Review: Congotronics Vinyl Boxed Set (Crammed Discs, 2010)
Being that I am the whitest dude you have ever met, born in perhaps the whitest place on the planet, Congolese musicians Konono Nº1, or as they’re known by their full name, L’orchestre folklorique T.P. Konono Nº1 de Mingiedi, present something new and different and exciting to me. I rarely have the opportunity to be immersed in African music: there is one notable band that plays pan-African-influenced music in Newfoundland (Mopaya), but beyond this, we see very little African influence in the culture around us here, and that’s sad… musicians like Konono Nº1 are sorely lacking in my home town. The first few likembé notes of Congotronics capture me.
Konono Nº1 represents the root of a genre of Congolese music: there are Konono bands playing in Kinshasa nightly, and Konono Nº1 are the first of the Konono bands (Nº1 being the first or primary Konono). Started by Mawangu Mingiedi at some indeterminate time in the late 60’s or early 70’s, making use of the likembé (a piano-like stringed instrument) and playing traditional Bazombo music; Mingiedi made adjustments to the traditional instrumentation and musical arrangement to come up with Konono Nº1, a fuzzed-out update of the Bazombo musical tradition. The band consists of multiple likembés played through DIY amplification, lending them a uniquely fuzzy sound. The lead vocals are sang/shouted through megaphones, adding another layer of fuzz. All played over the trancelike beats created using improvised percussion, this music is both traditional and groundbreaking: rooted in Bazombo tradition (Crammed uses the term electro-traditional), but at the same time uniquely Mingiedi. Other related electro-traditional groups have similar sounds with their own distinctive flavours.
Today I’m reviewing an item that reminds me why I buy vinyl. Crammed Discs out of Belgium (home of other notables Megafaun and Balkan Beat Box) releases music from acts based all over the world, but don’t call them a world music label. They’ve got over 500 releases from artists the world over. This particular set focuses on one of their most successful endeavors: bringing Congolese music to the (European/Asian/western) masses. This beautiful 7-album set (all 180-g vinyl) consists of two Konono Nº1 LPs (the set’s namesake, Congotronics, as well as their 2010 followup, Assume Crash Position), the rest of the Congotronics series (a set of albums from Konono Nº1 and other notable Congolese musicians), and a Kasai Allstars 7″ which features a collaboration with Akron/Family. In addition to all of this tasty vinyl, the box includes a photography book featuring scenery from Kinshasa, and a thumbdrive containing 9 videos by the included groups and mp3s of all tracks aside from the Kasai Allstars album and the Congotronics 2 album. The album art is different than the original releases for each, changed to the theme for the box, brown cardboard with smaller versions of the original album art on both the front and the back of each. The vinyls themselves are sleeved in alternately colored versions of the box art, each album containing a different colored sleeve.
I started with Staff Benda Bilili upon breaking open the set. Check out the Crammed page about the band for a full description, but suffice to say, these guys are inspirational. The older members of the band, physically handicapped by polio earlier in their lives, care for the younger members who make up the rhythm section; street kids from around the Kinshasa Zoo. Their sound is rooted in the same mix of traditional and modern Congolese music as Konono Nº1, but with a stronger influence from some western genres, ie. blues and reggae. One truly distinctive feature of their sound is the electric lute: a homemade, one-stringed instrument, constructed from a can, heard playing the piercing leads that cut through the melodies on most tracks throughout the album. They cover a lot of ground on Très Très Fort, their debut album, and it’s an amazing trip. Moto Moindo, the opening track, is based around a rumba rhythm, Polio has an almost reggae feel, Je T’aime mixes a bluesy guitar line with a distinctly African rhythm, and so the album continues. A fascinating listen.
Next for me was Kasai Allstars – In the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy by Magic (whew!), their debut album. Again, check out the Crammed page for a more complete background. Kasai Allstars are a supergroup of sorts, consisting of members from a variety of groups, each of whom claim a different cultural background. This unique mix of Kasai culture produces a more traditional sounding electro-traditional than we see in the case of Staff Benda Bilili or Konono Nº1, a softer, smoother, and yet just as danceable sound, despite the softer rhythmic approach. Intro Quick As White sets the tone with twinkling guitar and undistorted likembé, and with female vocals, factors that differ significantly from other Congotronics perfomances. Standout Drowning Goat (Mbuji-Mayi) closes the album, the rhythm building with intensity, the male and female vocals weaving together, leading to a crescendo that ends the album in fine Congolese style.
I proceeded to check out Congotronics 2 – Buzz N’ Rumble From the Urban Jungle, a compilation of tracks from a variety of Congolese musicians. The Crammed page for the album gives a bit of background. The album’s musicians open our eyes to a wider variety of Congolese/Kinshasan sounds, this time, some particularly intense ones: from opening collaboration Wa Muluendu between Masanka Sankayi and Kasai Allstars (Masanka Sankayi is actually one of the groups which lends members to Kasai Allstars), a likembé-filled electro-traditional tune in the Kasai Allstars style; to bass-driven Le Labourer from a solo Masanka Sankayi, almost bordering into rock and roll territory; to Mulume, from artists Basokin, the song trancelike, with a driving rhythm and a battling swarm of guitar and likembé. Side B takes it down a notch with a laid-back opener from Kasai Allstars, but we’re right back to the driving, distorted rhythmic trance of Kinshasa for the final tracks from Sobanza Mimanisa and from Bolia We Ndenge, the latter making use of an accordion-like instrument to drive the song. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to hear these different takes on Congolese music.
Which takes us to the jewels in the crown that is the Congotronics set: the original Congotronics from Konono Nº1, and their incredible followup effort, Assume Crash Position. Beyond what I’ve already said about the band, more can be learned from their Crammed page. I can’t praise them highly enough. Both of these albums are entrancing, mindblowing works of art. Congotronics sets the Konono standard, a brilliant album of driving rhythms and piercing, fuzzed-out melodies created on improvised and homemade instruments, of harmonies, of call (on a megaphone) and response performed by the entire band, and of a kind of proto-rumba, making obvious the African at the root of much western music. Intro track Lufuala Ndonga is vintage Konono, all likembé and megaphones and pounded rhythms, and much of the album continues in this vein, with exceptions Paradiso (a live instrumental exploration of the Konono sound), and Kule Kule Reprise, which is a softer return to the original tune. Closer Mama Liza is a standout. Like Congotronics, Assume Crash Position opens with a blast of likembé, setting the intense pace that doesn’t let up for two discs with opener Wumbanzanga. Everything they do is magic: the chorus of male and female voices becoming one in every song, the driving rhythms, the shouts and distorted likembé, the basslines weaving in around all of the rest: the world needs to hear this taste of Congo.
The set’s little additions round out the collection nicely. A recent addition to the Congotronics line is a collection of tracks by “western” artists collaborating with, remixing, and paying tribute to Congolese artists, including those represented in this set. An example of this collaboration, between Akron/Family and Kasai Allstars, is included in 7″ format in the box, with a b-side by Kasai Allstars (the only issue with my set was that the sleeve for this album had come unglued before I received it). The addition of Akron/Family’s indie rock sensibilities to Kasai Allstars’ electro-traditional sound makes for an interesting listen. Also found in the box, the thumbdrive includes video of some amazing live performances, a standout of which is Staff Benda Bilili’s performance on Later… with Jools Holland.
Look, this is without a doubt the coolest thing in my collection. It’s the biggest set, it’s got the most stuff in it, but these things are non-factors: the material contained in this gigantic set is head and shoulders above most of the rest of my collection. This is incredible music, created by incredible musicians, and would be a fine addition to any collection. You’ll need to act quickly, though: as you can see, I have #848 of 1000 boxes that were pressed. I’m optimistic for the sake of music fans out there that they aren’t sending them out in order and that there are more than 152 of these things left to be had, but in case, don’t delay if you plan on getting your own. Getting one might be a bit of an undertaking in North America, however; they’re only available from Crammed discs out of Belgium (the set actually ships from UK). Canadian buyers: I got dinged for an additional $40 of customs on top of the cost of the box and the shipping. Because of these crazy costs, it’s hard to justify buying from Crammed (that said, I don’t regret this purchase one bit, despite my grumbling about the customs charge), even though they have a variety of things I’d like to check out. Here’s hoping they find a North American distributor!
Review: Lana Del Rey – Born To Die (Interscope, 2012)
Sorry for the delay. I know I said I’d post at least one a week, but the last couple have been hectic… vacation/destination wedding, and a family emergency that called for me being AFK. Here’s one I had in the tank waiting for the pics for a couple of weeks. No more delays, another review coming soon!
Yes, I’m going there. A pop princess on a major label. Not exactly my wheelhouse, I know. But this album is incredible, and given the amount of time I’m pouring into it, I think it’s high time we discuss it. I repeat, INCREDIBLE.
The album opens with the title track, a soft, soulful, hip hop tinged piece of indie pop that’s smooth like butter. The whole album can be described like this, I suppose: pure smooth perfection. The first four tracks comprise the strongest opening set of any album this year, for that matter, of the last year, maybe the last 10 years… the opening tracks of Black Sheep Boy or You Are The Conductor hit just as hard, but we’re talking apples and oranges to a certain extent. Del Rey’s lyrics are clever and dripping with sexuality, and their cleverness makes them listenable in a way that pop music about sex usually isn’t for me: I hate the blatant sexuality in modern pop, and Lana, at least, doesn’t smack us over the head with it (ie. from National Anthem: “I sing the national anthem, while I’m standing over your body, hold you like a python; and you can’t keep your hands off me or your pants on…” Rowr. She’s sexy without just saying “I want to have sex with you” (which, I suppose, isn’t all that sexy and explains why I’m not a fan of that sentiment in pop).
Song after song, Del Rey blows us away with clever lines, thoughtful melodies, and her silky voice. The comparison to Nancy Sinatra is a fair one, but she channels a wide spectrum from the pop world, from bits and pieces of Gwen Stephani to a tiny taste of Betty Boop (in the chorus of Off To The Races: “I’m your little scarlet, starlet, singing in the garden, kiss me on my open mouth”). She doesn’t display much versatility to any great extent on this album, but that can hardly be described as a criticism: if it ain’t broke, etc. Not a real complaint. My only real complaint is that the album seems to drag a little by the last couple of tracks… not sure if mixing things up a bit would have helped, but I doubt it, because This Is What Makes Us Girls, the closer, is a very strong track. It certainly drags more in the deluxe format though: the three additional album tracks I have heard (non-vinyl tracks, iTunes deluxe edition IIRC) really don’t add to the album and are a struggle to get through by the time the standard edition tracks are done.
The album cover is a further reflection of the aforementioned muted sexuality: classic Hollywood beauty with a hint of the red bra through the barely transparent white shirt (something I honestly didn’t notice until I held the vinyl in my hand). I’m not sure Del Rey’s music could be better described by a single image. The album art looks amazing in the vinyl format as well, bright blues and pastels with a blurry American car in the background: like I said before, classic Hollywood. The insert is nice, another beautiful pic of Del Rey with the lyrics printed on the opposite, but I prefer gatefold! Pretty minor gripe I suppose.
I’m not going to link to any purchase links, because I want to warn that this is on a major label, and I make it a practice to avoid supporting those monsters. Hypocritical, I know, since I bought the album, but I had to have it. Better to support your favorite major label bands by seeing them live, buying merch, etc. If you can see past that, though, this album is a MUST BUY and I can’t recommend it highly enough!
Review: Tame Impala – Innerspeaker (Modular Recordings, 2010)
Tame Impala are a four piece psychedelic/indie rock band out of Perth, Australia. I say band, but in reality, at least up until Innerspeaker, Tame Impala was essentially a project of Kevin Parker, a multi-instrumentalist and the writer/performer for the band when in studio. Tame Impala are better described as part of a collective: Dominic Simper, Jay Watson, and Nick Allbrook are friends of Parker’s, and fulfill the role of live touring band for Tame Impala. Furthering the collective atmosphere, Parker actually plays touring drums in Pond, a project put together by Watson and Allbrook.
I’ve always had a soft spot for psychedelic rock. With that in mind, Innerspeaker is an album that I’ve had on a list of “must buy” albums since 2010. One of the best albums of that year, in my humble opinion, Tame Impala’s debut was produced and is pressed in Australia, and it seemed like every vendor I tried to acquire this album from was out of stock and had no idea when the backordered album would arrive if an order was placed (I guess it’s a bit of a challenge to get represses from halfway around the globe). At any rate, I finally bit the bullet and placed the order through Insound in January, and it was shipped from their facilities a month later. Not too bad.
Innerspeaker opens with a blast of fuzz, out of which emerges the psychedelic bass and guitar tones that permeate this album. Recording these tracks, Parker channels Sgt. Pepper’s era Beatles, making Innerspeaker a sort of intersection between indie rock and the summer of love. The fuzzed out guitar and bass, the spaced-out synths, and the slightly echo-y vocals that are low in the mix soften the indie/garage sensibilities of Parker and give the record an expansive sound. High points on this record include opener It Wasn’t Meant To Be, a song about a man who desires a woman who is his complete opposite (they have different tastes: “And she doesn’t like the friends that I make, doesn’t make friends for friendship’s sake. She just gets bored sitting by the lake…”), and rock-out session Runway Houses City Clouds, the spacey, ethereal vocal line winding amongst driving guitar lines. That said, the record has no real low points: Parker chugs along at full speed, filling the album with catchy psychedelia where each song is as good as the last.
The physical product is gorgeous and was worth the wait. The art reflects the psychedelic nature of the music, bright greens and reds of nature in the fall in distorted, repeated images on the front cover, another beautiful shot of the fall leaves on the back, and the reflections on a perfectly calm pond inside the beautiful gatefold cover. The 180 g vinyl sounds amazing, the warmth of the vinyl bringing out the warmth of the music. Comes with a download code for the mp3s if that’s your thing, and in fact, when I ordered from Insound, I got an instant download of the album, which rocks.
Go out and get this modern psychedelic masterwork. It’s available directly from Modular Recordings, but if ordering from Australia isn’t your best option, you can find it from your favorite vinyl vendor!
Review: Panda Bear – Tomboy (Expanded Edition, Paw Tracks, 2011)
Going into this review, we know at least partly how it’s going to turn out: Tomboy made my top ten list for 2011, after all, so I obviously think it’s a wonderful record. The Expanded Edition is a whole other beast, though: consisting of new mixes, instrumentals, and a capella versions of the originals, there’s a lot more for us to discuss with this release. As if the original wasn’t good enough!
This beautiful box set consists of a sturdy hard cardboard box featuring the original album art, containing four black 180 g LPs, with the original Tomboy tracks split between the first two LPs, along with extra track “The Preakness“, which opens LP 2, an album of mixes (the Single Mixes) on LP three, and instrumental/a cappella versions of the original tracks on the fourth, and an album-sized lyrics/credits booklet. The art throughout the box continues the theme of grey pencils on off-white crushed paper as in the original album art, with each LP featuring a different scene: a boy on his father’s shoulders, a man walking off a boardwalk onto a beach, and so on. The booklet, a high-quality affair with thick paper pages, is laid out the same way, with pencil on the cover, and lyrics typed on off-white crushed paper inside. Overall, the presentation is beautiful.
Like my last review, Tomboy had a lot to live up to, musically. Both artists were creating followups to groundbreaking pieces of art that were roundly recognized as such. How does one deal with the pressure that is placed on someone who produces so seminal a piece of work? Where Cursive’s answer was to change things up, Noah Lennox’s (Panda Bear’s) approach is to expand the range of sounds he creates while still remaining true to the musical philosophy behind the tracks on Person Pitch. Tomboy is the next logical step for the performer who created Person Pitch: continuing to do what works, and trying new things without completely redoing the formula.
Tomboy opens with You Can Count On Me, beginning with a chorus of harmonies, and we immediately know that we’re listening to a Panda Bear album. The soothing neo-surf meets ambient electronic that is characteristic of Panda Bear’s sound remains, though on this album, Lennox creates the sounds he distorts and loops with live instruments rather than making use of samples in many cases. These changes are obvious on the title track, where Lennox’s straightforward treatment of the song with guitar shining through mark one of the obvious changes from Person Pitch, which was a much less straightforward album overall. In fact, while stylistically, this album is similar in many ways to Person Pitch, it is much less sonically dense: Lennox has made the decision to strip down the arrangements a little, and the songs don’t suffer. Like I said in my year-end list, there’s nothing truly groundbreaking on this album, but that’s okay, Panda Bear did that last time around. We can’t criticize him for creating a near-masterpiece just because it’s similar to the last near-masterpiece.
As for the extra music on this expanded edition, it’s certainly aimed at the bigger fans of Panda Bear. The extra track, The Preakness, on LP 2 of the original Tomboy, is a fine addition: a soft, simple song that features Lennox’s guitar. The differences in the Single Mixes are very minor, for the most part (ie. minor differences in the mixing in terms of levels, addition of short parts or changes to the intro/outro of certain songs, etc… essentially touchups), until we get to Scheherazade, which is drastically different from it’s album version, and makes for a really interesting listen. As for the rest of the tracks, Alsatian Darn, Bullseye, and You Can Count On Me are also altered significantly, rocking up the latter with additional guitar and vocals, and perhaps even improving on the originals in the case of the first two. I was actually a little disappointed that they chose to include these tracks instead of the remixes that have appeared on the singles (ie. the Actress remix of Surfer’s Hymn) if only because the mixes are more drastic and I’m interested in hearing another take on the tracks. The instrumental and a cappella versions of the songs are pretty interesting, as we tend to focus on different parts of each of these songs when listening to the full mixes, and so the listening experience for these tracks is much more focused. I heard things I hadn’t previously heard.
This box is a neat addition to any library, but is definitely a must-have for big fans of Panda Bear, who will definitely want to have copies of this for The Preakness and for the interesting versions found in the Single Mixes. Buy it directly from the Paw Tracks shop, or get it at a better price from your favorite vinyl vendor. Also note that all the proceeds from the sale of this set will go to the American Cancer Society, as if there wasn’t already enough reason to buy this thing! With only 5000 copies pressed, get it while you can!
Review: Cursive – I Am Gemini (Music Plus Bundle, Saddle Creek, 2012)
Tim Kasher of Cursive is something of a storyteller. Since Cursive reformed in 1999, they’ve released almost exclusively concept albums, or at the very least, albums centred around some conceptual framework, tethered together by Kasher’s musings on society, religion, relationships, music, and often, himself. I Am Gemini is perhaps the most ambitious of Kasher’s concept albums: a piece of musical theatre; the story of Cassius and Pollock, twins separated at birth, one good and the other evil, who meet with explosive results. And when I say musical theatre, I mean it: the vinyl comes complete with a script with stage directions.
I came on board in 2003 with The Ugly Organ, which is the album I consider to be Cursive’s, and Kasher’s, masterwork. On The Ugly Organ, Kasher is at his most narcissistic, his most self-deprecating, his angriest, his wryest; he is at the top of his game. Since that time, unfortunately, Cursive simply hasn’t been able to catch fire in a bottle the way they did in 2003. Happy Hollow is a strong effort, fully committed to the concept album model, and to be fair, I am a big fan of that album. Mama, I’m Swollen, though, is uneven, and for a guy who is usually lyrically sharp, Kasher never reaches his potential as evidenced on previous efforts, from a lyrical or a songwriting perspective. Coming from Mama, I’m Swollen, I was a little apprehensive for the release of I Am Gemini, but optimistic; I love the two albums previous to Mama, I’m Swollen, and I was hoping that it was simply a misstep, that Kasher et al. recognized as much, and that I Am Gemini would be a return to form.
So, is it? Well, yes, for the most part. I Am Gemini is a bit hit and miss, but there is a lot less miss and a lot more hit than on Mama, I’m Swollen. Opening track This House Alive is vintage Cursive, their trademark tense dissonant emo sound (emo by the old guy like me definition, ie. ’90s emo a la Sunny Day Real Estate or Braid or Promise Ring) is in full effect. The band continues in this vein until Lullaby With No Name, which is a wonderful little interlude, but highlights one of my issues with this album: Lullaby is one of the few moments of relative peace or calm (or non-rockingness), and the softer, subtler side of Cursive is something that could have been more fully explored on this album. These parts could have been fully fleshed out: this album has no Bad Sects, no The Recluse. Lullaby has the potential to have been great in full song form. Other than that minor complaint, and a few isolated parts here and there that get under my skin, the album is a big step in the right direction for Cursive. That said, there still feels like there’s something missing if you’re a fan. Kasher never really pushes himself on this album, and the album lacks the dynamic changes of previous works: Cursive rocks out on this album, but they continue to rocking out, rarely letting up to let a song breathe. Perhaps that’s why I Am Gemini lacks the sharp edges of The Ugly Organ.
The album itself is a beautiful thing. The art is bizarre and interesting, a rusty theme that runs through all of the art for the album, with the twins, joined at the head, depicted on the rear, and the mirror images depicting the personalities of Cassius and Pollock with the stylized title on the front. Inside, the 180 g vinyl is in a plastic sleeve, which I appreciate, and we find the lyric booklet, which is the aforementioned script, a booklet about twice the size of a CD case, very nicely presented. The thing is something to behold.
The Music Plus Bundle for I Am Gemini is filled with goodies. Besides the album, it came with a T-shirt featuring the wolves from the CD art, a poster showing extended album art, a sticker with a stylized Gemini symbol, and a CD copy of the album. It was supposed to come with a 1″ button as well, but that wasn’t in the package, though Saddle Creek are pretty amazing so I’m sure they’ll make good. How amazing, you ask? Check out this handwritten “thank you” note:
you won’t get that from any freakin’ major label! Yes, I’m looking at you, RIAA, you big evil impersonal bastards!
Buy it at Saddle Creek (bundles still available!) or from your favorite vinyl vendor!
Review: Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory (Carpark Records, 2012)
Listening to the breakdown in the last 3/4 of Wasted Days, it might be hard to believe that Cloud Nothings create anything akin to pop, punk, or anything in between. The glorious 8+ minute explosion of rock power that is this centrepiece of the album spends time in indie/post/noise rock territory before coming to a screaming conclusion. Pure awesomeness.
Songs like Fall In and Stay Useless remind us of frontman Dylan Baldi’s almost pop-punk roots, but much of the time the influence is felt only in the speed and intensity of the music. The majority of the album spends more time in the realm of indie and/or garage rock, benefitting from the production of Steve Albini, who brings a small taste of Jesus Lizard into the mix. The rest of the band, having taken on full roles as songwriters on this album, inject their influence by creating some pretty intense sessions of rocking out (ie. No Future/No Past). Musically, the band is producing everything from indie that’s comparable to the more bombastic of Trail of Dead’s catalogue, to post-hardcore/90’s emo a la Moss Icon, to poppy, bouncy garage rock. Vocally, and in terms of his songwriting, Baldi reminds me of a darker, noisier, screamier Ty Segall: each has stepped up their game on their latest releases, writing bigger, more complex songs, which further highlight the quality of their songcraft. Baldi alternately channels Segall, Cobain, Yorke (circa The Bends, at least). He’s flexing his musical muscles on this album and they’re no joke.
The physical product itself is no-frills; single black vinyl LP with a plain dust cover and a regular album cover. Note that it comes with a free download of the mp3s if that’s your thing. The art is attractive, with the front showing a sepia-toned, blurry lighthouse overlooking a calm ocean, and on the rear, perhaps a dock of some kind, out of focus and done in the same style. The record sounded amazing on first listen, the warm vinyl bringing out the fuzzy bass tones.
Overall, stoked to have such a beautiful product from Carpark Records (you can buy it directly from them) and Cloud Nothings. Stick a pin in this one for the 2012 top ten list, because it’s a definite early contender! Pick it up from your favorite vinyl vendor!