12.28.2011

Best Albums of 2011: #9


My Brightest Diamond - All Things Will Unwind

My pick for #9 is, in my opinion, one of the most critically misunderstood and underrated albums of the year. I have read very few reviews that have My Brightest Diamond's latest a proper chance. In All Things Will Unwind, multi-instrumental classicist Shara Worden has crafted an orchestral pop record of the most nuanced kind. When many arrangements in records of this nature are dull and boring, the arrangements here sparkle no doubt thanks to the help of the ensemble group yMusic. yMusic compose most of the backing group behind the music here and their talent in both arrangement and performance truly shine in All Things Will Unwind.

Song-wise, Worden's main attraction is still her angelic voice -- jumping octaves, twisting and turning melodies, and still sounding altogether accessible. Quite simply, I've been waiting for My Brightest Diamond to put out a record like this for a long time and it easily takes the cake for best orchestral pop record of the year.

12.22.2011

Best Albums of 2011: #10


The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow

Of all the acoustic indie folk duos that have appeared this year, The Civil Wars have continued to stick in my mind throughout the past twelve months. they've been written about extensively so far, but there is something very special about the interplay between the two members of The Civil Wars. Yes, it's the creative harmonies and yes, it's the intricate songwriting. In fact, I could compliment the technical and musical accomplishments of Barton Hollow for days -- yet in many ways there is something beyond words about how well these two musicians' styles, voices, and personalities match.

"More than anything else, Barton Hollow and the band itself is very much about the 'civil' fashion in which we wage war against our loved ones. The civility of it all is apparent enough in the music; the harmonies that Williams and White sing are almost agreeable and pretty to a fault. There is no clutter getting in the way, just the pristine clarity of an acoustic guitar and two brilliant singers. However, beneath the surface, there is an undeniable tension in the conflicted lyrics and darker musical shades. The best example of this tension might be in their single "Poison and Wine", where they sing, "I don't love you/but I always will". Williams calls this darker side of the music the depiction of the idea that "beauty can be bittersweet and truth can be hard to swallow"."

Read my whole review here.

12.21.2011

Best Albums of 2011: #11


Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
It should be simple enough to say that Colin Stetson made saxophones cool again, but it turns out there were plenty of instances of that in 2011. Even still, I love giving a top spot on my list to a musician has so perfectly crafted a sound that emphasizes his expertise as a performer. Creating every sound on the album himself in one take, the songs are recorded live with an array of well-placed microphones, capturing every rhythmic fluctuation and noise of Stetson's deliberate performance.

As far as the actual music goes, Judges never lets Stetson's performance overwhelm the songs themselves. Firmly rooted in minimalism and free jazz, Stetson is all kinds of postmodern. But instead of sounding apologetic or high-brow, Judges presents us with a dirty and grimy side of classical/pop crossover. More than that, though, Stetson manages to be legitimately mind-blowing at his instrument without relying on gimmicks or irony. Its a rare thing to find in the indie pop world, but Stetson never really fit into that niche anyway.



Best Tracks: "Judges", "From No Part Of Me Could I Summon A Voice"

12.14.2011

Best Albums of 2011: #12


Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Everyone knows that Radiohead is one of those bands that will always be constantly redefining themselves and challenging their listeners. Because of that, when people hear a new Radiohead album, they expect something new. Something definitive. Something that will challenge the idea of being a rock band in an "in-your-face" kind of way. And for the past 10 years, that is exactly what Radiohead has done whether it wasOK Computer or Kid A or In Rainbows.

However, King of Limbs presents the band in a new way -- it reintroduces the band as one that can be subtle. So subtle that the band might do something like announce the album for one day and then just release the album the day before in a seemingly inconsequential way. They might release a "newspaper" edition -- a transitory medium that is here one day and forgotten the next. They might have tracks that give the band room to explore and perhaps even jam a bit. Tracks like "Bloom" and "Lotus Flower" feature textures that are mind-blowingly dense, yet at the same time they always feel somewhat effortless. The more I listened to this album throughout the year, the more I realized that Radiohead knew exactly what they were doing with this album and in many ways have surprised fans and critics again, but in a way we never would have expected.



Best Tracks: "Bloom", "Lotus Flower"

12.12.2011

Best Albums of 2011: #13


CunninLynguists - Oneirology

The world of hip hop is exploding right now and now that artists are releasing free rapid-fire mixtapes online, its been really hard to stay up to date. I understand that. Even still, Oneirology has been one of the must underrated, under-appreciated hip hop albums to come out this year and this is me doing my part. Ambitious, heavy-hearted, and gorgeously produced, CunninLynguists' fifth album is not only their best release yet, its one of my favorite rap albums of the year.

For me, its rare to come across a rap album that has in enough going on in both the rapping and the music itself to warrant listen. Oneirology has Thematically, Oneirology shoots for the moon on Oneirology, taking on dreams as their topic of choice. And by dreams, I mean the beautiful, dark, twisted fantasies that not only exist in our times of sleep, but that color every choice in our lives. CunninLynguists do the ambitious concept justice, delivering some thoughtful rhymes and packing each track with great samples, psychedelic instrumentation, and big beats. Oneirology isn't flawless, but my goodness... listen to "Murder (Act II)" and tell me this thing isn't stumbling upon perfection around every corner.



Best Tracks: "Murder (Act II)", "Enemies With Benefits"

12.09.2011

Best Albums of 2011: #14


Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost

After Girls' debut album dropped in 2009, the surfer-rock indie band was quick to talk about moving in a new direction. While Album was lofi and almost minimalist in a way, Father, Son, Holy Ghost feels overindulgent in comparison. Musically, Girls has opened up to a vast array of new instruments, effects, and new sense of fidelity that makes them sound like a whole new band. "Vomit" is a Floydian ballad that features a gospel choir and an organ while "Die" is a hard-hitting instrumental metal track. Well, "sort of" metal.

But that's not the only thing new about Father, Son, Holy Ghost -- it does that very same thing emotionally as well. The range of emotion on Girls goes from unadulterated bliss on "Honey Bunny" to somber melancholy on "My Ma" to sickening depression on "Vomit". The only thing that holds the whole thing together is the presence of courageous frontman Christopher Owens. Emotionally fragile but brutally honest at every turn, Owens faces up to his past ghosts and relationships -- not denying them, but also not letting them determine his future. If Father, Son, Holy Ghost is an album about identity like Owens says it is, it offers a thrilling expose on the endless potential of life.



Best tracks: "Alex", "Vomit"

12.08.2011

Best Albums of 2011: #15


James Blake - James Blake

"Radiohead's Kid A, released 11 years ago way ahead of its time, was a prophetic expression of the "digital anxiety" that was at hand with its avant-garde art pop changing the way people understood electronic music. [...] Through the lenses of dubstep, AutoTune, and electronica, James Blake has crafted his very own haunting brand of electronic art pop..."

Certain parts of James Blake's self-titled album from earlier this year have held up really well -- perhaps even gotten better. Songs like "Wilhelm's Scream" and "I Never Learnt To Share" still ring true with that same crushing desperation I felt when I first heard them. The way Blake seamlessly integrates jazz, hip hop, and electronic stands out among the host of musicians trying to do that very thing. Click here for my full review.



Best tracks: "Wilhelm's Scream", "I Never Learnt To Share"

12.07.2011

Best Albums of 2011: #16


Iron and Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean

"...on their first major label release, Iron and Wine continues that which was started on The Shepard's Dog of shedding much of the sound that they were once known for. Beam singing is now anything but hushed and his instrumentation anything but acoustic. Kiss Each Other Clean is definitely not just Iron and Wine plugged in. "

Unafraid to throw out older templates for crafting Iron and Wine songs, Kiss Each Other Clean is a daring release that takes a lot of risks but pays off in almost off of them. Fortunately, rather than letting all the new instruments and styles get in the way, they are all used to emphasize Sam Beam's iconic lyricism and maintain a unique 70s soft rock style throughout that has had me returning to the album more than I had originally thought I would. Ultimately, Kiss Each Other Clean is exactly the kind of album you want to see from a band as established as Iron and Wine: This isn't the Iron and Wine you remember, but its the one you won't be able to forget.



Best Tracks: "Tree By The River", "Godless Brother In Love"

12.06.2011

Best Albums of 2011: #17


Jonny Greenwood - Norwegian Wood OST
Admittedly, I haven't watched as many films this year as I wish I could have, which of course, also means I haven't heard as many great soundtracks either. However, Radiohead guitarist and composer extraordinaire Jonny Greenwood has written possibly one of his best works yet in his scoring of the Japanese film, Norwegian Wood. Greenwood has this tragic underpinning behind his work that so effectively puts the audience inside the minds and hearts of the characters on screen.

The album opens with "Mou sukoshi jibun no koto, kichinto shitai no", which introduces the twisting theme of the score -- here it unfolds in a series of canons and loops just before unraveling into nothing as if it were never there to begin with. The plot follows the love triangle of three young Japanese college students and the deals with themes of identity, sexuality, and loss in their lives. In tracks like "Quarter Tone Broom", Greenwood shows off his beautiful language of dissonance that brilliantly describes the unwinding mental state of Norwegian Wood's characters. But what really made this soundtrack even more special for me was Greenwood's inclusion of two haunting acoustic guitar tracks that has me convinced that Greenwood is one of the most talented and unique composers working in the film industry right now.

Best tracks: "Mou sukoshi jibun no koto, kichinto shitai no", "Toki no senrei o ukete inai mono o yomuna"

12.05.2011

Best Albums of 2011: #18



Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials

After ignoring this English vocal powerhouse for long enough, I'm now convinced that Florence + The Machine is one of the best big pop acts out there right now. Not only does Florence + The Machine do what is required one of them as a radio-friendly pop group by writing some irresistibly catchy tunes, they surprised me by exploring some darker musical and lyrical themes on Ceremonials. Pulling in some lovely soul influences, Florence writes some pretty interesting spiritual ballads and that make Adele sound like a glorified teenage pop idol.

Furthermore, the interest in soul/gospel and spirituality justifies the enormous sound that the group puts out to me. The huge organs, pounding drums, and gospel choir arrangements might be a bit over-the-top for some, but in a year where I was left pretty underwhelmed by Coldplay's album that felt like a significant step backwards, Florence + The Machine have filled that hole in my soul for British pop that's not afraid to be big.



Best Tracks: "Shake It Out", "Spectrum"

12.02.2011

Best Albums of 2011: #19


Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
You'll see this one at the top of #1 lists across a lot of publications (perhaps even the Grammys) and I can totally get that. Bon Iver's self-titled sophomore album is an ambitious album that in my mind sometimes bites off more than it can chew, but nevertheless delivers a lush, somber musical experience that's hard to deny. Parts of the album hit me originally as being overwrought and self-aware, but following an emotionally rich album like For Emma, Years Ago, that's to be expected to some degree.

The best tracks on the album like "Perth", "Minnesota, WI", and "Holocene" find a balance between letting Justin Vernon explore some more experimental arrangements and sound-producers without loosing focus in the mix and not sounding like a kid in a candy shop. Amidst the ADD instrumentation exists Bon Iver's strongest claim to fame: Justin Vernon's impeccable ability to write catchy melodies that this album is rife full with. For that alone, this album deserves every bit of acclaim its received.

Best tracks: "Perth", "Holocene"

11.30.2011

Best Albums of 2011: #20


Grouper - A I A / Alien Observer
Grouper is the moniker for ambient-folk, Portland artist Liz Harris and A I A / Alien Observer is her fourth full-length album. If you are into ambient music in any way, shape, or form, this should be your album of the year. In this double album, Grouper still uses an assortment of acoustic and electric instruments to create her majestic soundscapes, but never in a way that feels synthetic. Her whispered vocals stretch out through the mixes like comets with long tails of reverb bouncing through the night sky, always giving the tracks a very "human" feel. Rather than creating ambient music that place the listener wandering the stars lost in space, Grouper's vocals and acoustic sounds instead plant the listener on the ground in the midst of a labyrinth of fog and light.

Even in the song "Alien Observer", one of the most accessible tracks off the album, Liz Harris finds herself looking inward and seeing herself as the outsider looking in -- an "alien observer in a world that isn't mine". Ultimately, a lot of these tracks seem more concerned with exploring the complex soundscapes and emotions within the interior of a person and that's where it has often struck me. Despite how muddled and inaccessible these "songs" can be, I often found myself finding strange moments of clarity in the album while the ambient the soundscapes cleared out the exterior world for me. While A I A / Alien Observer is not as accessible as her previous album, it is no less expansive as a piece of art.

Best tracks: "Alien Observer", "She Loves Me That Way"

11.29.2011

Best Albums of 2011: Honorable Mentions

As I started out doing here last year, I'm excited to begin my countdown of my favorite albums of 2011. Its been such an incredible year in music and I've been exposed to more music than I probably ever have been in my entire life. So much, in fact, that I haven't been able to review here anywhere close to all of the great albums I've encountered this year.

I love end-of-year lists because they allow more time for the listener to really see which albums stick with him or her in the long run. I can highly recommend all of these albums, each of them for different reasons, but all amazing in their own merit. I hope this goes without saying, but this is just my personal opinion -- music I've really liked from this year. So take what you like and toss out what you don't. I'm also really interested in what some of your guys' favorite albums from this year are, so post your favorites in the comment section!

To start out, here are my five honorable mentions from this year:

TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light
An album that will unfortunately be overlooked based on the accomplishment of the band's previous album. While that may be true, that doesn't change the fact that Nine Types of Light has got some great songs on it and continues TV on the Radio's success in its more accessible sound.
Best tracks: "Second Song", "Will Do"


Little Dragon - Ritual Union
This little gem of an album comes from four artists: three producers and one singer/songwriter. The unique vocals of Swedish singer Yukimi Nagano tie the electronic drum machines and experimental synthesizer sounds into wonderfully crafted pieces of pop electronica.
Best tracks: "Ritual Union", "Shuffle A Dream"


Big K.R.I.T. - Return of 4Eva
Big K.R.I.T.'s flow is one of the most consistent flows around and Return of 4Eva is perhaps his best mixtape yet. Full of dirty southern beats, creative songs, and excellent rhymes, if you are a rap fan, do not miss this one.
Best tracks: "Rotation", "Sub"


Destroyer - Kaputt
While there's plenty of saxophone to find in albums from this year, few do it better than Destroyer. If you can get past the "ironic" smooth-jazz feel of the album, you'll find a wonderfully catchy and beautiful album.
Best tracks: "Kaputt", "Bay of Pigs"


John Mark McMillan - Economy
Not sure if its fair to call this "Christian rock" anymore, but if it is, John Mark McMillan's newest release is a manifesto of how to do it right. With a decidedly Springsteen-influenced sound, Economy progresses the band's sound forward and spotlight's McMillan's outstanding lyricism with its themes of poverty, desperation, and hope.
Best tracks: "Daylight", "Love You Swore"

11.15.2011

M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

9.5


Naive
10/18/2011

"When you're young, you can do anything. And the more I grow up, the less I think that way. Through my music, I'm really trying to convince myself that I can do it. It's like therapy," says Anthony Gonzalez. For a guy that started making music on his laptop in his bedroom, he's going into some awfully daring territory in Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. But that really seems to be his point: dream big. There's no room to be shy about it. M83, a synth-pop shoegaze band made up of one single French dude, Anthony Gonzalez, has never known for being subtle. But Hurry Up, We're Dreaming makes his previous work sound like a mere warmup. The Peter Pan-esque dream world that M83 has crafted is a strange and quirky place to live in over the course of its 72 minutes, but once you fall for it, there's no going back.

My first few listens through the album sparked something of a personal journey inside me, which I wrote about in an article here. Its as if M83's willingness to go forward and create an album this monumental was so absurd that it challlenged the cynic inside me to do the same. I started out wondering if Gonzalez had gone a bit over the top which this whole epic double-album pop thing. After all, these are just pop songs and he's still just singing about following your dreams and falling in love. Furthermore, it doesn't help that M83 isn't exactly subtle about this kind of stuff.

What I really found liberating about the album though was that throughout the album Gonzalez's desire to open up and take chances really drives the music in Hurry Up. The best example I could give is the opening track "Intro (feat. Zola Jesus)", where Gonzalez sets his ambitious intentions for the double album. Zola Jesus whispers some stuff about deserts and light and real worlds and stories before Gonzalez showcases his new, confident vocal style. Where Gonzalez' vocals were once hushed and timid, he is now singing out the top of his lungs in what sounds like a cross between Phil Collins and Animal Collective. The synths are bigger and more extravagant; the drum beats aren't afraid to be upbeat and exciting; the songs simply aren't afraid to let go and simply do what feels good.

But that does not, by any means, mean that the album is not properly thought out either. In fact, Gonzalez has mentioned in interviews how happy he was when he finished the album because it turned out exactly how he had planned it to from the beginning. The album plays in two parts very intentionally -- as mirror images, each song on each album has a corresponding song on the other. This clever structure gives the album unified and succinct feel that is so unlike the "collection of songs" that make up most albums. There are plenty of moments of both quiet solitude and grandeur -- but it all feels like one sweeping expression of one ambitious vision. While I have a couple minor gripes in the mixing and arrangement, there's nothing here that's keeping me from enjoying every single track on this album.

With all that said, I can totally see why some would be turned off by this album. Its overambitious. Its pretentious. Its "trying to take on the world". If for no other reason, on "Raconte-Moi Histoire", M83 lets a little girl talking about frogs take the vocal lead, while the album also features lyrics that a child could have written. But like anything, its easy to brush off art that "takes itself too seriously" in a conceptual way. To me its rare to find music in our postmodern culture that isn't wholeheartedly tongue-in-cheek or utterly apathetic that still retains some shred of sincerity and artistic dignity. Hurry Up is not only the best thing M83 has ever done, its also one of my favorite albums of the year and one I won't soon be forgetting.

11.07.2011

Surfer Blood - Tarot Classics EP

7.5


Warner Bros. Records
10/25/11

You know the days of "selling out" are over when a band like Surfer Blood can sign to Warner Bros. Records and no one even notices. When Surfer Blood's debut album dropped last year, it was something of a breath of fresh air. Here was a young band who was not afraid to play anthemic melodies over distorted power chords in the midst of an indie scene obsessed with reverb and banjos. So how does their sound translate to a major label over a year later?

In one thought: pretty well. If you were a Surfer Blood fan who listened in for the big anthemic melodies and the chugging guitar rock, you'll be quite pleased to hear a lot of that sticking around in the Tarot Classics EP. In fact, in just four songs and 15 minutes, the EP does everything you'd want a follow-up to an album that got as much hype as Astro Coast. The EP opens with the chilled-out surf rock song "I'm Not Ready," which is every bit as catchy as many of the tracks off of their debut album. The first thing I noticed when I first heard the EP though, was the improved production and a stronger sense of confidence coming from frontman John Paul Pitts.

Whereas their big hit from Astro Coast, "Swim," was a sloshy rock song soaked in reverb and effects, "I'm Not Ready" features a John Paul Pitts who is confidently seeing past the hype and not having to rely on effects to create a grand sense of scale. And while the band feels as confident in themselves musically as ever, Tarot Classics also finds the band exploring some deeper sentiments lyrically. On "I'm Not Ready," the context of a relationship gives Pitts the chance to sing some surprisingly good advice that goes beyond the beaches and babes: To be a friend means owning up and giving all of yourself / And loyalty is started through loving others like self.

"Miranda," the EP's big single, is also a track that feels like the boys feel right at home at their new Warner Bros. home. While the production throughout the album definitely shines and glistens considerably more than Astro Coast, "Miranda" proves Surfer Blood have still got that youthful, punk-rock attitude that differentiates them from the crowd of indie-wannabes. And although they retain so many of those same unique qualities that made Astro Coast the hit it was, Tarot Classics is most definitely not the sound of a band in stagnation either.

The big surprise of the album is definitely "Drinking Problem," the final track on the album. Featuring an assortment of drum machines and synthesizers, "Drinking Problem" finds the band reaching out and exploring some unexpected sonic territories. Intricate drum machines, warm synth textures, manipulated vocal samples and nostalgic reverb carry Pitts’ melodies out to sea, not so unlike a more rocked-out version of Panda Bear’s album from earlier this year. The lyrics follow Pitts into the psychological traps of addiction and self-pity, repeating “at least I know who my friends are” over and over. Don’t worry, its nothing too deep, but Pitts’ thematic flexibility is reassuring in the least. Ultimately, the track and the EP overall successfully follow-up Astro Coast and paint a promising future for the four-piece beach rockers.

(This review originally appeared at RELEVANTmagazine.com. Score rounded to fit requirements.)

11.01.2011

Kathryn Calder - Bright and Vivid

7.0


10/25/11
File Under: Music

Supergroups are peculiar entities in that they often end up sounding like the egos of their stars battling it out for the listener’s attention. I would guess this is the reason why a band like New Pornographers has always sought to distance itself from such a term. Although it’s true that many of the members of the band had solo projects or previous band experience (Dan Bejar’s Destroyer, Neko Case and Carl “A.C.” Newman’s solo careers), The New Pornographers was many of these indie stars’ first widely successful project, where they encouraged each other to expand out in their solo careers. This open and inspiring environment was what Kathryn Calder (at only 18 years of age) was welcomed into when she officially replaced Neko Case back in 2006—so when she launched her solo career with her first solo album last year, it didn’t come as much of a surprise.

Where that first album of hers, Are You My Mother?, was incredibly personal and introspective, Calder’s sophomore album is much more open and outward-looking. According to Calder herself, Are You My Mother? was an album that she wanted to record for her dying mother at the time, and that deep personal emotion could be plainly heard, bearing itself on each and every song from that album. As a follow-up, Bright and Vivid finds Calder exploring wider sonic landscapes that range from cutesy synth-pop (“Who Are You?”) to more experimental indie rock (“New Frame of Mind”, “All The Things”). While I usually commend artists for branching out, some of the risks she takes on Bright and Vivid just don’t convince me that she is sold on these ideas either.

The album starts with “One, Two, Three” which features these noisy, distorted guitars that come in swelling and layering on top of each other in a way that wouldn’t sound so out of place in a Sonic Youth album. Although even the vocals are a bit distorted, Calder sings a fantastic melody in the verse of “One, Two, Three” that turns and spins in unexpected ways. Easily one of my favorites off the album, this is a song that shows off Calder’s daring new musical persona that is both sweet and catchy, but also dirty and distorted. Unfortunately, not all of the songs on Bright and Vivid manage to strike that same balance.

Check out the rest of the review in this Issue 18 of the Paste mPlayer.

10.21.2011

Real Estate - Days

7.0


Domino Records
06/18/2011

Last year, Beach House released an album called Teen Dream that won over critics and fans alike, proving that chill, beachy dream pop could hold its weight next to the best and biggest in indie pop and rock while still remaining true to who they were. Teen Dream found the band doing little things like cleaning up the production a little bit and bringing the vocals more to the front of the mix, which helped immensely with creating a more accessible sound. But more than anything else, it seems that it was Beach House’s discovery of their own dynamic songwriting voice that created a special place at the top of many people’s “Best of 2010” lists.

The reason why I begin with this is because I seem to have always lumped Beach House and Real Estate together in similar sonic territory. It might just be that the two bands paint the same washed-out scenes of nostalgia, beaches, and summer in my mind—the kinds of scenes that play back like old memories. Here on Real Estate’s sophomore album, Days, not much has changed in this respect. Real Estate still paints these same scenes with swirling guitars and reverb-laden vocals that harken back to the “good ’ol days” just as well as anyone else.

The album starts out with “Easy,” a mid-tempo surf track that, like its name, feels totally effortless. The verse and chorus and hook breeze by like the gentle wind on the beach and it immediately produces those feelings of nostalgia once again. Fortunately, the production has been given a nudge in the direction of clarity, whereas the vocals and lyrics can be made out noticeably better than on their 2009 debut. Other than that, instrument and production-wise, Days very much exists in the same musical framework that their self-titled debut crafted. The same emphasis of the dueling jangly guitars, which I’ve always enjoyed about the band, are still present and are very much the primary focus of the songs.

On the first single off the album, “Green Aisles,” Real Estate slows things down a little bit and delivers some great lyrics about the singer looking back at the more irresponsible, youthful times in life without regret: “All those wasted miles/All those aimless drives/Through green aisles/Our careless life style/It was not so unwise.” The lyrics and melodies of Real Estate have always had an unequivocally emotive feel to them, and the songs on Days are no exception. Interestingly, while many of their songs feature lyrics about summer, “Green Aisles” takes on the themes of autumn and gives them their own breed of laid-back October melancholy.

The third track on the album, “It’s Real,” is a real standout in that it has a great melody and will make you want to relive the sunny days of summer all over again. It’s also a great change of pace from all the hazy slow songs and it really makes me wish Real Estate was willing to change up the pace and experiment more often. Around halfway through the album, I found that my problems with Days often became more and more realized as many of the songs were hung up on some of the same problems that plagued the band’s debut album: many of the songs end up sounding similar, and the album features very little variation in terms of emotion or instrumentation. Even on other highlights like “Wonder Years,” where the band doesn’t sound too unlike The Smiths, the similarity of the songs obscures the greatness of some of these tracks.

The record’s laid-back feel is a hallmark of Real Estate’s sound, but its also probably the biggest factor that held me back from truly embracing a lot of these songs. Any senses of conflict, motion, or dynamics just are not present in Days and at many points, the players in the band appear to be in a mindless trance where they are constantly playing (and for the most part playing the same thing) throughout the entirety of each song. While I can see how this plays into the entire ethos and mindset of Real Estate, it doesn’t necessarily make for music that was great at holding my attention or providing me with something tangible to remember the songs by. And perhaps that’s the point.

Even still, Real Estate doesn’t seem to have been able to find a distinctive voice that lifts their music above the psychedelic surfer haze and nostalgia that many bands have produced for years now (the group included). After listening to Days time and time again, I was never left with melodies and words and songs, but instead that same atmospheric, nostalgic feeling that their debut album left me with. And while that is as honorable and worthwhile a musical goal as any, unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that Days doesn’t find Real Estate moving forward in a noticeable direction from their debut two years ago.

(This review originally written for PasteMagazine.com. Rating score rounded to match requirements.)

10.18.2011

Class Actress - Rapprocher

8.0


Carpark Records
10/18/2011

Class Actress is the moniker for Brooklyn singer-songwriter Elizabeth Harper, but this definitely isn’t her first venture into the music industry. Harper had released a solo record under her own name back in 2005, but it wasn’t until she hooked up with electronic producer Mark Richardson that her songs were really given the proper vehicle to set herself apart in the indie music world.

Class Actress first started garnering Internet buzz with wonky remixes of songs by Neon Indian and The xx, setting the stage for her EP from 2010 and now her debut album, Rapprocher. According to Harper herself, Class Actress has “crafted sensual music about tragic romance and the eternal longing for all the things you can’t have.” And as ridiculous as that might sound, I couldn’t have described Class Actress’ sound any better myself.

Like most acts that attempt to reclaim glamorous early-‘80s New Wave, Class Actress lives in a completely different era. Like Neon Indian’s first album, the somewhat lo-fi production values and vintage instrumentation never get in the way of the songs, but instead manage to stand alongside them hand-in-hand. This has to do mostly with the fact that the songs themselves on Rapprocher are just infectiously catchy. Whether its the insatiable choruses of “Love Me Like You Used To” or “Weekend,” Class Actress clearly has little interest in the washed-out vocals and melodic inaccessibility of other lo-fi acts. Fortunately, Rapprocher balances these unashamedly poppy and simple melodies with layers of analog synths and vintage drum beats that keep the album from ever being too sugary. In fact, Class Actress actually went through the pain of sampling ’80s drum hits and really gives this album the feel of something that was recorded in 1982.

Ultimately though, the success of Rapprocher hinges on the melodies, vocal delivery, and attitude of Elizabeth Harper. Considering how drastic an image shift Harper took from local acoustic guitar-strumming singer-songwriter to a sex-addicted, caps lock-loving diva, I won’t comment on her legitimacy because the truth is that she completely sells it in Rapprocher. And while Harper doesn’t quite have the charisma of idols like Madonna or even artists who’ve attempted similar image transformations like Lana Del Rey, the heartbroken melodrama of each of the songs projects itself fully in the image Elizabeth Harper bears.

In other words, Class Actress totally pulls it off. Even with the inclusion of a couple of duds on here like “Missed” (where Harper endlessly repeats “You’re gonna miss me” to the point of irritation), for the most part, Rapprocher is a tight little album full of melodramatic pop tunes dripping in ’80s loving.

(This review originally written for PasteMagazine.com. Rating score rounded to match requirements.)

9.30.2011

St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

9.0


4AD
09/12/11

St. Vincent's Strange Mercy is the kind of album that makes me hopeful for the possibilities of indie pop/rock again. Annie Clark isn't interested in gimmicks or style changes or publicity stunts, but instead just being true to herself. The evolution of her musical prowess throughout her past three albums is easy to follow and clear. In fact, many of the same things that have always been a part of St. Vincent's music find a place in Strange Mercy: The big beats, the distorted electric guitars, and the delicately delivered vocals. That's why its even more impressive to say that Strange Mercy is anything but predictable.

The album begins with "Chloe in the Afternoon", with some 60s Sci-Fi synth textures floating behind Clark's leaping vocal melody. The opening of the track sets up the primary dichotomy of the album: the catchy, femininity of Clark's vocals versus the hyper-masculine, prog-rock of her electric guitar playing. The theme of gender and identity run deep throughout the album, popping up in her desire to move beyond the gender roles that society has given her ("I don't want to be a cheerleader no more", "When I was young, coach used to call me the tiger"), while also admitting to the motherly instincts of her own ("Oh little one I'd tell you good news that I don't believe if it would help you sleep"). If you've seen the disturbing music video that accompanies the single, "Cruel", then you know what I'm talking about.

The other dichotomy that runs throughout the album is the one that balances unashamed catchiness and unbridled sonic experimentation. On songs "Northern Lights", Clark writes some of the catchiest vocal and guitar melodies you'll hear this side of her hit single "Actor Out Of Work" from her 2009 album - that is, until it gets to the synth "solo" that consists of a flurry of bleeps and bloops that attack your ears from all directions.

The result is an album that will make you sing along as much as it makes you stop and think. Everything from the clever songwriting to the inventive guitar leads on Strange Mercy exist with this framework and make this, without a doubt, St. Vincent's best work thus far. On "Champagne Year", Clark admits that she "makes a living telling people what they want to hear", yet to me, Strange Mercy is the kind of music that I never knew I wanted to hear. Perhaps that makes it another form of strange mercy in itself.

9.27.2011

yMusic - Beautiful Mechanical

7.5


New Amsterdam Records
09/27/2011

The popularity of the “small ensemble” is quickly becoming one of the most exciting and progressive developments in art music today. With ensembles like Victoire (who released their debut LP last year), Osso (who recorded Sufjan Stevens’ Run Rabbit Run project), and now yMusic, the lines between terms like “ensemble,” “band,” “classical,” and “pop,” are being crossed like they don’t even exist. These young, classically-trained dropouts have all the prestige and virtuosity of classical music degrees with all the attitude and energy of an indie rock band, and yMusic is no different. Having collaborated on stage with acts like St. Vincent and Bon Iver, the ensemble is already well-versed on what it takes to function in the overlapping worlds of pop and classical.

As far as instrumentation goes, yMusic is a sextet made up of a string trio, a trumpet, a flute, and a clarinet. While that might not strike many as being necessarily groundbreaking, the unique ensemble gives yMusic a great amount of flexibility that definitely lends to the success of Beautiful Mechanical, their debut album. These guys can sound as pleasant as a cuddly pop song at times and then without a flinch guide you into swirls of tumultuous avant-garde. That is both in compliment to the ensemble’s committed musicianship and to the composers/musicians who wrote tracks on Beautiful Mechanical.

The album starts off with the title track, which is written by electronic musician Son Lux. The artist’s background in electronica shows through in the track, which is a bubbling piece of post-minimalism that chugs along in frantic rhythms and relentless repetition. The piece’s sound feels akin to the way the composers on Run Rabbit Run interpreted Sufjan Stevens’ album of electronic bleeps and bloops: screeching violins, pulsating rhythms, and an unbridled use of extended techniques.

Although yMusic certainly worked closely with the various composers involved with the album, the fact that yMusic does not write their own music obviously puts the album at a disadvantage. Because of this, Beautiful Mechanical doesn’t have the kind of undeniable character of albums like Victoire’s 2010 album, Cathedral City. While all the tracks certainly exist in a specific musical framework, Beautiful Mechanical probably won’t leave you with the strong impression that yMusic probably hoped it would. However, while this is certainly a weakness of the album, it also allows for some great contributions from some of all of our favorite indie musicians.

One of the strongest moments of the album is the track “Proven Badlands,” which was written by Annie Clark of St. Vincent fame. What’s great about “Proven Badlands” is that it sounds unmistakably like St. Vincent in its harmonic language and melodic structuring. The heavy repetition in the syncopated trumpet hits sound remarkably familiar to songs off St. Vincent’s most recent album, Strange Mercy, maintaining that same bizarre tension between being beautifully sweet and aggressively harsh that runs through so much of Annie Clark’s music.

I really enjoyed some of the chances yMusic boldly took, and many of the them really paid off artistically. One good example is on the final track on the album, “Song,” which features a haunting duo between a tremolo electric guitar and a lone trumpet. However, I was a little less impressed by some of the more cliched “risks” the album took. In particular, Shara Worden’s two short contributions don’t quite stand up to the fine-tuned quality of the rest of the album, unfortunately. “A Whistle, A Tune, A Macaroon” features flutter-tonguing that feels just as needlessly gimmicky as its title, while the bongo drum in “A Paper, A Pen, A Note To A Friend” feels equally out of place.

The centerpiece of the album, “Clearing, Dawn, Dance,” is where yMusic really soars though. The prolific Brooklyn-based composer Judd Greenstein really gives yMusic something to shine with. The 10-minute piece takes the ensemble in a number of directions, but yMusic always seems to one step ahead of the pages and pages of notes that fly by. Greenstein’s contribution is pristine and beautifully pastoral in the same ways that a lot of American classical music has always been. Filling the gap between Aaron Copland and Steve Reich, Greenstein paints huge strokes of color across landscapes and sweeping backdrops and manages to be just accessible enough to effortlessly take the listener along for the ride.

Upon hearing the album, many will wonder at what kind of target market yMusic is after. But that’s also what makes the ensemble so good. The members of yMusic aren’t concerned with labels and demographics, just with producing music that moves them. Will yMusic make classical music relevant again? Probably not. Even still, yMusic’s debut album features the kind of indie pop name-dropping to get new folks interested, while still holding on to the substantial chops that will attract classical music nerds and probably get them featured on NPR’s “Classical” page.

(This review originally written for PasteMagazine.com. Rating score rounded to match requirements.)


9.22.2011

Canon Blue - Rumspringa

7.5


Temporary Residence
08/16/2011

There is a lot to be said about classical or art music influences on the realm of pop music, but the desire to implement the two has always played a crucial role in American music. Whether its through composers like Steve Reich or pop musicians like Sufjan Stevens, the doors for cross-cultural musical assimilation have been blown open, leaving plenty of room for an artist like Canon Blue to exist. Canon Blue is the solo project of singer-songwriter Daniel James and Rumspringa is sophomore album (his first being a collaboration with Grizzly Bear member Chris Taylor). Throughout the album, James seems to be on the mission to make the case that orchestral brass and strings can replace guitars in upbeat pop songs. And in many ways, he succeeds in doing that.

The album opens with some Steve Reich-influenced woodblock hits and repetitious horn blasts that are immediately recognizable to the listener familiar with artists like Steve Reich and Sufjan Stevens. The spin that Canon Blue gives it, though, comes in the form of a big, chugging, four-on-the-floor kick drum. In this opening song, "Chicago (Chicago)", you get a pretty good preview for what most of the album will sound like: Steve Reich orchestrations, polished production, soaring vocal melodies, and wildly energetic drum beats. Like what Local Natives were to Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes last year, Canon Blue boosts orchestral pop with an emphatic amount of energy and charisma.

In what feels like another homage to Sufjan Stevens are the geographical references in the song titles. Each named after different American cities, the varied instrumentation and styles represented in the music really give each song a sense of location. Whether its the somber horn sections of "Fading Colors (Bloomington)" or the creeping violin line that opens "A Native (Madison)", the road-trip attitude of the album gives it a strong personality that feels like it takes you from one and place and really takes you to somewhere else. "Honeysuckle (Milwaukee)" opens with fluttering electronics, while songs like "Fading Colors (Bloomington)" feature cooing background vocals against glimmering glockenspiels, each of the songs attempting to do something creative and innovative.

Unfortunately, at times the songwriting and lyric-writing left me a little underwhelmed next to the size of the colossal arrangements. Some of the lyrical themes can feel a little rehashed and predictable, which is a bit of letdown compared to some of the clever wordplay in other tracks. I can't help feel that there was a bit of an opportunity missed in going a bit further with the locations these songs are supposedly based in. I would have loved to hear more specific references to these places that would help differentiate the songs from each other and support the music.

Rumspringa, which literally means "jumping around" or "running around", refers to a coming-of-age adolescence in Amish communities. While there is little in this album in the way of religious thematic material, Canon Blue's sophomore album definitely feels like a release of untamed energy. In some ways, it sounds like a young singer-songwriter discovering the depths of the symphony orchestra for the first time or conversely, the music of a classically-trained music student being redeemed from the shackles of a stuffy music academy. And even though the linear nature of most of the songs were one of the main problems I had with the album, it still feels incredibly youthful and rebellious. Ultimately, Rumspringa is a piece of charming orchestral pop that takes in influences from the likes Sufjan Stevens and Owen Pallett and creates something that is not nearly as daring, but still entirely enjoyable and worthwhile.

9.08.2011

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

9.0


Vagrant Records
02/15/11

I'll be honest, I hadn't heard much of PJ Harvey before this year. I'd heard the name, but hadn't ever really heard any of her past seven studio albums. There was a lot of hype about this album: lots of raving reviews and chart-topping stats, but I still resisted based on the fact that I knew almost nothing about it. But finally, just a few months ago, I got the album and it was one of those albums where I just "got it" instantly: the brooding lyrical devices, PJ's catchy vocal performances, and the somber production. Everything I'd heard about the album made sense and I found myself really enjoying it right from the get-go (which is a bit rare for me).

The album starts with the title track, "Let England Shake", a simple song with some great lyrics that spell out a grim future for the singer's home country ("England's dancing are done"). The track lays out the thematic and musical framework for the entire album quite well, as most of the album exists within the theme of England, war, and death (sounds great right?). PJ really does the expansive themes justice with some great wordplay and original metaphors. Let England Shake isn't so much political as it is reflective and honest about the country that she clearly feels passionate about. You won't hear PJ calling out politicians, but you'll hear her allude to the destructive power of war and express feelings for a country glorious past.

Musically, PJ's multi-instrumentalism is deemphasized in this album in favor of focusing on her jangly guitar playing and autoharp strumming. The instrumentation and structure of the songs is really quite simply, but the entire album is incredibly cohesive in how it sounds. There are no songs that stick out as not fitting in any way and there really is something refreshing about her willingness to stick to that specific sound for the entire album. Standout songs for me were definitely "Words That Maketh Murder" and "England". The album really is meant to be heard straight through, or at least in three or four song chunks. Its only gotten better since I started listening to it, so I'm considering it definitely to be one of my favorite albums of the year so far.

8.17.2011

Addressing My Absence!

Hey everyone! Sorry I haven't written anything in a while. There's been a ton of awesome music out there that I've been really into and I really have wanted to share my thoughts here but just haven't had the time. If you haven't heard, I recently moved down to Decatur, Georgia (its just outside Atlanta) where I've been doing an internship with Paste Magazine for a few days now and will be here until mid-December. Check out the site, as I'll be posting news articles, reviews, and others articles on a daily basis!

Until I find some time to write some reviews, check out a few of these albums that I've been listening to (some I like, some I like less):

Bon Iver - Bon Iver
Little Dragon - Little Ritual
My Morning Jacket - Cirtuital
Canon Blue - Rumspringa
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
The Throne - Watch the Throne
The Antlers - Burst Apart
Cults - Cults
Washed Out - Within and Without
Jhameel - The Human Condition

7.01.2011

Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys

7.5


Atlantic
05/31/11

Let me just say this first: I'm not a huge Death Cab fanboy. Their earlier albums (Transatlanticism in particular), really had a special place in my high school-aged music collection, but I never got fully into their later releases. I've got a ton of respect for both Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla as musicians, producers, and songwriters. However, how that has played out in their "post-mainstream" era of albums hasn't really gotten my attention. In fact, how I feel about Codes and Keys seems to be familiar to how I originally felt about their last relase, Narrow Stairs.

Narrow Stairs found the band indulging back in electric guitars and moody atmospherics, something the previous album, Plans, had shied away from. Death Cab seemed intent on proving to us that they hadn't sold out or gotten old. There are some great moments on the album, but it definitely took me awhile to get past the direction of the whole thing. Codes and Keys follows up Narrow Stairs in a way that attempts reasserts their "prog-pop" credibility with some experimental songwriting and piano-led instrumentation.

The album opens with a quiet and unnerving song entitled "Home is a Fire". The rhode keyboards and ride cymbal sprinkles give the verses of the song a great sonic instability that accentuates the lyrics as well. Other highlights of the album would definitely include "You Are a Tourist", the first single. In classic Death Cab form, this upbeat single includes an infectious melody and guitar hook that fits great along singles from other albums like "No Sunlight" from Narrow Stairs. Meanwhile, the clear standout of the album for me is "Unobstructed Views", the piano-led song with an extended instrumental intro. The atmospheric keyboards, soaring melody, and quiet patience are Death Cab for Cutie at its best and prove that they still are the best at turning what have been a completely standard pop song and changing its structure to create something much more beautiful.

However, I had a number of problems with the album, mostly to do with Gibbard. In most of these songs, he seems to have gotten overzealous and written a bit out of his vocal range. Almost all of the songs sit at the top peak of his range, leaving most of the songs with the same, slightly whiny feel. As Gibbard has gotten more confident in his vocal delivery over the years, the more and more contrived it feels to me. Furthermore, his lyrics, which have consistently become more focused on getting older, usually leave me a bit unconvinced coming from the 34-year old rock star. The track "Some Boys" exemplifies both of these qualities and might be the only song on the album that I just can't stand.

Overall though, Codes and Keys is a solid followup to Narrow Stairs and for fans it will offer enough standard Death Cab goodness and experimental switching up to satisfy big expectations. To me, in "Unobstructed Views" they've offered what might be their best song since "Marching Bands of Manhattan" from Plans and a totally enjoyable album through and through. Despite some of my gripes with Gibbard as a singer and lyricist, I found myself still quite often enjoying many of the songs and can definitely see myself returning to the album later on.

6.29.2011

Coldplay - Every Teardrop is a Waterfall EP

7.0


06/26/11
EMI Records

The Every Teardrop is a Waterfall EP is the seemingly spontaneous release of three new tracks from the stadium-sized British rockers. After significantly shifting their sound toward more organic and holistic mixes in Viva La Vida, the band is attempting to followup that incredibly successful album from 2008.

In what frontman Chris Martin called the end of "Oldplay", Viva La Vida marked a distinct change in the populist band's sound and image. Much thanks to the addition of producer Brian Eno, gone were both the sensitive acoustic strumming of albums like Parachutes and the synth-heavy, brit-pop of X&Y. Instead, Coldplay was embracing influences from across the musical spectrum: everything from world music and Spanish folk music to pop, indie rock, and dance music. In what was truly an effort to be as inclusive as possible, Viva La Vida was more mainstream pop than any previous albums, but also more experimental as well. The album had enough singles like "Viva La Vida" and "Lost?" to please the masses looking for a big beat and enough experimentation in songs like "Death and All His Friends" and "Violet Hill" to please indie fans and critics alike.

The Every Teardrop is a Waterfall EP features three new songs: "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall", "Major Minus", and "Moving to Mars". Chances are you've already heard the single, "Every Teardrop is Waterfall", which follows the pop sensibilities of songs like "Viva La Vida", but unfortunately lacks any of the interesting lyrical ideas of that song. Nonetheless, the song is definitely the track on the album that marks the most distinct change in sound for the band, combining distinctly U2-esque guitar and vocal work with the synth-dance sounds of "Ritmo De La Noche".

The other songs on the album fit a bit more directly into the typical Coldplay canon with the upbeat "Major Minus" reminding me a bit of "Cemeteries Of London" and the piano-led "Moving to Mars", hearkening back to earlier albums. I really enjoyed the opening half of "Moving to Mars", as Martin explored some deep vocals and interesting chords. However, I can't help but wish the song didn't take the rather standard direction that it takes once the full band comes in. My guess would be that the song will end up being something of a B-side and perhaps not make the final cut of the next album.

Ultimately, as a big fan of Viva La Vida, this EP was a bit underwhelming to me. I could definitely pick up the clear direction that the band wanted to move in in "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall", but am not quite convinced because of the familiarity of the other two tracks. However, I still very much look forward to their forthcoming LP and am curious to see what musical trends the band picks up and lets go of.

For an article I wrote on Viva La Vida and how Coldplay took over the world, click here.

5.02.2011

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

9.5


05/03/11
Sub Pop

Helplessness Blues is the newest album from Fleet Foxes, the folk group out of Seattle that helped put church reverbs, four-part harmony, and old-timey production back on the map with their self-titled debut release in 2009. Back in 2009 I think it was easy for some people to see Fleet Foxes as just another flannel-wearing, beard-growing, group of hipsters pretending like they actually had been alive in the 60s. However, there was always something special about these guys to me. Despite their playfully escapist lyrics about following packs of animals through the forest and singing to meadowlarks, there was a sense of youthful innocence about the whole thing that was delightfully refreshing. For the most part, Helplessness Blues continues a lot of those same vibes and keeps plenty of the band's signature free-loving folk pop around. However, it is also a decisively darker and more experimental album and finds the band confronting some their youthful idealism with harsh doses of reality and doubt.

The band sets the stage of the album with the opening track "Montezuma", something of an understated way to start an album of such huge proportions. Lead singer and songwriter, Robin Peckinfold, starts out the album singing about how quickly life has passed him by as a young adult: "So now I am older/Than my mother and father/When they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?" Later on, the song even has him looking toward his own grave and simultaneously proving how much he has matured as a lyricist: "In dirth or excess, both the slave and empress/Will return to the dirt I guess, naked as they came/I wonder if I'll see any faces above me/Or just cracks in the ceiling, nobody else to blame".

Most of the album seems to revolve around the coming-of-age theme of aging and understanding your place in the world, highlighted by the centerpiece of the album: the title track. Although the track has been out for quite some time, I hesitate to not bring up the incredibly strong line thats worth the price of admission on its own: "I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see/And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be/A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me". Peckinfold seems to have stumbled upon what feels like a manifesto for the twentysomething generation, him being only 25 years old himself. Honestly, I don't know many people around that age that aren't asking similar questions of themselves these days. Having so concisely spoken for their generation, in my mind the Fleet Foxes deserve the highest of lyrical accolades.

Working together in great harmony, the album's conceptual ideas about youth and searching for identity help push the album outside the familiar bounds of pop song structures. Because of this emphasis on looser or more experimental song structures, the songs here end up having much more room for a larger dynamic range and more interesting instrumentation. The song "Sim Sala Bim", for example, goes from a part of the song that is packed to the sonic brim with tremolo strings buzzing, three part harmonies, and what feels like an entire band of guitar strummers, to a single, gentle acoustic guitar and Peckinfold's almost whispered vocals. The songs with multiple sections like the 3-part, 8-minute long, "The Shrine / An Argument", open up the exploratory song structures even more. "The Shrine / An Argument" is a particularly experimental track with its first half exploring some of the more spine-tingling, harsher tones of Peckinfold's voice and its ending erupting in a strange interruption of Colin Stetson going at it on a bass clarinet. Despite how weird that sounds, as the album ebbs and flows with multiple instrumental tracks and multiple part songs, you'll find a lot of places to get lost in the spacious auditory environment that Fleet Foxes have crafted.

There is a lot to say about this album, but so far, the more I listen to it the more I am getting out of it. Whether its the simple, effect-free (no reverb to be heard!) track "Blue Spotted Tail" or the sprawling, Jonsi-esque, epic of an album closer "Grown Ocean", I've found myself constantly finding reasons to return to almost every single one of these tracks. And while not being nearly as perfectly calculated and rounded as the band's first album, I think Helplessness Blues' ability to be just the opposite has resonated with me both musically and lyrically in a way that that the debut album just couldn't have. There is a greater sense of risk here and for the most part, it really pays off. Most importantly though, Helplessness Blues does a great job of tossing aside any speculations that the Fleet Foxes might have been merely a passing trend. These guys are here to stay.


Fleet Foxes - Grown Ocean

4.30.2011

Panda Bear - Tomboy

6.5


04/11/11
Paw Tracks

The infamous psychedelic synth group, Animal Collective, has always been a unique representation of the endless tug-of-war between the avant-garde and pop that currently dominates that which we call "indie music". What's been unique about Animal Collective is that the two sides of this tug-of-war have always been represented by the two vocalists of the group: Avey Tare and Panda Bear. Panda Bear has always been the voice of blissful melody and poppy nostalgia while Avey Tare has always represented the voice of untamable musical experimentation and production. Although you might never know it from listening to the unifying sound of Animal Collective, the idea that Animal Collective was some kind of a "collaboration" between the two artists had always been at the roots of the band. Unfortunately, to me, the collective sound of their collaboration has always left me feeling a bit underwhelmed by the solo work of these two musicians and Panda Bear's newest record seems to be no exception.

Following up his critically-acclaimed album from 2007, Person Pitch, Panda Bear adds some much appreciated fidelity to the mix in his newest release, but maintains many of the general vibes from his prior album. Tomboy finds Panda Bear diving even deeper into the depths of his laid back, surfer attitude. In one of my favorite tracks from the album, Surfer's Hymn, Panda Bear directly references surfing and finds philosophical consolation in the water and waves in typical Panda Bear style. The percussion rattles and bounces amidst the bubbling synths and soaring melody and creates a great flow Unfortunately, Surfer's Hymn is probably the most sonically dynamic track on the album with most of the other songs sitting on one sound or feel for the entire duration of the song. While I totally understand what he's doing here, many of the songs just doesn't appeal to me in the way that makes me want to return to them unlike more of the tracks from Person Pitch or the Animal Collective albums.

In fact, I really like some of the sounds Panda Bear is working with here. I love the sawtooth synth at the beginning of the title track "Tomboy" or even the quiet pianos in "Scheherazade". I also like that Panda Bear is experimenting with these different instruments and moods, expanding the washed-out guitars and samples that dominated Person Pitch. However, more than anything else, the lack of explosive production and dynamic songwriting here has made me increasingly aware of what makes the collaboration of Animal Collective so great. While this album lacks focused aggression and unpredictable sonic experiments to me, Avey Tare's solo release last year lacked the undeniable hooks and melodies that Panda Bear is known for. So while I appreciate hearing the differing perspectives between Panda Bear and Avey Tare, these solo albums mostly appreciate the collaboration even more and get me more excited for the next Animal Collective album.


Panda Bear - Surfer's Hymn

4.27.2011

TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light

8.5


04/11/11
Interscope Records

I think its safe to assume we were all a little spoiled by TV on the Radio's 2008 release, Dear Science. To think that a band with an early discography as noisy and distorted as TV on the Radio's could go on to release something so instantly accessible, perfectly sequenced, and undeniably catchy was something of a strange, indie listener's guilty fantasy. While many of the songs from that album worked great as singles, Dear Science also had an amazing amount of flow and listenability as an album, easily making it both one of the best albums of the year and the best work of their career. "Family Tree", the beautiful string-led ballad from Dear Science, was perhaps the only track from the album that felt a bit out of place to me. The deeply personal lyricism and organic instrumentation of the track felt strange up against the punchy drum loops and aggressive lyrics of tracks like "Dancing Choose" and "Red Dress". Following up that track, their new album seems to set out to create a much more personal and emotional album that might have provided a better space for a song like "Family Tree".

After considering the actual sounds that make up this album, you'll notice that Nine Types of Light doesn't deviate much from the sonic groundwork of Dear Science. This, of course, is not a bad thing at all in my books. You'll still find the Prince-esque falsetto choruses in songs likes "Keep Your Heart" and "You". You'll still find killer bass lines in "Will Do" and the fanfare horn blasts in songs like "New Cannonball Blues". Furthermore, frontman Tunde Adebimpe sounds as good as ever, continuing to have his uncanny knack for writing melodies that are as catchy as they are inventive.

Even so, Nine Types of Light is indeed a different kind of album as a whole. Opening with three slower tempo songs, the guys seem to be less concerned with convincing everyone that they are energetic and creative and more concerned with representing themselves in an honest way. In fact, a large part of the album deals with the topic of relationships and love, something somewhat new for the band. Because of that, Nine Types of Light feels like a much more introverted album, both musically and lyrically. Songs like "You" and "Will Do" are written like love notes from the perspective of direct experiences and emotions. Whereas Dear Science felt a bit heady in its critiques of society and culture, Nine Types of Light turns inward and examines the self. Naturally, this makes the album feel a bit less "important" and intentional at times. As I mentioned before, as the album pushes on to its end it actually finds itself returning to more extroverted themes in songs like "Repetition" and "Caffeinated Consciousness". Unfortunately, to me this is where the album loses a little steam as well.

Because the album is in someways divided into two with most of the slower songs packed to the front and most of the upbeat songs packed toward the end, Nine Types of Light definitely does feels a bit uneven to me. This 'flow' problem is what a lot of critics have been calling Nine Types of Light's primary flaw and I think do now understand what they mean by this after taking a lot of listens. I would much have preferred for the album to have stayed closer the conceptual and musical themes of the first half of the album. After the heartfelt words of "Will Do" are sung, "New Cannonball Blues" feels almost like the startling beginning of a new album.

At the same time, I don't want to act like the album's lack of focus and strange organization has kept me from thoroughly enjoying the songs here. As TV on the Radio pushes forward into mainstream success, Nine Types of Light has plenty of hits on it to satisfy the masses. Even if am not necessarily really feeling the way they chose to lay out the album, Nine Types of Light still manages to take all the accessibility and sonic fidelity of Dear Science and use them to create another great set of songs with that distinctive afro-funk touch that we all know and love.


TV on the Radio - Will Do

4.19.2011

Peter Bjorn and John - Gimme Some

7.0


Startime
03/28/2011

Poor Peter, Bjorn, and John. No matter how good anything they release will be after Writer's Block and their big single, Young Folks, they will always be labeled as a one-hit wonder. Gimme Some is the sixth full-length album from the Swedish indie rockers and finds them returning to the simple, pop/rock sound that got them on iPod commercials and the entire world whistling along. And while some will certainly call this album nothing more than PB&J attempting to cash in on their previous successes, Gimme Some has got enough sunshine pop tunes to keep even the toughest cynics smiling.

Starting with "Tomorrow Has To Wait", PB&J seems determined to show the world that they've got more where Writer's Block came from. The first few tracks are pure, indie bubblegum. The first track, "Tomorrow Has To Wait", has a catchy hook full of pentatonic goodness, even though the lyrics are laced with enough cliches to be a song that you might want to graduate high school to: "It's too late/But tomorrow has to wait/It's the time of your life/So tomorrow has to wait". Even still, the track is a sign that PB&J are serious about their return to fun and lightheartedness and has enough substantial hookyness to keep this one stuck in your head. Where their last album, Living Thing, featured non-traditional song structures, drum machines and synths, and general "more sophisticated than thou" experimentation, Gimme Some brings back the return of the punchy drums and singalong choruses that made Writer's Block so successful.

Their signature high-energy drumming and catchy bass groves are in full force here, proving how full their simple, three-piece band can feel, with the youthful energy of The Beach Boys with the added effect of Peter Moren's John Lennon-esque vocals. But you won't find any ballads or breaks in uptempo pop songs here. Gimme Some never lets up on the breakneck drums and hard hitting electric guitars, perhaps described most fittingly in the song "(Don't Let Them) Cool Off". But I couldn't help feeling a little overwhelmed by all the over-the-top energy of the album at points. Overall, the first half of the album, if not a bit one-dimensial, is a fun and catchy group of pop songs. Perhaps its just the obsessive attention I put on how albums flow, but most of the songs after the melodic wonder "May Seem Macabre" aren't really doing much for me. In the songs that find the band returning to some of their dirtier pop-punk roots, most notably "Black Book", the mix just feels cluttered and claustrophobic.

The problem isn't that there aren't enough hooks or big beats in Gimme Some, its just that once you get halfway through the album you begin to get the feeling that PB&J, despite their best intentions, are trying a little to hard to convince you of how fun they are. Luckily, there are enough memorable tunes here to put it above any of PB&J's more recent efforts and their return to straightforward pop rock turns out to really suits them well. A lot of these songs bubble and burst with joy and summertime bliss and I can totally seem myself returning to this one come July.


Peter Bjorn and John - Tomorrow Has To Wait

4.17.2011

Favorite Radiohead Songs of All Time

I know Radiohead's most recent album, The King of Limbs, was "sooo two months ago", but in light of all the mixed reviews its been getting and the recent attention the band has been receiving, I thought it would be fitting to make a list of my favorite Radiohead songs of all time. I can't say, after making this list, that I understand any better how The King of Limbs fits in the grand scheme that is the Radiohead discography, but oh well. Oh and by the way, I don't claim to be a Radiohead expert or even the world's biggest fan; these are the ones that have stuck with me the longest.



Honorable Mentions:
-Karma Police
-Bloom

10. Creep
While a lot of "hardcore" Radiohead fans tend to overtook their most popular single of all time behind, I find "Creep" to be a great representation of how even from very early on, Radiohead was able to write music that resonated with listeners in a very special way. After seeing a cover of the song sung by a choir in the trailer for the recent film, Social Network, it became so very clear to me that there was something significant about the way this band would come to inhabit the voice of an entire generation of people entangled in issues of self-image, individuality, and alienation.

9. High and Dry
If you listen to this one up against the other songs on the list, you'll find its pretty striking how much Radiohead has changed their sound. A single off their second 1995 alternative rock album, The Bends, "High and Dry" represents the best of Radiohead's more mainstream pop/rock sound and is a good reminder of how good the band once was at this sound.

8. Let Down
The big single off of OK Computer, "Let Down", saw Radiohead mastering their new experimental rock sound and perfectly combining it with the mainstream rock sound of The Bends, their previous album. "Let Down" was just the kind of anthem that the band needed to boost them into the stratosphere of global popularity and stadium rock stardom. Plus, the cute, sine wave tinkles at the end of the album are a naive, but cordial prophecy of the electronic experimentation of Kid A that was just around the corner.

7. Paranoid Android
This incredibly strange track off OK Computer shows off Radiohead's bizarre harmonic language that shows off the band's uncanny use of traditionally non-pop chord progressions and key changes. Taking cues from progressive rock and the late Beatles albums, this multi-sectional song had just enough dark sonic exploration and explosive electric guitar fuzz to win over fans from all sides of the "rock" spectrum.

6. House of Cards
Who honestly knew Radiohead still had this side of them around? This often overlooked, reverb-laden track off of In Rainbows, has got to be one of the most simple songs Radiohead has ever released. Its soaring melody, love affair-themed lyrics, and simple production makes this one my favorite "ballad" (if you want to call it that) by Radiohead and shows that for all Radiohead's contrived instrumentation and pretentious lyrical ideas, they can still write a simple love song and pull it off with a convincing amount of tenderness.

5. Optimistic
This more "classic Radiohead" sounding, track off of Kid A is often seen as the one misnomer in the Kid A album. Whereas the rest of album retreats from incredibly popular sound that the band achieved on their previous record, OK Computer, "Optimistic" finds a lot of overlapping ground with it. Featuring a full-fledged rock band Fortunately, Optimistic is simply too good have been left off a Radiohead album and features just enough lyrical and sonic experimentation to fit in well enough on the album while at the same time giving older fans something to hold on to.

4. Reckoner
Only after three albums of electronic experimentation could Radiohead be free to release such tracks like Reckoner of pure, simple, unrestrained beauty. In "Reckoner", a track off of In Rainbows, we are again reminded of how sweet and powerful Thom Yorke's haunting falsetto vocals truly are. Yorke's long sweeping melodies contrast up against the assorted percussion from the rest of the band and culminate in a beautiful drop-out bridge section, only to return to the previous section with layered strings and percussion in the arsenal.

3. Idioteque
This one is the crown of Kid A and perhaps the climax of the album as a whole. Using the sounds of house and techno beats to drive the unnerving post-apocalyptic tension in this track, Idioteque is the prime example of what I would call Kid A's thematic emphasis on 'digital anxiety'. The beautiful chorus melody contrasts starkly with the ghostly atmospheric noises and hollow drum machines and making Idioteque land somewhere between a dance song not meant for dancing and a rock song without any real instruments. However you classify it, it's straight up genius and that's before hearing the energetic live versions that made turned it into a fan favorite.

2. Airbag
The opening distorted electric guitar notes that begin "Airbag" and OK Computer are truly representative of the more experimental rock genre in which they were headed as well as the lyrical ideas of the album. While not a true concept album, OK Computer dealt quite directly with issues of consumerism, alienation, industry, and apocalypse and "Airbag" opens with these evocative lyrics: "In the next world war/In a jackknifed juggernaut"/I am born again" and "In an interstellar burst/I am back to save the universe". People have linked the 1997 album to the millIt was all of a sudden very clear that Radiohead's era of soul-searching and personal lyricism was over and they were entering into the strange, mysterious ground of concept.

1. Everything in Its Right Place
Okay, so I guess I'm a sucker for album openers. To me, this first track off of Kid A is not only my favorite Radiohead song, it was also the face of the new sound Radiohead wanted to project with their shocking, new electronic sound in Kid A. The smooth electronic organ, the strange vocal manipulations, and the uniquely Radiohead harmonic language just perfectly sums up the band for doing what they are best at: constantly redefining what it means to be a rock band in our ever-changing cultural landscape through beautiful musical experimentation and masterful songwriting.

4.02.2011

Typhoon - A New Kind of House EP

8.0


Tender Loving Empire
03/08/11

When I first heard Typhoon was a big "epic"-sized band, I'll admit I wasn't exactly super-excited to hear what the talk was all about. Even I, the only guy who thought Sufjan Stevens' most recent album was the best album of 2010, was beginning to become weary of bands who claim to be "bigger-than-life". Maybe its just the Oregonian in me talking, but Portland's Typhoon newest EP has seemed to have revived my faith in the power of "big" once again. Typhoon, more than any other band I've heard of recently, is most certainly that. Featuring 12 band members that could function as their own personal marching band, Typhoon has all the symphonic intricacy of a Sufjan Stevens arrangement and all the communal energy of Arcade Fire's Funeral all contained in a relatively short 5-song EP.

Fortunately, Typhoon relies on their big size in a way that feels musically fundamental to their sound instead of getting in the way of the songs. So when you hear the mariachi-style horns or the crowd of people singing in the opening track, "The Honest Truth", you're hearing the real thing. A New Kind of House is the followup to last year's full-length, Hunger and Thirst, and finds the band becoming a much more cohesive band in the studio. Creating what frontman Kyle Morton calls "walls of sound", A New Kind of House feels like more of a family than a band at times. Their familial themes and lyrics left a heavy impression on me, often leaving me wanting to be adopted and sing right along with them. The fact that they tour in 12-passenger vans and live together in a single studio apartment proves that these guys aren't just adopting some kind of trend: they live it.

You'll notice that at times these songs can sound messy and even a bit crowded at points, as if their big sound didn't quite fit in between the two audio channels on your headphones. And while I'm sure this will turn off some, these songs are full of great moments that only a band this big could produce such as the soaring melody in "Kitchen Tile" or the punchy breakdown in "Claws, Pt. 1". The mix does a great job of bending and fumbling through the montage of instruments, highlighting different parts of this indie-orchestra at different times, but still often keeping the big picture in mind. And while the EP is a bit shorter than I would have preferred, that is always the sign of a good thing. According to Morton, A New Kind of House acts as something of a bridge in between Hunger and Thirst and what comes next. Judging from their recent appearance at SXSW and their plans to begin working on their next full-length this summer, I think its fair to say that this EP isn't the last you'll be hearing from Typhoon.


Typhoon - The Honest Truth