Flaming Lips, Oczy Mlody (2017)

The thought of another Flaming Lips album might initially manifest itself in the form of a physical repulsion for some longtime fans, however after a few times through Oczy Mlody (Warner Bros, 2017) fits into the Lips’ eclectic discography just fine.

Wayne Coyne and The Lips are no strangers to experimentation, and in Oczy Mlody (or “eyes of the young,” a nod to the Polish novelist Erskine Caldwell) they craft elaborate textures and explore new and old melodic avenues, with help from with their newest “fwend,” Miley Cyrus.

Let’s be honest, this album is no Soft Bulletin. It’s no Embryonic either. Heck, it’s not even a Yoshimi. But that’s a good thing. Mlody branches out in all the right ways, it’s not excessive in its experimental ventures, and not too shallow in its dream-pop sensibilities.

Mlody draws on several familiar Lips tropes, which, depending on how one perceived them the first time around, could be taken two ways. Some may view these tactics as a righteous extension on the ambient stylistic threads established in 2014’s The Terror, while others may see The Lips as trying to re-purpose stale antics into a new box.

Yet the record sounds nothing like you’d expect it might. It’s not a bubblegum pop-centered Miley Cyrus record, and it’s not an opium-induced psychedelic free-for-all either. It’s unique in a way The Flaming Lips alone know how to devise.

The songs still have their one-of-a-kind qualities, seen on tracks such as, “Almost Home (Blisko Domu)” a whirlwind of arpeggiated synth-tones and reverberated vocals, and “There Should Be Unicorns” which features vocals from Reggie Watts, multi-layer drum sequencing, casio-tones and old school Nintendo sound-effects.

This album signifies an expansion for The Lips. Although, for a group that switches their style up almost every record, it’s actually rather faithful. Mlody has something for every level of Lips fan, catchy hooks and rich production for first timers, and signature Lips riffs and tones for those brave enough to return.

Stand-Out Tracks: “How??”, “There Should Be Unicorns”, “Galaxy I Sink”, “Almost Home (Blisko Domu)”, “We A Family”

FFO: Mercury Rev, Acid Mothers Temple, Of Montreal, Animal Collective

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Chuck Prophet, “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins” (2017)

Americana legend Chuck Prophet returns with his 13th solo release, Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins, out February 10th, but leaves something to be desired.

Prophet, formerly of the Alt-Country/Neo-Psychedelia group Green on Red, has a history in the scene. “We Got Up and Played” recounts his time touring through less-than-glamorous cities with lyrics like, “When we started out / We fought all the time / Dumb and afraid / And out of our minds / But we got up and played.”

The title track, which may be the strongest on the album, recalls the mysterious tale of Bobby Fuller’s death at the young age of 23. Through jangly guitars, a steady bassline, and foot-stomping drum beat “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins” conveys the fragility of life and reminds us to stop and smell the roses.

While Bobby Fuller is home to several phenomenal cuts, it’s also stuffed with filler. Specifically, “Bad Year for Rock and Roll” a tired anthem about loving rock ‘n’ roll but getting too old to go out and see it, and “If I Was Connie Britton” an elementary 12-bar blues with equally simple lyrics that propose an alternative lifestyle where, “everything would go [Prophet’s] way.”

Yet, “Jesus Was a Social Drinker” is the biggest offender, a five-minute slow-burner ripe with utterly corn-ball lyrics, painfully simple chord changes, out of place back-up doo-wops, and a persistent cowbell, easily takes first on 2017’s list of cheesiest.

Finally hitting his stride half-way through the album, Prophet puts all the right ingredients together with his proto-punk tribute to Alan Vega, “In the Mausoleum.” Through juxtaposed crunchy and clean guitar tones, slightly reverberated and yelped vocals, a consistent rhythm section, and a ripping solo remind you why Prophet hasn’t quit yet.

Stand-Out Tracks: “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins”, “Your Skin”, “In the Mausoleum (For Alan Vega)”, “Rider or the Train”

FFO: Henry Clay People, The Jayhawks, Limbeck, Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Tinariwen, “Elwan” (2017)

If there’s one thing Tinariwen know how to do, it’s create a mind-bending groove with equally potent lyrics, and in their latest release, Elwan, they do just that.

Tinariwen (plural of ténéré, “desert”)  is a Tuareg-Berber group from the Saharan Desert region of Mali who blend traditional music stylings with radical contemporary politics. They play Tichumaren, a traditional African blues genre deeply rooted in the political situation of the Taureg people after colonial powers left North Africa.

Elwan evokes powerful imagery throughout. Sometimes in the form of slow, haunting tracks such as “Ittus,” which feature just voice and guitar, where one can almost feel the unyielding heat of the desolate Sahara Desert. While other tracks such as “Sastanàqqàm” and Tiwàyyen” push the tempo and incorporate a driving tindé drum beat, meaty bassline, and hypnotic guitar riffs.

Tinariwen’s lyrics, perhaps more accurately described as “sung poetry” demand the listener’s complete attention, even if they don’t understand Tamashek. From the reverberated chantings of “Ténéré Tàqqàl” that ponder how “The ténéré has become an upland of thorns/Where elephants (elwan) fight each other / Crushing tender grass / underfoot.”

Tinariwen are masters of conveying emotion and concocting groove, however with track lengths ranging from only three to five minutes it’s hard to get “lost” in the grooves Tinariwen so mesmerizingly forge. A longer album with longer tracks would better suit Tinariwen’s style.

Stand-Out Tracks: “Sastanàqqàm”, “Ittus”, “Ténéré Tàqqàl”, “Assàwt”, “Nànnuflày”FFO:

Ali Farka Touré, Terakaft, Boubacar Traoré

Jay Daniel, Broken Knowz (2016)

Jay Daniel, the Michigan-born electronic musician/drummer/DJ, humbly pays respect to the early Detroit artists that paved the way, and brings something new to the table with his first full length LP, Broken Knowz (Ninja Tune, 2016).

Daniel’s latest release, Broken Knowz is at times many things– a resonant soundscape, a syncopated sojourn, and a cacophony of global percussion working both in and around genre lines. Broken Knowz urges the listener to redefine what house music should be and how it should sound. But it lacks a necessary cohesion.

Raised in Detroit by his mother, the famous house vocalist Naomi Daniel, Jay Daniel was exposed to the world of electronic music at an early age. But not until moving to Maryland with his father did he discover his passion for drumming.

Daniel effortlessly interweaves funk rhythms, diverse driving percussion, clean production, and rich synth tones, into Broken Knowz, with live drums to boot. Yet the album reads more like a compilation of songs, with each track strikingly different from the last. While this does give Daniel leeway to experiment in different forms throughout the record, it also makes it hard to pin down thematically.

“Paradise Valley” evokes a sense of jazz-inspired dreaminess, nursed by modulated Rhodes chords, a subdued bassline, and a simple but persistent rim-tapped clave pattern. “Niiko” brings the percussion to the forefront, with booming low-end bass drum hits and precision timed go-go bells, almost give the feeling of a fire-side ceremonial dance.

Broken Knowz is a solid addition to the ever-expanding, eclectic collection of Detroit house music, this will not be the last we hear of Jay Daniel.

Stand Out Tracks: “Paradise Valley”, “Niiko”, “Squeaky Maya”, “Boolin”, “Yemaya”

FFO: Shigeto, Bibio, Project Pablo, Bonobo

Back to the Future: Vinyl’s Fitting Rebirth

IOWA CITY — In our increasingly digital world where files and photos move to the storage cloud daily, the resurgence of physical vinyl records may seem a bit out of place.

However, Iowa City resident Zach Ziemer thinks otherwise.

“People like the feeling of having something tangible in their hands, and being able to hold the music you’re listening to is a very intimate experience,” Ziemer said.

According to Rik Sanchez, General Manager at Amoeba Music, vinyl sales have seen a serious spike following the release of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, alongside reissues of older pressings of classic rock LPs. Yet the Amoeba chains are not the only store’s noting the rising trend.

Iowa City’s own Record Collector, located on 116 S. Linn St, has experienced this increase on a local level too. Owner Kirk Walther says the shop has seen a boom over the last few years.

“Record Collector’s selection of vintage and contemporary records emphasize the non-mainstream, scarce and otherwise hard-to-find items,” said Walther.

Programs like Spotify and iTunes provide thousands of songs and playlists just one click away, but there’s something lost within the cold flat sound of digital mp3s.

“There’s a certain warmth that you can only get from listening to vinyl records,” UI Sophomore Daniel Gardarsson said. “There’s nothing quite like coming home after a long day, putting on a record and relaxing, especially in the winter time.”

After Real Record & Tapes closed their doors for good in 2011, Record Collector was one of the only places left to find vinyl records in Iowa City. That is until Barnes & Noble decided to add their name to the list.

With a collection of new and repressed records spanning over 50 decades, and countless genres it’s no wonder Barnes & Noble has seen such success among the youth audience.

However local owners like Walther worry the mass production of new records by corporations like Barnes & Noble have removed some of the joy out of flipping through countless records to find that one gem.

 

The majority of records pressed after the year 2014 are made of 180 gram vinyl, which, when compared with the 120 gram records of the 60s and 70s are noticeably heavier.

Manufacturers have argued that this additional weight helps to counteract the effects of skipping, however some aren’t convinced.

Ziemer believes the additional 60 grams of plastic have been added in recent years to accommodate for the rise in Crosley brand turntables.

“Crosley’s are a fine entry-level portable player, but eventually you’re going to realize you’re wasting your money on a cheap product that’s just scratching up your records,” Ziemer said. “You’re better off saving up for a quality rig that will serve you for years to come.”

Ziemer finds the additional weight unnecessary for those operating a higher quality turntable system. Yet he is sympathetic to those who may not be able to afford such a set up.

“I understand not everybody can shell out hundreds of bucks for top of the line equipment,” Ziemer said. “But they should at least consider saving up, because it will save them money in the long run.”

As it turns out, top of the line equipment at a reasonable price may not be so impossible after all. Sweet Livin’ Antiques, Art, and Records, of 1565 S. Gilbert Street, has retro equipment for every level of listener. From turntables and receivers to speakers and records all tested and offered at a fair price.

“It really bothers me to see young people spend hundreds of dollars on cheap three-in-one players,” said Paul Young, Owner of Sweet Livin’ Antiques, Art, and Records. “When they could get a far better system secondhand for half the price.”

Young has been in the antiquing business for almost 20 years and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. In his time as an Iowa City store owner he’s bought and sold countless turntables, speakers, and stereos, however he says he can’t stand Crosley brand turntables.

“Folks would bring in their Crosley’s and ask me what they could get for them,” Young said. “I felt terrible turning them down, but I just wouldn’t feel right selling [them].”

According to a 2014 data set from statista.com, vinyl sales are at a record high since the seventies, and it seems the younger generation is hugely responsible for their renewed rise in popularity.

With the overwhelming majority of buyers being between the ages of 18 and 24, it appears the millennials have personally resurrected what was considered an archaic form of entertainment only years prior.

Walther says that the indie labels have been putting out their material on LP forever, and that only recently have more mainstream acts and labels started returning to a physical form.

Moreover, it also seems that an increasing number of record buyers are switching their business from buying records in-store at local shops and chains, to online distributors such as Amazon, eBay, and discogs.

“Amazon has a huge selection of new records from businesses and private sellers that just want to get rid of stuff,” said Gardarsson. “If I can’t find what I’m looking for on Amazon, somebody usually has it on eBay in great condition, but for twice the price.”

In addition to buying online, more collectors have started listing their prized pieces on websites like discogs to sell to other vinyl fanatics.

“Discogs shows how much certain records have sold for in previous transactions, and also lets me list my collection online to anyone searching,” Austin Washburn UI Senior said. “I’ll check out garage sales around town and buy up their old vinyl to resell. I’ve bought and resold thousands of records, but there’s usually one or two worth something to somebody online.”

The arguments against vinyl record collecting are always the same. Critics will say, “Physical records deteriorate over time,” or “the bitrate is far lower than mp3 format,” or “the album was mastered for CD.” Yet these things are just not true.

Physical records may deteriorate over time, but with a decent needle and regular care and cleaning the sound quality should still be impeccable even as the album art fades.

While the bitrate, or sound quality, may be slightly lower than mp3 or FLAC, as FLAC files don’t deteriorate in quality over time. The fact of the matter is, if the record was properly mastered for vinyl and kept in decent condition the audible difference to even a serious listener is miniscule at most.

It’s hard to pin point what exactly signaled the triumphant return of vinyl records, whether it was the nostalgic value, or perhaps people just liked having something concrete to hold on to. One thing collectors and sellers can both agree on, is that vinyl is here to stay.