My listening experience of Apparatjik‘s first album, We Are Here, benefited from low expectations — which may sound like the damnation of faint praise, but it’s truly a pleasant surprise. A little history of the project: Apparatjik is a “super group” featuring Jonas Bjerre of Mew, Guy Berryman of Coldplay, Magne Furuholmen of a-ha (yes, that a-ha), and Martin Terefe. I’m not sure how this haphazard collection of musicians came together, but they initially released one nice, if underwhelming, song, “Ferreting,” for a documentary series about Amazon tribes. And that seemed to be the end of that until they re-emerged months later as an enigmatic cyber-performance art group, with a vaguely musical component. Their cryptic MySpace page asked “Are you an Apparat-chick?” and only friended their female acolytes. The page consisted of abstract video clips, pixellated photographs, and some half-baked song samples. The band sent new fans scurrying across the internet on elaborate Easter egg hunts for clues about their next move. The whole thing was infuriating, and honestly, kind of dull. Then came the insane headfuck of their official website, an interactive cube with hidden links to random YouTube videos, art, more song clips, and band photos. The guys seemed more interested in messing with their hapless fans (who, at that point, didn’t even know what they were fans of) than actually producing music. By the time they announced that an entire record had been made, I just assumed it was recorded on a lark, during a lost weekend, and would be stuffed with pointless electronic noodling, instrumental filler, and some unsatisfying vocal tracks thrown in for good measure. Also, judging by the promo photos, it seems like they did more skiing and beer-drinking than laying down tracks.
But you know me. At this point, I’m a sucker for anything that Bjerre has had a hand in; overwhelmed by curiosity, I bought the digital download and braced myself for the inevitable disappointment. And something remarkable happened.
I like We Are Here. A lot.
Sure, it’s kind of a trifle, and there are one or two iffy moments, but overall the album works. Even more remarkable, instead of pointless filler, I find that I enjoy every single song on here. When was the last time that happened? Bjerre and Berryman share vocal duties,* and although Mew fans will complain that Berryman’s voice is lacking (they’re probably biased — I’m sure Coldplay fans will eat it up), I find that contrast fascinating. Bjerre’s voice is such a creature of the air that when played against Berryman’s more earthy (and somewhat average) voice, he sounds divinely inhuman. Furthermore, Bjerre-as-vocalist often sounds more comfortable in Apparatjik’s synthesized landscape than the aggressive guitar-prog of Mew. Note the transition between singers on songs like “Supersonic Sound” and “Electric Eye” and be shocked by how pristine he sounds.
Apparatjik bills itself as experimental, but between Coldplay, a-ha, and Mew, we’ve got some serious pop sensibilities going on. Make no mistake, this is a pop album with tidy little numbers. Occasionally the songs have tacked-on “Oops, we forgot to be wacky” noise-collage endings, which are unnecessary, but forgivable. Almost. Album opener “Deadbeat” starts the electronic apocalypse, aping the familiar Mew trick of pulling the melodic rug from under your feet every few seconds. My knee-jerk reaction to the bouncy-frantic “Datascroller” was “auto-tune travesty,” but it grows on me –like fungus –largely owing to Bjerre’s childlike refrain and a lovely dark piano interlude. The album’s programming is alternately icy (“Snow Crystals,” and “Antlers”) and sunny (“Arrow and Bow” and the joyous “Look Kids” with its Polyphonic Spree-like choral plea of “Look kids, the sun is out/ do you know what this means?”). The standout track, first single “Electric Eye,” is far grander than it has any right to be, especially considering it’s slightly by-the-numbers.
Right now, the album is only available for download and/or pre-order through Apparatjik’s shop.
right-click: Apparatjik — “Electric Eye”
*Correction: It seems I was too hasty in assuming that Berryman is the other singer. Furuholmen and Terefe also lend vocals to the album — but I do believe that Berryman is featured prominently on “Electric Eye.”
We zany Mew fans finally get a taste — thanks, Pitchfork! — of the upcoming album No More Stories. . .(which won’t be released in the U.S. until August 25th) with the first single “Introducing Palace Players.” My immediate reaction to the song is ambivalent; I’ve worried that this album might get the Franz Ferdinand treatment, since producer Rich Costey has also worked with those Scots, and it’s true that the angular guitars and dirty disco sounds are more than a little reminiscent. However, the pop sensibility in the melody is purely Mew, as well as the off-kilter beat that slowly coalesces into a loping groove. I’ll have to reserve my judgement for the rest of the album. Mew songs tend to be overstuffed and sound a bit messy out of context. But, in the meantime, hurray!
I don’t understand a word of Danish, but the NRK site posted a video interview of Mew’s lead singer Jonas Bjerre and guitarist Bo Madsen talking about the new album, No More Stories... What I can tell you is that the video gives us our very first sound-bytes of a few new songs. From what I can hear, the music sounds a little more upbeat, and a lot more straightforward, than 2005’s moody space opera And the Glass-Handed Kites, but still ambitious as ever. The brief clips give me hope that this album will let the songs (and the vocals) have more breathing room; Kiteswas beautiful, but frustratingly dense in its production.
Video highlights for a non-Danish speaker: a few more minutes to gaze at the adorable Bjerre is always welcome, and He of the Magic Moustache (that’s Madsen, for those who aren’t hip) has a fancy new haircut!
I’ve just been looking at the lineup of album releases for the next couple of months, and it’s pretty impressive. Tuesday after next (May 19th) is a big one, with releases by Iron & Wine (not actually new, but a round-up of previously unreleased material), Jason Lytle (of Grandaddy) and John Vanderslice.
May 26th, of course, is the week we’ve all been waiting for when the new Grizzly Bear finally arrives (although it leaked awhile ago — I’m trying not to give in to temptation!).
And the following weeks will see new releases by Elvis Costello, Dirty Projectors, Riceboy Sleeps (the side project by Sigur Ros frontman), Regina Spektor, Dinosaur Jr., Wilco, and God Help the Girl (Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian’s solo project).
The current word on Mew‘s No More Stories… is an August 19th release (in Finland), with the first single “Repeater Beater” premiering the first of June (and a few European tour dates this summer with Nine Inch Nails. Weird). Woo! Something concrete, finally.
Also looking forward to having more time with music this summer as I leave the ghosts of the school year behind.
Once upon a time there were two popular bands in Denmark, Swan Lee and Mew. They were both very respectable bands, even if Swan Lee was a little on the poppy side. Then something magical happened: Johan Wolhert, Mew’s bass-player and Pernille Rosendahl, Swan Lee’s glamorous lead singer, fell in love and had a baby, and thus, Swan Lee dissolved and Wolhert quit the band to spend more time with his new family.
After a while, Rosendahl and Wolhert decided that they wanted to make an entirely different kind of beautiful music together and, lo, The Storm was born. Fans were anxious. What would happen when beloved members of two beloved Danish bands put their heads, hearts, and basslines together in song?
Now, before we get into the monstrous birth that was The Storm’s first album Where the Storm Meets the Ground (think about that title for awhile), I want to talk about Mew. I love this band; they’re kooky, they’re arty, they seem relatively smart and self-aware — even if their sincerity and ambition sometimes makes them a little uncool with the hipster crowd. It doesn’t hurt that they’re good-looking, too. In their younger days, they were downright boy-band cute, complete with label-ready personalities: the shy one, the funny one, the sexy one, the boy next door, etc..
And speaking of boy-bands, I want to talk about one of Mew’s earliest singles, “Mica,” from their lost second album released in 2000, Half the World is Watching Me (only re-released last year after being out of print for awhile). File this song under What Were You Thinking? The sublime Europop ridiculousness of this song is only matched by the even more sublime ridiculousness of the video. Are they serious? Are they kidding? Who knows! You can never tell with Mew. No doubt the same man who could sing “But if there’s a glitch, you’re an ostrich,” with a straight face on “The Zookeeper’s Boy,” is also dead serious about killer androids and world peace.
The most endearing part of the video is lead singer Jonas Bjerre, who is notoriously skittish and withdrawn, because he clearly has no idea what to do with himself on camera. You can practically see the terror in his giant kewpie-doll eyes. Check out the amazing subtitles, too, a cult favorite among Mew fans.
I love watching this video even though no amount of hipster irony can make it okay. It makes me laugh, brightens my day, but there’s still a good deal of embarrassment in that laughter. It’s the kind of song/video that makes you question the band, whether or not every other good idea they’ve ever had was some kind of massive fluke. Is this the true face of Mew?
So while you’re all processing that, let’s get back to The Storm. When they debuted themselves, playing “Drops in the Ocean” live on a Danish TV show, I’d like to think that the world stood in shock (and awe) at the sheer awfulness. Wolhert’s personal style aside (I’ll deal with that later), the marching band drums, the Metallica-lite guitar riffs, and Rosendahl’s pop diva attitude combined into one melty, stringy, cheesy mess.
Naturally, I had to have this album.
Sometimes when I’m in the car by myself, like say, commuting to Tupelo, I put on Where the Storm Meets the Ground and belt out the lyrics to “Drops in the Ocean” (I’ve memorized every word), and then I bray along with “Lullaby,” “The Beauty of Small Things,” and “The Table’s Turning.” After a while, I even become convinced that it’s not so bad, that some of the songs, like “Lay Down Your Head,” are actually half decent. Whenever my mind starts down this train of thought, I have to stop and ask myself: “Would I listen to this music in front of people I know and admire?” I only reveal my affection for The Storm when I can’t help but geek out a little, and now I’m confessing it to all of you.
So what’s the connection I’m trying to make between The Storm and Mew’s silly misstep so many years ago? I’m pretty sure that an over-the-top pop song like “Mica” is the work of Bjerre, who, after all, is in touch with both his inner child and his inner cheeseball. During that phase in the band’s history, he frequently admitted to loving musicals (Annie? Seriously?) How else to explain that song, which is mostly an anomaly in the Mew catalogue, along with its sister songs “King Christian” and the piano-rock ditty (think Ben Folds on crack) “Saliva,” a song so saccharine that you’ll cringe yourself to death before the second chorus. But now that we’ve seen what The Storm can do and what Wolhert’s songwriting is like, it’s tempting to blame him instead. I do like Johan. Trashing his music feels bad because he seems like an affable and articulate guy — and hey! he even recorded once with Elliott Smith on a cover of “Hey Jude” that has yet to see the light of day — but ever since he started dressing like a death pirate from outer space, fans have started to wonder if he wasn’t the Ringo to Bjerre’s John and Madsen’s Paul (bad analogy, sorry). It will be interesting to see what happens on Mew’s upcoming album (out sometime in June) without Wolhert’s influence.
Now let’s return to compulsive list-making with some old favorites, alongside a few you may not have heard before. My knowledge of music could hardly be called obscure, but there are a few artists I know of who deserve a little more recognition — not because they’re making undiscovered masterpieces or anything, but because they may be of passing interest to someone out there. A couple of these artists have a solid fanbase, although for some reason I never hear anyone talking about them. I’ve suggested which album might be a good starting point.
Alaska! — Emotions
LA-based (and now defunct) band Alaska! is just another group caught up in Lou Barlow’s tangled, incestous web: bass-player Russ Pollard played drums for Sebadoh’s last record, and he and singer Imaad Wasif both joined Barlow in the new, revamped Folk Implosion following Davis’ departure. Wasif was a young virtuoso guitar player, formerly of little-known band lowercase, and he currently plays solo, or as part of Imaad Wasif and the Two-Part Beast. Wasif has a commanding vocal presence that seethes even in quiet moments. I might be tempted to say that their sound is mostly straightforward rock, but there are moments of glam and prog that peek out sometimes in their longer, more epic crawls. I saw Alaska! play on three different occasions (in tiny, sparsely attended venues in Louisiana and Mississippi) and they put on some of the tightest shows I’ve ever seen, owing largely to Wasif’s swaggering rock star charisma. They never quite harnessed the energy of their live performances in the recording process and, as a result, the albums sound a little flat by comparison. Wasif’s pseudo-poetic act can be a little silly and pretentious, but Alaska! put out two solid, underappreciated gems of snarling rock sparkle. Their second album, Rescue Through Tomahawk (available at Insound, is also consistently entertaining and worth checking out.
Eleni Mandell — Thrill
This Silverlake singer/songwriter doesn’t get enough love ’round these parts. I saw her twice at a tiny club in New Orleans, but her recent tours haven’t been as extensive as they once were. She honed her dark, playful mix of cabaret, spy noir, and Tom Waits-inspired songwriting on Thrill, her second album. While her entire catalogue (seven full-lengths and an EP) has produced some great songs here and there, Thrill is a solid piece of work, with Mandell’s retro bad girl persona in full bloom. Her voice is like a coy PJ Harvey; in the span of a song she moves effortlessly between a coo, an ecstatic whisper, a howling wail, and wounded, vulnerable soprano. In later years, she toned down the theatrics in favor of a cooler, lounge-y jazz sound, still whimsical in its way, but much tamer. Personally, I prefer her femme fatale phase. In particular, check out Thrill’s opening track “Pauline,” in which she has seduced the title character’s lover and taunts her about the “cold blue sofa where your man got down, and your man told me, ‘Let’s go.'”
Mew — Frengers
Mew, from Denmark, has enjoyed enormous success all over Europe, but hasn’t quite broken in the U.S. Sure, they’ve done a couple of extended tours with gigs in every major American city, played six showcases at SXSW 2007, but I don’t actually know anyone (besides myself) who has heard of them. Frengers, their third album, catapulted them from relative obscurity to the top of the Danish charts, displacing shitty bubblegum acts like Aqua (the only other Danish group to gain such international success) in favor of more inventive indie bands. More than that, Frengers is a solid album. A couple of the songs, like the singles “Am I Wry? No” and “She Came Home for Christmas” sound a little slicker and more radio-friendly than the average American-indie counterpart, but lead-singer Jonas Bjerre’s quirky acrobatic vocals keep it interesting. Check out the ethereal “Eight Flew Over, One Was Destroyed,” and be ready to crank up “Snow Brigade” during a thunderstorm. The album ends with the crowd-pleasing closer, “Comforting Sounds,” a song that maintains its intensity, despite a running-time of nearly nine minutes.
More later! Happy listening.
Recently on Facebook, there has been a rash of users posting applications like “Albums that have shaped me,” or “Albums that have changed my life.” Now, I’ll start off by saying that lists and rankings such as the classic “Top Five Desert Island Albums” have always presented something of a challenge for me. Current top five? Can’t do it. My music-listening habits of the last four years have been so incredibly fractured that I’d be hard-pressed to make a cohesive list that reflects my current aesthetic. There’s one or two records I’ve listened to consistently (Frengers and And the Glass-Handed Kites, both by Danish band Mew), and a handful of records that I like in the most casual of ways (In Ear Park by Department of Eagles, TV on the Radio’s Dear Science, even a would-be fascination with Pinback’s Rob Crow and his various projects). But five solid choices? And what about top five of all time? Can’t do that either. There was a time in my life, say about six or seven years ago, when I was dead certain that there were four or six(never five!) perfect records (with staying power, no less) I could name on demand.
Because of the aforementioned difficulties, I actually find the “Albums that have shaped my life” to be a more comforting format for sharing my “top” records. It’s easier to talk about, to quantify. The albums either had a profound effect on me, or they didn’t — and that’s something that will never change. I will impose no limits on number. There will probably be more than five but less than ten. Who knows?
Criteria include 1) an album I can listen to in full, without skipping a track (or at least no more than two tracks), 2) an album that remained a favorite for a significant period of time, and 3) one that possibly changed the way I thought about music altogether.
So without further ado, and in no particular order (the numbers are a formality):
1. Either/Or by Elliott Smith
2. Under the Pink, Tori Amos
3. Post, Bjork
4. To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey
5. One Part Lullaby, The Folk Implosion
6. III, Sebadoh
7. If You’re Feeling Sinister, Belle & Sebastian
This list is not at all surprising if you consider that they reflect my adolescent period, the time when we are all a little more sensitive to pop culture and absorbed the trends of the time, possibly internalizing them for life. I discovered all of these albums when I was between the ages of 13 and 19, years 1994-2000.
These choices don’t necessarily reflect current tastes; I almost never listen to Tori Amos anymore (unless I need something I can sing along with on a long drive), and although I still enjoy Bjork’s earlier albums, most of her work after Vespertine doesn’t interest me much. On the other hand, I am Lou Barlow’s girl always and forever. True, he has a 75-25% “unlistenable crap” to “brilliance” ratio, but I will always wade through the 75% of crap to get to the gems. Belle & Sebastian will always be welcome in my stereo and my iPod (although not in my car — more on that later!).
In the next few posts, I’ll explore a handful of these essential albums/artists and the subsequent obsessions they spawned in a more thorough fashion. Until then, toodles.