To Be Determined

Looking to the Future, Revisiting the Past

With this issue we celebrate Copper Magazine’s 100th issue, which is quite a milestone of success for any publication. Here’s to the magazine’s continued prosperity in the future, under the guidance of new editor, Frank Doris.

My function here at Copper is to search out interesting and noteworthy new releases and reissues, as well as notable titles that have finally made their way onto the popular streaming services, such as Tidal and Qobuz. In my spare time, I’ve been building a Roon-based music server from digital downloads and Red Book CDs that I’ve collected over the last couple of years, often from thrift stores and used CD bins from indie record stores and the like. Along with the occasional hard-to-find LP. I plan on expanding the reach of my column in the coming year to include particularly rewarding crate-digs that have unearthed notably enjoyable and rare titles that are out of the mainstream, but well worth seeking out.

To celebrate Copper’s achievement, I’d like to take a look back at some outstanding and perhaps controversial titles I’ve reviewed during my tenure here, and share some additional insights I’ve gained regarding them since their initial publication.

 

Thom YorkeAnima

[Anima is still available to be viewed on Netflix; I’d strongly suggest taking the time to check it out if at all possible. It’s a very compelling watch, and gives the Anima EP another dimension that really makes a viable case for music combined with artistic or performance video content. I’ve seen a few performances by Thom Yorke recently online and on late night television; he has a commanding stage presence, and as I originally observed, is made infinitely more human by this video and his live performances. Do check it out, it’s well worth your time.]

Hard to believe that it’s been thirteen years since 2006’s The Eraser, the first solo release for Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, but the icy electronica of Anima finds him treading some very familiar ground. Radiohead fans will find this music not at all dissimilar to their post-OK Computer output, where we’ve gotten fewer “fully formed” songs, per se, but still very cerebral listening. If stark electronica is your particular poison, well, this is a very darkly brewed cup! Be careful to mind the volume level during playback—the subterranean bass on this album will plumb the very depths of your system’s capabilities.

If you have Netflix, I’d strongly suggest watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s Anima short that’s currently available there. It’s only about fifteen minutes, and sequences three of the albums songs, “Not the News,” “Traffic” and “Dawn Chorus” into a single musical suite. It’s a very entertaining and visually striking watch, and for me presented Thom Yorke in a much more humanistic light than I might have previously given him credit for. And perhaps allowed me to view this album from a very different vantage point. Highly recommended.

XL Recordings, CD/LP/Limited edition colored vinyl (download/streaming from Bandcamp, Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify, iTunes)

 

ClairoImmunity

[I regularly visit the Pitchfork website; it’s often filled with insightful and timely assessments of releases from artists that are, say, slightly less visible to the mainstream than many—like Clairo. Not long after my review was published, an excellent piece appeared on Pitchfork that offered a much more in-depth exploration of Clairo and all the circumstances surrounding her near-meteoric rise into the music spotlight. And particularly addressed (more like, called-out!) all the haters who attempted to describe her as a major-label plant into the indie music world. The article is totally legit and informative, and I’d like to personally retract any kind of negative slant my review might have adopted in perhaps proffering that same intent. I’ve revisited this record several times since my review, and I must admit, I find it much more enjoyable and entertaining than upon first listen.]

Music is almost my religion, and I approach it with a great deal of seriousness. Which would make it very easy for me to simply out-of-hand dismiss a seemingly frivolous internet and YouTube sensation like Clairo and her debut album, Immunity. Without a judge and jury. Her YouTube videos have had tens of millions of views, and the music is generally described as “bedroom pop” (a label that Clairo dismisses). Bedroom pop, according to the Urban Dictionary, is “characterized by its lo-fi quality and contemplative themes, sharing elements of other indie-pop genres such as shoegaze, dream pop, jangle pop, and emo.” Her songs do seem to have a very dreamy and contemplative quality to them, for sure. I pride myself on generally being reasonably up to date with current musical trends, but I have to be brutally honest here: I had to look those genres up, although “dream pop” and “jangle pop” almost seem self-explanatory.

Clairo’s (her given name is Claire Cottrill) dad had a number of music industry connections through his business dealings. And even though Clairo was actively being courted by a number of major labels after her internet success, she eventually signed with the Fader label her dad had serious connections with. She’s been openly accused by other indie artists of benefiting from nepotism, and of being an “industry plant.” In other words, they’re accusing her of being a mainstream industry-backed artist marketed and presented as an indie artist—solely for the feel-good vibe and to sell more records. Getting a break in the music industry is extremely tough sledding; my daughter has been trying to break through for years with only a modicum of success. Naturally, I fully understand the deep level of dedication it takes and the difficulty of ever truly making it. Check out Clairo’s website; she’s in the midst of a national tour that’s taking her to some impressive venues in most major cities—so let the nepotism theories roll on!

All of that said, I find the music here a totally mixed bag, though some of it is actually surprisingly cerebral and enjoyable. The record was produced by Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), and has a much higher level of production than seen in any of her previous work—though not so overproduced as to take it into the realm of adult contemporary music. Immunity is basically a synth-pop affair with guitars, keys and a drum machine on most songs, and Clairo plays some of the instruments herself—it’s definitely lo-fi, but not nearly so much as the YouTube stuff. It’s a love-hate situation, though, for me—while I do find some of the songs emotionally engaging, there are aspects that are less gripping. Like when she uses a vocoder to alter the sound of her actually pleasant voice to something not at all dissimilar to say, Britney Spears. Blechh! Clairo would probably have an aneurysm if she found herself compared to Queen Britney in a review, and her very passable voice doesn’t need augmented in a way that makes it downright unpleasant to listen to. YMMV—if for no other reason, at least you’ll know whether to encourage your kid who’s making music videos in her bedroom.

Fader Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify)

Susanna Mӓlkki/Helsinki Philharmonic OrchestraBartók: The Wooden Prince/ The Miraculous Mandarin Suite

[A reader responded to my review, informing me that the source of the original tapes for this SACD release was a PCM recording. While I’ve never been one to stickle over PCM vs. DSD, I will say that—with regard to SACD playback—I find an improved level of musicality in pure DSD recordings, and in analog recordings directly remastered to DSD for SACD. I have no predjudice against PCM; most of my digital library consists of CDs converted to PCM lossless FLACs, and on any given day, most of my listening is to files that are sourced from or converted to PCM. All of that said, I have a number of BIS label SACDs—all of them predating the Susanna Mӓlkki Bartók disc reviewed here—and they’re all pure DSD recordings. I was unaware that BIS has converted all SACD production to DSD transferred from 24/96 PCM recordings, and apparently a while back. Regardless, the sound quality of this SACD is exemplary; should you decide to forego getting the hi-res disc, the 24/96 sound quality of the Tidal and Qobuz streams is also superb.]

This new disc of Béla Bartók’s early symphonic works is notable for two reasons: Firstly, both The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin (along with the early opera Bluebeard’s Castle) are stylistically unlike anything else in Bartók’s canon of works. These works are presented in a compositional style more closely related to the late Romantic period than any of the more angular and abstract works of Bartók’s later period, where his works took on many of the Hungarian folk influences he was so strongly attracted to. Secondly, Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki makes her debut with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on the BIS label; she’s undeniably one of the brightest stars currently in the classical world. She presently serves as the chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, who perform at the acclaimed (and brand new!) Helsinki Music Centre, where this outstanding set of performances was recorded. In her spare time, Susanna Mälkki slums as the principal guest conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Those urban Angelinos sure seem to love their Finnish conductors!

And if I may be so bold as to proffer Thirdly, it’s because this is such an incredibly dynamic and well-recorded performance of these infrequently programmed works. If you can get your hands on the excellent BIS SACD disc, that’s definitely the route to go for the very highest level of aural satisfaction. Through my Yamaha BDA-1060 universal player, the opening crescendo in the first movement of The Wooden Prince is staggeringly dynamic, and offers an incredibly realistic acoustic representation of the Helsinki Music Centre in my listening room. That said, if you’ve abandoned spinning discs and are more into high-res streaming, both Qobuz and Tidal offer this performance at 24/96 PCM sound, which isn’t too shabby either. The CD layer of the SACD disc (or 44.1 FLAC or WAV) is actually quite good, as well, but you’ll want high-res sound to get the most satisfying sound quality, which this title delivers in spades!

Susanna Mälkki’s readings of these works is very lyrical here; if you’re looking for a more muscular interpretation, try Boulez on DG. If this disc is indicative of what we can expect from this outstanding orchestra and conductor, their future efforts on BIS should not disappoint. Very highly recommended!

BIS Records, CD/SACD (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify)

 

Sleater-KinneyThe Center Won’t Hold

[I noted in my review that long-time drummer Janet Weiss had announced her departure from Sleater-Kinney just about the time of release of The Center Won’t Hold. Shortly afterwards, she was involved in a serious automobile accident, suffering a number of injuries that included a broken leg and a broken collarbone. That has delayed a tour with her new band, Quasi, which had been scheduled to commence on October 7. Janet was released from the hospital after about a week, but will be wheelchair bound and going through intensive physical therapy for a period of at least three months. Janet’s sister has started a Go Fund Me web page to help assist with her medical costs; like many musicians, she had no health coverage at the time of the accident.]

All-girl group Sleater-Kinney, consisting of Corin Tucker (vocals, guitar), Carrie Brownstein (vocals, guitar), and longtime drummer Janet Weiss, was one of the indie rock mainstays from the Pacific Northwest during the mid 1990’s to mid 2000’s. Critical darlings, they regularly won indie best-of polls and only increased their legend with each successive studio release. 2005’s The Woods was another critical success, featuring a denser, more heavily distorted sound that reflected changes in the band’s direction during their long stint opening for Pearl Jam’s 2003-2004 tour. A tour where Sleater-Kinney frequently—on record and in concert—stretched out into more extended set pieces. And suddenly, without explanation, Sleater-Kinney went on a decade-long hiatus. Carrie Brownstein was deeply involved in writing and acting in her collaboration with Fred Armisen in the Portlandia series on IFC. And the various group members remained active in other side projects throughout their absence from the forefront of the music scene.

Sleater-Kinney’s long hiatus ended in 2015, with the release of the album No Cities to Love, their eighth studio album, which was met with much acclaim and very positive critical reception. The New York Times review described it as the “First great album of 2015” and noted that they’d honed their sound down closer to the three-minute post-punk songs of their beginnings. All working toward making the release of the new album, The Center Won’t Hold, one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2019. The album’s title already seems highly prophetic of their future prospects; drummer Janet Weiss announced her departure a couple of months before the new record’s release. Produced by St. Vincent (rumors abound that her involvement precipitated the departure of Janet Weiss), the album continues with their exploration of a more abbreviated song form, with some of the resulting tunes quite “poppy,” to say the least.

It’s really quite sad for me, the departure of Janet Weiss; her excellent drumming is pretty much the rhythmic core of this album. The title track and opening cut, “The Center Won’t Hold” unleashes a powerful drumbeat intro, soon accompanied by searing guitars. With both Brownstein and Tucker repeating the title line in a slow, rhythmic fashion that’s suddenly interrupted by a single piercing guitar note. This suddenly erupts into a chaotic minute and a half of the two singers screaming the same phrase over surprisingly melodic power chords into an abrupt ending, with Weiss just pounding those skins relentlessly throughout. Which happens with just about every song on the album. That is, ending abruptly. St. Vincent’s slick production is very appropriate with the eclectic song selection, which, while retaining much of their post-punk aesthetic, remains very melodic and “power pop-ish.” Many of their songs are presented as statements of where the band stands in the current political environment in the US; Carrie Brownstein, in a recent NPR interview with the band, basically stated that while none of the songs are specifically anti-Trump, Sleater-Kinney is most definitely an anti-Trump band. In the song “Ruins,” they ask, “Do you feast on nostalgia? Take pleasure from pain? Look out, ‘cause the children will learn your real name.” Doesn’t take much imagination to guess who that’s directed at, huh? At 5:18, it’s the longest song on the album.

The Center Won’t Hold is an outstanding album from Sleater-Kinney; despite the departure of Janet Weiss, Brownstein and Tucker insist they’ll soldier on. Let’s hope so, they’re making some of the most intelligent, tuneful, and listenable post-punk/pop currently out there. Very highly recommended.

Mom + Pop Music, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify)

Lana Del ReyNorman F*cking Rockwell

[I came down pretty hard on Norman F*cking Rockwell (NFR as it appears on most record store shelves); and it’s really not that I totally hated it. But I did have a hard time with some of the alliterations that compared this album with classic American pop music—the jury’s a long way out from making those kind of pronouncements. I’ve revisited this album repeatedly since my review was published, and it’s not an unenjoyable listen—it’s actually a very well recorded album, and Lana Del Rey’s vocals are seductively enticing. I just have a hard time placing it on quite the high pedestal level that the other media outlets seem to have no problem with.]

Norman F*cking Rockwell. When I first started reading about the impending release of this album months ago, I had to assume that the title was a freaking joke. It’s not. On the opening title track that’s lushly orchestrated with layers of Lana Del Rey’s multi-tracked vocals singing the chorus, the first words from her seriously angelic voice are “Goddam, you man child…you f*cked me so good that I almost said I love you!” I’m no saint, but trust me, I almost can’t even believe that I just typed those words! There’s nothing else out there in pop music that even remotely compares with this; she drops the “F” bomb repeatedly throughout the songs on this album. I’d been listening to Tidal all day on my home system while working on reviews, but as the day progressed into evening, I switched to headphones right as I put this album on. Thank God for that—my wife Beth’s no prude, but she probably would have freaked had she heard that opening refrain live across the airwaves! Her verbal response to this would probably have made her typical expletive-laced response to the music of Rickie Lee Jones sound like she was reading from a Sunday school primer.

When I first signed up for Instagram about a year or so ago, a video for Lana Del Rey appeared in my feed; I took a look, and suddenly my feed was flooded with videos of Lana Del Rey. Dancing this kind of lilting stylistic dance, her skirt or dress swaying rhythmically to her movements. That’s pretty much the mental image I get from listening to this album; I just didn’t picture it with the language embellishments. Don’t get me wrong, but generally I equate someone’s repeated use of f*ck in a song to hate speech, hardcore metal, or even gangsta rap. Not repeated as though it’s almost a mantra or a prayer. Back in the day, when I’d hear Mick Jagger sing “you can come all over me” from the Stones’ Let It Bleed, yes, it was hypersexualized, but it was the Stones, and you expected it from rock’s bad boys. Maybe I was a tad more hypersexualized myself back then, because it didn’t shock me on any kind of level compared to this. An alternate take on this: in today’s Me Too world, where carelessly expressing your sexuality can get you into some seriously deep doo, it’s almost refreshing to see that Lana Del Rey is so seemingly sexually uninhibited.

In the Pitchfork review of this album, they call Norman F*cking Rockwell Lana Del Rey’s “masterpiece we’ve been waiting for,” and also call her the “best American songwriter, period.” A bit further down, some Joni Mitchell/Leonard Cohen alliterations are made. Okay, it’s my turn now—are you f*cking kidding me? I can totally see the appeal of this record to a particular demographic; the music accompaniment to Lana Del Rey’s ever-lyrical voice is almost like ear candy. And I’m sure this record will sell metric tons of music software. But is this really the state of the art of current American popular music? Even mentioning her in the same breath as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen is damn near blasphemous. YMMV.

Interscope/Polydor Records, CD/LP/Cassette (download/streaming from Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify)

The BeatlesAbbey Road – Anniversary Edition

[I have to give the 50th Anniversary Edition of Abbey Road higher marks than in my original review. Compared to the recent Rolling Stones reissue of Let It Bleed—an album that I probably place at about the same level of philosophical importance—Abbey Road is without a doubt the gold standard of high-profile rock reissues. With all the additional and previously unreleased tracks included in the package, it puts the recent 50th Anniversary release of Let It Bleed—which came with no bonus material at all, and in less than perfect sound—to shame.]

When the Beatles Sgt. Pepper 50th Anniversary remix/remaster came out in 2017, I have to admit….I was, at the least, skeptical. Should we be messing with history like this? I mean, yeah, there was the Giles Martin/Beatles Love thing, which was pretty amazingly well done, but it was essentially a completely new experience for Beatles fans. But to go in and completely remix an absolute classic like Sgt. Pepper—that was darn near blasphemy, right? The rationale was that all the Beatles’ albums up to a certain point had been recorded basically with mono sound in mind, and that the stereo mixed LPs were essentially an afterthought. Here was an opportunity to correct for obvious mistakes in the stereo mix, as well as take advantage of making the new stereo remix really pop.

And it most definitely popped! I was shocked that the new remix was….as enjoyable as I found it to be, but the element of the remix I found most striking was the clarity that was now heard throughout. Most surprisingly, I found myself ultimately in complete approval of the new remix; at the very least, even if it didn’t replace the classic original, it would be an interesting companion to have in the library. And I mostly found that same sentiment to be true for the following year’s release of the remixed/remastered The Beatles (the White Album), which I had always felt was a bit congested throughout. The newfound clarity of the mixes struck me as very refreshing, and perhaps more true to the Beatles’ original intent—a modernization of the sound, if you will. The Beatles was the last album that EMI simultaneously released in both stereo and mono mixes, so that was probably it for the updated stereo remix rationale, right?

So imagine my surprise when the 50th anniversary edition of Abbey Road was announced—it was never released in mono—this might be a potentially slippery slope Giles Martin was now taking us down! And to add to my trepidation, before having heard a single note, Copper editor Bill Leebens had attended a release event featuring the new LP version on a cost-no-object analog setup. And roundly condemned it. Well, crap! Knowing that I definitely needed to hear this, I headed straight to the listening room where I was able to hear both the Tidal MQA Version (and later in the day) the Qobuz 24/96 version. I found both versions very similar in character, with nothing that I felt stood out significantly between them in terms of the overall sound.

What I did find was that I totally enjoyed the greater clarity of the new mix; I found it to be a really remarkable enhancement that made me want to lean closer into the mix to hear the newfound details. Example: on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” as the opening guitar signature fades into silence, on the original, you’re instantly met with the wall of amplifier feedback that’s almost constantly full-on during the first part of the song. In the new mix, the feedback’s still there, but just not as dominating of the overall sound as on the original. I know the feedback was probably completely consistent with Lennon’s intent, but I still prefer the sound of the new remix—it flows a bit better.  You then go from the heaviest Beatles’ song ever into “Here Comes The Sun,” and the increased clarity in Harrison’s guitar and vocal delivery is simply staggeringly good. The harpsichord accompaniment and Lennon’s vocal on “Because” also have an amazing clarity; the sound takes on an almost extra-dimensional character. All of the overdubbed vocals in the opening chorus now are more clearly defined in the space, giving the song a much bigger overall presentation—and that synth figure near the middle is absolute ear candy.

And when you get into the Abbey Road “medley”—which has always struck me as a tad congested—that newly imbued clarity is oooh so very welcome. The piano on “You Never Give Me Your Money” and “Golden Slumbers” emerges from a much blacker background; any noise that was present in the original is now nonexistent. Paul’s voice on “Golden Slumbers” takes on an almost magical character. Ringo’s drum solo on “The End”—the drum solo that launched the careers of a thousand would-be drummers—takes on a more dimensional, palpable character in the new mix. You can virtually see his drum kit sitting in front of you at the listening chair. And the mix of the voices near the end of the tune is once again, well, nearly magical. 

Some may call it blasphemy, but I have to give this one the full rubber stamp. Very highly recommended, and if you have the opportunity to hear the higher-res versions on either of the streaming services, by all means do so!

Apple Records/Capitol/EMI, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music, Spotify)