Modern Classic Albums: Lonerism, Tame Impala (2012)

Released: October 9th, 2012

Label: Modular/ Modular Recordings 

Music at its most powerful can be poetic, or completely transformative. Poetic in the sense that it reaches deep down into the human psyche and exposes our passions, our hopes, our discontent, our heartbreak. What makes music transformative is when it shifts all that comes before it to create a new experience, a new world that people can inhabit with one sense to create all of them.  By this standard, Lonerism, Tame Impala’s latest LP exhibits both.

It is important that I address that music is never of a complete vacuum; The Beatles Sergent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was an album that owed to The Beach Boys Pet Sounds as well as music of old dance halls “When I’m Sixty-Four” the emergence of counter-culture psychedelia “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, indian mysticism “Within You Without You”, even the trend of old style traveling band names that had become popular like Country Joe and the Fish “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” . It was the synthesis of all these elements that made it such a powerful album.

One of the most intriguing, and mind-blowing songs on that album is the previously mentioned “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. In a time where psychedelic music rarely tried to define anything more than the here and now, often weakening their effect by relying on a decidedly unholy grouping of odd sound effects (a process that significantly dates most psychedelia of the time). Rather, “Lucy” decided to create a whole new world, a new language of intense imagery that left an indelible mark on the listener, bringing them to a surreal world that nonetheless seemed real.  

In todays music world, it is nearly impossible to identify a band in the context of The Beatles success. It won’t be repeated, the musical world is too vast and populated for one band to dominate, but that doesn’t deny a band’s ability to be transformative.

One might shoehorn Tame Impala into the “revivalist” trend, the phenomenon in modern music that found bands like Dr. Dog popular (at least in the indie realm) for being faithful to 60’s music archetypes, being pleasurable because they sound like bands that have come before but with enough subtlety to sound of their own.  But psychedelic rock is too much of a misnomer for a band to truly be “revivalist” in that sense.  Yet when Tame Impala’s first LP, Inner Speaker came out, musical critics and listeners alike had no better context to identify what they were hearing.  There was abundant flange, the analog booming sounds of drums that were more loud than crisp, bright vocals that bounded with a “Leslie” rotating speaker effect, but it still felt weak, a lovingly made copy that was too dependent on replicating the garage-psychedelic sound.

Then, there’s Lonerism. “Be Above It” is quite an opening statement. a single line of “gotta be above it, gotta be above it” melds into the syncopated rhythm of a drum beat, off hand guitars bubble in the background before Kevin Parker’s eerie vocals flutter in, eerie in it’s similar timbre to John Lennon, that repeats the mantra of self-reliance “And I know that I gotta be above it now/ And I know that I can’t let them bring me down”. It’s repetition is not so much ingratiating as it is identifying. But even that cannot quite prepare you for “Endors Toi”

French for “You Sleep”, Parker begins to establish the dream landscape that will dominate the overall sound on the album. Beginning with a wavy guitar thats bolstered by a sirenesque synth line and a spiraling keyboard part, the song practically explodes into Technicolor by its fantastic drum line. There’s some fantastic guitar melodies packed in here as if the Jimi Hendrix Experience was back from the dead.

“Apocalypse Dreams” is the first song that begins to take on a traditional structure led by a marching drum beat and a compressed piano line and its a highlight in an album full of them.  While The Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour is making its re-release rounds, it’s really Lonerism that lives up to that billing

What’s perhaps most astounding is that Kevin Parker by and large handles all the instrumentation on the album by himself, but rather than have a result that bleeds ramshackle home-spun indie charm (a la Ram) Parker sounds like a full band at the peak of their powers. Though the comparisons to Lennon are unavoidable, Parker’s melodies are more reminiscent of his partner, McCartney. Take “Mind Mischief” which features a guitar lick that could have easily been a McCartney outtake, but harmonies that sound like Lennon and McCartney are back together again, it’s quite disarming.  If Lennon had continued to express his more psychedelic side and stayed with McCartney, this might be the closest thing we have to imagine it.

It’s refreshing that Parker is able to create these ear-catching melodies almost out of nowhere. Sure, they won’t be leading a top 40 song anytime soon, but they aren’t contrived, they don’t try to sound massive.  

If there were any doubts of Tame Impala’s love for 60’s psychedelia, look no further than their latest video for “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”
 

Kevin Parker is doing what few could attempt to do. Not only has he faithfully picked up from where The Beatles psychedelia left off, but he’s created a whole world within it.  For a man who is so intensely private, his music doesn’t spiral off into self interest, it doesn’t indulge in selfish tendencies, it sounds like the concerted effort of a group.  He’s not afraid to express his own doubts either, as the central theme of the album is loneliness and escapism, which are perfect thematic backdrops for psychedelic arrangements.  

Top Tracks:

Endors Toi

Apocalypse Dreams

Feels Like We Only Go Backwards 

Bottom Line:

Lonerism is a massive undertaking expanding psychedelia into a valid form rather than just “revivalist” for its own sake.  Parker at once manages to sound both solitary (in his lyrics, which are quite poetic at times) and part of a collective (playing all of the instrumental parts save a couple of keyboards) . Even if it weren’t home-recorded, it’s one of the strongest albums of 2012, that it is makes it even more impressive. A must buy

Find it here:

Insound (Vinyl) 

iTunes (Digital)

Further Reviews:

Allmusic

Any Decent Music?

The Guardian

Pitchfork 

New Classics: Looking Back On Big Echo by The Morning Benders (2010)

Of the many albums that have come out in my years as a music blogger, there are a choice few that really stand out as excellent albums and one of my favorites, the one that I will start with, is Big Echo by The Morning Benders.

It’s strange to realize that the album, or LP (whichever suits your preference) has once again taken a back seat to the single.  Thanks to the internet’s ability to grant us instant gratification, most listeners no longer have the patience to sit through an album.  iTunes and other per-MP3 vendors are in part responsible for this, as it’s a much cheaper deal to buy a single song for a dollar than a whole album for 10 or more.

But what of the exceptions? The listeners who do still crave a full album experience? It’s for them that I chose Big Echo, an album whose first 4 tracks are absolutely stellar as stand alone numbers, while the remaining tracks work more as a cohesive unit, one that rewards repeated listens.

First things first: The Morning Benders area band out of the Berkeley area of California who hit the scene in 2008 with a roots rock debut called Talking Through Tin Cans. It was an album dominated by simple no-frills production and quick hooks on the likes of “Damnit Anna” and “Waiting For A War,” and the overall effect was one of a 60’s pop production with most numbers shy from straying over the 3:00 mark.  Their talent for good old fashioned melody was evident, but nothing on the album registered beyond the point of simple enjoyment.

Bedroom Covers LP later (an album which consisted of eclectic handpicked tracks ranging from the 50’s-90’s, produced in a bedroom) The Morning Benders’ second album, Big Echo, emerged out of nowhere in March 2010, an inauspicious release date. In fact, Big Echo’s largest marketing campaign was in viral form: a beautiful live version of the lead track “Excuses” done by the LaBlogotheque-esque music blog   Yrs Truly.

Excuses

Big Echo starts with the aforementioned “Excuses,” a song that band leader Chris Chu indebted to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production. He pulls it off beautifully: from the scratching of vinyl intro to the smoldering tympanis and piano flourishes to the bombastic transformation into a classic 50’s chord progression with occasional Etta James “At Last” violin to the bittersweet vocals coming full circle about a past relationship. The bridge is a awe-striking vocal round that builds into a crescendo from all sides that takes the song to its swirling finish.

Promises

The second track, "Promises,“ probably owes the most to the album’s co-producer, Chris Taylor (of the band Grizzly Bear). With its shimmering production and vocal harmonies and its dynamic changes of tempo, it’s not a long stretch to compare "Promises” to Grizzly Bear’s hit “Two Weeks. It’s to the Morning Benders credit that they don’t sound derivative, thanks in part to Chris Chu taking a clever approach to his vocals by layering a low and high octave together.

Wet Cement

Meanwhile track 3, "Wet Cement,” takes the album into a slower turn. It’s a beautiful bass-driven number with compressed piano and slow-strum plucked guitar chords, and it finds Chris Chu in his high falsetto. The track has an utterly hypnotic feel with great meandering guitar leads that could have come out of Paul McCartney’s Ram. Certainly, it’s an album highlight.

Cold War

“Cold War” fits the instant gratification mold, a radio ready single that comes in just under the 2:00 mark and features a chord progression that grabs you from the start.  But the track is really a testament to the Benders’ focus on production with booming tympani work and a golden acoustic guitar sound, highlighted by glockenspiel. It’s one of those perfect summery over-too-soon numbers that bears up to looping.

Pleasure Sighs

Track 5, “Pleasure Sighs,” is a departure from its predecessors. With its slow pace and hypnotic vocal and guitar interplay, it’s a number equally fitting to the dreamy sounds of Dark Side of the Moon and the late 60’s psychedelia of Abbey Road, a grandiose epic number that completely changes the direction of the album.

Hand Me Downs

Track 6, “Hand Me Downs,” starts out with an utterly creepy twinkling of pianos before a rhythmic propulsion of drums and guitars take over. Here is where you notice the great drum-work that has been the framework behind every song. Drummer Julian Harmon isn’t exactly on the tip of the tongues of those who rank great modern drummers, but he should be. “Hand Me Downs” has its hands full of sonic tricks, from layered vocals to hard hitting guitars drifting off into reverbial bliss and Chris Chu alternating his vocals from aggressive to ethereal.

Mason Jar

Track 7, “Mason Jar,” once again picks up the trippy Dark Side of The Moon vibe, though this time with more of a Radiohead meld, via a cleanly picked guitar line paired with an eerie backdrop of rising and falling synths. Spot-on instrumentation adds to the song’s prickly texture.

All Day Day Light

Track 8, “All Day Day Light,” serves almost as a respite from the heavy songs that followed “Cold War.” It’s the most by-the-numbers type of rocker that you’ll find on the album, and wakes up the listener with its bright guitar work, reverbed handclaps and upbeat drums

Stitches

Track 9, “Stitches,” may be the most unheralded song on the album, and the most deceptively beautiful. Its dynamics transition seamlessly from a whisper to a shout and completely surround the listener by the song’s finale

Sleeping In

Big Echo’s final track,“Sleeping In,” isn’t your typical rock number. It’s built around more of Chu’s amazing vocal layering which I’d say is some of the most rewarding since The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

So Why Did I Chose Big Echo?

After discovering The Morning Benders from their first LP, it was hard for me to imagine that their sound would evolve so dramatically without any typical sophmore slump drop-off. Ye,t as different as the two albums sound, Big Echo maintains the melodic hooks that were so promising on Talking Through Tin Cans and expands on them, with production that continues to fascinate after repeated listens.

The overral cohesiveness of an album, not just thematically, but sonically, plays an important and undervalued role in today’s music. The Beatles were more aware than most in what separates the good from the great. Not only can one identify a Beatles’ number almost immediately, but also the album that it belongs on and the sequence surrounding it. This sense of place is really what should define an album and The Morning Benders pull it off in spades.

To their credit, while each track is related to its brothers, Big Echo’s production is never repetitive. Instead, we’re invited into the world of each individual song, from the bittersweet “Excuses” to the explosive pop of “Cold War” all the way to the mesmerizing vocals of “Sleeping In” without forgetting the importance of melody throughout.

Content too is important, and while Big Echo has the overarching theme of the rise and fall of relationships, it’s done in a rather abstract and refreshing way, with deceptively simple lines that range from outright sexual (“You tried to taste me/And I took my tongue to the southern tip of your body”) to cynical (“Stuck in a mason jar/ where I sealed up my heart/I take it out once a week/ to donate to charity”) to cleverly allegorical (“Cold War” refers to the narrator’s wish to keep a lovers’ quarrel from getting out of hand).  At 10 songs, Big Echo’s brevity (clocking in at a little under 40 minutes) allowed me to come back again and again, without feeling the need to skip around songs and both it’s title and artwork draw a parallel to the music.

And yet most importantly, The Morning Benders seem content to challenge themselves, they could have easily gotten away with another Talking Through Tin Cans soundalike, but their progress has proven that they are an exciting band to follow in the years to come.  To me, Big Echo is a modern day Pet Sounds where the  overall melodic structure won me over and at no time did the “pocket symphony” production drive me away. Chris Chu and company have produced an album that builds upon the past as well as moves towards the future.

Ratings Score:

Production Values: 5/5

Vocals: 4.5/5

Instrumentation: 4.5/5

Lyrics: 4/5

Repeated Listening: 5/5

Overall score: 9.2/10

New Classics: Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers by The National (2003)

Love being a losing game was a big theme back in 2003, the year of Beck’s Sea Change and its equal partner in romantic shame, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. So why did one become instantly lauded as one of the greatest albums of all time (Sea Change) and one fall through the cracks (Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers)?  The simple answer would be name recognition, with Beck holding the obvious advantage over a Brooklyn by way of Cincinnati band’s sophomore effort. Yet Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers is the better album.

Both albums boast some of the most gorgeous production of any album in the aught’s. Beck’s is more grand in scope, with lush arrangements dominating the entire affair; spaced out acoustic guitars, twinkling electric guitars, shuffled drumming, all allowing his haunted voice to take the fold.  The National take a much more concentrated approach, putting their production eggs in separate baskets.

The National formed in 1999, in the echoes of the dot com boom in bustling New York City, though they had met back in Cincinnati, “home to Pete Rose and the first Filet-O-Fish” drummer Bryan Devendorf would affectionately remark. when they released their self-titled debut album two years later, they had hardly played a gig. The National did not fall on deaf ears however, earning praise from critics like Jason MacNeil of No Depression stating “From the opening notes of “Beautiful Head”, the delicate line between polished roots-oriented pop and alt-country has rarely been walked so deliberately with the payoff so favorable.” Already the quintet which featured two sets of twins, was becoming more than just a novelty.

Certainly their subject matter wasn’t. Matt Berninger was a crepuscular narrator, a character out of Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours, perpetually falling in and out of love, perpetually the victim of the sadness of broken-down bar life.   “Do not tell me I’ve changed” he sighs on one number “you’re just raising your standards, do not give me away”.  Berninger’s oblique poetry is often a victim of intelligent design, a sad acknowledgement that he is responsible for things that he can not understand. For a follow up album, the question became how does an emotionally mature band improve? The answers on Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers are simple; production and focus.

The National  was an album of simple arrangements, bar bruised rock with emotion harvested from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and poetry borrowed from the likes of Leonard Cohen and Tom WaitsThen came Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers:

Cardinal Song

The opener “Cardinal Song” is a gorgeous mind bender, a fraternal twin to the Sea Change sound that launched Beck into the critical stratosphere.  Here, Berninger’s vocals are so up front in the recording that its not only the mic that he’s cradling, but the listener’s ear.  His voice hushed, half whispering, half admonishing “Never look them in the eye, never tell the truth.” It’s an emotional tour-de-force and a lesson for humanity. “Jesus Christ you have confused me, Cornered, wasted, blessed, and used me” Berninger croons amidst wise words “Never tell the one you love that you do, Save it for the deathbed, And do everything she’d never do.”

Slipping Husband

“Slipping Husband” takes an immediate turn to straightforward rock, “You could have been a legend but you became a father, that’s what you are today, that’s what you are today.” Berninger converses, a narrator speaking to himself in the third person.  It’s a dark take on a dream deferred but a convincing one, equating thinking of what could have been as “acting like a kid.”

90-Mile Water Wall

“90-Mile Water Wall”  is a clear highlight, and it drips like a classic western, a “Lonesome Dove” in winter’s twilight. “ Well I know that you know that you’ve become the target of this hand, with never even asking.” It’s a great table setter for some of Berninger’s greatest lyrics, the action constantly overwhelming the ability to react. The arrangement truly shines here, bolstered by some great violin and guitar interplay, upfront and utterly transparent, a Cormac McCarthy novel in song form.

It Never Happened

“It Never Happened” is a dark brood on the end of youth “We look younger than we feel, and older than we are” declares the narrator, pleading “Lover put me in your beautiful bed, and cover me" where the song dovetails into a swirling instrumental from Dark Side of the Moon.  because "nothing ever happens to the beautiful.”

Murder Me Rachel

“Murder Me Rachel” is where things start to get more caustic. Wiry guitars scream and hum reflecting the hurt of the narrator who’s glimpsed his old flame with a new “pretty boy”.  "Say goodbye to pretty boy" he warns, the admittance that he “loved her to ribbons” is a haunting image, an instant connection between the pretty little garnishments and his love being cut and slashed into little pieces. It’s purposeful that pretty boy could be both the narrator and the faceless competitor and it’s the fiercest song on the album.

Thirsty

“Thirsty” is a natural progression from the anger that burst to the surface in “Murder Me Rachel” it’s intensely guarded, referencing fairytales and using alliterative imagery. It’s fitting that the narrator feels weak referencing his “girly arms” and can neither “have a hawk in [his] heart” nor a “dumbass dove in [his] brain”. The shock of the development in “Murder Me Rachel” has left him aimless and defenseless.

Available

“Available” is lyrically two-fold, both a diatribe against a faceless one-night stand, and against his former lover. “Did you dress me down and liquor me up, To make me last for the one minute, When the red comes over you, Like it does when you’re filled with love, Or whatever you call it.” That poor soul that dared take this brooding man home for what was supposed to be a simple night of fun.

Sugar Wife

The next two songs, “Sugar Wife” and “Trophy Wife” eschew the traditional gender roles and reverse them. “Sugar Wife” is a plea for a wife to make him a man, an ironic twist on the usual role of a Sugar Daddy. He wants to become a dad, pushing for a semblance of meaning. The arrangement here too reflects a lighter mood with some warm harmonies and golden guitar.

Trophy Wife

“Trophy Wife” is another push at breaking from the sadness and anger that enveloped the narrator, but grounded in the fact that “No one wants to be, no no ones lover, No matter what they say, Lovers know they are the ones, Who one day have to go.”

Fashion Coat

“Fashion Coat” is a song of juxtapositions, a man who “floats around [his] city” but remains grounded by the fact that “everywhere [he is] is just another place without you in it” is filled with desire to do everything to his lover but is fearful of her falling in love, or out of it.  The chorus “I die fast in this city, Outside I die slow” is a reflection of being around the woman he loves, versus when he’s without her.

Patterns of Fairytales

“Patterns of Fairytales” brings us back to the production of “Cardinal Song”, with a swirling organ and gorgeous guitar work amidst wistful lyrics about a woman gone. The narrator resolves to lie in bed and listen to the music he once made for his love, the memories they once had “And I’m lining up the names, On the mixes I made before you, And I’m turning into fairytales, With glitter and some glue, Everything we ever planned to ever do.”

Lucky You

“Lucky You” ends the album, a slow build of a song with relatively bare production, shimmering acoustic, glimmering electric guitars with a wicked twist on declaring love to someone. “You own me, There’s nothing you can do, You own me, Lucky you.”

More than anything, Sad Songs For Dirty Albums is a reflection on relationships, on the highs and the lows, the being in love and being out of love, but it’s not just your typical breakup album. Bereninger’s narrators reflect and commiserate,  juxtaposing the dark reality with the glowing hope, the burn of anger, the shadow of sadness. More than any other, it’s a distinctly human album. The sonic landscape is a city at night, with those that linger long after others have gone to sleep, who meander, wonder, try to shake the reality from their lives. These are the people who brood, drink to take the edge off, youth at its death knell as the depression of adulthood takes over.While Bruce Springsteen was best at reflecting on the burning hope of teenage youth, and the results of falling short of those goals, The National are experts in the agony of adulthood, of trying to mature where hope has deserted you.

Notes On: Production


As a listener, I find texture to be a highly undervalued commodity when it comes to an album, even when they prove to be instrumental in deciphering what makes a good album. Blonde on Blonde had its mercurial electric through a transistor sound, Abbey Road was almost symphonic in its production values, pushing the songs to greater effect with their grandiosity, Dark Side of the Moon had a polish that reverberated off the moon and back. The best albums are linked not only by great songwriting, but cohesive production. On Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, the production, much like the lyrical content, is largely organic, shading compositions with fantastical elements when the mood calls for it, “Cardinal Song” would be much less effective without the atmosphere thats laid along side it.  That’s what makes it such a dynamic record, everything is in its right place.

Album Highlights:

Cardinal Song

90-Mile Water Wall

Patterns of Fairytales

Lucky You