Sunday, October 31, 2010

Video: "Soul Serenade" by Aretha Franklin

I've been on a soul kick lately.  In watching old Aretha Franklin videos and absorbing every second of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, I'm convinced she could have read the phone book and make it sound like a Sunday spiritual reawakening.  This simple black and white video from 1968 captures her in her time of breakthrough to superstardom.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Album Review: Umphrey's McGee - Mantis

Umphrey's McGee: Mantis
[SCI Fidelity 2009]


Before Mantis, we didn't see Umphrey's McGee as one of those jam bands. They weren't the kind to launch into overly meandering prog rock journeys or have a 30 second "Preamble" track. From their onstage jam sessions ("Jimmy Stewarts") to the compact radio-ready songs of Anchor Drops and Safety in Numbers, UM has stayed user-friendly; everyone's Rock with a capital R. For all it’s familiar elements, however, Mantis trades the warm and accessible for unfocused rambling that flies by in a messy blur.

The lead up to Mantis quickly revealed that the album would be a game changer for the band. Rather than road testing new songs, like they had done their whole career, UM was mostly hush hush on new material, instead crafting them in the secrecy of the studio. It was an inward-looking recording process that is not inherently misguided, but is surely risky considering the band's preeminence as a live, crowd-pleasing group (you know, a jam band).

Mantis is still recognizable as UM, but only in a piecemeal form. Trademark UM melodies and propulsive rhythms dot the landscape, but they are soon absorbed into aimless experimental riffing and spacey detours. "Turn & Run" is Umphrey’s McGee in true form until around the two-minute mark, when spacey synths transplant the steady groove into alternate dimensions for the next 5 and a half disjointed minutes. In fact, "disjointed" appropriately describes much of Mantis, from the bloated 12 minute title track to the forgettable meandering of "Spires". I’m sure the frequent tempo shifts looked great on paper (I would think so too), but in practice, they more often leave listeners lost and confused.

Even the album's several bite-sized tunes can't register the energy and excitement of previous records. Its flat chorus renders "Made to Measure", the first song and single, utterly forgettable and "Prophecy Now" is a dull mood piece. Closers "Red Tape" and "1348" simply pack in the prog-inclined exercises of the longer tracks into tighter quarters. Could it be that the most enjoyable track is the tight, bass-driven dance beat of "Cemetery Walk II"? Well, "Cemetery Walk" is the only long-runner here that doesn't collapse under its own weight, but altogether, Mantis delivers few of the really memorable, hook-adorned tunes that proliferated Safety in Numbers ("Nemo") and Anchor Drops ("Anchor Drops", "In the Kitchen").

Had this prog rock experiment worked out better for UM, Mantis could have its long-runners, but smoother transitions, more patient tempo shifts, and more cohesive song structures would have to be part of the equation. When the songs aren't submerged in obtuse prog foolery, Mantis at least shows that Umphrey's McGee can still be catchy and fun as hell. But listening to the band's latest outing, as the minutes pass by, I shouldn’t be asking myself: "What song am I listening to again?"

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Video: "Pillar of Salt" by the Thermals

A fantastic live show can ease away many a disappointment on record, and that's exactly what I saw the Thermals do last Friday.  I was let down with the voracious pop punk trio's fourth album Now We Can See and have found their most recent LP, the mostly mid-tempo Personal Life, to be a major downgrade from their more agitated and engaging past.  But in seeing them absolutely kill it at the Black Cat, I'm reminded of why I still love and respect these guys.  Whether through fiery politics or composed reflection, the Thermals are a crowd-pleasing kind of band that values most an audience enjoying the hell out of their music.  This philosophy explains the awesome video for "Pillar of Salt", arguably their best song.  Watch out for the Arrested Development chicken dances and the Decemberists' Colin Meloy!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Album Briefs: Miami Horror, Guster, Bibio

Miami Horror: Illumination
[EMI 2010]


Miami Horror is (at least half) an excellent moniker for this Australian electropop outfit, in that their debut LP Illumination sets the vibrancy and glitz of South Beach to disco-indebted dance music.  "Horror"...well, creative license.  Anyways, these Aussies deliver an impressive set of warm synthpop tracks with nuances of indie rock and more experimental soundscapes.  The focus, nevertheless, is on songs designed to have you moving physically rather than mentally.  The super-catchy beach party "Holidays" is a standout here, featuring Alan Palomo of Neon Indian, who seems like a natural contributor here.  "Imagination (I Want You to Know)" is an innocent dance-pop pleasure rollerblading down the boardwalk.  What's particularly refreshing about Illumination is that while a number of tracks don't manage to accomplish a distinctly memorable legacy, altogether the band clearly has no intention of cornering a narrow demographic.  Rather, all of Illumination has an inclusive gravitational pull.


Guster: Easy Wonderful
[Aware, Universal Republic 2010]


On 2006's Ganging Up on the Sun, Guster suited up when we wanted them dressed down, releasing a super polished, meticulous pop rock affair that succeeded in parts but was altogether a rather lackluster effort.  It's a shame then that on Easy Wonderful, Guster overcompensate to deliver an easygoing, cloyingly friendly album that is their most unimpressive release yet.  It's hard to hate on Guster, because even here you want to be friends with these guys and have their optimistic pop songs soundtrack your young adult life.  "Do You Love Me" is a beaming chorus surrounded by jovial but less necessary song parts, while "Well" is a rather creative folk story delivered in a quirky hush.  But just about all else on Easy Wonderful is certainly easy, but disappointingly forgettable.  The more laid-back vibe that is seemingly the bent here turns into song after song built on the same old guitar strum and half-baked chorus that quickly goes stale.  The album is also lyrically corny and perhaps a bit to watered down by an aiming for the Christian Rock demographic ("Stay With Me Jesus", "Jesus & Mary"...enough with Jesus!).  The album isn't enough for me to break up with you, Guster, but it's fair to say things are on the slide.

"Do You Love Me": 

 Bibio: Ambivalence Avenue
[Warp 2009]


While there are plenty of vaguely classified indie rock bands that dip their toes, or go waist high, into the vat of electronica in all its forms, I find less familiar to be the electronica producer making an indie rock album, which is sort of what Bibio does with Ambivalence Avenue.  Bibio (England's Stephen Wilkinson) has crafted a calming electro-acoustic aesthetic over five albums, but Ambivalence Avenue introduces vocals and weightier song structures to give his music more inertia.  The result is a eclectic but cohesive statement incorporating a groovy faux-funk ("Jealous of Roses"), urgent electro ("S'Vive"), strongly affected R&B ("Fire Ant"), and soothing, all-the-time-in-the-world acoustic tracks like the innocent "Lovers' Carvings".  Ambivalence Avenue is a smartly executed work, but despite its broad palette, like its cover art, it lacks color to really impact emotionally and sonically on multiple levels.  In a gorgeous, perhaps Parisian streetscape, a dash of red mysteriously marks an alcove in an otherwise grayscaled world.  Wilkinson should let more engaging tones and hues color the rest of his sonic landscape.

"Jealous of Roses":

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Currents: Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Arcade Fire, Nite Jewel

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin: Let It Sway
[Polyvinyl 2010]

Over three albums and five years, SSYLBY have commonly taken cues from the likes of the Shins in developing a composed, guitar-centric indie pop. They were most successful with the organic pop melodies of 2005's Broom, while after that letting studio polish and cruise control result in the more sterile Pershing. Let It Sway has the band as bent as ever on making agreeable melodies and being that nice mellow folk rock that floats around in the scenery until you're bored before the record's done. As on Pershing, the band does have its moments (the propulsive singing on "Back in the Saddle", the tightness of "Critical Drain"), but the rest of the album plods along on weak choruses, rehashed acoustic riffs and mutually embarrassing songwriting ("All Hail Dracula!"...really?).  It sounds like SSYLBY have become (are spearheading?) a kind of indie brand more inspired by soft/alternative rock than anything else.  And just like, say, the Goo Goo Dolls after Dizzy Up the Girl, SSLYBY have their moments of pop relevancy, but more often, the attempts at catholic melodies evaporate almost instantly.

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
[Merge/Mercury 2010]

Arcade Fire has surely represented the most glaring gap in my '00s indie music education, as I had barely heard a single song by them until I first gave The Suburbs a shot a few weeks ago (yes, I didn't start with Funeral; so it goes).  I don't know what drove my insulation from them, but with The Suburbs, my awareness begins.  After numerous listens, I have developed that vague notion that I'm hearing musical brilliance in the form of intensely detailed compositions and lyrics of obsessive conceptual significance.  But is the music actually grabbing me? No, not really.  The sweeping gestures seem to not pack the gravity and emotional familiarity to keep most of the songs from running together to the point of stressing a narrow point ad infinitum.  I didn't expect to hear it like this, but I probably enjoy some of these songs, like "Rococo" and "Modern Man", as standalone singles, rather than lumped in other melodramatic rockers.  A very notable exception here is "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)", which has a welcoming immediacy and synthy, dance-focused undertones.  I first heard this track while crossing the Delaware Memorial Bridge just after dusk, looking over an industrial south Jersey shore and the monumental suspension cables.  Musically and conceptually, it had quite the effect.  As for the rest of The Suburbs, it could still prove to be a strong grower over time, but presently I'm not swept away by it.  Where are the "Wow!" moments?


Nite Jewel: Am I Real? EP
[Gloriette 2010]

Nite Jewel's most recent release, this 26 minute long EP, is only seven minutes shorter than her 2009 debut full-length Good Evening, so it's tempting to treat it as a proper album statement as opposed to a scattering of tracks L.A.'s Ramona Gonzalez has been working on lately (fair or not).  Whatever the intention in not just going for the LP label, Am I Real? shows artistic growth as well as stylistic continuity.  Gone is the lo-fi buzz that lay like a fine dust upon Good Evening, now replaced by a sleek sheen clarifying every floating synth and sinking bass thump.  What stays the same for Nite Jewel is a creative celebration of the electro '80s in a decidedly 2010 fashion.  Gonzalez's voice is still ethereal and lyrically obscured, the synth keyboards build dreamy, sexy grooves, and nimble beats keep the music rooted in dance, with bookends "Another Horizon" and "Am I Real?" being the best examples of this.

"Am I Real?":