Showing posts with label parody. Show all posts
Showing posts with label parody. Show all posts

Saturday, August 10, 2013

album review: 'monomania' by deerhunter (RETRO REVIEW)

Let me talk to you about a pet peeve of mine: when people say 'the lyrics don't matter'.

I've gotten this comment from a number of people, and it's often followed by 'I just listen to the music, I don't care about the lyrics'. And you know, there's a bit of an argument there - ultimately, the musical compositions should be what we get behind, the instrumentation and production that composes the elements of the song, the strength of the vocalist's delivery when singing. And a lot of critics have done very well in the field of describing what works and what doesn't about said compositions, pointing out the individual elements that come together to create the music.

But here's my huge problem with this: the lyrics are still part of the song. Somebody still sat down and wrote them to fit the instrumentation, or composed the instrumentation to match with the lyrics. If the lyrics didn't matter at least a little to the artists, why don't they just fill the vocals of their track with vocal gymnastics or general incoherence? Why don't they just use nonsense words if the lyrics don't matter?

Well, the thing is, most musicians do care about lyrics - it's arguably the most straightforward way in which they can communicate their message (if they have one). Sure, you can draw interpretations from the instrumentation, particularly through the consideration of contextual sampling (see: Kanye West, The Beastie Boys, Eminem, etc.) and discuss the emotions and thoughts the artists are attempting to evoke, but the most direct way in which they communicate their message are the lyrics, and as a critic, it should be my role to interpret, explain, and analyze that message. You know, do some legwork in discerning the artistic intent and then explaining whether or not the execution of said intent actually worked.

But too often, I've seen too many critics fall into the trap of just describing what the music is. They talk about the sound that the music creates and maybe scratch the surface of the message informed by the lyrics, and even then, that particular deeper analysis is cursory at best. That's not being a critic, that's being an observer with a thesaurus. And I'll admit it, this underlying peeve is why I tend to have more acceptance for country and pop music: sure, the lyrics might be shallow or vapid or incredibly stupid, but at least they matter in the mix (particularly in country music, where less emphasis is on instrumentation and more on lyrics). 

On the same note, a lot of indie rock that opts to bury the lyrics deep at the back of the mix where they're borderline unintelligible really frustrates me. Without lyrical context, i feel like I'm grasping at straws to interpret or criticize the material, and I'm stuck asking why they're burying the vocals instead of actually paying attention to the instrumentation - instead of taking in the entire musical piece, I'm stuck listening for one component. Let me also stress that this is different than dirty vocals (like what you see in black metal and death metal) - that's a vocal style that's intended to sound threatening or scary, and once you get a handle on how to listen to those vocals, the lyrics are often easy enough to make out. But there are some bands who bury their lyrics under vocal effects  and distortion where I can't make out what they're saying without pulling up the lyrics online - and in those cases, I get why many music critics will just throw up their hands and talk about the band's 'sound' (the unfortunate problem is that too often the band gets critical acclaim based off the sound alone). 

So with all of that in mind, I was left distinctly dissatisfied when I started going through Deerhunter's discography in preparation for reviewing their newest album Monomania, particularly with their debut (unfortunately titled 'Turn It Up F****t'). It was an album dedicated to their late bassist Justin Bosworth, and has been repeatedly disowned by lead guitarist and singer Bradford Cox. I'm glad he thinks that way, mostly because putting aside the title, this album is terrible. It's clearly a case of instrumentation trumping any coherent vocals (considering there wasn't any due to terrible binaural recording techniques, it wasn't much of an accomplishment), and when looking up the lyrics, I can understand why: it was a load of trite, overwrought, teenage nonsense.

Fortunately, the band did mostly learn from that with their follow-up Cryptograms, which cleaned up some of the vocals and was generally much stronger (the second half was better than the first). I'll admit that Deerhunter does an excellent job creating expansive psychedelic soundscapes, but in cleaning up the vocals, Deerhunter exposed the lyrics, which might dance around the themes of 'death and companionship', but rarely coalesced into any coherent or all that impactful. This is mostly due to Bradford Cox's stream-of-conscience delivery, which led to interesting enough ideas, but nothing all that meaningful. 

Their third album Microcastle took things a step further and cleaned up the production even further, moving towards an even tighter focus and great accessibility. Logically, this should make the album my favourite of the three thus far, but these choices also exposed an uglier theme of the album: self-absorption to the point of myopia and paranoia, and a Peter Pan complex that could rival that of Billy Joe Armstrong. Yes, I get that Bradford Cox has had many brushes with death thanks to his genetic condition Marfan Syndrome, but his repeated refusals to grow up or properly deal with how his life will inevitably progress (even to the point of denigrating those who have grown up and who will 'wait to grow old') shows an astounding lack of maturity. Granted, this attitude was visible on his debut, but it rears its head in a big way on Microcastle, showing how he'd be most comfortable sealing himself away in a bubble, away from reality and consequence. 

And you know, this would actually be tolerable if the framing of this individualist vision had context or deeper insight or showed an iota of self-awareness - and for a few moments on Deerhunter's Weird Era Cont. (their follow-up the same year after Microcastle leaked very early), fragments of that context appears... but it's also on this album that Deerhunter returned to bad habits and shoved the vocals to the absolute back of the mix where it would be impossible to hear. At this point, I nearly threw up my hands and gave up, and if it wasn't for the strong instrumentation, I would have stopped listening to Deerhunter entirely.

Fortunately, I didn't give up - and good thing too, because their follow-up 2010 album Halcyon Days was probably my favourite of their discography thus far. Not only do they make the vocals audible, Cox actually executes a thematic throughline surprisingly well, various associated memories of discovering new music. Sometimes they were thrilling, sometimes they were chilling, but all of which were emotional and inspired a reaction that had context and made sense. It's one of the few places I argue Cox's stream-of-conscience lyrics actually work, because they fit the moment-by-moment flow of the album. Yes, the album is still self-indulgent at points (and also weirdly 'flat' at points in production - for a band so frequently trying to sound big, Deerhunter sure has a hard time getting it right), but the instrumentation was stronger than ever (drawing a lot of influence from 60's rock) and Cox showed signs of improvement. 

And thus, in the end, I was enthused going into Monomania - could it be even better than its predecessor and surprise me all the more?

Youtube review after the jump

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

album review: 'days go by' by the offspring

Short version: you know what, this is, for once, the easy part. This album is a soulless, worthless, desperate cash-in by a punk band that grew up and lost their edge and sense of humour. If you're a fan, avoid at all costs. If you're not a fan, keep avoiding. 

Long version...

And here we come to the last review in the trifecta of terrible tunes, and despite my general tiredness and antipathy towards people who somehow like this music, those aren't the emotions that dominate my mind right now.

No, right now, I'm just sad. Genuinely disappointed and sad, because of all three albums that I reviewed, this one sucks for the worst possible reasons, reasons that you can't easily dismiss as incompetence.

Guys, The Offspring's Days Go By sucks not because of laziness or arrogance, but because it's an album by a band out of time, struggling desperately to keep up with the times and failing miserably because they just aren't the same people they were ten or fifteen years ago. In short, they grew up, and just aren't fun anymore.