MGMT - MGMT
MGMT has had a complicated relationship with their fan base since their 2007 debut Oracular Spectacular, which led them to instant fame and critical acclaim with its carefree synthpop and subtle psychedelic rock colorings. Not even MGMT themselves expected the massive airplay of their single “Kids”, though, which catapulted them into superstardom and also garnered a Grammy nomination. Later on, MGMT would reveal that the track was written as a bit of a joke, a tongue in cheek play on four-chord radio hits. They became sick of it. This irony would plague them with their next highly underrated release, Congratulations, where MGMT embraced their true aspirations as a psychedelic rock band with a collection of quirky, surf rock styled anthems (“Song for Dan Treacy” is still my favorite track of theirs). Though this was MGMT at their most creative, the album disappointed in sales. Many of their fans abandoned them with expectations of more hits just as Oracular Spectacular had.
With expectations seemingly higher this time around, MGMT’s self-titled album has indeed surprised again with their most experimental release yet. Gone are any of the high-sprung tunes from either of their previous albums, replaced by spacious works that meander through sonic textures and introspective lyrics. “Alien Days” is the gem of MGMT that feels joyful yet melancholic, adventurous but subdued. In many ways, it epitomizes their current state as a band, and the entire message of the album. “Today find infinite ways it could be / Plenty worse / It’s a blessing but it’s also a curse.” Though they’ve been blessed with success, its become a burdened existence in how they’ve become trapped by it.
A plethora of different soundscapes and styles are explored here, between the aquatic bubbling of “Plenty of Girls In The Sea” or the spacy shoegaze of “A Good Sadness”. MGMT is the sound of a band in search of a new path, but also doing a little soul searching as to what their music means to them as well. “Cool Song No. 2” dissects aloneness, while “Introspection” has VanWyngarden asking “what am I really like inside?” While the songs on MGMT still have the quirky pretense of their earlier albums, its lyrics are reflective and also bitter at times. In this way, the lyrics often go directly against the explorative soundscapes they’ve created here.
In this regard, these create the best moments on MGMT. The never-ending pulse and disdain of “Mystery Disease”, the snark of the two-chord “Your Life is a Lie”. The album is chock full of great songs that explore new territory for them, but the lack of a change in emotional pull makes for a one-track listen until the end of the album. Since most of these songs share a similar mid-tempo pace, it becomes stagnant halfway through. MGMT have always been a band to poke fun at things and have fun in doing it, but here they’re poking a lot of fun at what people expect of them. This darkness that boils underneath the lighthearted sound of some of these songs comes with a bitter taste, often taking away the spotlight from the productions themselves. The album would have benefited greatly with a track or two that aren’t as serious or reflective.
MGMT is certainly a statement for MGMT in the way that AM is for the Arctic Monkeys, but this is not a celebration. This is a declaration of what they are and what they refuse to become in the future. It will be important for MGMT to find a way to embrace their fans and be comfortable with how they’re regarded on a public level, simply to start having a little more fun themselves again.
Arctic Monkeys - AM
The title AM could have symbolized a great many things for the Arctic Monkeys, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise when considering the characteristically witty nature of frontman Alex Turner. To surprising effect, AM has Turner is the most straightforward he’s ever been on an Arctic Monkeys record, where most lyrics follow themes of love and intoxication. The clever lyricism is still here, but it isn’t quite as eclectic as their other records. By keeping wordplay and imagery simpler, Turner has allowed the Arctic Monkeys’ highly finessed production to hammer through with great effect.
Much of AM was recorded in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, California, similar to their previous two albums. The influence of American rock has become more and more apparent in their sound (not to mention Josh Homme’s huge influence on the band, who guest vocals on “One For The Road” and “Knee Socks”), but their fascination with R&B plays a big role as well. “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” has the rhythmic catchiness of a contemporary hip hop beat, while the falsetto vocals of “Knee Socks” are straight out of an R&B hook. Most of AM has the Arctic Monkeys trading their usual guitar lines for grooves and rhythmic emphasis. These qualities give AM a distinct flavor amidst the rest of their catalogue, and while the R&B influence appears in most of AM’s tracks, some follow other routes. “No. 1 Party Anthem” and “Mad Sounds” follow more traditional Arctic Monkeys’ melodies over classic rock ballads, which make for a refreshing change-up to the middle portion the album.
It should also be noted that this is some of the best drumming yet on an Arctic Monkeys record, and while it certainly isn’t as flashy as Suck It and See, Helders consistently changes up rhythms and fills to give each track a unique flavor. “R U Mine?” is some of the best drumming from Helders yet.
Turner’s lyricism plays the most important role in AM’s cohesion, where songs of one-sided love and desire reveal growing pains in the search for real romance; he’s never been as intimate as he is on this record. On “Fireside”, Turner sings “I can’t explain but I wanna try / There’s this image of you and I /And it goes dancing by /In the morning and the night time.” AM displays Turner’s inability to shake away a love, and his inability to ignite it properly as well. Its great poignancy and honesty that makes this such a compelling record.
Macross Crossover - 30th Anniversary Event
Today will mark the first time I’ve ever performed on stage with my mom! Its for the “30th Anniversary Macross Crossover Event” at the Makuhari Messe arena in Chiba, Japan, a concert I’ve spent a couple months in preparation for. If you want to see what Macross is all about, this clip does a pretty good job of it:
Macross originally started as a TV series in 1982 which ran for a couple of years, a sci-fi anime that follows Lynn Minmay and others about the Macross space fortress, which eventually becomes embroiled in a conflict with aliens. Later on, music is discovered to be the solution to it, although how that all happens is a pretty complicated affair. It was one of the first animes to incorporate an “anime idol” protagonist that sings, which set it apart from other animes at the time. My mom played the part of Minmay in the original run of Macross, and sang all of her songs (as well as contributing some of her own to the series). The song “Do You Remember Love?” was featured in the feature length Macross film of the same name, which charted in Japan’s top 10 and has become the most popular of the Macross ballads. Since then, there have been numerous spin-offs of the show with their own idols and stars.
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the series, and today’s “Macross Crossover” concert commemorates the milestone with performances from all of the Macross idols who have starred over the years. About a year ago, my mom asked if I’d write some new arrangements of the show’s songs, and excitedly I said yes, though I unexpectedly felt pressured later on when I realized how connected the anime’s fans are to its music. For the four songs we picked to redo, it was a challenge to find a balance between the flavors of the original versions and something a little more contemporary. Also, while the other Macross artists have full bands for their performances, it will just be me and my mom on stage for ours, so I took that into heavy consideration in terms of keeping the arrangement simple and believable for a stage performance. Here is the original version of “My Boyfriend Is A Pilot”:
Here’s a sample of my version:
Here is the original version of “Shao Ping Long”:
My version of “Shao Pi Long” is probably the most drastic of the new arrangements, more down tempo and reduced in instrumentation. A lot of the synths on this track come from a Casio keyboard I used to play a lot as a kid:
The original versions of these songs are so good, I always knew it would be difficult to match up to them in their slickness and how carefree they sound. The two songs from this series that I did not rearrange, “Tenshi No Enogu” and “Do You Remember Love,” because I felt like the originals were too awesome to touch. Not only that, they are the most adored songs in the series. Instead, I will be playing parts live that are already there.
In general, I tried to have a lot of fun with the project, and I did! Im hopeful the Macross fans will enjoy the new arrangements, so we will see by tonight’s time at the Makuhari!
Its hard to anticipate what your music will sound like in an arena, especially if you’ve only heard it in your small garage at home. Today was the tech rehearsal for the concert and, ironically, I was really surprised how huge the songs sounded out there! I’ll admit I got some butterflies as I looked out into the seating area from the stage, but once we started to run through our set, I felt right at ease. This concert will also mark the first time I’ve ever solely been the guitarist for another musician, which seems crazy to me but its true!
Its been an incredible experience and opportunity to do any of this, so I’m extremely thankful my mom put her trust into me with this project. Also, big shoutout to Ryan and Pejman on helping me out with a couple of the tracks!
Details on the concert later!
Kanye West - Yeezus
"How much do I not give a fuck / Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up." On the opening track to the highly anticipated Yeezus, Kanye makes a bold declaration of his indifference to cultural norms and expectations of him. In a dramatic gesture, he abruptly cuts the song to a sample of a children’s choir, where they sing “He’ll give us what we need / It may not be what we want.” These two simultaneous moments foreshadow Kanye’s intent with Yeezus: Regardless of what anyone desires from Kanye, he’ll give music what he thinks it desperately needs. Though flawed, Yeezus is Kanye’s attempt to paint his clearest self-portrait yet; demons, ego and all.
The entire album sounds as if its ready to burst at the seams, with a natural distortion that crackles through each track. Its Kanye’s message that his music is too good for even speakers to handle, that his frustrations have reached a boiling point. As per usual, Kanye has recruited some of music’s biggest talent (Daft Punk, Bon Iver, Frank Ocean) to assist him on select tracks, but they are always featured behind the scenes for short, specific moments, which indeed keeps the focus on Kanye 100% of the time.
Yeezus’ best moments has Kanye angry and authoritative. On “Black Skinheads,” he blasts racists and those who promote stereotypes. On the wonderfully sinister “New Slaves,” he lashes out at cultural black imprisonment like an angry demigod. Though he acknowledges blacks are still taken advantage of, he also slams them for allowing themselves to become victim as well. The end of “New Slaves” makes a sharp cut to a sweeping lo-fi anthem with markedly different instrumentation, where Kanye sings “I won’t end this high / Not this time again / I can’t lose.” Though he spends most of the track frustrated with society, he makes a poignant contrast in admittance of his own faults.
"I Am a God" rumbles like an impending apocalypse, with horns that blare off into space and a bass that never lets up. Here, Kanye promotes his “godly” success, but he also expresses the pitfalls it has come with. In the song’s climax, Kanye lets out a deranged scream, then hyperventilates as the music goes silent. These are uncomfortable moments for a listener, but they are a fascinating display of Kanye’s mental stability waning; an ironic show of his humanity. The track sounds as if it came straight from the heavens, yet it also reflects the image of someone human, alone in his own bubble.
These contrasts on Yeezus are some of Kanye’s most spectacular moments on a record yet, but the frustratingly long “Hold My Liquor” nearly stops the album’s frenetic pace dead in its tracks. Even more unfortunate, the rest of the album’s four tracks remain just as down-tempo. Though Kanye had a great framework set in the subject matter of “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead,” the rest of the songs have Kanye discussing his troubled relationships. Yeezus’ latter half plays out like the lights dimmed down, the spotlight on a performer in his most intimate performance. While its a fascinating introspection, it leaves the album confused between two vastly different themes.
Yeezus displays Kanye’s masterful ability to create original material, but it ultimately disappoints with its lack of focus and issues with pace. While tracks like “New Slaves” and “I Am a God” have Kanye at his most expressive and innovative, a fascinating display of contrast between his ego and humanity, Kanye makes an unfortunate retreat to territory he’s already crossed for the latter half of his album. With some of Kanye’s best work yet, the groundwork for an incredible album is there, but it fails to capture the seamlessness of his earlier works.
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Most pop music aficionados will immediately recognize "One More Time" or “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” for their catchy melodies and robot-like vocals. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk never intended for their vocoder vocals to become their trademark sound, but it somehow stuck all the way up to now. The inception of this identity on their 2001 Discovery solidified their respective robot identities and costumes as well, as both Homem-Christo and Bangalter have worn their robot outifts at every show, every photographing, and every public event they’ve attended as Daft Punk. When most people think of the band, I suspect they wouldn’t know the name of those two guys behind the helmets. Daft Punk’s success can be seen not only in the quality of the material that they put out, but also because everything they do is a physical manifestation of their music. While many artists attempt to single themselves out with trending ideas, ethnicities, or cultural phenomena, Daft Punk has never ceased to identify themselves with the robots. This in itself is why Daft Punk has succeeded as a group that anyone can enjoy.
Random Access Memories, their long awaited 2013 LP, is a stunning homage to an era of music gone-by, a nostalgic throwback to dance music of the 70s and 80s that risks alienating fans and listeners by going away from current trends in the music industry. Daft Punk trades their signature electronic grooves for funk guitars and sweeping orchestrations, and any connection Random Access Memories has to pop is in due thanks to its great guest appearances. Much to my surprise, nostalgia and melancholy are the album’s greatest components.
The album’s infectious first single “Get Lucky” is a powerful comeback anthem by both Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams, since neither have made much of a splash since the 00’s, and Nile Rodgers’ (Chic) hypnotic guitar lines make the song just as much as Pharrell’s melodies do. “Touch” operates as the album’s epicenter, with guest Paul Williams exclaiming “I remember touch / I need something more.” From here, a sublime burst of pianos and strings straight out of an ABBA track come in.
In this track, Daft Punk make the main point of Random Access Memories clear: in an era of music saturated with simplified beats and heavy electronic textures, they’ve grown tired of it. “Home / Hold on / If love is the answer you’re home.” To Daft Punk, love is the music and the era they were created from, yet the present industry they were so instrumental in creating has left them dangling, left longing for the past. Its a bit of a “what have we done?” moment for the group, integral to the album’s focused and unified sound. However nostalgic Daft Punk gets on this album though, they still remain optimistic. Like their lyrics suggest, they know and love the genre they’ve placed themselves into. Songs like “Give Life Back to Music” and “The Game of Love” are clear suggestions that they want to give back to this genre what it gave to them. The album’s title Random Access Memories is an obvious reference to electronics, but its a greater reference to Daft Punk pulling in all sorts of memories from their influences and history. Its a love letter to a time in music when instruments and grooves were abundantly organic, and the studio work and musicianship found here is both intricate and incredible.
Many fans haven’t grasped why Daft Punk have changed their sound so drastically for Random Access Memories, but I think its pretty clear: they just wanted to come back down to Earth. Random Access Memories is one of the best albums of the year.
Favorite Tracks - Get Lucky, Instant Crush, Giorgio by Moroder.
Yeah Yeah Yeah - Mosquito
Mosquito comes at an interesting juncture for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. While their rowdy debut Fever to Tell has become a landmark album for garage rock, they toned it down for Show Your Bones with poppier tunes, and went electronic with the amazing It’s Blitz released in 2009. Die hard fans have long clamored for a return to Fever to Tell's sound, but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were much more interested in exploring new mediums with each subsequent albums. With the rock and electronic genres conquered, this new LP was anyone’s guess as to what they’d try with it.
While the cheap horror feel of Mosquito's album art might give you the impression that this is a true sequel to Fever to Tell, is isn’t quite that. If anything, its a grown up successor to their earliest works, and the complexity of the album’s production leads it far away from Fever to Tell’s sound. Whereas Nick Zinner’s wild guitars and synths have almost always dominated the mix on their other albums, Mosquito features Brian Chase’s effected and complex drum work front and center. Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio, Foals) plays an increased role on most of the songs this time around as well, as he plays bass on each track and contributes a huge part to the album’s wide sonic variety as the album’s primary producer.
While opening track “Sacrilege” might make you think that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are about to do something big with this album, catchy hooks and gospel choir and all, its all a bit of a mirage in the end. On “These Paths” and “Subway,” the Yeah Yeah Yeahs sample and experiment with spacious sonic textures. While its great new territory for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the tracks come off sounding pretty dull. Most of Karen O’s vocals and Zinner’s guitarwork on Mosquito sound pretty uninspired, and most of the lyrical subject matter seems forced in order to keep up with Mosquito's general themes. Its a bit of an identity crisis for the band with Zinner's guitar buried all the way in the back of the mix, even behind most of the studio trickery the band have pulled off here. For someone who has been central to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' sound to be buried in the mix like this is to create some confusion for these bandmates and their roles in the band. Ideally, I'd expect this to be addressed in their future works. Perhaps the album's strongest moments come in the final three songs, which center around Karen O's light, sensitive vocal work, a great contrast to the heavier and louder textures on the album. Even here, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are still experts in closing their albums. Karen O sings out “Some kind of violent bliss / Led me to love like this” on the album’s final track, a fitting statement from Karen O that perhaps she longs for some violent bliss in her music again.
Favorite Tracks - Sacrilege, Under The Earth, Wedding Song.
I took a break from working on some very exciting new animations to post a bunch of the animation scores I’ve done over the past couple years. They’ll all be under the “Film Scores” tab at the top of my tumblr page! Each film brought about new challenges and great learning experiences, but more importantly, the collaborations created some great friendships! It was always fun as hell to work with the animators and the musicians, who were always down to record for me (thank you thank you thank you). Hope you enjoy the films! More animation scores without their respective animations can be found at the bottom of the “Film Scores” tab.
Ink’d by Cindey Chiang, 2010. Music by Andy Studer.
Flute - Ryan Bancroft. Cello - Nat Swanson. Clarinet - John Choi.
Can We Be Happy Now by Tahnee Gehm, 2012. Music by Andy Studer. This film was nominated for a 2012 Student Annie Award. It was also screened at the CalArts Producer’s Show.
Cello - Nat Swanson.
Thembi’s Diary by Jisoo Kim, 2010. Music by Andy Studer. Winner of the “Best in Show” award at the 2010 CEC Shorttakes Film Festival.
For this score, both Jisoo and I agreed it that the music should be pretty simple. I kept it sparse with just the use of violin and piano.