She thinks that she went too far in the mainstream direction and stated recently that "the last album was a piece of crap, I feel like people really misread it and it feels like a stain on my life." Mmm, maybe andyd1010 was right and Grimes is punk at the core.
But, which was my personal opinion on the album after many listenings? Can a grumpy old man like me enjoy an album whose audience target is the complete opposite? Well, only partially I'm afraid. Too many major chords, too many bouncy beats, too many nursery-rhymes-like melodies, too many girlie voices, too many oohs and aahs… Just listen to "Belly of the Beat" (in my opinion the lowest point on the album) and the countless eehs, oohs and aahs, useful to learn the vocalic sounds in preschool. I admit I get tiresome after a while of these sounds.
I imagine than many of you enjoy detecting references and influences of current diva pop stars (that I don't identify because of my lack of familiarity with the body of work of, let's say, Gwen Stefani or Lady Gaga) mixed intrinsically with more eccentric influences (like M.I.A. or K-pop) and electronic, industrial and EDM sounds. But enough negativity, there is enough inventiveness and creativity in the production and songwriting to keep the interest and enjoyment of a grumpy old man. My favourite songs on the album are "REALiTi" with fabulous synth lines and ethereal vocals, the duet with Janelle Monáe "Venus Fly" and "Flesh without Blood" that displays hook after hook. And there are many other brilliant songs and sounds on the album, but in my opinion not enough to defeat…
the Velvet Underground lost album. Not nearly as mythical as other lost albums ("Smile" would be the obvious choice) but important on its own. I consider it the first indie-rock album, an amazing feature considering it was recorded 20 years before "Surfer Rosa." The influence of the Velvet on the 80s-90s bands is undebatable, listening to "VU" it's easy to trace the roots of the sound of bands like Pixies or the Strokes, listen to the guitars of "Foggy Notion" or "I Can't Stand It" as an immediate example. Also the sound of indie-pop bands like Belle & Sebastian can be traced here on tracks like "Stephanie Says" or "She's My Best Friend."
But, even if we talk of a "lost album" a quick look at the sessionography of the Velvets reveal that it was not recorded like a proper album. The other four albums of the band were recorded in short periods of time (usually less than 7 days of studio, with the second album only recorded in two days). The songs appearing in "VU" were recorded in scattered sessions between the main sessions for the albums probably aimed to record "hit singles" that were rejected again and again by the record company. Unwisely I should say, "Stephanie Says/Temptation Inside Your Heart" would have been an excellent single bridging the second and third album. These two songs were my favourite from the album and were recorded in February of 1968 with John Cale still in the line-up. "Stephanie Says" recalls the sweet but uneasy sound of "Sunday Morning" with the superb viola and celesta played by John Cale. Lou Reed reworked the song with new lyrics about abuse and marital violence for his "Berlin" album, making more visible the darkness that was subtle on the original. And "Temptation Inside Your Heart" showed that the Velvets had also a funny and lively side.
The rest of the songs on the album were recorded on scattered sessions from May to September of 1969 with a new line-up including Doug Yule. These songs are the ones that foreshadowed the indie rock sound and the ones that could have bridged the opiate third album and the pop-rock fourth. If the two songs with Cale had been released as a single the remaining 8 songs plus "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together" and the Strokesy "Coney Island Steeplechase" (first released in 1986 on "Another View") would have made a very good fourth album, maybe better than "Loaded." By the way, "Another View" is instead an uninteresting album, with too many throwaways.
There were further sessions on April 15th and 16th of 1970 (demoing some songs just previous to the "Loaded" sessions) that rendered a fantastic bunch of unreleased songs, most of them reworked by Reed for his solo career, including masterpieces like "Satellite of Love" or "Sad Song" (even if the solo versions were arguably better). Since these songs were recorded for a different label than the previous (Atlantic instead MGM) they didn't appear neither in "VU" nor in "Another View," being released for the first time on the 1995 boxset "Peel Slowly and See." If "VU" would have included all these unreleased songs (it should have been a double album) it would have been an excellent album. So here I go, my "extended" version of "VU" including a Spotify playlist:
1. "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together"
2. "Stephanie Says"
3. "She's My Best Friend"
4. "Lisa Says"
1. "Foggy Notion"
2. "Temptation Inside Your Heart"
3. "One of These Days"
4. "Andy's Chest"
5. "I Love You"
1. "I Can't Stand It"
2. "Hey Mr. Rain"
3. "Coney Island Steeplechase"
4. "Ferryboat Bill"
5. "Love Makes You Feel Ten Feet Tall"
1. "Ride Into the Sun"
2. "Satellite of Love"
3. "Oh Gin"
4. "Walk and Talk"
5. "Sad Song"
6. "I'm Sticking with You"
And a related playlist, the Velvet songs later reworked by Lou Reed
2. Colin Stetson - New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges
(2011) vs. 3. Mitski - Bury Me at Makeout Creek (2014)
Well, yes, it's surprising that an album like the Colin Stetson one got to semifinals. Or not? Well, we already had jazz albums on semifinals (Keith Jarrett on MAA3 and Duke Ellington on MAA7) and other mostly instrumental albums (Fela Kuti on MAA4, Astor Piazzola on MAA8 and Jóhann Jóhannsson on MAA9). But this time maybe is the first album that can be labeled as avant-garde and has a decidely unfriendly sound, one able to extract expressions like "please turn it off" from people around you.
So, what can explain the wide consensus amidst the forum of such a "difficult" album? Undoubtedly the impressive (almost otherworldly) musicianship Stetson showcases throughout the album. All the tracks are recorded live on the studio without overdubs but when you listen to it you may think you are listening to a whole band. Quoting Mark Richardson from his review for Pitchfork: "Some of these tracks have so much sound, so many cross-crossing and overlapping elements, it simply doesn't seem possible that one musician is making them in real time. "Judges" has clattering percussion, a menacing bassline, and a growling lead element that sounds like an anguished voice processed in a strange way. Well, the percussion turns out to be a close-mic'd recording of the instruments' keys being manipulated, the low-end comes from the fact that Stetson plays the enormous bass saxophone and has a good sense of how to underpin a tune with a deep pulse, and the lead voice is indeed his voice, Stetson vocalizing through the horn as he blows." This amazing feature is achieved by means of a circular breathing, breathing with his nose while playing with his mouth, so the sound never stops (please don't try to do this at home). Other impressive feature is the way he blurs the borders between styles, with elements of jazz, modern classical and even art pop (just listen the vocal songs like "Fear of the Unknown and the Blazing Sun") but sounding like nothing else before.
So, technically the album is truly impressive. But, what about the pure enjoyment of the music? What about the replay value? The wide range of music resources Stetson uses keep the interest throughout the album, something extremely difficult in a one-instrument album. But on the other hand the abrasiveness of the sound of songs like "Red Horse" doesn't invite to repeated listens. I will put myself as an example (I knew nothing about Colin Stetson before this game). Looking at my rankings during the game I see that on the first two rounds I put the album quite low (#6). In fact on the first round I thought that it was an easy opponent to "Paris, Texas," my own nomination (oh, how wrong I was!). Maybe it was because of the strangeness and harshness of the music on a first listen. On the third and fourth round I read some reviews, I saw some You Tube videos, I learned about Stetson technique and became fascinated. My rankings rose to #3. But on quarter finals and semi-finals the ranking went down again. In fact my immediate reaction when I realized I should write something about the album was "am I really supposed to listen to the album again?" And maybe this is not a good thing. The merit of Stetson playing is immense. But music enjoyment should not be based on that, I think. Anyway, if only by a hair, it wins over…
the third album by Mitski. I would've voted the other way if the opponent had been Tokyo Jihen's debut, one of the many discoveries of the game for me (other discoveries had been "Shankar Family and Friends," "Deep Listening," "Mic City Sons" and "Childqueen"). Tokyo Jihen's has mainly Western influences but managed to introduce some Eastern/Japanese flavours, something sadly absent on Mitski's music despite her Japanese roots. Anyway if you read something about Mitski biography you find that she was not raised in Japan, for family reasons she lived in thirteen different countries (including Congo, Malaysia, China and Turkey) until she settled in New York where she came to study composition. Her condition as "half Japanese, half American but not fully either" in her own words may explain some of the traits of her music.
It's also remarkable the creative tensions between her classical training and her pop ambitions. Her first two albums were self-released during her formative period and were piano based songs with some orchestral backing and classical influences (especially "Lush"). Even if those albums also featured rock instruments and the songs were mainly pop, Mitski's third album (the first released by a record label) found her moving away from the piano and the classical influences, abandoning them completely and replacing them by a guitar-based sound with punk and 90s indie influences. Even if she retained the pop core and the brilliant songwriting, maybe this is the problem I have with the album, the change of direction seem too self-conscious. She uses these 90s indie-rock traits as a tool, as a palette of sounds to paint her songs. While there's nothing wrong with that, it feels like another "genre exercise" (just like Grimes with "Art Angels" with 00s-10s mainstream pop), like a way of gaining the attention of trendy critics in order to achieve notoriety. But this is the grumpy old man talking again. In fact the Mitski career is very consistent. The fourth album continued the indie rock style of the third but increasing the sophistication and the fifth album ("Be the Cowboy," my favourite) mixes with ease and brilliance both aspects of Mitski style. So maybe it was not a tool or an exercise but a capital part of her sound but only appearing after two temptative albums.
I like quite a lot the melodies and arrangements on the songs and I love the brevity and concision (10 songs in 30 minutes, something usual on Mitski discography). But the aspect I like the most is by far the lyrics. She paints with simple words but vividly situations like sexual rejection ("You know I wore this dress for you / These killer heels for you"), attraction for a toxic relationship ("I don't smoke / Except for when I'm missing you / To remember your mouth, how it / Tasted true"), love tied to violence ("And I want a love that falls as fast / As a body from the balcony") but also remembrance of the loved one ("On sunny days, I go out walking / I end up on a tree-lined street / I look up at the gaps of sunlight / I miss you more than anything"). And there's a recurring motif of seasons throughout the album (late spring, autumn) that ties the songs. And let me end quoting izanorussia, a contributor to Genius.com: "A beautiful ode to growing up and finding oneself, "Bury Me at Makeout Creek" is an evocative lyrical masterpiece that explores the angst of youth, the hope of the future, and the hopelessness of interpersonal connection and preparing for death- set fittingly to noisy guitars and surprisingly catchy melodies."
P.S. I didn't want to include this comment in my review on the album (it's not music-related) but one additional negative point for Grimes was a statement she made this summer: "I have also eliminated all blue light from my vision through an experimental surgery, that removes the top film of my eyeball and replaces it with an orange ultra-flex polymer that my friend and I made in the lab this past winter as a means to cure seasonal depression." Probably it was simply a joke but as on ophthalmologist I don't like pop stars making bizarre statements about health because their blind followers could think that it's a good thing to do. Because: a) even if there's a current trend against blue light especially from electronic devices there is no evidence of damage to retinal structures, b) insert a polymer inside the cornea is not a safe procedure and the scarring of the corneal tissue may lead to decreased vision and c) there's no evidence to suggest that reduced blue light improves seasonal depression. So please, Claire, continue recording songs but stay away from ophthalmology…