Thursday, February 26, 2009

El-P - I'll Sleep When You're Dead

In a way, El-P could be considered a modern renaissance man (at least as far as hip-hop is concerned). In addition to being a skilled rapper and producer (formerly of Company Flow), as well as one of the most prolific and widely skilled voices of underground rap today, he is also the co-founder and owner of Def Jux, a highly influential label that makes up one of the largest pillars of modern independent hip-hop. So it should be no surprise that his solo career has come to combine the numerous facets of his repertoire, showcasing both his intelligent and forceful lyrical ability as well as his excellent ability for composition. On his second full-length solo album, I'll Sleep When You're Dead, El-P brings these elements together to create a dark, paranoid and fully realized world, pessimistic in its viewpoints, honest in its confessions, and ultimately dissociated from reality.

Do you think that if you were falling in space
that you would slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?
faster and faster
for a long time you wouldn't feel anything...

From the hushed whispers and ominous ringing that opens "Tasmanian Pain Coaster" (including the above sample from Twin Peaks), we are immediately introduced to El-P's unique and dissociative style. His beats sound alien even after repeated listens, with the constant implementation of estranged synths giving off the intimate detachment of a drug-induced fervour. Indeed, drugs play a large role in this album; not only are they referenced liberally (the aforementioned "Tasmanian Pain Coaster" is about PCP), but the production takes on a very psychedelic tone, overloading the senses with disparate elements as if the stated goal is to divorce the listener from corporeality. Crowd samples and foreign-sounding noises are channelled continually, fleeting yet disconcerting in their appearances, as they work to bring the listener further into the insular and suffocating world I'll Sleep When You're Dead exists in. For what it is, the production is often infectious, creating a diverse and imaginative landscape for El-P to preach over. Occasionally, the beats are too dense and too discordant for their own good, but overall, they show one of the most innovative and atypical producers in hip-hop at his best.

El-P's voice slices through the disorientation of the production with an unwavering strength, able to convey both confidence and compassion with the same preternatural gift for gab. Indeed, this is possibly the strongest lyrical work I have ever seen in regards to hip-hop, with El-P moving back and forth between surrealist stream of consciousness, foreboding narration, and effacing self-examination with ultimate poise. El-P's range includes tracks as varied as the sneering defiance of "Dear Sirs" (replete with apocalyptic imagery), the Brazil-meets-Blade Runner dystopian fantasy of "Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)", and the tender balance between love and guilt as examined on "The Overly Dramatic Truth". While these songs all take on different subjects and in different ways, they are brought together by their starkly bleak worldview. "Dear Sirs" can be read as a long, bitter critique of modern society, "The Overly Dramatic Truth" deals with one man's attempt to come to terms with his reciprocated love for a younger woman (the overriding suggestion being that he cannot), and while "Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)" starts out with a promise of redemption, it destroys all semblance of it by the end.

There are a number of standout tracks here that deserve mentioning for one reason or another, but a personal favourite is "The League of Extraordinary Nobodies", a seemingly simple song about getting high at a party that follows a deeply cynical and anti-social narrator as he describes the scene around him. The paranoid and remarkably self-aware style of rambling El-P utilizes here is a treat for anyone who's ever been in the same situation, "surrounded by the friendliest of strangers who would sooner kill themselves than give a fuck if [they] were dead".

I just counted in my head how many people in this room I'm talking to that I would never give the time
And here we are, all being vain and looking at ourselves in mirrors very closely nodding straight up in a line
All the funny little stories that are told are being fueled by what amounts to nothing more than minor crime
But I'm a whore, and I'm exploring territory where the party and the pussy both are numbered by the dime

The song is clever and endlessly quotable, and as the narrator's chagrin at the senseless repetition of his and everyone else's actions grows, a laugh track is introduced to the mix to poke fun at the predictability of the party-goers from a figurative perspective.

I've been noticing the fact that nothing glorious can happen anymore, we've run the gamut of our filth
But here I am again, pretending spontaneity exists with idiots all lifted out their little gills
Aren't you disturbed that everything you did tonight is something else you did already and its meaning is still nill
And all the people in your presence are just weapons, it's as simple as the theory that the dying love to kill

I could go on gushing, but the point would be better summed up in short: with I'll Sleep When You're Dead, El-P created a modern hip-hop masterpiece. The dark and disorienting production works perfectly with the world-weary cynicism of the lyrics. The songs are extremely well-written and composed, and El-P's stoic, often surreal manner of rapping only adds to the emotional resonance of his statements. But while I'll Sleep When You're Dead may be bleak - and it most certainly is bleak - it is also vigilant in spite of it all, unwilling to look away from the darker side of life for even a moment. But this album is not merely a celebration of desolation. Rather, it is a recognition of the necessity of being aware and the consequences of what it means to be aware - even if that means a few sleepless nights.

this is the sound of what you don't know killing you

Monday, February 16, 2009

Financial Panther - Financial Panther EP

1. Quick! Create a Diversion
2. Three Cheers for the Pantsuit Brigade
3. I Can't Be Sexist, I Read Heartattack
4. I Cannot Tell a Lie... You Chopped Down My Self-Esteem Tree

It's a band named Financial Panther. If that doesn't pique your interest, then nothing I could ever say would change your mind.

Get him, Sheba!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Best of 2008: Final Thoughts (/w Links)

Figured it would be a good idea to have one place for all this stuff, kind of like a handy reference guide in case you wanted to look up a post or find a link (more likely a link).

1. Atmosphere - When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold -> Download
2. The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound -> Download
3. Verse En Coma - Rialto -> Download
4. Up-C Down-C Left-C Right-C ABC + Start - Embers -> Download
5. Verse - Aggression -> Download
6. Transistor Transistor - Ruined Lives -> Download
7. Pygmy Lush - Mount Hope -> Download
8. Fight Like Apes - And the Mystery of the Golden Medallion -> Download
9. Have a Nice Life - Deathconsciousness -> Download 1 2
10. Aussitot Mort - Montuenga -> Download
11. The Max Levine Ensemble - OK Smartypants -> Download
12. Have Heart - Songs to Scream at the Sun -> Download
13. Adebisi Shank - This is the Album of a Band Called Adebisi Shank -> Download
14. Off Minor - Some Blood -> Download
15. Daitro/Sed Non Satiata Split -> Download
16. God is an Astronaut - God is an Astronaut -> Download
17. Metaform - Standing on the Shoulders of Giants -> Download
18. The Mars Volta - Bedlam in Goliath -> Download
19. The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride -> Download
20. Nine Inch Nails - The Slip -> Download
21. Made Out of Babies - The Ruiner -> Download
22. Baader Brains - The Complete Unfinished Works of the Young Tigers -> Download
23. ...Who Calls So Loud - ...Who Calls So Loud -> Download
24. Mogwai - The Hawk is Howling -> Download
25. Killing the Dream - Fractures -> Download
26. Mesa Verde - The Old Road -> Download
27. pg.lost - It's Not Me, It's You -> Download 1 2
28. The Riot Before - Fists Buried in Pockets -> Download
29. Black Ships - Omens -> Download
30. United Nations - United Nations -> Download

Also, there's some other albums that would have made this list had I gotten into them sooner that I'd like to use this space to give a shout-out to, half-assed though it may be.

Dillinger Four - CIVIL WAR

Attention, Dillinger(s): Kindly never go six years without making a record again. I know you have jobs and real responsibilities that your time would be better spent on and whatnot, but the teasing was just cruel. This album isn't quite on the level of Situationist Comedy, and it lacks the energy of earlier Dillinger Four, but it's still fiercely intelligent punk music that you can hum along to, and dammit, that has to mean something.

Star Fucking Hipsters - Until We're Dead

Longtime Choking Victim followers may not like the move to an often slower, more expansive sound, but I do. There's a weariness to this album, both in the band's propensity to slow things down, and in the vocals of Stza, which have lost a lot of power to them in the past five years (much less the past ten). I'd call it maturity, but anyone who's actually listened to the Hipsters know that's not the case. Either way, Until We're Dead is either a nice reprise or a mild disappointment for anyone who's been jonesing for some crack rock steady (I fall into the former group).

The Rural Alberta Advantage - Hometowns

Delightful Toronto-based, synth-infused indie rock from displaced Albertans remembering with fondness a simpler time in their lives. One that involved prairies. It has been said that the singer sounds like Jeff Mangum, and I agree with that assessment. Fun Fact: I have been to every single city/town they sing about on this album. Yes. That's right. I can feel your jealousy pouring through the computer screen. Anyhoo, this is probably the best example of Canadian music that 2008 has to offer. So if you wanna infuse yourself with a culture far superior to yours in everyway (not that we like to brag), look into this album.

Best of 2008: #1. Atmosphere - When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

Atmosphere is a funny combination; rare is it that underground hip-hop gains such a massive following. And yet, given the growing alternative, it's really no surprise to see the Minnesota group gain greater and greater prominence over the more mainstream-oriented fare. But I'm not here to rant about the state of modern hip-hop; especially given that I don't care. What I am here to say is that the sixth album from producer/rapper duo Ant and Slug, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, is their best yet, combining the polish of You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having with the emotional depth of Godlovesugly into a remarkably deep and resonant package.

As far as vocals go, When Life Gives You Lemonsrepresents something of a shift in approach for Slug. His rich, descriptive style is no longer focused inward; the same introspective qualities that have always abounded in Slug's lyrics still apply, but now more than ever they take on a narrative perspective, serving to illuminate the lives and mindsets of any number of eloquently explored characters. Through his empathetic and nimble direction, Slug weaves his way through the adversities and struggles of the people we see in our day-to-day lives, from the waitress serving taking your orders to pay her way through school ("You") to the homeless man on the street corner just trying to get out of the cold ("The Waitress"). One of the strongest is the tale of a blue-collar father trying to provide for his family in the face of near-destitution ("Guarantees"). Accompanied by a simple, bluesy guitar lick, Slug's first-person narrative exquisitely describes the plight of the working poor, pitting the abject hopelessness of trying to become something - anything - versus the necessity to keep on going anyway.

well maybe we can speed up the process
kill me in my thirties in the name of progress
put me in the dirt and then change the topic
some times it seems like the only way to stop it
contemplating my departure date
doesn't take a lot to get a lot of us to talk this way

It would take too long to explore all the great lines Slug peppers in throughout this album, but suffice to say they are bountiful, and they exude a cautious understanding of even the most flawed of individuals being explored.

wanna make her smile? want to make her laugh?
want to make up for the mistakes in the past?
want to act like he doesn't know better
if payback's a bitch, he'll be in debt forever
insecure, impatient
temporary gratification, self validation
that's what it's made of, it's all true
and it's the only reason that he's even talking to you

On the production side of things, Ant does some of his best work yet, staying away from the stark minimalism of early Atmosphere with lush recordings of pianos, woodwinds and synthesizers. Early on in his career, Ant was mostly just a backdrop for Slug's lyrical prowess, with his beats consisting of simple rhythms and usually an instrument layered over top, making sure never to detract unduly attention from Slug. And while this did well to showcase one of the best underground rappers around, it sometimes made for an overly basic affair. But with the duo's last album, You Can't Believe How Much Fun We're Having, this changed, as Ant's beats became thicker, and began to gain equal footing with Slug's vocals. On When Life Gives You Lemons, the production is remarkably crisp, with a variety of instruments popping up all over the place to enhance the aura, and it shows even as Ant moves further and further away from typical hip-hop production. (The flute makes not one, but two appearance here - giving it perhaps the most street cred of all the reedless wind instruments.)

Ant's production has an engrossing warmth to it, giving it a sympathetic edge that compliments Slug beautifully. This can be seen in how the lyre-like strings of "Like the Rest of Us" pace Slug's gentle crooning, or in how the desperation of the titular "Dreamer" is enhanced by Ant's orchestral flourishes. Or how the wonderfully nostalgic feel of "In Her Music Box" helps to give a sense of innocence to the song, making us feel like the child in the story, blissfully unaware of both her mom's distress and her dad's immaturity.

Yet Ant doesn't just compliment Slug; on several occasions, the instruments are the main focus of the listener's attention, driving the song along and giving it its identity. For example, the dark, dense synth-lead production of "Your Glasshouse" and "Can't Break" fantastically influence the feel of their respective songs. In the former, it serves to enhance the disorientation the lead character feels upon waking up to a hangover, and in the latter, it makes up for a rare disjointed narrative by giving it a menacing feel that helps piece the parts together.

Atmosphere's sixth album is a triumph of modern hip-hop that eschews the shallow themes and masturbatory self-aggrandization that makes the genre impenetrable to those who demand actual depth in their music. Both Slug and Ant are at the very top of their already, proving why each has the level of influence that they do in their respective fields. This is an extremely personable album that the listener can identify and empathize with immediately due to the beautifully deep characterizations and the intricate and original production. The next time you're ever feeling down or depressed, crestfallen over the latest of many things to go wrong, just put on some Atmosphere and paint that shit gold.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Best of 2008: #2. The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound

Following the unexpected success of their debut album Sink or Swim (no Kerrang, they're not fucking new), along with their tour as support for Against Me!, The Gaslight Anthem became a band just on the verge of breaking out. They were one of those groups that had mainstream appeal written all over them, thanks to their strong, accessible, yet distinctive formula that combines the vivid blue-collar rock of yesteryear with a youthful, defiant punk flare. So the fact that their latest release, The '59 Sound has gained them so much in the way of critical and commercial success is really no surprise; what is surprising is how well these guys deserve it. What you can expect from this album is kind of summed up right there, in the album title. This is the ’59 Sound: an elegy for the days of fast cars, small town living, rock n’ roll and a starry-eyed idealism that now typifies the era, all as imagined by people who never lived through it.

The Gaslight Anthem hail from New Jersey, and this geographic influence is utmostly clear in their music, which, like many other bands occupying the region, smacks of the kind of Springsteen hero worship you would expect coming out of a staunchly blue-collar state. They have been described as The Bouncing Souls covering Bruce Springsteen, a comparison which I think does a good job of accurately representing their unique-yet-familiar blend of pop-punk and old fashioned rock n’ roll. While on Sink or Swim, the Gaslight Anthem bordered more on the former than the latter, on The ’59 Sound, this dichotomy is switched. At times, the band moves into full-on homage mode here, dedicating the entire record to the glory of an era past.

But to view The ’59 Sound as merely reverence for a simpler time would be to misconstrue it entirely. As opposed to the reactionary forces that actively long for the ostensibly idyllic days of the 50’s, before the great cultural divide of the United States set in, what the Gaslight Anthem appear to be aiming for thematically in their music is a desire for the innocent hope and naive aspirations that are seen to have encompassed the times following World War II - a romantic appeal for a halcyon time that never truly existed. Maybe that's why the songs here resonate so much with the listener's imagination, even though none of them bear any particular connection to the present. The stories told hold a timeless allure to them, focusing on quixotic notions of hope, love, and everything that can go wrong in between. That the album opens with a song called "Great Expectations" - and that it ends up being much more dour in focus than would be expected - is demonstrative of this balance between the dreams we cling to, and the reality that keeps us from living them.

Where The Gaslight Anthem ultimately succeed with The '59 Sound is in the openly heartfelt way they go about making it, from the enchanting, bluesy riffs, to the emotional, soul-baring pleas of singer Brian Fallon. There's an endearing warmth to music like this; it calms you even as it enlivens you, blanketing its listener in an inspirational and cathartic mix of hope and distress that could serve as a soundtrack for all the unfulfilled dreamers out there who insist on keeping on. The '59 Sound is neither the sound of maturity nor is it the sound of youthful indignation - it is too boisterous to be the former, too meloncholy to be the latter - but whatever it is is imbued with a quiet wisdom and a stirring passion that must surely be beyond the years of the four twenty-somethings that wrote it.