Category: Albums


(Editor’s Note: I’m about to review an album by a band that one of my cousins is a member of. He did not play any of the instruments on this album and joined the band after it’s release, but he’s the bassist now. In the interest of journalistic integrity, I felt that needed to be brought up)

 

On Saturday, I move to NYC to begin my new job as an editorial intern at start-up media journalism company Baeblemusic. Primarily, I’ll be involved with the indie music scene in and around Manhattan whether this involves writing on topical industry news, reviewing a new album, or detailing my thoughts on a live show I’ve been assigned to cover in the city. Before I officially got the internship offer, I was on a bit of an album reviewing kick trying to catch up on things I had missed from 2011 so that I didn’t sound like a complete dumb-ass in my interview. I bring all of this up because I haven’t actually reviewed an album in a while, and I’ve never reviewed an album quite like this. Everything I’ve reviewed so far (and that are on my master album list) have made some sort of end of year, decade, or all time list from a major music publication like Rolling Stone or Pitchfork. Recently, a little garage band known as Stenders was brought to my attention by a relative in the form of their debut LP, the self-titled Stenders. Available to stream for free from their Bandcamp page, Stenders shows potential as a fun prog blues rock experience with such an impressive lead guitarist that I feel no shame in referencing guitar virtuosos like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Johnson because he’s that good. Unfortunately, the album is also a bloated mess  with arguably 7 tracks that could have been left on the cutting room alongside the distinct impression that this is a band reaching for an identity and coming up muddled and indecisive instead.

 

The album was primarily recorded by Sten and Anders Hasselquist (hence Stenders), two brothers attending UVA in Charlottesville. Sten was responsible for all of the string work as well as vocals and song-writing (alongside Becca Lauzon) while Anders plays the drums. The album is self-described as being “all-genre encompassing” (which isn’t especially accurate if you know plenty of modern indie rock genres that are absent, i.e freak folk, chill-wave, drone, etc) and while it is these overly broad ambitions that cause many of the album’s more unforgivable flaws (along side some other significant complaints), but there are still a number of things Stenders gets remarkably right. There are many modes that the band vacillates between whether this is 90’s alternative rock, jazz fusion, blues rock, folk rock, classic rock, post-punk (in the Joy Division sense of the word), and even heavy metal. When the band is exploring its blues and post-punk roots and especially the the free-form bliss of their jazzy instrumental numbers, it’s a surprisingly professional affair with tighter production than I’ve seen from some professional releases and as a classic rocker with an adoration of guitar rock, Sten instantly distinguished himself as a talented enough lead guitarist that he could easily front any modern garage rock revival act.

 

Some album highlights include the jazz fusion instrumental piece “21 Cm Line” which manages to come off like a long lost track from Live Dead where Ian Curtis had a say in throwing in some synth lines after deciding to give up Joy Division for a psychedelic jam band and ends on a guitar solo that channels Jimmy Page. On the album opener escape, Sten’s voice is a bit on the abrasive side as diction seems to take precedent over actual melody (or listener pleasure) but then his skillful blues guitar instantly makes you think of Carlos Santana. “Jammit” is another prog instrumental track which impossibly manages to be equal parts My Morning Jacket as Deep Purple. “Jazzy Shnazzy” is an almost absurdly delightful amalgamation of traditional night club jazz rock that smoothly transitions into a a more up-tempo but equally fascinating prog rock number. Anyone with a healthy respect for guitar driven rock will find something to enjoy here. I am willing to stake my journalistic integrity that my statement that he is one of the most promising new guitarists I have heard in ages is in no way related to the fact that I have a relative in the band (who didn’t record on this album). He’s just that good.

 

Unfortunately, Sten spreads himself too thin on this album by trying to do too much. As mentioned before, there is no true Stenders on this album. While I know what Stenders I prefer (the purely instrumental tracks and every note that springs forth from Sten’s guitar), the band itself can’t seem to make up its mind. Whether it’s exploring speed metal (and absurd fantasy pretentions) or shallow 90’s alt rock, the band pushes itself too far out of its comfort zone. To make matters worse, as mentioned earlier, Sten’s vocals are a serious point of conflict. It almost sounds as if rather than singing from his diaphragm, he is singing from his mouth to achieve his tones and it just results in a serious confluence of problems. Whether it is his pitch being all over the place, a nasally affectation on “Fire Eyes,” or an abysmal rendition of metal screaming on “Dragon Steed,” Sten’s vocals are the only aspect of the album as weak as its inconsistency. That’s a shame because on rare moments on the album (such as the end of “The Fight” or “Waves Roll In) where his natural baritone reminds the listener of a young Jim Morrison. If the same attention to detail that had been spent on the instruments had been given to the vocals (and the often awkward lyrics), this would have been a truly exceptional album.

 

Stenders is a band with more potential than this album seems to give them credit for. Even the best tracks could use some editing and many songs simply need cut, but you hear the foundations of something special and unique. In a world stuck full to the brim of post-rock bands, it’s nice to hear a band that can skillfully channel classic rock inspirations without coming off as cheaply derivative. It pains me to give the score that I’m about to give this band because there is so much to like. I could listen to Sten play guitar all day. Unfortunately, there is an almost equal amount of things to dislike. If Stenders can find its own voice, if they are able to discover just what it is that makes them a band we can cheer for, they’ll be a force to reckon with. They would also need to either spend a lot of time polishing their vocals or find a new vocalist. This was an album that could have been remarkable and was weighed down by too many problems to ignore.

Final Score: C+

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Black Up

Outside of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, one isn’t often given the opportunity to describe a hip-hop album as “trippy” or “psychedelic.” That’s not an insult to the genre; hard-hitting beats and rapid-fire lyricism have been the cornerstones of the medium for the last three decades, and the psychedelic drugs that produced the acid culture were never as prevalent in African-American communities as the more harmful and debilitating narcotics like crack or heroin. Hip-hop also doesn’t lend itself easily to the notion of outfits that are nearly completely without precedent. Even the most ambitious hip-hop artists like Kanye West or Madvillain all operate within a certain pre-defined network and draw outside influences from mainstream indie rock or electronica into their works to create a wonderful fusion. It always makes it easier to critique hip-hop when you have a convenient frame of reference. When an artist draws on jazz heavily, he’s similar to A Tribe Called Quest. Kanye and Jay-Z perfected the grandiose soul sampling that defined hip-hop for a decade. Dre and his progeny delivered us the thumping beats and easy riding rhythms of West Coast hip-hop. So, when I say that Black Up, the 2011 debut LP by Seattle hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces, is nearly without precedent, that really means something. While after several listens, I still haven’t been able to discern just what in the hell this album was all about or even scratched the surface of the songs’ many subtleties and hidden secrets, I do know that this is one of the most remarkably original and fresh-faced hip-hop albums in years, and while it may not match the blissful pop/hip-hop/rock fusion of MBDTF, it more than exceeds it in creativity and bravado.

To say that Shabazz Palaces make Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti look mildly eccentric would only be putting it lightly. The only comparison that readily springs to mind is the dubstep album Untrue by reclusive artist Burial, not because it utilizes the signature thumping bass beats of dub but for the way it incorporates dark and moody ambience into the hip-hop realm. Using heavily distorted vocals (except when he chooses to simply rap and more on how excellent his mic skills are shortly), Shabazz Palaces transforms Palaceer Lazarro (Ishmael Butler formerly of Digable Planets) into a terrifying monster of urban storytelling and interlaces looped vocal samples during musical interludes to add to the overall disorienting effect of the album. Utilizing the jangling and vibrating synth lines I associate with space rock to xylophones to a recurring noise that can only be described as sounding like the warped and mutated scream of a child, Shabazz Palaces throws the whole sonic book at you and then writes some pages of their own for good measure. Palaceer will sound as if his voice is being transmitted down a well and then on a dime switch to sounding as if he is coming from everywhere at once. Gorgeous soul samples of female vocals will be layered over “Treefingers”-esque interludes of “down the rabbit hole” experimentation.

Ishmael Butler’s rap style is as avant-garde as the group’s musical arrangements, and once again, he defies easy categorization. At nearly all moments, he is laying down rhymes with such lightning quick verbal agility that those who think Bone-Thugz-N-Harmony are hard to understand should keep the lyric sheet handy cause you might get lost. Fast rapping isn’t his unique skill though. It’s the ever-shifting verse structure that consistently refuses to give you any sort of simple verse-chorus-verse format or even a rhyming scheme that is especially consistent. He will go from laying down mile-a-minue word associations where nearly every word rhymes reminiscent of certain members of the Wu-Tang Clan to a more deliberate and sustained verse structure. He wraps all of this in a remarkably literate style that shows why Digable Planets were a Grammy-winning outfit when they were still together. There is such darkness and gloominess to the storytelling here, but it’s presented with such precision and skill that even when the album can be depressing or (and this is most often the case) completely terrifying, you’re bowled over by the fact that this is a debut LP and not the work of a veteran outfit (even if Ishmael Butler is a veteran performer).

If you think there’s a chance this band might be overly pretentious by my description of their sound or even through their outrageously long song titles like  “A Treatease Dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)”, then maybe this isn’t for you. This is challenging material. It will take many listens to grasp the totality of this piece, and even then I wonder if complete understanding is possible or desirable. I know how I complained in my last review about the lack of any clear-cut singles from Circuital, and there are even less likely singles from this album, but that’s ok this time because this album is meant to be desired as a whole. When your best tracks scare the living daylights out of this reviewer and sound exactly like what I imagine a bad acid trip would feel like (I’m specifically referring to “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum”), then you’re not going to be rising up the iTunes single chart. Hip-hop groups that can successfully channel the looping nirvana of Panda Bear do not generally produce a big hit like “Runaway” or “All of the Lights.” On “The Kings New Clothes Were Made by His Own Hands” though, you might not have a star single but you have just another example of a wildly ambitious hip-hop duo exploring the sonic possibilities of their genre further than anyone has ever gone before.

I’m not going to say that all hip-hop fans should pick this up. If you wondered what in the hell was going on during the vocoder solo of “Runaway” or think that Lil Wayne is the high point of hip-hop, you’re going to be more lost than the main character of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. However, this is a must listen for all followers of experimental and ambitious music. A quick read of my reviews for albums from 2011 will see me making a Who’s Who list of various bands’ influences or the group’s the simply blatantly ripped off. To find a group that stands completely on its own with little in the way of discernible ancestry is a music lover’s dream come true. This album can be about as inaccessible as it gets, and this should in no way be your introduction to more experimental hip-hop (just listen to The Low End Theory and then Kanye’s discography in order and some Radiohead and some Animal Collective), but for those of us ready to take the dive, it couldn’t be more rewarding. I’ve listened to it several times now and each time I grasped some new nugget of detail or texture from the album, and I know I’ll be back for more.

Final Score: A-

Traveling through a band’s discography in order can be a very rewarding experience. Watching Radiohead transform themselves from an ambitious if conventional rock band on Pablo Honey and The Bends to the pioneers of electro-rock/ambient fusion on Kid A and OK Computer to the culmination of all of their individual sounds on In Rainbows is a sonic treat. Similarly, one can trace the Beatles’ journey from teeny-bopping pop artists to bluesy and soulful rockers to the kings of psychedelia and beyond will re-affirm everything you’ve ever heard about the Beatles being the greatest band of all time. Listening to an artist for the first time late in their career, however, presents a veritable slate of critical conundrums. While you aren’t constantly comparing a particular album to your favorite sound of a group (for example faulting Neon Bible for not sounding enough like Funeral as many hipsters have), you also don’t know where to place the album in this band’s continuity and there’s no way to tell how the band has matured or if they’ve simply stalled. My Morning Jacket is one of the most legendary of modern indie rock outfits (a reputation that was cemented by an epic four hour set at Bonnaroo in 2008), and their live shows have been called life-chaning. Yet, I’ve never listened to one of their albums before, and my formal introduction to the group is their 2011 LP, Circuital, a fun and exciting mix of alt-country, psychedelia, and straight classic rock that rarely left me bored even though there were few if any stand-out singles on the album.

Fronted by lead guitarist and vocalist Jim James, My Morning Jacket join The Decemberists as one of the most prominent indie outfits trying to bring the sexy back to country music though where The Decemberists adopted a southern roots rock sound heavily influenced by bluegrass and country folk, My Morning Jacket plays their country surprisingly straight but tempers it with a healthy appreciation for the classic rock guitar riffs of yore, gorgeous and entrancing ambient landscapes, and the haunting falsetto of vocalist Jim James who sounds like a combination of Roger Daltrey of The Who and Andy Partridge of XTC. Few modern acts can pull of the intentional hippie comparisons thrown at My Morning Jacket and still maintain any sort of cred as contemporary indie rockers, yet Circuital quietly dispels any notions of being too inherently retro with a sound that encompasses the best of the psychedelic tranquility (and love of traditional country music) of The Grateful Dead with the pounding piano interludes and proto-punk guitar riffs of The Who all with the modern technical flourishes and sonic detail that shines through on the best modern rock. They are a decidedly retro band that are as much Neil Young as any modern relatives, but there’s so much quiet passion and talent in this album that you just won’t care that there isn’t much that is startlingly new or original.

From the opening horns of “Victory Dance” (which while fun, almost seem intentionally comical and over-the-top), you know you’re in for a different type of album, and My Morning Jacket doesn’t disappoint. “Victory Dance” remains one of the stronger tracks on the LP and the way it slowly builds up from a bluesy beginning (reminiscent of “House of the Rising Sun” or early Led Zeppelin) to the hectic and propulsive final minutes, it delivers a track that grows on you with each consecutive listen. The stand-out track of the album is also the most experimental and uncharacteristic of the rest of the album. “Holding on to Black Metal” features a jazzy and soulful blast of horns throughout the whole track, a gorgeous female chorus, and a general vibe that perfectly captures the neo-beatnik image this band projects. In “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”, Jim James memorable voice is layered over a slow-moving country ballad buffeted along by exquisite violin work and some subtle but appreciated manipulation of James’ vocals to add an ethereal quality to the track. “Wonderful” is the kind of My Morning Jacket track you could play for your parents and trick them into becoming indie rock fans. On “Outta My System,” Jim James even shows some of the bands’ humor with the great opening line “They told me not to smoke drugs, but i wouldn’t listen/ Never thought I’d get caught and wind up in prison” over a simple but catchy guitar riff that instantly evokes images of “Happy Jack.”

This was simply a fun album. Unfortunately, outside of “Holding on to Black Metal” and perhaps “Victory Dance,” there were very few stand-out tracks. Nothing sounded bad, and even when the title track “Circuital” ran on for a good 7 minutes, the album never left you fidgeting in your seat waiting for something to happen. Instead, the album just flowed together so well that you’ll be forgiven when it passed out of your system after the listen is over. From what I’ve read of this band, much like Dave Mattews, My Morning Jacket is defined by their live shows more than their studio records, and while I certainly never found myself regretting a lack of spirit on the album, I would still relish the opportunity to see what all the hype is about for their live concerts. The Bonnaroo concert I mentioned early has become the stuff of indie rock legend. All in all though, for fans of alt-country acts like Wilco or classic rock (specifically The Who and Led Zeppelin whose influence is loudest), this is a must-listen album.

Final Score: B+

Nine Types of Light

One of those things that never ceases to amaze me is just how much more of an album I hear when do absolutely nothing else besides listen to the music when I’m playing an album. The ubiquity of (at first) Walkmen, Discmen, and (now) iPods has completely transformed the way we listen to music. Rather than setting a vinyl down onto your record player and laying down and really concentrating on an album, we listen to music as we eat, exercise, study, and commute. We rarely take the opportunity to just sit back and enjoy our music. Even I, a self-proclaimed music aficionado, often use music as the soundtrack to my blogging and general internet browsing far more often than I take the time to just listen. Outside of the albums I review for this blog (which get two or three playthroughs of pure listening and note taking), the only times music has my full attention is the release of a big new album by an anticipated artist like The Suburbs or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The difference between what I hear from a sonically ambitious album when I’m listening and taking notes and then just listening is vast, and it really reminds me that more people should recognize that music demands your full attention just like a movie or a book. While it’s great that we can enjoy it as background noise to our daily routine, everyone should take the opportunity to truly soak in the music they hear every day, and you might walk away with an increased respect for what you’re hearing.

Before I’m accused of going on some irrelevant tangent not related to the piece of art I’m about to review, don’t grow concerned. It will all make sense shortly. I just finished listening to Brooklyn art rockers TV on the Radio’s fourth studio album, Nine Types of Light. While this album is significantly cleaner sounding than their breakthrough LP, Return to Cookie Mountain, (and by cleaner, I simply mean less reliant on omnipresent walls of noise and ambience) or the even more accessible follow-up, Dear Science, a close listen reveals such an intimate and intentional attention to every sonic detail that even when the music fails to impress (which happens far too often in the first half of the album), you walk away knowing these bohemian New Yorkers are master craftsmen. TV on the Radio have nurtured a reputation as one of the most respected indie rock outfits of the last decade, and while Nine Types of Light isn’t quite the music tour-de-force of their previous albums, it still shows moments of inspiration as well as some undeniably catchy and propulsive tracks. The album sounds like it was crafted by the old pros this band has become and it’s only (and glaring fault) is a front half loaded with not necessarily boring but unremarkable songs that lack the trademark energy and force that makes TV on the Radio the band so many indie rockers adore.

Crafting a sound that is equal parts anthemic arena rock (ala U2 or Coldplay), electro-funk, punk, and truly experimental art rock, TV on the Radio join the ranks of Radiohead and Animal Collective as modern acts who aren’t content with just releasing the same old noise for each new release. Nine Types of Light couldn’t be more different than Return to Cookie Mountain, and while this album’s admirers may say that contributes to most of my disappointment with this album, it seems to me that this album could have used some more careful attention to pruning away the bloat and excess. “Keep Your Heart” showcased Tunde Adebimpe’s stellar voice (which ranges from a growling baritone to a Bee Gee’s falsetto) and musical arrangements that remind the listener of Disintegration-era The Cure. However, it also lasts a minute and a half longer than you’d want and the lyrics fail to do enough to draw attention away from the indulgent sonic nature of the track. On the very next track, “You,” the group channels early (read as good) Coldplay while sounding more uplifting and high-spirited than their normal angst and passion which translates to a song that is boring because they can’t do Coldplay as well as Chris Martin and they still aren’t as skilled as the background effects as they need to be to make an entire song as ambient as this. “Killer Crane” is a six minute long track that could have been three and features essentially the exact same structure (with a mild change-up with a banjo-esque sound at times) throughout its interminable length that nearly makes you fall asleep.

What’s sad about those three disappointing songs is that they are the only weak songs on the album. The rest of the album is either an orgiastic delight of punk/funk/rock influences or at least songs that you can still enjoy even if they don’t have you doing the “awkward hipster rock dance” like the album’s best tracks. The album opener, “Second Song,” (0h irony) is pure  Achtung Baby, and while I know it’s cool to hate on U2, TV on the Radio channel all of the energy and presence that fills up the arenas of arena rock. “Will Do” is able to combine the ambience and sound effects that the band unsuccesfully integrated into the weaker songs while still incorporating fun xylophone bits, looped drum beats, and some of the strongest lyrics of the whole album. My favorite track of the album is “No Future Shock,” a punk dance track proudly displaying its Elvis Costello or Earth, Wind, and Fire heritage. While it may not have the instant classic appeal of “Red Dress,” or “Wolf Like Me,” “No Future Shock” is the sound this album should have been shooting for the whole time and it will have you tapping your toes and banging your head. Other stand-out tracks include the New Wave send-up of “New Cannonball Run”, the hardest rocking track “Repetition,” and the power-pop of “Caffeinated Consciousness”.

Once again, TV on the Radio stakes their claim as one of the most ambitious and multi-faceted groups in the indie scene today. Return to Cookie Mountain and the classic Dear Science set an exceptionally high bar for these Boho New Yorkers and that has as much to do with any disappointment with this album as its faults on its own. We held The King of Limbs to such outrageous standards (and were thus disappointed) because it’s Radiohead and we want better. We know they can do better. TV on the Radio can do better than this. It’s still a good album, and the best tracks will be getting a lot of play in the near future on an individual basis. They just push their ambitious sound a couple inches further than they can actually handle and it ends up dragging the whole product down. For fans of indie rock, you should really listen to the bands’ other two big LP’s before you take the time to devour Nine Types of Light. Otherwise, there’s a chance that you may wonder what all of the buzz is about this awesome group. Listen to Dear Science, and you’ll know.

Final Score: B

The King Is Dead

What’s the definition of a great album? Is it one that pushes the boundaries of musical expression into completely uncharted territory like Kid A? Is it an album that is the pinnacle of its genre or subgenre of music like The Blueprint for early 2000’s East Coast hip-hop or Is This It for the New York garage revival? Does it simply mean an album that not only has few if any bad tracks but consists almost entirely of spectacular tracks which all stick with you at album’s end rather than just one or two singles such as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Florence + the Machine’s Lungs? Why does it have to be just one of those answers (as some of the more Pitchfork leaning among us will insist that only the first answer can be true)? There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that The Decemberist’s 2011 LP, The King Is Dead, will go down as one of the most mature and fully realized albums in their already impressive library of music. Yet, this isn’t a dramatic leap forward in the quality or tone of their music. At its core, this is still the nautically obsessed and almost pretentiously literate band legions of fans have adored over the years. No new sonic landscape is explored as the album is a straight-forward (but always entertaining) fusion of American folk rock (particularly The Band whose influence can be heard in virtually every track) and the 80’s southern indie rock of R.E.M. With so much of indie rock obsessed with re-capturing the sound of British rock/punk or early surf pop, a band so determined to update southern folk and country rock makes The King Is Dead one of the most classically American sounding albums in decades and one of the best albums of 2011.

After a decade of indie bands that have drowned out their own vocals in walls of noise and echoing reverb that makes it virtually impossible to understand what 95% of indie music is about (at least lyrically), you can’t begin to state how refreshing it is to have a band that takes the time to clearly enunciate all of their words and put such emphasis on writing such engaging and intellectual lyrics. As someone who cut his teeth on the poetic lyricism of Bob Dylan, Colin Meloy’s ability to craft such memorable lyrics that don’t draw from the cliche topics of love and politics is so invigorating. His songwriting is sprinkled with countless literary allusions, though my favorite is this direct reference to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (“On the road, it’s well advised that you follow your own bag in the year of the chewable ambien tab”). Still don’t know why that tickles my lit nerd pleasure center so thoroughly, but it does. Fans of The Decemberists know that the ocean and ships are a recurring theme in Meloy’s work, and it’s readily apparent on tracks as varied as “Don’t Carry It All,” “Rox in the Box,” and the album’s lead single “Down by the Water.” On his two “Hymn” songs from the album, Meloy is also able to evoke a pastoral naturalism that I associate more with XTC’s Skylarking than modern indie rock, and the nealry gospel sound to those tuns lend the album the solemnity it needs to balance out its often boisterous communal energy. Meloy is also a masterful storyteller and on the album’s star track “Calamity Song” (and also the second single “This Is Why We Fight”) he paints a dark and gloomy apocalyptic tale to match his upbeat and catchy folk rock backing.

The music is just as much fun as the lyrics. I do not like country music. Everyone has the one genre they can’t stand, and that’s mine. With the exception of alt-country artist like Wilco and Neko Case or the one classic country exception of Johnny Cash (who is essentially classic rock at this point), it’s not my cup of tea. My boss at the record store where I used to work would torture me with Garth Brooks records every chance he got, and it was agonizing. So when I say that the sense of classic country and bluegrass forms the very core of this album and there’s a note I don’t love, that’s really saying something. Perhaps, it’s the interplay between the bluegrass sound and the lyrics. One of the reasons I’ve never warmed up to country music is that the faux populism and maudlin emotion that makes up so much of modern country. Meloy and company are able to take the Americana and folk roots at the core of good country music and wraps it in actual poetry and lyricism. The closest this album comes to sounding like a modern indie rock creation is on the penultimate track “This Is Why We Fight” which is a very dark and brooding track that could have been left off of Neon Bible. Just to push the classic music nerd button in my brain a little more vigorously, they mix in some very Bob Dylan influenced harmonica riffs. This is the sort of album you could buy your parents (if your parents and cool and like The Band or Joan Baez) and they may dig this music even more than you.

I have a tendency to push the most obscure and inaccessible music on my friends who then proceed to think I’ve entered some acid-fueled frenzy of experimental avant-garde music. Even the things that I find to be accessible these days like “Summertime Clothes” by Animal Collective, “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem, or “Round and Round” by Ariel Pink are simply relatively accessible to the crazier things I listen to. I tried to get my little sister to listen to Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colour, and she pleasantly referred to it as techno-throwup (which I don’t even understand). This album is accessible in every sense of the word. Yet it manages to be accessible and artistically interesting at the same time and that’s no easy feat. For fans of country, folk, southern rock, or indie rock, this album has something for you. It’s easily the most lyrical and intellectual album I’ve listened to since Bonnie “Prince” Billie’s I See a Darkness and after dozens of listens since it was released back in January, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its power. Having relistened to it for this particular review, I now want to go back and re-explore the rest of The Decemberists’ catalogue because this album reminds me of just how truly great these nerd rockers can be.

Final Score: A

Cults (2011)

Perhaps the defining trait of the last decade of indie music has been the brazen fusion of genres that should be completely incompatible. On Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West and his back-up crew transformed Autotune and the Vocoder from a tool to make sub-par singers sound better to a musical instrument in its own right and West’s vocoder solo at the end of “Runaway” has become hip-hop’s equivalent of the “Stairway to Heaven” guitar solo. Animal Collective has made a career off of melding the soaring harmonies and cheerful melodies of the Beach Boys with psychedelic influences, and Noah Lennox’s (aka Panda Bear) solo album Person Pitch was an unforeseen amalgamation of surfer pop, freak folk, and hypnotic ambience. A quick listen to Kid A may show an album that defies all genre definition, and while it certainly doesn’t fit into any easy categories, listeners with an ear for every sonic detail of that album can see how masterfully Thom York mixes the guitar driven rock and sound effects of “The National Anthem” on the same album as the thumping electronica of “Idioteque” or the haunting and ethereal “Treefingers.” I would never in a million years have believed that a band which combined the soulful pop grandeur of 1960’s Motown girl groups with the guitar and synth driven pop of post-punk outfits like Joy Division or The Smiths and then threw in Vampire Weekend world-beat elements for good measure had any chance of success. I’m glad I wasn’t around to tell Cults, a New York based pop duo, that their crazy musical blend wouldn’t work because I wouldn’t have been more wrong. With one of the most outstanding debut albums of the last couple years, Cults is an incredibly promising first look at a group that is sure to be a big force in the indie scene by the time this album begins to get the exposure it deserves.

If the Shins are the heir apparents to the chamber pop of the Beach Boys, Cults is more interested in channeling the soulful pop bliss of the Ronettes or the Crystals. With a surprisingly simple three-chord guitar structure more akin to early punk bands than modern indie rockers, Cults manage to transport pop music forty years into its past while charting what could be one of the most fresh and unexpected indie sounds since Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver brought classic folk back to the mainstream by updating it for today’s world. Lead singer Madeline Follin’s breathy and ethereal voice should instantly remind listeners of Freda Payne belting out “Band of Gold” or Dusty Springfield singing a standard like “Son of a Preacher Man.” Lead guitarist and percussionist (these two have the potential to position themselves as the next White Stripes if their next release lives up to Cults standards) layers a twinkling space-rock element over his ska/proto-punk guitar work with some elements of surfer rock and on nearly every single song, you hear a xylophone which (in this band’s already unique textural forays) becomes their unique  calling card. At the same time, there are enough vocal samples and crazy sound effects to momentarily make you question if you put on an Avalanches album. Every gut instinct you have says this should turn into an incomprehensible mess, but it simply shows that you don’t have to make pre-processed, focus-tested music to make an undeniably catchy and accessible pop album that manages to be quite unlike anything else out there.

When the album begins, all of the sound effects and random vocal samples that lead into “Abducted” make you think you’re in for a much stranger and outre album than you’ll actually be listening to. The song then throws you off balance (in that great way) again by suddenly segueing into an upbeat proto-punk guitar heavy number that makes you feel you’ve found a “riot grrrl” group that was making pop music as a lark. The album’s star single “Go Outside,” immediately follows and from that point forward, you won’t be able to erase the image of the Supremes sharing the stage with the Smiths. “Go Outside”‘s main xylophone line will lodge itself in your brain even more than its tremendously catchy and simple verse structure. Pair this with the brilliant music video using footage of the Jonestown compound, and “Go Outside” is poised to be one of the best indie singles of 2011. On “Bumper”, Cults manages to combine Motown and psychedelia with a hook driven chorus structure and main verses that seem to melt into thin air like the strings on Aegaetis Byrjun. “Never Heal Myself” is an engaging and poignant song lyrically that has the potential to be this album’s “Horchata,” the under-appreciated gem off Vampire Weekend’s Contra.

There aren’t many albums that I consider must listen for all music fans. The music community has become so splintered and polarized over the last ten years that one man’s Kid A (my favorite album of all time) could be another man’s garbage (though if you find nothing of value in Kid A, you really need to have your ears checked). Indie music is especially notorious for appealing to one niche group above all others, and unless your tastes are as bizarrely eclectic as mine (I know one other person who listens to Amadou & Mariam), you may find your particular niche of music and avoid everything else at all costs. Cults is so deliciously accessible and fun that anyone with an open-mind to modern indie pop has to give it a try. You may not fall in love with it the way I did, but even the most musically withdrawn will have to respect the songcraft and pop sensibilities on display here. With surprising lyrical depth that goes toe for toe with The Shins in how to write upbeat and catchy pop songs with brooding and introspective lyrics, Cults still manages to be one of the most fun albums since the early January release of The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead (how can you not love a band who makes references to David Foster Wallace in their music videos). Mark my words, barring a complete implosion of the band or a particular spectacular case of the sophomore slum, Cults are going to be one of the hottest commodities in the indie world.

Final Score: A-

When I first listened to House Arrest, the 2002 album by avant garde pop group Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, I was warned by the friend recommending the album that while he loved the CD, that particular album marked the point when his normally unqestionable musical sway started to falter among his friends. For me though, House Arrest was love at first sight. With a perfect ear for the pop hits of yesteryear, specifically the acid rock of the 1960’s and early 1970’s mixed with the synth driven pop of the New Romantics in the 1980’s, like Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet, Ariel Pink crafted a sonic landscape directly on my pleasure principle of hook laden synth riffs alongside ambient interludes that were more Pink Floyd than Animal Collective, former members of Ariel Pink’s old record label, Paw Tracks. With a sound that was equal parts David Bowie, the Yardbirds, and the Talking Heads, I eagerly awaited the release of Ariel Pink’s 2010 album, Before Today, his first album to be recorded on actual studio equipment and not a cassette system in his basement (though the lo-fi nature of his earlier records was an undeniable part of their charm). While Before Today fails to ever form a cohesive whole (mostly due to Ariel Pink’s exploration of more sounds in one album and occsaionally one song than most musicians try in their entire career), it is an undeniably fun and engaging album that managed to provide one of the most unexpected and brilliant singles of 2010, the deceptively catchy “Round and Round.”

It is hard to find a jumping off point to describe the sound on this album. To list all of the influences and genres present on Before Today would require a several pages long essay. At his core, Ariel Pink (the stage name of Ariel Rosenberg) is all about crafting precisely arranged pop throwbacks that will make you truly question whether this music was written in the 2000’s. The album begins with an uncharacteristically mellow (for Ariel Pink fans recognize that ecstatic aural pleasure seems to be his only recurring theme) jazz number which evokes images of smoke filled night clubs that had invited a jazz/funk hybrid to play its opening shows. It’s not until the introduction of Pink’s heavily distorted and modified vocals make the intentional reference to James Brown on “Hot Body Rub” that you realize this is a man intentionally painting a retro soundscape. His ability to make you forget that this album didn’t slide out of a hidden recess of an FM classic rock station is made so impressive because at least once a song, he will throw in a transition so jarring you will suddenly think more Panda Bear or Radiohead than the Byrds or Cream. In the almost extra-terrestrial sounding “Little Wig,” I found influences from groups as different as Blue Oyster Cult, Steppenwolf, Meatloaf, and even noise rock groups like Sonic Youth. Ariel Pink changes gear so many times on this album that it virtually demands complete attention from its listener as you are sucked from one frenetic transition to another. Most musicians that experiment with the tone of an album will try to maintain some consistency over any given song. Ariel Pink refuses to play by those rules and like a child with more toys than he can play with, Ariel Pink throws them all in the pot til you have an album where acid rock and synthpop are two sides of the same strange coin.

The success of any given track on the album is never a matter of whether a song is a well crafted piece of pop arcana (which they all are) but instead on whether you will still remember any of it after the album’s over. For every track like “Beverly Kills,” a catchy disco/funk/new wave hybrid absolutely heavy on the sound effects and ambient interludes, or “Butt-House Blondies,” an unexpected foray into hard-rock with a head-banging guitar solo and brain-burning main guitar riff, you’ll have well-arranged numbers like “Fright Night (Nevermore)” and “Revolution’s a Lie” that simply don’t stick with you in the face of far stronger material. Similarly, while I’ll discuss the pop lyrical brilliance Ariel Pink shows on tracks like “Round and Round” or “Can’t Hear My Eyes” in a moment, most of the album is lyrically unambitious or bland, and Ariel Pink often distorts his vocals so completely that it becomes a mission in futility to understand just what he’s saying in the first place. The only song besides the two lead singles to show any real lyrical inspiration is “Menopause Man,” an ode to transexualism with the poignant line “trying too hard to be yourself. trying too hard to be what you are.” It would have made a great new wave companion to Antony & the Johnsons’ I Am a Bird Now.

The real stars of the show though are “Can’t Hear My Eyes” and “Round and Round.” Both tracks would have been right at home on a early Depeche Mode album, and “Can’t Hear My Eyes” suddenly transforms into a mellow jam band sound that would be right at home on a Grateful Dead live album if they played synthesizers (pre-Touch of Grey anwyays.) Both show the hall-marks of a man who could write Top 40 smash hits if cared long enough to write conventional music. The perfect call and response that forms the core of “Round and Round” is one of the most irresistibly catchy arrangements since “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem.   The song has a deceptively simple structure, but repeat listens will reveal an constantly shifting arrangement with pick-ups, a chorus that burns into your brain more than “Hey Jude,” a bizarre but perfectly timed use of sound effects to signal the big change-up halfway through, and the recurring synth line that will stay with you for weeks. “Can’t Hear My Eyes” is more interesting from a lyrical perspective even if it won’t stay with you for months after you’ve stopped listening. Both songs though represent the sort of perfect genre fusion of psychedelic influences and pop sensibilities that used to only be the purview of Animal Collective, and even if you don’t check out the rest of the album, you need to listen to those two tracks stat.

For anyone out there who needs some sort of artistic cohesion or unifying force in their albums, you need to look elsewhere because Before Today has zero interest in sticking to one sound for more than 30 seconds. Also, there’s a healthy chance  you’ll walk away from this album not knowing what any given song (“Menopause Man” excepted) was about. There’s weird music like Modest Mouse and XTC, and then there’s truly experimental music like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. It’s so out there that you wonder who discovered this strange L.A. native with his hundreds of recorded cassettes of his own music. Then, you listen to this pitch perfect pop creations, and you remember that it was only a matter of time til he broke out. There isn’t a single bad track on the album. There’s simply such  a massive gulf between the instant classic “Round and Round” and the other great tracks contrasted against the less impressive material. Even if you don’t listen to a lot of indie rock, if you’re a fan of the influences I’ve mentioned in this review, there’s a real chance you’ll find something to appreciate in Ariel Pink’s wide body of work and he’s never been more accessible than on Before Today.

Final Score: B+

Evol

If you want to name a band that is incredibly divisive among the music community, you don’t really need too look much further than Sonic Youth. While there is some general consensus that Daydream Nation was a classic, the rest of their library generates a considerable larger amount of debate. Are they wildly experimental art rock/punkers that pioneered much of what 90’s rock and roll would sound like, or are they as the titular main character of Juno puts it, “just noise.” I feel like I probably fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes. While the grunge movement would not exist without the influence of Sonic Youth and its frontman Thurston Moore, there are times when the band descends into noise rock excess where any attempts at recognizable melody or recurring riffs are discarded in favor of incomprehensible layers of noise. Sometimes the noise works and adds the band its titular sonic effects, but for the most part, it comes off as sort of pretentious and boring.

At times on this album, 1986’s Evol, it’s almost like Thurston Moore had seen into the future, heard grunge, and decided to invent the blueprint from which grunge would rise and yet sound remarkably distinct from his copy cats. Through grunge’s signature use of heavily distorted guitars and disorienting reverb, Sonic Youth are able to fashion an instrumental and sonic landscape that is entirely their own. At times, they even experiment into more avant-garde territory especially on the tracks that feature Kim Gordon on lead vocals that stray even further away from either noise rock or alt rock conventions. At moments like that, you can see the genius that would lead to Daydream Nation. Alas, the highs still aren’t particularly high, and they don’t occur often enough, and when the lows hit, I kept praying for the album to be over.

“Tom Violence” sounds like it could have been a B-side for Daydream Nation. It was a great melding of their growing proto-grunge style with the distortion and reverb that is partially noise rock as well. “Green Light” was the best track on the album as it was entrancingly sonic in nature. Much like a great Radiohead track, I found myself incredibly lost in the dense instrumental landscape that the distortion effects had caused. “Shadow of a Doubt” features Kim Gordon on lead vocals where she displays her knack for breathy, almost ethereal vocals as well as exploring some uncharted territory for Sonic Youth which is a light electronic sound which really works in the context of the song. Tracks like “Marilyn Moore” and “In the Kingdom #19” were virtually pure noise, and I just couldn’t find myself engaged with those songs or other tracks that relied overly heavily on sheer walls of noise. There was no place for me to enter the song emotionally or intellectually and to engage myself with the music.

I’m admittedly not a fan of noise rock. So, perhaps, I’m not qualified to review this album. Yet, at the same time, I know the potential and talent they have because of Daydream Nation, and so, Evol is extremely disappointing in comparison. I hated Kid A and Person Pitch the first time I listened to them, and I love those albums now, so maybe this one will eventually grow on me, but for now, it stands as an unfortunately uneven undertaking that shows flashes of future genius without ever really tapping into what will eventually make this band the legends of alt rock that they’ve become. To all fans of Sonic Youth, please don’t hate. It’s just how I feel.

Final Score: B-

I firmly believe that, as multifaceted as his enormous talents are, there’s a very strong possibility that Kanye West is the greatest of all time in the realm of hip hop. He’s responsible for three of the greatest rap albums of the last 10 years, ( The College Droppout, Late Registration, and his magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), and he’s contributed his bombastic production style to countless other artists as well. Jay-Z may not be the king of hip-hop that he once was but there’s no denying The Blueprint‘s place in the rap pantheon. Most of Yeezy and Jigga’s collaborations in the past have led to instant classics like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” or “Monster”, so when I heard that they were working together to create a full-lengthed album, I was understandably incredibly excited. Kanye’s the heir apparent to experimental and artistically ambitious hip-hop, and once upon a time, Jay-Z was the master of laying down hard hitting beats and rhymes. Unfortunately, the final product, the recently released Watch the Throne doesn’t quite live up to its high expectations and is a generally uneven production that showcases ‘Ye’s unparalleled production skills but also reminds us that Jay-Z’s best days are far behind him.

Whereas My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was an unprecedented fusion of hard-core hip hop, Michael Jackson-esque pop sensibilities, indie rock, and electronica that currently represents the artistic high-water mark of hip-hop since The Low End Theory, Watch the Throne is a far more conventional and unambitious undertaking. While you still get flashes of ‘Ye’s unrestrained sense of production, splitting main creative control between him and Jay-Z leads to an unreconciled conflict between their quite difference styles. Jay-Z hasn’t changed as an artist since they first worked together on The Blueprint whereas The College Dropout couldn’t be more different than MBDTF. For the most part, Jigga is content to dish out rhyming one-liners to whatever beats that Kanye and his team of co-producers were willing to lay down while Yeezy is still out there with his storytelling/introspective approach to hip-hop lyricism. The bridge between the ambitions and talents of Kanye and Jay-Z is so insurmountable (in ‘Ye’s favor) that it just makes Jay-Z’s parts seem so weak in comparison.And, as I’ll get to in a second, while there are several great tracks on this album (and one instant classic), the album never fully becomes a cohesive product and the quality is generally all over the place.

First and foremost, “Otis” is the best thing Jigga’s done since “99 Problems” and it ranks pretty high in ‘Ye’s singles list. It sounds like something that happened to be left off of The Blueprint for some dumb reason and then they remembered how awesome it sounded. It took so much chutzpah to center an entire song around “Try a Little Tenderness”. It’s one of the greatest songs of all time and the ego that ‘Ye and Jay-Z had to use it is unmatched but also awesome. The other big single is “H*A*M” which is arguably the catchiest track on the album but its main choruses are fairly weak. Although once again, the production value is simply through the roof. “Lift Off” which features Beyonce is this album’s “All of the Lights”. It has pitch-perfect pop sensibilities and the use of synthesizers is well done. I hated “That’s My Bitch.” It’s very offensive and misogynistic. Although, I’m also torn because it’s one of the better produced songs on the album. If you don’t think Kanye is the best rapper-producer out there, you’re crazy. “Who Gon Stop Me” is another song that instantly takes me back to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with its heavily electronic feel and “Runaway”-esque use of vocoder. “Ni**as in Paris” was Yeezy at his worst kind of excessive materialism. Normally, his inherent hedonism is beautifully set-off by his scathing introspection, but here’s he’s just boasting of his success and wealth and both he and Jigga fail to effect me.

I hardly found myself enjoying Jay-Z’s rhymes on this album. While there were moments, like on “Otis” or “Murder to Excellence” where he made a return to form, I felt his performance was fairly phoned in. Just to be sure, I went back and re-listened to The Blueprint where nearly every track is a classic and he rocks every second he’s on the mic, and it only confirmed my opinion of a weak performance here for Jigga. ‘Ye is still great, but he suffers from his biggest flaw that with the exception of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he has trouble making consistently great albums. He’ll have moments of pure brilliance on every album, but then drag those albums down with bloated productions with songs that needed cut. It’s the same problem on Watch the Throne. While his ability to lay down sonic and simultaneously soulful background beats is unmatched, he doesn’t quite know where to cut the fat. I would have probably enjoyed this all a lot more sans Jay-Z, but that’s part of the deal here. If you’re a fan of either, you should definitely listen to the album, just set your expectations at a reasonable level.

Final Score: B

 

Boys and Girls in America

So much of what I listen to lately is post-rock that when I return to my rock and roll roots, I’m often underwhelmed by the complexity or the ambitions of the music I’m listening to. Classic rock is what made me fall in love with music as slowly diving into my father’s very deep library of rock and roll LP’s allowed me to discover the roots of modern music. However (with some notable exceptions), most of what I listen to these days recognizes that rock’s creative hey-days are far behind us and that it’s now time to chart new waters, whether this be ambient or electronica or some marvelous genre fusion. I’ve only listened to two real rock albums for this blog (The Who’s Who’s Next and The Rolling Stones Exile on Main St.) and those are defining albums of the rock age. I just finished listening to my first modern rock album for the blog, The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America, and while it did suffer from some more derivative inspirations, the sheer energy of the production and the unashamed way that the band wears its influences on its sleeves led this to still be an incredibly fun album that has some great moments on it but is weighed down by a slightly uneven production.

I find it sort of difficult to say where exactly The Hold Steady fit within the American rock spectrum. There are obvious influences of the post-punk bands of the late 90’s and early 2000’s like The Dismemberment Plan. I don’t think I’m imagining a healthy influence of power-pop inspirations either. At the same time, the band isn’t afraid to throw in some of the piano driven hard rock of bands like The Who (their later stuff). It’s a strange amalgamation of different rock areas, but it works spectacularly well. When the band is channeling all three influences, their power to rock and get your head bopping is flawless. The seams only really begin to come apart when the band wants to explore any of its influences separate from the other two, as you are faced with the fact that these are sounds you know and have heard a million times before. One area where the band is not remotely derivative though is its deliciously hedonistic lyrics which took rock and roll’s axiom of sex, drugs, and rock and roll as its primary message but through authentic and genuine lenses that you don’t see enough any more.

The album’s biggest problem however is that when its tracks work, they’re exceptional and are some serious highlights of indie rock’s continued ability to lay down rock anthems, but when they don’t work, they really just fail to move you. The highlight of the album is “Chillout Tent”, a tale of young lust between two people that meet in the titular chillout tent at a concert after they ingested some bad drugs. It’s catchy, hook-driven pop rock brilliance. The same thing could be said about “Party Pit” which is another song about love and drugs as one man moves on while his female love is stuck partying. Once again, you have “Chips Ahoy” which is an ode to excess after coming into unexpected money. The mix of power-pop/post grunge/ and classic rock makes for a seamless and extremely enjoyable kick your ass rock scenario. However, on tracks like “Same Kooks” too much of the song is spent on more pure punk before any of the piano or guitar solos begin to arrive. The same problem occurs with “Citrus” which is too much of an attempt at weaker soft-rock.

If you’re a fan of any of the genres I mentioned whether it be late 90’s post-punk/post-grunge, Cheap Trick-esque power pop, or some of the more progressive classic rock, then this album deserves a listen. It has flaws that keep it from true greatness which is a shame because there are songs on this that are memorable modern rock anthems. “Chillout Tent” is quickly becoming a fast favorite. I just wish the band had stuck more to its most unique capability which is its combination of so many different genres. When it tries to do those things by themselves, the magic is gone. Regardless of its flaws, this is simply a fun and rocking ride into the world of modern indie rock sensibilities.

Final Score: B+