Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Album Review: Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs

Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs
Atlantic (2008)

7.5/10

Halfway through “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” the first track of Death Cab for Cutie’s new album Narrow Stairs, it becomes clear that the band is embarking on new, unfamiliar terrain.

The past couple of Death Cab albums have been generally characterized by airy melodies with pop accessibility that counterweigh the personal and emotional lyrical themes, often dealing with love and loneliness. Narrow Stairs, however, is a new animal, making the music do more of the work to reflect the darker content of the lyrics, which are as dejected and wistful as ever. While guitarist/producer Chris Walla’s production of Plans left songs shrouded in a soft, fluffy haze that tightened the album together, Narrow Stairs is more bare-bones and stark, making for a more diverse and unpredictable listen.

The clarity of Ben Gibbard’s vocals basically command listeners to delve into his dramatic, if at times melodramatic, lyrical world. Combined with the album’s rigid production, the final result is word-heavy, with lyrics being a central focus to the quality and impact of the work.

As mentioned earlier, the album’s opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge” offers an exciting transition zone between the dreamy melodies of Plans and the more rough edged sound that is to come. An ambient buildup behind Gibbard’s polished singing gives way to a fuzzy guitar riff, pounding drums, and a meandering but prominent bassline. The song ends with Gibbard’s voice floating on a sea of spacey, eerie guitar shrieks. Next comes the sprawling 8 1/2 minute “I Will Possess Your Heart,” a brazen choice for the first, and currently only, single. Riding on 4 1/2 minutes of a wordless introduction of a plodding bassline, spacey and sparse guitar, an anticipating drumbeat and accenting piano, Gibbard comes to the fore with a creepy vow on the part of a stalker. However, the song’s chorus is delivered rather flatly and although the ambient instrumentals are well done, there’s a sense that the song perhaps didn’t deserve the epic treatment in its grand introduction and length.

Death Cab returns to more familiar territory on “No Sunlight,” which offers a brief but enjoyable pop tune that, despite lyrically describing the end of one’s optimism, is one of the most melodically light songs on the album. Its follow up “Cath…” sounds great, but contains heart wrenching subject matter about a new bride who has settled for an unloving husband. These part literal, part metaphorical, part symbolic narratives that are Gibbard’s strongest assets populate the album as snapshots of failed love, broken hearts, and loneliness. Amid such dreary themes, Death Cab manage to keep listeners out of the cellar with beautiful melodies and smart, relatable statements on the issue of love.

The middle part of the album is also the best, with the strikingly beautiful and bare-boned “Talking Bird,” the sad carnival march of “You Can Do Better Than Me,” and the transcendent, pure chorus of “Grapevine Fires,” all of which offer interesting new sounds from the band. However, some missteps follow, such as “Your New Twin Sized Bed.” This song, which could have easily landed on Plans, meanders with a chorus that doesn’t really go anywhere, while its lyrical nature is a bit too upfront compared to other songs here and doesn’t leave much up to the listener to interpret meaning. Following the frantic, decent “Long Division,” African beats don’t save the go-nowhere “Pity and Fear.”

The album does, however, end on a high note with “The Ice is Getting Thinner.” Although not really a time of healing from the album’s heavy content (simply reading the title will tell you that), the song is powerful with barely more than a lone, sorrowful electric guitar and Gibbard’s finest, most touching vocal performance on the album. The song describes the unstoppable deterioration of a relationship, in typical Death Cab fashion, but the song does wrap up the album’s tough message on the fragility of love and the suffering of those without love. However, listeners could take from Narrow Stairs an alternately more inspiring lesson to hold on to love and share that affection more with others.

Narrow Stairs is surely a markedly new experience for Death Cab for Cutie fans. The album is edgier, rockier, and more unforgiving than its predecessors. Listeners will still find some pop-accessible tunes, but they are shrouded in darker musical and lyrical layers that make them more conceptual and part-of-a-whole than songs on Death Cab’s prior albums. The prominent mainstay for the band’s sound here is the crystal clear, inflection-laden vocals of Gibbard which is the familiar voice guiding listeners down into a strange, murky, new territory.
 


Monday, March 29, 2010

Currents: Streetlight Manifesto, A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Local Natives, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists

"Currents": The latest albums I've been checking out.

Streetlight Manifesto: 99 Songs of the Revolution, Volume 1
[Victory* 2010]

The exuberance feels spur-of-the-moment, but each Streetlight release has spent a good while in the incubator under Tomas Kalnoky's TLC. He and the rest of the ska punk outfit, arguably the most exciting and unique on the scene today, love to tease fans with delayed releases and several years between LPs. So some skepticism could be in order as the band's efforts are now focused on a 99 song, 8 album project of cover songs. Yes, it could be a while until we get original tunes from Kalnoky's pen, but beggars can't be choosers. Besides, it's hard to dislike the project's first installment, as the band's signature frenzy makes for innovative and fun remakes. In particular, check out their chaotic take on Radiohead's "Just", a friendlier version of Bad Religion's "Skyscraper", and damn clever retooling of Postal Service hit "Such Great Heights".

* Apparently the band is at odds with their label, so if you want to pick this up, support them directly and order through their website.


A Sunny Day in Glasgow: Ashes Grammar
[Mis Ojos Discos 2009]

Ashes Grammar is a dreamy, shoegazing soundscape.  Cathedral-choir vocals and airy song structures surface in the swirling mix in what is really a mesmerizing listen. The foundation for the album's drama is a soft-edged wall of sound that defines "atmospheric".  Dulling some of the impact, however, is a sprawling hour-long run time with tracks that feel unneeded for the work to fully affect.  It's not quite ambient, as it doesn't entirely stay in the background, but it does float by like a pleasant dream: beautiful, although you can never quite remember it all.


Local Natives: Gorilla Manor
[Infectious, Frenchkiss 2009, 2010]

I'm hesitant to call Local Natives "straight-ahead" indie rock, but that's what comes to mind when I listen to Gorilla Manor. Verse-chorus-verse structures, smooth and clean vocals, and thoughtful rock melodies that sounds like a more easygoing Minus the Bear.  The songs are nice and they have a very likable aesthetic, but too many of the melodies lack real staying power.  The best here, however, namely the percussion-focused "Wide Eyes" and the delicate "Who Knows Who Cares", are great tunes to keep coming back for.


Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: The Brutalist Bricks
[Matador 2010]

Certainly an improvement over 2007's dry Living with the Living, The Brutalist Bricks offers some decent indie punk from a legend in the field. I'll always admire Ted Leo for, at least, an early body of work that's as exciting and catchy as any brand of rock. The songs here on his latest are relatively tight and aesthetically familiar, but there are no runaway hits, no outright sing-alongs. At the least, it's clear that Leo goes after the hooks that do arise on Bricks with full conviction, and he has regained some punk ferocity that had recently waned. So while the punches may not always hit the mark, at least they're being thrown.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Album Review: Heatmiser - Mic City Sons

Heatmiser: Mic City Sons
Caroline Records (1996)

7/10
 
I will admit that I am one of the many who have probably stumbled across Heatmiser just through an obsession with Elliott Smith. Digging, mostly backwards, through Smith's discography revealed to me an era in which he shared the musical duties, including vocals, with a full band. If Heatmiser had always been a staple of your '90's indie rock fix, forgive me for my ignorance. With that said, I came across Heatmiser's Mic City Sons, the band's most well known as well as the last album they released. The album is divided between songs written and sung by Smith and those of guitarist and co-lead vocalist Neil Gust. It is a solid set of songs with intriguing melodies and beautiful lyrics. However, while trite and expected, Smith's songs occupy the better half of the album.

Beginning with "Get Lucky," we have the now all-to-familiar voice of Elliott Smith, whose lyrical genius and ear for melody is surely missed. It seems clear why he would develop musically on his own, as he had so much creativity and craftiness that he needed to spread his wings and leave the confines of band members with whom he shared creative control. On this track, Smith is vocally powerful, especially in delivering part of the ominous chorus "We're taking you to pieces," while Gust shares some vocals. Next is another standout for the album with "Plainclothes Man" with more delicate instrumentation and layered vocals that are more in line with Smith's solo work.

Proceeding along, "Low Flying Jets" introduces us to Gust, the hopelessly overshadowed second half of Heatmiser's singing duo. Although a bit catchy, Gust is held back by the unchanging dirge of his delivery. "Rest My Head Against the Wall" is another example of this, with Gust's more grungy orientation even more emphasized as he sings about some sort of seedy sexual habit in a public restroom.

"The Fix Is In" is a shining moment for instrumental style as the slow drums (courtesy of Tony Lash) and distorted guitar bring the song a subdued, lo-fi quality that matches Smith's dreamlike chorus and multi-layered vocals. What follows is a rapid speed up with two louder songs by Gust, "Eagle Eye" and "Cruel Reminder," that are quite similar with a slight punk influence.

Smith then returns with "You Gotta Move", a simple but plain downer, and "Pop in G," which conversely sounds like Smith at his lightest and, as the title alludes, "pop"-iest point in the album. Following is the rather forgettable "Blue Highway," which sums up the shortcomings of Gust's one dimensional vocal stylings that hardly sway in his delivery of a slight soaring chorus. While lyrically he can hold his own (as well as he can against a king of that department), his delivery constistently fails to impress.

Despite this, the last two songs of Smith's bring home why this is an excellent album. "See You Later" and "Half Right" are more varying instrumentally than many of Mic City Sons' other songs and they are also the best evidence of what the future would hold for Smith's musical evolution. Acoustic versions of both of these songs very appropriately close out his posthumous compilation album New Moon.

Now that I have discovered Heatmiser, I may dig further back into their short catalog, but I admit that I have limited expectations of what to expect. Mic City Sons features a musically unified band attempting to share the spotlight, but the result is Smith and Gust jockeying for the lead with Smith winning by a mile. But don't get me wrong, this is a great album. Aside from the obvious contributions of Smith, Gust and his fellow bandmates bring thoughtful lyrics and sharp instrumentation to the table to create the overall melodic mix of downer grunge and lighter indie rock. While Elliott Smith would dismiss the "loud" and repetitive quality of their sound, he gives too little credit to Gust's and certainly his own ability to craft melodic alternative rock and thoughtful lyricism within the dynamics of the band.





Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Top 10 Albums of 2009

I guess a pretty good place to start here on this blog is to look backwards, just to last year, at the 10 best albums of 2009.

10. No Age: Losing Feeling EP


It's just a 14-minute EP, but it's everything about No Age that's to get excited about. A seamless blend of sleepy atmospherics and noise rock makes this a mesmerizing, highly replayable excursion. If this project had become a full sized LP, it would have been higher up this list.

9. Ramona Falls: Intuit


A low-key release, Ramona Falls accomplishes beautiful acoustic and lush orchestral songs in the vein of Sufjan Stevens, but refreshingly, he makes it sound much easier. His smoothly flowing melodies and layered-vocal harmonies combine to form a beautifully original style of music that stays with you long after its 44 minutes. This hidden gem is the most underrated album of the year.

8. Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca


Any indie album that can be described as "unclassifiable" and "accessible" is almost guaranteed to be a hit, and Bitte Orca is exactly that. From the delicate acoustics on the catchy "Temecula Sunrise" to bass-driven beats on "Stillness is the Move" to David Longstreth's offbeat falsetto, Bitte Orca can't be pinned down. The constant, however, is its bountiful charm and unique brand of pop.

7. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest


This album had a long winter for me. It's an extreme case of an album appearing plain and one-dimensional at first that then (very) gradually blooms with all its drama, intrigue and skillful design coming to light. Veckatimest is carefully composed and expertly crafted, with the group's chamber choir vocals carrying the album's mostly subdued melodies as well as operatic major pieces like "Two Weeks" and "While You Wait For the Others".

6. Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion


One of the year's most enchanting albums, Merriweather Post Pavilion absolutely engulfs you in its glow party dream world. On "In the Flowers", the pounding drums after "if I could just leave my body for the night" always send chills up my spine. Aside from some sleepers in the album's mid-section, MPP is abounding in warm psychedelic pleasures. This is Animal Collective for the masses.

5. fun.: Aim and Ignite


fun.'s debut is so dense with slick hooks and bursting melodies that you soon realize you're hearing an album's worth of quality power pop singles. "Power pop" only hastily describes it; there's some Queen in there, as well as Nate Ruess's former band the Format, among other influences. Above all, fun. is truth in advertising.

4. Neon Indian: Psychic Chasms



Psychic Chasms lives in a world of colorful hallucinations and kaleidoscopes of sight and sound. Neon Indian lifts '80s synths and chirpy electronics to make an album that's part dance, part chillout electronica, and all fun. The album-long groove is irresistible, especially on "Terminally Chill" which is the year's best song.

3. Japandroids: Post-Nothing


In an overflowing online universe of music reviews and opinion, it's fascinating to me that so many have come to the same translation of Post-Nothing's sound: young freedom. Japandroids are all-or-nothing rockers that drop frantic drumming and furious riffs to release their can't-sit-still zest for life. This album gets you out of your over-thinking head and into your life.

2. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart


TPOBPAH revive so many old sounds ('90s Britpop, lo-fi shoegaze) that to deliver a debut as fresh-sounding as this is in 2009 is a major accomplishment. As their video for "Everything With You" suggests, this album of uplifting, fuzzy dream rock could soundtrack the best times of your young adult life. The moral: Live your best life.

1. Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career


It couldn't be anything else. No other band in the last few years has captured my imagination like Camera Obscura. The irresistible hooks, the soaring instrumentals, the yearning melancholy, Tracyanne Campbell's tender croon; their music shines with charm and beauty. With 2009's My Maudlin Career, their most consistent work, Camera Obscura is now solidly one of my top five favorite bands.

Monday, March 22, 2010

About

I was raised on country music. D.C.'s WMZQ station was THE car radio station, and as a family we listened to George Strait and Alison Krauss and all the powerhouse names of 90s Nashville. I still have a fondness for those days of simpler musical pleasures, a nostalgia of that innocence. But as teenagerdom struck, the world, as it often does, became a more complex place. In this time of change, I looked over the fence and discovered music that could affect in exciting new ways. Pivotal in those days was Nirvana, as well as the rest of the grunge scene. I missed the early-90s grunge explosion, but nevertheless, it spoke to me then and there: the raw power and authentic emotion were outlets for my frustrations and connections to the "real" in life.

With maturity, I've shed much of the self-consciousness and pessimism of my middle and high school days, and explored music that could reflect my personal growth and all of the highs, lows, and in-betweens of life as it stands for me now in my early-20s. It's hard for me to set parameters on what I set out to listen to, but much of what I have fallen in love with could be placed under the ambiguous, dynamic, you-know-it-yet-you-don't term of "indie". There's something about these bands, these artists, that strike chords with me and make me think in ways that more mainstream musical styles don't.

In the interest of combining my fascination with music and enjoyment of writing, I've decided to write about my musical interests. I've done so, and continue to do so, at Sputnikmusic.com (under Timbo8). Many, if not all, album reviews I write will be cross-published between here and there. This site, aside from having reviews on albums and bands REGARDLESS of genre, will (hopefully) have other thoughts and musings on music as they come to me. And again, many types of music are up for grabs; the focus will probably mostly be indie-brand stuff.

I've never done a blog before and don't expect major things from this. Who knows how long this will go on or how often I can add stuff (I'm a busy college student), but all I know is you'll have nothing if you don't start. More than anything, I just want to put my thoughts on a passion that I have in music on (virtual) paper, and I feel like at the very least it will be fun for me personally. So if you read, I hope you enjoy and if you comment, great, just don't be a douchebag.

Thank you.