Admiring The Art Of Broken Bells, Part Two

A couple years ago, I wrote a post about the work of Jacob Escobedo, the visual artist behind so many great album covers and posters. He’s worked with Vampire Weekend, Active Child, and The Shins, but mostly I know him for the various music projects of Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton: Dark Night Of The Soul, Gnarls Barkley, Rome and, of course, Burton’s project with James Mercer, Broken Bells.

Well, this year, Broken Bells are back with a new album, After The Disco, full of a diverse array of influences, from pop and psychedelic rock, to soul and spaghetti Westerns, to disco and funk; all smooshed together to sound like, well, most of what Danger Mouse ever touches.

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Judging By The Cover: Nothing Plays Low

Nothing plays at Glasslands in Brooklyn, NY on April 4, 2014. (© Michael Katzif – Do not use or republish without prior consent.)
Nothing plays at Glasslands in Brooklyn, NY on April 4, 2014. (© Michael Katzif – Do not use or republish without prior consent.)

I don’t think anyone would confuse me for being a true metal or hardcore guy. Though, I do dabble: So much of the music I listen to and see live in concert borders into those worlds, and every day I find a new band that takes me further into this realm of music. I’m attracted to the in-your-face assault of droning feedback and screaming guitar distortion. Maybe it’s the immediacy of a band filling a room with noisy bliss, and seeing them thrash around on stage (and sometimes in the crowd) with furious, fist-pumping anthems. Or maybe there’s been a boom lately of new young bands doing this stuff in a new way. Who knows. Column A. Meet Column B.

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Timber Timbre And Fiver: Two Takes On An Unsettling And Alluring Tale

Timber Timbre's latest album, 'Hot Dreams,' is out now. (Jeff Bierk/Courtesy of the artist)
Timber Timbre’s latest album, ‘Hot Dreams,’ is out now. (Jeff Bierk/Courtesy of the artist)

In my head I have this movie that blends spaghetti Western with noir horror and gritty urban antiheroes — full of stark widescreen landscapes, neon-lit clubs, and unseen creepies lurking in the shadows. That film would be set to the languid cinematic songs of Timber Timbre — a band that embodies both the unsettling and the alluring on its third album, Hot Dreams.

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Album Art Trend: The Work Of Stanley Donwood And Atoms For Peace

I’ve long been an admirer of the aesthetic of artist Stanley Donwood, the longtime visual collaborator of Radiohead, who’s created artwork for practically every Radiohead record. I think I first took notice around the time of Kid A and Amnesiac because the visual imprint of those two musically-tied records was so perfectly cohesive. I love poring over all the tiny details embedded in the liner notes booklets and inserts and it always seems to be the way I picture Radiohead’s albums and songs in my head.

Currently I’ve become enamored in the artwork Donwood has crafted for Thom Yorke’s solo project Atoms For Peace, the new band he’s made with Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker, Flea and Mauro Refosco. The band’s new record, AMOK, is coming in late February and from what I’ve heard of it, it’s already one of the best records of the year. But originally, Atoms For Peace was put together in 2009 to tour in support Yorke’s first solo album 2006’s The Eraser and adapt songs constructed as beats and samples on a laptop into a living, breathing and danceable beast. That record was exceptional: intricately crafted and dark, but the glitched beats could feel sterile. Live, these songs were allowed to stretch and take on a newfound energy.

At the time The Eraser came out, I really loved the artwork. But now that Atoms For Peace is rolling out its new singles and album, that album cover becomes part of a larger collection of pieces all tied together by the same thematic look: A stark black and white color scheme and intricately rendered pop art-meets-woodcut-style illustrations that just pop right off the screen.

It’s clear that Donwood has extrapolated this style for not only AMOK, but the artwork for the two singles, “Default” and “Judge, Jury And Executioner” as well as the non-album track “What The Eyeballs Did.” On the Atoms For Peace website, you can see that these images are just part of a long, side-scrolling interactive panoramic Donwood has created.

The art for AMOK is above, but here’s all the others, so far:

“Default” single:

“Judge, Jury And Executioner” single:

“What The Eyeballs Did” single:

Now Donwood has even taken that theme a step further into something groundbreaking. Back in December, when Atoms For Peace originally announced its upcoming album release date, it came paired with an animated GIF of a sprawling drawing on a building, rendered in the same style as Donwood’s artwork. In a press release, Donwood described the image as a “scene of armageddon in modern Los Angeles.”

The scene was part of a collaboration between Donwood and the artist INSA, who painted several murals based on the artwork onto the walls of record label XL’s L.A. office building. The various murals were photographed and turned into an animated GIF for a project they’re calling “Hollywood Dooom”

Here’s Donwood’s lengthy explanation about the original art:

“Los Angeles is, of course, fucked. Everything is fucked, all of our cities, all of our towns, our villages, our farms, our entire way of living. and I don’t mean fucked in a good way, oh no; I mean it in a very, very bad way. Our energy rich and culturally complacent society has doomed everything, and really, we all know this. Or at least, we should do. We have run out of everything, pissed it up against the wall, blown it, spent it, wasted it. We’ve run out of money, of oil, of gasoline, of water, of food, of any resources, of energy, of everything. We are reduced to trying to blast pathetic amounts of gas from solid rock and we don’t care if we poison our water while we’re doing it.”

“The apocalypse is already here, and the saddest thing is that we’re trying to fool ourselves that it isn’t happening. Our politicians are fucking idiots, our heroes are fools, our industries are dying, our farmland is trashed and our culture resembles nothing more than a self-devouring joke. Our architecture is hideous and our art revels in empty platitudes. There is no future; we have evicted ourselves from our own cities, rendered our agriculture poisonous, criminalised the poor, aggrandized the rich, honoured the stupid and ridiculed the intelligent. I don’t pretend to stand outside this fucking mess. I’m just as guilty as anyone.”

Conceptually, GIFs have really exploded again in the last few years, as a continuous, looped image, not totally unlike a snippet of a sample, looped into a larger musical song, say one written by Atoms For Peace. I love how this stuff all fits together and in all makes a cool grouping of images that seem to now completely fit the mood of the band’s music. I could totally envision Thom Yorke and friends incorporating these visuals on stage in some way or another. I can’t wait to see how.

Wait, THAT’S The New Bowie Album Cover?

Today, on his 66th birthday, David Bowie announced he was set to release a new album, The Next Day — his 30th album and first in ten long years of radio silence — on March 12. Along with that announcement, Bowie dropped that album’s first single, “Where Are We Now?,” along with a self-referential and inward-looking video directed by Tony Oursler about aging and mortality.

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Judging By The Cover: ‘Wonderful Christmastime’

I have mixed feelings about Christmas songs. I don’t celebrate the holiday, so I don’t have any sentimental or spiritual reasons for listening to these songs. And it’s easy to get inundated with holiday music playing at every place you turn from basically October until New Years. But despite all that, I do tend to enjoy the music for music’s sake, when it’s not too overplayed. I’m sure I’m not alone on that. Typically my favorite Christmas songs tend to be those that invoke a bit of melancholy, introspection, or even subversion, rather than being sugary sweet. Newer songs like Low’s “Just Like Christmas” or Sam Phillips’ “It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas” or many of Sufjan Stevens’ new songs on his two massive box sets have been excellent additions that find that right tone.

But I’ll admit, sometimes I just want to hear a big burst of joy.

One of my favorite songs from this time of year is Paul McCartney’s 1979 hit “Wonderful Christmastime,” known for that distinctive synth riff from a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. McCartney did a pretty delightful version to end Saturday Night Live this past weekend, and it got me thinking about how much I like this song.

“Wonderful Christmastime” is a song that I think many view as treacly and overly sentimental McCartney pop, the way a lot of his post-Beatles music is viewed. Sure, it has got no teeth. This ain’t “Helter Skelter” — let alone “Jet.” But to me, this song, and especially the chorus “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime” is impossibly catchy and actually fun. And as part of a mix of newer holiday fare, it’s a nice addition to the canon.

Still, “Wonderful Christmastime” has been pretty popular, inspiring its fair share of reinterpretations — from Barenaked Ladies and Hilary Duff to Jars Of Clay. None of them have been particularly good. But just this year, I’ve heard two new covers of this song and both are fairly solid offerings.

The first, by The Shins, on a new Starbucks-produced compilation album called Holidays Rule*, is a more-or-less straight-up indie pop recreation. It’s a perfectly fine and serviceable rendition, but doesn’t quite add enough of James Mercer’s flavor. But it also certainly doesn’t detract at all from McCartney’s original. Sometimes a new artist playing a song as you want to hear it is enough.

*As far as new Christmas comps go, Holidays Rule has some decent selections played by many artists I really love: Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Van Etten, The Civil Wars, Eleanor Friedberger, Y La Bamba, Andrew Bird, and even McCartney himself. It’s definitely worth checking out.

The other cover of “Wonderful Christmastime” that I’ve heard is by a brand new baby band Ex Cops. The Brooklyn band’s upcoming 2013 debut True Hallucinations is already a favorite new discovery of mine, so it’s cool to hear them play those synthy chords and then give the chorus an energetic boost of crunchy guitar distortion and throttling drumming.

Compare And Contrast: ‘Game Of Pricks’

It’s difficult to truly calculate how many songs have been recorded by indie veterans Guided By Voices and its frontman Robert Pollard. Certainly hundreds. Maybe thousands? But it’s safe to say that with such a giant output over the years, it’s hard for fans to know where to start, what records to listen to, or which songs to focus in on with way-too-prolific band. Sometimes it just takes a single song as an entry point. This is the case for me and GBV.

Like many, one of my favorites that’s stuck with me over the years from Guided By Voices is “Game Of Pricks” from the band’s album Alien Lanes.

The main draw for me is the way this feels completely realized with excellent hooks, despite being under two minutes. Much of Pollard’s work is concise, but his last five to ten records have more “unfinished” sketches in need of a second verse than lean pop bangers like “Game Of Pricks.”

But another reason why “Game Of Pricks” has become one of my favorite songs is two cover versions recorded in the last few years. Both do an excellent job of keeping it straightforward and simple in their approach, but still maintain the lax, grunged-out feel and relatable point of view. Sometimes a cover song need not completely reinvent, strip down or rethink, but just be a kick ass interpretation that makes you remember how great the song is. These two covers do that and then some.

Here’s Telekinesis’ version, from the EP, Parallel Seismic Conspiracies:

and here’s a decent live version from Telekinesis:

And then there’s this cover version from fellow longtime indie rocker, Lou Barlow (best known for his work with Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr.), from a GBV compilation, Sing For Your Meat: A Tribute To Guided By Voices.

Also be sure to check out a cool performance of the song by violinist extraordinaire Owen Pallett, as part of The A.V. Club’s Undercover series.

Album Art Trend: Circles

Even in the age of digital music, I still enjoy looking at album artwork. I love finding trends and similarities between designs and photographs and typography. Lately, I’ve been noticing a trend of circles. Here are a few from 2012 I’ve come across. What did I miss?

Now Now — Threads


Ty Segall & White Fence — Hair


Jens Lekman — I Know What Love Isn’t


Grass Widow — Internal Logic


Imperial Teen — Feel The Sound


Jason Urick — I Love You


Lilacs And Champagne — s/t


Simian Mobile Disco — Unpatterns


Rufus Wainwright — Out Of The Game


Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros — Here

Old Things That Are New To Me: Sebadoh’s ‘Punk Moon’

Earlier today, my friend and co-worker Lars tweeted:

“Accidentally typed “Punk Moon” instead of “Pink Moon.” Oh, Nick Drake, the world would have been so different.”

Which got me to reply:

How hasn’t there been a punk tribute to Nick Drake yet? We got the title right there! How do we make this happen?

Thanks to another friend, and former intern, I was tipped off to an amazing cover of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” played by early ’90s indie rockers Sebadoh. Though a grainy old performance video from 1995, it was clearly a solid, powerful punk-ed out version of the iconic folk song. “Why didn’t they ever record this?” I wondered. But of course, things being the internet and all, I quickly found that they DID record a studio version of this song:

The song appeared on Sebadoh’s 1992 album Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, a compilation album of songs from their Rocking the Forest EP and their Sebadoh vs. Helmet EP. The record served as the band’s Sub Pop debut. While I’m a big fan of Sebadoh, I’ll freely admit I haven’t heard everything, and mostly know their albums The Freed Man, Sebadoh III and Bubble And Scrape. Looks like I have some more homework to do. It’s always cool to find out something new from a band like this.