Monday, May 31, 2010

Video: "Elias" by Dispatch

These guys are undoubtedly modern legends.  Building a huge name for themselves on a transcendent fusion of folk, rock, reggae, and African music for the masses, Dispatch will forever be one of my favorites. But what hits more strongly than the songs are the band's ethics.  They rose to fame on the strength of their songs spread through file-sharing networks rather than the backing of major record labels; they made it happen for themselves.  But beyond their musical economics, it was their message: aside from writing songs about young love and freedom, they inspired an awareness about struggles in the third-world, particularly in Africa, and, especially on their last album Who Are We Living For?, standing up politically against the forces that perpetuate poverty and strife beyond America's borders.  And just about everything that was incredible about Dispatch can be found in these 8 minutes.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Album Review: Iron & Wine - Around the Well

Iron & Wine: Around the Well
[Sub Pop 2009]


While you may be hard-pressed to find many b-sides and rarities collections that can double as a repository of deep cuts as well as a fitting introduction to an artist, Around the Well is not far off from achieving this balance. The run of the two-disc set neatly parallels Iron & Wine’s discography of proper albums, from the bedroom recordings of The Creek Drank the Cradle to the fuller-sounding studio compositions of The Shepherd’s Dog, while also offering several engaging diversions, mostly in the form of covers.

Judging from the lo-fi recording hum and Sam Beam at his most breathy whisper, disc one encapsulates Iron & Wine as a budding folk artist with a sturdy inventory of gently strummed lullabies at the time of his debut. Just about any of the first disc’s original songs could have fit in well on Cradle, but that doesn’t make them jump of the page either. Despite Cradle’s cozy warmth and thoughtful melodies, the fragile sleepiness of the sound grew to be one dimensional, which is exactly the problem with most of disc one.

Naps may be gently disrupted, however, by recognizing covers of Stereolab, the Flaming Lips, and the Postal Service. Although “Peng! 33” fails to expand upon the original or break from the line-blurring aesthetic of his other lo-fi work, Iron & Wine’s cover of “Waitin’ for a Superman” plumbs more emotional depths and is a fitting, bare-boned complement to the original from Soft Bulletin. It’s unlikely that many listeners will be surprised by the cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights”, as it has served as Iron & Wine’s breakthrough song and an introduction for many to the artist, but it nevertheless is a clever repurposing of the strictly electronic original.

The pristine recording of “Communion Cups and Someone’s Coat” kicks off the second disc and quickly makes the case for Iron & Wine’s artistic improvement with each album. As if transitioning from black and white to vivid color, the guitar strings reverberate with serene clarity and Beam now has the room and resources to explore new folk styles and shine a more deserving light on his graceful lyrics. “Communion Cups and Someone’s Coat” and “Belated Promise Ring” are uplifted by angelic layered vocals and a welcomed studio polish job that enhances but never overburdens Beam’s compositions.

The studio work even goes beyond the electronic flirtations of The Shepherd’s Dog on several tracks, namely on “Arms of a Thief” with its uneasy buzzing and piercing hisses. The full band, fully realized “Carried Home” and “Kingdom of Animals” sound like they just missed the cut for The Shepherd’s Dog, especially the latter with its wonderful piano melody and pleasant optimism. Closer “The Trapeze Swinger”, a nine-plus minute beauty with mesmerizing looped background vocals and a warm repeating melody, is another fan favorite that helped Iron & Wine gain wider attention among indie folk circles. Around the Well’s showstopper, however, is a heartfelt and touching cover of “Love’s Vigilantes”, which wrings more emotion from it than New Order realized it had in 1985.

Ultimately, while Iron & Wine’s best tracks certainly reside on their three proper albums, Around the Well is a strong testament to Sam Beam’s wealth of delicately affecting folk rock material and an enjoyable retrospective on his career so far. Enthusiasts will undoubtedly come across tracks long ago archived in their own collections, but the consolidation of Iron & Wine’s best non-album songs like “Such Great Heights” and “The Trapeze Swinger” is nevertheless a convenient and welcome service. Although the true original gems of Around the Well don’t reside in the simple lo-fi tracks of disc one (if The Creek Drank the Cradle is your favorite Iron & Wine album, however, buy this now), Iron & Wine’s brilliant covers and vivid Shepherd’s Dog-era tracks yield numerous rewards. Besides reflecting on the past and present, Around the Well also hints at what Iron & Wine’s future will bring, which is something both enthusiasts and casual listeners can both appreciate.
Photo by Ella Mullins 

Love Vigilantes:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Album Briefs: John Mayer, Minus the Bear, Battles

John Mayer: Continuum
[Columbia 2006]


Who knew John Mayer was capable of this?  Agreeable, "Your Body is a Wonderland" pretty boy actually makes a strong record of emotional, non-derivative blues rock.  Now, he remains rooted in radio-ready, blue-eyed pop ("Waiting on the World to Change"), but he does make some serious statements with his brilliant guitar work ("Bold as Love" Jimi Hendrix cover) and intimate lyrics ("Gravity", "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room").  His confidence merits Continuum as not simply a characteristically commercial success for Mayer, but also a critical one.  It shows how caring and attentive craftsmanship still has a place in modern pop music, and when those rare examples of such show themselves, you step back in awe of exceptional talent.


 Minus the Bear: Planet of Ice
[Suicide Squeeze 2007]


Instrumentally tight, sonically cohesive, produced with care.  Then why the low mark?  If a stopped clock gets it right twice a day (here they're "Ice Monster" and "Throwin' Shapes"), it's still off the rest of the day.  Planet of Ice sounds nice (in parts great, especially due to impressive guitar work), but it's so static and repetitive it resists the delineation of individual songs.  Few moments in the album break from a formula of dramatic guitar builds and Jake Snider's layered vanilla vocals.  For staying in one place, however, it's not a terribly bad one: the mood is serious but substantial rock, they can create solid chorus melodies, and no doubt the band knows how to play.  But variety is the spice of life, and production that paints ten tracks with the same brush is Planet of Ice's downfall.

Battles: Mirrored
[Warp 2007]


Mirrored is from the future, I'm convinced.  The band's precise math rock sounds like it was produced by machines being calculatedly operated by other machines.  The album is largely instrumental and thrives on paranoia and suspense, creating a futuristic, non-human world that's probably more dystopian than utopian.  The sparse lyrics are often indecipherable or decidedly opaque, so the album's "concept" comes from the flickering electronics, mesmerizing guitars, and pounding drums and cymbals which drive the action, altogether saying more than words could.  On "Atlas," the effect-ridden vocals of Tyondai Braxton tell us all we need to know: "People won't be people when they hear this sound."

"Cuckoo Cuckoo" by Animal Collective

Monday, May 24, 2010

Album Review: The Explorers Club - Freedom Wind

The Explorers Club: Freedom Wind
[Dead Oceans 2008]


If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, consider the Beach Boys basking in adulation (not like they need it), courtesy of the Explorers Club. It’s impossible to discuss the Explorers Club, a seven-man group out of Charleston, South Carolina, without mentioning the Beach Boys. From the warm vocal harmonies to the shimmery 60’s pop melodies to the fun-in-the-sun lyrics, their debut Freedom Wind is a thorough, seemingly non-ironic tribute to the surf rock legends.

While borrowing from other groups of the classic rock and roll era like the Beatles and the Zombies, the band’s loyalty to the sound and aesthetic of the Beach Boys is the dominating theme of the album. In fact, the Explorers Club never sounds too far off from a cover band of their obvious idols. But the band has greater ambitions than that, whether you call it a revitalization of the sound or a retread.

Opener “Forever” sets the stage beautifully, as the lightly echoing drums and twangy guitar introduce cleanly polished vocal harmonies that culminate into an uplifting outro. Album single “Do You Love Me” thunders along with a soaring chorus and saxophone wankery. With the comparable catchiness of “Do You Love Me” and other songs of a similar ascending tempo, the single could very easily have been the heartfelt “Hold Me Tight” or “Forever.” The songs on Freedom Wind distinguish themselves with memorable harmonies and catchy choruses, and yet the rigid 60’s aesthetic and the limitations of their own style of music prevents any of them from being a runaway hit.

While the youthful harmonies impress throughout the album, it’s on the slower songs that the gracefulness of the singing really shines, as with the gentle layered chorus of “Lost My Head” and the beautiful melancholy of “If You Go.” The grace of these tracks contrast sharply with the unnaturally grating voice on “Honey, I Don’t Know Why,” which sticks out like a sore thumb and is one of the album’s few missteps.

In addition to the 60’s production style and the 60’s vocals, the Explorers Club of course provide 60’s lyrics, but more specifically, lyrics in the style of early Beach Boys. Freedom Wind pedals in the magic of young love: pledges of devotion, daydreaming of that perfect girl, and fears of separation are dealt with charming simplicity. While the Explorers Club may earn detractors for their use of lyrics as aesthetic rather than lyrics as a vehicle for deeper, more creative messages, the words carry a refreshing innocence that seems thoroughly appropriate for their indulgences in shiny, catchy pop. This is perhaps best evidenced in the chorus of “Do You Love Me:” “Do you love me/ Like I love you?/ And do you need me/ Like I need you?”

As much like the Beach Boys as the Explorers Club are, you may ask: Why not just listen to the Beach Boys? This absolutely is a conundrum for the band. In a critical assessment of Freedom Wind, the band’s style could be described, at best, as a bright, catchy, and enjoyable ode to the Beach Boys’ sound packaged for the 2000s, or, at worst, an artistically unoriginal and insignificant rehashing of a classic era of a classic rock and roll band. While the Explorers Club surely don’t approach the genius or individuality of the “real deal,” their appeal is just like that of much of the Beach Boys early music, particularly pre-Pet Sounds: angelic harmonies and heartwarming pop. In the Explorers Club’s future, they may be best served by the growth of their own sound, rather than forever keeping the Beach Boys aesthetic close to the chest. But for now, to overthink Freedom Wind would be to deprive yourself of a pleasantly charming pop album.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Video: "Let's Go Surfing" by the Drums

There are a ton of indie bands aping the sounds of '80s new wave to certain degrees.  The Drums are one of the few bands where, especially from tracks like "I Felt Stupid", without knowing better, you could actually peg the music as coming out in the '80s. Certain production flourishes or lyrical quirks may blow its cover, but what's unmistakable is the Drums' penchant for the era.  "Let's Go Surfing", which is on last year's Summertime! EP and will appear on the band's self-titled debut LP coming out June 7th, is effective in its simplicity.  From the sunny whistling to Jonathan Pierce's carefree chorus, it charms from the very first listen.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Album Review: Wavves - Wavvves

Wavves: Wavvves
[Fat Possum 2008]


I can imagine the story of Nathan Williams, a.k.a. Wavves, as going something like this: the 20-something-year-old stoner was watching TV and smoking a joint one day alone on a couch in a San Diego basement. Bored out of his skull, the non-musician picked up a guitar and began to love the amp-frying distortion he was creating. Soon experiments in fuzzy melodic noise turned into basement demos and escalated into 2008’s Wavves and last year’s breakthrough Wavvves. In the course of little over a year, Wavves has gone from a bored idler to an indie rock curiosity awash with buzz, partying/performing at SXSW with in tow.

Underneath all the hype, there lies Wavvves, 36 minutes of abrasive and discomforting noise punk with strong influences of surf rock. It’s safe to say that Wavves’s claim to fame is the ultra lo-fi aesthetic that consumes all his music. The primitive recording and production tear his riffing guitar and moaning vocals into fuzzy shreds that sound pressed up against soon-to-be-dead amps. The result is a claustrophobic atmosphere of distortion that doesn’t let up, for better or for worse.

Rather than sounding too much like a shoegazing band in blending in to its wall of sound, however, the best songs on Wavvves feature catchy snippets of surf rock and punk fury that pull away from its cramped quarters. The surfy riff of “Gun in the Sun,” the oddly anthemic “So Bored,” and the ferocious punch of “California Goths” are among the highlights in this regard. Drumming on tracks like “Sun Opens My Eyes,” “So Bored,” and the brutally grim closer “Surf Goths” further contributes to the album’s primal paranoia.

Not to diminish his songwriting chops, but it seems as though Williams mostly writes about what he knows: weed and boredom (well, perhaps goths could be included for obvious reasons). In this way, however, Wavves’s simplistic messages are genuine and pointed, from the funny sarcasm of “Gun in the Sun” (“I’m just a guy having fun in the sun”) to the disarming directness of “No Hope Kids,” perhaps the album’s best and most catchy number (“Got no car, got no money, I got nothin’ nothin’ nothin’ not at all”). As Wavves’s curious subject matters produce some solid gems, there are just as many points on the album where simplistic choruses and repetition drive songs into the ground. Forgettable tracks like “Beach Demon,” “To the Dregs,” and “Summer Goth” don’t escape the all-consuming guitar fuzz, and they basically pass by as noisy, middling affairs.

Back to the noise factor, while Wavves’s primitive recording is at once the band’s greatest asset, it is also it’s greatest weakness. Despite the album’s groundedness in downer pop melodies, periods of guitar screech, sound overload, and static fuzz make for a bit of an endurance test, even at 36 minutes. “Killr Punx, Scary Demons,” a throwaway interlude that sounds like it could have literally been Williams pounding on an organ and howling at the moon, demonstrates well the limits of Wavves’s lo-fi aesthetic and its ability to amplify the band’s unique mix of punk, surf, and noise rock.

To William’s credit, his short but impressive rise to his sudden burst of popularity has been about as D.I.Y. as it gets. But expanding on his sound with album-long focus and a harnessing of his lo-fi recording techniques are key for Wavves to have true staying power. Wavves has earned admirable and understandable comparisons to bands like No Age and Times New Viking, but for those familiar with Wavves, they absolutely know a Wavves song when they hear one. And here lies perhaps Wavves’s greatest strength and promise for future success: Nathan Williams has a sound that is undoubtedly his own.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Album Briefs: Lily Allen, Harvey Danger, Neko Case

Lily Allen: Alright, Still
[Regal 2006]


Whenever I think about why I really like Lily Allen and this album, I quickly end up on the defensive.  Allen has built her major celebrity status on being a rich London brat with a deadly swagger.  Naturally, tons of people completely hate her guts and her top-40 pop drivel.  But from where I stand, she's a genius, and Alright, Still is catchy, tight, and unique.  For one, although she's later regretted the immaturity of some of her lyrics on Alright, Still, it's a genuine Lily Allen recalling bad sex and fights at the club; she's not a record company construction, but rather she has built her image on her own sassy persona.  Her confidence sells songs like "Smile" and "LDN", while the Jamaican ska vibe (as on the underrated "Friend of Mine") keeps songs sunny and dripping with cool.

Harvey Danger: Little by Little
[Phonographic 2005]


If Little by Little had come out about seven years earlier, perhaps we would associate Harvey Danger with more than 1998's "Flagpole Sitta" and '90s nostalgia over it.  But from the beginning, Harvey Danger's mainstream success was inextricably tied to that song, and 2000's King James Version failed to produce a similar radio hit to keep the band on peoples' tongues.  But for loyalists to the band well into the 2000s, Little by Little rewards with well-polished, catchy pop rock (provided so nicely by the band as a FREE download).  While a number of tracks don't have sticking power, altogether, the band's cohesiveness and Sean Nelson's excellent voice make a strong argument for a beefier legacy for Harvey Danger than that of a one hit wonder.

Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
[ANTI- 2006]


You'd be hard pressed to find an indie critic that doesn't rave about Neko Case as a vocalist, particularly for her solo, alt-country work.  And indeed, as Fox Confessor Brings the Flood consistently shows, she has a great voice capable of light tenderness, sweeping romance, and fiery temper. Her songs are coated in a mystical melodrama that transitions smoothly from loose country ("John Saw That Number") to darker folk ("Dirty Knife").  Fox Confessor is immaculately produced, as the quivering guitar twangs and patient brush drumming tie the indie-flavored songs to old-school Nashville.  Despite several melodic flops, particularly the closing two tracks, at its best, Fox Confessor is riveting and beautiful alt-country.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Album Review: So Cow - Meaningless Friendly

 So Cow: Meaningless Friendly
[Tic Tac Totally 2010]


So Cow’s self-titled debut achieved a potent balance of approachable songcraft and a manic shape-shifting personality; it all feels on the brink of combustion. The debut of Irish singer-songwriter Brian Kelly was a hilarious journal of adolescent stresses and the trappings of weinerdom. He recounts his unlucky streak through blistering nuggets of catchy noise pop, finely tuned and cohesively packaged. It’s such a shame that while So Cow pedals the line between tuneful pop and ugly calamity, its follow-up shifts so decidedly towards the latter.

Meaningless Friendly is weighed down to the floor with bells and whistles (and guitars). From the tinny beat introduction of “Start Over” and the drum machine humming of “Shut Eye”, the album reeks of over production. But the problems with Meaningless Friendly don’t end with production; production doesn’t change melodies and song structures 17 times in two and a half minutes. Kelly jumps from idea to idea long before any of them can be fleshed out. Tracks like “Limboat” and “Mokpo” feature some nice surf-informed riffs, but subside as quickly as they come, often succumbing to directionless noodling. Sharp guitar riffs attack from all directions producing a mayhem that’s more confusing and annoying than exhilarating. Good luck remembering more than two melodies in the chaos, even right after the songs end.

Through the sonic overload, Kelly is still a smart-mouthed twerp, but Meaningless Friendly finds him more jaded. Maybe it’s the louder, more grating vocals brought to the front of the mix. Or it’s just that Kelly sounds more bitterly at odds with the world: expelling his dissatisfaction and disappointments in biting sarcasm. But the delivery makes him sound less like the fellow unpopular kid and more like a whiny pessimist no one wants to hang around. The groaning “vroom vroom vroom!” in “Racer Girl” says it all.

So Cow’s second LP is undoubtedly a backslide for him. The regression reminds me of the relationship between the Dismemberment Plan’s …is Terrified and Emergency & I, the former being an awkward overstuff of delirious sonic details and lyrical themes, while the latter keeps abrasive lunacy on a leash and delivers a landmark experimental pop album. For So Cow, however, the chronological pattern is reversed: here his music has lost a sense of maturity. So Cow would do right to strip away the bothersome fluff, keep it simple, and get back to what made his debut so fun. And forget this.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Video: "When I'm With You" by Best Coast

EPs and singles from lo-fi surf rockers Best Coast have been trickling out of L.A. since last summer, but a full-length LP is finally set for release sometime in the second half of the year. It won't feature any of their buzz-stirring songs released thus far (except this one), but the strength of their work, particularly Bethany Cosentino's '50s girl group vocals, suggests the hits can keep on rolling.  One of those is "When I'm With You."

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Album Review: Elliott Smith - Figure 8

Elliott Smith: Figure 8
[Dreamworks 2000]


My glorious journey through the world of Elliott Smith began here, when a friend of mine sent me "Junk Bond Trader." Slowly I'd hear more and more, out of album order, but each song was just as infectious and mesmerizing as the last. His music has the melodies and instrumentation reminiscent of The Beatles with lyrics and attitude that cuts through you with incredible emotional veracity. Among my favorites of his albums is Figure 8, where both aspects of his music are in strong balance.

We begin with "Son of Sam," which is basically Smith's most textbook pop rock song in his catalog. It is one of his best known for those outside the Smith fanbase, and although it lacks the quite, personal sentiments of much of his earlier work that Smith fans seem to adore most, it is a beautiful song with a melody you'll find hard to stop singing. Next in line is the more familiar multi-layered vocals and acoustic guitar with "Somebody That I Used to Know," which, as the title cleverly implies, is about defiantly moving past someone close to you that has changed for the worse so that you essentially don't know them anymore. Another beautiful tune, I kept replaying it the after I first heard it because the guitar part starting at 1:08 struck me as so musically appealing and satisfying. Maybe it's just me, but when I heard that I just had to lean back and think "music is amazing."

"Junk Bond Trader" follows as an intense rocker the conjures up an image of a decrepit life full of people cashing in on the misfortune of others and "trying to sell a sucker a style." The song's lyrics and rich instrumentation are so engrossing they truly have to be heard to be understood. It is one of the best songs on the album.

What follows returns us again to Smith's quieter, expert stylings on the acoustic guitar in "Everything Reminds Me of Her." It is an incredibly sad song about losing a loved one in one way or another. Whether Smith wrote this about a real person or if he was referencing heroine, as is often speculated in many of his songs due to his battles with it, is unclear, but it is certainly one of many examples of Smith revealing his heavy emotional burdens quite openly. What follows is a piano-centric "Everything Means Nothing To Me," which brings home again, perhaps in too overwrought a fashion, his personal demons.

The album picks up the pace afterwards, with the delightful and incredibly catchy pop song "L.A" that is another tune that presses you to sing along. The delightfulness continues with "In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)," in which Smith, the masterful multi-instrumentalist he was, sports a wonderful and upbeat piano melody.

"Stupidity Tries" is one of my favorites from this album, as it builds to an exhilarating and epic climax full of violins, drums, and a guitar-driven rhythm that I want to replay, and relive, again and again. Comparatively, "Easy Way Out" is quieter and while the melody works, it is a low point on the album.

What comes next is a song that, above any other song on the album, I wonder why it didn't become a breakthrough mainstream hit for Smith, as it seems to fit alongside anything you'd hear in a MTV rock music video or on maybe even pop radio. "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud" has Smith almost going out of his way to compose what is probably the most radio-friendly song on the album that is complete with warm, clear vocals and a soaring, extremely catchy chorus. Accordingly, it does not fit as well alongside the more emotional, acoustic songs that dominates much of the rest of his catalog and that has earned him his strong indie following. Nevertheless, "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud" is one of the best and most enjoyable songs on the album.

From this peak of activity, the action returns to an upbeat, dreamy landscape provided by piano and violin-backing with the not-spectacular but very respectable "Color Bars." Then comes another "climax" builder "Happiness," which doesn't top "Stupidity Tries" but is a terrific song nonetheless. The "falling action" of the song is Smith repeatedly singing "What I used to be will pass away and then you'll see / That all I want now is happiness for you and me." This portion is one of the most beautiful parts of the album, as well as Elliott Smith's entire body of work.

The influence of The Beatles on Smith's work is ever present on Figure 8, perhaps most so on the mysterious next track "Pretty Mary K." What follows is a song that is a testament to the new treasures you discover even after you've heard an album a dozen times. I don't know why, but it took me forever to warm up to "I Better Be Quiet Now" and now I believe it is the best acoustically-oriented song on the album. What eventually won me over were the delicate chorus and the beautiful lyrics that focus on the themes of loneliness and loss. He laments: "Had a dream as an army man with an order / Just to march in my place / But a dead enemy / Screams in my face." Now that I appreciate it, it is a gem. Likewise, "Can't Make a Sound" begins at a slow pace that swells with multi-layered vocals, drums, and subtle violins in the background that gorgeously caps off the standard songs of the album. What I mean by that is that the nearly two minute closer is a dreamy yet subdued instrumental "Bye," which is a beautiful concluding statement on the album; it seems to simultaneously convey the beauty of his musical expressions as well as the personal demons and the melancholy prism through which Smith sees himself and the world around him.

Figure 8 delivers a powerful collection of music that is never tired or repetitive but always engrossing and incredibly touching. While the beautiful instrumental compositions composed and performed by Smith are most evidently magnificent, the lyrical genius behind each song is often hidden and only understood through multiple listens. But new listeners should surely investigate and follow the lyrics of Smith, for it is his songwriting capabilities that he is probably most famous and renowned in the indie rock community. On this album in particular, the combinations of Smith's full band and acoustic styles are overlapped with his always powerful lyrical masterworks to create classic album that is thoroughly engaging and enjoyable from start to finish.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Album Review: Fleet Foxes - Sun Giant EP

Fleet Foxes: Sun Giant EP
[Bella Union, Sub Pop 2008]


Looking back on 2008, one of the year’s biggest stories in indie rock was the sudden rise of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes and the mainstream attention they have received for their self-described “baroque harmonic pop jams.” Receiving a vast amount of that attention through their critically acclaimed debut LP Fleet Foxes, it’s not a surprise that it seems to have largely overshadowed their preceding Sun Giant EP. Matching the band’s LP in style and, generally, in quality, this EP is basically a mini Fleet Foxes. In other words, new fans of the band would be richly rewarded by checking out Sun Giant EP.

The EP’s opener “Sun Giant” centers around the all-important vocal harmonies that give Fleet Foxes their distinctive sound. Robin Pecknold leads the band in a sparse but warm a capella before a delicate acoustic guitar quietly provides the outro. It is a softly soaring track whose simplistic optimism and pleasant imagery match the pristine beauty of the harmonies. Both “Sun Giant” and “Sun It Rises,” the first song on Fleet Foxes, work as excellent introductory songs to the band’s pride in clear vocals and rich harmonization, with the latter song featuring brief choir-like singing in an introductory piece (the “Red Squirrel” section). While perhaps not packing as much drama or progression as “Sun It Rises” or other songs on their LP, “Sun Giant” is a more rich-bodied epitome of Fleet Foxes’ love of sharp vocal work and is an interestingly unique song in their catalog.

Sun Giant EP continues with its best song “Drops in the River.” Creating a gentle buildup with more delicate guitar work and soft percussion heavy on the bass drum, the song reaches a victorious, soaring, and well-deserved chorus sung with energy and passion from Pecknold and Co. Short bursts of electric guitar and thundering drums courtesy of J. Tillman contribute to an instantly memorable tune that is certainly among the Fleet Foxes’ best songs.

“English House” borrows the choir-like aesthetic of “Sun Giant” and the more jam-oriented “Drops in the River” with vocals employed for a dreamlike atmosphere while pounding drums provide the song a strong backbone. Here, Pecknold more distinctively holds the lead singing position and does so with supreme confidence and grace. A similar style is used on “Mykonos,” including Pecknold leading the way with vocals and warm thundering drums. “Mykonos” turns down the dramatic movements of previous songs in its first half before a chilling pause and the return of a soaring climax. Once again, the band treads the line between hum-drum folk jams and melodramatic choruses perfectly; nothing feels contrived or ironic and there is an excellent balance of buildup and reward.

“Innocent Song” closes out Sun Giant very similarly to how “Oliver James” concludes Fleet Foxes. Again, it’s just Pecknold’s sleek and clear vocals and acoustic guitar strumming. While Pecknold performs with usual confidence, the song is bound to be overlooked in favor of the more instrumentally rich and vocally intense tracks of the EP and Fleet Foxes. Although a beautiful song, there is clearly less going on with its wondering progression than on other songs on Sun Giant EP, as “Innocent Son” is seems to be marked by a purposeful lack of dramatic rises in action accented by Pecknold’s beautifully meandering vocals.

In the sudden burst of popularity that Fleet Foxes have enjoyed from their debut album, fans would be keen to seek out this excellent EP. Most, if not all, of the songs on Sun Giant EP are strong enough to have merited a spot on Fleet Foxes and in fact, the songs would even be worth substituting out a few from the LP. But avoiding the excruciatingly difficult and wholly unnecessary effort of mixing and matching songs from Fleet Foxes’ two major releases, the point is, if you love Fleet Foxes, expect to thoroughly enjoy Sun Giant EP.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Video: "Blessa" by Toro Y Moi

January's Causers of This has established Toro Y Moi (Chazwick Bundick) as one of several major artists pioneering chillwave and among them, he is also one of the chillest.  Echoing the wafting breeziness of fellow South Carolinian Washed Out but without the hard dance-club beats, Toro Y Moi's songs feature more electrical hiccups, stuttering computer blips, and airy tones shifting in and out of focus.  For all the manipulation, it works to humanize the fundamental electronic elements of Causers of This, and perhaps no part of the record sounds more organic than opener "Blessa", which crackles and sways before gracefully blooming.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Album Review: Jukebox the Ghost - Let Live and Let Ghosts

Jukebox the Ghost: Let Live and Let Ghosts
[Rebel Group 2008]


Who likes opening bands? Generally, I don’t. God bless them for getting out there and pounding the circuits, but frankly, I’m usually not there to see them, and they’ll be lucky if I can remember a melody of there’s at night’s end. So as Jukebox the Ghost (it took me forever to actually decipher their name) took the stage last March to open for Ben Folds, I admit, I unfairly pegged them. Three post-college guys, the prerequisite piano for an opener of Folds present; they looked a bit like Ben Folds Five actually, but with a guitarist rather than a bassist.

By the time Ben Thornewill went about curiously introducing the “My Heart’s the Same”/”Lighting Myself on Fire” medley, I had thrown my preconceptions out the window. These guys were ultimate crowd-pleasers, delivering a wildly enthusiastic set of quirky piano pop with huge hooks and an almost operatic flamboyance. I was fortunate, then, to be able to buy their 2008 debut Let Live & Let Ghosts from them after the show and congratulate them on a great performance.

Jukebox the Ghost includes the Classically-trained Thornewill on piano, Tommy Siegel on guitar, and Jesse Kristin on drums, forming in 2003 while they were students at George Washington University in D.C. Thornewill and Siegel split vocals for the album, which lends Let Live & Let Ghosts a nice flow in terms of singing, alternating between the frenetic theatrics of Thornewill and the more gentle, adolescent-sounding vocals of Siegel.

Thankfully, the energy of their live act translates well into a frenzied, consistently catchy album. Thornewill’s pounding of the keys takes center stage, providing the backbone of the band’s highly melodic pop accessibility, while Kristin’s giant beats and Siegel’s accenting guitar complete the picture. Let Live & Let Ghosts is a proper pop album in that it features grand sing-along choruses, especially on “Hold It In” and the bouncy “Victoria.” Throughout the album, Thornewill channels his inner-Freddie Mercury to accomplish his slanted theatrical singing that is consistently exciting. Siegel, on the other hand, is largely more subdued in his songs and unfortunately, his hooks are less memorable for it, except perhaps on the paranoid march of “Static.” Fair or not, I see the dual nature of the singing translate into a dual character to the album: the spotlight-grabbing theatrics of Thronewill, and the quieter, less memorable performances of Siegel. It doesn’t help that Thornewill’s on the crowd-favorite piano.

Nevertheless, the band as a whole pounds through 42 minutes of solid material that admirably refuses to simply rest on their hook-filled choruses. Seven of the 12 songs blend together into mini-rock operas that sport grand, if sometimes meandering, movements bordering on stadium anthems, a further Queen influence. For it’s sonic exaggerations, the band is firmly rooted in a light-hearted persona reflected in their wildly quirky lyrics. Except for perhaps with Thornewill’s delicate cry of lovesickness on “My Heart’s the Same,” the subject matters are upbeat, off-the-wall oddities, from Armageddon, to surreal sci-fi vignettes, to adolescent relationships. The funny “Hold It In” sounds like a schoolyard crush tale, but reveals itself to be more nuanced and less innocent than it initially lets on. “Victoria,” however, is the album’s best combination of lyrical wit, hook-driven melody, and theatrical instrumentation, as Thornewill rollicks on the piano and wonders if the girl of his attention is “a bitch or totally bitchin.’”

Although their over-the-top eccentrics and admitted silliness may serve as a drag on more discerning listeners, and a more cohesive, lyrically focused effort in the future may provide better results, it’s hard to disparage too harshly the fun and catchiness of Jukebox the Ghost. Despite friction between the vocal performances of Thornewill and Siegel, Let Live & Let Ghosts ultimately shines as a strong full band effort.

And so the opening band does have its day. Let Live & Let Ghosts firmly establishes the band outside of Ben Folds’ shadow in the piano rock sphere with a unique and well polished sound. No longer an opener but now a main act on tour, they would now be a band I’d come to see.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Currents: Gorillaz, Dom, Girl Talk

Gorillaz: Plastic Beach
[Parlophone, Virgin 2010]

Finally Gorillaz has personality! That may sound odd considering Gorillaz and Demon Days were built on rap swagger and a rebellious image (cartoon band!).  But really, I found those albums had some very cool beats, but mostly lacked any permanence: repetitive song structures, aimless meandering, and vanilla pop singles.  I associated Damon Albarn's metallic vocals with hip hop-inflected pop that was heaps of style above substance.  But Plastic Beach, to my great surprise, is truly a game changer.  This album bursts the band's range wide open, and they finally sound dynamic and consequential beyond a groovy background beat.  I've never been so emotionally invested in Gorillaz, and credit for that goes to Albarn for the album's refreshing diversity of song moods, more engaged singing, and a tight and intelligent body of lyrics critiquing 21st century consumerism and ecological havoc.

Dom: Sun Bronzed Greek Gods EP
[Burning Mill 2010]

A summery, shimmery set of catchy indie rock tracks from brand new band Dom from Worcester, Massachusetts.  Dom has been compared to Girls a lot (a band they themselves cite as a huge influence for them), and certainly several of the songs are melodically underlined by '60s vibes.  Dom sounds more planted in the modern, however, from the glistening synths of "Burn Bridges" to the fuzzy stomping beats in "Living in America."

Girl Talk: Night Ripper
[Illegal Art 2006]

I have a deep respect for sample-based musicians, particularly DJ Shadow and the Avalanches, for the creativity of their art and the mind-blowing skill the craft requires.  Realizing through a friend that I would be remiss to bypass mashup king Girl Talk, I gave Night Ripper a listen and I've been floored after each spin.  Sure, it's set at a blistering rave party, ADD pace, and you may wish some of the best samples would linger longer (the use of Fleetwood Mac's "Little Lies" in "Overtime"), but this isn't meant to be a contemplative listen.  This is balls-to-the-wall, and if your ears can't keep up, fuck it and just dance.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Album Review: The Thermals - Now We Can See

The Thermals: Now We Can See
[Kill Rock Stars 2009]


Kudos to the Thermals for not sticking with what works. After three albums of gradually less lo-fi, more fiery political punk, a detour into newer environs is an admirable, interesting move. With a catalog of religion and politics-obsessed rock, vocalist and guitarist Hutch Harris and bassist, drummer Kathy Foster decided to set a new course after 2006’s breakthrough The Body, the Blood, the Machine based on “the classic themes of songwriting and music,” namely love and death. Unfortunately, in a break from their usual political firebombing, the Thermals play it safe, almost generic, in the ultimately sub par outing that is Now We Can See.

For its treatment on “classic songwriting themes,” Now We Can See actually suffers most from its lack of focus. While musically on point, in that the band’s punk sneer and energy remain somewhat intact, the album is lyrically wishy-washy, with few of the lasting impressions or resounding choruses that have characterized the Thermals up to this point. Even the song titles, which usually reflect unmemorable choruses, do not inspire much individuality: “When I Died,” “I Let It Go,” “When We Were Alive,” “When I Was Afraid,” etc.

Despite a secondary objective of the band to vary tempos and experiment with changes of pace, the album begins rather flatly. Although “We Were Sick” features a fun, Foster-assisted chorus, the first three songs of the album are set at frustratingly similar tempos, making for many repeated listens before the songs distinguish themselves, if they ever do. The rest of the album finds the band shifting pace with mixed results, slowing it down on the delicate ballad “At the Bottom of the Sea,” reaching faux-hardcore speeds on the forgettable “When We Were Alive,” and reducing the guitar fuzz and simplifying the drums on the decent “Liquid In, Liquid Out.” The album’s clear highlight is its namesake, “Now We Can See,” which features a basic chorus (“owayowwhoa…”) that is nevertheless extremely catchy and engagingly youthful.

As much as I’ve wanted these tunes to ring in my ears after each listen, Now We Can See features song after song that, in the moment, are energetic, melodic punk numbers, but are utterly forgettable minutes later. For a band that isn’t the Thermals, a product like this would make for an impressive debut. But no, this is the Thermals of The Body, the Blood, the Machine fame.

The common mantra is to not expect a band’s previous album in later work, as this only leads to disappointment with a change of style, theme, etc. Nevertheless, fans know that the band is capable of more, and comparisons in this respect are unavoidable. The politics-fueled ferocity of the band’s prior efforts, namely the violent concept album The Body, the Blood, the Machine, are far more compelling than the muddled messages of Now We Can See. Harris as a vocalist sounded more impassioned, raw, gripping, and on the brink of insanity in 2006 than he does here, where he sounds boxed into overly tight, over-produced compositions.

Beyond Harris’s vocals, the whole band’s sound seems limited, its power muffled by safe, however hook-driven melodies and an unwillingness to surprise and take chances. The Thermals are best served by letting their punishing yet catchy punk energy reek havoc at full force. Whether or not the Thermals can tap that unrestrained energy from a non-political source, especially now in the post-Bush era, remains to be seen. Whatever the Thermals have next up their sleeve, hopefully it will involve a detour that’s more worth taking than Now We Can See.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"Suburban Dogs" by Real Estate

Well, with all this Lala shutting down business, I guess I'll have to get music on here a different way. Until I figure that out, I thought I'd just put up this great video from Real Estate. I'm kicking myself because their self-titled debut surely should have been on my best of '09 list, but I realized its majesty too late. "Suburban Dogs" is the song and it perfectly encapsulates lazy summer memories with friends, though ironically, most of the video takes place at a Christmas party. But no matter, it's impossible not to love.  Now, to beautiful St. Mary's County.  I'll see you soon Maryland, My Maryland, with this song in my heart.

Saturday, May 1, 2010