Paperhouse: On how popularity doesn’t equal quality

2013 was an awesome year for music, but also for hype machines. From massive, multimonth long media-engulfing campaigns like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories to the surprise release of Beyoncé’s self-titled album, it seemed as if every major release last year could be remembered as much for the media campaign as the actual music. In the middle of the constant competition between artists’ media campaigns, it was easy for fantastic albums to fall through the cracks. Here are three great albums from 2013 that came out with little-to-no fanfare.

Big Deal – June Gloom

On its second album, Big Deal maintains the core values of the emotionally destructive dream pop of its debut Lights Out without turning into a parody of itself. The group has added a drummer and some tempo variety, for June Gloom. While songs like “In Your Car” and “Teradactol” strongly evoke the aggressiveness of ‘90s alt rock, it’s never hard to remember the tenderness that Big Deal is so adept at evoking. At their best, Big Deal strikes the same emotional chord as Broken Social Scene’s most intimate material.

Recondite – Hinterland

Hinterland is the Berlin-based Recondite’s second full-length release and is perfect winter techno. Recondite incorporates field recordings from lower Bavaria with conventional-but-compelling song structures to create techno that is emotionally evocative and mechanistic. Album highlights “Clouded” and “Abscondence” are perfect tracks for driving through a barren icy landscape.

Nils Frahm – Spaces

Spaces is a collection of live recordings by pianist Nils Frahm, spanning from 2011–13. This album is worth checking out whether you’re a longtime fan or completely new to Frahm’s material. Tracks span from the intimate piano solos “Want Missing” and “Over There, It’s Raining” to the mesmerizing ambient looping of “Says.” The album’s centerpiece, “For – Peter – Toilet Brushes – More,” expands one of the pianist’s most well-known tracks into a suite that embodies Frahm’s musicianship: frenzied piano playing, ambient dabbling, and a piercing emotional directness. Spaces is the type of live album all musicians should aspire to create.

Post by Matt Mastricova. Originally published in The Tartan.

Paperhouse: On Black Marble

My favorite new album at WRCT has been coldwave band Black Marble’s A Different Arrangement. Like much of Black Marble’s other source material, the album’s vocals are reminiscent of a low-key Ian Curtis, further developing the sound of their earlier Weight Against the Door EP. Here, the typically subdued tension between the angular synthesizers and human melancholia is at its zenith.

A Different Arrangement surveys a wide variety of sounds, from the radiant, bouncing ebullience of “A Great Design” to the haunted-playground bop of “Limitations,” juxtaposing sampled rim-drum tracks with layers of sentimental synth melodies. Warm basslines shapeshift across the album’s runtime and vintage synthesizer arrangements are airy and, at times, so distinctly sculpted they seem otherworldly.

“A certain handmade feeling is what we’re after,” Stewart explained in an interview with Hardly Art, the record label. “The music doesn’t have to be complex, but it’s more important to carry some residue of the process, especially when working with what [can sometimes] be construed as cold-sounding electronics. It’s humanizing.”

Black Marble’s latest album certainly embodies an analog quality that brings life to otherwise unfeeling electronic music. The textural complexities to which Stewart refers can only be fully appreciated after multiple listens, allowing the soundscapes to sink in further, quietly addictive.

If Weight Against the Door constituted a long, cold night, then A Different Arrangement heralds the moment when the radiator finally sputters to life, flooding the room with heat as the sun rises over a horizon of Brutalist tower blocks. The homemade soundtrack to a still, uncertain dawn, A Different Arrangement is a striking evolution in Black Marble’s sound.

(Originally published in The Tartan)

Paperhouse: on reviewing music

If you have the misfortune of living near me, you’ve probably heard me blasting Radiohead’s Amnesiac over the past couple of days. Earlier this week a friend recommended I read a review of the album by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats on his blog, Last Plane to Jakarta. After reading the review, I couldn’t help but listen to the album on repeat.

What I found most striking about his review was its presentation. Unlike most, Darnielle’s review was posted in 10 segments released over the course 2001 and 2002, with each song considered individually. Furthermore, he did not consider Amnesiac in terms of OK Computer or Kid A, the band’s two most critically acclaimed albums.

I often find myself reading — and occasionally writing — music reviews that insist on looking at albums from a very fixed perspective. These reviews subsequently evaluate albums in terms of a band’s legacy and aesthetic, as opposed to looking at an album for what it is: a self-contained collection of songs. Darnielle’s review makes a point of showing how this former method obfuscates the gravity of an album and can end up portraying a masterpiece like Amnesiac as a castaway B-side collection.

Even though Darnielle’s review is over a decade old, it remains relevant to the current state of music journalism. Much of today’s writing is stale, hackneyed, and more concerned with legacy than with legitimate journalism. Darnielle’s particular style of in-depth musical analysis is not the most conventional model for how music journalism should be. However, it models critical, independent thought — a trait that all music reviewers should aim to reflect. While the legacy and cultural relevance of a band is important in its own right, music journalists should not allow these aspects to overshadow their evaluation of an album’s quality.

(Originally published in The Tartan)

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