Small Clever Rooms
Julia Holter, Loud City Song; Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, UZU
Sonically, these two albums couldn’t be much more different. Loud City Song is a mellow, generally very quiet and unassuming Julia Holter joint, ecstatically praised by music critics as was its predecessor, last year’s Ekstasis. UZU, on the other hand, is the long-awaited bombastic, diverse debut full-length from the Canadian visual art/music collective Yamantaka // Sonic Titan.
My expectations of how much I’d enjoy them also differed hugely. I didn’t know what to do with Ekstasis and while it was interesting and novel, it never clicked with me at all. (This started to feel like a personal failing on my part when I saw someone compare it to Owen Pallett’s Heartland, my second favorite album of 2010 and probably the one from that year with the most staying power.) But Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s mini-album YT // ST intrigued me by mixing charming, percussive pop (“Hoshi Neko”) and punishing, endurance-testing hard rock (“A Star Over Pureland”) and managing to stay cohesive, a bit like a more serious, more proggy Deerhoof. I wasn’t always in the mood for YT // ST, but every time I listened to it I liked it more. So I was really looking forward to UZU, whereas Loud City Song I picked up mostly out of curiosity and the hope of redeeming myself for my inability to appreciate Ekstasis.
Well, neither made it into my top 10, but Loud City Song I liked considerably more than its predecessor, and UZU a great deal less, and I’m lumping them together because of one characteristic that they, somewhat amazingly, share: rapping!
I’m using the loose Wikipedia definition of rapping, here—“spoken or chanted rhyming lyrics”—but both albums feature parts that fall in that category quite neatly. The difference goes a surprisingly long way toward explaining my reaction to each album. The rapping on Loud City Song is curious, but of a piece with the rest of the album: still quiet and contemplative, concerned with cocktail parties in the two iterations of “Maxim’s” and the “flavor to the sound of walking” in “In the Green Wild”. It lends the songs in which it appears a focus on rhythm whose lack was, I think, part of what kept me from getting into Ekstasis. I like it. Listen to Ekstasis and the prospect of Julia Holter rapping will seem absurd, but here it feels like a natural extension of Loud City Song’s sound. I still can’t make heads or tails of most of the lyrics, and most of the melodies aren’t strong enough to keep me trying. But the instrumentation is more diverse than on Ekstasis and used well to create atmosphere. Atmospheric music is just not really my thing, I think.
The rapping on UZU is also a fairly natural extension of what’s elsewhere on the album, but unfortunately I find it dreadful. It ruins the track on which it appears for me and causes me to be preoccupied with its dreadfulness every time I think about listening to UZU. I can’t find other reviews complaining about the utter dreadfulness of this rapping, so maybe this is all just my own biases, but I say if you sound like what I imagine Mister Band sounds like, it’s game over.
And it’s a shame, because there’s plenty of other enjoyable stuff on UZU that shouldn’t be overlooked: more slow, quiet songs than on YT // ST, for example, some of them quite affecting. The opening couplet of the last track, “Saturn’s Return”, is sung tenderly despite its ominous content: “Promises made long ago / set fire to the earth below.” That’s an intriguing enough piece of a story that it makes me want to listen to the rest of the album to see if I can find out what those promises were, and the ponderous piano in the backing track is a nice counterweight to the rollicking drums of “Bring Me the Hand of Bloody Benzaiten” and the thick, heavy guitars of “One.” This album’s pretty heavily backloaded, I think, and I like that.
But please save me from that dreadful rapping. I think it is symptomatic of one of the main reasons I don’t like UZU as much as YT // ST: it seems to take itself far more seriously. Too seriously, I feel, for a band that previously recorded “Hoshi Neko” and claims on their label’s page to merge “heavy metal’s brutish assault with Japanese manga’s cartoonish appeal”. UZU has the brutish assault, but none of the cartoonish appeal. It’s not as fun as its predecessor. So it’s not a bad album (aside from that rapping, I cannot emphasize that enough), but it won’t end up on my top 10 list.