Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hype Machine Head: 9.29.10

So for this new (and very occasional) feature, I'm going to be reviewing/evaluating/bitching about the top five artists according to immensely useful music blog aggregator the Hype Machine. If you're not familiar with the Hype Machine, render yourself as such. As its description implies, the site aggregates hundreds of music blogs and posts a new entry whenever one of those blogs posts an MP3 or a stream. The "About" section states clearly that the tracks it links to are "NOT available for download, but you can preview them via the play buttons that are next to each track."

In theory, that's true (and the preview function really is wonderful and allows you to favorite tracks and share them with others), but, in actuality, that's a load of whooey. Though the site provides links to legal music download sites like eMusic, iTunes, and Amazon, clicking the "Read Full Post" link will take you directly to the blog post itself, which usually hosts the actual MP3 file. I won't go so far as to endorse (or discourage) downloading said MP3s; I'm more concerned with the Hype Machine's pretty unique ability to put its finger on the pulse of the musical blogosphere (sorry; buzzword overload). The site allows you, in essence, to take in the indie music scene as an alternate mainstream which, in many ways, is exactly what it is.

But enough pontificating! A philosophical parsing of music blogs is more than enough to fill up its own post. For now, let's get to the music. I've decided not to use the "Popular Tracks" function because it's mostly populated by new remixes of old material. It's a section that certainly deserves your time but not one I'll cover here. Instead, I'll examine the artists in the "Most Blogged Artists" section on the home page, and look at one or two tracks that have captured the attention of the zeitgeist:

1. Kanye West - The fabled Bon Iver-sampling (alleged) lead single from Kanye's new record has finally leaked! The source material, a song called "Woods" off of Bon Iver's 2009 EP Blood Bank, is probably my favorite Bon Iver track and one of the most inventive pop compositions in recent memory. It's nothing more than Justin Vernon's heavenly vocals, multi-tracked and Auto-tuned. The track is so mesmerizing, so magnificent, you almost forget that it's four lines ("I'm up in the woods/I'm down on my mind/I'm building a still/To slow down the time") repeated ad nauseam. Kanye had a lot to live up to. Is it another hit?

Maybe, but that doesn't mean the song's all that great. The tinted-window Miami stomp of "Lost in the World" isn't bad on its own, but it mostly squashes the desperate beauty of the original. Here, Kanye trades wintery desolateness for nation-building grandiosity. Vernon's original track is of course swallowed whole by the newly-recorded vocals and the monstrous beat, but the very subject matter of the song has been transformed. "Woods" was about the attempt to "slow down" a moment in time, and an arresting combination of high-tech Autotune vocals and low-tech subject matter. Now, Kanye's building a city, and we're "lost in the world" rather than "up in the woods."

"Woods" made you want to pull on a sweater. "Lost in the World" calls to mind those stupid glasses from the "Stronger" video. Bleh.

2. Duck Sauce - The A-Trak/Armand Van Helden collabo with the predictably stupid name is also expectedly solid. A-Trak has been one of my favorite DJs since he released his absolutely unstoppable remix of "Stronger" back in 2008. "Barbara Streisand," the track currently setting fire to Ableton Live platforms around the country, is a dizzy slice of disco house, complete with infectious "whoo-hoo" vocals and a dead-pan recitation of the eponymous diva's name. Like the best house music, it's deceptively simple and inescapably catchy. If the band's goal is to appeal to club DJ's, they've certainly accomplished it. Peep the star-studded video, too.

3. British Sea Power - Chock this up as one of those "I don't get what all the fuss is about" bands. Their Allmusic bio cites comparisons to bands like Joy Division and the Fall, but all I hear is a slightly more interesting, less melodically-inclined Kings of Leon. The orchestral thunk-thunk-thunk of the guitars on "Zeus" is fairly interesting, I guess, but I got bored when the frantic "Who's my boy/B-b-boy" part came in, with its tremolo picking and crash-happy drums. Pitchfork snidely awarded their last album a score of "U2," and while I disagree with the reference point, I'm on the same page as far as derivativeness.

4. Deerhunter - I had the same blase feeling about Bradford Cox's psych-pop collective until I heard the singles from their new album, Halycon Digest, out now on 4AD. Where their previous compositions were murky and indistinct, the tracks from this album have been crisp slices of spacey indie pop. "Helicopter" is the lead single (and it's magnificent), but I've been more enraptured by the jangly charms of "Revival," which casts religious enlightenment darkly. The narrator is "saved," but he's also enveloped in "all this darkness." You'll be back in the light in just two minutes, but you might wish you weren't.

5. Sufjan Stevens - I've gotta give Sufjan credit; dude was waaaaaay overexposed when he peaced out of the indie pop scene following his smash hit Illinois. And now he's returned with a fresh sound, determined not to merely rehash the weird folksiness that made him a household name (even one you couldn't pronounce). "I Walked" piles shitty-sounding electronic drums on top of a jumbled synth line. The results are unique, but not nearly as effective. Illinois cuts like "Chicago" and "Decatur" made Sufjan's fussy arrangements sound almost sleek; they augmented the track without sounding clumsy. Here, Sufjan strips down but sounds uncomfortable, like he doesn't know what to do with all the room. A less-than-memorable melody doesn't help matters. The Age of Adz comes out October 12th; we'll see if it brings the noise once again.

(NOTE: The Hype Machine updates its list of popular artists every hour. These artists may not appear in this order, or they may have changed entirely by the time you read this. Such is the internet).