Friday, April 30, 2010

Album Briefs: Vivian Girls, Coldplay, Guster

Vivian Girls: Vivian Girls
[In The Red 2008]


One would be pretty cool to be into Vivian Girls.  In that case, call me a square.  Lo-fi really grabs me when the fuzz can enhance quality pop songs underneath, but Vivian Girls doesn’t deliver on a number of levels.  First, the singing…ugh.  The plain-faced, moanful delivery, even when the Girls are in unison, is blunt and unwelcoming throughout.  Second, the songs themselves are rudimentary, riot grrrl-reaching pop songs with little personality and elementary school songwriting.  And lastly, fundamentally, the skuzzy production magnifies these problems, lending the album ugly guitars and plodding drums.  At least it’s all over in a measly 22 minutes.

 Coldplay: Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends
[Parlophone 2008]

I never really bought that Coldplay had done much different with Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends.  It still features sweeping epics meant for stadiums and a universal accessibility in the vein of U2 that shaves off innovation and risk-taking.  But I guess the thing is, Viva la Vida is everything that's made Coldplay monumentally big, only done better.  Just skip the grossly over-payola-ed "Viva la Vida" and listen to the wafting "Strawberry Swing" and the rallying cry closer "Death and All of His Friends."  They're still Coldplay songs, but they represent modern mainstream rock at its most meaningful.  It's Coldplay's best since Parachutes.

Guster: Ganging Up on the Sun
[Reprise 2006]


Ganging Up on the Sun is a pleasant pop rock album, but it's not quite the untethered Guster of old.  Sun finds the band succumbing to a sterile studio polish to lend gravitas to songs when they're more successful keeping their tunes light and carefree.  It no doubt sounds exceptionally produced, but the sheen also dulls the action.  "Satellite" and "Hang On" are excellent tracks, but the overall maturity of Sun is not as fun as the more joyous Keep It Together or its predecessors.  I prefer Guster sounding like they're playing out in the quad on the last day of classes.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Album Review: Oh No! Oh My! - Oh No! Oh My!

Oh No! Oh My!: Oh No! Oh My!
self-released (2006)


Right off the bat, there are certainly many things to admire about Oh No! Oh My! Originally hailing from Austin, Texas, the band is filled to the brim with gifted multi-instrumentalists using a wide range of instruments, leaving the band with no undisputed leader, but rather a very collective sound. Furthermore, their self-titled debut album was self-released by the band in 2006, from there earning some mild press coverage, a review from Pitchfork, and gigs opening for the Flaming Lips and Gnarls Barkley.

As for the music itself, it is at times lyrically strange, but the songs are overarchingly light and melodic, blending indie-pop and folk influences while songwriters Greg Barkley and Daniel Hoxmeler offer their takes on mainly girls and relationships. Despite the surefire catchiness of the album’s multitude of pop hooks and glistening beats, some notable flaws are encountered throughout the album. With its orchestra of diverse instruments and la-la choruses, Oh No! Oh My!’s carefully produced sheen turns the record into a style vs. substance competition. That’s not to say that there is no substance to hold up the band’s flamboyant style; few songs blend together too much and the sunshine melodies are complemented by sunshine lyrics that subtly turn not-so-innocent, making for some surprising and funny moments when listening intently.

The album’s opener “Skip the Foreplay” characterizes the general idea of the album, blending electro-pop and folk guitar with a sing-along chorus. Lyrics here are also demonstrate the band’s simple yet strange narratives, describing an unplanned pregnancy with an undeveloped ending: “When you finally told her dad / It was strange 'cause he was glad/ La la la la la la la.” The follow up “Walk in the Park” has a more straightforward folk melody with a warm acoustic guitar, which is in fact the most aesthetically pleasing and skillfully played instrument on the album. Its catchy, accessible chorus makes it one of the album’s best songs, but even in a song about taking a walk in the park, you have witty surprises: “Nice day for a walk in the dark / Nice day for a drive-by shooting / This world has a warm, sunny heart.”

However, although there are certainly a number of gems to follow, continuing to listen to the album as a whole, a steady, predictable formula arises. Part of the “substance” problem with Oh No! Oh My! is that songs tend to carry a whiny slacker vibe that can be annoying at times. Greg Barkley’s warbled, meandering and high-pitched voice comes to symbolize in the album a shy, overly sensitive teenage boy unable to understand his failures with girls. This is certainly not “emo,” but the hypersensitivity of Oh No! Oh My!’s sound, especially on songs like “I Love You All the Time,” “Jane is Fat,” and “Farewell to All My Friends,” can certainly leave the band to be described as “cute.” In this respect, I would predict this album to appeal more musically and thematically to girls than guys, but this is not an exclusive rule.

It is ironic then that another album highlight is “Lisa, Make Love! (It’s Okay!),” another high-school-shyness story, but this time involving a shy girl. While the song is perfectly in line with the album’s themes awkward teen love, with its basic, no-catch storytelling, it is probably the most touching and heartfelt song here. Final highlights include “The Backseat,” the album’s epic number with a heart-wrenching tale of the sudden end to a long-term relationship for Hoxmeler, and “Women are Born in Love,” the tongue-in-cheek but oddly poignant closer.

Oh No! Oh My! is certainly right up the alley of fans of light, melodic indie pop. One of the song’s off of the band’s follow up EP Between the Devil and the Sea can be heard in the background of a commercial for the film Juno, which turns out to be an excellent indicator of the type music to expect in Oh No! Oh My!: quirky and with an attitude, but sensitive and cute. There are definitely some strong songs here that offer warm pop melodies and thematic elements about love that nearly all young adults can relate to in some way. But if you’re like me and have a definitive tolerance level for “cuteness” in indie music, Oh No! Oh My! may just be good for an occasional, but quality spin.

"Walk in the Park":

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Video: "French Navy" by Camera Obscura

Blog, I've neglected you. The end of college has weighed heavily on my days, work-wise, but there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. And I'm aiming to get back on the horse here. So I'm celebrating with one of the best songs from last year's best album, My Maudlin Career.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Album Review: Rogue Wave - Descended Like Vultures

Rogue Wave: Descended Like Vultures
Sub Pop 2005


I know I’m not alone in having tendencies sometimes for my music to be an easy, comfortable listen that gives me the goods (melodies, hooks, harmonies, a little pop, a little rock) with few or no strings attached. While of course musical preferences heavily influence what an “easy listen” is or means to different people, among other things, some bands and albums are better suited than others to provide enjoyment no matter what kind of day you’re having or what mood you’re in. Before listening to Rogue Wave’s Descended Like Vultures, I didn’t think I’d find such an album within the indie genre. Not to pigeonhole the vast and virtually limitless musical varieties and genres under the loose dominion of independent music, but so much of the indie music I’ve listened to, which I still love, requires the suspension of mainstream commercial definitions of how melodies, hooks, riffs, beats, and basic song structures should be done in music today.

I instead believed that I would continue to listen to old standbys in mainstream rock, pop, and even country for music that I could turn on anytime and enjoy when the more complicated stuff just isn’t doing it for me. It turns out, however, that there are huge exceptions: Rogue Wave is “why isn’t this on the radio” material.

At the time of the recording Descended Like Vultures in 2005, Rogue Wave, out of Oakland, California, is led by guitarist and lead singer Zach Rogue, who was almost the sole engineer of Rogue Wave’s 2004 debut album Out of the Shadow. He is joined by the impressive multi-instrumentation of Gram Lebron, primarily on electric guitar, the late Evan Farell, primarily on bass, and Pat Spurgeon, with focus on percussion.

For an album rich in pop sensibility, it curiously begins with “Bird on a Wire,” which flirts with notions of delirium in its creepily layered vocals and subtle sound effects. The song, nevertheless, has a positive aura to it, like most of the songs here. The band’s true pop rock sensibility is on full show in “Publish My Love,” a supremely catchy song with a soaring chorus and dreamlike ambiance that could be envy of late R.E.M. Following this is “Salesman on the Day of the Parade,” one of a handful of great acoustic pieces that are a testament to the melodies swirling in Zach Rogue’s head and their strength in a full band as well as with minimal instrumentation. Probably the best of these quieter songs is the album closer “Temporary,” a slow trotting and emotionally moving tune with some of Rogue’s most intimate singing on the album.

The frantically paced, highly synthesized “10:1,” the fun, almost folky “Medicine Ball,” and the epic “You” are other highlights on the album. “You” in particular rivals “Publish My Love” as the album’s top tune as it builds tension and momentum until the crescendo reaches an inspiring climax that is then tempered by the sweet, subdued chorus. With no weak tracks and little repetition, listeners could easily choose any of the album’s 11 songs as their favorite.

For its numerous forays into the depths of paranoia like on “Bird on a Wire” and “10:1,” Descended Like Vultures never sounds threatening, as it is just about always saved by an uplifting chorus and an instrumental change of heart. On one hand, this makes for a very easy, gentle and enjoyable listen for any fan of melodic rock and a strong pop hook. On the other hand, however, this reassuring element to Rogue Wave’s songs also takes away from the dynamism of the album and each song seems to hit you generally the same way. For someone looking for music to move and rattle them beyond the confines of a hummable chorus and radio-friendly veneer, this may not be the band for them, at least not for extended listening sessions.

While Zach Rogue’s melodies are exceedingly pleasurable and relatively simple, his lyrical work is sure to leave lyric-junkies scratching their heads in trying to decipher his complex vocal message. While seeming to convey emotional contemplations in stride with the music, the message comes in abstract bits and pieces, presumably of a larger context, that ends up contributing to its allure. However, with melodies as infectious as these, it’s easy to see how the lyrics can be overlooked.

The result of the album’s heavily polished production and the band’s extensive use of subtle instrumentation as a foundation for the often louder song-defining melodies, with the exceptions of the acoustic numbers, is a rich sound palette that warms the band’s catchy hooks and interesting song developments. On Descended Like Vultures, from the diverse, jumbled and, to many, peregrine world of indie, Rogue Wave is on the same wavelength as the mainstream radio listeners. Ultimately, however, Descended Like Vultures is an excellent album for anyone interested in a pleasant, immediately rewarding listen.

"Publish My Love":

Friday, April 9, 2010

Album Review: Sufjan Stevens - A Sun Came

Sufjan Stevens: A Sun Came
Asthmatic Kitty (2000, Reissue 2004)


Sufjan Stevens wasn’t always the delicate, acoustic darling of the indie rock community. As probably an even greater shock to the non-indie-fan listeners of Stevens who probably only know him through the remarkably touching and critically hailed album Illinois, it took a time of musical development and broad experimentation for him to reach the level at which he is now. This stage of progression is captured on Stevens’ debut album A Sun Came, which was released in 2000 on a 4-track recorder and then reissued on his new record label Asthmatic Kitty in 2004, of which this review discusses.

Despite critical acclaim, one piece of negative criticism that has dogged Sufjan Stevens on his latest releases is that although they are concept albums meant to set up a story and ambiance, there is too much filler while better quality, full songs, such as those on the excellent Illinois “outtakes” album The Avalanche, are left out of the final product. Should those same critics have picked apart A Sun Came, they would realize that filler was once an even greater flaw with Stevens’ music. The greatest flaw of the album is that it is overlong in just about every aspect: too many tracks, too many seemingly filler tracks, and songs that go on for needless and tiring lengths.

The album begins similarly to more recent releases in that the songs are characterized by thick instrumentation divided by sparse sounding acoustic parts. However, the songs seem more directly rock influenced than the songs on Illinois or Michigan, and he sings with a much greater vocal range, such as on “A Winner Needs A Wand.” Despite these songs sounding quite different from late releases of Stevens, encompassing sounds certainly not familiar to most listeners new to his music, the songs hold up a solid melodic structure with expert instrumentation.

On the topic of fillers, the album then comes to a point that is sure to jolt newcomers to Stevens’ music, as it certainly surprised me. On several occasions in the album, there are short tracks, under a minute, in which an annoying high-pitched voice, presumably of Sufjan Stevens except modified, telling short, very strange stories that, if intended to advance some sort of storyline or mood for the album, is completely lost on me. The worst is on “Belly Button,” in which he says, “One time this kid ate too much food and food started coming out of his stomach, out of his belly button. There was maggots coming out of his belly button.” Come again? Decipher them however you want, but they certainly don’t seem to add anything to the album and rather leave you skipping them whenever you give it a listen through, and most listeners, including myself, should find these snippets quite annoying. At best, I use these fillers as “bookmarks” for delineating the wide territory covered by this sprawling album.

With eerie vocals and even scarier instrumentation and background ambiance noise, the back-to-back songs “Demetrius” and “Dumb I Sound” are two emotionally moving highlights from the album. However the only reason that they flow together is because of a Middle-Eastern influenced outro that begins under 2/3 through the song that, while interesting, detracts from the earlier main part of the song and threatens to make us forget about it altogether.

Following the aforementioned “Belly Button” is where modern-Sufjan Stevens are thrown for another loop, but this time the results are improved. If you are familiar with Stevens’ release Enjoy Your Rabbit, you will know that that album was entirely meant for and focused on electronic music, which in itself is not particularly strange except to show that Stevens has a wider musical taste than originally thought. But the use of the similarly loud noise rock, hinted at sparingly in other releases such as The Avalanche’s “Pittsfield,” comes into full use a bit unexpectedly here. This turns the album into a true mish-mosh of Steven’s wide musical range. “Rice Pudding” is characterized by an irregular drumbeat supporting loud, scratching guitars that are saved by wavering but surprisingly personal vocals and lyrics. “A Loverless Bed (W/Out Remission)” begins as a slow, spacy song that is similarly touching with cryptic lyrics possibly describing a relationship on the rocks. The song advances in a style quite similar to that of the Flaming Lips. With two mintues to go, a freakout of guitar noise is layered on top of a drumbeat that unfortunately tests the listeners’ tolerance towards its end.

More style changes follow, with the clearly lo-fi recorded “Super Sexy Woman” about a fantastical woman, a subject that seems completely new and much wackier compared to anything else Sufjan Stevens has written about. Following that is the great “The Oracle Said Wander” whose eerie lyrics and instrumentation immediately brings to mind the post-rock of Slint.

At this point in the album listening through, whether it has been my first or most recent time, I am tired. The rest of the album gives us the charming and quiet “Happy Birthday” and the soaring, electronica-influenced “Jason” as standouts amid several forgettable tunes.

Through all the twists and turns up to this point, it is only now that we reach what is certainly the ultimate head-scratcher of the entire album: “Satan’s Saxophones.” It begins with another annoyingly voiced monologue (concerning vomit, no less) followed by more than two minutes of seemingly random saxophone screeching and squealing that is immediately intolerable. Pitchfork calls it, uncertainly, “an unwitting musical satire of free jazz.” I call it crap.

Whatever Stevens was going for, two new songs follow it from the reissued album release. “Joy! Joy! Joy!” is a beat happy, electronic song that gets on the nerve quickly. The second new song “You Are the Rake,” however, is a much improved revision of the earlier track “Rake” that, as a result of several more years of development, is much more in line with Stevens’ recent work: fine recording quality, warmer sounding guitar, and an angelic choir supporting the chorus.

All in all, a listener should take in Sufjan Stevens’ A Sun Came in the context that it is the sound of an underdeveloped, experimental Stevens who is far from his prime. On the other hand, it is Sufjan after all, and his innate musical instincts shine through at numerous points in the album.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Album Review: Max Tundra - Mastered by Guy at the Exchange

Max Tundra: Mastered by Guy at the Exchange
Domino (2002)


There are few albums I’ve listened to where the opening moments of that first song plop a huge “WTF?” in my brain. Usually associated with a band you’ve never heard before, these are moments that catch you totally off guard and leave you scrambling to find your bearings. Animal Collective’s “Peacebone,” with its psychotic onslaught of electronic twitches and glitches, comes to mind. Another equally perplexing opener is “Merman,” which launches Mastered by Guy at the Exchange, the 2002 work of English electronic musician Max Tundra. Upon first listen, literally within the first two seconds of this screwball record, I felt like Tundra reached out of the speakers and slapped me across the face.

Following his wordless 2000 debut Some Best Friend You Turned Out to Be, which featured experimental electronica with thinly veiled pop aspirations, Max Tundra’s search for new sounds turned up an instrument he had never considered before: his own voice. All of a sudden an amateur songwriter, Tundra penned his words like he composed his music: heavy on the slant but hungry for the atypical pop hook. Mastered by Guy at the Exchange is the fruit of this labor, and it’s a supremely catchy, brilliantly twisted concoction.

Blasting out of the gates, “Merman” plays like the fastest commercial jingle ever created, as Tundra’s sleek, sped up falsetto bounces on top of warm synths and a barrage of scatterbrained drumming. In a phenomenon repeated over and over again on Mastered, Tundra’s wild palette achieves improbable catchiness. On “Lights,” another such success story, Max Tundra cranks up the speed and pitch of his vocals to impossible levels for a standard pop song, and yet, an underlying pop sensibility shines through with joyous melodicism. Tundra’s production prowess shines here as well, as a bass beat of clumsy womps and a constant stream of electronic pops and fizzles add to the track’s allure.

In addition to his embrace of pop conventions, Tundra is constantly focused on serving up the unexpected, changing directions and speeds on a dime. Max Tundra is a musician who works in milliseconds. On “MBGATE,” from out of nowhere, a sparse and moody piece turns into a full-fledged club dance number, while “Cabasa,” the album’s seven-minute centerpiece, starts with basic downtempo techie beats and ends with a piano-pounding, Ben Folds-style boogie. Carefully placed between these more active pieces are chances to cool down, such as the undersea dream “Fuerte” and the detour into space “61over.”

The album, however, is most thrilling when Tundra considers the listener game for more and blasts complex yet beautiful electronics through the speakers. In this way, several songs like “Fuerte,” “Acorns,” and Gondry,” while competent pieces, fall by the wayside and lack staying power. “Hilted,” on the other hand, is an exhilirating testament to Tundra’s outstanding sonic range. The beginning of the song conjures images of Mario jumping on Goombas and dropping down pipes, because the shimmering beeps and synths have Tundra clearly embracing an early Nintendo soundtrack. Tundra then reaches his alternative rock moment with a modest electric guitar riff before the song’s steady outro is, of all things, strummed out on acoustic guitar.

Mastered by Guy at the Exchange finds Tundra discovering the power of voice, but it’s not just his own. Much of the singing on the album is handed off to his sister, Becky Jacobs, who also sings in the alternative folk outfit Tunngs. Becky Jacob’s deep, warm and soulful voice provides another interesting dynamic to Tundra’s blend of off-the-wall electronica and accessible melody. Her ultra cool style fits comfortably amid her brother’s dizzying soundscapes, especially in the glimmering swagger of “Lysine.” “Pocket” sounds like a chorus of hundreds of Becky Jacobs’s singing through a thick filter of ambiance from a city street.

Becky also sings the closer “Labial,” a six-minute epic that has Tundra jumping through hoops for his grand finale. The song begins with an unassuming trip-hop groove before launching into light-speed electronic glitchery at one point broken with squealing electric guitar. “Labial” label then descends into quiet bass rumblings before reaching a dramatic, synth-heavy climax.

As to what Tundra wants to say with all his pop-embracing electronic dazzle, it’s not all that much. The lyrics are quirky, often nonsensical snippets of daily life that reflect the eccentricities of the music itself. “Labial” breaks down Tundra’s songwriting background: “I only sing about things that happen to me/ I never learnt how to fill my songs with allegory/ While my peers paid attention in English, I thought about how/ I could undress the girl who appeared in my life with a ‘pow.’” Having Becky sing this one adds immensely to the song’s hilarity. The lyrics usually serve a purpose of making musical rather than literal sense, but the narratives and rough sketches are full of highly specific observations and peculiar abstract humor.

While lyrically Mastered doesn’t say much, it doesn’t need to. Max Tundra already packs the album with a mind-numbing amount of fascinating sonic ideas that speak for themselves, while the colorful lyrics only add to the fun. Make no mistake, for many, Tundra’s otherworldly brand of pop may not resonate through the electronic eccentricities that deliver his sharp melodies. But when Tundra strikes a chord with adventurous listeners, the album’s plentiful “WTF” moments are exhilarating, unpredictable, and curiously catchy.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Video: "Skinny Love" by Bon Iver

A while back I had heard a lot about Bon Iver and heard a few promising clips from For Emma, Forever Ago, but I hadn't really checked them out much.  I was never quite ready to invest myself in something that sounded so emotionally heavy and designed for such deep contemplation.  Then I saw this.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Album Briefs: Girls, The Dodos, Live

Girls: Album
[True Panther Sounds 2009] 


Perhaps Album should have snuck onto my top 10 of '09 list.  Because if anything, it is probably the most honest album I heard last year.  It's honest to a throwback '60s mentality, both in the "bubblegum rock" sound (with modern flourishes) and in lyrics about finding the forever kind of love.  And more than that, it's emotionally honest.  Listen to Christopher Owens' weathered-but-still dreaming voice on "Lauren Marie" and tell me it's not personal.

The Dodos: Visiter
[Frenchkiss 2008] 


Visiter isn't what I would typically call "acoustic", with its forays into abrasive experimentalism, but that's the feeling I get from every second of it.  Meric Long is a young ace on the acoustic guitar, and each song is liberally guided by his steady hands.  Logan Kroeber's earthy rim drumming complements the strings, and together the Dodos accomplish an off-beat indie folk that charms in places (welcoming opener "Walking") and bites in others (the mental breakdown in "The Season").  The band's interplay of sonic elements is genuinely satisfying.  Just don't let your guard down.

Live: Mental Jewelry
[Radioactive 1991] 


"Pain Lies on the Riverside" is an absolutely bitchin' song.  But it's after you've listened to the rest of Mental Jewelry that you realize why Live didn't hit it big until their 1994 follow-up Throwing Copper.  Aside from the aforementioned epic, you won't remember the rest of this, with "Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition)" and "Brothers Unaware" being possible exceptions (and I'm being generous with those). Released only three months after Nevermind, Mental Jewelry shows Live had a headstart on the aesthetic that would make much of post-grunge so bland and forgettable.