Album Review: “Magnifique” by Ratatat

Ratatat Magnifique

Magnifique
Released: July 17th, 2015
Reviewed by Erik Wermuth
Rating: 4/5

Brief disclaimer: ever since I first heard their self-titled album in 2007, Ratatat have been my favorite band, bar none. At that point I had heard electronic acts with something approaching Evan Mast and Mike Stroud’s ear for subtle build-up and original melodies, but never combined with the excitement that live instrumentation brings. Guitar and bass took the place of vocals and removed any distraction from the New York pair’s contribution to rock and electronic. More so than any review I could write, this one is from the perspective of a fanboy. I’ve done my best to temper my natural inclination to think that they can do no wrong, but nobody’s perfect (despite my instinct that, musically at least, these two are about as close as it gets).

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that back in 2011 when Ratatat announced they were beginning work on their fifth studio album, I was more than excited. News of an upcoming release would have been enough to send me skipping back and forth down my hallway with childish glee (not really), but every website announcing the album, tentatively referred to as LP5 after their last two albums LP3 and LP4, also included another nugget: the duo had secluded themselves in a beach house studio on Long Island to write and record.

With their unkempt hair, lack of vocals, and generally secretive attitude, they had always presented themselves as something like basement guitar gurus: cloistered monks of the electronic world. The news that they were holing up in a personal studio to work their obscure magic fit so perfectly with this narrative that I was utterly enthralled by imagining the process. As year after year passed and no further updates were forthcoming, the mystery only became more compelling. When at a certain point the wait for LP5 became something of a joke, like the endless wait for a new Duke Nukem and the internet even started to doubt its existence, I could only wait and picture a wide shot of the studio at night, with strange lights flashing through the windows and the cracks in the doors like a mystic laboratory.

When the news finally dropped that the album was coming, along with a name, its first single and the beginnings of a tour schedule, I went skipping back and forth down my hallway with childish glee (really). With such a huge 4 year buildup, nothing short of excellence would have sufficed and, for the most part, Magnifique delivers on that promise. The whole album bursts with the same energy that Ratatat have been bringing since 2004, and I absolutely can’t wait to see them live again with this album in the rotation.

Because of their flowing, instrumental style, I find that Ratatat is best listened to in terms of albums rather than individual songs, so I won’t give my usual track-by-track analysis. In Magnifique, Stroud and Mast confirmed their status as the modern American answers to Johann Sebastian Bach by perfecting a similar mathematical, theme-building style. In terms of their previous work, Magnifique sounds the most like their more standard first two albums Ratatat and Classics. However, some of the more involved production (particularly in the places where the album speeds up) evokes their more experimental LP3 and much of the slide-guitar work (particularly in the places where the album slows down) feels very much like the equally experimental LP4.

Most of all, Magnifique seems to be a combination of the lessons Stroud and Mast learned in making LP3/LP4 (the majority of which were recorded in the same studio session) and their more ‘standard’ sound present in Ratatat and Classics. To some, this kind of musical consolidation is the signal of a weaker effort, but this album feels more like a new apex and a necessary step than a simple rehashing of old ideas. The question of whether or not the duo have run out of creative juice after this effort is still up in the air, but considering the scope of Evan Mast’s many side projects (the sweet, downtempo e*vax and the exotic Abuela for instance), I find it hard to believe that’s possible. Nothing would make me happier than an experimental series LP6/LP7 followed by another consolidation of creative effort. We can only hope it takes less of a decade this time around.

In the end, if you’ve listened to Ratatat previously, Magnifique is only going to solidify your opinion of them, whatever that may be. If you’re new to the pair, the all-encompassing Magnifique just might be the perfect place to start. As a past, present, and future fan I give it a satisfied 4/5.

Tribute to Chris Squire

Written by Erik Wermuth

Chris_squire_1978Habit forms the backbone of our lives. Great or small, fry cook or Nobel laureate, humanity’s collective life is lived in the deep grooves we’ve formed for ourselves through years of repetition. Some use habit to free their minds from mundane details and focus on greater things. Some let themselves be controlled by habit; they become addicted to drugs or hostile takeovers or Netflix. Very, very rarely a person comes along who makes a habit out of doing the brilliantly unexpected. A man who can avoid the pitfalls of vicious self-destruction and accomplish this with integrity and grace is rarer still. Chris Squire, bassist for the London prog-rock band Yes who succumbed to leukemia on June 27 this year, was such a man.

His road was not always illuminated, however. Like all of the greats, Squire began simply as a curious child. At the age of 16, he was suspended from school for having hippie-length hair and given cash to cover a haircut. The pragmatic Squire took the money and never returned, finding work at a local guitar shop where the early beginnings of his technical prowess were to be found. This marks a crisis point in the bassist’s life. With the enveloping oversight of school removed, he suddenly found himself responsible for the formation of what was essentially a new life. In those early few years he turned to drugs—specifically he started taking acid on a regular basis.

Friday nights at the UFO club became a constant trip through the weekends and left enough time to recover for work on Monday morning. As a class of drug, psychedelics are legendary for their ability to take our minds out of their well-worn streambeds of consciousness and give new perspective (which is the reason acid has been used so effectively in therapies designed to break a person of alcoholism). However, steady use tends to unbalance the mind—after all, even the purest creativity requires some underlying structure to give it sense and beauty. Squire’s breaking point came one night in 1967 when he, sick with the flu, dropped acid a friend had homemade.

For 3 days afterwards Squire stayed in the hospital, completely divorced from himself not recognizing the well-wishers that appeared by the foot of his bed. After recovering enough to successfully lie to police about his source for the drugs, he spent the next year or so holed up in his girlfriend’s apartment, still too anxious to leave. His mind had returned, but something was still fundamentally wrong.

At this point in the story, Squire is not all that different from the thousands of others who have emerged into the world and found something there that broke a piece of their foundation. For some reason, they left the force of their old habits behind and what they saw frightened them back into a hollow recreation of their old selves. But Squire did something different. Day in and day out in week after week for month after month, he played his bass. With a recovering mind and seemingly endless time on his hands he tinkered and experimented, often finding and toying with his limitations on an instrument that wasn’t even plugged in. Throughout that lost year, Chris Squire rebuilt his shattered mind with music and when he emerged in 1968 he did so with an idiomatic style strong enough to sustain and develop through an almost four decade career. Combined with his amp-junkie genius for crafting the perfect sound, the 1968 reemergence constituted one of the closest things there can be to true rock godhood. The early Seventies perception of prog-rock as ‘drug music’ takes on an interesting irony here—the backbone of Yes’ sound did arrive on the scene through drug use, but it was the aftereffects and subsequent abstinence of a bad trip and not the transcendence of a high that produced it.

To this day (and hopefully for long after it), Squire is revered—particularly by his fellow bassists. Primus frontman and bass titan Les Claypool says Squire “always had and still has the best bass tone. His parts and the way he sat in the mix were always really incredible to me”. Claypool goes on to say that in spite of a youthful obsession, he still can’t play the entirety of the bassline on the Yes classic “Roundabout”.  Squire’s instrumental skill and guitar-geek approach to his sound were a large part of what made Yes such a compelling brand of music. Their ability to retain entertainment value while taking advantage of every available complexity in equipment and arrangement is truly staggering. Of all Yes’ admittedly talented members, Squire, the only one to play on all of their albums to date, is most responsible for their sound and its attitude of pushing rock music to the furthest corners of the stage and the studio.

The world lost Chris Squire for a moment there in 1967, but the person that was left when he forgot himself pulled him back with its music. Almost 4 decades later his music is again most of what remains. But this time we’re unlikely to be getting him back, so do him and yourself a favor and go listen to Chris Squire and Yes. If you’re feeling generous find a copy with enough quality to really appreciate his legendary bass tones and Yes’ epic production: an old record, a CD, or a lossless download.

Album Review: “Déjà Vu” by Giorgio Moroder

Deja Vu

Déjà Vu
Released: June 16th, 2015
Reviewed by Erik Wermuth
Rating: 2/5

The art for the Italian producer Giorgio Moroder’s new album Déjà Vu is an absolutely brilliant piece of marketing. It features the shape of Moroder’s signature handlebar mustache under a pair of retro sunglasses against a blazing neon pink background. The image taken together with the title is a clear invitation to remember his heyday in the early Eighties when he was producing major disco hits and classic scores for films like Flashdance, Scarface, and Top Gun. The picture, with its segmented, stylized face and visor also subtly invokes the famous masks of Daft Punk, whose 2013 album Random Access Memories was largely responsible for Moroder’s return to the public eye after a 30-year hiatus from releasing original music under his own name. He donated his voice and story to their track “Giorgio by Moroder” which really exemplifies Daft Punk’s ability to inject raw human emotion into the cold technique of electronic music. The album cover for Déjà Vu (not to mention its title) invites the listener to recall this bygone era. When Déjà Vu came up on my queue I fully expected an affectionate throwback album in the recent tradition of bands like Kavinsky and Chromeo. Who better to play on nostalgia for a lost decade than one of the originators of its now-classic sound? For my money, “Take My Breath Away” from the Top Gun soundtrack (interestingly, the song in his career of which Giorgio has stated he is the most proud) is one of the most intensely Eighties songs I can think of.

There are bigger disappointments in life than great marketing for a sub-par product, but none that sting quite like it.

To be clear, I don’t think that Déjà Vu is a bad piece of technical work. At all. Throughout the album one thing that remains eminently clear is that Moroder is a seasoned professional. Something is definitely gained here listening in a higher quality. Every song (and I mean every song) is locked down tighter than Tom Cruise’s jeans in Top Gun. The sound pops fully and consistently also much like Tom Cruise’s jeans in Top Gun. Unlike the Top Gun jeans, which contributed in their full and consistent tightness (uncomfortably so, in places) to the undeniable humanity of the character, the result for Déjà Vu is not the humanity of an artist, but the cold, airless distance of an advertising professional. From the tired piano chord-progressions to the pandering of the wub-wub basslines to the attempted guitar throwbacks to that early electronic sound, the work as a whole fails to convey any emotion whatsoever. Track titles like “Don’t Let Go”, “Right Here, Right Now”, and “Back and Forth” should convey just how little creative thought went into this album. It’s form without substance. It’s disco without cocaine. It’s Daft Punk if it turned out that they weren’t human after all.

There are some moments where the insufferably boring zero-risk attitude gives way to something more honestly felt. Charli XCX delivers an emotional vocal performance on “Diamonds” despite unimaginative production and (never thought that I’d be caught dead saying this) Britney Spears stole the show with her feature on “Tom’s Diner”. Her massively electronically altered voice fit the simple, haunting backtrack remarkably well. The only real bright spot for Moroder himself was the track “74 is the New 24”. It features far-and-away the best songwriting in the album as it’s the only song to feature any kind of personal involvement from the artist. Moroder was 74 at the time of the album’s release and obviously struggling with the idea of being one of the godfathers of electronic music still contributing to the scene decades later—the combination of faultless production and thematic elements beyond the disco power trio of Sex/Dancing, Love/Heartbreak, and Money/Drugs make “74 is the New 24” a pleasurable and thought-provoking listen. An entire album of tracks like it would have been a rare treasure.

Simply put, Déjà Vu completely fails to deliver on the aesthetic promise of its title and cover. Instead of a vibrant tribute to the feel of a lost decade with the tools of the present, the listener is presented with song after song full of all the clichés of contemporary pop and none of its inventiveness. The result is static and stale and the only nostalgia I’m feeling is for a time before I heard most of these tracks. I give Déjà Vu a disappointed 2/5.

Album Review: “Lantern” by Hudson Mohawke

Hudson Mohawke Lantern

Lantern
Released: June 16th, 2015
Reviewed by Erik Wermuth
Rating: 3/5

Almost two years ago, when Jay-Z’s album Magna Carta Holy Grail dropped, Hudson Mohawke tweeted that “This record could’ve came out 10 yrs ago and no one would’ve batted an eye lid”. Admittedly, the Glasgow native had submitted several beats for consideration that Jay-Z ultimately decided not to use. It should be fairly obvious that he was not in a neutral headspace about the album when it dropped, but the critique highlights one of the central conflicts in music today: now that the technology for production and distribution has advanced to the point where anyone with a computer and some time on their hands can put out a body of work, why does so much of it still sound so much the same?

It would be tempting to use Mohawke’s own words against him and his latest release, the LP Lantern, but that would be both cheap and incorrect. 10 years ago, his style alone would have (and did) raise eyebrows. After a series of mixtapes and a reality TV talent-search appearance in the mid-to-late 2000’s, the happy trapper (trappist?) started gaining a significant amount of traction, especially for an unheralded teenager out of Scotland. The work he produced during this period was hard-hitting enough to send club crowds over the edge, while providing enough passion and innovation to keep critical listeners coming back for more.

The unique blend of happy-hardcore intensity and trap rhythms that dominated his music in the last decade culminated in the prestigious Warp Records releasing his first LP Butter in 2009. The album’s combination of creative power and head-nodding accessibility made it a critical success that led to high-profile collaborations with the Canadian producer Lunice as the duo TNGHT and with Kanye West on his Yeezus album, both of which vastly increased his popularity with American listeners. It is within the context of his meteoric rise to fame and its aftermath that his most recent album Lantern must be understood.

Hud Mo is clearly a very talented producer, and nothing in Lantern shakes my faith in that. He has his sound down tight. After making waves in December with his contributions to the Rap Monument, he’s moved away from hip-hop/rap to a more R&B/soul-centered approach, particularly in terms of the artists he features such as Jhene and Antony Hegarty. He interviewed extensively in the lead-up to his sophomore effort’s release, stating again and again that he wanted to get away from his status as a trap god and move on to more interesting musical territory. This impulse, in and of itself, is an essential one for any musician who wants to develop his art. Sadly, instead of moving in new creative directions, the album sounds like a watered down version of his earlier works. Lantern lacks the immediacy and creative urgency that made early Hudson Mohawke so compelling. There are, of course, some exceptions: “Scud Books” is a strong, triumphal track, “Ryderz” has something of his old Saturday morning whimsy, and “Lil Djembe” is a short, but punchy beat that has flashes of his old brilliance. However, while none of these would be out of place in his earlier work, none measure up to the expectation of excellence he has established for himself.

Hud Mo achieved success by taking opposing genres and binding them into something greater than the individual components. Butter was so magical because he lashed two dominating musical forces together without losing the purity or energy of either. It drew praise for its accessibility, but it’s important to remember that being able to access something only matters if the content is worth accessing. Like all the best electronic music, Butter burst with inventiveness and left the listener with a real sense of passion– even when it grated, its freshness and originality were never in doubt. But praise can be toxic if misdirected, and I worry that Hud Mo heard too much about how surprisingly listenable Butter was and decided to move only in that direction on Lantern. The listener is still treated to the occasional whining treble and high hat nod to trap roots, but they serve more as a sad reminder of what was than as the basis for an exciting new direction.

Ultimately, Lantern is still a solid album by a great producer. Had it come out ten years ago, eyelids would definitely have batted. 5 years ago, less so. Coming out today it sounds like one long compromise to pop sensibilities, some of which Mohawke himself helped to create—a canned production of known quantities. The creative verve that was beneath the surface of all his releases from his first EP LuckyMe in 2005 to Butter in 2009 is mostly a no-show. The taming of his trap sensibilities that Lantern represents was a major disappointment, mostly because of how high of a bar he had set for himself. At best it represents stagnation for one of the world’s premiere electronic artists and at worst it marks the beginning of a long, slow creative death. As a cutting-edge producer, if mainstream news outlets are describing your new work as lush, listenable lounge music, it’s a safe bet that you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the line. That being said, this is only his second solo album, and his side work has remained impeccable. Here’s to hoping Hud Mo can right the ship. I give Lantern an uninspired 3/5.