Label: Innovative Leisure
Listen: Classixx : All You’re Waiting For (via SoundCloud)
Rating: 5/5 stars
Another warm, swirling, psychedelic, sonic cruise with dizzying atmospheric guitar hooks, washing over both brash and vulnerable sounding moody vocals from Aussie rock outfit Tame Impala. Taking cues from Innerspeaker track “Solitude Is Bliss”, Lonerism is an entire album about alienation and the power of one – what front-man Kevin Parker describes as “the idea of being someone who doesn’t feel part of the rest of the world”. Like Innerspeaker, there is comfort in this album’s nostalgia – a harmonic tribute to psychedelics pop past – with nods towards the Beatles, Hendrix and Floyd. But, Lonerism manages to ameliorate mere 60′s revisionist rock, and emerge intensely modern and new, with a sound quality only possible in 2012. Both larger in scope and sound than it’s predecessors, Lonerism drives it’s influences into an entirely new direction, making it the most immersive albums of the year.
Listen : Tame Impala : Feels Like We Only Go Backwards (via SoundCloud)
Rating: 5/5 stars
Leeds quartet Alt-J (aka ‘triangle’, aka △) not only wrote one of the most diverse and addictive albums of 2012, but successfully created a new “non-genre” genre. Exploring a variety of music styles, including pop, folk and R&B, Alt-J masterfully piece together a beautifully rounded puzzle of style and influences. Nasally, blues-like vocals gush over dark, fuzzed-out bass -lines, guitar scratching, island beats and intricate vocal harmonies that are never short on literary references or imagery and never feel over-complicated or too ambitious.
Listen : Alt-j : Fitzpleasure(remix)
Listen : Alt-j : An Awesome Wave (viaSoundCloud)
Rating: 5/5 stars
After a long three year hibernation, Grizzly Bear awakes, evolved, lurching with a thundering new record and some teeth. A record, as much about coming together as it is about falling apart, Shields is an unpredictable album that re-defines the band’s group dynamics and takes comforts in it’s own imperfections. Showcasing guitarist Daniel Rossen‘ s expressive six-string style and “psychedilic tempest” songwriting abilities, this album is a stormy swirl of aggressive guitar swells building into roaring climaxes that is quite unpredictable. But while it explores a wide range of themes, textures and sounds, it is ultimately the unpredictability that makes Shields such a rewarding listen.
Listen : Grizzly Bear : Yet Again (viaSoundCloud)
Rating: 5/5 Stars
Longtime Miami indie Goddess Chan Marshall was born again in 2012 with a short, cropped, breakup haircut and the first Cat Power album of original material in over six years. Transformed by her struggles as an artist, Marshall revisits her roots and comes into her own with this collection of moody, bluesy, songs layered by drum machines, synths and beautiful background vocals, which help showcase Marshall’s seductive, whispered croons and clever wordplay. If that isn’t enough, Marshall raps on the album and there is a surprise appearance from Iggy pop in the middle of the ten-minute Velvet Underground homage ”Nothin But Time”.
Listen : Cat Power : Ruin
Rating: 4/5 stars
Label: Dead Oceans
Back with a second album of thoughtful new themes, Sun Airway’s Soft Fall, out October 2nd on Dead Oceans, takes us to an ethereal layer between worlds. The sonically inspiring sub-strata of Soft Fall began in songwriter/producer Jon Barthmus’ house in Philadelphia. Classical foundations were chopped, dissected, and sewn back together by a string quartet in one recording studio, with live instruments overdubbed in another, then re-edited and assembled back at home by Barthmus. David Wrench (Caribou, Bat for Lashes, Bear in Heaven) took it all to new heights with some masterful mixing.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Continuing their open-ended and forward-thinking music policy, the next release on OWSLA sees the label pull another left turn as they welcome veteran French DJ/producer collective Birdy Nam Nam to the fold. Vocals on two tracks are done by the legendary Teki Latex, head honcho of Sound Pellegrino and member of French electro/hip-hop outfit TTC. Across four albums and numerous EPs, the quartet made up of Crazy B, Pone, Need and Lil’ Mike have persevered in their efforts to push new sounds, epitomizing the label’s anything goes approach. The Jaded Future EP features three original productions from the crew as they use their hip hop background as a jumping off point to explore different refractions of their multi-faceted sound and comes backed with a varied array of remixes.
Title track ‘Jaded Future’ sees the group laying down thick synth waves over a skittering 808 southern-style beat, warping the melodies and vocals with trademark turntable manipulations to give the track its swing. The track gets handled by UK rap upstarts Foreign Beggars who re-wire the original, swapping verses dexterously over a low-slung instrumental, while thePelican Fly remix takes the stripped down rap fundamentals and reworks them into an amorphous club instrumental.
Up next ‘Goin’ In’ heads directly for the floor, ramping the energy with its jarring rhythm, descending synths and pitched-down vocals. Label head Skrillex turns in two remixes here (his first since the legendary Levelstake); his ‘Goin’ Down’ mix (the title being homage to Yung Joc’s 2007 trap classic) supercharges the original with siren-like synths, staccato snares and 808 bass while his ‘Goin’ Hard’ mix ups the tempo as he fires off a snarling drum & bass production with breaks, razor -sharp synths and rampant energy. The track also gets the remix treatment from fellow countryman and Clek Clek Boom main man French Frieswho reworks it into a deep and deadly percussive banger.
Rounding out the EP is ‘Cadillac Dreams’, a syrupy joint that pairs lush, expansive pads with screwed vocals. Culprate’s restless rework jumps from swinging rap to rapidfire breakcore percussion and back without ever losing its footing while A$AP Rocky collaborator Soufien 300 completes the package staying true to the spirit of the original while drawing it out into a languorous G-Funk haze.
Rating: 5/5 stars
No one could accuse Dirty Projectors leader David Longstreth of doing the same thing twice. Swing Lo Magellan is a poetic art-pop album, matching warm and personal music with outlandish intellectual ideas that is eclectic, without being esoteric. For a band constantly experimenting with their own sound, this album is no exception. More “beat-driven” and accessible than any Dirty Projectors previous albums, Longstreth has cited a slew of influences here, ranging from Nirvana, Lil Wayne, Michael Jackson, Neil Young, En Vogue, Blind Willie Johnson to classical composers Arnold Schoenberg and György Ligeti…and maybe even a little Dylan.
Listen : Dirty Projectors : Gun Has No Trigger (via SoundCloud)
Rating: 5/5 stars
If ’sleep is a welcome gadget’ for Canadian electro-pop duo Purity Ring, then Shrines is what pop dreams are made of. Together, Corin Roddick and Megan James blaze fearlessly into the future with clean pop melodies that conjure surreal dreamscapes of the arcane. Roddick lays out a dense ephemeral fog of sensual beats underscored by Megan James fearful and fragile voice, driven by corporeally obsessed lyrics that are appealing to both hip-hop and french house enthusiasts, alike. On Shrine, Purity Ring utilize technology to create a sound that is, surprisingly, the complete antithesis to the future – an album more about bodies, than computers.
Listen: Purity Ring : Ungirthed
Listen: Purity Ring : Lofticries
Listen: Purity Ring : Obedear
Listen: Purity Ring : Fineshrine
Rating: 4/5 stars
Bravestation may be the future of indie pop. The latest worldbeat torch bearers combine the ambient textures and spaced-out guitars of New Wave sheen with vibrant harmonies and tribal percussion to achieve a sound both immediately familiar and new…with mystery.
Back in 2010, the band released a self-recorded/produced EP, which i(heart)music called “one of the best albums of the year…occupying a space somewhere between The National and The Killers,” and The Toronto Star lauded for its “airy, sidewinding mini-epics”.
Equally acquainted with Foals and Fear of Music, this quirky “tribal pop” Toronto foursome have released their debut album – Giant’s & Dreamers. With ‘Giants & Dreamers’, Bravestation dive even deeper into their realm of sonic exploration and imagination. The song-writing and recording process began over a year ago, with each member capturing ideas in isolation on their home computers; the resulting demos shared in a communal online space for collective sculpting. An independent one month tour of the United Kingdom in June 2011, following an invitation to play the main stage at North-East England’s largest music festival, Evolution (alongside Iggy and The Stooges, Two Door Cinema Club & The Kills), provided a great opportunity to road test the new material in front of a foreign audience; before returning to Toronto to finish the album in basements, bedrooms and Canterbury Studio. This constantly shifting discourse led to the revisiting and reshaping of ideas over time which contributed to the new material’s unique complexity – adventurous artistry, filled with visions of fantasy and a future that struggles between dystopia and utopia.
The album, including recent singles ‘Western Thrills’, ‘Tides of the Summit’ and ‘Signs of the Civilized’, can be streamed on the band’s Bandcamp page. If you missed the videos for ‘Signs of the Civilized’ and ‘Western Thrills’, these can be seen on the band’s YouTube page.
Rating: 5/5 stars
Label: Italians Do It Better
Portland’s Chromatics are yet another band to return to the 2012 musical landscape, after a long hiatus. Matured and introspective and heavier on male vocals, Kill For Love plays out like a warm ocean breeze after dark – a long way from the band’s punk inspired beginnings. With haunting guitar riffs, simple synths, gentle vinyl crack sounds and a re-named Neil Young cover that opens the album, Chromatics craft a dark and beautiful album with cinematic scope.
Listen : Chromatics : Into the Black
Listen : Chromatics : Kill for Love (via SoundCloud)
Rating: 2.5/5 stars
Label: Polyvinyl Records
Of Montreal veterans may approach this album, as I did, with excitement and expectations for a mélange of bold, curious, and catchy tunes. Instead, Paralytic Stalks – their eleventh album – presents itself as a challenging patchwork of peculiar hymns and raw lyrical admissions, sprinkled with a few catchy hooks.
Those who became acquainted with the band in their early days as part of the Elephant 6 Collective know that evolution is nothing new to Of Montreal. What may surprise, though, is just how far Paralytic Stalks strays from the accessible, indie-pop ballads of yore, like The Party’s Crashing Us Now.
Kevin Barnes, the multi-talented vocalist and instrumentalist behind this nine-track album, pushes the envelope to extremes in this genre-bending release that ambles from gaudy ‘70s disco to pseudo-country twang. It’s apparent from track one that Barnes has used this album as a personal therapy session, unleashing his innermost thoughts as if he’s on the therapists’ couch.
Spiteful Intervention starts off with a somber, imposing verse before segueing to an energetic, camp chorus. Despite the melodic shift changes, Barnes maintains his classic party trick of juxtaposing morose lyrics on a twee musical background as he exclaims, “I spend my waking hours haunting my life / I made the one I love start crying tonight / And it felt good”. If you’re head-bobbing to the beat then these tidbits of penance may easily slip by, but they shouldn’t because this is what Of Montreal does best.
Next, you’re time warped to the age of disco in Dour Percentage, which draws heavy influence from the Bee Gees. Fast-paced, energetic and bordering on disco- bubblegum pop, Barnes emulates the signature falsetto voices of the brothers Gibb to a tee. The track stands out from others in that it is enjoyably chipper, if a bit ridiculous. Fans of the band’s older track ‘Brush, Brush, Brush’ will appreciate this ditty and have it stuck in their heads in no time.
A recurring theme across the album is that of love and honesty about relationships – including that of Barnes’ wife, Nina. We Will Commit Wolf Murder is the mesmerizing masterpiece of the album. With so much puzzling anarchy, this is one of the few songs that is very well structured. Barnes writes an open letter of love and yearning as he croons the line, “Lately you’re the only dancer I believe in” with an emotional credibility that leaves the heart heavy. It manages to tightrope beautifully between soft cantos and energetic bridges to create a symphony that is simultaneously galvanizing and analgesic.
The theme of love continues in Malefic Dowery, which describes a relationship that has turned mundane over time, evidenced by the lyrics “Now we’re a bore, we’re afternoon TV”, sung with palpable resignation. As the song reaches its peak, Barnes hauntingly sings “Once more I turn to my crotch for counsel / and it won’t disappoint me”, leading to questions of what might have been in his bloodstream.
The closing track, Ye, Renew the Plaintiff, moves away from the more sober songs above into an angry, jumpy piece that is nearly nine minutes long. Dedicated to Barnes’ wife, this honest tune reads like a diary entry before ending with a two minute long kaleidoscopic outro. While making this song was probably cathartic for Barnes, it’s more than a chore to listen to as you trudge through his sonic mental
Barnes has stated in interviews that Paralytic Stalks is meant to be taken in its entirety. The overall experience of the album leaves no grey zone. Patience to process it as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts, might be asking a lot of most listeners. Bottom line: you’ll either find it avant-garde and eccentric, or messy and unmerciful.
Rating: 5/5 stars
Label: Sub Pop
Beach House’s Alex Scally describes Bloom as “a huge crystal, spinning in a cave with Star Wars figurines.” The quintessential summer album, Bloom is heavy on melody – elevating the bands breezy sonic themes into an intoxicating collection of atmospheric organ and reverb-drenched guitar songs, still grounded by the bands signature vocals.
Listen : Beach House : Myth (via SoundCloud)
Rating : 5/5 Stars
Label: Fat Possum
Spaceman Pierce has landed. Sweet Heart Sweet Light may amount to the best (certainly, the most accessible) Spiritualized album since 1997′s pill-infected Ladies and Genteman We Are Floating in Space. A surprisingly uplifting eulogy to classic rock’n’roll, elevated by sweeping church orchestras and choirs. This is less of a departure album, and more a refined statement. The album art, Huh?refers to Jason Pierce’s mental state while mixing this album over an eight-month brain-fogging hospital stint, fighting degenerative liver disease with experimental chemotherapy treatment. Rebounding from the experience, Pierce emerges anew – crystal clear and grounded. Singing, once again, about Jesus, fast cars, pimps, fire, pain, death and depression, but this time around with both feet on the ground.
Listen : Spiritualized : Hey Jane (via SoundCloud)
Rating: 5/5 stars
Label: Fat Possum Records
While most husband-and-wife indie pop duos can induce nausea, Denver’s buzz band Tennis, deliver effortless lo-fi beach pop that is as romantic as the nautical adventure spawning the duos collaboration. Produced by Patrick Carney (The Black Keys), Young and Old is grounded in a retro sensibility that surfaces extra layers of vocal harmonies, jangly guitars and 60′s organ from beneath the fuzz pedal. A sincere sophomore effort that maintains the simple songwriting beauty of Cape Dory – a collection of songs about love, loss and inertia. But, this time around, there is much more anxiety and volume, ensuring each song has more depth and texture.
Listen : Tennis : Take Me Somewhere (viaSoundCloud)
No one is able to share spot-on observations about indie/punk/rock show culture and speak-sing about it, in as interesting a way as Craig Finn.
The voice of Lifter Puller, The Hold Steady, and most recently, Craig Finn and Some Guns – the 41 year-old Brooklyn-ite, by way of the the Twin Cities and Beantown, is by far one of the most entertaining, interesting and smartest songwriters of the last 10 years. A former punk club-poet/bar-band bard from Minnesota, Craig Finn moved to New York, formed The Hold Steady, and spun a musical career waxing philosophical about life, death, drugs, girls, God and personal survival – flawlessly enunciating every word over timeless classic rock-inspired bar band riffs, rhythms, and melodies.
Craig Finn’s lyrics and sound are ideally crafted for long, lazy, summer road-trips, hopping in and out of no-name corner bars and sun-drenched music-festivals, gunning down late-night vices and secret lovers. Sounding less like a washed-out, lo-fi, indie-popster drifting towards the beach, Finn is Kerouac’s Sal Paradise embodied – watching the American landscape zoom, and blur past, in a drunken montage of brilliant color.
On Clear Heart Full Eyes – the solo album recorded during a five-month break from The Hold Steady, Craig Finn delivers THE definitive Winter record. A collection of distinctively American tales of woe, broken promises, shattered dreams and heartache, accompanied by eerie, twangy, lap-steel guitar and alt. country swirls, that come together to conjure a barren, winter sky…but stay Positive! Finn sure is. In fact, Finn can’t help himself from staying positive. Even when it sounds like his heart has been broken, he’s lost a friend or his faith, Finn’s clever wordplay gleams light into these gloomy tales, which, in the end shine with possibility – as does the album.
– Casey Bowers
Album – Craig Finn : Clear Heart Full Eyes
Label – Full Time Hobby
Release date: January 24, 2012
Rating – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Release date: October 11, 2011
Label: Thril Jockey
We Were Promised Jetpacks: In the Pit of the Stomach
Label: Fatcat Records
Release date: October 4, 2011
When people think of Scotland, three things come to mind – kilts, haggis and the Loch Ness monster. This is a fact and to be honest, it’s quite comprehensive. But after spending a decade living there one year, I quickly realised that beyond prehistoric urban myths and (surprisingly delicious) sheep innards, Scotland has a thriving music scene with a wealth of burgeoning talent and a handful of next-big- things.
For the uninitiated, We Were Promised Jetpacks (WWPJ) build on the reputation of fellow countrymen, like Belle and Sebastian and The Fratellis, falling somewhere along the spectrum between the formers’ poetic melancholy and the latters’ sanguine sing-alongs. Their debut album, These Four Walls (2009), put the Edinburgh-based quartet on the map, seeing them tour America and later open for Jimmy Eat World. Several singles achieved commercial success and served as soundtrack fodder for U.S. TV shows and a film (okay, so it was Hall Pass, but still).
The big question, as with most second albums, is whether In the Pit of the Stomach is a display of maturity or a sophomoric slump.
The opening track, “Circles and Squares”, starts with a cacophonous intro and immediately it’s apparent that compared to These Four Walls, vocalist Adam Thompson is lacking his former energy and passion. Confusingly, it somehow manages to gracefully evolve and ramp up to a powerful crescendo. The reward is a beautiful, contemplative instrumental ending that ultimately saves the song. Nonetheless, noticeable dissonance at Track #1 is never a good thing.
“Act on Impulse” is arguably one of the best tracks on the album. The addictive opening of punchy guitar riffs and drumming goes on for over two minutes and is gentle, upbeat and calming. An ethereal cadence and the songs’ raw lyrics show just what WWPJ is capable of, proving also that Thompson does indeed have the ability to stir emotions without needlessly yelling.
Expectations are lowered in “Through the Dirt and the Gravel”, which is chaotic and frenetically paced. Thompson’s vocals are grating and dispirited; one gets the feeling he can’t wait for this song to end either. While bassist Sean Smith and guitarist Michael Palmer struggle to salvage and inject some much-needed energy, the track sounds like something from a high school battle of the bands.
If you listen to just one song on In the Pit of the Stomach, make it “Sore Thumb”. This autumnal anthem is a modern-day lullaby for 21st century youth. To the social media weary, the indifferent, the young-and-already-blasé, and the confused and searching – this song is yours. It magically encapsulates the orchestral grandeur of Arcade Fire and fuses it with the strengths and personality of WWPJ, notably the exuberance that was abundant in their debut album. The result is nothing short of a poignant indie masterpiece fit for heavy rotation.
Like my year abroad in Scotland, the album avoids any middle ground, favouring an emotional rollercoaster approach instead. Thrilling highs or dramatic lows. Love or hate. Fish or chips. So what’s the verdict – sophomore slump or does WWPJ soar up into the strata? It’s actually not easy to tick either box definitively. In the Pit of the Stomach lacks the gumption and cohesiveness of These Four Walls, which was full of youthful vigor. It is decidedly the awkward, evolving adolescent phase of the band, and while there are moments of beauty and revelation, the underlying discordance shows that WWPJ are still finding their feet. But then, aren’t we all?
The real weight of Cox’s work comes from the sense of isolation he creates on Parallax. Where most albums involve the world outside the artist, this album feels completely on its own, a summary of Cox’s stream-of-consciousness style of song writing and perfectly arranged instrumentals. While piecing the tracks together doesn’t necessarily reveal a coherent story or theme, the tone and rhythm of each song, strings together in movie score-esque pattern. Infectious guitar chords on “The Shakes” are echoed deep within the closing track “Nightworks,” in a tangentially related but familiar way. There’s a pattern to so much of Cox’s work, but it’s never boring or predictable. The subtle piano keys on “Mona Lisa” differentiate it from the rest of the album, but the same guitar effects are present along with Cox’s echoing vocals.
The album’s highlight, which truly showcases Cox’s ability to arrange and perform a song, is “Te Amo.” One of the best tunes this year, “Te Amo” has a simple lyrical structure, but is amazingly complex and breathtaking when taken as as a whole.The scaling piano keys at the beginning are entrancing, compounded by the slam of a drum that all lead into the explosion of Cox’s vocals. “We’ll have such strange dreams,” Cox sings in the third verse, the tune, by this time, having fallen into a hypnotic pace. On its own, the tune is perfect. But even as it transitions to the next track on the album, you can hear how it fits perfectly within the context of the rest of the album. And that’s where “Te Amo” excels: in its ability to stand alone as a great single, without retracting from the contained experience of Parallax.
There’s usually little to be learned from an album’s cover art, but Parallax has a story to tell. Cox, grabbing the microphone, standing half-lit and alone, is presented in his truest form. While his other projects also flourish, Cox is at his best when solo, left unaffected by outside voices and concerns. His ability to write hermetically, and at the rate and range at which he does, proves Cox to be an important, if fringe, member of the modern music scene. Parallax challenges current experimental pop music’s tropes and habits, vastly exceeding all expectations as one of the best albums this year, and certainly the best of Cox’s already-storied career.
– Erik Burg
Label: What’s Your Rupture
Release date: June 21, 2011
Anger, anxiety, maladjustment and nihilism are all impulses that legions of teenagers combat daily. In Copenhagen, four teens are not merely scrapping against these demons, but waging an outright war on them.
Meet Iceage: a Danish punk outfit, whose rowdy live shows have delineated them the poster children for a “new cult of violent youth” – just have a scroll through the bloody post-show photos on their blog.But their new album New Brigade, substantiates the band as much more than a group of gashed-head exhibitionists and young, brash, noise makers. In a musical climate so over-run with baby-soft indie pop, New Brigade is a refreshingly angry, visceral exercise in contained chaos and high-octane energy output. The album is a post-punk call of arms for loners and anarchists, alike, and easily one of the best punk records I’ve heard in years.
[rating: 5 stars]
M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Release date: October 18, 2011
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is twenty-two tracks of flawlessly crafted synth, drenched in intrepid, day-glo, art-pop scenery, barring a wasted moment. What M83 (Anthony Gonzalez) has accurately described as “Very, very, very epic.”
The double-album experience marks M83’s sixth record release, and an ambitious one at that. Siting Billy Corgan’s twenty-eight-track, nine times platinum, alternative magnum opus Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, as inspiration, more evoking of The Breakfast Club Soundtrack, Anthony Gonzalez, forges his ongoing love affair with dreams and the magical escapism of his youth into seventy-four minutes of bittersweet nostalgia, reconciled through epic dance jams. The result, is a very long, polished bedroom recording, you can bounce and sway to, contrived as a listener album, not a consumer.
Thematically, this is an album romanticizing youth; utter isolation, ecstatic joy, heartbreak and self-discovery. The first record follows one character’s longing for a relationship to finding love (even if it only lasts two songs), through a period of self-mourning, and new dawn and redemption.
While this is very much a unified album, almost every song on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming beautifully occupies a space all it’s own. The stand-out single and notably, one of the most redeeming singles of the year, “Midnight City”, is a humid, adrenaline-driven dream of a song, unlike any of M83’s previous work. Here, Gonzales’ voice is extremely compelling, less of a whisper than usual and more of a throaty cry, as eerie vocal harmonies, haunting sub-textures and synthetic strings adeptly sweep you into a highly danceable urban groove, swimming in broken neon light. M83’s signature dream pop aesthetics are all here, but each track feels larger and more bombastic than ever. “Reunion” is an effective track, ruminating on familiar territory from 2008’s Saturdays=Youth; nostalgia for youth, only this time around with heavier soaring synths. And, there is no better example for magnifying the familiar than on “Wait”, with it’s wistful Pink Floyd-like acoustic guitar riff, and high-pitched vocals elevating the song into something bigger and better than any songs off Gonzale’ previous albums.
Hurry up, We’re Dreaming, like almost every “indie” album recorded this year, adopts nostalgia as the basis from which to create, but what makes Gonzalez unique is his ability to dig deeper into the music and memories of his youth and not only move forward with it, but transcend it.
St. Vincent: St. Vincent
Label: 4ad Records
Release date: September 13, 2011
Annie Clark is a woman of almost painterly beauty who would, in all likelihood, cut a bitch if she needed to. Beneath her gracefully composed chamber pop lies a scratchy, violent underbelly. With Strange Mercy, Clark achieves the perfect balance of porcelain elegance and distorted ugliness she’s spent three albums working to hit. Serrated guitar and some seriously agitated synthesizers—the coda of “Surgeon” sounds like something off a particularly wigged-out Bernie Worrell record—rip straight through strings, woodwinds and Clark’s own crystalline voice, leaving fractures in the delicate arrangements that take on a skewed sort of loveliness themselves.
– Matt Singer
[rating: 5 stars]
Bon Iver: Bon Iver
Release date: June 21, 2011
When Justin Vernon holed himself up in a remote cabin, writing For Emma, Forever Ago, there is no way he could have foreseen the span of impact his album would exonerate, nor could anyone else. Like a folk story echoed from generations ago, the goal was to hibernate and purge a year of personal trouble, pain, lack of perspective, heartache, longing, love, loss and guilt into a deeply affecting nine-song avalanche of gorgeous, fragile catharsis. A year later, he would be taking calls from Kanye West, summoned for an indie all-star team recording eighties inspired love songs, releasing an auto-tuned EP, and closing Coachella.
After three years, Bon Iver, Bon Iver arrives into a world not only aware of it’s conception, but anticipating it’s birth with yearning. Thankfully, fans of Vernon’s lauded but comparatively skeletal predecessor albums, will not be disappointed. Bon Iver, Bon Iver masterfully combines the fruit of these labors,“bringing it all back home”. Like For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon’s unmistakably earthy voice feels warm and personal amidst the minimalist composition residue lingering on this album; the organic sound of drumsticks bumping together, fingers sliding along a fretboard, all nestled inside a new collection of quietly introspective folk songs like “Holocene” and “Towers”. The guitar at the beginning of “Holocene” is even reminiscent of Vernon’s pre-Bon Iver solo track “Hazelton” and there are post-rock echoes of Vernon’s experimental side-project Volcano Choir on songs like “Perth”, which transcends conventional verse and song structure. Even more, striking comparisons can be drawn to the Blood Bank EP, whose auto-tune legacy is, once again, re-visited with surprisingly tactful results.
But, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is built on a much more vibrant and lush linchpin than anything prior. These arrangements are more sophisticated and robust, and flourish from a consistent reciprocity of warm, beatific instrumentation consolidated by studio finesse. On the dramatic “Wash.”, Vernon’s virtuosic falsetto co-exists elegantly alongside the steady rhythm of keys before being tirelessly joined by separate layers of bold instruments punctuated by horns and synth. The song titles on Bon Iver, Bon Iver are named for, or reference actual locations; a wash of memories from places visited or dreams of places to go. But unlike Band of Horses or Sufjan Stevens, these songs are less about the geography or culture of specific locations and more about breaking away to a state of mind; living outside yourself and finding beauty in that space.
For an album written about escape, Bon Iver, Bon Iver puts forth a valiant effort at staying the course.
BATTLES: GLOSS DROP
LABEL: WARP RECORDS
RELEASE DATE: JUNE 6, 2011
How many bands can you think of that lost their lead singer and didn’t completely fold? Probably not many. But for Battles, the show goes on after the departure of Tyondai Braxton, the central figure of 2007’s break-out album Mirrored. As you’d expect after such a line-up overhaul, Gloss Drop is noticeably different from its predecessor, though many of the qualities that made their debut such a hit are still at play: high energy, strong musicianship, and an abundance of addictive weirdness.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Braxton’s presence isn’t missed here, because it is. But the remaining members of the band – Ian Williams, John Stanier, and Dave Konopka – have done a fantastic job of brining in outside vocalists to complement their groove-heavy, mathematical-leaning sound. “Ice Cream,” a track that’s been kicking around for a while now, is one of the best examples of this, welcoming Matias Aguayo to the microphone to lay down crisp, almost ska-inspired vocals that wildly flirt with the frantic, rhythmic instrumentation. Later, the band collaborates with Gary Numan, Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino, and Yamantaka Eye on the elborate closer “Sundome”. And remarkably, these guest spots rarely sound like guest spots at all. Each of these artists blends so well- maybe it’s the production, maybe it’s the way the record was arranged, or maybe Battles just have keen ears for what precisely fits their aesthetic- that Gloss Drop sounds every bit as cohesive as Mirrored (even if there are less vocals.) It also helps that these featured artists were used in moderation. Only a quarter of the tracks have outside hires and each guest appearance is nicely bridged by the group’s quirky instrumentation, which prevents the album from sounding like an off-beat collaboration.
Yet, while there is no distinctly weak track on the album, there are, at points, moments that repeat, or songs that go on for longer than necessary. To put it another way, at times, Gloss Drop plays like a jam band with experimental, math-rock tendencies. “Futura” is one track where this really jumps out. For more than half it’s duration, the track is intense and gripping. But at some point around it’s final two minutes, the song starts to lose traction. The rhythms and cadences of the instrumentation might actually be duplicating but it sure sounds like that’s what’s happening. By no means does this wound the album as a whole, but it does grow sort of tiresome; just as it can be exhausting to hear a band stretch a three minute song into a 10 minute song in a live setting. It’s a bit of overkill- especially when a track like “Dominican Fade” proves they don’t always need to go the excessive route.
Most bands ravaged by turnover would have simply fallen off the face of the Earth, but it almost feels like the remaining members of Battles thrived on the challenge of picking up the pieces and carrying on. Depending on your own personal metrics, it’s entirely plausible to discover that this record is actually better than the first. It isn’t flawless, to be sure, but Battles have surely survived the wreckage with minimal scarringl with a successful album that asserts there’s more to come.
DAWES: NOTHING IS WRONG
LABEL: ATO RECORDS/ RED
RELEASE DATE: JUNE 7, 2011LABEL: ATO RECORDS/ RED
When Taylor Goldsmith rips into a staccato-laced solo toward the end of “Fire Away” on Dawes’ second LP, Nothing is Wrong, the band emphatically declares their expansion. With more time to write and focus their efforts, Dawes managed to honor their modern, Laurel Canyon country folk by adding moments of increased muscle and bright, new flourishes to their striking harmonies within a wider palette of sound. While“Fire Away” burns with more power live, here the track is subdued. Working withinthis template of reverent albums androcking live shows the band has, for the second consecutive time, created an album that crackles with pristine sound andcarries an instantly classic resonance in its powerful intimacy. Even the packaging and gatefold lyric book (in the vinyl version) echo the simple clarity that pulses through this band’s sound.
Nothing Is Wrong kicks off with“Time Spent in Los Angeles,” a nearperfect slice of quintessential Dawes that aches and echoes the struggle of sustaining relationships while living on the road. Lead singer and songwriter Taylor Goldsmith shines right off the bat, flaunting his uncanny ability to resolve a melody with the best. “My Way Back Home” is the first new example of a Dawes calling card on the new record. Plaintive, majestic and sincere, their ballads display an inherent musical patience. Couple this restraint with a vintage, honest heart andthe ability to craft warmly rich hooks, and surrender is only natural. Dawes couldn’t fake it if they tried.
It is rare for such a young band,drummer Griffin Goldsmith is only 20, to play with such earnest focus and pitch perfect tone. Music seems to float effortlessly from their core. And lyrically, Goldsmith continues to build a reputation forbeing wise beyond his years. Singing ina plaintive call on “My Way Back Home:”“If I can place it all together /Make out the nature of the call / I start to feel the love and the silence / That was always at theroot of it all.”
“Coming Back to a Man” was originally played as a ballad at the tailend of the North Hills tour, but now hasmore of a barnstorming, country feel to it due to its punchy drum work. The bounce and the timeless harmonies of “How Far We’ve Come” signal a progression forthe band. Like the perfect soundtrack for an intimate pool-side barbecue, the song unfolds in such a delightfully ageless waythat its catchy phrases, warm piano, and buoyant hum simply feel like home. Letout a celebratory sigh as the band sings “The only point of clocks and maps / The only point of looking back / Is to see howfar we’ve come.”
“Moon in the Water” strongly suggests a nod to a 70’s singer-songwriter style reminiscent of Jackson Browne with more gorgeous piano work and a melody that slowly seeps in. It is a track that exemplifies Nothing is Wrong’s ability tofoster deeper appreciation after repeated listens. Because the strong songwritingrelies on traditional country rock structures,but imbues them with lucid, melodic work and incandescent harmonies, some songs only reveal their true powerin time. An easy-going playing style is afactor as well. Their style doesn’t try toimpress with technical flourishes, rather itslowly burrows into your pores with narya note wasted or misplaced.
Dawes’ talents have recently been stamped by two rock legends thattapped the LA youngsters as a backingband for hire. Robbie Robertson askedthe four-piece to help him promote Howto Become Clairvoyant, his first LP in 20 years, and Laurel Canyon-icon Jackson Browne lined them up to support him onan upcoming tour of Spain. Those gigs,coupled with an opening slot on Alison Krauss and Union Station’s “comeback”tour, rave reviews from national and underground publications, and a burgeoning reputation as a full throttle live band, has Dawes primed to thrive. With Nothing is Wrong’s ability to fire poignant and lasting musical arrows straight from a heartof gold, Dawes signals they are here tostay.
– Chirs Calarco
For me, YACHT has always beenone of those bands that is better in myhead than in reality. That isn’t a slight,mind you. See, Mystery Lights is a solidrecord, but it’s easy for judgment toremain unclouded when the phenomenal“Ring the Bell” and “The Afterlife” areyour memory’s sticking points. And so,with such great tracks as benchmarks,the excitement of gearing up to listento the band is often disproportionate tothe consistency of the catalog. But withShangri-La, that disconnect has fadedsignificantly. In fact, while moving at amuch steadier pace, YACHT has comeup with their best work to date.
With this new record, YACHThasn’t so much reinvented its sound,but rather, better channeled the old one.Shangri-La remains heavy on percussionand electronics, and retains plenty of popelements, but it has managed to mature;to bring them all together cohesively,while shaking off much of the band’s tendencyto meander off into filler-country.With “Utopia” and “Dystopia,” the first twosongs on the tracklist and two of the bestcuts the band has ever recorded, YACHT lays all the necessary groundwork forwhat’s in store, both sonically and thematically.A glimpse of the album’s coverhelps drive home the songs’ thematicelements. The cover is a map full of roaringterrain and flowing rivers titled Utopia(er, VTO PIAE), which, along with someof these tracks – not just the first two,though those are the ripest examples -highlights exactly what the band aims todo: to use their music as a vehicle for amake-believe spot on the globe wherethings are just a little bit brighter, and alittle less hostile. And, like watching themiles drop on your GPS, listening tothese tracks steadily builds toward thedestination.
In many respects, Shangri-La isa lot like those old drugged up hippierecords that have since become synonymouswith Woodstock and tie-dyedpeace symbols. Though there are a lotof religious references, the lyrics don’tpreach; instead, they offer a welcoming‘whoever-you-are-and-whatever-youbelieve.’“Tripped & Fell in Love” is allabout cherishing family values, whichfits in nicely with some of the brother/sister sentiment sprinkled throughout the LP. And while it isn’t the premiere songon the album, “Paradise Engineering” isthe most apt example of what’s happeningon Shangri-La. This is also the mostLCD Soundsystem-esque track from aband that has garnered comparisons tothe recently defunct outfit. On this track, Claire Evans rants and raves more thanshe sings, though her delivery is poisedand poignant. As the title suggests,she effectively spends this song layingout her proposal for a better livelihood,while inviting her listeners to join her.
YACHT has yet to fulfill all of itsenormous promise. But it’s taken marvelousstrides and formulated a brilliant poprecord; one full of imminently enjoyablemessages and melodies that no doubtdeserve repeated listens. And, if youare one of those people who look to thisband as a potential replacement for thenow-departed LCD Soundsystem, well,Shangri-La certainly instills hope. And ifyou aren’t, then, as this record suggests,you’re just as welcome so long as youcome in peace.
[rating: 4.5 stars]
Shabazz Palaces: Black Up
Label: Sub Pop
Release date: June 28, 2011
Black Up is a hip-hop album that sounds unlike any other hip-hop album this year. Borrowing from African roots, jazz, ambient, electronic and dub-step and led by enigmatic Seattle based rapper Ishmael Butler aka ‘Palaceer Lazaro’, once ‘Butterfly’ of Digital Planets, Black Upis both dense and dissonant. This is a sonic move reminiscent of early Wu-Tang and J-Dilla mixed with the atmospheric magic of DJ Shadow, sounding at once throwback but some how still miles ahead.
Release date: June 7, 2011
When something seems too good to be true, it likely is – or so goes the old adage. When “Go Outside,” the debut single from New York twosome Cults, was unearthed back in February 2010, the track elevated Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion to instant hype band status – but the question of how they might grow after such an impressive start remained. How could this pair, so heavily indebted to the bubbly radio pop of the 1960′s and 70′s, flesh out their sound and retain the same magic? Turns out, the answer is pretty simple: just stick to the script.
See, Cults aesthetic isn’t much of a mystery. Oblivion lays down the arrangements on a foundation of guitar and percussion, then rounds things out with an assortment of peripheral gear and technique that includes bells, xylophones, piano, and light distortion to simultaneously identify the sound with throwback hits of past generations and modern indie rock’s latest trends. Over all of this Follin’s sugary sweet voice floats, ripe with innocence and curiosity. Her style borrows from old Motown and R&B singles, often replicating the stuff you’d hear if you dropped a couple of quarters into one of those table jukeboxes they have at retro diners. But this is obvious – it’s the same stuff we heard on “Go Outside” that made us question sustainability in the first place. The thing that sells the band, that really ignites and extends the magic, is the hidden evil lurking behind their pretty, peppy, cuddly outer shell.
“Abducted,” a single released in April that went a long way towards proving the band wasn’t just going to be a one-off outfit, begins with chugging guitar and the sound of far-off voices. Later, similar voices resurface in the aforementioned “Go Outside,” as well as “Most Wanted,” and, easily an album standout, “Oh My God.” These voices, as it turns out, belong to neither Follin nor Oblivion, but rather to famous cult leaders Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and Patty Hearst. Coupled with lyrics about growing up, daunting feelings about a relationship’s nebulous future, and even substance abuse, the contrast between content and sound gives the band the sort of inner turmoil we appreciate in the characters from our favorite movies. Their seemingly innocent, playful melodies paint Cults as well-intentioned folks, but like the songs, dig a little deeper and you’ll find skeletons below the surface. This isn’t glorifying darkness though, but rather a reminder that sometimes wonderful things are born out of tumultuous events.
But on an album of phenomenal tracks, perfect for summertime, the best comes in the form of “Bumper,” a he said/she said song that analyzes a crumbling relationship from the perspective of both inside parties. Follin’s voice is great, but the effect gained from tossing the microphone back and forth is what really sets this song apart, giving it a sound unique to any other on the record (though it adheres to the general blueprint). It’s also chock full of great quotes: “I threw his shit on the floor,” Follin sings with the sauciness of a tried and true diva, while Oblivion snaps back, “she rushed me out the door.” Later, it gets better, with Folin reciting “I’ve had it up to here/I can’t take this anymore,” only to have Oblivion fire back with the hilarious and identifiable “if she’s this crazy now/there’s no telling what’s in store.” In between each of these exchanges, Follin’s vocals flutter around in re-verb in the background, simply offering up “la la la la la.” Again, it’s a whole dynamic of pretty sounds laced with venomous subjects that gives the band not only it’s identity, but also a fountain of ways in which to stretch that identity.
Any apprehensions about whether or not Cults could turn “Go Outside” into a successful, full-length should hastily be put to rest. In every feasible way, Cults punctuates the discussion. Not only that, but it illuminates a promise that Follin and Oblivion may have many more indelible, pop treasures still to come.
My Morning Jacket: Circuital
Label: ATO RECORDS / RED
Release date: May 31, 2011
Experiencing a band in a live setting is almost certain to change your relationship with their music. Of course, the way in which it might change isn’t static. A great show could ignite a long-lasting listening binge, while a sub-par outing could shelf a band’s records for a spell. But sometimes things can change in unsuspecting ways. For me, My Morning Jacket is an example of such a strange case. After seeing them play Merriweather Post Pavilion in May 2010 — a brilliant show by any measure — it become difficult to get back into their studio recordings. They have such a powerful live presence that, who knows, maybe listening to their albums couldn’t quite measure up. And so Circuital arrives in a unique way for me: a brand new album from a beloved band tasked with reigniting a love for all things studio, a record challenged by the lofty expectations of one sensational live performance.
My Morning Jacket named their new album Circuital because they viewed it as something of a return to a previous point in their careers. They returned to Kentucky — specifically a church gymnasium in Louisville — to record this one, landing them in a similar setting with familiar surroundings. Interestingly enough, depending on which song you’re listening to, the album sounds like one of two things: a quiet ode to the days of It Still Moves and Z or a confident respone to critics who dogged the exploratory sounds of Evil Urges. Even more interesting is that it’s the latter that leaves the biggest imprint, while the former mostly comes and goes without a whimper, sounding uninspired and repetitive.
“Victory Dance” is one track that reflects back on the band’s earlier days with success, building an entire song around triumphant horns that act as the soundtrack to a large scale celebration. But from then on, any attempt to replicate their past achievements seems fuzzy at best. The title track gets better and better with each listen but still can’t escape classification as a fairly standard Southern rock anthem, while “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” is a painfully cheesy slow burner that only highlights the way in which Jim James’ songwriting has changed over the years. Gone is the unbridled, unrivaled romanticism of “I Will Be There When You Die”, replaced by gushy swoons over places without disease and need for authority. The sentiment isn’t bad, but the way it’s all arranged makes it difficult to take seriously. Of course, at least it leaves a mark. “Slow Slow Tune” and “Movin’ Away”, which run out the album’s final nine-plus minutes, can’t say the same. A couple of other tributes to My Morning Jacket of the early-2000′s, these songs end the album doing what the band no longer does best. There was a time where the band was essentially James’ personal creative vessel, making the slower songs a lot more affective. Now though, as the band has grown and evolved, they’re much better suited for thicker instrumentation and grander arrangements. They can still knock a mellow tune out of the park here and there, but that’s not their predominant strength in 2011. For them to close out that way causes Circuital to fade away rather than burn out, an unfortunate turn for a band capable of so much more.
It’s not all disappointing though. In fact, there are some phenomenal songs on this album. Coincidentally, these are the ones where the band sounds as large as they’ve become, where they indulge their influences and play for a stadium rather than a smoky bar. “Outta My System” is a highlight, a compact radio-ready track with a defined climax and without wasted airspace. This one, unlike some of the slower throwbacks, operates with a pop aesthetic in mind, cutting straight to the point and crossing the finish line. It just feels like there’s less pretense going on. “Holdin’ on to Black Metal”, meanwhile, sounds like it could have come straight from the Evil Urges recording session, a potpourri track that takes some time to sink in, but ultimately winds up as one of the album’s most rewarding cuts. Along with “You Wanna Freak Out”, there are certainly highlights here. In fact, these three tracks are greatest hits material. The stuff around it though… well, that just mostly feels in the way.
Circuital feels like an album torn between two places. Clearly the group feel indebted to their roots, which means they’ve also got an appreciation for the fans that were with them from the start because of a certain sound. But at the same time, tracks like “Holdin’ On to Black Metal” (and everything they did on Evil Urges) suggest they don’t want to spin wheels either. They want to take their sound down different avenues — and clearly, they’re more than capable of doing it. It’s a difficult place for a band to find themselves in, loyal to home and intrigued by what the road has to offer. If Circuital is any indication, the time may have come to pack up once and for all and explore what the world has to offer.
The Antlers: Burst Apart
Label: Fake Four Inc.
Release date: April 26, 2011
One of the biggest mistakes a band can make is trying to replicate a truly monumental album. For The Antlers, Hospice represents their mecca: a singular narrative made up of equal parts beauty and emotional wreckage encapsulated flawlessly in its own unique moment in time. And so with the band’s fourth full-length, there is no chasing of elusive ghosts. Instead, Peter Silberman and company have crafted an entirely different memento of near-equal magnitude. They’ve called it Burst Apart.
Instead of chronicling one tale from different perspectives as they did on Hospice, Burst Apart is broken down into 10 smaller stories, some of which do borrow from common themes (references to dogs and teeth are prevalent). The songwriting certainly feels less ambitious than when we last heard from The Antlers, but that comes as a refreshing alteration rather than a frustrating one. Hospice was so affective that not only does the band need to step back from it, but listeners do as well. And to keep things in perspective, the writing on Hospice set the bar astronomically high. Still, the stories of Burst Apart stand as a testament to Silberman’s proficiency. “No Widows”, one of the many great sonic revelations on the album, sounds written from the perspective of a soldier isolated from family and friends overseas. “If I never get back home/there’s no garden overgrown/no widows in the walls/no widows left alone”, Silberman sings, as if the protagonist is trying to convince himself that not making it out of his situation and back home might not be so bad after all. As the song progresses, Silberman grabs the harmony by the shoulders and lifts it up, sending it soaring over the track. Indicative of literally every song here, there’s an otherworldly power to each note, vocal run, and arrangement.
With the stories pushed a bit to the background, the band have really put an impetus on expanding their sound. The biggest influence here, especially on the first two singles “Parentheses” and “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out”, is Radiohead, which isn’t a likeness that gets accurately thrown around often. These songs don’t just sound bigger, but they actually take on a dynamic, alien quality unlike anything the trio has done before. But even though they’ve magnified their sound — thicker layers, heavier percussion — their ability to make a stripped down song into something mountainous hasn’t withered, especially on the last four tracks. On “Corsica”, Silberman’s voice and the gentle, romanticized guitar strums that run up beside it take on a gorgeous echo as if the song were recorded from inside an enormous empty coliseum. Self-produced by Silberman and bandmates Michael Lerner and Darby Cicci, this song replicates some of the things that made the narratives of Hospice work so well: even though the instrumentation is held at a minimum, it sounds completely cavernous and expansive.
On the band’s profile over at the Frenchkiss Records website, there’s a bunch of quotes about how the new album came together and what the benchmarks were. Towards the end, Cicci is quoted as saying something that not only frames the record wonderfully, but attaches the perfect wording to it. “We want to draw people into the world of the record,” he says. And when you listen to it, that statement really crystallizes. Its sound and content might be different, but that’s because Burst Apart is an entity all unto its own: a captivating world brimming with a ravishing, hypnotic magnetism.
Paleo: Fruit of the Spirit
Label: Partisan Records
Release date: June 21, 2011
Strackany is another in a long line of folk singers who weren’t born with the suitable means to be technically proficient singers. Such a list has too many names to list, but right there at the top is Bob Dylan, owner of one of the most cringe-inducing voices in all of popular music history. But like Dylan, Strackany gets by. His words are often a shield against the sandpaper abrasiveness of his voice and his instrumentation, though off the beaten path of traditional American folk, is regularly enough a nice distraction. “Lighthouse,” the opening track on Fruit of the Spirit, is a great example of this. This cut plasters Strackany’s strained voice over top of rugged acoustic instrumentation. You can hear his fingers against the fretboard as he switches chords, even amidst the constant fluttering percussion. There are moments almost identical to this scattered all throughout the album. But as many brilliant moments as Strackany sets up and knocks down, there are that many truly agitating ones waiting just around the bend.
“Poet (Take 1)” takes some of the most brutal instrumentation you’re likely to hear all year — the clunking, rhythm-devoid instrumentation isn’t experimental, its painful — and throws it over top of ironic lyrics about the fallacies of considering yourself a poet. In a sense, this song is like hearing Strackany rebel against himself. Taken that way it doesn’t seem like such a bad creation; artists don’t often skewer their own music and mock their songwriting so freely. But taken as simply another song amongst a collection of them, it represents a turn-off of staggering proportions. Strackany’s Kristian Matsson-meets-Jackie Greene-meets cheese grater voice isn’t intolerable (all the best singers have deficiencies, anyway) but is a challenge, so it would seem logical to make things sound as appealing as possible otherwise, not take the complete opposite course. And especially not twice — “Poet (Take 2)” is essentially the same architecture recycled.
While Fruit of the Spirit does have its charms — the aforementioned “Lighthouse,” “Over the Hill and Back Again,” and “In the Movies” are all worthy standouts — they are ultimately weighted down by its shortcomings. Its clear that Strackany doesn’t have a good voice, but what remains uncertain is whether or not he’s aware of this. Throughout the album there are moments where he strains too far, stretching out to latch onto notes that he shouldn’t even be thinking about. These instances tend to hurt. And while the instrumentation backing him up may maintain a certain level of consistency (save for those two atrocious “Poet” tracks), that simply isn’t enough to make this an album worth digging too deep into.
You’ve heard this song before.
You’ve heard this album before.
You’ve seen this band live before, but it’s been so long – do you really care anymore?
The Vaccines are a UK band who, in the UK music press (read: NME) have been hailed as the new brit-pop darlings you must worship and adore lest you face the harsh ridicule of anyone claiming to be cooler than you.
Anglophiles both casual and fanatical will agree on this to a certain degree.
Anglophillia or the severe interest/obsession with UK bands (or as a Greek goddess once put it “lad rock”) has been going in and out of style since the very first British Invasion. For every Guided By Voices geek, there’s a Manic Street Preachers nutter just like there’s a Strokes devotee for every Libertines junkie.
Some years are better for anglophiles than others. American Indie Rock has been kicking serious limey ass for a while now that the British Hype Machine hasn’t successfully reached our radars since Tony Blair left office and Arctic Monkeys were still culturally viable.
Enter The Vaccines, a really young London foursome with a scrappy pub rock yet anthemic retro pop sound.
The Vaccine’s singer, Justin Young, has a strong, clear and distinctive yet still familiar voice (you might recall and compare to Doves, Embrace, Kaiser Chiefs, etc).
Most of their debut, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? is comprised of short one-two-punch numbers that concentrate more on the release and less on the build. It’s the aural equivalent of several satisfying quickies ( If You Wanna, Blow It Up, Post Break-Up Sex, Norgaard) and at least one incident of premature ejaculation (Wreckin’ Bar). Like I said, they’re still young.
The Vaccines found their man with the megaphone in Zane Lowe, who is no Tony Wilson by any stretch, but he is a BBC radio dj. Add to this, Tom Cowan of The Horrors is your older brother (Freddie, guitar) and multiply that by the fact that it’s one of the driest times in British music history for guitar bands and you start to see the stars align for The Vaccines.
Don’t get me wrong, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? is a fun album but it’s upsetting that the band with the The Horrors connection gets this much attention for doing the same thing that virtually every other band both in the UK and here stateside is doing, which is playing tried and true bar band/pub garage rock with pop sensibility (See: Airborne Toxic Event, Gaslight Anthem, Detroit Cobras, etc) and some might argue, much better.
Those first moments of “Death and Dying” don’t only jar, but they kind of deceive too. From just those few seconds it’d be easy to expect something of the lo-fi, Times New Viking-meets-punk-rock concatenation. Rather, New Numbers are actually quite the rubbery outfit. There’s an unmistakable 1980’s aura on many of the songs (the vocals on “Verbal” are prime 80’s real estate), glimpses of standard issue, modern day indie rock, and even synthesizers blended in amongst the otherwise guitar and drum driven tunes. This may just be a debut — and a self-financed one at that — but its nice to hear that the band isn’t overly pushy with immediately establishing their own definitive sound. There’s a cohesion to it all, but the boundaries of such uniformity are pretty liberal.
Perhaps more than anything else, Vacationland is an album that makes you wonder — and much of that goes back to the whole self-financed thing. On this release, New Numbers seem poised and ready to make an impact. Hell, on tracks like “Islands” and “Creature Comforts,” they not only leave such an impact, but they do it better than a lot of label-supported artists. So the question then becomes: what if these guys had some backing? By no means is this the kind of record you’d easily fawn over, but its pretty easy to hear that the ingredients for such a thing. Just imagine if they had the resources afforded to many of the groups we switch in and out of our listening rotations. New Numbers could be a big thing.
Above all, Vacationland is exactly what the title suggests: an album chock full of fun cuts. There’s no overbearing pretentiousness or forced gimmicks. Its just a nice little do-it-yourselfer that deserves a spot somewhere on your summer soundtrack.
Crystal Stilts: In Love With Oblivion
Label: Slumberland Records
Release Date: April 12, 2011
In Love with Oblivion is a lo-fi Brooklyn shoe-gaze garage rock album, every bit as potent as their debut, sounding less like Joy Division and more like a backyard acid trip; heavier on atmosphere, hotdogging the bands ultra-tight cohesion and aggrandizing the cult following of Brad Hargett’s tone-wary, reverb drenched bass voice. So what is the deal with that voice? Either you love it or hate it. We, obviously, love it. Take Ian Curtis of Joy Division or Paul Banks of Interpol, mix in some of The Velvet Underground and Jim Morrissey, and then lock them in a far away echo chamber drenched in reverb, and you have Brad Hargett. If you still don’t think any of that sounds like a bad combo, read on.
For a second album, Crystal Stilts succeed in stretching their noise pop schtick farther than their 2008 debut to create an even larger, darker,more atmospheric record. With leering and brash psychedelic organ swells, noisy guitars, sinister rockabilly riffs, and the echoy distance Hargett places between the instrumentation and the listener – this is sinister American pop at it’s best, from a band that has the songwriting chops to pull it off. Their song craft is a force to be reckoned with here; full of elliptical verses, scholarly pop savvy and an experimental energy that keeps the entire album fresh and effortless. From the stampeding instrumental opening track “Sycamore Tree”, to the more menacing but even more expansive “Half a Moon” , these are colossal songs occupying a vast sonic landscape for the listener to get lost in, forget who they are and fall in love with oblivion.
Label: 1000x Records
Release date: April 5, 2011
Since forming in early 2007, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart have become one of the most buzzed about indie pop bands in years. Their distinctive retro sounding brand of noise pop is a tidy distillation of all the great late 80s/early 90s shoegaze precedents – with obvious nods to early My Bloody Valentine, House of Love, Pale Saints, Rocketship – but with that incredible exuberance and energy that the Pains bring to every song. The kind of song energy that leaves me wondering whether the band is knowingly as naive as they project or incredibly emotionally complex songwriters.
On their new album Belong, the band uses their bookish lyrics and fuzzed out shoegaze sound to once again conquer the fine art of innocent romanticism mixed with semi-violent instrumentation, of emotional turmoil equaled by shimmering pop.
Read a more in depth album review from Discosalt contributing writer Andrew Bailey below:
Belong paints The Pains of Being Pure at Heart in the same complimentary light as those successful releases of two years ago. The overall sound is largely the same as well. The New York foursome is still heavily indebted to — and derivative of, to be perfectly honest — many of shoegaze’s greatest acts. All those comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and modern descendants like Crocodiles and The Radio Dept. that were so prevalent around their previous releases still hold true here. But this new album reflects some growth as well. It only takes one listen to the opening track, “Belong”, to gather that these songs are a little bit heavier than their predecessors. The band utilizes more aggressive guitar riffs that seem influenced by the whole 90′s grunge movement almost across the board on Belong, emphasized on that title track as well as “Girl of 1,000 Dreams” later on. They’ve also adapted a new crystalline production, unhinging themselves from some of shoegaze’s gravelly traits, which allows their spin on the genre to feel just a little more fresh and individualistic. It also provides for some nice boundaries between albums, with the self-titled and Belong managing to feel very different despite subscribing to many of the same techniques.
Even if Kip Berman’s songwriting feels a little too soft here and there (“I wonder what it’s like to be liked”, he ponders on the otherwise wonderful “Even in Dreams”), these 10 songs are almost resoundingly sensational. That said, they’re also all very similar. The debut album actually seemed that way as well, but after repeated listens tracks like “Contender”, “This Love is Fucking Right”, and “Everything With You” — among others — really began to carve out their own unique identity. Its too early to tell whether or not Belong will develop in the same manner or not, but for now it is a little difficult to pick out the LP’s premier tracks. That’s one of life’s rare win-win dilemmas though: one or two songs might not jump out from the others, but that’s only because they all triumph equally. (Read More HERE)
Middle Brother: Middle Brother
Label: Partisan Records
Release date: March 1, 2011
Middle Brother is the new kid on the exploding and frankly over saturated new-Americana block. With three singer songwriters from three burgeoning bands that play with modern folk-rock styles, this is something of a mini-indie-super-group, not unlike their more famous brethren in Monsters of Folk. John McCauley (Deer Tick), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), and Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit) joined forces for an unannounced show at last year’s SXSW festival to showcase their one rehearsal of the album’s songs. A musical baby was born.
Their self titled debut mixes and matches each writer’s distinct style with an alluring spirit of collaboration to weave a warm and intoxicating blanket of hangover blues, wicked self-loathing, and ramshackle celebration. No voice dominates as each songwriter recognizes the greater good lies within the song. Lyrically, the boys are weary and broken hearted but find a resolute wish inside their mourning. By blending the tragic and the hopeful, Middle Brother paints with heartfelt brushstrokes as all three songwriters pick up the pieces of their shattered selves filled with mistakes, lust and shame. Music may be the only reason to carry on.
Vasquez, perhaps the least heralded member is a revelation for those unfamiliar with Delta Spirit’s work. “Blue Eyes” sparkles with crystalline melodies that feel more robust upon each listen. He sings the ode to a crush with lush emotion, “She’s a southern girl without the drawl/She’s a good girl who wears black bras/The only one who can make me crawl/She’s too sweet to force me”. Slinky yet direct electric guitar work and vivid piano accents allow the song to bounce forward, building beauty. “Theater” is perhaps the most angrily elegant song on the album with a desolate refrain that rings out, “This life won’t tell you nothing/nothing but lies”. Vasquez’s “Someday” is another nugget of perfection, mixing doo-wop and R&B-ish harmonies to form a weirdly creative synthesis of modern country folk and Brill Building aesthetics that somehow makes perfect sense.
McCauley brings his very personal, raucous and gritty rock n’ roll sensibility to “Me, Me, Me” and “Middle Brother”. The former is supported by big three part harmonies from his two compadres and the latter is a hefty dose of McCauley’s self-loathing tied to a boisterous mash up of Jerry Lee Lewis vibes and “All Shook Up” melodies. In McCauley’s best work his combination of self-depreciating humor, lucid acknowledgement of personal pain, and an anguished singing voice make him a somewhat tragic figure, supremely talented yet self destructive.
Goldsmith’s brand of sincere story telling showcased so prominently on Dawes’ fabulous debut North Hills, is displayed in its most stylistically simple format on “Thanks for Nothing” where a sparse arrangement deftly allows his words and heart to shine. “Wilderness” echoes the sense of despair that turns up frequently on Middle Brother, albeit couched in the prettiest of melodies. “I plan to be the guy who when he drinks/he disappoints/They say you’ll kill yourself before you know it/Well, isn’t that the point”. Unfortunately, “Blood and Guts” is the first and only Goldsmith creation that feels slightly overblown by the middle.
A cover of Paul Westerberg’s “Portland” is a perfect choice. The former Replacements front man wrote this track after a particularly rough night in the Northwest during the 80s when he and his band mates were unable to complete a performance due to an excess of grandpa’s cough medicine. Because Middle Brother echoes the Replacement’s dirty beauty, the instantly hook filled guitar line fits in perfectly. Westerberg’s words tell the story, “Regrets, misgivings, but we won’t change/Its too late to turn back/here we go”.
On the album closing “Million Dollar Bill” the musical brothers collaborate on a breakup lullaby with crisp snare hits and alternate singing the verses. A pure spirit of teamwork and support lifts the songs “oohs” toward a real place of heartbreak, friendship, and the hope of a better future. Middle Brother keeps the flame alive.
The Strokes: Angles
Label: Rough Trade
Release Date: March 22, 2011
The Strokes officially release their fourth studio album, Angles tomorrow on Rough Trade. After such a long hiatus and hyped as the first Strokes album with creative input from all five members, we were not quite sure what to expect from this album. But despite this albums diverse collaborative input and attempt to rebuild the band from the ground up, this is definitely still a “Strokes album”. If you are expecting an ambitious statement from the band that will push the musical landscape in a new direction, you will no doubt be disappointed with this album. What you can expect is a collection of new songs from a continually evolving band, with a new sound that is refreshing but also familiar, maintaining their signature sound; catchy hooks, punchy guitars , Juliens droning monotone croon, subtle hints at reggae and 80’s rock. After heavy rotation, this album proves itself a highly redeemable work, one of the bands most interesting, if uneven EP’s that is better and better with each listen. Like 2001’s overly hyped/ mis-represented Is This It, Angles is just straightforward catchy pop rock, meant to be enjoyed as just that. Pitchfork might want these guys to “quit while they’re ahead”, but if anything, Angles proves the Strokes are a band forging forward, and we are glad they keep on, keeping on.
Read a more in depth album review from Discosalt contributing writer Andrew Bailey below:
Angles frequently sounds more like an album heavily influenced by The Strokes than actually by The Strokes. There seems to be a lot less attention to detail in the songwriting, the track-for-track reliance on big garage rock guitar riffs isn’t so aggressive, and the 1980′s have clearly left a very palpable impression. Even some alien reggae influences have seeped in on “Machu Picchu”, easily one of the record’s best tracks. Above all else though, what really stands out here is the quality of production (at last). The rugged garage aesthetic made sense on Is This It and even to some extent on Room on Fire. But by the time the band reached First Impressions — where they finally started trying to merge the old with the new — it started feeling overly manufactured. The Strokes are, after all, a big time rock group now. And they aren’t in their early-20′s anymore, either. Clinging to the same old lackluster production quality might have coddled a few old fans still starstruck by the sound they broke in with, but it wouldn’t have done anything for the band’s progression. All these changes might be big splashes of cold water to the face, but they’re all incredibly welcome ones. (Read More HERE)
Stream the entire album on the Strokes website right HERE.
[rating: 4.5 stars]
Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring For My Halo
Label: Matador Records
Release date: March 8, 2011
Kurt Vile knows exactly what he’s trying to say, but would like us to think otherwise.
On his fourth record, Smoke Ring For My Halo, Vile’s self-doubting loner conversations with himself unfold like a diary rambling entry, and whether or not we are privy to listen, is part of the allure. Mumbling lines like “Think I’ll never leave my couch again, because when I’m out, I’m away in my mind. Christ was born, I was there. You know me, I’m around. I got friends, hey wait, where was I, well, I am trying.” – Vile, subconsciously, as much as he tries to convince the listener he’s lost, always knows where he is.
The songs on Smoke Ring For My Halo, represent a bit of a departure for the Philly based singer/ songwriter whose stoner persona has characteristically given his songs a half-finished demo feel, not only conceptually incomplete but produced on a budget. All this has changed, and Vile’s songs, while maintaining the simplicity of previous albums (maybe even more so) are more complete, fully realized arrangements of strange beauty with subtle nuances that consummate just how much Vile really cares, about both the songs and the subject matter. His “whatever” attitude only rears its head in “Runner Ups”, asking everyone to “take a whiz on the world…Sometimes I get stuck in a rut, too It’s ok, girlfriend” but deep down, Vile is just mimicking a protagonist removed from the world; a character he has so often played.
Sonically, Smoke Ring channels the energies of the seventies, notably the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Tom Petty and John Fahey, both paying homage to the albums influences and imbibing the genre with some new found energy and wry lyrical observations. With Dylan-esque guitar jangles, classic rock keys, harp and slide, Vile ambles along effortlessly, sneering and yearning with plenty of whimsy hidden beneath the gloom on tracks like “Puppet to the Man” and the oddly upbeat “Jesus Fever.” “In My Time” is a hypnotic indie pop gem, while “Ghost Town” is a prolific ode to latent depression, a long winded, mumbling philosophy lesson from a slacker who desperately doesn’t care. “Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes / I don’t pay ’em any mind.” But by the end of this album, we, like Vile, know better.
“Radiohead makes music that sounds like the future.”
I paraphrase, but this is, essentially, what every other review of Kid A, the album that marked a stylistic shift from UK alt arena rock – inspired and informed by IDM, left-field pop, kraut rock and avant-garde – to something much grander, that mirrored more than masked those influences. Labeled and branded everything from electronic pop, avant-pop, and alt-prog, the Radiohead that made Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail to the Thief scarcely resembled the Pablo Honey – OK Computer band from Oxford, England. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Radiohead consistently raised the stakes of the game with each new release while simultaneously changing it completely.
Everyone knows countless bands that based their sound on The Bends, or made an entire career out of writing lesser “Karma Police” knock-offs. So, when Radiohead detoured off course, some who were listening stopped and some who hadn’t, stopped and listened. It’s no secret that there is an entire generation of kids who knew the Kid A/Amnesiac Radiohead better than the previous album but these albums and that incarnation of the band are unmistakable influences for today’s most interesting artists – many from the indie world.
Electronica, in its every variation, has been in and out of style since the seventies and, yet there are still many music fans and freaks who don’t acknowledge it, don’t get it, or just don’t like it. For those who were born into the dance/electronic scene – like the hardcore kids of the Reagan era – there was a strict expectation to only be into that kind of music (at least, publicly). Kid A and Amnesiac became the OK exception to that rule though, because it sounded closer to Autechre and Aphex Twin than say, Travis or Coldplay.
While other respected rock acts noodled with knobs and flipped on the digital blips with mixed results, Radiohead succeeded by scrapping it all and starting from scratch.This sacrifice and surrender has taken the band in a completely different direction than “The Biggest Band in the World” is expected to go. All of a sudden, the fringe became familiar, the champions became challengers, and an entirely new approach, of taking the discordant and experimental and turning it into something tuneful and accessible, was born.
By the very nature of experimentation, this led the band and all musicdom to where it is now. Wilco, Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, Yeasayer, etc. And now we have The King of Limbs. Though it surprised us in its date and time of release, the material really hasn’t. It’s an amazing piece as a cohesive album and there are standout tracks, but it doesn’t feel like much has changed. Thom continues to become more comfortable exploring his entire range and register as a vocalist, The Greenwoods continue to perfect their unique, complex and melodic arrangements and explore guitar as texture, and Ed O’ Brien and Phil Selway marry precise, hypnotic, off-kilter and oddly timed rhythmic patterns. In other words, Radiohead continue to be Radiohead. They continue to produce semi-challenging/kinda-experimental music for a mostly mainstream audience. (Yes, indie is a sub of mainstream).
They’ve commercialized the avant-garde. They’ve sold us jazz by convincing us it’s rock. This is a great accomplishment. Though The King of Limbs is no departure from near recent efforts, it is still a Radiohead album and it’s better than most anything from 2010 to current. It’s another triumph, filled with jittery sexiness and sexy jitteriness.
Musicianship and artistry aside, the marketing of Radiohead is exciting in and of itself. We’ve seen Kid A’s less-than-friendly “press interaction by email only” attempt to break the slack journalism cycle and we witnessed the band succeed in breaking the fourth wall of the music business with In Rainbows’ self-distributed, pay what you like industry-shaking power move. So, where do you go from there?
If you’re Radiohead, this time out, you surprise, delight and befuddle. First off, with little warning, they announced The King of Limbs release date, then released it even earlier, catching almost everyone and all of twitter off guard. At the same time, they released the black and white “Lotus Flower” video of a happy-looking Yorke busting liquid-like moves in a bowler, then watched it go viral and achieve meme status (See Yorke Vs. Bieber). Next, to commemorate the physical release of TKOL, they handed out a newspaper (The Universal Sigh) featuring essays, poems and Stanley Donwood artwork. With these efforts, the band and their camp have proven that they know what they’re doing – and love that the rest of the world still doesn’t.
Still, many have called the release a sleeper or grower – which is a fair enough assessments for cliquey hipsters and jaded critics – but like all things wonderful and strange, there are many levels of The King of Limbs to love. With the Record Store Day tracks “Supercollider” and “The Butcher,” as well as the most recent Limbs session release (and Glastonbury favorite), “Staircase,” adding even more complex allure and simple joy to the equation, fans and foes alike are getting another vital piece of the puzzle completing an already enthralling album from the only band making music that genuinely sounds like the future.
Adam Kesher: Challenging Nature
Label: Disque Primeur
Release date: April 11, 2011
–Andrew J. Bailey
Label: Polyvinyl Records
Release date: March 8, 2011
Joshua Hodges started Starfucker as a solo act in Portland, Oregon four years ago. He gained citywide acclaim for danceable electro pop that ruled the house party circuit and left all the tight jeans and ironic Def Leppard shirts ripe with sweat. Soon the band expanded in numbers and a self-titled LP was released in 2008 but failed to gain the band a much wider audience. Their live show continued to earn higher marks than studio work. At some point in 2009the band changed their name to PYRAMID and then apparently to Pyramiddd.Soon thereafter, they pulled a switcheroo and returned to their original name. However, they now tour as STRFKR. Got all that?
As one of Portland’s belovedindie productsthe band releases their second LP,Reptilians, on SF imprint Polyvinyl.In the band’s early days, Hodges was hailed for his combination of hummable pop song structures and quirky electronica, a blend now ubiquitous across the world. On Reptilians, the band faces the sophomore challenge of trying to figure out where the first album missed and establish themselves as an emerging force to be reckoned with.Unfortunately, there isn’t enough about the album to make a strong impression. The problems are two fold. Most egregiously, the band cranks their snappy synth leads so high in the mix they clobber instead of inspire, seemingly dying to be recognized as the next“Time to Pretend”. Second, the vocals are far too hushed, plaintive and washed out, showing little urgency or emotion. Breathy and ethereal is one thing but thesevocals lack passion andmake Hodges sound as if he is drowning in a pool of opaque water. The songs are on the whole, unmemorably ho-hum.
In the middle third of the album Starfucker finds their zone for a few songs. “Astoria” is mixed more effectively, vocals are audible, acoustic guitar loops converse with the click-clack of e-drums and vibrant synth lines dip and dive without smothering the song completely. “Reptilians” is a weird little nugget of electro-psych-pop that shows off solid songwriting skills with sweetly warped guitar and a synth sound that seeps inside one of the album’s thicker grooves. The band shows off a bit more creative patience here, vibeing with delicate structural changes inside three minutes and instantaneously turn the song into mournful electro candy. “The White of Noon” is the album’s strongest track. A stoned groove lays back before exploding in a processed sunburst of spacious guitar melodies. It is in this moment the band shows off greater purpose and energy. Unfortunately, this moment doesn’t come until half an hour in and it’s not clear why listeners would hang around that long when so many bands compete for a similar sound. It is simply hard to see this collection standing apart from the pack.
Papercuts: Fading Parade
Label: Sub Pop
Release date: March 1, 2011
Jason Robert Quever has never been even remotely rapacious to begin with, but on his newest release as Papercuts he’s gone from simply being moderately bashful to almost completely disconnected. This isn’t to say that Fading Parade isn’t a feathery, pleasant LP. Its just that so much feels ambiguous or straight-laced and rarely, if ever, does it manage to completely hit its marks, causing it to leave behind very little in the way of lasting impressions.
“Do You Really Wanna Know” and “Do What You Will” aren’t only the first two songs on the tracklist, they’re the album’s most apparent outliers. Of course, many of the songs here do tend to follow the same general guidelines, so its reasonable to assume that no matter which two cuts had been bumped to the front of the line they might have felt like the album’s most noteworthy moments; barring something truly extraordinary, first and last impressions are what tend to resonate with our collective memories. At any rate, those two tracks — not coincidentally among the album’s shortest — are representative of Quever’s most direct and vibrant moments against a backdrop of stuff that shoots to be simultaneously dreamy, folky, and emotionally riveting but rarely has the urgency or variety to achieve any of the above.
Of the 10 songs here, “I’ll See You Later, I Guess” might be the best example of where Quever’s efforts fall short. The song actually features some decent core components: the identifiable lovelorn indifference, the occasionally pretty arrangement. But the track is far more spacious than it needs to be, dragging fruitlessly in the middle, wavering around in search of a climax that never comes. It seems like a seed stretched beyond its means rather than a fully formed song and as an unfortunate consequence leaves behind little in the way of memorability (yes, thats a recurring theme). Its affable and all, but Quever’s timidness is a real anchor of progress.
The mixing on the album is also a significant stumbling block. Quever places a large emphasis on guitar here, but rarely is the production crisp enough to really bring out the strumming. The reason for this is fairly simple: there’s actually a bunch of instrumentation, but its all been pushed way back in the mix. So what ends up happening is the intended focal point — the guitar — gets overwhelmed by many of these peripheral, mostly nondescript sounds. Sometimes it’s lazy percussion coming from off in the distance, or the smattering of a tambourine, or even Quever’s vocals just swooning around, gently bouncing off the walls of the studio but never fully coming into focus. It all feels strangled and muddled, each instrument content to exist rather than live, and so each of them merely plod along together. Whatever pretty guitar work is being plied just falls by the wayside. Its especially frustrating because it really does seem as though Quever has something to get off his chest here.
It isn’t essential that Quever be the kind of frontman demanding of a spotlight, standing on the edge of a stage throwing his arms in the air and dripping flop sweat on his adorning front row fans. Actually, with that visual in mind, its probably a good thing he isn’t that guy. But Fading Parade could have certainly used some more punch from its leading man and driving creative force. Without it, this collection of songs merely come and go.
Radiohead: The King of Limbs
Label: TBD Records
Release date:February 18, 2011
Radiohead’s many achievements are so rich that the group is no longer in a class among peers. They haven’t been for quite a while, really. In much the same way The Beatles discography is compared to itself rather than to albums from other artists of the same era, we draw lines from OK Computer toAmnesiac and Kid A to In Rainbows because these are the only comparisons that make even the slightest sense. Sure, Radiohead borrows concepts from other artists — this is what allows them to take on a new identity with each release — but the music they make is, even objectively, unlike anything else being done. It just is.
Even the band’s peripheral business is unmatched. In 2007, the lads famously utilized a short notice, pay-what-you-want method to release In Rainbows. While giving away music for free (if that’s what you chose to “pay”) wasn’t such an unheard of practice, it certainly was coming from the biggest band in the world yielding a highly anticipated record. But it worked. And so one week ago, the band went down a similar path: they announced via their official website that a new album, The King of Limbs, was not only finished but would be available for digital download (for nine bucks this time) in just five days. Of course, later in the week they audibled and the record was downloadable 24 hours early. For the second time in as many records, the band had rather remarkably dodged the advance leaks that plague so many — practically all — of music’s heaviest hitters. It also set the stage for fans from all over the world to share in a frantic collective listening experience full of swooning, knee-jerk analysis, and even optimistic code cracking.
For many listeners, those first spins were justifiably surprising. Aside from the somewhat confounding fact that The King of Limbs spans only 37-and-a-half minutes across eight songs — Pablo Honey was previously the band’s shortest album at 42 minutes in length (but it had 12 tracks) — the music, which matters above all else, proved something of a perplexity even for a group known for turning any previous sound they’d established onto its head. Even after many, many more listens, there’s still a baffling quality to it all. Beginning with “Bloom”, which is fueled by an uncharacteristically repetitive percussion-heavy beat that reminds of Flying Lotus, this is a record that feels startlingly minimal. In terms of immensity and texture, it sounds a lot closer to Thom Yorke’s solo effort, The Eraser, than it does a full-fledged Radiohead outing. “Separator” (formerly “Mouse Bird Dog”), for instance, sounds like it could have just as easily come from the same sessions where Thom recorded his extraordinary cover of Miracle Legion’s“All For the Best”.
The album is heavily indebted to electronics, but the way in which everything is arranged, produced, and mastered gives it a pleasant organic feel. When you listen to “Idioteque” you can actually hear the carnage of a busy dance floor: sweaty bodies bouncing off one another like bumper cars, the erratic flash of strobes. Aside from the fantastic pairing of “Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost” (both softer cuts), every song here is thick with electronics, but rarely does it feel like music you’d hear in a club. Instead, it sounds like something you’d play loudly through headphones while inebriated somewhere in the middle of the woods. Its disjointed, visceral, and extremely environmental. Purported to have been inspired by a 1,000-year-old oak tree in an English forest, The King of Limbs sounds appropriately like nature, twisted up and skewered through drums, synthesizers, sequencers, and miscellaneous electronic smoke and mirrors.
That the band has taken on electronic music in such a head-first manner isn’t a surprise. It is, however, a shock that they’ve left so many of their trademarks on the cutting room floor. The exquisite guitar work of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien seems heavily restrained, if not snuffed out altogether. The smooth strums and accompanying palm slaps against the face of the instrument on “Give Up the Ghost” make for a beautiful composition, but Thom could have pulled this off on his own. While it isn’t uncommon for Thom to take center stage and the band to serve a lighter, more complimentary role, on The King of Limbs that practice is the standard rather than the exception. The sheer lack of the band’s usual scale makes it difficult to digest, as if at any given moment there’s something absent.
The King of Limbs is also unapologetically devoid of the band’s signature pins and needles emotion. The build-up-and-break-down moments are nowhere to be found and the range of sentiments is noticeably compact. It often moves in a linear direction as if the whole thing is one giant stream — surprising given that it wasn’t too long ago that these guys seemed frustrated and bored by the generic album format, which breeds the type of even-keel cohesion on display here. The beat and rhythm of “Bloom” meld directly into “Morning Mr. Magpie” as if the tracks or feelings hardly changed at all. “Feral” plays like an extended introduction to “Lotus Flower”, one of the few moments where it sounds like all five members showed up at the studio. Without the hysterical meltdowns and assortment of affecting moods that are usually brimming from a Radiohead album, its just an emotionally meager presentation.
After 1993′s average-ish Pablo Honey, Radiohead reeled off six diverse, revolutionary records in a row. In each case, the results were about as life-altering as music can get. In the case of OK Computer and Kid A, at least, the entire music industry was sent reeling. The King of Limbs lacks that mystique and, for the first time in almost two decades, has dented the five-piece’s astonishing invincibility. Still, in the grand scheme of things, this is a triumph of its own variety. That it can be so puzzling, so removed from their legendary arsenal and yet remain engaging and enjoyable is an unparalleled testament. Truly, Radiohead has a Midas touch all their own — even when they miss, they somehow manage to excel.
The King of Limbs isn’t exactly the grand unveiling of a new sound, but rather a deeper exploration of a place that the band has already gone, this time toned down and smoothed up around the edges. It could grow to be terrific by almost any standard, but up against the astronomically high bar that Radiohead have set for themselves — masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece — its difficult not to feel somewhat let down.
-Andrew bailey(Binge Listening)
Label: Fat Possum
Release date: February 15, 2011
Yuck is a predominantly four-piece (sometimes five-piece) outfit made up of members from London, Hiroshima, and New Jersey. On their self-titled Fat Possum debut, the band proudly wears those worldly influences on their sleeves, meshing together a surplus of genetics from other notable artists into one versatile, low-fi production.
Both Yuck the band and Yuck the album could be loosely fit into a number of different genres. There’s indie rock, obviously, but there’s also elements of shoegaze, noise pop, punk, and dream pop all run through the same garage rock aesthetic. All things considered, its not the most original sound that’s ever been broached. In fact, more often than not these songs are derivative of other songs from other prominent bands, beginning with Dinosaur Jr., Yo La Tengo, and Sonic Youth and then extending to Pavement, shoegaze mainstays My Bloody Valentine, and even The Folk Implosion. An entire mile-long scroll could be dedicated to listing all the bands that have a fingerprint on here. So yeah, its a familiar sound. But its a sound that’s tried and true and that they do an impressive job of tackling.
Aside from how recognizable this album is even on a first listen, the thing that immediately jumps out about it is the variation. Perhaps its just a narrow perception, but it seems that as more and more bands influenced by garage rock and indebted to the increasingly popular low-fi production crop up, the differences from track to track grow slimmer. This isn’t the case at all for Yuck. Highlighted by the fantastic, grinding closer “Rubber”, Yuck hardly spends the entirety of the album rocking our ears off, even though the first few notes of the initial track, “Get Away”, suggest that’s what’s to come. Standouts “Holing Out”, “Georgia”, and “Suck” are all infused with thick layers of bass and guitar, but throughout the album these heavier peaks are complemented by valleys of surprisingly comforting harmonies and softer, more wavy instrumentation. “Shook Down” is one such example. Even if they’re borrowing from a recognizable sound, each song manages to distinguish itself in some way so as to prevent it from feeling like 12 iterations of the same old song.
Yuck isn’t going to garner a lot of points for overall creativity, though it certainly begs mentioning that following in the footsteps of other artists doesn’t simply mean playing prearranged songs out of chord books. They should, however, be credited for their execution. Over the course of 12 excellent songs, they’ve done justice to the likenesses of some of the best bands across multiple genres, while simultaneously separating themselves from their more recent contemporaries.
Bright Eyes: The People’s Key
Label: Saddle Creek
Release date: February 15, 2011
The People’s Key is expected to be the final chapter for Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, and Nate Walcott’s Bright Eyes, a legendary outfit with a revolving cast of characters that has spawned no less than four classic albums. This curtain call is also quite possibly the most ambitious yet, picking up right around where 2005′s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn left off. This isn’t the Bright Eyes we’ve heard evolve over the past decade plus, but it is a fitting punctuation mark.
One of the reasons that this is expected to be the last Bright Eyes production is that Oberst’s tastes and ambitions have shifted noticably over the years. Obviously, changes with age are also a factor (he was a teenage prodigy when this all began, after all). Cassadaga, the band’s previous album, was arbuably their most country-influenced yet, but Oberst has stated in the lead up to The People’s Key that he’s become“really burnt out on that rootsy Americana shit”. So basically, rather than clinging forever to a name that comes with preconceived expectations, Oberst will be able to move forward and explore different things without that cloud hanging over him (of course, as we all know, musicians do have a way of changing their minds). But not before exhausting the last of the obvious Bright Eyes avenues.
Unless Oberst and bandmates were planning to release a Spanish techno album — and they probably weren’t — The People’s Key is about as far as the Bright Eyes umbrella could have been stretched without becoming something altogether alien. That isn’t to suggest that 10 songs on this LP are unrecognizable, because they aren’t. Some of the formulas the band has subscribed to for years are still firmly in place. At the same time, this is easily the most electronic, drum heavy, rock ‘n roll inspired album the band has ever put out.
The album starts horribly, to be blunt. In front of wavy synths that serve as the lead-up to the actual song, “Firewall” features the first appearance of some weirdo buddy of Oberst’s, who makes several appearances on this album, but none worse than the one right at the top. He rants mostly incoherently about Adolf Hitler, lizard-creatures, the Garden of Eden, and alternate universes orbiting counter-clockwise. Its pretentious, probably intended to be a little bit ironic, but most of all its the first appearance of a frustrating trend. Unfortunately, it also feels necessary, because these are all topics Oberst addresses — even if briefly or vaguely — throughout the course of the album. From someone who puts such an emphasis on narrative and literate songwriting, it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear Oberst reference Jesus, Buddha, and the Führer (and Hitler directly). But we expect to hear this stuff from him. It would have been nice not to have to hear it from some rambling froot-loop as well.
That big complaint aside, the musical composition of the album — albeit different — is actually pretty good. The percentage of “Firewall” that doesn’t involve these senseless ramblings borders on fantastic, “Shell Games” is one of the better radio-natured songs Oberst has ever written, and “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key)” is another standout that really begs repeated listens. The album’s closer, “One for You, One for Me”, is every bit as terrific a song as there is here and, in a strange kind of way, sparks subtle reminders of LCD Soundsystem‘s “All My Friends”. (Admittedly that’s a bit of a left field, abstract parallel to draw.)
Percussion is the thing that makes this such a new direction for Bright Eyes though. Drums have always held a place in their songwriting arsenal, but on this record they’ve been pushed to the very front and paired up with more synthesizer than ever before. Hell, “Triple Spiral” illustrates it all in one four minute chunk. Its a weird chameleon-like shift to undergo in four years or so, but if Cassadaga was the outfit’s most outwardly Americana album, then this is as close to the opposite of that they’ve ever gone before. Its a curveball to be sure, but again, it really isn’t leaving the band’s boundaries so much as nuzzling right up close to the edges.
This isn’t the greatest thing Bright Eyes has ever done and if it does turn out that this is their farewell then it might not be the most neatly tied ribbon they could have put on their legacy either. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll look back down the road and see the positivity this album yields and be able to appropriately compare it to those gut-wrenchingly emotional days of Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground and realize, yeah, Bright Eyes covered all the ground they could and did so wonderfully.