The Spinners

Archive for the ‘Thor Balanon’ Category

XLR8 (XLR8, 2010)

In OPM, Pop, Thor Balanon on December 7, 2010 at 3:55 am

If one could only separate intent from mens rea, then XLR8’s self-titled debut could have been more enjoyed as what it should have been: twelve tracks of catchy electronic pop that defies mainstream OPM.  But there it is, the evidence pronounced, from the album cover to the opening of “You’re so Hot” and “I Wish Lang,” it’s all too obvious. Whoever created this group has Super Junior, and K-Pop in general, on mind.

COPY PRINCES? Facebook and fan forums have been on fire with arguments since XLR8’s debut, with the haters calling the group a bunch of plagiarists. First of all, don’t blame the kids. They’re cute enough (Hello, Hideaki!) and it seems like they only do what they’re told. Secondly, the group’s formation may have been inspired by the growing popularity of K-Pop boy bands, but the inspiration part is more derivative than influenced. A little more originality in the attack and arrangement of the songs would have been better because from the auto-tuning to the beat breaks, the dancey tracks in XLR8 are often reminiscent of Super Junior, 2PM, or Big Bang. The ballads, mixed with a little urban flavor, are musically more interesting but also show the vocal limitation (to put it nicely, because, hello, Hideaki!) of the members. Oftentimes, it’s just a couple of guys singing together, smooth but without texture. The songs come out robotic, drained of youth and emotion.

FAST FORWARD. You see folks, there are rules in putting together a boy band. Let’s say that in a group of five, two have to be really kakakilig cute because that’s where the fandom starts. The other two, or the average-looking ones who could be cute from a particular angle, bring the moves. The fifth member, the one that makes you wonder why he is in a boy band in the first place, is the resident belter, the one that gives the group cred. (This is all tongue-in-cheek but do try to observe.) With XLR8, and fangirls please don’t kill me, there’s not one great vocalist. I’ve seen their live performances on Party Pilipinas and I have to say that even their dancing isn’t synchronized. South Korean boy bands are trained for four to six years before they make their stage debut because their public demands perfection. Members that commit mistakes on stage are singled out and admonished by netizens.

A recent call for auditions for a new local boy band lists “Must be chinito” as its first requirement. Here we go again. Emulating shouldn’t just be in terms of styling or gestures. One can’t fast forward talent development. Thank you for the cute guys, but we also need great singing, dancing, and the palpable hunger to succeed. We need substance, not necessarily in the form of lyrics or song structure, but in group dynamics, the perfect symmetry of calculated flirting and gymnastics, of distinct personalities moving as one.

JUST POP. P-Pop (or Pinoy Pop), Viva Records’s label that rides on the Asian music trend, is also something I find problematic. Since it’s new, I hope that the music the label carries evolves to something distinctly Pinoy in the future, but for now, it’s merely a follower, a pale echo, of what is trendy. Whatever happened to the songwriters of Sarah Geronimo’s “Sa Iyo”? That’s personally how I thought P-Pop would sound like. And if P-Pop is mostly emulation—Eurasia’s “Working Girls” sounds like 2NE1’s “Fire” while XLR8’s “You’re So Hot” is built around Super Junior’s “Sorry, Sorry” riff—then I don’t think it’s wise to append “Pinoy” to it. Besides, “K-Pop” or “J-Pop” is from an outsider’s point of view; since we are in the Philippines and Pinoy pop is what is playing on the radio, then shouldn’t it be just pop?

– Thor Balanon

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Eraserheads Anthology (Eraserheads, 2004)

In Alternative Rock, Compilation, OPM, Thor Balanon on April 20, 2010 at 7:51 am

“Rock n’ roll is our epiphany, culture, boredom, alienation, and despair.” – Manic Street Preachers, Little Baby Nothing

1991. I was a miserable lost boy when I first heard the Eraserheads play “Pare Ko” in the Para sa ‘Yo Bagong Isko concert in Palma Hall’s cramped lobby. And they sucked, big time. Sloppy guitars, pitchy vocals, absolutely forgettable performance. Lousy, really, but loved. The support was almost cult-like; everyone knew the words, there was feverish adoration in a thousand eyes. And despite my freshman virtuousness and ignorance, I immediately got it. Right away I understood the iconic yet reserved worship the band received in the echoing halls of the campus, when everybody started shouting the now-immortal lyrics: O! Diyos ko! / Ano ba naman ito / Di ba, tang-ina! / Nagmukha akong tanga / Pina-asa niya lang ako / Letseng pag-ibig to! No other band could be sweet, desperate, and funny at the same time like the Eraserheads.

Their college-rock sound defined the nineties. From their 1993 debut, the hilarious, Beatlesque ultraelectricmagneticpop! to their fuzzy, Sonic Youth-influenced Carbon Stereoxide in 2001, the Eraserheads were consistently imaginative and brave. Though not always successful with their experiments, Ely, Buddy, Raimund, and Marcus consistently (and stubbornly) rocked with the confidence that they knew what they were doing. And rightly so. They wrote songs that appealed to almost everyone. With the release of their debut album, suddenly the kolehiyalas and the hukbalahiphops were listening to the same music. It didn’t matter who you were—student, professional, war veteran, or a senator—the band held your attention and you were glued to the band’s amazing pop hooks and brilliant, yet simple, lyrics. The Eraserheads were and still are the band to beat when it comes to astute songwriting and popularity clearly evident in their double-disc collection of singles and rarities aptly called Eraserheads Anthology.

Disc 1: 1993-95. All the hits. Immediately fulfilling.

Everything that was loved and cherished is here. It perfectly opens with “Ligaya”, an aw-shucks confession of love and an offer that you simply cannot refuse: Gagawin ko ang lahat pati ang thesis mo. Next up is the masterpiece ode to heartbreak and drinking, “Pare Ko”. Unfortunately, what’s included here is the clean version, which takes away the childish pleasure of screaming Di ba, tang-inaaaaa! And when it comes to irreverent pleasures, the Eraserheads definitely know our secret tasty thoughts, like expertly dissing an ex in the crunching guitars and headbang sing-along chorus of “Magasin”: Di ko inakalang sisikat ka / Tinawanan pa kita / Tinawag mo akong walang hiya/ Medyo pangit ka pa noon. Heh.

“Alapaap” was almost banned from the airwaves (Masdan mo aking mata / Di mo ba nakikita / Ako ngayo’y lumilipad at nasa langit na / Gusto mo bang sumama) when the Senate tried to rid radio of drug-laced songs to stop, uh, drug use. I guess it didn’t help that the opening shoe-gazing, psychedelic guitars are deliciously dizzying before the solid riff kicks in and you’re gently lifted by the soaring chorus.

Speaking of choruses that are explosively contagious, “Ang Huling El Bimbo” features one that is downright perfect, the kind of perfection that landed the Philippines a niche in MTV’s buzzing media matrix. Comparison to Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova” is inevitable and that’s not bad at all. Eraserheads may also be accused of being too derivative but they make up for it in the pulsating energy and lyrical invention of their songs. “Ang Huling El Bimbo” is an epic-scale tale of childhood love and grown-up loss complete with obsessive violins and a rousing guitar lead. But at the heart of this big production is a tender story of an ordinary man’s first awkward step toward love. Of course it all ends violently, but what’s left as the violins fade is the subtlety of love’s beginning and the fierceness of its remembering.

Ely Buendia, lead lyricist of the early albums, understands the fine art of subtlety. He effortlessly balances humor with gentleness, universal themes with sharp character/story details. “Minsan” was never a huge single, but surprisingly, it always encouraged drunken sing-alongs. It’s just brilliant how one specific reference (Kalayaan) can resonate in the hearts of hundreds.

“Minsan” defines the tone of the first disc. These were the great songs we listened to as we struggled toward adulthood. They were the friends that made us laugh as we suffered through heartaches and hangovers. They kept us company when we were lost in speeding jeepneys, when we were horny in our empty beds, when we were happy on the walk home with our loves.

Disc 2: 1997 – 2004. Experiments, EPs and an unreleased track. Not that great but still important.

1997’s “Sticker Happy” was loud, brash and experimental. They still had hits like “Huwag Kang Matakot” and “Maselang Bahaghari” but nothing as phenomenal as their previous singles.

A welcome addition to Disc 2 is the Eheads’ cover of Ryan Cayabyab’s “Tuwing Umuulan at Kapiling Ka”. Think of it like “Superstar” by Sonic Youth in the Carpenter’s tribute album. Unlike the version that has been relentlessly murdered by a particular songbird, Eheads’ “Tuwing Umuulan” retains its delicately shining melody, as the fuzzy guitars and bass reverbs work around the lyrics. They place the familiar against an edgier, audacious soundscape and what we get is a version that is as fresh as wet paint, sticky and vibrant.

Other experiments, however, did not fare as well. “Fruitcake” always had a novelty feel to it, “Bogchi Hokbu” is fun but flat, “Julie Tearjerky” feels like a pop hook exercise, and “Run Barbie Run” sounds just what the title implies, rushed and nowhere to go. But the thing is, with the Eraserheads, you never felt that it was about the money. They could’ve continued to churn out materials similar to their first three albums but they chose what most of us are scared to do, to grow up. Their sound matured, got less melodic, got louder and sonically more adventurous. While hardcore fans admired the growth, most felt alienated by it. But the band had no regrets. In what could be their best written song, “Para Sa Masa”, Ely pays tribute to the “masa” without the usual token we-love-you-all put-on. The dialogue is honest, kind and straightforward:

Ito ay para sa mga masa…
Sa lahat ng aming nakasama …
Naaalala nyo pa ba?
Binigyan namin kayo ng ligaya.

Ilang taon na rin ang lumipas,
. . . Mapapatawad mo ba ako?
Kung hindi ko sinunod ang gusto mo.

Pinilit kong iahon ka
Ngunit ayaw mo namang sumama.

Ito ay para sa mga masa,
Sa lahat ng ibinaon ng sistema…
Sa lahat ng mahilig sa lab song at drama . . .
Sa lahat ng fans ni Sharon Cuneta,
Sa lahat ng may problema sa pera.

And this is why I consider the Eraserheads the best band in Philippine history. They were brave and unapologetic but they also understood. They’re almost too fucking intelligent for their own good and their titanium-assed determination to write music was never compromised. The Eheads knew that their next few albums will never be the spectacle that was ultraelectricmagneticpop! They knew that they would be leaving behind multitudes of fans (and vice versa) but in the end, their loyalty was to music. And I’m guessing that this was the same loyalty that led to the break-up of the band. Maybe each of them had a different vision of what music to write or perform and had to follow opposite musical paths. I’m making this all up of course because I want a happy ending in my head. And I know they’re all out there with new bands, but it’s just not the same.

Eraserheads Anthology ends with a previously unreleased track, “Sa Tollgate”, a relaxed, middle-of-the-road song. We’re all in a pick-up truck driving nowhere, uncertain but happy. We should all be so lucky.

– Thor Balanon

Holiday (Magnetic Fields, 1994)

In American, Indie Pop, Summer Albums, Thor Balanon on April 13, 2010 at 9:43 am

Chirpy, effulgent, with a love that goes on like a blister in the sun, Holiday is Stephin Merritt’s shiningest, but also one of the band’s most overlooked masterpieces. Far from the romantic-depressive mood swings of the much-lauded 69 Love Songs, Holiday is unabashedly blushing from the heat of attraction that summer brings: Under more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand / Our hair in the air / Our lips blue from cotton candy / When we kiss it feels like a flying saucer landing. From circumnavigating desert islands to kissing in the dank libraries of London, Merritt paints a holiday that’s swashbucklingly romantic and stubbornly unforgettable. There’s foolishness in the grand gestures but what is summer but a time for foolishness, when one can always blame the sun for a lover’s blindness?

Unhappiness is treason, Merritt croons in “Strange Powers”, almost drowning in hopscotching synths. How about we follow the law this time, eh?

– Thor Balanon

♪ Back in Time (Clazziquai, 2009) ♪

In Electronica, South Korean, Summer Songs, Thor Balanon, Track Reviews on April 13, 2010 at 9:40 am

Summer’s got nothing on me. I don’t do crowds so I rarely hit the beach. I don’t drive so road trips are nothing much more than a slightly gay, a little suicidal fantasy. Still, in those rare afternoons when it’s too hot to complain about the heat, I play Clazziquai’s “Back in Time”. Summer’s when I get down with sloth, and the track’s lazy trance, with a whiff of the salty Ibiza riff but held back by Alex’s syrupy Korean-English mumbling, is perfectly indifferent. The house beats threaten to burst, always a second shy from exploding. A static promise. Not excitable but giddy, the possibility more promising than what can possibly happen.

– Thor Balanon

Download “Back in Time”

Tonight Not Again: Live at Eagles Ballroom (Jason Mraz, 2004)

In Alternative Rock, American, Concert, Pop, Thor Balanon on February 4, 2010 at 6:00 am

Sexy scatting and swelling brass breathe new la-la-la-life to familiar songs. When Jason Mraz opens his mouth, people listen. Whether he’s gushing about robots, goofing around, or singing, we can’t help but listen. Especially when he sings. His music, which ranges from pop-rock to folk-jazz, is an acquired taste. Though singles like “The Remedy” and “Sleep All Day” show his knack for writing catchy choruses that effortlessly soar above standard radio fare, his other, more adventurous songs like the brooding “Tonight, Not Again” never got the attention it deserved. After getting a copy of his major record label debut, Waiting for My Rocket to Come, I dutifully rummaged for his back catalogue and wasn’t surprised to find a few self-produced live albums.

His live, acoustic set, recorded in 2001, brings forward the soulful side of Mraz. He breezes through his songs lazily; the scat rolls from his mouth like alcoholic honey. Most of the songs featured in the 2001 live disc didn’t make it to Waiting for My Rocket Come probably because of the meandering, jazz arrangements. But what the songs lacked in polish, Mraz’s performance made up for in spontaneity.

Tonight Not Again: Jason Mraz Live at the Eagles Ballroom is Mraz finally finding a seamless balance between his radio-friendly face and his image as a café jazz performer. The album opens with “Tonight, Not Again”, a slow, moody song on the consuming sadness of being alone that spirals downward to hushed desperation. It doesn’t seem like the smartest choice to begin an evening with but Mraz backs the minor chords with a gradually ascending horn section that simply lifts the song to a mocking celebration of isolation. From here on, everything familiar takes an unexpected— sometimes playful, sometimes ironic—turn. “You and I Both” becomes a laid-back acoustic number, while “Curbside Prophet” takes the bluesy alley, complete with a honky-tonk harmonica solo. The horn section takes center stage in “No Stopping Us”, making it a sweet day-in-the-park affair, but overdoes the mush. Mraz’s sexy scatting and lyric adlibs in the obligatory instrumental coda saves it from becoming a bland experiment. Chart-topper and sing-along favorite “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)” gets extra boost from the ecstatic bursts of brass.

It is in his older songs where Mraz truly shines. “1000 Things” is a softly swaying jazz-lite where Mraz scats sweetly slippery. “Common Pleasure” is pure jazz classic with its puh-puh-playful wordplay and blaring trumpet solo. Where most songs are reinvented, he retains the fragile melancholy of “Unfold”. When he sings And the words retreat breathing histories into stories untold / And I unfold, there is a silence that could only mean everyone is listening.

There are also two new tracks, essential to any Mraz fan, included in this live set: the funky “Not So Usual” and the strangely cheery break-up song “No Doubling Back”. The clear throbbing and heavy breathing, not to mention the controlled screaming, that can be heard in the excellent live recording makes this record almost as good as being in a Jason Mraz concert. Almost. Watching Mraz in action, rollerblading across the stage, seeing those sleepy eyes smile, is priceless. For everything else, there’s Tonight Not Again: Jason Mraz Live at the Eagles Ballroom.

– Thor Balanon

The World Is Saved (Stina Nordenstam, 2004)

In Alternative Rock, Pop, Swedish, Thor Balanon on January 9, 2010 at 5:08 pm

cold n. the sensation resulting from lack of warmth; chill.

There’s something about the idea of winter that makes me melancholy. The impossible whiteness of the landscape that covers whatever color survives is like a decidedly empty page, empty eyes that stare back at you. And emptiness is chilling. For most of us who grew up in a tropical country, this is the coldest we’ll ever feel—surveying a bare room, remembering a blank stare and regrets bouncing off empty walls. Growing up in Sweden, Stina Nordenstam is all too familiar with the cold and it’s no wonder that she writes music that is filled with pauses, echoing spaces and the soft whispers of falling snow.

cold adj. marked by errorless familiarity.

Her return to Stockholm for the recording of her 5th studio album The World Is Saved has resulted in a collection of songs that is immediately accessible yet surprisingly distant. Thirteen years of writing about longing, misery and death is finally taking its toll. Her high, breathy voice rings with the monotony of understanding. Despair is replaced by submission; raw pain with dull throbbing. The lack of inflection in her singing could very well be mistaken for boredom, or worse, a dying gasp. Her low sighs can’t muster the strength to bring to surface the blaring desperation, the rushing storm of emotions that her lyrics strongly deserve. They put a needle once in my spine / It took them so long to find it / I can’t get this porn film out of my head / Let’s get on with it, she sings flatly on the first track “Get On With Your Life”. Like a town buried in snow, everything beautiful and shattering about her words is obscured by Nordenstam’s flimsy singing and the album’s over-all wintry sheen.

cold adj. so intense as to be almost uncontrollable: cold fury.

Nordenstam’s musicians, who have delicately created a swirling soundscape of echoing bass lines, fluttering beats and inconsolable strings, salvage The World Is Saved. The arrangements are consistently stripped down; beginnings and endings blur, as the sweet, lulling melodies seem to evaporate—finally, sunshine. The spaces between the intersecting instruments help to create a an airy feel, the open window that allows the listener to catch his breath from the claustrophobic lyrics of Nordenstam.

Ultimately, The World Is Saved is still a masterpiece worthy of attention. Much like an ice sculpture, it is at once breathtaking and fragile. The coldness of Nordenstam’s worldview may oftentimes isolate, but it is the friction of loneliness and drifting melodies that create the spark that could be enough to keep an empty room on a stormy night warm.

– Thor Balanon

Strike Whilst the Iron is Hot (Orange and Lemons, 2005)

In Alternative Rock, Indie Rock, OPM, Richard Bolisay, Thor Balanon on January 9, 2010 at 8:10 am

Whilst aside, this is freshly squeezed Hotdogs-meets-Psychedelic Furs acoustic music to wake up to. Jangly in some parts, buzzing and Beatles-esque in others, surprisingly good most of the time. Surprising, really. Orange and Lemons’ debut was too derivative and predictable. Now, it’s catchyness with a twist, the catch being better refrains than choruses. “Umuwi ka na baby” stays with you, circumnavigates you.

– Thor Balanon

Seriously, Thor, have we listened to the same album? I thought Love in the Land of Rubber Shoes and Dirty Ice Cream is Orange and Lemons at their best—faux British accent and mushy lyrics aside, which, to be honest, is the surprising pair that makes it delicious—and the two albums that came after it are just spreading their arms to have some drizzle of Love in the Land‘s goodness.

It is no surprise that Strike is OnL’s most popular record—the album that defined their fifteen minutes of fame, and as if resisting anonymity, a few months after, they decided to release a repackaged version of the album, with a new cover art and new songs and music videos to boot, which includes the national anthem of local reality TV, the song that made and broke the band into chandeliers, the issue that became their fatal quicksand—and the rest is boring history. Strike is not a particularly remarkable album, it’s good, it has its moments, again Clem britishizes the odd and Mcoy foreplays the even, adorning it with mellow pop and some harmless gimmick, but a solid record anyhow, and another welcoming addition to the indie explosion of the noughties. But the album’s moment for me is when Mcoy sings the verses of “Lihim” like reading a diary, calm and never straining, sincere and single-minded, and as he comes to the refrain the story becomes every one’s story, like a romantic curse. “Lihim” is followed by “Chatter’s Tale”, a story of how mIRC made Clem a great lover in bed, which is equally good in a twisted way.

– Richard Bolisay

Four Songs (Alexi Murdoch, 2002)

In British, EPs, Folk, Indie Rock, Thor Balanon on January 9, 2010 at 4:41 am

Four reasons why you should pick this up:
1. Four songs, four stories. Tender lyricism without the mush.
2. Bryter than any remembered smile, the Nick Drake sparkle in the guitar playing is pure bliss.
3. Murdoch’s voice. Honeyed whiskey.
4. Orange Sky. “My salvation lies in your love.”

– Thor Balanon

♪ Lie (FT Island, 2009) ♪

In K-Pop, Thor Balanon, Track Reviews on January 8, 2010 at 8:50 am

FT Island’s move to pop-rock territory definitely paid off. By jumping off the bandwagon, they’ve gained a more interesting boyband personality, and the music is definitely less formulaic, allowing more styles to be explored (and hopefully, conquered). “Lie” is a mid-tempo ballad with a solid guitar backbone; the rapping provides an interesting counterpoint to the wrenching ballad vocals. If this is any indication of their work in the future, then I’m definitely on board.

– Thor Balanon

♪ Ring Ding Dong (SHINee, 2009) ♪

In K-Pop, R&B, Thor Balanon, Track Reviews on January 8, 2010 at 7:06 am

Ring-ding-dong. Digah-ding-ding-dong. It’s a song begging to be a ring tone, and I think it’s genius that what should have been electronic bleeps are sung with much seriousness. Strange and addictive. SHINee couldn’t have chosen a better single to get back on the K-Pop scene. My head is saying that there are too many things happening, that there is a melody buried under the dancey starts-and-stops, but my heart is saying otherwise: Just dance.

– Thor Balanon