Sympathetic Stupid

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Department Of Eagles - The Cold Nose

Department Of Eagles are scary good.

Here's the backstory. Two kids stuck in the same room at college, and instead of abusing each other for food misappropriation and inappropriate partying, they make a metric shedload of music together - from breaks to hip-hop to new rock to old rock. And someone publishes it. And what's more, it's really good.

The Cold Nose, for me, is the spiritual successor to Since I Left You, the magical LP from the dearly-departed Avalanches. Since I Left You was the classic summer party album, the one that you could leave on repeat for seven hours without anyone complaining. The Cold Nose (in the US, it's called The Whitey On The Moon UK LP for only slightly interesting historical reasons) gives the same feel, albeit touching only briefly on the beats and breaks ground The Avalanches tilled so successfully.

This album almost feels like that mix-tape you made years ago which still sits in the glove-box because you haven't been able to beat it since. Noam Chomsky Spring Break 2002 is classic beats; an infectious, tricky rhythm buried under piles of samples. Yeah, microchips and the 'net let anyone pirate a sequencer and do this stuff, but it takes skill to do it as well as this. Sailing By Night has a similarly catchy beat, but a contrastingly spare arrangement, with guitar and vocals over the top. When the strings kick in two-thirds of the way through, this one goes through the roof, and ends up in light drum'n'bass territory.

Romo-Goth is kinda very different. It sounds like nothing so much as a Franz Ferdinand/Strokes jam - though the coda harks back to the earlier mood, and the track never really rocks all the way out. Family Romance takes us in a similar direction, but goes all Beatle-esque in the guitar and bass parts. It's kinda Your Mother Would Know crossed with I Will - but these comparisons are futile, cause then it goes almost Polyphonic Spree in the breakdown.

And then another left turn. Forty Dollar Rug, starting with an ethereal Avalanches-style choral sample, then breaks into a nice clean hip-hop thing with fake British accents; nods maybe to The Streets but not quite. And then, as is becoming customary, in the breakdown it turns into something else entirely, eventually ending up almost skanking around the studio. The epitome of this coat-of-many-colours behaviour is The Curious Butterfly Realises He Is Beautiful - a big solid beat, more operatic samples, a bit of Wes Anderson and a great organ line.

So, in amongst this sea of references to genres and other bands, where exactly is the album? It's in there somewhere, amongst the well-worked beats, guitar, heavy samples and post-punk vocals, and influences proudly on the sleeve. The thread binding it all is the musical sensibility of these two; Butterfly Emerging and Iron Chrysalis. And, as the pseudonyms and some track titles suggest, there's a strong jokey sophomoric feel about the whole thing which is actually seriously appealing. But only cause the music gives it legs.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Epicure - Main Street

I still love Epicure, but I'm not in love with them.

We've been growing apart for some time. We first met when Richard Kingsmill played Opportunity's Knocking on the Australian Music Show on JJJ - it must have been early 1998. The honeymoon period of our whirlwind romance was Fold, which I still look back on with astonishment. Quiet moments; the lush, perfectly produced ballad Calm; On Hold, a smooth instrumental; and the epic Last Dance. Not all quiet, though; Johnny Venus, with that huge funk breakdown; the deep, dirty crescendo on Bottom Of A Well; and the anthemic Sunsilk Girl. And the less friendly bits; Feet From Under Me's angry, yet still affectionate "let me know what you want from me/so I can be a friendly enemy"; Juan's rock-rap on Fly The Flag out of "why'd you go/why'd you go/why"; and of course Opportunity's Knocking: "where the fuck have you been".

Ah, the halycon days. Back when festivals were still fun and JJJ was still cool. An album which added up like few others.

As the relationship progressed, the past started to come into it. Airmail. Things were patchier - after every perfect Gentle Like A Tidal Wave or Airmail moment, there was a not-quite-meshing Momento Man or The System to bring us back to earth. But we still had that passion, that raw energy and excitement. Closure - "now I am as I've always been" - anger delivered with so much feeling.

The Elevator and Life Sentence EPs were a development phase for the relationship - untrustworthy, unpredictable, uncomfortable change. Elevator gave us The Angel's Wings, a solid harking back to the best rockers of Fold; while Listens To The Rain gave a taste of where we were going. I wasn't certain I liked it, we were slowing down, settling, becoming less idiosyncratic and more radio-friendly. And the live show (the sex?) was becoming less exciting and compelling - it was lights-off, missionary-position routine.

But despite this, the Life Sentence EP was un-hatable. Five tracks, all of the highest quality, from the beautiful organ line on the title ballad, through the ear-candy chorus of Armies Against Me. Then the highlight, Isolate - Juan showing just how far his vocals had come since the shouting, rapping, tyro who drove Fold. Buckley-esque is not a completely inappropriate adjective. Though it's not actually a word. But all of a sudden there was nothing fast, energetic, exciting about the relationship.

There were no surprises, then, when The Goodbye Girl was released. A beautiful, comfortable album, with so many spots of real, tender, poignant emotion. Bluesy, on So Broken and No-One's Listening, but predominantly shoe-gazer heart-on-sleeve stuff. Dime-a-dozen? No, that's truly unfair. But, at this point, there's something definitely missing from us. I'm waking up in the middle of the night, sweating, from dreams featuring others where once there was only Epicure. And they're so much more fulfilling. The seriously similar Art Of Fighting - less emotion, but more drive and energy. The exciting unpredictability of Architecture In Helsinki. The unique electronic structures of New Buffalo. The country-styled Wilco-esque noisy variations of Khancoban.

So, and finally, to Main Street.

All the ingredients are there, as in The Goodbye Girl - but there's little progression here, we're in a rut and I don't think there's any way out. The first four tracks are really good, especially Tightrope Walker, despite the kinda creepy "watching you sleep" thing. But somewhere in the final third of the disc (usually in Eve Clover), Juan's voice - consistently at the top of the mix - begins to grate. This is paradoxical for such a sweet, pure voice, but it's the unvarying, similar nature of the songs on the album that does it. More than ever before, this album turns consistency into a fault.

Few are as good musically as this combo, few have such well-crafted tunes and 'how many dudes you know sing like this?' - 'not many, if any'. Juan's voice (and I strongly suspect also his songwriting) remains Epicure's unassailable advantage over the challengers. But I think they might have slipped into musical groupthink. They want to succeed so much, but they all write the exact same songs, which on the face of it makes perfect sense, but in practice causes everything to converge unerringly to a point. Not by any means a bad point, but not what I loved them for.

Last chance? Yeah, I think so. I'm too young to settle down behind the picket fence, with the Commodore, the above-ground pool and, god forbid, the kids. I'd like to think we can still be friends. And maybe if we'd met five years later it'd all be different. Thank you Epicure, and fare well.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Proactive Insurance?

(Wow, a whole month without a post. Impressive.)

Joel at WorldChanging writes about developments that could change insurance companies forever - and for better.

Big Euro reinsurance company Munich Re - who insure the insurers - found recently that "the world has suffered more than $200b in weather-related economic losses over the past year". In the US, investors representing $800b asked listed insurers about their exposure to climate change risks. Possibly this was because losses from weather events have increased 15 times in the past thirty years. The incentive for the insurers is obvious. Could they start pushing for action on global warming?

Prevention is obviously in the interests of insurance companies - it's a shedload more effective than putting the premiums through the roof to pay for it. And it's not just in this area. Car insurance? Well, sure, AAMI give me 5% off if I do the skilled driver course, and there's a bit of a saving for off-street parking. Home insurance? It's cheaper, as I understand, if you've actually got locks on your doors.

Health insurance is the one which strikes a chord with me. Surely it's in the interests of the insurer to see that you don't actually get sick, rather than having to pay out for your hospital bills. Insurers and allopathic medicine seem to go hand-in-hand, with the philosophy "you get sick, then we'll treat your symptoms and hopefully you'll get better". There's very little prevention, bar the routine over-prescription of blood-pressure- and cholesterol-lowering drugs. (And boy, do the drug companies love that.) Yes, there is some inclusion of 'extras' in policies, which allow spending on many alternatives (like dentistry...) to be claimed, but there's no real incentive to do so (or indeed to pay the extra premiums to get extras included).

I'd love my insurance company to talk to my GP and then propose that I see a homeopath once a month, at their expense, to combat those niggling headaches and neuralgia. Or if I see an acupuncturist, to do something about my low energy, they'll reduce my premium by 5%. Or a dietician, to get rid of that persistent heartburn. Or even a psychologist, to have a chat about how I deal with stress at work. Remember that Australian breakthrough - that Stress Makes You Sick (SMH)?

I wonder how the cost-benefit equation works. The government's got a stake in this as well, through PBS and health funding. If an insurer could make all their clients 10% more "well" (a tricky metric, I know), how much could they, and the country, save? Is anyone trying?