Musical Diversions 1

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 29, 2010 in Music

Okay, so this is tooooooootally off-topic, but it’s my blog and I’ll do what I please. If Richard Carrier gets to blog about music, then so do I.

Years ago, I embarked on a quest to listen to every genre of music I could find – from Mozambique folk music to Argentine experimental university music to British avant-jazz to… everything. I then made a list of the Best Rock Albums Ever. These days I don’t listen to much music anymore, but here are a few of my recent first-time listens…

Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid is as ambitious as pop albums come, effortlessly flowing between catchy riffs on rap, funk, hip-hop, 60′s kitsch, psych rock, dream pop, disco, new wave, 70′s tape experiments, soul, folk, cabaret, neoclassical symphonic overtures, and more. The synthesis achieved is almost invisible, which is to say: perfect. Monae is perfectly at home singing in each genre. You might say she’s “showing off” but, well, isn’t that why we go to see the best of the best perform, rather than the mediocre? ArchAndroid: best mainstream pop album of the past 10 years? Possibly. Oh, and she’s my age. Fuck me.

David Lang’s Child is a 5-movement suite (commissioned separately, but envisioned as a whole, and collected on one disc) drawing on his usual influences: minimalism and rock music. “Sweet Air” is my favorite movement, while “Stick Figure” is a throwaway. The piece is more subdued and less rockin’ than my favorite works in this genre, for example Michael Gordon’s Weather and the pieces collected in Bang on a Can’s Renegade Heaven. I have yet to hear the 2008 piece for which Lang won the Pulitzer Prize in music, his Little Match Girl Passion.

Experimental electronic rock music duo Autechre invented new languages of music on Incunabula, Tri Repetae, and Chiastic Slide, and even to a lesser degree on Confield. Their latest, Oversteps, is not a return to greatness, though it is a return to ambience. Major publications like Drowned in Sound and NME are reviewing this one ecstatically, though I suspect they are trying to make up for having missed the profundity of their earlier works. I keep hoping Autechre have one more masterpiece in them, but Oversteps offers no more hope than their previous, Quaristice.

But let’s move on to some good news. After dropping the best album of the last decade in Ys, Joanna Newsom’s three-disc followup, Have One on Me, is superb. It is not as musically ambitious or emotionally flawless as Ys, but it retains all the marks of a master songwriter. Newsom’s progressions are pure joy, and Newsom shows her expressive subtlety in, for example, “Occident,” which repeats a simple riff but shifts imperceptibly from funerial to aggressive to meandering to whimsical, all while maintaining its emotional coherence.

I suppose most people know Nels Cline as the lead guitarist for Wilco, but he has spent most of his career performing experimental and free-jazz guitar pieces. Coward is his first solo overdub album, and while it contains many interesting ideas, they are not focused toward any particular intent or effect. Pitchfork reviewer Marc Masters hits the nail on the head when he writes that much of the album plays “more like exercises in Derek Bailey or John Fahey scholarship than coherent songs.”

Okay, I’ve had my fix for music writing. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming…

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Maher May 29, 2010 at 12:56 pm
Kutuzov May 29, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Funny, I saw Autechre’s “Oversteps” as a gorgeous return to form (yum!), and – purely because any comparison to “Ys” is going to be incredibly tough – “Have One On Me” was disappointing, to the point where I find it difficult to listen to it through in it’s entirety.

I’ll have to check out the others :)


Anonymous Coward May 30, 2010 at 8:51 am

I listened to the samples of ArchAndroid on amazon. Each one invariably sounded like elevator music. Perhaps it’s an impressive album if you like kitschy sounding elevator music but I do not.


TK May 30, 2010 at 12:51 pm

needs moar black metal


svenjamin May 30, 2010 at 2:20 pm

“needs moar black metal”
I concur. Finntroll’s latest, Nifelvind, is pretty awesome.


svenjamin May 30, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Okay, here is the metal that Luke told me he forgot to include:

Finntroll’s Nifelvind:
Finntroll is a Finnish folk metal band blending traditional Scandinavian folk melodies with death metal vocals and lyrics inspired by legends of trolls repelling Christian missionaries. Their latest work, Nifelvind, showcases a variety of vocal moods: polka-chants, howling and growling, and sober singing. See Galgasang (Gallow’s Song) and Fornfamnad (Embraced by the Ancient):

Diablo Swing Orchestra’s “Butcher’s Ballroom”
An eclectic blend of operatic female vocals with stunning vibratto, jazz, metal, blues, boogie, and whatever else they damn well feel like. Check out “Balrog Boogie”

Agalloch’s “Ashes Against the Grain”
American’s finest avant-garde folky-metal! Long, creative, atmospheric nature-themed, pensive compositions
“Not Unlike the Waves”


lukeprog May 30, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Ha, I said no such thing to svenjamin!

But okay, I’ll try to review some metal next time. I’ve heard the Agalloch and thought it was decent. Thanks for the YouTube links.


Bill Maher May 30, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Svenjamin, I really like folk metal also. I would say in addition to the bands you listed, Korpiklaani and Waylander.


Haukur May 31, 2010 at 3:44 am

I listened to the samples of ArchAndroid on amazon. Each one invariably sounded like elevator music. Perhaps it’s an impressive album if you like kitschy sounding elevator music but I do not.

That was my impression too, though I admit just listening to samples might not be giving it a fair shot.

needs moar black metal

Definitely. And throw in some neofolk too.


isom June 1, 2010 at 6:01 am

Never would have taken you for a Janelle Monae fan, but I’m pleasantly surprised at your list. She’s a phenomenal talent.


Rhys Wilkins June 10, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Finntroll is fucking awesome! Great for a party.

At the moment I am listening to Between the Buried and Me’s 2007 album Colors, probably one of the greatest metal albums I have ever heard. Their technical mastery and ceaseless flow between styles and time signatures never ceases to amaze me. Each song gets so much better every time you listen to it.


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