ALBUM REVIEW: David Lynch – Crazy Clown Time

David Lynch is a lot of things to a lot of people – director, writer, photographer, coffee maker, transcendental meditation espouser, nightclub designer – so his debut solo album release is not so much a case of coming out of leftfield as much as it is an inevitable culmination of his interest in music and sound that has played an important part in the texture of his work before it. Having sung vocals in his last feature film to date, 2006’s INLAND EMPIRE, as well as for the excellent Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse collaboration Dark Night of the Soul, a full-length musical voyage seemed a natural progression, and Crazy Clown Time is certainly dripping in Lynchian hopes and fears. But the leap to a purely audio medium is not without its faltering steps.

The confident opening number goes some way to allaying initial fears of this being a self-indulgent passion project, the driving drums and echoing guitar of ‘Pinky’s Dream’, coupled with the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O’s whoops and yelps, creating a tangible sense of doom and urgency. Following in to first single ‘Good Day Today’ maintains the quality, a sparkly strangely catchy tune which is probably the closest approximation to dance music we’re ever likely to see from Lynch. It’s just a shame then that the rest of the album does not continue in a similar vein, not that it would have necessarily resulted in a better album, but it would have been an interesting change of direction. Instead, Crazy Clown Time alternates between sleazy blues rock, fitting into Lynch’s ventures into the seedy underbelly of Americana, and basic electronic loops and beats with just enough scratchiness or fuzziness to mask its simplicity, whilst adding a veneer of moodiness by shorthand.

Sometimes it all comes together, as in ‘So Glad’ or ‘I Know’, with its industrial clangs and organ bubbling menacingly under the surface, but other times it falls apart, not in a spectacular fashion but merely crumbling into the unmemorable, leaving little to no impression. Whereas the title track rattles around in the head for days, having conjured up an air of a bad bedtime story designed to give you nightmares, in an album of 14 songs, few others stick with you beyond their running time. Still, consistently moody filler is perhaps preferable to the only real skippable dud, ‘Strange and Unproductive Thinking’, a seven-and-a-half minute stream of consciousness / life advice sermon a la Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’, but unbelievably even more tedious.

Unexpectedly, where Lynch’s album actually excels is in his vocals. Though often modified or altered or vocoded, his distinctive high-pitched delivery is not what you would ever describe as a beautiful singing voice, but it has an ethereal quality which really lifts the lesser tracks. Treating this less as an album of songs and more as a collection of spoken word tales of darkness with minimal backing accompaniment is more rewarding. It still can’t quite make what is an overlong, harmless when it should be dangerous, piece of work anything more than a curio for fans, and there’s nothing here to touch ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ or ‘Star Eyes (I Can’t Catch It)’, but it serves the experience better.

A fair first stab at the uneasy listening market – and believe me, I’d be booking tickets if a live tour were suddenly announced – but hardly the advent of a hitherto undiscovered musical talent, and without the Lynch name attached, unlikely to have gotten a second look.

5/10

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ALBUM REVIEW: Zongamin – Zongamin

UK-based Japanese artist and musician Susumu Mukai released his debut album under the moniker Zongamin back in 2003, but, bar a couple of exhibitions and the odd remix, has done little else since. Which is a shame, as his first effort is a fiendishly unique adventure spanning numerous musical genres, yet rendered in his own inimitable style that can only be described as Zongamin-esque.

From the short sparky choral-driven opener (Make Love Not War) onwards, Zongamin crafts a strange concoction of mysterious music that feels like a trip into the unknown. Much of it sounds like backing music to a 70’s documentary on jungle exploration or unearthing mystical tombs of Ancient Egypt, especially Street Surgery, Tresspasser and Mummies (of course, judging by the track names and album artwork, this is no happy accident). It’s all a rather strange, sometimes even sinister, atmosphere for what would otherwise be pigeonholed as a dance or electronic or even rock album, but even then, it’s the kind of dance music that refuses to make a song and dance about it; and muterock, if you will. With the clipped beats, tiny blips and mumbling bass, it’s both raw and restrained, with a lo-fi charm that can be attributed to Susumu playing his own instruments and then editing and mixing his own created samples. Only the two-minute rock-burst of Whiplash, also the only track with vocals (guess what the lyric is?), pushes Zongamin to a state of mild mania.

But that’s not to say the rest of the album is too understated – indeed, it’s exactly that which makes the upbeat funkier tracks that bit more interesting. Both Spiral and Painless are exciting expeditions into minimalistic disco, and J. Shivers Theme is a whistle-led bongo bop of the highest caliber (and was used in a recent Orange mobile ad campaign with narration from Stephen Fry), but it’s the grimy grooves of Serious Trouble and Tunnel Music that are the album’s real treats. Unconventional certainly, but undeniably compelling in a way that makes you want to pop limbs and twist appendages. And the Japanese bonus tracks aren’t half bad either.

However, it’s all a bit too much to take in on one sitting. All the tracks have their merits, but after two minutes or so, many of them suffer from repetition and lack of direction, and it’s not long before impatience turns to skipping tracks altogether. There’s a lot of talent on show, but it seems that many ideas run out of steam before the crucial point at which they can be stepped up that extra gear to turn what is simply a good tune into a great one. Much of this review has been spent building up the wonders of the Zongamin-iverse, and it’s still an album to recommend, but it all just lacks a certain something to keep the ears from wandering elsewhere. Regardless, I hope we see another offering from Susumu soon – there’s still a lot of potential on the music-front to be realised.

7/10

> > > Official Site

ALBUM REVIEW: Supercar – Highvision

When I first listened to Supercar’s 2002 follow-up to Futurama, because it retained so many of the elements one would expect from an album of theirs, my immediate reactions were rather dismissive, as I’d go through each track thinking “God, this is such a Supercar song”. But the more I listened, the more I realised “Wait, I LOVE Supercar – that’s surely a good thing”. And it is a good thing indeed, as the charging guitar-rock Supercar of old is virtually non-existent here, with the experimentation of Futurama expanded upon, refined and, ultimately, bettered.

Beginning with the stirring strings-led Starline, the sound crafted on their sixth (and penultimate) album is a wonderfully dreamy mix of ambient rock and electronica, ten tracks in all that sit together beautifully. While there are characteristics of their earlier sound (most noticeable in the pop-rock stylings of Otogi Nation), this feels like Supercar at their most free, which translates into the airy quality of much of the album. Futhermore, the zippy electronic triumvirate of Strobolights (which contains no guitar whatsoever, unusual for a typically guitar-based band), I (with high-pitched vocals a-plenty) and Yumegiwa Last Boy (featured prominently in quirky Japanese comedy-drama Ping Pong) sees the band almost enter dance music territory.

Even with these upbeat tracks, there is still room for their more moody side to be released, particularly the soaring Aoharu Youth, and Nijiro Darkness, which manages to be both haunting and hopeful, poignant and pretty. At just ten tracks, the quality remains near consistently high, though there are minor dips in the shape of Silent Yaritori, a perfectly decent track that feels like a lacklustre coda after the brilliance of Nijiro Darkness, and, Warning Bell, which, when taken out of the context of the rest of the album, sounds a little ordinary.

But as a whole, Highvision represents Supercar at their peak of creativity and genius (well, I’ve yet to listen to their final album, Answer, due to stupid Sony copyright protection), making their break-up even more upsetting. Two years later, and interest is still high, with the recent release of a 10th anniversary music video DVD and a re-release of their first album Three Out Change. None of this will convert naysayers, but if you’ve yet to sample their unique sound, Highvision is a wonderful place to begin. And then return to again and again.

9/10

> > > Supercar (Official Site)

ALBUM REVIEW: Halfby – Green Hours

I first became aware of Kyoto DJ/artist Halfby aka Takahiro Takahashi when I saw the Groovisions video for his track Rodeo Machine at onedotzero‘s 2006 digital film festival in London. The Airside-esque visuals and funky upbeat tune won me over, and I’m pleased to report that the rest of the album the track was taken from is similarly bright and buoyant.

Green Hours is cut-and-paste sample beats and pieces designed for the simple purpose of making you dance, smile and just plain enjoy yourself. Much of Halfby’s work seems inspired by 70s happy-go-lucky records favoured by The Go! Team, with an element of Fatboy Slim mixy tricks – and amongst the dozen tracks on Green Hours, there are some that can certainly sit alongside the best such company have to offer. The rap mash-mixathon of Bring it Back is an early highlight, Man&Air and Coro Coro Sound System are grin-inducing heel-kicking celebratory anthems, and the soothing super-cool Bathrobe and album closer Soulful Lover Puppy ensure that Green Hours kicks rump throughout.

Best track though would have to be Flicker Song, a blissful carefree masterpiece that would suit an early evening trip to the seaside or an Amazonian boat-trip as much as it would a montage of a 70s all-female crime-fighting trio taking time out from busting perps for a shopping trip.

There’s a childish playfulness to Halfby’s music (as also shown in the wildlife-centric videos and album art) that make it so endearing, but at the same time it also results in the album’s only two clangers. Admittedly, West Jungle March is quite cute and brief, but it breaks up the flow and feels a little unnecessary. However, Girls at Bass School‘s embarassing reworking of This Old Man is so ‘down wid da kidz’, it’s inexcusable. But even if these two pour a little pee in the party punch, they are bunched together and easily skippable.

Overall, Halfby is a DJ that requests your utmost attention and Green Hours is provides a near-perfect soundtrack to any party. And now that I have seen him live in action, my appreciation of the album has increased and I will be sure to check out his other work when I have the chance.

8/10

> > > Second Royal Records

ALBUM REVIEW: YMCK – Family Music

While the likes of DJ Scotch Egg and Germlin use cut and paste 8 bit noises to create their sounds, Japanese chiptune outfit YMCK go one step further, using the old game console sound chips as simple replacement for genuine instruments to create bouncy jazzy pop melodies. It’s not a scrambled remix of video game music, but more akin to traditional music that just so happens to use video game-esque equipment to produce the sound. It’s what Mario would listen to on his walkman.

What stands out is that they rarely sample the games they reference. The title of their 2004 debut album Family Music of course puts you in the frame of mind of the Famicom (Family Computer – the original Japanese Nintendo Entertainment System). But apart from the odd blip and sound effect (and a quick riff of the Super Mario Bros. theme on SOCOPOGOGO (YMCK Version)), they are pretty much all original compositions. Even Tetrominon ~From Russia with Blocks~ resists the temptation to crack out the classic Game Boy Tetris tune, but at least there’s some great lyrics:

From Russia are falling down
to make your brain messed up with mysteries
It’s hard to perceive, easy to destroy
like your life itself

The blocks from Russia are falling down
You got to put into a box
gathering and eliminating a piece of Tetrominon

And while that’s all well and good, YMCK seemed to forget to make the music in anyway interesting or stimulating.

The tracks are easy to enjoy individually and in small doses as a quirky novelty, but listening to the whole album is a tiresome feat. As you can imagine, there’s little variety with the sound and content, and with some tracks stretching beyond the four and a half minute mark, it’s hard to be patient enough to keep yourself from skipping onwards. But all that’s waiting is another sugary dose of unexciting blip music. The high-pitched hushed vocals from lady band member Midori render every track more or less identical and the tunes would have perhaps benefitted without her listless half-whisper.

It all reinforces the view that video game music is primarily designed to be listened to while playing video games (no, really?) and the only reason certain tracks can be enjoyed at any other time is for nostalgia value. There are a couple of instances where it does gel together (the tiny opening Fanfare and Interlude tracks, plus the closing Your Quest Is Over is pretty), but overall it’s somewhat lacking.

Family Music is an album in dire need of some spark and excitement. There is no doubting the technical accomplishment on display, but it all feels like a demonstration of their skills rather than a CD you want to listen to again and again. And while you may level some of these arguments against the likes of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box and the Adaadat noise merchants, I’d rather have a mashed-up joywreck assualt on the ears than this. Not bad every now and again, but it’s just too much and not enough at the same time.

4/10

> > > YMCK (Official Site – English), Usagi-Chang Records

ALBUM REVIEW: Cornelius – Sensuous

Cornelius aka Keigo Oyamada has widely been regarded as one of the most important figures in contemporary Japanese music, whose innovative albums have gained something on an international, as well as a domestic, following. So, it is only natural that his first album of new material in five years should require one’s avid attention. However, it seems that little progress has been made since 2001’s Point.

As I have always preferred Fantasma, his third solo album, it’s something of a disappointment that the absurdity and upbeat nonsense that made Fantasma so unique is largely absent. Instead, it is largely another batch of experimental pop incorporating electronic tones, everyday noises and Oyamada’s restrained vocals. And while it is true that no-one else makes music in quite the same style, the end result lacks the uniqueness that made Fantasma so damn enjoyable. Nevertheless, it is perhaps unfair to dwell to much on past efforts for comparison, as while this album may not be Cornelius’ best, there is still much to gleam from the dozen tunes on offer here.

It seems that Cornelius must love wind and love the sound of tinkling, as windchimes bookend Sensuous. You could probably split the album in two between the more ambient soundscapes (such as Omstart and Like a Rolling Stone) and the guitar-licked beats of Breezin’ and Fit Song, yet both kinds have an airy, drifting quality. While it is nice to have something of a running theme, it also makes the tracks all seem to run together, with few that properly stand out and others that can only really be considered filler material. However, the ones that do stand out are certainly worth the effort.

The only track that sees Cornelius properly rocking out is the fast-paced Gum, filled with charging guitars and cymbal crashes as voice samples echo back and forth from all angles. It’s as close to Free Fall as one gets this time round, but it’s satisfying enough. Upcoming single Beep It is not especially clever but has a neat beat and manages to be pretty funky. The aforementioned Like a Rolling Stone is soothing and dreamy, as is his cover of Ratpack standard Sleep Warm. It’s just a shame that his brilliant cover of YMO’s exquisite Cue that appeared on the Breezin’ single release doesn’t appear here.

But perhaps the best track on Sensuous is barely a song at all. At just over a minute and a half long, Toner seems to be Cornelius at his most pure, using piano and electronic blips and sound effects to turn the menial task of printing out a sheet of paper into something more playful . It’s like listening to someone remix Microsoft Windows start-up noises, but much better than that sounds.

As a result, Sensuous is something of a frustrating experience, feeling a little soulless and hollow at times, but with just enough flashes of brilliance to leave me sure that Cornelius has plenty more imagination and creativity to offer. I just hope that next time, his talent takes a more refreshing direction. And that we don’t have to wait another five years.

7/10

> > > Cornelius (Official Site)