Ratatat – LP3: Expansive and diverse sounds

In the past, I’ve taken issue with the tendency in some circles to lump Ratatat’s music in with that of the 8-bit crowd. I can understand the temptation, what with the band’s programmed, electronic beats, screaming guitars and ample keyboarding. But while their tones may sometimes sound similar to those produced by the Nintendo Entertainment System, their origins are much more organic.

So it surprised me to see that Ratatat appears to be overtly embracing the 8-bit sound while simultaneously diversifiying its non-electronic sound on its latest record, the straight-forwardly titled LP3. This record is a virtual homage to the keyboard. Indeed, the album cover features three of them. The effect is that just about any sound that can be produced by playing the keys finds its way onto this record somewhere. Indeed, one of the lead tracks, Mirando, mixes the bright and clean upper register of a grand piano with the laser beam-like sounds of an 8-bit system near its crescendo.

Don’t fret though, the duo haven’t thrown their guitars away. In fact, Ratatat seems to be well on their way to finding world peace and ultimate truth, the wailing guitar, Wyld Stallyns way. But even there, the stringed instruments shows some surprising variety. Again, the cacophonous Mirando mixes Ratatat’s thrashing riffs and slide guitars with the interjection of a banjo.

Other standout tracks include the disc’s opener, Shiller, which spends most of its time as a contemplative, baroque-style dirge before exploding into a high-flying spaced-out waltz. From there, LP3 hits overdrive with Falcon Jab further demonstrating the band’s new-found commitment to diversity. The guitars talk Peter Frampton style, the percussion is accented by shakers, and the keys of a harpsichord and baby grand trade expressions.

Mi Viejo has a distinct world-music flare, like a caravan moving up and down over the crests of sand dunes. Likewise, Mumtaz Khan shows a distinct Middle Eastern flavor, like what you might expect to find in a Turkish nightclub. Meanwhile Shempi, another highlight, is a wurlitzer-powered merry-go-round spinning through hyperspace. Gypsy Threat takes on the atmosphere of a Scooby Doo chase through an abandoned carnival.

Of the thirteen songs presented here, there’s only one that could arguably be referred to as a “typical” Ratatat song. With its mid-tempo beats and harpsichord melodies, Dura would almost feel at home as the backing track for one of Ratatat’s infamous remixes if it weren’t such a compelling track on its own.

With three albums under their belt, Ratatat has consistently shown themselves to be on the top of their game. But that game keeps expanding, with each successive album adding a new layers of complexity and textures to the band’s modus operandi. LP3 shows that whatever sights they set for themselves, they’ll reach them with gusto.


Note, the Amazon MP3 store offers a exclusive bonus track: Shempi [E*Rock Remix].


Mirando video:

The Top 10 Best Songs by The Strokes

I’ve been kickin around some of The Strokes albums lately and after repeated listenings, here are the ten songs I’ve found to be their greatest (so far).

12:51 (from Room on Fire)

“The world is shutting out… for us.”

The upbeat melody and carefree feel make this one of the Strokes’ most addicting songs. And its tragically short running time just makes you want to play it again and again. 12:51 is pure pop ambrosia with a guitar effect that is sonic ecstasy. It reminds me of the way I felt listening to The Smashing Pumpkins’ 1979 in high school: cool, relaxed, free of responsibility and immune from consequences.

Bonus points for effective use of handclaps and Tron-inspired video.

What Ever Happened? (from Room on Fire)

“I come together in the middle of the night.”

This first song from the band’s sophomore release can either be read as a reaction to a bad break up or the casting off of expectations and presumptions (or possibly both). The song lacks a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, instead feeling like a dramatic bell curve bookended by the same plea. It opens with Jules almost begging to be left alone before breaking into a sensational mind-grabbing riff that leads straight to defiant crux before retreating back to where it started.

By the time its all done, you’ve found another song to play on repeat.

Barely Legal (from Is This It)

“You ain’t ever had nothing I wanted
But I want it all”

Musically and lyrically unadorned and straightforward, Barely Legal is the compellingest song from a compelling album. Composed of simple sardonic and candid one-liners, this song is a musical tirade, bitter and catchy. It’s one for the misanthrope in all of us.

Bonus points for effective use of guitar harmonics.

You Only Live Once (from First Impressions of Earth)

“Sit me down
Shut me up
I’ll calm down
And I’ll get along with you”

When Jules belts those lines, with a wailing guitar counterpoint, its a powerful moment. You Only Live Once launches the band’s third album and, from its sound, they are clearly growing up. Musically and emotionally complex, the song hits with an existential cynicism based on the notion that everything and everyone that has ever existed will eventually be gone. But even that depressing notion can’t stop the rock, so you might as well enjoy it, because you only live once.

Reptilia (from Room on Fire)

“The room is on fire as she’s fixing her hair”

This song takes feeling of bitterness, anger and servility to a whole new level. Then there’s a guitar breakdown. Then it repeats.

The Modern Age (from Is This It)

“Work hard and say it’s easy
Do it just to please me”

The song that started it all. All the dogged hype that is. Much of the negativity that exists toward the Strokes is really more a reaction to the ridiculous behavior of the musical press at the time leading up to the release of Is This It. Hell, even I avoided the band for years because of it. But as evidence that the attention was not all undeserved obsequiousness, this song one day got stuck in my head and the next thing I know, I’ve got it on my iPod, singing along with the windows down.

Someday (from Is This It)

“When we was young, man did we have fun
Always, always”

Someday is a perfect pick-me-up. If you’re feeling somewhat down, a little under the weather, or maybe just stuck in traffic, this song is guaranteed to improve your disposition, if only for about three minutes. The video makes being in a band look like so much fun that I want dust off my guitar and start my own again.

Razorblade (from First Impressions of Earth)

“Oh no, my feelings are more important than yours.”

Being one of the more traditional songs in the group’s repertoire doesn’t stop Razorblade from being any less catchy. Its conventionality probably contributes to its catchiness. The border-line beeping guitar effect is a new effect for the band and its emphasis in the mix really serves to pull you in.

Juicebox (from First Impressions of Earth)

“Why won’t you come over here
We’ve got a city to love”

The Strokes learn to grind on this first single from First Impressions of the Earth. Powered by a throbbing, revolving bassline and quick-tapping, tension-building ride on the cymbal, the song feels like a high-speed ride in a sports car changing gears as it whips through sharp turns and shoots down straightaways.

Juicebox rivals Reptilia as the band’s hardest rocking song (and perhaps their most overtly incensed).

The video features David Cross as a jerkass radio announcer who introduces the band as “Stroke.”

Last Night (from Is This It)

“In spaceships they won’t understand
And me I ain’t ever gonna understand”

A feel-good song with ironically downtrodden lyrics. Sure, it’s based largely on a (admittedly) lifted riff from Tom Petty’s American Girl, but it has its own kind of nonchalant independence. Though the song might be concerned with a disaffected relationship, the energy is such that it’s impossible not to tap your toes along with.

*Bonus Song: because ten just aren’t enough*

Red Light (from First Impressions of Earth)

“An entire generation that has nothing to say”

First Impressions’ closer is a syncopated head-bobbing melody that marches along merrily until an unexpected end that leaves your ears demanding more. The almost videogame-esque guitar treatment is a real treat here, yet the overwhelming sense of the song is trademark nihilism. The worldview here really is bleak, but as with most Strokes’ songs, you can’t help but feel a little cheerful as the invectives spew.

Then without a hint of coda, Red Light stops, leaving these words lingering: “Oh, the sky is not the limit and you’re never gonna guess what is…”

The Strokes – The Modern Age: Youthful Exuberance

strokes the modern age

This is it. The Strokes inaugural recording. I discovered it the other day while browsing the XL Recordings page at eMusic, which at the time this was written, was the only place you could find it (unless you want to pay collectors’ prices for a hard copy). Sadly, it seems to no longer be available.

Released in 2001, this eleven minute EP features rougher, less unpolished versions of three songs that would later appear on the band’s formal album debut (The Modern Age, Last Nite and Barely Legal). The record shows an early version of The Strokes hitting the ground running, as the three songs here are the three best from Is this it? and the ones that, seven years later, have achieved a universal timelessness.

The entire running time brims with the energy of ingenuous earnestness, before the band was to be hyped as the new-millennial “saviors of rock music”.

The early rendition of The Modern Age cruises at a faster tempo than the final version, but its lo-fi essence is already well formed. The chops are in place though; the song features a pretty mad, if brief guitar solo. Last Nite feels surprising similar to the album version, the principle difference being in Julian Casablancas’ delivery.

If you’re already familiar with Barely Legal, don’t try to sing to this version, despite the temptation. A number of lines contain different lyrics. This redition is also about 45 seconds longer thanks to an extended guitar solo and breakdown.

This disc may be short, but it shows the Strokes already fulfilling their potential.

Free Listen: The original version of Barely Legal:
[audio:http://www.tunequest.org/download/TheStrokes-Barely LegalOriginal.mp3]

Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight: It’s a Hit

The Moneymaker:

Rilo Kiley – The Moneymaker

Rilo Kiley is back, and in a big way. After a three year hiatus, the indie rock wunderkind of the twenty-first century is back with a new album, Under the Blacklight, and it rocks. Though technically, with this release Rilo Kiley can no longer be called “indie rock” as the new album is being released by a major label, Warner Bros. Records. Indeed, both in distribution and sound, Under the Blacklight shows a clear smoothness and polish of production that the resources of a major label can provide. It also shows a quite noticeable departure from the band’s previous ethos.

Part of Rilo Kiley’s rise to prominence in the indie rock circles was due to their ability to blend pop, rock and folk/country elements into a pleasant low-key package. While I have enjoyed that aspect of the band’s oeuvre, for my tastes, they’re at their best when they put the rock into overdrive (Spectacular Views!). And fortunately for my tastes, Rilo Kiley’s evolution has shown a steady increase of rock.

Where earlier albums were markedly complicated, emotionally dense and intricately constructed, Blacklight is straightforward, blunt and to a certain degree, shallow. But it’s just so damn addictive, like candy or a drug. The band has real talent and while the record is certainly not their greatest artistic statement, they do pull off straightforward, blunt and shallow *well*. Jenny’s engaging vocals and Blake’s smashing guitar melodies power a pure rock delight.

After reading some of the early commentary on the web, fans seem to have had decidedly mixed reactions to this new and revised Rilo Kiley, with criticisms largely consisting of predictable accusations of “selling out.” But here at tunequest, I couldn’t be happier. And it was some kind of most divine providence that the album dropped just as the Atlanta Heat Wave of 2007™ was breaking, providing improved conditions for windows-down, volume-up driving. Under the Blacklight is more than up to fulfilling that role. In fact, cruising down I-85 last Friday, I couldn’t help but nudge the volume up steadily after each song.

I’ve been digesting this album for nearly three weeks and man, it just keeps burrowing deeper and deeper. I can hardly close my eyes without hearing a riff, refrain or lyric.

One of the more compelling aspects of Under the Blacklight is its unabashed and forthright sexuality: Close Call is about prostitution; The Moneymaker is about pornography; Dejalo appears to be about being straight-up slutty; 15 is about unbeknownst and unwitting cyber-pedophilia; Smoke Detector is about hooking up on the nightclub scene. Indeed, the album’s recurring themes seem to highlight society’s darker, sordid aspects (ie, things that are revealed when illuminated by a blacklight).

Dejalo, where the band does their best calypso-infused Blondie impression, also turns out to be Blacklight’s weakest spot. It breaks flow and it breaks style and is somewhat hard to listen to. Otherwise, I have few complaints about the album.

I have the feeling Under the Blacklight will be shining in my library for a long time to come.

under the blacklight at itunes

under the blacklight at amazon

Silver Lining (probably my favorite):

Jenny and Blake dated for a number of years, so it’s tempting to read that history into this song and video. But, some have speculated that it might be about Jenny’s relationship to the rest of the band following her increasing success and notoriety as a solo artist.

Further reading: RK gets the cover story for 9/2007 issue of Spin.

Official Site
RK on MySpace

Soundgarden: The Day I Tried To Live

From the album Superunknown (1994)

One of the best songs from one of the 90s best albums (a 4.51/5 on my scale). The Day I Tried to Live is Chris Cornell and company at the tip-top of their game on an album that delivers smash after smash.

It’s not as frantic as Spoonman or as sour as Fell on Black Days, but more steadfast and determined in its manner of storytelling. The whining intro sets a cynical stage a sordid story of ambition and the depths one can sink to while trying to achieve a perverted definition of “living.”

What I find most interesting about this song is its unusual construction, which seems almost operatic in nature. Sure, it employs a contemporary structure, but not in the traditional pop/rock manner. From the speaker’s perspective, there’s clearly a conflict as shown by the contrast between the resolute, ominousness of the verses and the screaming, adrenaline-soaked choruses. As the song progresses, the conflict gets increasingly heated as both sides of the argument struggle for control. The verses get shorter and the screaming gets more intense, back and forth until he cast he final accusation.

This song is of the kind that sits in the back of your mind until one day, at random, its brilliance explodes into your consciousness. From there, it’s no going back.

What I Love: The song, on an Interstate at night, with windows rolled down and the volumed rolled up.

the day i tried to live at itunes
day i tried to live at amazon

Do you know who Prince is? Good.

prince rocks our socks at the superbowl. best show ever?

OK. I like Prince; let’s just set that on the record. But after the recent Superbowl Halftime show, my respect for the man just tripled. I swear that was the best halftime show in recent memory, and possibly ever. Certainly much better than anything offered in the past few years, especially 2004’s infamous profligacy.

Prince’s performance was showy, but tasteful, spectacular, but not gaudy or opulent. But most importantly, his show reminded me of just how well he can handle an axe. Prince, as a celebrity and iconoclast, is notorious for many things, but one fundamental attribute that often gets overlooked is his mad skill on the guitar. Despite being noteworthy for it, few people when asked about the musician, would say “Oh yeah, he’s that great guitar player.” I’ll be sure to bring that little tidbit up in future conversations about him.

The show had everything: his trademark showmanship, an enthusiast crowd, excellent production values awesome stage and pyrotechnics, and a top-shelf marching band adding copious amounts of soul. But it was the eclectic and quite surprising set list that made the show: a medley of cover songs and a to-die-for rendition of Purple Rain.

And really, it was the out-of-character selection of cover songs that truly made the show unique. We will Rock You, and All Along the Watchtower I can understand; those are classic standards these days. But watching Prince play Proud Mary, well, that was pretty much mind-blowing. But of course, the biggest surprise of the night was hearing a song that is far too new to be considered a classic, and not new enough to be considered a recent hit: Foo Fighters’ Best of You from 2005’s In Your Honour. A high honor, indeed, for Dave Grohl and the Foos, but it kinda validates some of my past criticism of the band.

Then there was the grand finale: Purple Rain in the pouring rain, a more perfect setting could not have been found. And that silhouette pretty much sums up The Artist himself, projecting himself larger than life.

If you missed the show or just want to relive the experience, check out this video. Do it quick before the NFL has it pulled off the site.