Monday, January 4, 2010

This Week on Audiosurf Radio – Revisiting Jack Conte

That's him! Over a year ago, I wrote my first Audiosurf Radio post, discussing the work of Jack Conte. It seems only fitting that almost thirteen months later, for the first entry of the two-oh-one-oh, Conte’s returns.

If memory serves, Conte likes to use the term “Electronic Acoustica” for his work. There is definitely a little bit of both going on here. Head on over to the MySpace and you can hear it for yourself. His influences bubble up to the surface rather easily, but in an age where genres collapse in on one another with gleeful abandon, does that matter?

The decade retrospective and year-end breaks provided an excuse to take a breather from Audiosurf, but I’m happy to be back on the saddle and excited to kick off the new year.

Recommendations

How I would love to see “Gulf” performed live, preferably in the unfinished basement of a McMansion. Sure, the lyrics are unintelligible and the guitar’s really fuzzy. What’d you expect? You’re in a basement watching this guy rock out. The sound isn’t exactly unique (he’s crooning Incubus-style over a dirty, swinging guitar riff reminiscent of Radiohead’s harder tracks), but he’s incredibly into it. And so am I. I’ve discussed at length my affinity toward crunchy rock that reeks of blues. Conte’s got that here, and he’s laid it atop a rolling drum beat that sways with the vocals (plus, there’s some serious cowbell going on in the second verse). When it all comes together in the chorus, the combined elements crackle with energy, the main riff lowering its head and charging like a bull. After each chorus, Conte pulls it back, filling the void with light piano and faint guitar strumming. This contours the ride into a series of exciting hills and valleys. However, I don’t know if I’ll get to see Conte play this song live. According to this crazy video, he played it all himself – in his pajamas.

“Impression” pulled a fast one on me. Its low traffic count and piano opening got me expecting another subdued track like “I Know” (see below). Then the chorus kicked in. Admittedly, his neutral syllable choice sounds a bit corny, but the rambunctious, darkly-hued piano keeps the passage afloat. Afloat is an apt word to describe a track that threatens to drown the rider with high velocity hills and slopes. Entranced by the chorus, I ended up enjoying the Goth-Ben-Folds feel of the rest of the song. I’m amazed by how swiftly “Impression” dispelled my skepticism. It’s allure isn’t obvious, and that’s part of the allure.

Other Selections

When I was in high school, I saw Trans-Siberian Orchestra live. I’m fairly certain that concert satiated my lifetime appetite for metal covers of Christmas songs (they also played some Carl Orff; now that I could stand to see more of). Conte’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is one such cover. It’s nothing but a brief novelty. He starts with a more traditional take on the main tune then drops some acid and kicks it into overdrive. Seriously, the combination of surf rock strumming and squishy electronic sounds made feel like I was in some tryptophan-induced fever dream – and not the good kind. Even with the Steep tag, “I Know” fails to scratch my surfing itch. It’s an airy, spacey groove in which we get to hear Conte whine about stuff. I’m not sure why he insists on employing falsetto. It deprives his lyrics of any weight. In “Gulf” it wasn’t as noticeable because I couldn’t understand anything he was saying anyway. Here it’s just distracting.

I won’t dole out a full recommendation to “Hollywood Endings” only because I’ve already recommended it as part of the three-song medley the last time I discussed Jack Conte. This time around the middling lyrics pricked my ear a bit more, but I can’t deny that the man’s composing style suits Audiosurf nicely. The track is complex. The traffic’s all over the place. The soundscape is incredibly varied. It makes the ride a tier above the song itself, but then again, the game’s about surfing the music not just listening to it.

Author’s Note

All songs were played on the Pro difficulty using the Eraser and Vegas characters. Unless you’re on the road and have no other choice, refrain from playing Audiosurf with a trackpad. Plug in a mouse or start mastering the keyboard controls. I can’t begin to count the number of times an errant pinkie resulted in a busted combo or unwanted paint pickup.

Sidebar: I spent a few minutes noodling around Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s website and stumbled upon their new album Night Castle, described on their website as “their long awaited rock opera.” I suppose I can still enjoy their instrumentals, but the stuff where people sing is so—it lacks any irony whatsoever. And if you’re writing Rock Operas in the 21st-century, I think a little irony would go a long way.