Category: Indie Rock


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+

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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

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+

I remember the first time I ever listened to Bob Dylan. I had expressed an interest in his music to my father when I was younger and a couple of days later, my dad came home with his greatest hits CD. It was love at first sight, and as I’ve had more opportunities to delve deeper into his discography, it’s only re-affirmed my love of the power of folk music. While an unhealthy proportion of folk music is seen as hippies playing acoustic guitars in coffee shops, there’s still fantastic folk music being written today by artists like The Decemberists or The Weepies. I just finished listening to an album that is now considered a seminal piece of indie folk music, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s I See a Darkness. Through a skillful combination of a wide array of influences and a master’s understanding of song composition, I See a Darkness was an instant classic (for those who heard it) that positioned Bonnie “Prince” Billy to be to folk what Wilco was to country.

As mentioned, I See a Darkness is a folk album by indie artist Bonnie “Prince” Billy (one of the many names that Will Oldham has performed under over the years). However, this album is about as much pure folk as Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was pure country, which is to say, this album incorporates a wide array of sounds into its overall production. While I mentioned Bob Dylan at the beginning of this review, he really isn’t the first folk artist that springs to mind when I here I See a Darkness. My first thoughts honestly are what if you combined the country-rock of The Band with the singer-songwriting prowess of artists like Jeff Buckley or Elliot Smith. While the instrumental influences range from country-rock to blues to traditional folk arrangements, they are all presented in a simple and unimposing structure that belies some considerable complexity in orchestration. From a lyrical perspective, I can’t help but think of the dark and introspective nature of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and the lyrics are a considerable asset of the album as Will Oldham is a considerable poet on some rather bleak themes.Perhaps one of his strongest assets is his ability to write unpretentious but powerful songs with intelligent lyrics that still manage to have hooks to make nearly every song memorable.


At eleven tracks and just over 40 minutes, I See a Darkness is a textbook example of how to keep your album at the perfect length. Every track is fantastic although some stick with you longer than others. My favorite song on the album was “Madeleine-Mary” which was classic hook-driven folk-rock. While it perhaps had his most conventional instrmentation, it also was a phenomenal showcase for his unique voice and balladic song-writing. On “Today I Was an Evil One” he channels more of the country-folk sound that I associate with The Decemberists and only served to re-affirm my Wilco comparisons. “Raining in Darling” was a simply beautiful but subtle tale of love. “Death to Everyone” manages to turn a song about how we all will die somebody into the second catchiest song on the album which is an impressive feat. Much like Wilco, he also manages to incorporate some sonic elements to his normal folk/rock/country arrangements which add another layer of depth to already impressive musical ambitions.

If you’re a fan of folk music, whether this be Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Decemberists, Elliot Smith, or the Weepies, etc, then this album needs to move to the top of your listen queue. Folk has never really received the attention it deserves from people my age (early 20’s) except within certain circles, but this album is shining example of the power the genre can still hold. Sure, it was released over a decade ago, but its has age has done absolutely nothing to diminish its strength or power. A very large number of the albums I will be reviewing for this blog are going to come from the indie music spectrum and this album is proof of the sheer talent and entertainment that can be derived from musicians that the average person has probably never heard of. I’m looking forward to my chance to listen to more of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s music (or Will Oldham’s other acts for that matter) as this album was an instant classic.

Final Score: A

Feels

There are certain bands, within the hipster community, that are code words that members can identify each other with. These are bands like Broken Social Scene, Sigur Ros,  and Arcade Fire (before they got big and “sold out” [ugh]). Although I don’t consider myself to be a part of this sub-culture, I am familiar enough with the music and scene to be able to comment intelligently on it. No band has come to symbolize hipster elitism and inaccessibility more than Animal Collective. This reputation doesn’t exist without reason. Trying to analyze or review an Animal Collectives album is always a difficult task and their 2005 LP Feels is no exception.

My formal introduction to Animal Collective came through their 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion. Much like Radiohead’s Kid A, this was an album that I just did not get at first. It was like someone decided to make a Beach Boys record but to stuff it through full with LSD and electronica. I was not prepared. However, multiple listens revealed it to be a quite appropriate successor to the cultural and musical legacy of Pet Sounds and tracks like “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes” quickly became favorites and the album itself now holds a hallowed place for me in the indie pantheon of music. Feels is not like MPP. Each Animal Collective album stakes its own style claim. Only Radiohead and the Beatles are able to successfully recreate themselves as often as these guys do with such positive results. Instead of the electronic sound of MPP, Feels has a heavily guitar sound, of course with the typical AC distortions and technical flourishes, i.e. looping, multi-tracking, etc. It includes two of my favorite songs from the group; “Purple Bottle”, a fast paced manic ode to love that is so wide-eyed in both its sincerity and strangeness and also “Banshee Beat” a strange but haunting track that seems almost too much like a “typical” indie rock song to be AC but yet works on some unlikely levels.

This album really is not for everyone. It’s about as accessible as a David Lynch film or trying to watch a random episode of “The Wire” with no knowledge of the characters or intricate plots. I enjoyed it a lot but even I didn’t know what was going on half the time. Avey Tare and Panda Bear distort and screw around with their vocals so much that it is often hard to understand what in the hell exactly they are saying. Yet if you like Beach Boys or the legion of indie bands that they would go on to inspire, you should at least check this out. It’s going to take multiple listens to crack this album and even then, you probably still won’t know what exactly you listened to, but all things that are great and worth examining require a little work.

Final Score: B+