Monday, April 28, 2008

KQED Music: The Blank Tapes - Daydreams

Sometimes new acts blow onto the music scene like an unforecast hurricane, taking the world by storm in a single Force 12 blast of hype and excitement. But not always.

Enter The Blank Tapes, a folky, lo-fi (largely) one-man band, otherwise known as Bay Area local Matt Adams. Released last fall, his latest album Daydreams arrived with a ripple rather than a splash. But, at 26 tracks and a fill-that-CD-to-the-edges 79 minutes long, there is a lot to chew on. Perhaps it isn't surprising that it's taking us all a bit longer than usual to catch up.

Of course, the fact that it was released through his own Matty-Made Music label probably doesn't help either. And the fact that it is self-recorded and self-released goes some way towards explaining a slight lack of... no, not quality control. Long it may be, but padded with fillers it ain't. Perhaps "restraint" is a better way to put it.

Because while Daydreams may be a bit untidy in terms of structure, it's also chock full of excellence: overflowing with it in fact. Every time you hit play, another gem pops out from the crowd. But overall it's just too much, like trying to eat a family pizza on your own.

Adams is, apparently, aware of the problem. As he says on his MySpace page (in response to an earlier review pointing out that Daydreams may be a little, y'know, lengthy): "yes it's true, my albums are f@#king long. Oh well, I can't seem to change that."

Athough this may seem frustrating at first, try thinking of the CD less as a finished product and more as a sort of DIY work in progress. Welcome to the flatpack album release, which is one of the beauties of the post-iTunes musical landscape: we are now free to take the raw materials of any album (in this case, a 25-song hodgepodge) and chop, change, cut, and paste to our heart's content.

For example, you could easily make two great albums from this single CD, but how you split the tracks is up to you: do you sort them by pace (separating the upbeat rockers and rollicking folk stompers from the sad acoustic ballads and stoned moaners), by quality (cutting together a slimmed-down main release of your favorites next to an album of bonus material), or even just crudely cleave it in half down the middle?

For me, there was an obvious split between the more folksy, acoustic Americana of tracks such as "This is What's Inside," and the rockier indie of "When I See You." But (and this is where it gets complicated) many of the album's best tracks arrive when the two styles collide.

For what it's worth, my perfect mix starts with the excellent trio of tracks 17 through 19: "Oh My Love" (think Tapes 'n Tapes with a country beat and you won't be far off), "Part the Clouds" (an upbeat, salty shanty worthy of The Coral
), and the more light-hearted "Listen to the One."

Elsewhere, I've included "Long Ago" (like The Notwist at their soft-focus folkiest), "Silverado" (which couldn't be more charmingly Neil Young-like if it tried), and retro-indie classics "We're Better Not Together" and "We Can Still Be Friends" (both of which party like it's 1989).

My mix closes by sneaking in the pretty, whimsical "Why Must I Fall in Love" as a kind of "hidden" final track. Unfortunately, this ignores the existing album's only real nod towards structure, which is the inclusion of (oops) a "hidden" final track. This one ends, appropriately, with the clunking sound of the stop button being pressed on a tape recording. I guess it's time to start work on compilation two...

Of course, no matter which way you decide to cut it, you may end up with a few tracks left over. Don't panic: Just think of them as lost B-sides, to be included in your very own deluxe double-disc reissue in 20 years' time.

The Blank Tapes are touring Portland, Washington, and California during April and May: check here for details. 'Daydreams' is out now on Matty-Made Music.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

KQED You Decide: Immigration

Are tougher U.S. immigration laws hurting America?

By Keith Laidlaw

The figures are dramatic: There are now 300 million people living in the United States. That’s twice as many as in 1950, four times the total of 1900. And the numbers will only rise going forward.

Why? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population increases by one individual every 30 seconds due to immigration alone: That’s more than a million people per year. The Pew Research Center estimates that 82 percent of population growth between 2005 and 2050 will be caused by immigration, both by people who arrive during that time and by their descendants.

Many look at these figures and worry. Surely we can’t afford to accommodate so many new arrivals. Who is going to pay for their education, health care, housing? Where will they find jobs? Where are the food, water and electricity they need going to come from? And how can we be sure that our enemies aren't among them?

But is increased regulation of who crosses our borders really in our best interests? Where will industry and agriculture find enough workers? What about the valuable contributions immigrants make in terms of culture, ideas, hard work and taxes? And can we ever really keep out those who are determined to harm us, no matter how secure we make our borders?

Think you know where you stand on this issue? During the course of this activity, we will ask you three times: Are tougher U.S. immigration laws hurting America? Based on your responses, we will argue the opposite points of view.

[Read full article]

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

KQED Music: Caribou - "She's the One"

We've all heard them, those sad, delusional types who mutter darkly about how there's "no good music around these days." Unless you quickly stop them talking by deftly changing the subject or smacking them around the head with a handy length of two-by-four, they'll probably also offer a few observations on the superior quality of music from some dusty era in the past, and even trot out a few clich├ęs like "it's all just noise," or "go tidy your room."

Lazy, lazy, lazy. True, there isn't a whole lot of good music in the display racks of your local Wal-Mart or Best Buy, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. There is LOADS of good music around these days. But the truth is that often it takes a bit of work to find it. You've got to do some hunting, be brave, and sometimes even expose a little bit of your soul to the open air.

But none of us are completely immune to this kind of cynicism. Occasionally, as I get older, I worry that I'm getting too old and jaded to feel that same giddy rush of excitement from hearing new music I seemed to experience every other week as a teenager. But then something comes along like "She's The One" by Caribou.

I've been aware of Dan Snaith's musical adventures since he went by the name Manitoba (he had to change it to Caribou because of a copyright dispute too tedious to relate here). But we had kind of fallen out of touch in recent years and, even though I knew he had a new record out, it took me a while to get round to hearing it.

But then I found a random link to "She's the One" on YouTube. And I was blown away. Astonished. Gobsmacked. And completely infatuated.

His voice is fuzzy and low in the mix (as it normally is), but it is the backing vocals, repeating and insistent like a Steve Reich sample that made me swoon. It doesn't sound quite like it's supposed to be there, but is also the thing that makes the song so special. On occasion the different parts are pulling in different directions so much that it sounds as if it is on the verge of falling apart into a mistimed, atonal mess. But then, like a tightrope walker in a high wind, it manages to maintain its balance and hold it together until the end. It is delicate, fragile, and utterly wonderful.

The rest of the album it comes from, Andorra, contains some more wonderful surprises, particularly in the way it manages to sound so psychedelically retro and utterly modern at the same time. But, for me, it's all about that one song, and about the power of music to make me fall hopelessly in love, over and over again.

Caribou plays The Independent in San Francisco on April 23. The single "She's the One" and album "Andorra" are both out now on Merge Records.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.