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Category: album review (Page 1 of 22)

Album Review: Viet Cong – Viet Cong [Jagjaguwar / Flemish Eye]

vietcong
92Heat WaveDon’t listen to Viet Cong when you’re in a good mood. Happiness has no place within this band’s world. There’s plenty of existentialism, darkness, depression and punishment to go around though, if you’re interested. But that’s pretty much what you’ll get from any artists affixed with the genre label of post-punk. Just look at Joy Division, the go-to post-punk reference, who made it their mission to tell everyone that love will tear us apart. Actually Viet Cong and Joy Division share more than just some sonic similarities to one another. Their names both reference controversial armies/regiments from past wars responsible for plenty of death and destruction. That’s even resulted in at least one Viet Cong show being cancelled specifically because of their name. But they continue to soldier on, because what else are they going to do? What really matters in the end is the music itself, and at the very least in that aspect Viet Cong’s self-titled debut album is a real killer.

What makes Viet Cong such a great and worthwhile record can really be whittled down to a single word: passion. It’s a quality that echoes through every single track, as the band plays with such urgency and hunger that you can’t help but be sucked into their vortex. The creative and unique twist they put on the post-punk label is equally exciting, particularly since so many other artists are simply content to do their best modern interpretation of The Jesus & Mary Chain or Sonic Youth. You can hear Viet Cong hit those touchstones with dashes of bands like Guided By Voices (“Continental Shelf”) and Wolf Parade (“Silhouettes”) as well, but then quickly swerve in obtuse and unexpected directions to keep you on your toes. While such experimental shifts can effectively alienate most listeners who thrive on the safe and familiar, the songs do their part to actively engage rather than shut anyone out. It’s how they can turn an 11-minute song called “Death” into one of the heaviest and most white-knuckle rides of 2015 so far.

Actually, calling the entire album a ride is another great way to describe it. Though the lyrics tend to be less than upbeat and the melodies won’t make you recall a bright, sunny day, this is a really fun and darkly humorous (on occasion) collection of songs. In the middle of “March of Progress” for example, vocalist Matt Flegel brings a serious amount of veiled sarcasm and dry wit to lines like, “Your reputation is preceding you/ We’re all sufficiently impressed/ And this incessant march of progress/ Can guarantee our sure success.” It’s a sly eye roll, scoffing at the idea that artists need to go out of their way to kowtow to critics and crowds in order to get ahead. Such matters aren’t of concern to Viet Cong, and their refusal to compromise or adjust their art for the sake of acclaim and popularity seems to have yielded them healthy portions of both.

As breathlessly exhilarating as the seven tracks of Viet Cong can be, it’s also important to note they’re equally fraught with conflict and a severe lack of any real human emotion. Flegel sings in a commanding monotone best compared to Interpol’s Paul Banks, and when combined with the highly distorted guitars as well as Mike Wallace’s overtly mechanical yet punishing drumming, it can register as very cold and clinical in its approach. Of course such a glassy-eyed approach has roots in post-punk and industrial music in the first place, so it makes sense for Viet Cong to fall in line there. They also avoid any hot button topics such as love or politics in their songs, favoring obtuse and wordy metaphors over clarity and relatability. These are the prices paid to thrive on experimentation and unpredictability. The band places form and function above all else, and such tinkering pays off with perhaps the first truly original record this year.

MP3: “Continental Shelf
MP3: “Silhouettes

Buy Viet Cong from Jagjaguwar

Album Review: Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love [Sub Pop]


87Heat Wave
Oh thank goodness Sleater-Kinney are back. It’s been 10 years since they chose to take an “indefinite hiatus,” and a whole lot of wild things have happened in that time frame. To quickly sum up, Corin Tucker started a family, then released two lovely yet quiet records fronting the Corin Tucker Band. Carrie Brownstein became something of a celebrity, grabbing attention for her acting chops in small films and TV shows, most notably Portlandia. She returned to music briefly in 2011 with a new band Wild Flag, which also included S-K drummer Janet Weiss. One album and one tour later, Wild Flag called it quits. Lastly, for her part Weiss has kept very busy playing in a variety of bands, most notably a stint with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus as one of the Jicks. The reasons behind Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 break-up included Tucker’s decision to focus on raising a family and Brownstein’s serious health issues due to constant touring/recording, all of which seemed to imply a reunion would be unlikely. Yet maybe the time off was enough for the trio to recharge their batteries and begin to miss what they had together. After 10 years on and 10 years off, let’s hope that this new album No Cities to Love also marks the beginning of a new era for the band.

The primary concern with Sleater-Kinney, as with any band that reunites after a significant period away, is whether or not the new music will live up to the old catalog. 2005’s The Woods ultimately reflected a band going out at the top of their game, with everything prior building to that momentous record. A decade later, it’s very comforting to know that they haven’t forgotten how to write a song, nor have they mellowed with age. In some respects it’s like they never left, which is just about all you could ever ask for from Sleater-Kinney. Even John Goodmanson, who produced every one of the band’s previous records except for two, returns to the fold. Yet there are a few notable changes on No Cities to Love that are less apparent on the surface but become more obvious the closer you look. Brownstein has said in interviews that the trio began recording sessions for the album in 2012 with the intention of finding a new approach to the band, and by many measures that appears to be the case. They’ve never sounded cleaner or more focused. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the 10 tracks fly by without stopping for breath or even a ballad. The acidic and highly aggressive grit of their last couple records has been replaced with something a bit more accessible and mature, even though it’s by no means quieter or less vicious. Tucker’s vocals still show more power and range than most, Brownstein’s guitar solos remain vibrant and complex, while Weiss’s intricate rhythms keep everything held together quite nicely.

Perhaps the best way to get a sense of Sleater-Kinney’s more mature headspace across No Cities to Love is to take a microscope to their lyrics. These are some of the most personal songs the band has ever written, and that’s clear right from opener “Price Tag”. Acknowledging her status as a mother with a family, Tucker has harsh words about the recent economic recession and the challenges of trying to make a decent living wage when a lot of larger corporations are out to exploit their workers. Abuse of power is one of the primary themes of the record, and the biting “Fangless” along with the charging “No Anthems” address the issue in smart yet explicit ways. It’s also great to hear the trio sing about inter-band workings as well as their decade-long absence across multiple songs. The bouncy and fun “A New Wave” is about making your own path and not allowing the “venomous and thrilling” voices to change or shape you. They’ve got each other’s backs and will continue to do their own thing even if it drives them into obscurity.

Speaking of obscurity, the two main songs that deal with their hiatus show up right at the end of the album. Of the pair, “Hey Darling” is the most confessional, serving as a bit of a letter to fans. It also happens to be the one song on the record that sounds most like classic Sleater-Kinney. “Explanations are thin, but I feel it’s time/ You want to know where I’ve been for such a long time,” Tucker sings in the very first verse. What follows from there goes into how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and sometimes even playing music for a room full of people can leave you feeling lonely. There’s not much subtext to be interpreted, except the idea that band life can become a bit of a drag if that’s all you do for a decade and sometimes you just need a break. “Fade” really plays that through to its fullest and most realized conclusion. “Oh what a price that we paid / My dearest nightmare, my conscience, the end,” wails Tucker over Brownstein’s heavy 70’s-style guitar riffs. There are dimming spotlights, a loss of a sense of self, and the question of whether or not the torture was ultimately worth it. The mere existence of No Cities to Love implies that the answer is yes. Considering how it all went down the first ten years, it’s probably best to assume things will be handled very differently from here on out. Who knows how long it might last, but as Tucker herself puts it, “If we are truly dancing our swan song, darling/ Shake it like never before.”

Buy No Cities to Love from Sub Pop

Album Review: Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper [Domino]


85Heat WaveNoah Lennox aka Panda Bear has been making music for a long time. Nine albums and a bunch more EPs with Animal Collective, and counting Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, five solo full lengths as well. That’s a wealth of material, made all the more interesting by how his sonic and lyrical themes have evolved over the last 15 or so years. The one thing he’s never been is complacent, and that’s served him particularly well on landmark records such as 2007’s Person Pitch and 2009’s Animal Collective release Merriweather Post Pavilion. Though each new piece of music stands alone as its own unique statement, we have reached a point where there are certain qualities that define a Panda Bear song. Things like samples, reverb, psychedelia and overdubbed vocal harmonies have become par for the course, it’s just the way they’re presented that has changed.

Following the dark, dub-infested minimalism that was 2011’s Tomboy, it’s something of a relief that Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is a bit more well-rounded, albeit still quite serious affair. Singles like “Mr. Noah” and “Boys Latin” bounce, swirl and ensnare you with their hooks before you have the chance to realize you’ve been sucked in, the words often so obscured with reverb that you’re never fully sure what they’re saying but sing along anyways. That’s part of the charm. Yet when a phrase does come across with clarity, as on the latter track with the line, “Dark cloud has descended again,” it turns a seemingly joyful moment to one of dread. Such is the dichotomy that permeates much of the record, as Lennox embraces the love and serenity that growing older and having a family can bring, while at the same time wrestling with the fear of dying and leaving them all behind. The album title itself spells that out explicitly when the lyrics don’t.

At it’s heart however, Grim Reaper seeks to establish an overall focus on good triumphing over evil and finding the pleasures in life, one day at a time. The two tracks at the center of the record, “Come to Your Senses” and “Tropic of Cancer,” take a break from the frenetic sound collages that dominate much of the album to offer moments of sobering contemplation and outright beauty. On the former, Lennox chants, “Are you mad?” over and over, each time with a slightly different intonation, as if he’s trying to suss out what those three words even mean before finally deciding, “Yeah, I’m mad.” With the latter, harps and pianos plink with a heavenly sort of grace, as Lennox considers life after death and in doing so revives some of the memories of his own departed father from more than a decade ago. It’s a bit of a callback to his 2004 solo debut Young Prayer, which was created as a tribute to him.

Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper probably won’t be remembered as the best Panda Bear album, though it is his most accessible and all-encompassing to date. Thanks to its meticulous sequencing and reflective themes, it’s the sort of record that takes you on a journey and leaves you off in a much better place than where you started, even if it took some serious chaos to get there. Chalk up another big win for Mr. Noah.

Buy Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper from Domino Records

Album Review: Owen Pallett – In Conflict [Domino/Secret City]



A fair number of people have absolutely no idea who Owen Pallett is, even though they’ve likely heard his music in one place or another. His primary claim to fame has been as a composer/unofficial member of Arcade Fire, most recently earning an Oscar nomination for his work with the band on the soundtrack to the 2013 film Her. Most, if not all of the band’s string arrangements come directly from his brain. He’s composed for other bands on occasion as well, including Beirut, Grizzly Bear and The Mountain Goats, the latter of which was a lyrical inspiration for his new solo record In Conflict. After releasing solo material in the mid-00’s under the Final Fantasy moniker (which he was forced to change due to a lawsuit with video game creators Square Enix), in 2010 Pallett put out Heartland under his own name. Like everything he had done up until that point, Heartland was a concept record, telling the story of Lewis from a fictional realm called Spectrum, who faces off in a battle with his God (named “Owen Pallett”). It was a rich and engrossing album that practically demanded to be heard in full in one sitting, each thread connected and lightly pulling on the one before.

In Conflict is similar in that it too is best digested all at once; however conceptually speaking there is no singular narrative or storyline to follow. There are themes though, and many of the songs deal with self-doubt, depression, loneliness and the challenges of connecting with others. These are things we all face from time to time, though some of us deal with it a lot more than others. There seems to be a lot greater resonance the older you are too, as friends slowly disappear into their marriages and families, what’s a thirty or forty-something single person with no children to do? In the opener “I Am Not Afraid,” Pallett appears to have come to some sort of a resolution about his life. “I’m not at all afraid of changing / but I don’t know what good it would do me / I am no longer afraid / The truth doesn’t terrify us, terrify us / My salvation is found in discipline,” he sings with confidence.

Yet as quickly as he finds direction, he loses it once more. “On A Path” is about losing your place or outgrowing your hometown and the subsequent wanderlust as you search for a new place to settle. Mental illness and the “It Gets Better” Project are the focus of “The Secret Seven,” inspired in part by the suicide of gay violin student Tyler Clementi. Pallett seeks to relate his own experience with mental illness as a teen as well as those of his friends in the hopes of helping others dealing with the same issues. He even gives out his phone number at the end of the song so those in despair can call him to talk if need be. Later in the record “The Sky Behind the Flag” deals with the desire to control every aspect of our lives and exert that same influence on the world at large. The idea is that such micromanagement can only end in destruction and implosion, as others as well as the universe do not like being ruled by an iron fist. Above all else however, “The Riverbed” probably best represents the album’s overall themes. The subject matter on that track ranges from writer’s block to depression to alcoholism to growing older without children, which is basically a nasty cocktail of anxiety and dread. Dark as it may get, the final verse seeks to provide some degree of solace, particularly with the line, “Try to admit that you might have it wrong.” In other words, though you may be haunted by your failures, perhaps everyone else considers you a success.

Such is the point of a record titled In Conflict, as our mental states often clash with one another in obtuse ways. That idea also comes through from the instrumental side of things, supported in no small part by the master of the oblique, Brian Eno. While Pallett does an incredible job with string/orchestral arrangements and there are plenty of them on this album, he’s also chosen to expand his sound to incorporate more electronic elements. He’s done a fair amount in that area before, but never to such an extent. Pretty much every song has at least a touch of violin in it, but there’s also a wealth of digital effects like beats and bleeps, often accompanied by some sort of synth or Mellotron as they work well together. Those sorts of moments are particularly evident on “The Passion,” “Infernal Fantasy,” the title track and a couple others. It’s easy to say that this is where Eno’s influence bleeds through the most, as the non-symphonic, non-guitar areas are almost always his specialty. The only disappointing thing about it will likely be how some of these songs come across when performed on stage. There’s a certain excitement that comes with watching Pallett build sonic landscapes through his unique looping techniques, and electronic/synth stuff pulls him out of that world, however temporarily.

As a whole, In Conflict represents yet another masterstroke from Pallett, who has increasingly proven to be one of the top composers making music today. The lack of any official conceptual elements connecting all of the songs through characters or ideas relieves us from the distraction of trying to analyze and dig out some sort of storyline so we can focus on what’s really being done and said on the individual tracks. Every moment is fascinating in one way or another, be it a delicate instrumental composition or a single word/phrase. Whether or not they are influenced by or autobiographical to the man behind them is certainly up for debate, but what’s not is their intention to provoke a response from the listener. Hidden beneath the themes of fear, anger, depression and anxiety is the message that everyone has their own path, and the choices you make, no matter how good or bad, are an attempt to do what’s best for yourself. Thankfully, this record allows Pallett to give us the best of his conflicted, brilliant self as well.

Owen Pallett – Song for Five & Six

Buy In Conflict from Domino

Album Review: Real Estate – Atlas [Domino]



If you’ve heard a Real Estate record before, very little may surprise you about their new one Atlas. It’s another collection of lackadaisical songs with weaving guitar melodies supplemented by jangly chords. This time however, everything gets alternately clearer and cloudier. How so? Well, to start this is the first Real Estate album that’s been cleanly produced and doesn’t have touches of lo-fi haze built into it. Matt Mondanile’s serpentine guitar work benefits most from this adjustment, glimmering like a freshly polished diamond. It’s most effective on tracks like “Primitive” and “Had to Hear,” when you could almost refer to those lead guitar parts as another voice that acts in tandem with Martin Courtney’s silky vocals. This is a band that has quietly become a well oiled machine, as they now know what works and how to get there with the least amount of trouble. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the lyrics on Atlas, which bring the dizzyingly fun highs of their previous records down to earth. Real Estate were the sort of band that wrote songs about spending time at the beach or bumming around suburbia with your friends on a summer day, but now the sky has become overcast and the temperature has taken a nosedive. “Our careless lifestyle, it was not so unwise,” Courtney sang on “Green Aisles” from the band’s 2011 record Days. As nice of a sentiment as that was, those days (so to speak) are over, and now it’s time to grow up and be a responsible adult. Going along with that are relationship struggles (“Talking Backwards”), crippling anxiety (“Crime”) and the realization that everything changes and we can never truly go back (“Past Lives”). Pairing those emotions with the band’s trademark sound proves to be a rather inspired combination, resulting in their catchiest and most mature album to date. It’s also their best, right down to the carefully structured sequencing. All of this shows that Real Estate have certainly learned a thing or two both personally and professionally over the last few years. Now it’s time for them to teach us, and that goes well beyond simple guitar tab videos.

Music Video: Talking Backwards
Music Video: Crime

Buy Atlas from Domino Records

Album Review: St. Vincent – St. Vincent [Loma Vista]



Over the course of four albums, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) has undergone a complete transformation. This fact is most evident in her album covers, the first two being self-portraits displaying what might best be described as wide-eyed innocence. Her new album is self-titled and once again features a photo of her on the cover, only this time her hair has gone from black to white and she sits atop a throne in an ornate dress, a look of power and control on her face. So too has her subject matter focus evolved from miserable suburban housewives and the curse of domesticity to powerful tyrants and society’s weaknesses when it comes to facing such leaders. In essence she’s been writing songs about the oppressed this entire time, but she expands to a greater and more epic scope with each new record. It’s similar to how her skills and sonic palette have grown in that time, as she always offers up something different to engage the listener and keep us guessing.

More so than anything she’s done previously, on St. Vincent Clark plays around with all sorts of digital sounds and effects. That’s clear right from the opening track “Rattlesnake,” where her guitar doesn’t even show up until well past the halfway mark. And while there’s plenty of examples of digital prevalence on this record (almost ironically, not so much on the song titled “Digital Witness”), it’s perhaps most obvious on the skittering, almost science fiction dystopian “Bring Me Your Loves.” What’s missing? Well, the ornate orchestration that permeated much of her first two records is all but gone, though 2011’s Strange Mercy certainly started that decline. Her buzz saw guitar solos have also largely started to take a back seat as well, though when they do show up as on “Huey Newton” they’re so completely distorted and compounded with effects you might not even recognize that’s the instrument you’re hearing.

In a sense, it can sometimes feel like a waste of talent if Clark isn’t using the greatest tool at her disposal on pretty much every track. What ultimately makes it okay is how she fills in those spaces previously occupied by guitar solos with other things and strong songwriting so you don’t notice nearly as much. Slightly more worrisome is how little St. Vincent has to share in terms of innovation and general evolution. The album is different because it emphasizes other elements and concepts, but none of it is anything we really haven’t heard from Clark in some different capacity. As the song title from her 2009 album Actor implies, what she’s giving us is “Just the Same But Brand New.” On the plus side though, absolutely none of the record feels stale or disappointing. It also couldn’t have come from any other artist. Annie Clark has reached a level of comfortable confidence that many other artists spend entire careers searching for. Whether this self-titled album marks the end of one chapter or the beginning of the next, it’s a defining moment for one of today’s smartest and most compelling rock stars.

Stream “Birth in Reverse”
Stream “Digital Witness”
Stream “Prince Johnny”

Buy St. Vincent from Amazon

Album Review: Lo-Fang – Blue Film [4AD]



Lo-Fang, aka Matthew Hemerlein, is a very talented guy. His early singles proved as much, showing off a diverse range of styles and instruments, all of which he played himself. Throw in some pretty catchy choruses, and you’ve got all the makings of a superstar. At least that’s what it looks like on paper. He may well rise above the fray and build an audience from the ground up, and having teen wunderkind Lorde in his corner to take him out on tour will undoubtedly help push things in the right direction. What’s unfortunate however is how Hemerlein’s debut album Blue Film turns a promising singer-songwriter and composer into a small disappointment. Turns out when you focus on only one or two aspects of your songs, there are other pieces that suffer.

If Blue Film was an entirely instrumental record, it would have turned out pretty great, what with the very Andrew Bird-like mixture of guitars, violins and synths. That’s the arena where Hemerlein really proves his worth as a musician. The other half of that includes vocals and lyrics, which is where this album really takes a turn for the worse. There are clunky and awkward lines in virtually every single song, and those mouthfuls are akin to someone trying to forcefully connect two puzzle pieces together that do not fit. “I never figured out how to / Unfold your paper cranes / Origami agony,” are kind of strange and ultimately meaningless lines from album opener “Look Away,” though the hook and gorgeous composition do a great job of averting total disaster there. While the nearly seven minutes of “#88” makes it a touch too long to be an official single, it’s one of the few tracks released in advance of the record that does a fantastic job of showing off Hemerlein’s musical diversity and influences. Unforunately it too suffers from a few lines that might as well have been pulled from the book of most commonly used lyrics.

It stands to reason that even the blandest of lyrics can be made better or more colorful by a clear emotional investment from the person singing them. No matter what the subject matter of a song, from reflections on the world around you to the morality of cheating on your significant other to trying to be a better person, it seems like Hemerlein treats everything with a calm and nearly apathetic tone of voice. Even just a hint of genuine passion or the stretching of his vocal range from time to time could have given some extra life to songs that desperately needed it. Then there’s the matter of the two covers on Blue Film, both of which seem like ill-advised choices. The first is “Boris,” from the female duo BOY, which is a very dark song about sexual harassment in the music industry. These women are singing about their experience, but in Hemerlein’s hands the perspective shifts to the creepy guy offering them Codeine. If covering “You’re the One That I Want” from the musical Grease seems like a bad idea for an artist who largely deals with orchestral pop, you’d be correct. Hemerlein slows the tempo down to a delicately composed crawl, which changes the mood from upbeat and fun to downright desperate. It’s fits in perfectly with the rest of the album for that very reason, but it begs the question of why he felt the need to do it in the first place.

Prior to signing with 4AD, Hemerlein was planning to release Blue Film as a mixtape. As most mixtapes are, it probably would have been free. When the label heard what he had put together, they wanted to release it as Hemerlein’s debut album. Hindsight being 20/20, maybe they should have waited for the next batch of songs before trying to provide a proper introduction to Lo-Fang. Surely whatever he does next will be better than this.

Buy Blue Film from 4AD [or iTunes]

Album Review: Sun Kil Moon – Benji [Caldo Verde]



When someone’s very personal vision is on display for all to consume, they’re taking a huge risk putting themselves “out there,” since the reaction to it can range anywhere from hugely positive to incredibly negative. Yet there’s also something wholly refreshing about it too, because even if it sucks at least nobody can accuse the artist of compromising or playing it safe. That’s probably why the best books, films and albums also operate on the fringes of popular culture, because people actively crave the most positive and idealistic things, and anything that doesn’t conform or forces you to relate to it in more than a superficial way fails to provide the necessary escapism from their not-so-great lives. Which makes a great case for why there’s likely to be a heavy division between those who love and those who hate Sun Kil Moon’s sixth record Benji. Then again, most of those who won’t like the album are probably not even aware enough about music to even know this exists in the first place. It’s what’s known as a specialty record, with a sharp emphasis on “special.” Rest assured that no matter how you react to it, you’re unlikely to forget this listening experience.

If you examined Benji solely for its instrumental composition and remove Mark Kozelek’s vocals from the equation entirely, there’s a very good chance you’d shrug and think of it as just another folk record. There’s nothing flashy or wholly experimental about the way these songs come together, even though they’re more varied and dense compared to more recent Sun Kil Moon efforts. That’s largely done intentionally, so as not to distract from the lyrics and the way they’re being sung. More specifically, every track isn’t so much a song as it is an intensely personal story pulled directly from Kozelek’s life. He’ll talk about his parents (“I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”), other family members who have died (“Carissa” and “Truck Driver”), serial killers (“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”), provide explicit details of his sexual history (“Dogs”), and give his perspective on one of America’s most recent tragedies (“Pray for Newtown”). Is any of it true? Is all of it true? A little research about the names, dates and location details in every song appears to point towards complete honesty, though on occasion a name might be changed to protect the innocent. Every tale is told with such interesting and vivid specificity that you can picture it in your head, while also generalized enough that just about anyone can relate to it. That remarkable balance is what turns this from a good record to a great one.

Given that somebody dies in almost every single song on Benji, you might think that this is a pretty depressing album. How Kozelek avoids falling into that trap is by painting vivid portraits of the people he’s singing about. Their experiences turn out to be just like our own, a grand mixture of triumphs and failures, happy moments and sad ones, and everything in between. Don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to make it through this lengthy record in one sitting due to all the emotions it conjures up. That’s just part of what it means to be a living, breathing human being. Kozelek writes about all these people and topics because they’ve changed his life in some way, and creating poetry out of them is his way of returning the favor. One can only hope it will inspire others to do the same.

Buy Benji from Amazon

Album Review: Mas Ysa – Worth EP [Downtown]



The journey of Thomas Arsenault and his musical pseudonym Mas Ysa is a strange and interesting one. Without going into too much detail (you can find out more via your favorite search engine), he spent his youth in Canada and Brazil, before eventually making his way to the U.S. for college where he befriended some creative types and really began to play around with instruments and sounds. He’s used those connections and skills to become a legitimate recording artist, complete with a record deal and opening slots for bands like Deerhunter and Purity Ring, before 99% of the world had even heard a single note. It’s impressive, really. Is his status as part of the music world today a result of sheer talent, or simply thanks to who he knows? Well, Arsenault’s debut EP Worth provides a pretty definite answer to that question.

“Why” was the first Mas Ysa song uploaded to Soundcloud last fall for consumption by anyone willing to listen, and the nearly 6.5 minute epic drew quite a bit of the right kind of attention. Given its boundary pushing, devil may care mixture of techno, synth pop, folk and other sounds, it was a breath of fresh air and one hell of a first impression. On the EP itself it comes second, following the brief instrumental intro “Vanya.” Which brings up an important point about construction and sequencing. Worth has the nine song track listing of a full length, but clocks in at just under 30 minutes from start to finish. Five of those nine songs are instrumentals that fall between just under a minute to just over two minutes. It’s easy to think of moments like that as filler, however Arsenault does his best to give each one a unique individual identity that quietly draws your towards it, like a moth to a flame. These small sonic experiments also work as perfect segues between the longer vocal tracks, often mentally preparing you for particular tempos and feelings.

Beyond the complex narrative that is “Why,” the other three “main” songs do a fantastic job of painting a full picture of Arsenault’s skill set. “Years” closes out the EP, and is the polar opposite of the frantic energy found at the beginning. It is a sparse and haunting ballad that makes full use of Arsenault’s often quivering and wounded vocals. “Life Way Up From” does something very similar, but twists ever so slightly towards the instrumentally weird, a move made with such confidence and intention that by the time you really notice you’re already too emotionally invested to resist. By contrast, “Shame” has echoes of “Why,” particularly in its forceful vocals and brisk pace, but the overall approach is less about holding on for the ride and more about introspection.

Perhaps the best thing about the Worth EP is how it comes across as fully realized by its creator. That clarity of vision is something that most artists struggle with early on in their careers, so it’s a great sign that Arsenault has a such a steady hold on it from the get-go. Let’s hope he keeps it going for the next release.

Buy the Worth EP from Amazon

Album Review: Broken Bells – After the Disco [Columbia]



Think for a moment about a disco. Depending on your age, there’s probably a good likelihood that you’ve never actually been inside of one, given most of them have long since died out to be replaced by the common night club atmosphere of today. But thanks to photos and videos, maybe even a little Saturday Night Fever, everybody has at least some idea of what the experience of walking into a disco might have been like. The mirror ball hanging from the ceiling and the multicolored light up checkerboard floor were the two key components to any disco, outside of the music of course. It was a fun place to be, especially if you loved to dance. But disco the music style and disco the club type both died off, and we’re left with the considerably less technicolor post-disco era. While we as a society are arguably better off without it, there’s still a hint of sadness at the loss of some of those elements. Use that as a starting point for Broken Bells’ second full length, After the Disco. The duo’s 2010 self-titled debut album was a multicolored, eclectic and moderately fun affair that allowed James Mercer to play around with some different styles outside of his work under The Shins name. Meanwhile Danger Mouse got to add another dynamic collaboration to a resume already packed with them. That first record and the subsequent Meyrin Fields EP might not have been the best things associated with either one of the principal members, but they were satisfactory given the circumstances through which they were birthed.

Over the last few years, Mercer returned to The Shins reinvigorated and provided a great reminder that bouncy indie pop is what he does best, and Danger Mouse produced a few more records for different artists that all wound up sounding similarly retro to one another as a result. Broken Bells was starting to feel like an afterthought, to the point where the announcement of After the Disco seemed to be met with a collective shrug all across the web. To a degree that same mentality comes across in the music as well. Gone is the melting pot of styles and genres, replaced with a more subdued and unified spacey synth pop sound that only manages to truly work for them on a couple of tracks. Single “Holding on for Life” is one of those particularly strong moments, with an earworm of a chorus that feels inspired by the Bee Gees. The delicately crafted groove of “The Changing Lights” also marks a great showcase for Danger Mouse, and it’s just about the only time he shines on the entire record. If you’re looking for the weak link among the duo, he is clearly and unfortunately it. While Mercer does a fine job singing and certainly knows his way around a lyric, the cold, plain and emotionless compositions distract from a lot of the good that’s being done. It leads to moments like “Medicine” and the title track, which have solid dancefloor tempos to them but fail to connect or stay with you in any meaningful way. At least the first Broken Bells album had some variety and curveballs to keep you interested even as it made some wrong turns. With After the Disco, the neon lit floors have been shut off and the mirror ball has been cut down. Turns out a dance club can be a pretty depressing place once someone turns the house lights on.

Broken Bells – Holding on for Life

Broken Bells – Leave It Alone

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Album Review: Dum Dum Girls – Too True [Sub Pop]


It’s been fascinating to hear the evolution of Dum Dum Girls over the handful of years that they’ve been around. They’ve gone from a lo-fi garage pop band to a slick, synth pop juggernaut, and it only took three albums and two EPs to make that transition. Basically Too True picks up where 2012’s End of Daze EP left off, which is a great thing since that was the best work they had done to date. The sound and spirit are there, particularly on tracks like “Cult of Love,” “Are You Okay” and “Too True to Be Good,” which are smartly structured and perfectly mixed to put Dee Dee’s powerful and rich vocals up front. Unfortunately, this album also falls prey to a lot of the same issues that former Dum Dum Girl Frankie Rose was met with on her latest (and similar sounding) record Herein Wild. You can hear greatness, and may have even witnessed it on a track like “Lord Knows” from the last EP, but for whatever reason on this album it feels like Dee Dee is holding herself back. Maybe it’s an artistic integrity thing or a desire to defy expectations, but it’s slightly frustrating to think that she’s wasting so much potential. For example, a song like “Rimbaud Eyes” takes the easiest and most expected structure, then trips up in its attempt to be lyrically unique thanks to difficult phrasing. In a sense the entire record is a small mess just like that, with nearly every track getting about 90% of the way to perfection, only to be undone by one aspect or another. One thing it doesn’t lack though is beauty, and thanks to some very clean production work it all sounds great on the surface. It’s when you start digging deeper that the issues present themselves. Here’s hoping Dee Dee can push past all of that mess to rediscover exactly what has made Dum Dum Girls such a compelling act these last few years.

Stream: “Rimbaud Eyes”

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Album Review: Haim – Days Are Gone [Columbia/Polydor]



They were bred for this. Well, maybe they were. Somebody ask their parents about that. One thing is for sure though – the three sisters that make up the band Haim have been making music from the very first moment they were able to. It’s certainly no coincidence that each of them plays a different instrument too: Danielle is lead guitar, Este is on bass, and Alana does keyboards/synths. Danielle and Este spent their late teens as part of a cut-and-paste major label band called Valli Girls, where they performed a bunch of songs written by a team of professionals intent on marketing to tweens and teens. Generally disappointed with playing a bunch of songs they didn’t write or necessarily like, the two Haim sisters left the band and went Partridge, complete with mom on lead vocals and dad behind the drum kit. Covers were their specialty, diving into the songbooks of everyone from Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac to Shania Twain and R&B legend Wilson Pickett. Of course it’s tough to make a living as a cover band, let alone a family cover band, and there comes a time in every parent’s life when they need to shove their babies out of the nest and let them try to fly on their own. And so we have Haim in their current incarnation, complete with long-time session drummer Dash Hutton to add percussion into the mix.

The buzz began in early 2012 when the single “Forever” was released as part of a three song EP, which along with some heavily hyped performances at SXSW got them a record deal. Their sound is best classified as a mixture of their influences, largely stemming from their upbringing and cover songs played with their parents. Fleetwood Mac is the name that gets referenced most often, however it’s most apt to say that they’ve got the late 80’s/early 90’s soft pop sound on lock, with dashes of R&B thrown in for good measure. Think Phil Collins and Richard Marx mixed with En Vogue and Kate Bush, and that should give you a decent impression of where they’re coming from. Those names might raise a lot of red flags or conjure bad memories, and there’s the inclination to suspect that they’re really just exploring those genres out of complete irony, however there’s extreme sincerity in every single thing they do. That’s really what sells the listener on the idea and earns the band the right sort of attention and respect in spite of all other factors. The new twists on old familiar sounds are also what make their songs seem very “of the moment.” For example, you could easily say that their latest single “The Wire” is a natural blend of the most classic periods of Shania Twain and The Eagles. Beyond that sonic comparison, the addition of each sister taking their own verse plus those dynamic harmonies really helps to elevate it to a “song of the year”-type status. Make previously strong singles “Falling” and “Forever” your lead-ins, and the start of their debut album Days Are Gone turns into a 1-2-3 knockout punch combo.

Of course it definitely doesn’t end there, in spite of the record’s apparent front-loading. Time and time again, Haim prove that they know their way around a chorus, and that they are happy to exploit or break away from genre conventions whenever it suits their needs. The album’s title track, kicking off the second half of the record, appears to mine a bit from the more urban pop era of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and works out better than you might expect. It’s no wonder the song was co-written by Jessie Ware, who has largely taken over where Jackson and Abdul once reigned. While press materials will tell you that there’s a bit of an R&B influence in Haim’s sound, it doesn’t really show up too often. When it does though, as on “Let Me Go” and “My Song 5,” it adds a deeper layer to what the band is capable of, and makes for some of the most impressive moments on the album. Both songs could be considered an homage to En Vogue, though only “My Song 5” and it’s heavy bass drum/tuba blare truly sets itself apart from the rest of the album. And that’s perfectly fine – most records could use such a great standout. Yet one of the most fascinating things about Days Are Gone is how it manages to unite all of the disparate elements and influences into one cohesive whole of an album. Credit goes to producer du jour Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Usher) for finding a way to make it work, and to Haim for never sounding anything less than original in spite of obvious nods to the past.

If Days Are Gone has a real weakness, it’s found in the lyrics, which often attempt to turn a breezy melody into something dark and “important.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to write about serious issues against a lighthearted pop melody – artists do that all the time. Plus, it’s not like half of their songs are about depression, even though a few are about breakups and the fallout afterwards. Then again, “The Wire” is just about the most upbeat and kind song about the ending of a relationship that you’ll find these days. Where the issues emerge are in the words themselves, and not the topics. While the record has its fair share of creative wordplay, a close look at the lyrical content of most songs unveils a pattern of generalizations and bland phrasing that doesn’t hold up so well under scrutiny. All things considered, calling attention to such an issue given what Haim is out to accomplish can be viewed as petty and nitpicky, which is why it might be best to simply sit back, relax and let the melodies and hooks take you away. That is, essentially, what the sisters are doing on their album cover anyways.

Those in search of something different or innovative in a band probably won’t find Haim and Days Are Gone to their liking. What you do get from this record is a collection of strongly composed and confident songs that grab your attention and refuse to let go. Coming straight out of the gate with such excellence and precision is rather impressive, even if these sisters have been playing music since they became old enough to hold instruments in their hands. This is definitely something they’ve been building towards, and for all practical purposes they knock it out of the park.

Haim – The Wire

Haim – Falling

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Album Review: AlunaGeorge – Body Music [Vagrant/Island]



Some artists just really like to make you wait. You’ll hear an incredible single from them one week, a second single six months later, and then the debut full length finally arrives after about two long years of being patient. One of the more recent examples of this can be seen in Purity Ring, who released a couple of songs at the start of 2011 but didn’t get around to an album until a record deal was firmly in place more than a year and a half later. The most recent victims of this extended period of limbo are London duo AlunaGeorge. Aluna Francis and George Reed first got together and unleashed the single “You Know You Like It” in August of 2011, yet after a long period of label negotiations and stopgap singles it took until July 2013 to get their debut Body Music out into the world. There’s that initial wave of relief if you’ve had your patience tested from the beginning, followed by the inevitable question, “Was it really worth the wait?” It’s one thing to be a band like My Bloody Valentine with an established career and heightened expectations that allow you to delay your next album for 20+ years, but when you’re a brand new act without much more than a couple songs attached to your name, time is never on your side no matter how long you want to take perfecting that first big statement.

At their core, AlunaGeorge are essentially a nostalgia act with a modern-day twist. Both Francis and Reed grew up in the ’90s, and are now taking the pop and R&B stylings from their formative years and warping them ever so slightly for a modern audience. But that’s been a cycle for a long time now, and the popularity of these acts is often dependent on what the cultural zeitgeist happens to be at the time. Perhaps AlunaGeorge were right to wait a couple years before releasing Body Music, since their sound is much more in vogue now than it was when they first started. Still, you’ve also got to think that any group that displays the sort of talent that they do on their debut would attract attention no matter when it was released.

One of the odder things about Body Music is it’s opening track “Outlines.” The song itself isn’t odd or even bad by any means, but its placement is what’s striking about it. It’s a slow and rather emotional ballad in a spot typically reserved for an energetic hook-filled track that engages with the listener and provides incentive to keep going. After all, in R&B the blues always gets second billing next to rhythm. In this case though, rhythm arrives on track two thanks to the bouncy beats and memorable chorus of their very first single, “You Know You Like It.” The album quickly shifts into overdrive by backing that up with two more insanely good singles in “Attracting Flies” and “Your Drums, Your Love.” In fact, one of the biggest problems this record has is an overabundance of bouncy, fun and catchy tracks. With so many hooks and dynamic moments, it becomes difficult to let anything sink in because the next thing hits just as hard. But while it can feel like one whitewashed groove after another, particularly towards the end of the record, perhaps that lends it some great replay value. In that sense, you can learn to better appreciate the racing “Lost and Found” or the helium-synth on “Just A Touch.”

While the idea of giving fans the most for their money (and long wait) might make sense to a degree, Body Music actually suffers due to a little bit of overindulgence and bloating. At 14 tracks and just over 50 minutes, you wind up worn down and have to drag yourself through those last 10 minutes. There is nothing particularly worthwhile or great about the ballad “Friends to Lovers,” and the “bonus track” cover of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” serves mainly as a reminder of how well done the original version is. Both could have been chopped off the album like a diseased limb, and we would have been better off for it. Yet other than that relatively minor issue of excess, there’s not a whole lot else wrong with the album. Francis and Reed both prove their worth and have rendered a slick (occasionally to a fault) debut that’s almost exactly what you’d want from them. The problem with giving people what they want though is that an increased set of expectations goes along with it. They stick to the formula and prove to be especially adept with it, but next time had better include some innovation, experimentation and a general evolution beyond where they’re currently at. It’s only through that approach that they’ll be able to prove themselves to be more than just a momentary flash in the pan.

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Album Review: Washed Out – Paracosm [Sub Pop]



Considering the increasingly short life cycles of trends in music these days, it’s gotten almost difficult to remember that there was once a subgenre of music known to many as chillwave. It’s been nearly five years since that word introduced us to artists like Neon Indian, Toro y Moi and Washed Out. Two years after it started, the sound got tired, produced diminishing returns, and artists were forced to adapt/innovate or die. For Ernest Greene of Washed Out, he spent his 2011 debut album Within and Without both perfecting and updating the sound of his earlier EPs. While it wasn’t a record that lent itself to any particular distinction among its nine songs, what it lacked in establishing singles it more than made up for in cohesiveness of sound and structure. It’s exactly the sort of evolution that was needed at the time, and the increased clarity on the production and vocals spoke to a much greater clarity of overall vision for the project as well.

Now in 2013 with that sound even further removed from many radars, Greene makes yet another stylistic leap on Paracosm in a bid to keep things interesting. You’re certainly not going to mistake his work for any other artist, and these aren’t earth-shattering changes by any means, but subtle shifts in tone and instrumentation do show us a new side of Washed Out. The new album sounds so warm and tropical it’s practically the opposite of the icier textures chillwave became known for, and it’s so lush and crisp that affixing the name Washed Out to it feels like you’re mislabeling it. Of course in case you need to be hit over the head with this idea, one look at the floral arrangement on the album cover or watching videos for “It All Feels Right” and “Don’t Give Up” will do everything but physically take you out into nature and prove it’s a great pairing with this music. Hell, when it’s not little snippets of indiscernable conversations from a crowd of people that’s plays at the beginnings and ends of most tracks, you get birds chirping and the basic sounds you hear when you hit the “jungle” setting on the white noise machine next to your bed. Obvious though it might be, the visual (and in some respects sonic) representations associated with this album are intended to enhance what’s already there, which it succeeds at doing in spades. If you think you’ve heard Paracosm because you played it through headphones while sitting at your desk or on your couch one afternoon, the experience changes dramatically if you’re laying on the grass in a park on a sunny day or wandering through a local forest preserve.

Beyond all the physical representations injecting additional mood and meaning into the music, one of the key influencers on this record is the use of more than 50 total instruments rather than sampling. The early recordings were extremely sample-dominant, and while Within and Without started to incorporate a wider variety of organic elements (particularly as part of the live show), this is really the first time guitars and live drums have been used on a Washed Out album. There’s also a host of other, stranger instruments that were used on various songs that might not be so easy to pick out unless you’re really listening closely. Some of those instruments and sonic influences have been chronicled as part of a short documentary by The Creators Project (Part I, Part II), which is insightful and worth your time to watch if you like geeking out about that sort of stuff.

Focusing on the actual songs of Paracosm, as with most albums this one is front-loaded. Outside of the 80 second instrumental intro “Entrance,” the first four actual songs on the record could each serve as potential singles. It’s fitting that “It All Feels Right” really kicks things off, as the track is a spiritual (but not really sonic) cousin to the most popular Washed Out song to date, “Feel It All Around,” which you may recognize as the theme to Portlandia. Both are relaxed but bouncy in their tempo, and lyrically invite you to “feel” positive about life. One of the things that’s more apparent on the new album are Greene’s lyrics, which are never without a touch of reverb but are still clearer than any previous records. If you pay close enough attention to what’s being said, there is some realization that maybe these words would be better if we couldn’t hear them so well. Lines like, “Weekend’s almost here now / It’s getting warmer outside / It all feels right,” might as well appear on the next Black Eyed Peas single because they’re so pedestrian. This has been Greene’s biggest problem since day one, and unlike the forward progress in composition and live instrumentation, he doesn’t seem to be making any effort to improve his writing skills. We understand the theme, along with the overall vibe of a song, is going to place emphasis on laid back, fun in the sun with friends. It’s a great thing to be known for, but it starts to come across as really repetitive the closer you look.

What saves “It All Feels Right” and many of the other poorly worded songs on Paracosm are the arrangements. Official single “Don’t Give Up” does a particularly spectacular job with this, resulting in such a complex melody you’ll keep discovering new layers buried within it several listens later. That chorus is an incredible earworm too. While “Weightless” may not be the most engaging track from the first half of the album, the mixture of synths creates an overall sound that skirts the line between M83 and Cocteau Twins. If it’s commercially viable you’re looking for, “All I Know” might just be the poppiest Washed Out song ever, and it doesn’t feel like anything was sacrificed or lost to get to that point. It’s impressive in its own way, and gives us a glimpse into a potential future for this project where commercial accessibility leads to a broad fan base and hordes of commercial opportunities (see again, M83). “Great Escape” does a fantastic job of tapping into the more soulful side of Greene’s vision, even if that means conjuring up memories of Marvin Gaye classics in the process. Sure it might draw some unfavorable comparisons, but at the same time it adds layers to what we’ve already heard while not straying very far from the overall relaxed and tropical vibe.

As Paracosm starts to wrap up around the lengthy title track, the tempo slows and the synths pretty much take things into cruise control. It doesn’t necessarily get boring, but it can feel a bit whitewashed (word use intentional) and eerily reminiscent of some moments on Within and Without. You could argue that these final songs help to balance out the record, set against the pop-oriented first half. It all flows well thematically, but just because you have that doesn’t automatically make it good. It just makes it more bearable. The positive outlook is that this is the overall best and most advanced Washed Out record to date. It’s issues involving poorly written lyrics, Greene’s limited/always obscured vocal range, and pacing issues towards the end all ultimately pale in comparison to the goal of this music, which is to provide a soundtrack to your relaxing day of fun in the sun. That’s one thing it definitely succeeds at, and what kind of people would we be if we yelled at him for it?

Stream the entire album on Soundcloud for a limited time!

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Album Review: Scout Niblett – It’s Up to Emma [Drag City]



There are more breakup albums out there than can probably be counted at this point, yet the pain and loss of love remains one of the most fascinating topics to explore through music. Artists wouldn’t keep making albums about it if that weren’t the case. Of course writing a breakup album is in itself therapy, a means of dissecting the good and the bad and figuring out just where things went wrong. Scout Niblett appears to know this on her new album It’s Up to Emma, her seventh full length which also turns out to be one of her strongest. Through it’s nine tracks, it traverses the five stages of grief only to come out the other side resilient and empowered once more. Of course it doesn’t necessarily go through those stages in order, which is why the opening track “Gun” is a slow, angry build to a violent end. In a sense it’s about somebody losing their mind over another person’s betrayal, and it’s only emphasized further by distorted, grunge-filtered solo guitar strums and punishing drums. Once we’re dragged into this pit of despair, and essentially following a character that’s difficult to relate to unless you’re a crazy, emotionally unstable person whenever one of your romantic endeavors peters out, there’s the question raised as to why we’d want to take this journey at all. What’s surprising is how this messy relatonship post-mortem slowly changes our perceptions and draws us in despite our reservations. The vulnerability on display via “My Man” sells you this heartbreak by appealing to your empathetic side. This female narrator that Niblett embodies sacrificed everything for this love, and it didn’t work out in the end. We almost want to root for her hopes of rebuilding the failed relationship on “Second Chance Dreams,” but they end up being exactly as the third word of the title suggests. The depression at work in “All Night Long” is harrowing, with pleads to find a way to move past the mental torture of the breakup. The way the guitar and drums interact with one another mirrors those lyrical and vocal cues in such a way that they become the other end of an imaginary conversation.

As It’s Up to Emma spirals towards its inevitable conclusion, “Could This Possibly Be?” comes in like a reality check, pulling us out of this downward spiral to take a step back to better examine exactly why the narrator keeps torturing herself about this guy. It is when she realizes some painful truths about herself that she also finds acceptance on “What Can I Do?”, leading to not necessarily a happy ending to this tumultuous record, but one where there’s a visible light at the end of the tunnel. Beyond the plotline and themes explored on this album, it’s fascinating from an overall instrumental perspective as well. If you’re familiar with previous Niblett records then there’s definitely some familiarity in the sparse blues-style approach she uses here, though this being her first record in 10 years without Steve Albini behind the board there’s a little more polish in the arrangements. The guitars don’t always sound completely scuzzed up, but do retain a certain early ’90s flavor that makes them comparable to that of Cat Power, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Nirvana (Unplugged) and Sonic Youth. This is a record that uses silence as a weapon too. Because the narrator is a woman left all alone with her own thoughts and memories of this past relationship, most songs primarily feature a single strummed guitar and vocals, almost definitely performed by Niblett live inside an empty studio. There’s greater power and emotional depth in such an approach, which is practically a requirement here, and the occasional aggressive drums or string section serve only as accoutrements to try and heighten what’s already there. The combination of all these various factors and elements really help make It’s Up to Emma one of Niblett’s most powerful and accessible records to date. Go ahead and put another great breakup album on the big board.

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