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Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles
When I first bought this album nearly two years ago, I had almost instant buyer’s remorse. How can you justify paying money for this when there are albums by David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, or Bob Dylan that you haven’t even heard? And how utterly disposable this album sounds! An insult to “proper” music of any form, possibly plagiarized from other chiptune artists, and played by two of the most grotesquely stereotypical hipsters on the “scene” today, Crystal Castles seemed unlikely to endear or endure, and yet I keep coming back to it, rediscovering it every six months or so. The album is a sweaty mess that bleeds the heathen pleasures of summer, but driving past my neighbors’ homes this week, draped with icicles reflecting my headlights, it sounds just as appropriate in our lonely, cold, dead winter nights. Have the digital blips of Game Boys and Nintendos supplanted the analog waves of the Moog as the new sound of “retro”? Will Crystal Castles be this generation’s Add N to (X)? I’m really hoping a new album will answer those questions soon.

Anton Zap – Take it as it Comes
This four-track EP came out late last year, I just discovered it last week and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since. I don’t mean to say I’m a hot shit cratedigging DJ or anything, I just downloaded it and listen to it while I’m doing my Microsoft Office homework. Jetsetting deep house that reminds me of John Daly’s stuff from last year. Fantastic.

Ethernet – 144 Pulsations of Light
Warm ambient drones over gentle, pulsating beats; Tim Gray probably owes a big debt to Wolfgang Voigt but who doesn’t? Really one of the better takes on this sound that I’ve heard in a while, mellow but forward-thinking enough to dodge the dreaded “new age” tag, although I’m not even sure that’s a bad thing anymore. He also makes music for “meditation and sound healing,” the sort of thing I used to roll my eyes at while I was shelving CDs at Borders but would probably love if I could get over the pretentious reputation of it all. But I’m loving this album so I guess I’m already halfway there.

Cosmin Trg – Now You Know
House that’s little bit funky, a little bit wonky, this isn’t the sort of thing that I usually seek out but in this case it’s too fun to resist. A potent shot from the fertile, always-shifting UK dance scene.

Four Tet – There is Love in You
After the successful techno indulgences of 2008’s Ringer EP, Kieran Hebden’s newest album arrives to scene that’s blurring lines like never before, perfect for his blend of genre-blending, anything-goes patchwork approach to music. Once again, he mixes cutting-edge digital sound with organic instrumentation, making for a very chilled-out record with a vibe all its own. Vocals are more prominently tossed into the mix this time, chopped and looped to great effect, the title track sounding like a slowed-down Kanye West jam (which I guess is what “Smile Around the Face” from Everything Ecstatic was, come to think of it). “Love Cry” is a stunner, but oh, just wait until you hear the Joy Orbison remix.

Monolake – Silence
Listeners with SAD might take a hint from the album’s cover and steer clear of this one, but despite being a seriously bleak and chilly affair, it’s also extremely engaging. Dark and twisting, for sure, but the it’s hard to deny the foreboding rhythms at work, which resemble the sounds of an abandoned construction site: empty buildings littered with sheet metal, barren and stairless basements strewn with gravel, stripped wires, and plastic tubing. A domicile stripped of all its comforts might be hazardous, but we’re still inexplicably drawn to tresspass and explore it. The stillborn twin of Autechre’s Draft 7.30?

Underworld vs. The Misterons – Athens
A nice compilation of jazzy, groove-centric tracks from past and present, not a true “mix” as I had hoped but a good primer to a lesser-recognized sound that’s always been a part of the Underworld aesthetic. Side one feels like Herbie Hancock jamming with Tortoise, an analogy that listeners already steeped in jazz fusion and funk might find a little misleading or superficial but could draw in others who’ve been less than taken in by Underworld’s dark and driving take on electronic pop. They also work in songs from Moodyman, Roxy Music, and Laurent Garnier, as well as a collaboration with Brian Eno that, well… kind of sucks, but the rest of the album is good.

Shuttle 358 – Type Radio Mix
Classic mix from the onetime member of the Type Records roster. I found this back in 2005 or so and I feel like it’s informed my listening since then more than any other single collection or piece of music. Quite possibly, it’s shaped my personality to a certain extent as well, or at least reflected some inner feelings that I’ve never been able to articulate in words. In a more universal sense, this is a good introduction to modern ambient music with a distinctly Japanese edge to it. Dan Abrams even sneaks in some recordings of Japanese trains and a Yoko Kanno piece amid the pastoral electronic tunes. That’s the extent of any anime connections, but it’s not a stretch to reimagine this as a “Dark Side of the Rainbow“-esque alternate soundtrack to a Makoto Shinkai film. A perennial favorite that I keep coming back to more than almost any musical find in the last five years, it’s no longer hosted on the Type Records website for some reason. Read about it here, then download it here.

Bundy K. Brown – Bird & Whale mixes
Tortoise bass player Bundy Brown offers up six disparate mixes in a variety of different styles. Bouncing from jazz fusion to IDM, post-rock, hip-hop and more, these aren’t “mixes” so much as mp3 bundles but they make for great introductions into their respective genres, while being deep enough for longtime fans to find new delights within. They’re all free and can be found here. Much like the Underworld mix listed above, these provide a good rundown of the influences that helped guide the Tortoise sound to what it is today. Good stuff.

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I started this blog to give myself the freedom to write about whatever I wish, but despite the precedent I’ve set so far, that’s not always going to be about anime or music. Of course, I’d like to stay somewhat focused on those topics, because that’s what most people who find their way here are probably going to be into. Once in a while, however, I’ll probably feel compelled to opine on some unrelated matter, as I’m about to do in this post.

I only caught a few minutes of the Super Bowl this week, mostly during the fourth quarter, so I missed most of what were probably the highest profile commercials that people continue to sincerely mention as “the only reason to watch the game” and apparently await with great anticipation. What I did catch during the game (and later during the news… yes, local broadcasts replayed several of these in their entirety, devoting feature-length stories to them) was a pitiful collection that speaks volumes about American culture in 2010: obnoxious, shrill, more “in-your-face” than ever, and proud of its reality-denying slogans.

The worst of the bunch I saw was the spot for Audi, which seems to be getting good word of mouth online, despite being a terribly confused effort, memorable for all the wrong reasons and, at least in terms of moving cars off the lots or enhancing the brand image, can’t possibly be considered a success.

One stupid joke, milked for a very expensive minute’s time, in which the product and the brand name do not appear in until the very end, by which time no one who’s still watching could be the least bit concerned. I’d seen the ad three times and still couldn’t remember what it was actually for without a Google search to help me out (unlike the ad for Google itself, which penetrates your very mind and soul in every single frame). Instead, I was left only thinking of the the original “Dream Police” song by Cheap Trick, remembering the episode of The Simpsons where Apu is singing the song while washing his Thunderbird (er, Firebird?) in his driveway, and wondering if the band themselves were actually performing this horrible new mutation of it (sources say they indeed are). So much for getting your message across. And yes, I realize that simply discussing the ad at all is only furthering its saturation of/penetration into the Internet, and that going viral is considered the top honor that producers for these things are always shooting for, so I realize I’m contributing to the problem as much as anyone who Tweeted a genuine LOL in this commercial’s direction.

But something else bothers me about it and I think it’s worth bringing up. The ad attempts to highlight the Audi A3’s fuel efficiency, and as such would seem to be aimed at the environmentally-conscious consumer in the market for a pricey but still economic sedan. Yet, the ad obnoxiously belittles the entire notion of environmentalism, casting the eco-minded “Green Police” as fascist thugs that play up to every right-wing fantasy of violent tree-huggers. Could anyone outside of the SUV-driving, “drill here, drill now” crowd (who aren’t buying Audis anyway) find this the least bit funny? What is this ad trying to say? Some of us really care about these issues, you know. Maybe they’re ideas worth taking seriously, effecting the world in real time, no longer in any abstract, distant “future” that we won’t have to deal with. Or maybe they’re just meaningless fodder to distort and take down in ambiguous, sarcasm-drenched ad campaigns. Who knows! Maybe I just missed the memo saying that it’s okay for companies to belittle the deep convictions of their target market.

Defenders of the commercial would likely tell me to lighten up, it’s only a joke, after all. Or so it is to some, while to others it may be a telling and subversive, OMG it’s so true! commentary on the dangerous “socialist” direction our country is headed in. Being more energy independent, transitioning to more fuel-efficient vehicles, and just being better stewards of the environment are goals and values that everyone in this country should agree on regardless of ideology. But we live in a polarized, reactionary, bitter nation that somehow finds a way to disagree over the most banal issues imaginable, even when they’re as unpolitical as going “green,” which has fast become a trite notion that average consumers are growing sick and tired of hearing about. Like many great opportunities we’ve had as a country in recent years, we squandered the momentum behind the green movement and turned it into a meaningless catchphrase used for energy we rarely access, jobs we’ll likely never see, and products that are anything but. A lot of us realize how important it is to preserve and protect the environment, to make responsible everyday choices for the greater good and to continue working towards the kind of change that will bring society as a whole into a better balance with the planet. I just have a hard time making light of this, let alone a snarky mockery of it like this commercial does.

What I’m trying to say is, what a colossally misguided parody this ad is. I’m sure that Family Guy fans will enjoy how Audi really stuck it to those hybrid-driving crazies, though. Insert your own global warming joke here. Caring about things is so 20th century.

Now back to more of the usual entries. Probably about cartoons and shit.


Kow Otani
Haibane-Renmei: Hanenone
Pioneer
2003

Hanenone, as it seems to be titled, is the soundtrack to the 2002 anime Haibane Renmei, never a phenomenal success in America but well received upon its release and still well loved and respected among fans today. It’s sad to see that the DVDs now appear to be out of print, but hopefully a fine distributor will come along and fix that soon. I know it’s hard to market stuff like this in America, but the audience was there for it nearly a decade ago (before the recession and the Internet file-sharing explosion, that is) and still has to be out there somewhere. It’s a beautiful and touching series that more people need to see.

But this entry isn’t about the series, just the soundtrack, which is kind of an anamoly in my CD collection. I’m usually not drawn toward “traditional” instrumental music that relies on classical arrangements like this, but the pieces on this album are moody, memorable, and have a heart without being sappy or melodramatic, making this an irresistible collection. The pieces here are slow and gentle, with plenty of spaces in the music for the tracks to properly “breathe.” I know that’s a trite saying that doesn’t mean much anymore, but I really think it holds true in this case. In the world of Haibane Renmei, life in both the town of Glie and the Old Home (where most of the story is set) is simple, rarely rushed, and proceeds acording to long-held traditions. The music of the series operates in a similar vein, scoring the scenes with subdued and timeless chamber music.

There’s no single style at work here, although nearly every piece incorporates solo piano melodies or a small string ensemble. Only a few tracks, like the opening theme’s “Free Bird,” strive to make a big splash. Most take a more delicate, pastoral approach that incorporates elements of baroque, modern classical, and even jazz. Sure, there are a few moments of tension and intrigue — the gorgeous and stirring strings in “Blight” are an album highlight — but the overall mood is reflective and calm, sometimes upbeat and cheerful, but more often overtaken by a pensive melancholy, music to stare out the window to on an overcast afternoon. But the music still emits a wistful warmth that’s too inviting to hold at arm’s length, and the pair of vocal tracks in album’s the second half — a traditional-sounding Celtic folk song (“Wondering”) and a jazzy tune that sounds plucked from a smoke-filled piano bar (“Love Will Light the Way”) — are pleasant surprises that fit nicely and don’t break the mood.

Kow Otani’s score works wonders in Haibane Renmei but stands up well on its own, making for a soundtrack that’s mellow and restrained but very effective. This is a good CD to fall asleep or study to, just don’t write it off as mere background music. You can easily lose yourself in this stuff if you so choose, and it’ll take you to some special places if you let it. Inspired music for an inspired anime, for sure, but with a magic all its own that really comes out when you apply your own story to it.

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