St. Vincent - Strange Mercy



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.


yMusic - Beautiful Mechanical


New Amsterdam Records

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.)


Canon Blue - Rumspringa


Temporary Residence

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.


PJ Harvey - Let England Shake


Vagrant Records

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.