Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Is It Dark in Here, or Is It Ladytron?

Music Review: Ladytron, Velocifero (Nettwerk)

Just like the cover of their latest studio effort, Velocifero, electro-pop purveyors Ladytron just keep getting darker and darker. At this rate, you’ll need infrared goggles just to listen to them soon. Where past tracks like "Evil" were almost deceptively poppy, Velocifero finds Ladytron painting a relentlessly glossy black canvas.

Opening track "Black Cat" sets the nocturnal scene with synthesizer notes twinkling like distant stars, only to be quickly eclipsed by grinding guitar chords and pounding drum beats. After that, Mira Aroyo emerges from the swirling mix like… well, a black cat. Eerie Bulgarian vocals round out the picture, accentuating Ladytron’s icy European image and foreboding aura.

Unfortunately, I don’t speak Bulgarian, so I have no idea what’s being sung. The lyrics could be "My feet smell like Combos," and it would still sound exotic and deep to an uncultured boob like me. It probably doesn’t matter though, because specific lyrical content seems to take a backseat to the overall mood of Ladytron’s songs.

Once "Black Cat" has caught the listener’s attention, Velocifero proceeds to pull the listener deeper into its inky vortex. Minor keys and off-kilter chord changes abound - I don’t think there’s one song here that starts off with a major chord - and Ladytron draws upon a variety of influences to weave a velvety tapestry of electro, new wave, pop, rock, psychedelia, and even industrial.

"Ghosts," the first single, comes hot on the high-heels of "Black Cat" and boasts a smooth, infectious chorus, as all first singles worth their weight in ectoplasm should. For some reason, it sort of sounds like "Destroy Everything You Touch" turned on its head, but hey, that was a great song and we all like trying new positions from time to time, right? The militaristic drumming and creepy soloing don’t hurt things, either.

After that, it’s time for "I’m Not Scared" (of ghosts and black cats, presumably) which comes barreling out of the speakers like their previous single "Sugar" with a bad-ass new engine mounted on its hood. Why this song was not chosen as the second single as opposed to the decent, but rote and over-long "Runaway" is beyond me. "Season of Illusions" has a distinctly Roxy Music vibe (think "Chance Meeting" or "Sea Breezes"), while "Burning Up," sounds like Nine Inch Nails trying to give Tears for Fears some much-needed balls.

The only real misstep here is "Predict the Day" with its X-Files-ish whistling and a thumping beat which makes me desperately want to fight the future.

But wait! Saving what is arguably the two best cuts for last, Ladytron hits us with the one-two punch of "Tomorrow" and "Versus" before calling it a day and hightailing it back to their ice-beds, or wherever it is they go at night. "Tomorrow" features an enchanting chorus brimmin’ with lots of reverb and retro-80’s goodness. It’s almost enough to make you pull out your old Pet Shop Boys albums. Still, as good as "Tomorrow" is, it’s merely a warm up (ice up?) for what comes next…

"Versus" is clearly meant to be the epic closer. Impassive female vocals counterpoint fragile Andy-Partridge-ish male vocals and give the track an added sense of melancholia and depth. Meanwhile, dreamy "ooo" vocals drone away in the background and nervous organ licks skitter across the mix. It’s a sublime moment, and possibly a herald of even better things to come from these guys.

Thank goodness darker doesn’t always mean oppressive and depressing; by going "darker" on Velocifero, Ladytron’s future just got even brighter.

*** ½ (three-and-a-half out of five stars)

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Death of Music, Part 6: iPod Is Dead

You know what you never see anymore? You never see a guy (without any gadgets) just walking along humming a song to himself, or whistling a little tune. At the very least, you don’t see anyone born after the release of “The 10 Commandments” engaging in that kind of musical self-entertainment. What ever happened to that?

And I’m not talking about an insane guy belting out “Love Is in the Air” while wearing yellow footie pajamas in the middle of Times Square. I’m talking about regular joes and joe-esses like you and me, just bopping along happily to our own private soundtrack in our heads.

Nowadays, you’re more likely to see people gliding silently around with those omnipresent earbuds growing directly into their heads like parasitical vines, presumably rocking out to their favorite tunes. Strangely, their faces are almost always ashen and lifeless, as though they’ve been listening to an endless loop of “The Complete History of Carpet Tacks, Volume Five” as read by a heavily doped up Alan Greenspan. And they’re hardly, if ever, singing.

Oh sure, once in a while you’ll still see a lone subway rider jamming out to Joe Satriani like he’s having some kind of freak-a-delic hard-rock meltdown, but more often than not the iPod legions move in stealthy, icy silence.

You would think the technology that allows us to listen to a steady stream of music would enhance our ability to appreciate the stuff, and maybe even make us more artistic, creative individuals. However, the iPod seems to primarily serve two functions: (1) turning music into a totally passive, background experience, which requires little imagination, attention or exertion, and (2) locking us inside our own heads and making us oblivious to the world around us, so we can continue living on our own insular “islands” without engaging the world in any meaningful way.

While it is true that music has always been used to varying degrees as background fodder (in the car, for example) the iPod has made the “background” experience the PRIMARY way many people listen to music. Instead of focusing on music, they’re engaging in all sorts of other activities: they’re texting; they’re talking on cell phones; they’re buying crappy overpriced coffee; they’re getting in everyone else’s way. Basically, people are doing a jillion and a half other things while allegedly “listening” to music. I’ve experienced music this way, and I can tell you there is a big difference in how much you get out of a song playing on your car stereo vs. a song coming out of your iPod as you cross a busy city intersection with a taxi cab bearing down on you.

Don't get me wrong: it’s fine if you want to chill out with some music on a long bus ride, or listen to your favorite band while you jog on a lightly traveled back road. There’s also nothing wrong with using music to relieve stress, and no one doubts that music can, under certain conditions, benefit human cognition. However, people who spend their whole lives plugged into an iPod diminish both their experience of music and (sometimes unwittingly) the world around them.

If you’re constantly listening to an iPod, you can’t pay enough attention to actually glean any meaning from your music. Likewise, you can’t engage the world or avoid looking like an annoying, self-absorbed fool if you’re always cutting off 1/5 of your sensory input. (People who wear iPods inside crowded buildings are particularly irritating.)

All of which brings us back to our singing/whistling friend. When you see someone singing or whistling (who isn’t mentally deranged), you know you could say “Hi” to him and he would hear you. He wouldn’t raise a finger as if to say “Hold on” and then spend 10 minutes tugging at the intricate network of musical diodes protruding from his noggin. He’s at least semi-aware of the world around him.

Not only that, but I strongly suspect he is more mentally active than the the average iPod addict. At least the lone hum-man is using some part of his brain to recall the melody and recreate it through his lips. He's not just passively listening, letting a steady stream of meaningless notes erode his consciousness like waves slapping lazily against a mushy, pliable shoreline.

In short, people need to turn off the iPod's, turn on their brains, and get back in the real world already. Hey, if I have to live on this ridiculous planet we call earth, then they should have to live on it too.