Charanjit Singh – Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (album review)

Along with a select few other re-releases this year, Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat stands out as something ahead of its time and totally infectious. Originally released back in 1982 (almost 30 years ago!), this 10 track release may very well be the true birth of acid house music. Constructed by Singh on a Roland Jupiter-8, Roland TB-303, and Roland TR-808, it takes century-old classical ragas and turns them into something magical, predicting the future of trance and acid house music with arpeggiated basslines, soaring melodies, and relentless beats.

On first listen, it sounds like some sort of an elaborate prank by Luke Vibert or even Richard D. James, but this is the real thing, and it’s a lot of fun, and not just for kitsch value. There’s definitely a formula for construction in place, and while the release sticks to said routine (every single track is within 10 seconds of 5 minutes in running length and the total time is exactly 50 minutes), there’s plenty of delightful moments.

My favorite cut on the disc is “Raga Bhupali,” and while it starts out in a similar place as most of the tracks, it quickly ups the anti with some gorgeous, dancing synth sounds that very quickly spiral upwards while getting little pitch tweaks that only add to their charm (especially with the more subdued counter-melody bouncing off).

“Raga Bhupali” – Charanjit Singh

“Raga Bairagi” closes the release and features the main melody played in a synth sound that’s much closer to what one might expect from an Indian Raga, but placed into the new context it takes on a whole new life, snaking seductively over the incessant beat.

“Raga Bairagi” – Charanjit Singh

As I mentioned above, this is a hypnotic release to say the least, and although most tracks run a similar length and then fade out, one gets the feeling that they could simply continue on to infinity, stepping through their progressions until the power simply runs out.

Waaaaay ahead of its time, Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat is easily among my favorite reissues of the year.

(buy Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat from amazon.com)

Francis And The Lights – It’ll Be Better (album review)

A couple months ago, a friend of mine shared a music video with my by a band called Francis And The Lights. On first viewing, I thought that the video itself was fabulous, with a simple but sharp style that really focused things in on the music but was dramatic enough to leave an impression (and had some amazing dance moves at the end to boot). Don’t just take my word, though, it’s only two and a half minutes of your life.

After watching the video a couple times, I realized that the song itself had become lodged in my head, and I went through the other related pieces from the group, finding another amazing (but simple video) for “The Top” and discovering that the group had an album coming out soon.

With 8 songs running just over 26 minutes, It’ll Be Better hovers somewhere between a long EP and a full-length, but it’s absolutely packed full of hooks. As one might expect, the group (which seems to be a glorified solo project with several guest spots, at least on the album) centers around one Francis Farewell Starlite, a pompadoured fellow who croons it up and gets down and knows the power of a tight melody. Pretentious name aside, there’s no a lot of extraneous elements on the release at all, and while it is fairly brief in running length, it’s also much more varied than one might expect.

In addition to the aforementioned song, there are piano-driven pop cuts that sound culled directly from the 80s and enough keyboard funk to give the release the rather unique feeling that it could have been released any time in the past 30 or so years.

I’ve found myself playing the entire album from front to back a bunch of times, but I do have my favorites. “Knees To The Floor” hums along with some looped-sounding synth melodies and a simple beat and some great vocals before some little guitar fireworks light things up about halfway through and really shift the tone. There’s a bit of an Arthur Russell influence, but it’s melded into something even more pop-oriented and it’s by no means a bad thing.

“Knees To The Floor” – Francis And The Lights

On the other side of things is the album opener and album-titled “It’ll Be Better.” A slow burner with some choppy-chop snare hits and muffled electric guitar, it’s more about the vocals, and sets the stage nicely for things to come.

“It’ll Be Better” – Francis And The Lights

As mentioned above, it’s a brief album, but it’s incredibly catchy and only begs repeated replays. I know I’ve done my fair share of them and more.

(buy It’ll Be Better on amazon.com)

The Books – The Way Out (album review)

It’s been five years since Paul de Yong and Nick Zammuto have graced the world with their music. In that time, children have been born, properties have been moved into, websites have been launched, and the two are now finally back with The Way Out. Running a lengthy (for them, anyway) 14 songs and 50 minutes, it’s their most inventive and varied release yet, with some songs that are familiar and some that are completely unexpected.

Lest that latter statement sound like a bad thing, though, let me just state that after ten or more listens from front to back, this release is still surprising me. On the first couple listens, there were places that made me bust into a wide-open smile and others that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up due to their sheer beauty, and even now I find myself anticipating certain moments and being thrilled by the care that went into it. I’ve been a big fan of the group for a long time (their previous release Lost And Found was one of my top-rated releases for 2005), and I’ve always felt like their use of thrift-store and found samples capture humanity in a raw, unrehearsed manner that brings their music a variety of emotions that really can’t be matched.

In addition to their usual home recordings (including answering machine messages, kids tape recorders, and home vhs tapes), the group makes much use of self-help tapes. In the way that the group has sequenced the release, those latter phrases fit perfectly, book-ending the release with some hypnotic mumbo-jumbo that nonetheless sets the stage and clears it off perfectly.

The first single from the group is probably one of the most unexpected tracks on the entire release, with cracking beat programming that moves at a relentless pace and some absolutely hilarious and rather outlandish samples. It’s one of many totally unexpected songs from the group on the album, and one that causes laughs on first listen and produces at least a grin on just about every subsequent one.

the Books – A Cold Freezin’ Night from The Books on Vimeo.

It’s really hard to pick favorites, as the album is pretty much filled to the brim with great stuff. To give an idea of the sheer range of the release, though, I’ll mention the loudest track and one of the softest. “I Am Who I Am” is quite possibly the most brash song that The Books have every had a hand in. With an almost techno music influence, it blasts out of the gate with a thumping beat and warbling bass modulations as filtered samples drift in and out of the mix. As it progresses, a spoken-word sample dramatically pronounces the title of the track as the track rifles through some blasts of chopped-beats. It’s insanely catchy, and packs a ton into only 3 minutes.

“I Am Who I Am” – The Books

On the complete flip side is “Free Translator, a subtle, quiet track that features some lovely acoustic guitar and bass, as well as some fragile singing from Zammuto. As the track rides into completion, the original vocal sample (which sounds like it was taken from a Western of some sort) and a stunning trumpet sample take it to another chill-inducing level.

“Free Translator” – The Books

It’s probably already obvious, but The Way Out is easily among my favorites for the year so far. It has everything from joy to melancholy to absolutely silly in the course of 50 minutes, and it’s basically a little capsule of life itself. I only hope it doesn’t take as long for them to release another album.

(buy The Way Out. from Temporary Residence Records)
(buy The Way Out. from amazon.com)

Ceo – White Magic (album review)

Although they aren’t a band that I go to on a consistent basis, I have a couple CDs by the Swedish duo The Tough Alliance in my collection and inevitably find myself singing along to their sugary sweet electronic pop whenever they end up playing. Ceo is the Nom de Plume of Eric Berglund, one-half of TTA, and his debut White Magic is the best thing that he’s had a hand in yet.

Ceo has a lot in common with The Tough Alliance, and there are elements (namely some of the lead synth melodies) that feel like they were plucked straight from the work of Berglund’s other gig. That said, this brisk (8 song, 29 minute) album feels more lush and fleshed out. There are chamber strings overlaying many of the pieces here, and a couple tracks that detour almost completely, in exciting and unexpected ways.

One of those pieces is “Oh God, Oh Dear,” a song that starts out with a blur of synth and a spoken word sample. Just about the time you think it’s going to launch into an electronic dance cut, it instead hops into a jaunty, all-acoustic baroque piece with a string quartet and some minimal percussion backing up a couple brief lines by Berglund. Sitting by itself, it might have sounded out of place, but with elements of the song introduced in other places on the album, the jump doesn’t seem so drastic.

“Oh God, Oh Dear” – Ceo

Elsewhere, the first single from the album (“Come With Me”) is almost straight-up Tough Alliance, with a stuttering vocal loop sample and loads of soaring synth lines along with some of the more emotive vocals from Berglund.

For my money, the best song on the release is the title track “White Magic.” Almost straight-up dance floor burner, it has its roots in techno music and pretty much kicks things out of the gate with some aggressive bass synth and warbling melodies that then flourish into some absolutely gorgeous builds and breakdowns.

“White Magic” – Ceo

One of the best electronic pop albums that I’ve heard in some time, White Magic is a great step forward for Berglund, and an album that packs a lot of ideas into a short running length and begs for replays.

(buy White Magic on amazon.com<)/a>

Echospace – Liumin (album review)

LiuminLet’s just set things straight right now; Rod Modell and Steve Hitchell are pretty much unstoppable right now. All the work that I’ve heard from the duo, whether it be working together, or on their own (see Hitchell’s The Seduction Of Silence as Intrusion for one example) is completely solid and often transcendent.

The last album that the group did together as Echospace (2007′s The Coldest Season) was a near modern-classic of ambient/minimal techno, as it stretched out epic clouds of sound and left you suspended in a cloud of frozen crystalline particles.

If that release was the sound of winter, though, then Liumin conquers the opposite season, with sun-scorched minimal techno/dub cuts that melt the horizon line and blur together field recordings, droning swaths of sound, and murmuring, incessant rhythms that propel the 9 track, 78 minute release forward. With each cut flowing directly into the next, it’s a fully enveloping album that again begs for headphone listening.

They actually start things off with a drifting haze of field recordings and gurgling synths, but the aptly-titled “Summer Haze” really gets things going in earnest as a loping beat and some beautiful, shimmering washes elevate the track to dizzying heights.

“Summer Haze” – Deepchord Presents Echospace

From there, the duo do their usual bag of tricks, varying styles slightly without ever losing the deep, enriching environment that they introduced right from the start. “Burnt Sage” takes things down a notch and lets the field recordings and various tonal drifts almost completely overwhelm the background kick drum, while “BCN Dub” and “Maglev” rev things up to a rumbling, near Basic Channel level that sound just as good cranked out of a car stereo with the windows down as they do sitting on a couch with headphones on while escaping the heat indexes outside.

Arriving somewhere between the two is the more defined “Firefly,” another number that resides in a world somewhere between the couch and the club floor. Sure, there’s nothing that the duo hasn’t done before, but the rich polyrhythms dancing through gauzy textures nonetheless shows some subtle variations and production muscle-flexing that I simply haven’t heard anyone else pull off so gracefully.

“Firefly” – Deepchord Presents Echospace

The release comes with a bonus disc of re-imagined field recordings that don’t exactly flesh out the music on the first disc, but definitely add to the atmosphere of the whole thing. It’s another one knocked out of the park from the duo, and a release that will stand up just as well when the mercury starts heading the opposite direction.

(buy Liumin from amazon.com)

Bushman’s Revenge – Jitterbug (album review)

buy Jitterbug at amazon.comIf you were a person who loved You Lost Me At Hello, the previous album from Bushman’s Revenge, there is about a 95% chance or so that you will really enjoy their new album Jitterbug. If you only thought that previous album was good or even decent, but figured that it was a bit on the noodly side and could stand to have a bit more focus, then you should definitely give the band a second chance with this newest release.

That’s not to say that Jitterbug is streamlined or even straightforward, but there are a lot more hooks to grasp onto here, and everything has been tightened up nicely. The best part is that it’s done both of those things without removing any of the sometimes ferocious and often quite rocking quality that the band is so good at.

With 9 songs running roughly 53 minutes, it packs one more song into a couple more minutes than their previous album, but that’s a bit misleading as the opener eats up almost one-fifth of that total time, while the remaining tracks all ratchet things down a bit more. And even though the opener runs an even 10 minutes, it hunkers along with a nice swagger before deciding to melt faces for the last 3 minutes.

“Kill Your Jitterbug Darlings” follows and barely takes a breath for just over 4 minutes, with scorching guitar riffs that jam right along upside some squealing Hammond organ that just knocks it out of the park. It’s all ascending melodies, swirling skyward with giddy momentum, and it’s one of the best things that the group has done to date.

“Kill Your Jitterbug Darlings” – Bushman’s Revenge

“Damage Case (happy Go Lucky Karaoke Version)” is even harder than the previous track, slamming forward for just under 3 minutes with a mutated blues riff that blurs into jazz metal freakouts during a couple points.

The group certainly isn’t above taking it easier, though, and the one-two closers of “Personal Poltergeist” and “Waltz For My Good Man” both take things down several notches without managing to get boring in the least. The former drifts along with some mangled, but mellow phased guitar and supernatural synths, while the latter is the opposite of their previous album closer, with almost completely clean tones taking things down to a quiet, In The Country-esque level.

Continuing their love of puns, “While My Guitar Gently Breaks” is another blues-tinged number that again manages to be something than mere homage. There’s some real technique in the chops (as there are on all the cuts here), and smooth preludes give way to intricate breakdowns and a few well-timed blow-outs. There’s a lot of bang for the buck in six and a half minutes.

“While My Guitar Gently Breaks” – Bushman’s Revenge

As I mentioned above, this is another fine album from the group, and yet another great entry from the Rune Grammofon label. There’s everything from psych to prog to damaged blues and jazz here, but the trio pulls it off without a hitch.

(buy Jitterbug from amazon.com)

Born Ruffians – Say It (album review)

It was almost 2 years ago exactly that Born Ruffians’ debut album Red Yellow & Blue came out. At the time, the trio drew a lot of different comparisons, but didn’t really line up with any of them, as they sort of flitted around to their own beat and sound, mixing up indie rock with R&B and several other styles. In other words, they sounded like an odd choice for Warp Records, and with their second album they’ll probably leave even more people scratching their heads.

I guess that’s the nice way of saying that Say It isn’t even as immediately accessible as their first full length. At the same time, though, the 10 songs and just under 40 minutes here are also the sorts of songs that burrow down into your brain and keep you coming back for another listen.

As a whole, the release isn’t nearly as propulsive, and at times feels almost sloppy. Lead singer Luke LaLonde’s vocals are strained at times and even more nasal than before, while the rhythm sections feel skeletal and shambolic, with odd, painterly guitar melodies and dang-near stream-of-consciousness bursts of both music and vocals. The incredibly spare first single (“What To Say”) is about as far removed as you could possibly imagine considering their previous energy bursts of “Hummingbird” and “I Need A Life.”

Lest the previous paragraph sounds like I’m slagging the album, let me state that it’s those qualities and more that actually attract me to it. It’s a very odd, yet very human record, with words that at time touch on deep meanings while in other places are almost groan-inducing. Most of all, though, it makes you want to sing along with it.

All of these things are on display right out of the gate, as, “Oh Man” takes some first weary steps with wobbly, dry guitar strums before jogging forward with a jangly structure as LaLonde lets loose with some of his most expressive vocals to date, with scratchy, almost gurgling lows, and some punctual, almost nonsensical enunciation.

“Oh Man” – Born Ruffians

From there, the album is all over the place, from the aforementioned minimal soul of “What To Say” to the chugging, “The Ballad of Moose Bruce.” “Higher And Higher” is one of the best stabs at a pop song on the album, but like most everything else here it’s certainly not straightforward. Instead, it wiggles around uncomfortably, with choppy snare bursts and brittle guitars while LaLonde again goes from subdued to near-screaming. By the latter third, it turns into a fleshed-out piece replete with backup vocals and synth harmonies, and the awkward journey there makes it all the more effective.

“Higher And Higher” – Born Ruffians

And really, that’s what Say It is most effective at. There are a few songs with verse/chorus structures, but it’s more about the journey and the cheer energy release than anything, and for sheer expression, it’s an album that works in spades.

(buy Say It from amazon.com)

Sam Amidon – I See The Sign (abum review)

buy I See The Sign from amazon.comLike several other albums that have crossed my path over the years, All Is Well by Sam Amidon is one of those releases that didn’t register with me on first, second, or even third listen. It wasn’t until a year or so after it came out that it really clicked into place with me, and when he teamed up with Nico Muhly a year or so later on Mothertongue, I found myself falling in love with his previous solo album even more.

Despite that, I’m still about a month late getting to his newest album, I See The Sign, but I couldn’t let another release of Amidon’s go by without saying something about it. Like All Is Well, this 11 song album might not hit immediately, but it’s strong throughout and subtle enough that you’ll hear new things many listens in. Not only that, but there are enough absolute stunners on the album that several songs have crept into my 10 most-played of the year so far.

Musically, I See The Sign is very similar to All Is Well, with melodies and harmonies carrying the way rather than overblown production. That said, there are a few tracks on the release that explore some more fleshed-out compositions. Opening song (and the first single from the release) “How Come That Blood” is one of them, with a looping upright bass, some fast-paced guitars and brisk percussion forming a backing while everything from electronic effects and string quartet bursts punctuate the track. It’s the most busy song that I’ve ever heard from Amidon, and it’s also a bit of a red herring, as the rest of the release settles into a much more subtle footing that works just as well, if not better than the more dense track.

The release veers back and forth, but never feels less than cohesive. There’s the (dare I say) almost rocking “You Better Mind,” which is another piece with actual percussion and some great female backup vocals from Beth Orton and the barely-there “Rain And Snow,” which stumbles along with only the vocals of Amidon and some quiet guitar and string quivers before it lets loose a bit at the end.

To my ears, it doesn’t get much better than “Pretty Fair Damsel,” a three-minute stunner that starts with nothing but vocals and guitar, but builds to a gorgeous peak with woodwinds, piano, strings, and horns before stepping back down to silence again.

“Pretty Fair Damsel” – Sam Amidon

The one-two of “Climbing High Mountains” and “Relief” are yet another high point on the release, with the former moving right into the latter without a misses step. The songs work together so much that I find myself playing them back-to-back just to get the full effect, but the beautiful harmonies and aching beauty of the latter (where Amidon again teams up with Orton) get me every time. It’s especially impressive considering that it’s a cover of an R. Kelly, and it falls in perfectly alongside the interpretations of Appalachian folk music as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

“Relief” – Sam Amidon

11 songs run just over 42 minutes, and while the music itself is a bit on the understated side, the impact certainly isn’t minimal. I feel bad about not saying the same thing about his previous release, so please seek this one out.

(buy I See The Sign from amazon.com)

LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening (album review)

When LCD Soundsystem’s debut, self-titled album arrived five years ago, I didn’t quite understand why it received all the praise that it did. I enjoyed some of the songs on it and especially adored the bonus disc of singles and remixes that preceded it. Over time, my appreciation for the album as a whole grew, and when Sound Of Silver hit, it lodged in my top 10 for that year and may have even climbed higher since then.

Needless to say, I had high expectations for This Is Happening, and damned if it hasn’t met them. Oddly enough, the group has released the most over-the-top (and obnoxious, and definitely least-subtle) song as the first single from the release, but despite it’s raucous frat-boy energy, “Drunk Girls” still charms the pants off me. It’s probably due to the shift during the last minute that takes it from simple arm-pumping holler-along to something quite sublime. That, and the rinky-dink keyboard melody that plinks and plonks throughout. Murphy has to have at least one of these types of cuts per album, but he’s gotten better over time at making them fit into their surroundings, and while it still feels a bit out-of-touch next to the more extended workouts, it’s not as obvious as “North American Scum” and the like.

At any rate, I came here to praise this release, because I can literally let it run without stops and not find much to fault. Craft-wise, it’s easily the most solid thing that LCD Soundsystem has done, while at the same time having a great amount of highs and lows. There’s some real longing in the lyrics, and the usual snark and humor is there as well, with the music setting it all off.

Because of that, it’s hard to pick a place to start, but really anywhere you land is gold. “One Touch” continues in the vein of epic burners like “Get Innocuous,” while “You Wanted A Hit” is a snarky play on the title, stretching what would probably be a fairly slick pop cut into 9 minutes by locking in and working the verses over and over with some subtle layering that just works.

“All I Want” works a similar point A to point B progression that songs like “All My Friends” have done in the past, but stretches out even further and gets even more frantic at the end, reaching a lyrical vulnerability that coincides with some great layered vocals and a noisy synth meltdown.

“All I Want” – LCD Soundsystem

On the other side of the equation is the long, disco-tinged song “Pow Pow.” Blending spoken-word sections with yelled call-outs and some deliciously sparkling synth cascades, it trudges forward for over 8 minutes. Oh, and it’s hilarious in places.

“Pow Pow” – LCD Soundsystem

Basically, if you’ve enjoyed past albums from LCD Soundsystem, you’re not going to go wrong here. In interviews, Murphy has hinted that it may be the last album in this band incarnation, but after hearing This Is Happening, I hope not. If so, though, at least the name is going out with a bang.

(buy This Is Happening from amazon.com)

Phantom Band – Freedom Of Speech (album review)

buy Freedom of Speech from amazon.comIt probably says that I’m not a very good fan when I didn’t realize that most of the members of one of my favorite groups (Can) went on to form another band directly afterwards, and I hadn’t been aware of it until recently. I knew that Holger Czukay had gone on to release some great solo work (especially the amazing Canaxis) and Damo Suzuki has been roaming the world and jamming with kindred spirits for nearly the past 30 years or so, but for some reason or another the Phantom Band escaped me.

This year, Bureau B has released the first two (of three) albums from the group, and while they’re quite different than one would expect from Can (even the more pop-oriented Flow Motion), there’s some stuff here that’s interesting.

Okay, actually their self-titled debut is incredibly cheesy and I can barely get into it, but their second album Freedom Of Speech has some amazing work. I’m not sure if it’s a related data point, but bassist (and singer) Rosko Gee (who also played with Can on early iterations) is much more of a factor on the self-titled debut album from the group, and it seems like it wants to play it safe whenever possible, treading around some noodling, rather nondescript guitar-jam style 70s music sound with just enough weirdness around the edges to make you wonder what’s going on.

On Freedom Of Speech, though, Gee is gone again, and the group instead teams up with spoken-word performer Sheldon Ancel. Normally, such an arrangement would cause me to roll my eyes, but the music takes a severe left turn into much darker territory, with loads of dub reggae influences and general experimentation that actually works. The end result is a much more interesting release that has held up incredibly well over the past nearly 30 years.

Opening with creepy track that blends pounding, almost military drums with warbling synth drones and spoken word phrases that seem drawn straight from 1984, it certainly sets a different stage. From there, the group drops off into “E.F. 1,” a cut that definitely takes hints from dub reggae, but keeps things so sparse and sterile that it certainly doesn’t manage to sound like an imitator.

“E.F. 1″ – Phantom Band

From there, it’s onto another clattering, spoken-word driven number in “Brain Police” before the group slides into a piece that jumps back and forth from straightforward rocker to queasy droner in “No Question.” From there out, the group dips into several more styles, but one of the most effective songs on the entire release is the bizarre “Gravity,” one of many pieces where the group locks into an incredibly catchy meld of guitar, synth and rhythm section while Ancel has license to free-form over the top, with both the music and words getting more agitated as it moves forward through just under six minutes running length.

“Gravity” – Phantom Band

With 10 songs running just over 35 minutes, it’s an album that never gets hung up on one particular sound for too long. It’s a wild ride, too, with songs that touch on everything to the aforementioned dub to minimal avant garde pieces that sound closer to Suicide. As one might be able to gather from the description, it has also aged a lot better than some of its contemporaries, filing in nicely behind the output from Can themselves.

(buy Freedom Of Speech from amazon.com)