All posts by Tom Mantzouranis

The Streets: Pissing In The Cereal

Living EasyThe StreetsThe Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living (Vice)

Mike Skinner just won’t shut the fuck up. You’d think that after conquering drug abuse (now demoted from drug abuser to simply drug user), having a childhood friend expose him as a phony, getting over the girl at the gates, getting over the girl who was whoring it up with Dan, losing a small fortune and then finding it inside his T.V., and becoming a darling here in the States and downright hero back home, Skinner would finally look at his ATM receipt (insufficient funds no longer) and finally smile. No dice.

Playing the tortured celebrity is a tough sell—you can complain all you want, but we normal folk find it hard to believe that the more money you come across the more problems you see. At least Biggie had some perspective; he really did come from nothing. Skinner, however, has had his legitimacy questioned from the very beginning of attention thrown at Original Pirate Material. Oddly, the typically cynical music media wasn’t the source—a friend of Skinner’s prepared a lengthy written rant exposing lots of tidbits on his personal life that would’ve probably been embarrassing had it not consisted of mostly high-school gossip material like the ugly shirt Mike used to wear out to clubs. Music critics fell in love with Pirate‘s obsession with dingy British urban life and its dangers, whether the words were born of experience or passive observation didn’t seem to enter into the equation. We’ve had lots of experience hearing people complain about their shitty upbringings, so that didn’t bother anyone in particular. And besides, no one had expressed their hardships like that. You know, like that. We even gave Skinner a second pass—in fact, called him a genius—when he spent the entirety of A Grand Don’t Come For Free spilling his heart amidst a pile of empty cans. We’ve all had our hearts stomped on, and there was still that way of storytelling and delivery that made his first album so enthralling. But, really, what would Skinner complain about on his third album? I hoped he’d find something.

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Ghostface Killah – Fishscale

Ghostface Killah - FishscaleGhostface KillahFishscale (Def Jam)

I’ll say it: Tony Starks is the best thing to come of the Wu-Tang Clan. Ever.

Probably the least celebrated of the legendary hip-hop collective (at least above ground), Ghostface Killah has quietly put together an impressive discography of his anarchic delivery. When we last visited the Staten Island native, he was spitting venom over uber-large soul samples on the The Pretty Toney Album. With a Shortlist nom and some incredibly fawning attention from the press, it seemed all but inevitable that Starks had reached his artistic pinnacle. Toney firmly entrenched Starks as an icon in the eyes of intellectual hip-hop fans, a spot he embraced by joining forces on tracks with a few other heavyweight notables—whether Kweli or Doom, et al, over the last two years Ghostface Killah upstaged everyone he worked with.

Fishscale adopts the narrative style of pal and collaborator MF Doom (who produces a few tracks on the album) by loosely stringing a tale of the drug trade by song and interlude alike. The tracks themselves find Ghostface backed by a who’s who of emcees and producers—his most name-heavy release to date. Despite the absence of the GZA, who had previously been a producer on each of Ghostface’s albums, Starks seems unfazed. Why not? Doom, Pete Rock, and Jay Dilla (R.I.P.) are nothing to sneeze at, either.

These tracks retain the raw production of Ghostface’s previous work, which admirably accomplishes the task of making each song sound live—turn up the volume and you can practically feel Starks spitting on you. His delivery is my favorite Ghost mannerism—whether it is over Dilla’s slow, doe-eyed “Whip You With A Strap,” or the glam-rock Just Blaze production on “The Champ,” Starks never changes delivery. He’s constantly breathless and frantic, sharing a similar audible insanity with compatriot ODB. Lyrically, Ghost has always been great at melding violence, hope, and humor (when he croons a quick line in the first verse of “Jellyfish,” it’s almost laughable and loveable at the same time) in a single couplet—with all of these emotions fusing with his delivery and constantly-evolving production, the result is a schizophrenic bomb of explosive energy.

It’s easy to delve headfirst into Starks’ work from an analytical sense and still find tons to be impressed over, but one only need listen to the first line of “9 Milli Bros.,” the Wu-Tang reunion track, to fall in love with Ghostface. “Ya’ll be nice to the crackheads!!!” he screams completely out of cadence, and it’s incredibly addictive. Fans of punk would appreciate Ghost’s dismissal of consonance, and anyone with a pulse should feel the energy oozing from each crevice of Fishscale.

Stars: More Songs About Love and Sex

Stars at Webster HallStars at Webster Hall

February 25, 2006, New York

Talk about out-of-character—Torquil Campbell taking a break in the middle of Stars’ Webster Hall set to introduce “He Lied About Death” with the joke du jour, something about Dick Cheney’s terrible aim. Yawn.

Out-of-character because politics have never been Stars’ specialty—they would much rather have you feel than think, their songs adorned with themes of tragic romanticism, whimsy, and despair. It’s an angle that has gained the Montreal-by-way-of-New York group a reasonable degree of success. They wear their hearts on their sleeves in the most un-ironic of ways, and the many smitten youngsters showed their appreciation on this night. Even the most cynical music fans have to feel weakened by the sugary kiss of Stars’ material. The band, who put even Belle & Sebastian to shame when it comes to twee, are great songwriters, and their cinematic brand of electro-pop translates well to the stage, despite the intricate sonic stew.

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AM/FM: The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

Quiet for a while nowAs we’re all aware, talent is rarely ever the primary factor in deciding which bands make it big and which don’t. The music industry is so mechanized that a lot of different elements come into play—image, timing, location, promotion, sheer luck, connections. Will there ever be another massive success story that champions both style and substance equally? It can be devastating to put all your energy into pursuing a dream only to fall short of your goals, especially when—as it pertains to the actual music—you’ve got the skills to compete with the best.

But what if mainstream success isn’t your main goal? All good musicians start out with a carnal love for what they do and what has come before them. But all too often, musicians lose their original inspirations in the sea of distractions that accompany a career in music—money, fame, attention; essentially, the stuff Behind The Musics are made of.

AM/FM are a two-piece from Philadelphia who stayed consistent in their vision—creating music that they wanted to hear, whether or not anyone else wanted to. A lot of bands claim to keep it real in such a fashion, but when push came to shove AM/FM stuck to their convictions and gave up music almost altogether, finding a gratifying life off the stage. Abandoning the experimental, wall-of-sound pop stylings that they nearly perfected in favor of a more “normal” life, Brian Sokel and Michael Parsell found that the benefits of success didn’t always compensate for the sacrifices. Now, with a renewed energy and motivation, they seem poised to pick up where they left off—on a glorious sun-bathed beach, exposing the soundtrack to Utopia. I tracked down Sokel with help from their label, Polyvinyl Records, and chatted via e-mail about the past, present, and future of AM/FM.

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Prefuse 73 – Security Screenings

Prefuse 73 - Security ScreeningsPrefuse 73Security Screenings (Warp)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Scott Herren’s work as Prefuse 73 is his ability to get so much mileage out of such a specific sound. There is no denying a Prefuse track when you hear one, yet without wholesale turnover each of his albums has a different tone to it. His breakthrough One Word Extinguisher shot high on critical praise and word-of-mouth about its inspiration, a fractured relationship that led Herren to isolating himself in the studio to create what most consider his masterpiece. The general public seemed to be turned off by the Surrounded By Silence, the cameo-laden follow-up, which was loosely disjointed compared to the cohesive Extinguisher. The variety of guests and Herren’s choice to contextualize his sound within their respective worlds instead of making them adapt to his hurt the record’s strength overall, in the eyes of some (not me, Scott…I’ve been with you the whole way). Security Screenings, the un-follow-up to Silence (a full-length that is disguising itself as a companion disc) and perhaps last (?) Prefuse album, finds Herren for the most part keeping to himself—and he sounds more miserable here than on One Word Extinguisher.

There were signs of heartbreak throughout Extinguisher in the more textured tracks, but the album contained more than a few bangers to break the concept that otherwise earmarked the album. Screenings sounds sad, lonely, and defeated. Herren mostly eschews the hip-hop sensibilities that marked his former work in favor of gentler, more deliberate production. You might go so far as to call Security Screenings minimalist—at least as minimalist as the typically bombastic glitch-hop pioneer can get. Herren, who typically bombards soothing sampling with kitchen sink-style production techniques, turns down the backing chaos and allows ambience to take control.

“Creating Cyclical Headaches” is the lone noisy exception, the product of Prefuse and kindred soul Four Tet together. You can break the track in two and see who contributed what—an ornate synth melody (the type that would fit right in on Everything Ecstatic) bubbles at the surface before being buried under an avalanche of white noise and drones. The other guest is Tunde from TV on the Radio, who provides the type of appearance that most would have preferred on Silence. Tunde intonates various syllabic pitches which Herren, as has become custom, edits and layers into the rest of the mix, making Tunde’s presence completely unrecognizable without a glimpse of the liner notes.

If this is in fact the last Prefuse album—Herren has posted some pretty cryptic messages on his website regarding the end of the Prefuse era—the producer has chosen to go out with a sign instead of a bang. He no longer commands attention, which is a position I’d imagine Herren is more comfortable with. He’s never been impressed by his success, and doesn’t seem to need it either. After all, this is the man who moved to Spain, the apex of glitch-hop (sarcasm!), and put out a Spanish folk album after One Word Extinguisher blew up. He’s never been one to pander to the press, and he stood especially strong in the wake of negativity that followed Silence. However, one has to wonder if the reaction of releasing another album mostly devoid of guest appearances within a year of Silence was to satisfy some who weren’t happy with all of the outsiders clouding Herren’s last album. He even throws a brief clip of one of Silence‘s detractors questioning Herren about all of the albums guests. I’m unsure if this is an example of self-deprecating humor, an attempt to draw attention to the rectification of the supposed flaw of Herren’s last album, or a combination of both. Either way, it seems like something’s bugging Herren, as Screenings is the most plodding, isolated album in his career. Still, for anyone who has followed the career of Prefuse 73, it sounds familiar and serves as a reminder—despite the presence of Savath & Savalas, Piano Overlord, or any of Scott Herren’s other aliases, Prefuse 73 has built something from scratch.

Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit

Belle and Sebastian - The Life PursuitBelle & Sebastian – The Life Pursuit (Matador)

For better or for worse, the Belle & Sebastian of your older sibling’s college days are long gone. The elegant lo-fi tweeisms have given way under an avalanche of sugary-sweet power pop. Take the blind test, and you could easily mistake The Life Pursuit for a New Pornographers album.

Not even the group’s previous release, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, can prepare listeners for what The Life Pursuit offers. Stuart Murdoch has proven his worth as a songwriter in the past, and on Waitress he began to adapt his skills into new terrain for the Scottish group.

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Cat Power – The Greatest

Cat Power - The GreatestCat PowerThe Greatest (Matador)

You don’t need to know anything about Chan Marshall’s antics—her breakdown on stage in New York seven years ago, her angry and defensive interview with Pitchfork, etc—to know what kind of stability she has. One needs only to listen to her catalog, a collection of melancholic and minimalist folk. In all of her works, specifically of late, albums took that base and incorporated other essences—lounge piano, jazz, sharp guitar patterns. The Greatest, her seventh record and fifth for Matador, finds Marshall returning home.

Featuring famed Hi Records studio musicians Teenie and Flick Hodges and a host of other acclaimed players from the Golden Memphis era, The Greatest seductively saunters through a smoky bar. Marshall’s songs retain their intimacy and discreetness, and are now textured with Memphis horns and inebriated string arrangements.

It’s untrue that music has to be “cinematic” to evoke imagery—The Greatest is all sepia-toned tumbleweed depression and whiskey sours. A slow piano arrangement opens the album on the title track before an ethereal wave of back-tracked guitar inconspicuously rolls in. Soon, Marshall begins her croon of lost dreams and regret. This subject matter is inherent in all of her works, but is encapsulated in the album’s first line: “Once I wanted to be / The greatest…” (mp3). A chorus of background vocals eerily overlap the last two words, but Marshall tempers the sadness of the entire album with a romantic sensibility. Depression without hope is just sad—Marshall remains wistful despite the austere surface, this adds the depth and quixotic fancy that prevents her music from falling into the same boring cry-a-thon territory of, say, Beck’s Sea Change.

Marshall’s voice is undeniably original—weak, fragile, and hazy with a brassy timbre and drawl to match her roots. The arrangements behind it are reminiscent of the idiosyncrasies of classic Al Green, pared down and slowed to match Marshall’s style. The album, as such, plays out like a singer performing lost Stax classics in a dim lounge. This makes sense—the album was recorded at Stax alternate studio Ardent, where Big Star and Dylan have also recorded.

The influx of creativity in modern music has caused artists to be nomadic in style and substance—career arcs bear more resemblance to sine waves than an actual arc. So it’s refreshing that some people remain constant and consistent. Like the rest of her material, The Greatest is sturdy and unfailing. Predictability isn’t necessarily a negative quality—there is comfort in knowing what to expect from a Cat Power album 11 years into her career, and yet the formula isn’t tired. Especially after 2005, which saw a lack of new material from familiar artists in favor of up-and-comers, it’s nice to open the new year with something equally new and old from one of our favorite songwriters.

Death Cab For Cutie – Plans

Death Cab For CutiePlans (Atlantic)

Who would’ve thought five years ago that Death Cab For Cutie, fresh off their minimalist breakthrough, We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes, would have endured a stylistic change, survived a near break-up, watched Ben Gibbard’s Postal Service side project eclipse Death Cab’s success after only one album, experienced a boost in popularity themselves, and signed to a major label for their fifth album, Plans?

The band, who announced that they were jumping from birthplace Barsuk Records to Atlantic, were lucky to avoid a lot of the conjecture that comes about when an indie band signs to a major label. Their fans, notoriously loyal, stuck with the group after the announcement and decided to play the waiting game before they made up their minds on the move to Atlantic. Which only makes sense, really–there’s been no need to worry about the band becoming more television ready and accessible since Death Cab beat Atlantic to the punch, taking that leap themselves on their third full-length, The Photo Album.

Plans bears more in common with The Photo Album than its direct predecessor, Transatlanticism, which actually took a step backwards meeting the band’s other albums at their midway point. No need to compromise anymore, as Death Cab have officially dropped the other shoe, putting out their first official pop album.

The worst news first: Ben Gibbard’s lyrics suffer greatly. For the first time in Death Cab’s career, Gibbard’s lyrics are actually the album’s albatross, betraying the strong production from guitarist Chris Walla. The band offer a handful of hazy environments, above average indie pop songs, and Gibbard drops the ball with them. Of course, with his sense of melody he could sing entries from the phone book and it would sound beautiful, but you can’t help but notice the drop from earlier gems to faux-profound sentiments like “There are different names / For the same thing.” The song containing that lyric, titled “Different Names For The Same Thing,” blurs the boundaries between Death Cab and The Postal Service, opening with two verses of a seemingly inebriated Gibbard behind a piano before building into a cascading collage of vocal chops and beeps playfully interacting with digital clicks, a cut-and-paste display well worn by Jimmy Tamborello.

At this stage in their career, the growing reality of death has become prevalent. “What Sarah Said” and “I’ll Follow You Into The Dark” examine how relationships are altered by death in a way that bears parallels with the recently concluded Six Feet Under; “Soul Meets Body” desires a personal utopia where the spirit and body live harmoniously, a wish we’ve had for Death Cab since their first album. What they have since abandoned cerebrally, they’ve invested in the sentimentality of their melodies. Although Plans is mostly solid, it won’t make you forget that upstart band they once were, lulling us into hypnosis instead of soundtracking teen drama.

M.I.A: Bob Your Head In Tune To The Beat

Maya ArulpragasamM.I.A. at Central Park’s SummerStage

New York, August 7, 2005

Ahhh, shit.

The words “MAXIMUM CAPACITY” sent a cold shot down my spine on an otherwise pleasantly warm afternoon. You see, my year has led up to this day–starting late last year when someone had recommended Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1, the block-rocking mixtape from the suddenly iconic M.I.A. and her deejay Diplo. While initially unimpressed, Piracy eventually won me over. By the time Arular was released in March, I was salivating. And both albums have dominated the iPod since.

It only seemed natural that Maya Arulpragasam would perform a free show to wind down the 20th anniversary of the Central Park SummerStage series–she has become the face of the most revolutionary form of music since punk, and quite possibly the future of pop music as we know it. So what better way to conclude one of the more diverse musical series in the country than to begin to look forward to the next era?

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Dandi Wind – Bait The Traps

Dandi WindBait The Traps (Bongo Beats)

When Dandi Wind created Bait the Traps, neither member of the two-piece outfit saw much outside of merch table filler for their band’s inauguration to the hotly competitive Canadian live circuit. Instead, Traps caught fire across college radio north of the border and the band, nearing completion on a full-length debut as we speak, found itself walking a tightrope between acclaim and obscurity about as thin as the thread that holds the chaotic Traps from degradating into complete bedlam.

The duo, singer Dandelion Opaine and electro-wizard Szam Findlay, would have stumbled onto some semblance of success almost guaranteed. The people are clamoring for retro; even minimally talented acts are steam-rolling sales with slick production and hella-80s keyboards. But Dandi Wind manage to surpass most of their peers by creating a completely gimmick-free stew of electro, punk, riot, and new-wave. The production, which features only the slightest hint of live instrumentation, is what sells the six songs on Bait the Traps. Findlay hop-scotches notable digital movements: sheets of white noise give way to tinny video-game compositions and soundstructures that appear on the brink of collapse; Aphex Twin and Timbaland have had some sort of radical brainchild, and his arrangements are recognizable without being nostalgic, raw and approachable.

Wind’s vocals are solid but they can pitfall into typical riot-grrrl gymnastics and timbre. Without detracting from Findlay’s production but avoiding really bringing anything new to the table, Opaine recalls Siouxsie, Karen O., and Joan Jett–three admirable influences to be sure, but Opaine does only enough to emulate these artists without truly developing their niche.

The group’s live show exudes charisma, a characteristic also in spades on Traps. This is in large part thanks to Opaine–as Findlay plays the quiet genius in the band’s inner-workings, Opaine grabs the spotlight with her anarchic howl and spastic presence. He wears a suit, she whatever is most torn in her closet at the moment. Together they embody the sense of binary oppositions–as a result, Dandi Wind accelerates best when the production and vocals are at odds. The band has tapped a reliably trendy source of inspiration for Bait the Traps, but do it with a refreshingly realist outlook–bringing a solid work ethic into a genre noted for it’s sloppiness and contrivance. When you begin to work your way into the second and third generations of a musical re-birth, it’s necessary to question the authenticity of the artists and their intentions. Dandi Wind close the case on such questions with Bait the Traps–they’re real, and they’ve got something going for them, at that.