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?