Sunday, October 12, 2014

How I Use Spotify

Turned the kettle on to boil, left the kitchen. Got distracted playing with the kids. Sat down at the computer. Heard the boiling sounds. Think it's some song I haven't heard yet on a playlist of mine. Must be coming from the computer. I'm sitting in front of the computer.

The point is my taste in music is weird.

Maybe not weird, but just all over the map. There's not much I can say I don't appreciate on some level. Boiling sounds from a mostly-empty metal kettle are not a far cry from some of the music I either like, or want to explore, and which I throw on my Spotify "Starred" playlist. And you know what, I like being all over the map.

Here's how Spotify helps me be all over the map, constantly devouring new music, ever exploring:

Your first question, as to whether it's free or not, is this: yes, with conditions. You'll get ads unless you fork over $5/month or something like that. Might be more, you check, I'm not paying. I just mute the ads.

They pause the ads when you mute it, an evil practice to be sure, but satisfiable to their ad-space-buying overlords. So just get used to hitting Mute, Play. Then pay attention to when the ad's over and un-mute appropriately. The topside keys on my MacBook Air are way too handy for this.

As for the devouring: I just find whole albums and throw them on the list (drag the album title to the column on the left). They're either from bands I know and love, or bands I want to become more familiar with. Spotify contains lots of recorded sound, from standup comedy to all sorts of music. Consequently, my "Starred" list is huge. I like everything (to the chagrin of my family at times).

Most things.

Then I set it to shuffle all (little icon down in the lower-right-corner or Command-S) and call it a big, giant experiment.

It takes some work, some controlling, some texturing. I'll be deleting songs here and there, or entire albums. When something comes up that I don't like, or is inappropriate for the kids, I'll just get it offa there. So the list is constantly evolving, shifting, becoming more pleasant while newer, unexplored album avenues and alleyways are added.

It's really fun. Spotify is cool. It's supposed to be free on your phone, but I can only get radio stations. But even those are fun.

Thanks, Spotify.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: Trans Am, "Volume X"

The review: "Volume X" by Trans Am
img source: Thrill Jockey
The charge: it’s not Futureworld
Guilty parties: Phil Manley, Nathan Means, Sebastian Thomson

"Volume X" by Trans Am is not a concept piece. The boys compiled several unrelated songs they had been working on both remotely and during jam sessions. As such its sound is varied, and as a side note it would make a great party album.

"Volume X" thoroughly enjoys giving itself to you. In listening to it several times, I cannot think of a single instance during which I wanted to skip tracks. No part of "Volume X" is obnoxious, and at no point do the boys seem out of their practiced groove. They’ve been doing this a long time, and they don’t plan on calling it quits.

In my opinion, they’re only getting better. The 10th album by a 24-year-old band, "Volume X" is well polished. It probably doesn’t hurt that Manley is a professional recording engineer in San Francisco. If one learns new tricks and hones skills every time they make an album, then you know a Trans Am album is going to sound exactly the way the boys want it to, with good production and a full sound, utilizing minimalism, drones, and electronics, and jumping genres while still retaining that essential Trans Am feel of human machinery.

I’m gonna break it down track by track for you.

1st Track, “Anthropocene,” starts all angelic. Fades in really slowly. Then busts into this pretty sweet distorted bass riff with drums negating cymbals and hitting triplet beats on what sounds like six different toms. Sebastian Thomsen is a drumming wizard. He only hits that crash once in a great while here in “Anthropocene,” simply to signal the transition between chorus and verse.

Thomsen has always been my favorite member of Trans Am, and on this song he really shines. He’s every bit as talented as Danny Carey and Brann Dailor (who he toured with in Baroness while supporting Mastodon), but he takes on a more minimal style. He reminds me of Shellac’s Todd Trainer, and The Jesus Lizard’s Mac McNeilly—minimal, unhurried, yet rapid.

Also interesting about this song are the clean (though reverb-laden) vocals. Like, the guys actually had to sing and be on key without the help of a vocorder, the technique that made the song “Futureworld” sound so human-machine and beautiful. I don’t remember ever hearing a Trans Am song with pure human singing before “Anthropocene.”

2nd Track, “Reevaluations,” sounds like a bunch of mobsters in a room, reevaluating whether to put this snitch on ice.

“Show some patience…
Be in control…
If you don’t waste it… don’t you waste it… don’t you waste it.”

Now the guitar line in here has a real James-Brown-meets-The-Police feel. I say Brown because it’s really minimal, doing the same thing over and over to help retain the hypnotic feel. It also reminds me of an Eighties-Police guitar sound.

Suddenly the song opens up with a big major chord, but only for half a bar. Then it goes right back to that dark bass line. Then, what the heck is that, a Peter Frampton-style mouth-thing guitar solo? Pretty badass. A throwback to their TA album for sure.

This is a really sweet song, especially thru headphones. This album is badass. Trans Am have mastered their craft. They are Jedi.

Aw, you can hear some spontaneous in-studio laughter at the end! Sweet.


3rd track, "Night Shift."
It’s a really uplifting, angelic source of synths, with bass and drum lines that don’t quite fit at first, but then come subtly into synch and the head bobbing unequivocally begins. It’s undeniable, the head bobbing influence of “Night Shift.”

That was so awesome, using the not-part-of-the-song laugh, which betrays, right there in plain English, how tongue-in-cheek these guys are sometimes, the laugh that suddenly lifts you up after that long menacing “Reevaluations,” and smoothly transitions into the positively lifting “Night Shift.”

But, the song gets boring quick, so they end it quick. Good choice, guys.

4th Track, “K Street,” has cool vocals. Vocorder, low and distorted. Low, droning, distorted bass. Drums processed and sounding sweet.

 “What’s your fucking problem?”

Fucking menacing. Like you’re walking thru Zozo on FF6. Holy crap, that was fast, we’re already into—

Track 5, “Backlash
FUCK YEAH! Some thrash! I have never heard Trans Am be this metal! The drums are right on, totally mimicking Lars Ulrich! Clearly this excites me. That’s some good shit right there. There are two simultaneous vocal lines going on, one mixed to the left and another mixed to the right. Then a pretty legitimately sweet guitar solo! He’s not an expert, but he knows all the right moves to pull.

It fades out pretty quick. That was fucking badass. They don’t pull any punches with “Backlash.”

Track 6, “Ice Fortress,” begins with a circular, rising pattern. Begins a lot like “Night Shift,” with drums and bass fading in behind a solid keyboard line. This is a pretty even-keel, trance-y, jazzy number. Makes me feel warm. The mix is really warm. Stimulating. Good music to work to. Not distracting. Engaging. Really interesting how the guitar and drums are all working together near the end, with that big, large, giant bass worm monster crawling back and forth in the mix, like the big black worm at the end of Portal’s video for “Curtain.”

Track 7, “Failure,” begins with drums. Synths. Cool menacing bass line. We’re back on K Street, it seems. Same feeling. We’re in a gang and we’re trying to get something nasty done. But what? The boys give you a feeling of swirling down into the bad place with “Failure.” Very dark. Very dark. Rainy. You’re shaking your head no as the camera pans out and fades to black.

Track 8, “I’ll Never.” Now I’ve seen this video something like a million times.

It’s so amazing—a complete concept, a full marriage of sound and video, conceptually and narratively. It’s got a Twin Peaks feel. A throwback to the Fifties. Slow. Takes its time. In no hurry. Full of love. The vocals are processed, so they don’t sound human. And in the video it looks like it’s not even Nathan Means’s hand holding the mic. He’s absolutely still, like a mannequin.

Then he drinks water three times and it’s hilarious. I also love the woman in this video. She’ll never get over him, either.

“I’ll Never” is the most romantic journey I’ve yet heard Trans Am attempt. It was weird at first, but my three-year-old girl really likes it. She calls him The Red Man.

The one thing I don’t understand is the shot of trash at the end. It’s really quick. Is it as obvious a point as it seems? “This video is really just trash?”

Track 9, “Megastorm.” Now I watched the video for this song first, and it kind of fell flat. The mix is a little flat. But when I heard “Megastorm” thru headphones, it really hit me. The Megastorm. The fullness of those distorted bass sounds, the epic scales they’re playing, the slow, sci-fi doom-ness of it all. It’s a really beautiful concept. It reminds me a lot of the track “Black Matter” from their last album, 2010’s “Thing.”

You just want to do a creepy dance to this song! It’s fucking sweet!

This album is purely enjoyable. The boys put a lot of work into it, and at this point in their band life, they know which pitfalls to avoid, and how to sound polished before even going in. it’s really cool stuff, really clean, really pure. Really creative, too. Trans Am can keep rocking this sound forever, I don’t care. It’s like I say about Deftones—they keep exploring the same sound, and they somehow keep making it more beautiful!

Speaking of which—

Track 10, “Insufficiently Breathless.” What a beautiful piece. The video is good, too. The acoustic guitar line that starts it out is something so big and beautiful and clean, straight out of the Seventies, with Cat Stevens and Simon & Garfunkle, but featuring a better mix with the technology of today.

Oh man, and the rising part. In the video, he’s climbing the hill. It’s so peaceful, so introspective. So, “We made it.”

Then. Gets darker. You can hear the downtuned his guitar. The chords get more minor, but still explorative, still unchained, still reaching, exploring the spaces it creates. The man is walking into the water and the credits are rolling, leaving you to wonder where it is he’s going. I bet he’s headed straight into space. Probably transcending his mortal body.

And with these boys, that’s not a far-off bet.

Some other good reviews of Volume X to explore:
Thrill Jockey
TransWorld SKATEboarding
Fractured Air