Sunday, April 27, 2008

Friday, April 25, 2008

Trimetric Projection

Crystal Castles
(Last Gang)
This Toronto duo builds decayed synth-pop using mostly 8-bit tones and uncomplicated house rhythms. Crystal Castles' founder Ethan Kath hasn't removed the human element entirely, but vocals are usually filtered or sampled and chopped enough to blend into the electronics.

Some of the least engaging tracks ("xxzxcuzx me" and "Love and Caring" especially) are those where singer Alice Glass gets a more traditional vocal placement out in front of the music. The mic distortion, combined with her punk vocal style, grates against the deceptively fragile instrumentation.

"Courtship Dating" puts Glass' voice to great use with a call-and-response chorus that makes her sound every bit like the urban waif she costumes herself as. Whatever she's singing -- lyrics are nearly indecipherable throughout -- it sounds like an impromptu game of tag in an abandoned building.

The songs that play at digital hardcore or industrial abrasiveness can't escape the trilling electronic burbles that Kath achieves through a keyboard rigged with an Atari 5200 game system sound chip. His invention lends every song a sort of glistening delicacy, no matter how many beefy octave bassline foundations he pours.

Crystal Castles comprises mostly previously released singles and an EP, which isn't a complaint. It's nice to have all this stuff in one place, even if the collection skids into monotony in the third act.

However, the band smartly offers a twist ending by closing their debut LP with "Tell Me What to Swallow" -- a guitar-led piece overcast with Glass' reverbed and mostly wordless vocal blending into pastel washes of synthesizer chords.

Reference materials: Ever wish that early OMD and Fad Gadget had been roped into collaborating on a record using only a Roland TB-303 and a broken Frogger console? Neither have we, but strangely enough that's not far from Crystal Castles. And stranger still, it works.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Over the Counter

Do It!

Liverpool's scrub-suited, lysergic quartet remain compelling with album number five, so perhaps it's time for Clinic to take a bow and leave fans begging for more. Then again, Do It! is probably the most daring collection of songs the band has assembled.

Clinic still blast trebly noise across mesmerizing rhythms to make anxious pagan rock. But Do It! often replaces the learn-as-you-go wind instruments -- such as the clarinet and melodica that wailed through 2004's Winchester Cathedral -- with subtler guitar work and a broader range of tempos.

Their primitive beats however, can't and shouldn't be stilled. The crafty opener "Memories" sounds like two songs taking turns at the microphone, with a fuzz guitar, autoharp and 4/4 stomp trading off with childlike organ, bass and maracas. And "Shopping Bag" is all reed-splitting sax skronk racing to the finish against three chords hammering on the guitar.

But there's a full-on slow dance number, appropriately titled "Emotions." Though singer Ade Blackburn's wired-jaw vocals don't make it easy to know exactly what he's feeling.

Yes, it's all very much a druggy walk through the forest, from the Velvet Underground tango of "High Coin" to the carnival at the end of the universe in the end piece "Coda." Maybe Clinic has a sixth LP in them.

Reference materials: If you always wanted Moondog to make a garage-rock record, or really dig fellow Scousers The Coral (especially Magic and Medicine) then you'll enjoy Clinic.

(Or maybe you just secretly wish Clinic would write a new soundtrack for the underrated feminist horror film Season of the Witch.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Singularly Absurd

Remembering Billy Idol's "Flesh for Fantasy"

Welcome to a new, possibly recurring, column from The Typing Monkey in which we pick a hit single from the past to dissect, inspect, discuss and analyze. Specifically, we will seek out the hits that sound especially odd to modern ears -- songs that are frozen in time, trapped by the eras that created them. Sometimes these songs became hits despite the standards and expectations of the time. All of them sound, to today's listener, singularly absurd.

Song: "Flesh for Fantasy"
Artist: Billy Idol
Released: 1984
Label: Chrysalis
Highest chart position on Billboard's "Hot 100": 29

Parents in a not-too-distant future may want to let their children know what 1980s pop radio sounded like. This song from the middle of Billy Idol's early '80s winning streak is an ideal example. Many of the wonders and embarrassments of the weird world of Top 40 music from that decade are tidily arranged within the four-and-a-half minutes of "Flesh for Fantasy."

The guitar, bass and drums are so fussed over that even the distortion and other effects sound clean. Not sterile, necessarily, but somebody spent a lot of money on cutting-edge studio gear, and some sound engineer used it a little too well. As an associate of The Typing Monkey put it: "You can just see them in the studio arguing over the synthesized handclaps and bitching how it can sound like Howard Jones no matter what."

Anybody who, at the time, may've held on to a whispy thread of hope that Billy Idol would set aside his glossy Los Angeles pop-rock imitation of punk-rock toughery and return to fronting the English glam/pop/punk outfit Generation X likely let that hope drift away upon hearing "Flesh."

After a short instrumental opening, where it's impossible to tell if the drums are electronic or human, Idol coos in his best bedroom baritone, asking us if we "like good music" and if we "like to dance" then quickly answering for us in the affirmative. He switches from lothario to detached analyst throughout, seducing the listener then stepping back to offer half-finished observations about human behavior.

At least it seems that way. Only Billy knows exactly what these words mean.

The sneer/snarl that made Idol famous arrives just in time for the chorus, which at first recalls Debbie Harry's opening lines from "Rapture" ("Face to face / And back to back") then unleashes this puzzling phrase: "You see and feel / My sex attack."

Begging pardon? What's a "sex attack"? Again, only Billy Idol knows. Sure the listener can speculate, and taken out of context it's more than a little bit off-putting, sounding as if it was lifted from a scandalous tabloid headline.

But then the second half of the chorus comes in and Idol barks the song title, which aces a hat trick by being titillating, ambiguous and completely without substance. That is, it's the kind of phrase that hit songwriters dream about -- it fits in a chorus, sounds dangerous and suggestive, and as a song title, it flashes in the dark like a neon sign.

To the teenage ears that made "Flesh for Fantasy" a hit, the song is clearly about "sex" in the most generic, wildly misunderstood way that adolescent brains can imagine. The music dances noncommittally between the brooding eroticism of goth, pop-metal theatrics, and British synthesized dance music. Now read those previous two sentences again and try to argue that "Flesh" could not have been a hit song in the '80s.

Is it giving Billy Idol and his co-writer/guitarist Steve Stevens too much credit to wonder if there's subtext to the song? These two wrote "Rebel Yell", the title track to the album from which "Flesh" and a subsequent hit "Eyes Without a Face" came. The song "Rebel Yell" is pure, unadulterated PG naughtiness -- a party tune made to be both blatant and coy.

Hold on -- isn't that just what we said about "Flesh for Fantasy"? Hmm.

Listeners too young to have heard "Flesh for Fantasy" in regular rotation will laugh at it and wonder just how much cocaine was dumped into the water supply during the Reagan administration. Those who lived it have only two choices: disavow its existence (and stand guilty of denying the past); or embrace this strange little monster as a product of its time.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008


Trust Me
(Minty Fresh)

Annika Line Trost employs classic dance rhythms including waltzes and tangos for a few tracks on her second solo CD. But given the chilly atmosphere of Trust Me, the dancers in these songs fumble through the dark, finding unsure footing amongst the muddy double-bass, shadowy percussion and queasy melodic passages that rise up like the tension building before a cathartic scare that never arrives.

"Man On the Box" is the creepy little sister to Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand." A similar Bad Seeds tenor gives "The Scales and the Score" the lurching pace of a shackled walk to the gallows. (Longtime Bad Seeds drummer Thomas Wydler guests on Trust Me.)

Trost's frequent use of big, reverbed guitar lines recall American slingers such as Duane Eddy and Link Wray. But in her hands, the twang has dried to a husk -- the greasy sleaze sopped up dabbed away by Trost's undeniably German aesthetic.

So we know now which half of Cobra Killer -- Trost's other musical outlet with her musical partner Gina V. D'Orio -- supplies that duo's frequent nods to early rock & roll menace.

To that end, one of the key ingredients to the intimidating appeal of Cobra Killer is the duo's clear, matter-of-fact singing. That effect carries over with Trost. She's not emoting the way a torch singer, or some trip-hop wailer would. Trost finds the notes, hits them and moves on, providing an open, inviting element to Trust Me.

The contrast works to enhance the album's dark mood and hints of unwelcome things lurking out of sight. Trost is both omniscient narrator and active participant in her own thrill ride.

Reference materials: If you know of Trost, you are already a fan of Cobra Killer and a big fan of Gudrun Gut. Right?