Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges



When you first hear Colin Stetson's music, you'll be delighted by the artfully crafted compositions that are made up of enough weird sounds, rhythms, and textures to make the avant-garde lover inside you rejoice. His compositions in themselves belong among the greatest of the last few years that seeks to successfully erase the lines between classical and popular music by creating artistic music that is as accessible as it is complex. Stetson has the musical courage of a postminimalist composer, the musicianship of a modern jazz performer, and the vibrant energy of an indie pop arranger. That's all thrown out the window, however, once you find out that the dude plays all the parts of his songs by himself on solo saxophone of all things. That's right, every weird noise, rhythmic sound, and melody here is produced by Stetson and his sax alone and was recorded it single takes with as many as 20 microphones being used at once. Because of the Stetson's use of unique extended techniques and production, the recordings capture some of the most strange and interesting sounds to ever come out of a saxophone. But most importantly, Stetson's grand musicianship and performance credibility always comes second to creating musically rich and memorable compositions.

Stetson's compositions bounce in some areas and croon in others, like a one man saxophone band trying to sound like a electronic, studio-produced, dubstep band. The album starts out with a track called "Awake on Foreign Shores", which features a title and brass blasts that to me recall the opening scene of Inception. The intro track is followed by a piece called "Judges", in which Stetson creates an unforgettable texture of Hans Zimmer-like arpeggios that cycle like a washing machine while the devastatingly smokey melody forces itself to the front of the mix. The energetic rhythmic impulses of Stetson's playing will sound commonplace by the time you get through this album, yet Stetson usually seems to always find ways to make his style sound fresh.

My only hesitation with the album is that it runs just a little too long and include an abundance of shorter tracks that sometimes feel a bit undeveloped. I would have loved to hear some more fleshed-out tracks that explore and emphasize some of the different harmonic and melodic motifs that Stetson introduces. The welcomed collaborations with the spoken word poetry of Laurie Anderson and singing of My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden do help to balance the album out and retrieve the album from the lingering too long in the waters of "instrumental music". In the gospel-tinted song "Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes", Stetson's eerie single-note accompaniment paints Worden's blues melody in shades of sorrow and grief in the same vein as James Blake. The collaborations climax with the song "Fear of the Unknown and The Blazing Sun", a beautiful reminder of the powerful possibilities of the collaboration of such confident artists.

New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges doesn't always feel like a comprehensive work, yet it is praiseworthy for its musicianship and accessibility alone and is revolutionary in its use of the solo saxophone and the production of solo music. It is a clear artistic evolution of Stetson's first solo album and points to an exciting future for the artist. Stetson is another fantastic addition to the growing group of Canada-based, indie pop/classical/jazz musicians that include the likes of Owen Pallett and Sarah Neufeld, who are relentlessly reshaping the way we think of terms like "pop", "singer-songwriter", and "composer".

Colin Stetson - Judges


Radiohead - The King of Limbs



There has been more than enough written about how significant albums like OK Computer and Kid A are, so I don't even want to attempt at properly introducing the band in those terms. Instead, let me just say that having been previously plagued by the disease of having to reinvent themselves artistically or reinvent music itself with every release, Radiohead has finally made an album that feels comfortably like themselves. Their last release, In Rainbows, was the band's "return to form" so to speak and featured songs that were based completely around what they were actually doing live as a band in contrast to the electronic-heavy experimentalism of Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail to the Thief. In Rainbows also showed off the more poppy, sweeter side of Radiohead that had been missing since The Bends and OK Computer in tracks like "Reckoner" and "House of Cards". Pulling influences from a variety of Radiohead's different styles and energizing them with a dose of breakbeat, The King of Limbs feels like it could have been the proper followup to just about any Radiohead album.

What it lacks in memorable melodies and conventional song structure, it boasts in high octane energy and extroverted instrumentation. This is Radiohead's most externally aggressive music since OK Computer and it feels great. The first five tracks of the album are hard-hitting jams that feature Colin Greenwood's delicious bass groves and Phil Sleway's characteristically robotic drums leading the charge, proving that they are just as essential as Thom Yorke's vocals are to who Radiohead is as a band. While its true that songs like "Bloom" and "Lotus Flower" don't sound all that aesthetically revolutionary up against songs like "15 Step" and "Bodysnatchers" from In Rainbows, the band's 4-year absence seems to toss out the early impressions that interpret this as some kind of In Rainbows sister-album. Instead, The King of Limbs seems to do a good job of pulling influences from "Little By Little" harmonic experimentalism sounds like it could have been straight out of OK Computer, while "Feral's" vocal modulations and breakneck speed feels like it could have been placed on the second half of Kid A. Later on in this incredibly short album, "Codex" brings down the tempo and continues Radiohead's tradition of including soft piano-led songs. This time around, the piano is surrounded by a How To Dress Well-esque soft buzz of clipping that acts as a perfect way of wrapping Yorke's voice in a layer of nostalgia and lo-fi trendiness. To close off the album, "Give Up the Ghost" and "Seperator" are some of the most accessible and beautiful Radiohead songs ever written, functioning in the vein of In Rainbows.

Ultimately though, its tough to know exactly where this album fits in the grand scheme that is the Radiohead canon. It has already split critics and fans, some claiming its too low-key, while others claiming its too abstract. As with most Radiohead records, it will take more listens and thought than the average album and will demand just as much from you as you do from it as a listener. However, at some point we are all going to have to realize that Radiohead is just a band and The King of Limbs is a good reminder that they don't always have a grand scheme in their music. The King of Limbs might not be a complete sonic makeover but its definitely also not a transition or B-side album as some have suggested. The album is layered and complex both musically and thematically, but it also feels comfortably settled like a band that is increasingly sounding like a band who knows who they are and what they want to accomplish. But most importantly, The King of Limbs is a straight up smart, challenging, and beautiful album; all the things you'd expect from Radiohead.

Radiohead - Bloom


Arcade Fire's The Suburbs at the Grammys

Aside from all the regular buzz of the Grammys (namely Lady Gaga being weird and everyone hating Justin Bieber), something pretty unique happened this year at the award ceremony. If you haven't heard yet, my #2 pick of 2010, Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, took home the Best Album of the Year award last night at the Grammy's. And while the press wrote the pick off as an upset of the mainstream music world, the win is actually a poignant example of the direction of the music industry. The Grammy's have for so long been a celebration of the pop spectacle and fashion where the quality of the music is a mere side note. The award ceremony seems to stand in stark contrast to the Academy Awards ceremony, where quality, relevance, and artistry are sought after.

Musicians and bands have been known for not attending the award ceremony or criticizing it on the basis of it being a blatant "promotion for the music industry". It was as if everyone knew what the Grammy's were really all about and that was perfectly okay. And while this all may be completely true, this year at the Grammy's something unexpected happened and just about everyone was happy about it. Kanye West cheered safely from his tweet feed, proclaiming Arcade Fire's victory as being a win for "us", or the "true artist". Yet Kanye may be on to something, as picking The Arcade Fire, a band that gets almost no radio plays and exists on an independent label, over the likes of Eminem and Katy Perry, is saying something about the direction in which the award show wants to head.

But even more so, Arcade Fire's victory is a culmination of indie rock's invasion of the mainstream. The genre has been so perfectly assimilated that Arcade Fire doesn't even need to make the jump to a major label to hit #1 on Billboard America, play sold out shows at the Madison Square Garden, or win a Grammy for Best Album of the Year. Even if the Grammy was just a lip service toward actually caring about music, its a brave step in a new direction. Thanks to the internet and the music industry's digitalization, people care more about music and the quality of music today than they ever have before and its about time our award shows start recognizing that. Congratulations Arcade Fire!

Barbara Streisand can hardly believe it:


James Blake - James Blake


A&M / Atlas

Although we don't often stop and think about it, digital culture's influence on our lives has increased tremendously in the last 10 years. Capitalized by the rise of smart phones, laptops, and social networking, the internet now has command over almost every moment of our days and has changed how everything from politics to personal relationships play out in society. Music is no different and has always very much existed in the crux of the digital dialogue. 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. Unlike the paranoia of their apocalyptic release, OK Computer, Kid A was a reflection on the loss of community and identity that the digital age ushered in. Through the lenses of dubstep, AutoTune, and electronica, James Blake has crafted his very own haunting brand of electronic art pop that is many ways a fulfillment of Kid A. You won't hear that reference come up though. Instead Blake claims to be influenced by everything from jazz to indie pop (then again, saying you're influenced by Kid A is kind of unnecessary).

In the first single, "Wilhelms Scream", Blake repeats variations on a single line throughout the song: "I don't know about my love/I don't know about my lovin' anymore/All I know is that I'm fallin/Fallin, fallin, fallin/Might as well fall". After almost getting washed out by walls of synth and added harmonic textures, the melody that starts out as fragile and unsettling is strangely bluesy and satisfying by the end. "I Never Learnt to Share" follows a similar route, starting out as an isolated vocal line surrounded by dissonant harmonies and ending somewhere that includes some jazzy seventh chords and dubstep electronica. Blake's repetition is used to great effect in both these songs, conjuring the language of minimalism in the context of a digital discourse on isolation. The music feels like humanity crying out beneath the weight of technology and modernism, still feeling those same human emotions and finding ways to express them.

The songs aren't all downers though; "Lindesfarne" and "Lindesfarne II" find comfort in the arms of AutoTuned harmonies, taking cues from Bon Iver and Imogen Heap. With his manipulated and overdubbed vocals always being the focal point, Blake even turns his voice into an electronic gospel choir to great effect in the final track, "Measurements". Heady artistic experimentation always feels like the primary priority in Blake's art songs and that ultimately is what will keep it the album from feeling focused. Although being birthed in the environment of dubstep, it would have been great to hear the influence get through more. Unlike other's hopes that James Blake will introduce American white people to dubstep, I don't think Blake's self-titled debut is accessible enough or "dubstep" enough to do it. However, that doesn't take anything away from what this thing is: a truly poignant album of timely electronic art music. With the amount of music Blake has produced within the last year, I think its safe to say that this isn't the last we will be hearing of James Blake either.

James Blake - Wilhem's Scream


The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow


Sensibility Music

The Civil Wars is the moniker for Joy Williams and John Paul White getting together and making some pretty folk music. But having your first proper album go to #1 on iTunes isn't something that happens over night. The two singer-songwriters come from contrasting, but budding solo careers, and created a whole of internet buzz when they released their Live at Eddie's Attic live album a couple years ago. Unlike a lot of music that released as "folk" these days, Barton Hollow is very much a representation of what these two artists do on the stage. In fact, the whole thing hinges on the performance of Williams and White and the way their voices bend and wrap around each other. Fortunately for The Civil Wars, these guys have got an unparalleled kind of guy-girl chemistry that bests anything since The Swell Season. The chemistry usually makes it across quite well, especially in songs like "I've Got This Friend" and the title track, "Barton Hollow".

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".

The darker side of the band is explored further in the title track, an alt-country, "I'm from Alabama" kind of song. It makes you wish there were more of these kind of songs on Barton Hollow, an album made up mostly of quiet musings on guy-girl troubles which, of course, is fitting. When you have two singers this talented singing hushed songs together about the joys and heartache of long-term relationships its hard not to hear the sincerity in their voices. However, the album's snail-paced rut that it gets stuck in toward the end begins to push the duo's winning formula to its breaking point. Although its refreshing to hear music that actually could be performed just as its recorded, I would have loved to hear some a couple more upbeat songs and some arrangements that featured something other than White's quiet guitar-picking in the front of the mix.

From what I've seen and heard, however, all that fades into the background when The Civil Wars get on the stage. These are all-star performers who function together quite like these long-term relationships they sing about do. Bending around each other in balance and space, sometimes taking turns and sometimes existing in glorious harmony, The Civil Wars is a beautiful picture of relationship. Even the way they talk about how they first started writing songs together supports the picture as John Paul White refers to hearing their voices together as a sort of love at "first sight" kind of thing. They seem to think that the "sum of their parts is different than any other music we could make or have made up to this point" and that The Civil Wars is "200 percent what we could be as a solo artist". Barton Hollow has convinced me of the same and has the whole world paying attention to the very promising future for this duo.

The Civil Wars - 20 Years

The Civil Wars - Barlow Hollow


New Track: Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

If you haven't heard this yet, do it now. This might be one of the most well-written songs the Fleet Foxes have ever penned. Their new album, Helplessness Blues, comes out March 3rd!

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues