DO YOU LIKE WORMS
pop thoughts by
sean doyle

#16 – Flying Lotus is stuck in a rut. The LA producer built a unique and remarkably compelling sound with his breakthrough album Los Angeles in 2008, squelching electronics, thumping tribal beats and pure injections of soul and hip-hop seemingly too complex and rhythmically dense for anyone to actually rap over. 2010’s Cosmogramma expanded that sound massively, incorporating frenetic jazz and beautiful, dusty acoustic sounds, creating organic alien landscapes that seemed to reach back through the history of black music and beyond. The earthier and more nocturnal Until the Quiet Comes was less of a leap, a slight shift of tone and a far less memorable effort. Steven Ellison’s latest album could have been an opportunity for a big new direction, but unfortunately it’s much of the same.

You’re Dead! is a quick listen and most of it feels underdeveloped. Each album since Cosmogramma has been a patchwork of short songs and abrupt shifts, but  the material here flitters in and out of frame so quickly it never has time to take shape into something more interesting. Take the record’s initial stretch for instance, a set of four brief sketches linked most interestingly by a welcome new element, a stuttering, distorted guitar figure. But nothing has the chance to develop or take on any kind of structure before the album moves on. And those new, exciting elements are few and far between. The work of bassist Thundercat, originally a welcome and invigorating addition to Flying Lotus’s sound, has gradually become a drag, and a distraction. His spiraling, aimless bass worms its way into track after track, so familiar at this point that Ellison might as well just keep a bank of samples and save himself the trouble of bringing Thundercat in to record.

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Given more breathing room and a hint of a conventional form, FlyLo’s work can still shine. Though the production is familiar, Thundercat smothered jazz, “Never Catch Me” comes alive the second Kendrick Lamar begins delivering his fiery verse about outrunning death. Death is the common theme of the album. “Dead Man’s Tetris” presents a wobbly, sample-heavy picture of a confused mind seconds after death, with the help of Ellison’s hip-hop alter ego Captain Murphy and a confident Snoop Dogg. On “Coronus, the Terminator” frequent collaborator Niki Randa leads a gospel style, angel choir funeral song for mankind itself, a piece of distinctive beauty that proves what Ellison is still capable of.

Death is a rich theme and one that Flying Lotus approaches with humor and invention, but he doesn’t approach it explicitly often enough, apparently content with the sketches and half songs that populate most of the record. He can keep covering the same territory in each album as long as he wants but as a once fervent fan, I’m tiring of it. I miss hearing songs that expand and transform and slowly take shape, I miss dancefloor rhythms and sonic overload. But even if he left all that behind completely, I’d be satisfied just to hear something that sounds new or fresh. Flying Lotus has shown that he’s capable of incredible transformations, hopefully he has at least one more left in him.

#3 – The first word that comes to mind when I think back to Perfume Genius’s Put Your Back N 2 It – compassion. It is one of the most compassionate albums I’ve heard. It was a revelation in 2012 and it returns to me every time I need it, moments of fear, or depression. It’s simple, sighing songs are often filled with ugliness and misery, but also beauty and deep empathy. The first word that comes to mind when I think of his follow up, Too Bright – power. It was evident from the single “Queen,” a surging psych rock carnival ode to queer provocation, that Hadreas was reaching for something harder and more resilient.

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In his recent interview with Wondering Sound, Hadreas identifies the muffled, cloudy ambient sketch “I’m a Mother” as an attempt to locate an ancient avatar of strength: “So many women musicians I love seem to be part of some divine, mythical figure — Lillith, or some kind of demon — whatever. Like Diamanda Galas, when she’s just singing in tongues, I was trying to figure out where that would come from for me. So I created one, and it was me.” “Don’t Let Them In,” one of the album’s quiet highlights, paints a scene of Hadreas trying to keep away “well intended” visitors, over sleepy piano chords. Midway through, the song shifts into a gorgeous waltz as he slips into a dream that seems to find him in the guise of another power figure, some “deep ancient queen”: “An alternate ribbon of time / My dances were sacred / My lisp was evident / I spoke for both spirits.”

The recurrent theme of bodily disgust in Hadreas’s work finally reaches a head with the murky, skeletal “My Body.” “I wear my body like a rotted peach,” he mutters and coos over drone and creeping organ. “You can have it if you handle the stink.” But there’s strength even to be drawn from that gap between the ugliness of the body and the splendor of the self. The queen of “Queen” is “cracked” and “peeling,” and “riddled with disease,” sick, haggard and revolting but still luminous and incredible, like the holy queers of a Genet novel.

Hadreas pushes his voice to new extremes alongside the music. When the pulsing, Suicide-style “Grid” builds into a climactic frenzy, his soft voice becomes a primal scream, howling with some combination of anguish and wild triumph. Too Bright’s title track is its emotional climax, a subtly devastating piano song, building eventually into a gorgeous wash of voice, synth and squealing screams (or is that a horn?) After teasing his range with his first two albums, Hadreas could have made an album full of songs as maximal and immediate as “Queen,” but instead he’s expanded out from that bedroom sound with incredible restraint and taste, building songs that are even more intricate and challenging.

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Too Bright is an excellent album, but at the moment, I don’t see myself attaching so emotionally to it the way I did to his last record. And that’s not really a bad thing. In that interview, Hadreas notes the importance of the opener “I Decline”: “It’s a voice in my head all the time, and sometimes I kind of give in to it. Sometimes I’ll see a good path and a bad path, and I’ll decide that they’re both too determined. So I kind of just turn them both down. I can see the patterns I’m stuck in, the ways I can potentially get better, and I just — don’t.” I can relate to that. Like George Costanza, I’m a great quitter. I often find it deeply satisfying to give up and admit my own weakness. The melancholy solace expressed by an album like Put Your Back N 2 It is a very addicting thing, but wallowing can become a trap. The songs on Too Bright are searching for power, and demanding much more than a comforting embrace.

#1 – First of all, I have some confessions to make: I first heard Aphex Twin as a teenager who only knew of him as an important influence on Radiohead. I appreciated the gorgeous and perversely catchy melodies of Richard D. James Album and “Windowlicker,” but I knew nothing about electronic music then, and the structures of the songs were alien and inscrutable to me. I got older, my tastes expanded, electronic music became a regular part of my sonic diet, but I never came back to Aphex Twin. I’m not sure why. It might have been the embarrassing Radiohead connotations, or just the fact that no one was really talking about him

The story surrounding his latest album Syro is that he has been silent since 2001’s Drukqs, a 100 minute jumble of punishing drill beats and miniature acoustic experiments. This of course is not true: the Analord EPs and his work as The Tuss comprise hours of music, but mainstream criticism (for better or worse) thrives on the album cycle, and Richard D. James didn’t seem especially interested in making those anymore. So I can’t remember the whim that eventually led me to return to Aphex Twin, but sitting down to listen to Selected Ambient Works 85-92 for the first time felt like unrolling the Dead Sea Scrolls. SAW essentially lays out the next 20 years of techno and predicts half its trendy micro genres, and it was the work of some bored kid in his bedroom in Cornwall. In the following months, I listened to nearly everything he’s recorded. Thus Syro is my first experience with a new Aphex Twin album, and perhaps appropriately for me, it may be his most retrospective.

Syro’s already legendary 10 minute epic “XMAS_EVET10” most immediately recalls the squelching synth workout of Analord 02’s “Phonatacid,” just as the opener/single “minipops 67” recalls giddy highlights like ”PWSteal.Ldpinch.D” and “Lisbon Acid,” but there is a moment at the exact mid-point of “XMAS_EVE” where something else hits me. The song’s randomized funk and intricate clapping beat are joined by twinkling keys and a soft ambient melody. For the first (and not last) time, Syro reaches beyond James’s more recent work, all the way back to the naively beautiful, analogue panoramas of SAW 85-92. The Analord series was a knowingly retro move, a total shift back to analogue at a time when digital seemed to rule, but it was also marked by the cold precision and intricacy that’s always been part of James’s music. Syro stands apart from most of his 21st Century output by returning to the playfulness and emotional depth of his 90s work.

There are inarguably new things going on as well. “Produk 29” takes the twisted funk sounds that James has been playing with for years to their logical conclusion, combining typically ominous synth melodies and garbled vocal samples with an honest to god, butt-shaking groove. “CIRCLONT14” turns a standard jam into some kind of magically silly combination of what sounds like a Russian translation program and a digital slide whistle. But overall, Syro reveals that Richard James, despite his years of groundbreaking and envelope pushing, is just as obsessed with churning up and recycling the past as everyone else is these days. I can see why this has been a little disappointing to some. People want Aphex Twin to turn stuff on its head, change paradigms, shake shit up. But Syro is, by his own admission, a collection of more accessible odds and ends from the last several years of recording. I saw someone call it Selected Ambient Works 07-14.

But Syro is still a perfectly satisfying comeback for Aphex Twin. If it is not a revolution it is at least approaching the past with all the genius and idiosyncrasies we’ve come to expect out of him. Derek Walmsley’s review from The Wire really sums it up nicely: “This bionic upgrading, by way of distanced revisionism, is the kind of thing Daft Punk aim for, but instead of their slick executive summary of the 1980s, Syro is deep inside the circuits.” What was ultimately so disappointing about last year’s Random Access Memories is how stuffy and narrow its view of the past was, all expensive coked-out studio sessions and Studio 54 glam fantasies. Richard D. James doesn’t want to insert himself into some glittering, pristine memory, he wants to chop that memory up in some dingy shed behind his house and stitch its rotted parts back together. And isn’t that why we love him.

The Intangible Smile

The ‘lost album’ is among the greatest subjects of obsession for music fans. Every major artist and band seems to have at least one, and some (like Prince) have several. The lost album is the last great destination for any fan. After you’ve wrung every last drop of good music from an artist’s discography, there still may be one more masterpiece sitting in a vault somewhere. But these albums often end up disappointing listeners when they finally see the light of day, unable to live up to years of hype. The Beach Boys’ SMiLE is easily the most legendary of all lost albums, and one of the few whose material is just as dazzling as its reputation would lead you to believe. Writing about SMiLE and Smiley Smile a couple years ago on my other blog, I thought I had said all I could say about the period, but it continues to enamor me. Like so many others I’ve always wanted to know what the real SMiLE would have sounded like, but has the real SMiLE ever really existed?

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Though officially scuppered in the summer of 1967, the project continued to haunt both Brian Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys for years. After the druggy, bizarre reinterpretations presented on Smiley Smile, reconstructed original recordings kept popping up on later records: “Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer” on 20/20, “Cool, Cool Water” on Sunflower, the Carl Wilson led version of “Surf’s Up” on the album of the same name. Members of the band and label insiders teased the release of a finished SMiLE after Surf’s Up, and then again later in the 70s, and again in the 80s. But nothing materialized.

In lieu of an official SMiLE, fans created their own. Bootlegs circulated for years, obscure session material was traded and sifted through, analyzed, compared against bits of information from 1966 and ‘67. Bootlegs of SMiLE were pressed to vinyl, recorded to cassettes, burnt to CDs. Just before the dawn of our modern music culture of remixing and sampling, the passionate and dedicated were doing at home what Brian Wilson couldn’t in the 60s, constructing and finishing SMiLE. In 1993, Capitol released a five disc box set of old and new Beach Boys material which also contained a revelatory half hour’s worth of officially sanctioned SMiLE material. The release gave obsessives a clearer picture than ever of what the album might have sounded like and how close it was to being completed. How hard could it really be to compile it officially?

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By the 21st Century, the Beach Boys were broken up and SMiLE was still something of a mystery, but Brian Wilson had come a very long way, artistically and mentally. In 2004, he announced that he would be revisiting SMiLE alongside original lyricist Van Dyke Parks and a new band. Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE was the first ‘completed’ version of the album to ever see release. Seven years later came The Smile Sessions, a massive box set collecting hours of sessions material and finally, an officially sanctioned construction of the album. Personally, I took these releases as gospel for a long time. The decisions came directly from Brian himself, didn’t they? But both releases have become divisive among fans, and the more I read, the more I understood why.

Many found the track listing and it’s medley-like structure to be ahistorical and impractical. The modern SMiLE, at around 50 minutes, would have been a tight fit for a single LP. Wasn’t it only supposed to be 12 tracks, as the original back cover mock-up suggested? And wasn’t “Surf’s Up” always said to be the closing song? Would “Good Vibrations” ever have even made the final track listing? Once you really start digging, there are so many unresolved questions about SMiLE: Were the songs really written as thematic medleys? Or was that just an accident of a freewheeling creative process? How long was “Heroes and Villains” originally supposed to be? The sessions for it imply that it could have been a monstrous epic. And what’s with all those stoned comedy skits that dot the sessions? Brian at one point considered turning SMiLE into a comedy album, what might that have been like?

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The answer to all these questions is that nobody really knows for sure. SMiLE is an unfinished album and it will never truly be finished, no matter what anyone says. It’s a labyrinth of conflicting tales, spurious rumors and odd recordings. Beyond The Smile Sessions one could download up to ten hours worth of bootlegged raw recordings. The original sessions reveal the sonic innovations that Brian Wilson began developing in ‘66, with “Good Vibrations,” the discrete pockets of sound and melody that would eventually, theoretically, be stitched into songs. But when songs can be built piece by piece like this, with a constant stream of new ideas pouring out of Brian’s head every day, the scope and the range of options becomes overwhelming. Perhaps this is what truly crippled Wilson in 1967 and prevented him from turning hours of beautiful music into a coherent album.

What was left by the summer of ‘67 might not have looked very much like an album, but in some ways it has become the ultimate album. SMiLE is unfinished and unfinishable in any traditional sense, but now it’s become something more fascinating than even Brian himself could have imagined, an enormous box of musical Lego bricks that can be taken apart and constructed into something beautiful by anyone with a sessions collection and some audio editing software. I’ve listened to The Smile Sessions, I’ve listened to Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, I’ve listened to plenty of bootlegs and recordings. What I’m most struck by every time is that no matter what form the music takes, it remains as sweepingly beautiful as the first time I heard it.

Last week, after a lot of thought, I made my own mix. It’s only a start, just a minor reconfiguration of the Sessions stuff, some small additions and edits. I spent a couple of bored days throwing it together. I don’t think it’s groundbreaking or definitive or historical and I don’t really plan on sharing it with anyone but myself. It’s my SMiLE, and I think it sounds great.

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