Phil Elverum has always been a bit of an odd creature. That’s not to call him difficult or some sort of an outcast, though maybe he’d prefer those descriptors. After folding up his band The Microphones almost 10 years ago, he’s operated in the most independent way with the creation of Mount Eerie. He’s foregone signing to any record label, instead starting up P.W. Elverum & Sun as a way to operate. He’s also notoriously hesitant to do any press surrounding his releases, perhaps feeling that those who want to find his music will know where to look. He lives in Anacortes, Washington, which is a somewhat remote town about an hour outside of Seattle. You’d think he’d want to be left alone, except he keeps making and releasing music. His current project is a double album of sorts, two sides of the same coin set to be released four months apart from one another. The first half of that arrives now with Clear Moon. For those that have heard a Mount Eerie or Microphones record before, there are a lot of familiar markers that have shown up in Elverum’s work before that continue on this new album. There are the short instrumental and experimental tracks that have no title other than “(something)”, there’s the gratuitous use of the “pt. 2” signifier even if pt. 1 is nowhere to be found, and let’s not forget about some similarly worded song titles. None of these things truly matter in the end, but they are part of the guy’s unique charm. The last Mount Eerie record Wind’s Poem was a small departure for Elverum, taking a new love of heavy metal to heart and bringing a new ferocity to an otherwise docile sound. Almost amusingly, though the melodies got bigger and much louder on that album, his vocals maintained his classic calm and even mumble the entire time. The paradox was palpable but engaging all the same. The metal and volume get largely shelved on Clear Moon, in favor of the more sedate, folk-based beauty that Lost Wisdom espoused. Only the brash, horn-infused “Lone Bell” pumps some serious and somewhat terrifying muscle into the proceedings. It brings forth the sort of intensity nightmares are made of, but more the kind where there’s something terribly wrong in paradise but you’re not exactly sure what. Unsettling is a great descriptor not only for that song, but the entire record. The underlying theme is all about trying to find what defines “home” for you personally. Opening track “Through the Trees, Pt. 2” has Elverum on a quest across mountains, wilderness and even the Internet to try and find things “just to remind myself that I briefly live.” That follows with “The Place Lives” and “The Place I Live,” wherein he gazes upon nature and questions his importance in the scheme of the universe. The poetic lyrics are worded precisely enough to keep you questioning whether he feels bothered or content with where he’s at. They’re also designed to probe our own consciences and provide us with some food for thought. The places we live and the homes we build for ourselves are in many ways as temporary as life. It’s a comfort to be able to settle somewhere and form a life around it, but how much of an impact on the world we have in that setting is entirely our own choice. Through beautiful bits like “Yawning Sky” and heavier dirges like “Over Dark Water”, Clear Moon does a sharp job of balancing the light and the dark so we’re not completely overwhelmed on either front. Elverum says that the other Mount Eerie record he’ll be releasing this year, titled Ocean Roar, will be darker, weirder and heavier. Let’s just hope it doesn’t lose any of the lush beauty and contemplative lyrics that this one has in spades.
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Based solely on material from Best Coast’s debut album Crazy for You, we learned four main things about frontwoman Bethany Cosentino: She likes boys (most specifically, Nathan Williams of Wavves), California, weed, and cats. It was remarkably easy to boil her down to those characteristics, and she spent quite a bit of time touring and doing interviews in an effort to break free from those labels. Delving deeper into her psyche via such interviews and her strikingly entertaining Twitter feed, we’ve learned a bit more about her, and it all sets us up quite nicely for Best Coast’s sophmore record The Only Place. First and foremost, Cosentino has said many times that this second album is more “emo” and “pop-punk” than the band’s debut. If you’ve been keeping a careful eye on what Best Coast has been up to the last couple years, perhaps you saw one of their shows where they covered Blink 182. Such moments give you a pretty good idea where some of the band’s sonic inspiration stems from. They’ve given up the lo-fi grunge of the first album and hired producer Jon Brion to add plenty of polish and space. In some respects a bit of the mystery is lost by removing the instrumental layers of fuzz generated by Bobb Bruno’s excellent guitar work. Such purposeful flaws only heightened Best Coast’s overall aesthetic as a crew of plainspoken slackers that were just like us. With everything on The Only Place coming off as pristine, it creates a new imperative that they have to take themselves much more seriously and professionally. The good news is that the melodies seem to take that thought to heart, as the guitars jangle, the vocals soar, and the hooks grab you by the ears and won’t let go. Their sonic palette has expanded a bit too, at least enough to incorporate light blushes of alt-country. It would have worked even better had they thrown in at least a little slide guitar or fiddle, but songs like “My Life”, “No One Like You” and “Dreaming My Life Away” feel like they’re channeling Neko Case in overall tone anyways. That’s probably Cosentino’s hope, though she’d be even more ecstatic to generate comparisons to her role model and personal hero, Stevie Nicks. She comes strikingly close on “Do You Still Love Me Like You Used To”, particularly on the multi-harmonized chorus, however that song and others are cursed with one major flaw: the lyrics. If you’re going to clean up your sound and strive for something more professional, you’ve got to back away at least a little bit from lines like, “The sun was high/and so was I” or “You say that/we’re just friends/but I want this/til the end”. Cosentino has changed her writing style a bit, moving away from the lackadaisical summer fun themes and towards the more personal and emotional. Most of the songs on The Only Place feel like pages pulled from a diary, but from a girl in her early teens and not her mid-twenties. Remarks such as, “My mom was right/I don’t wanna die/I wanna live my life,” on “My Life” are simple to a fault. The opening title track keeps the never ending cycle of songs about California going, and like a pseudo-cousin to Katy Perry’s “California Girls”, features lines like, “We’ve got the ocean/Got the babes/Got the sun/We’ve got the waves.” Don’t be shocked if you hear that eyeroll-worthy beast in a commercial soon, probably for the State of California Tourism Board. Why Cosentino’s lyrics are so poorly written has less to do with how uncomplicated they are and more to do with sheer predictability. Nine times out of ten you can guess what the line-ending rhyme is going to be, and while it may be easier to sing along as a result, that sort of blandness really isn’t helping anyone. A little more energy or even some experimentation in the songs would have offset the lyrical damage a bit, but unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of that to be found on The Only Place. If Best Coast really is planning to continue to grow into a full-fledged, professional band, they’ve still got some work left to do. The majority of that falls straight on Cosentino, who might want to spend just a little less time messing around on Twitter and a little more time trying to avoid becoming a cliche.
The progression of Here We Go Magic over the course of their now three albums has been nothing short of fascinating. Luke Temple started the project like many others, with some recording equipment in his bedroom. The band’s 2009 self-titled album resulted directly from those sessions, a supremely lo-fi yet strikingly catchy examination of the freak folk and psychedelic genres. If songs like “Fangela” and “Tunnelvision” didn’t get stuck in your head after a couple spins, there was something wrong with you. Things progressed as you might expect – attracting all sorts of attention, Temple expanded the band out into a full-fledged five piece, though the second HWGM record Pigeons was recorded in a house with only slightly better equipment. The fidelity remained relatively the same as the first album, even as the arrangements were a lot more complicated and busy. The band’s sound changed somewhat too, abandoning the white noise instrumentals and most of the African polyrhythms in favor of something more synth-based and dream pop in nature. Good as that record was, it also made the band seem just a little indecisive about what musical direction they hoped to take for the future. They lacked conviction and a truly unified sound. When you hear the wild mixture of echoing drums that begin HWGM’s third album A Different Ship, there’s a remarkable familiarity to it that raises your spirits for just a minute in the hopes that this might finally be the moment when everything comes together perfectly as part of Temple’s master plan. The initial shock arrives on the second track, once the instrumental intro finishes off. “Hard to Be Close” glides out of its gates with clarity and whimsy that tells you they used an actual studio with an actual producer this time. The dirt and grime of the past two records are gone, and Temple’s vocal sits at the front of the mix. It also feels a lot like puberty arrived since that last full length, as Temple’s voice has dropped a couple octaves from the falsetto he typically uses. Once again this band has gone through more sonic growing pains, still unsettled as to what they want to sound like. They jump genres on a whim and while it’s impressive to hear them reasonably balance everything with some degree of uniformity, you come away with no better idea of where this band is headed than you did at the start of the album. The icy drift of “Alone But Moving” feels like a direct tribute to Radiohead, with Temple breaking out his Thom Yorke-ian falsetto and Nigel Godrich producing it. After delving into some serious yet unremarkable psychedelia for a few tracks, “How Do I Know” suddenly roars to life like it belongs on an entirely different record. The song itself is great and catchy, but it really serves as a red flag by pointing out the flaws with much of the rest of the album. By cleaning up their sound and getting Godrich behind the boards, the curtain behind Here We Go Magic is lifted, and we’re left not with the great and powerful Oz but instead a regular man with a special effects budget. It’d help if there was some semblance of deep emotion or heft to fill in the gaps the lack of instrumentation leave behind, but alas Temple prefers to keep his distance from those things. That leads to something like the sprawling finale “A Different Ship”, which spends most of its 8+ minute running time in some adult contemporary haze that devolves into a largely do-nothing drone. Like so much of the entire record, it feels lost at sea with no real idea where it’s headed. Occasionally land will be spotted and you get a nice spark of fun and inspiration, but it vanishes almost as quickly as it arrives. If this is what it’s like on A Different Ship, perhaps the better idea would be to return to your original one.
So much of music today is all flash with not a whole lot of substance to back it up. That’s not meant to reference live shows with towering stage set-ups and blinding strobe lights, though those sorts of things do factor in. No, this has much more to do with the way melodies are constructed, with upbeat energy and massive choruses. As is the case with people and life in general, sometimes the little or quieter moments carry the most meaning. Lower Dens seem to know this and embrace it. Their first album Twin-Hand Movement was a drifting, atmospheric set of music that played largely off progressive and shoegaze influences. Singer Jana Hunter, having established an offbeat solo career prior to forming this band, provided a haunting core to the group. Her voice mixed with the sparse instrumentals often landed the group somewhere between Beach House and The xx in the “recommended if you like” bin. Lower Dens’ second and newest effort Nootropics does what any good sophmore record should do and expands upon what’s already been established. Synths and a light sprinkling of electronica add depth and new wrinkles to the band’s otherwise guitar-focused sound, and they go a long way towards making the album shimmer in just the right light. The last album felt like it wasn’t entirely sure about what it wanted to be, occasionally drifting off the main route and onto side streets to explore uncharted territory. The confidence, poise and focus they’ve now attained enriches the new record in almost every way: the drums are just a little crisper, Hunter’s vocals ache and swirl just a little more, and the overall beauty just has that much more of a devastating impact. This isn’t an album that tells you how to feel with its lyrics, but instead one that carefully guides you with somber melodies that are difficult to ignore. To the rabid pop music fan, some of these nuances and subtleties can be lost or written off as boring. The album’s finale “In the End is the Beginning” hits its stride early on and then sustains itself for more than 12 minutes without quitting. The track “Lion in Winter” comes in two parts, though they effortlessly bleed into one another and play out over nearly eight minutes. Early single “Brains” plays with minimalist psychedelia for five minutes, then releases right into the more propulsive Neu-like groove of “Stem”. It’s through these pairings and slow motion sojourns that we’re supposed to allow the darkness to fully envelop us. There’s anxiety and despair in there too, but in spite of the record’s overall moodiness the beauty bleeds to the surface and makes everything easier to take. It wouldn’t calm your mind as well as it does if the opposite were true. Those qualities are a large part of Beach House’s aesthetic too, and Lower Dens sound more like them than ever on Nootropics. That’s especially true on tracks like “Propogation” and “Nova Anthem”. Where the two bands truly disconnect though is in their presentation. Victoria Legrand is a very present and up-front vocalist, which is evident from Beach House’s albums. She takes charge and lets her voice soar when the melody requires it, and the band’s music is often described as lush or full-bodied as a result. By contrast, Hunter’s presence on the new Lower Dens record is wispy and in many ways detached from the other instruments, as if she’s wary of the outside world and its ability to hurt her. That emotional blockage contributes to the album’s fragility and brings otherwise invisible moments into focus. So while it lacks a certain degree of heart, it more than makes up for that via smart, well-considered craftsmanship. With an album title that references so-called “smart drugs” designed to improve brain function, Lower Dens appear to have taken some before sitting down to make this record. Let’s hope what they learn here sticks with them for the future.
Brent Knopf formed Ramona Falls in early 2009 while recording on Menomena’s third album was delayed. The Ramona Falls debut full length Intuit featured collaborations with 35 different musicians on both U.S. coasts, and was generally well-received. One of the keys to making that record work was an uncanny ability to surprise the listener at every turn. A violin solo would pop up here, a choir there, and genre influences would shift wildly from looped electronica one moment to Eastern European folk the next. It sounds terribly unbalanced, but there was a subtlety and charisma behind it that sucked you in. After touring in support of Menomena’s record Mines was complete at the end of 2010, Knopf announced he was leaving the band to focus on Ramona Falls. Now that this project has his full attention, you’d expect Ramona Falls’ second record to be even denser than the last, continuing the evolution into obscurist pop. Then again, expectations can often be misleading.
The new album Prophet surprises mainly in how it pulls back on the reins of experimentation a little in favor of something that’s rather normal-sounding and pop-friendly. On the surface, it seems that Knopf is in search of some sort of mainstream success. Before he can actually get there though, he’s in dire need of some confidence on one end of his musical spectrum. The arrangements on this album are muscular and bright, but his vocals are almost exactly the opposite. He sings like a hybrid of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, The Clientele’s Alasdair MacLean, and Sufjan Stevens, which is to say in a lilting, almost whispered fashion. His inability to match the enthusiasm and grandiosity of the busy melodies actually hurts its overall effectiveness. More often than not his singing winds up nearly drowned out by everything going on, and even when it meshes well with the environment it lacks the gravity and emotion required to truly hit home. The lyrics are more personal than anything Knopf has written before, but they suffer because of the straightlaced and flat way they’re sung. Opening track “Bodies of Water” is about the double-edged sword of romantic relationships, how you grow and share as a person but also expose yourself to the potential to get hurt. The complicated arrangement speaks well to the message of the song, but the vocals fall short. “Brevony” is a heavy and ferocious electric guitar cut, and though there are references to wrath and anger, Knopf calmly sings those words and destroys their potential impact. Not everything gets ruined due to some imperfect vocals. First single “Spore” is a slow and bubbling electro build to an energetic release, and Knopf pushes his voice accordingly. Though it feels disturbingly like an early Death Cab for Cutie song, “If I Equals U” maintains a certain degree of calm that makes its execution quite comfortable. Sad break-up song “Proof” might just win the award for album’s best though, with a complex yet delicate arrangement that includes orchestration and some careful plucking.
Perhaps Knopf’s biggest mistake in putting together this new Ramona Falls record was that he made it too energetic and upbeat. Normally such a thing would be encouraged because it tends to make a record more interesting. There is quite a bit about Prophet that is interesting and enjoyable as a direct result of this approach. The songs are far more rock oriented, but pounding pianos or blaring horns always make their presence felt here or there to throw a slight twist on an otherwise pedestrian melody. It’s in that way this record bears similar markings to Intuit. But using that record and his previous work with Menomena as examples, Knopf benefits most from careful and precarious execution; a certain fragility in the composition that matches the fragility in his voice. The greater confidence he attains instrumentally, the louder or more brash he gets, and the easier it is for him to stumble. A fair portion of this album leaves him tripping and trying to catch up with the many ideas spilling out through various instruments. Maybe with some vocal help he can catch up, or maybe he can scale back just enough to put everything back in its right place.
“Look out Hollywood, here I come,” Joshua Tillman sings on “Funtimes in Babylon,” the opening track to his record Fear Fun, and his first under the moniker of Father John Misty. It’s a line that feels very appropriate given the situation that Tillman has put himself in. As the drummer and backup vocalist for Fleet Foxes, he played an important role in helping to shape the band’s backwoods folk sound and glorious harmonies that have earned them rave after rave review. Fleet Foxes have become increasingly popular over the last few years and pair of records, to the point where they’d come awfully close to headlining a major music festival. They certainly fared well last summer, headlining the smaller and more boutique setting that is the Pitchfork Music Festival. One wonders why anyone would voluntarily leave a band just as success was genuinely finding them. Yet that’s the path Tillman has chosen for himself. He had a reasonably established solo career under his given name of J. Tillman even before joining Fleet Foxes, and his records like Vacilando Territory Blues, Year in the Kingdom and Singing Air began to earn some real attention as a direct result of his other success. Presumably wanting to explore that further and escape the back of the stage drum kit, he announced last year he was leaving the band to focus full time on his own music. He cut a deal with Sub Pop and changed his performing name to Father John Misty.
With a new label and new name he’s also shifted his style as well on the new record Fear Fun. The material he released as J. Tillman was singer-songwriter folk with alt-country leanings. He was in a class with Nick Drake, Will Oldham, Gram Parsons and Damien Jurado. A fair amount of those similarities are retained on this new record, but Tillman has expanded his sonic palette a bit and moved his focus from the dreary rains of Seattle into the sunny disposition of Los Angeles. Much of the album was written after a bout of depression and writer’s block, which he attempted to shake off by jumping in his car and driving down the West coast with a huge bag of mushrooms and no set destination. He began writing a novel (the likely inspiration for the song “I’m Writing a Novel”), and suddenly his songwriter instincts kicked back in. Upon settling into what he describes as a spider infested tree house in Laurel Canyon, Tillman felt like he’d finally found his true voice. That voice was different from anything he’d done before; the goal was to destroy the artifice of fiction in his music and approach his songs with a candor and honesty so many others actively avoid. Not only is it refreshing to hear, it’s also pretty funny. “Pour me another drink/and punch me in the face/You can call me Nancy,” Tillman sings at the start of “Nancy From Now On”. That’s not meant to be taken seriously, as is much of “I’m Writing a Novel”, where Tillman has a bad drug trip: “I ran down the road/pants down to my knees/screaming please come help me that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me”. It’s not all fun and amusement though. Single “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” is a darkly themed Neil Young-ian dirge about a death in the family, that features Tillman pleading, “Someone’s gotta help me dig.” On “Now I’m Learning to Love the War”, he makes the connection between fighting in the Middle East and the creation of music. “Try not to think about/the truly staggering amount/of oil that it takes to make a record,” he points out in something of a depressing fashion.
As straightforward as Fear Fun can be lyrically, its overall execution winds up being a little more complex. Tracks like “Funtimes in Babylon”, “O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” and “Everyman Needs a Companion” are gorgeous folk numbers with echo-laden harmonies that almost instantly recall Fleet Foxes. Tillman apparently wanted to help create a bridge between fan bases, and this record is pretty successful at doing just that. Yet it’s also adventurous in its eclecticism. Pedal steel and Americana take center stage on “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2” and “Well, You Can Do It Without Me”, while “Tee Pees 1-12” breaks out the fiddles and hand claps for a good ol’ fashioned hoedown. Along the way classic records from Harry Nilsson and Waylon Jennings tend to come to mind, though never at the same time. The variety serves the album well, particularly because all the sounds are rooted in the same basic elements and ideas. Turns out that after seven records as J. Tillman and two in Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty arrives fully formed and with a set of songs that are difficult to resist singing or humming along to the more time you spend with them. With a new name, home, label, record and sound, Tillman finally feels ready for the spotlight. Hollywood, he has arrived.
Stream the entire album after the jump!
If you didn’t notice in the title of this post, Death Grips are signed to Epic Records. They’re officially labelmates with everyone from Drake to Incubus and Meat Loaf. What’s odd is how the group sounds like they should be signed to anything BUT a major label. That’s not to call their material bad, but it’s been a long time since such an odd, fringe-type act was signed to anything other than an indie label. If you want to go underground and weird, transitively sometimes brilliant, you sign to a company that seeks to take that sort of risk without meddling in your creative process. From the sound of their debut album The Money Store, Epic didn’t even try to send them notes. They were probably too scared to. The genre classifiers and wordsmiths have puzzlingly tried to describe Death Grips as being rap rock. Considering there may be one single guitar used on one single track (or not…these sounds could have come from anywhere), the “rock” tag need not apply to this group. No, what Death Grips are doing somewhat defies description. The project is made up of three people: Stefan Burnett aka MC Ride on vocals, Zach Hill on drums and production, and Andy Morin aka Flatlander on production. The goal of Hill and Flatlander as producers is to splice together these beats and electronica elements to compliment MC Ride’s words. But this is anything but traditional hip hop. MC Ride prefers a vocal style closer to that of a hardcore punk band than anything else. He seems to take cues more from Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains and Fugazi than Jay-Z, Kanye West or Snoop. Everything is shouted with such a spitfire rage that most of the time you can’t tell what Ride is saying. When you can make out his vocals, you learn they’re primarily nonsensical phrases strung together to complete rhymes. It need not be clever or inventive because the delivery takes care of that for you. Hill and Flatlander take a similar approach when providing the base and beats of each track. Virtually everything comes off like the soundtrack to a 1980’s Nintendo game that’s been chopped and sped up to about three times its normal rate. The record breezes by as a result, 13 tracks in 41 minutes with only the finale of “Hacker” sneaking past the four minute mark. There are so many ideas and experiments packed into that time, it can feel like the sonic equivalent of ADD. The good news though is that every track is a legitimate banger, perfect for the clubs and ripe for remixing. Singles like “I’ve Seen Footage” and “Blackjack” may stay with you for just a little longer thanks to the massive amount of repetition in their choruses, but stick with The Money Store long enough and the charms of each individual track will unveil themselves to you. Perhaps that’s what earned Death Grips the respect of L.A. Reid and Epic Records. This may be the most individualistic and unique act signed to a major label in quite some time, but if they’re successful the great news is they won’t be the last.
Click past the jump to stream the entire album!
Chicago’s own Maps & Atlases haven’t gotten to the point of popularity they’re at today by pandering. They’re daring, carve-their-own-path sorts of musicians, willing to take their songs in unexpected directions while still maintaining a modicum of structure and thematics. That’s a big part of what made their two EPs Tree, Swallows, Houses and You and Me and the Mountain such unique and compelling listens. They’re also what earned the band a place underneath the intricate “math rock” umbrella. Consider that early material falling somewhere between Minus the Bear, Battles and Don Caballero. Their 2010 debut full length Perch Patchwork still held steadfast to many of those elements (particularly on the second half of the record), but expanded the band’s reach by becoming much more pop-centric. They were able to take their oddities and intricate instrumentation and subdue them just enough to make them more attractive to a wider audience. At the same time they played with tempos and percussion to explore more Afro-pop and freak folk ideas that had been brewing for awhile. The end product was still good, just a little uneven. For their sophmore effort Beware and Be Grateful, the band has yet again ironed out the creases in their sound to streamline it just a bit more. The production is squeaky clean, and Dave Davison’s warming warble sits front and center. Opening track “Old and Gray” pulsates with harmonized vocal loops that wouldn’t sound too out of place on an Animal Collective record, while the the electric guitar noodling bears an eerie resemblance to something Dirty Projectors might churn out. Yet when combined and taken as a whole, the track feels like it has more in common with TV on the Radio than either of those two bands. That blends seamlessly into the sprightly “Fever,” a very fun and catchy pop song that is probably one of the most straightforward tracks Maps & Atlases have ever written. Fans of the band’s older material will find solace in “Winter” and “Bugs”, both of which have heavy math rock leanings. They also push further into the territory of Paul Simon and Vampire Weekend with tracks like “Be Three Years Old” and “Old Ash”. And with soft rock reaching popularity again, a song like “Remote and Dark Years” has Peter Gabriel’s fingerprints all over it. Somehow the record comes together quite well, in spite of any apparent genre jumping that may occur. Where Beware and Be Grateful falters is in its length. Four out of the album’s ten songs breach the 5 minute mark, and there’d be nothing wrong with that if they could justify the length. Most of it is the result of sustained melody, but given how pop-flavored these songs are, 3.5 minutes is a good time to aim for. At least a couple of these songs could be made better simply by chopping a minute off the runtime. Additionally, you can tell the band worked really hard on this album. Kudos to them for that, however with songs like these you want the presentation to come off as effortless. The more aware you are of the sweat that went into making this record, the less fun and memorable it becomes. You can marvel at the technical precision, but that’s engaging your head and not your heart. Maps & Atlases are certainly on the right path with Beware and Be Grateful, they just need to learn that sometimes you need to put the directions down and let your emotions take the wheel.
Bradford Cox is often seen as the brilliant mastermind behind Deerhunter and Atlas Sound. The amount of music he’s released in the last few years has been astounding, with seven full length records and a couple EPs since 2007. Worst of all, nearly every single bit of it has been very, very good. You could say he’s been putting his Deerhunter bandmates to shame. Most people couldn’t even tell you the names of the other three guys in Deerhunter. Yet that band very much remains a collaborative effort, and it’s likely the loss of one of them would be felt in subsequent records. One person that isn’t taking his role in Deerhunter lying down is guitarist Lockett Pundt, who has done a nice job establishing the fuzzier and more psychedelic elements of Deerhunter’s sound. He maintains his own solo project Lotus Plaza. The Floodlight Collective was the first Lotus Plaza full length, released in 2009 to what could best be described as polite applause. To put it another way, the album struggled to break free from the ambient, shoegaze-laden haze it maintained, drifting by in a nice but unremarkable fashion. Lotus Plaza’s second long player Spooky Action at a Distance seeks to change how the project is perceived a bit by moving away from amorphous blobs of ambient noise and placing an emphasis on more traditional songwriting and arrangements. That’s not to call the album conventional or an easy listen, but it has more easily definable boundaries and a few stand out moments. Virtually every song is propulsive and swirling in that good, psych-pop sort of way that Deerhunter has been doing with relative ease for years now. Lotus Plaza is denser and more shoegaze-inspired, though it’s difficult to describe the album as buried in guitar fuzz in a My Bloody Valentine sort of way. Pundt’s vocals are strikingly up-front and clear, and the melodies maintain strict, often looped patterns that really stick with you after awhile. After the drifting and out of place “Untitled” intro, the drum roll of “Strangers” sucks you in and the guitar gymnastics keeps you there. The percussion base on “Out of Touch” has quite the Animal Collective vibe to it in the best sort of way, and “Remember Our Days” holds this jangly slacker element to it reminiscent of Pavement filtered through psychedelic glasses. It’s good to hear some acoustic guitars used on “Dusty Rhodes” and closer “Black Buzz”, both of which provide necessary moments of calm amid the fray. Even a long number like the 6.5 minute “Jet Out of the Tundra” skates by and feels much shorter than it is as Pundt keeps adding more elements to the mix without disturbing the overall melody. The entire record actually does a nice job of cruising along without any detours into the staid and boring. You may not fully grasp the subtle nature of Spooky Action at a Distance the first or second time around listening through it, but a closer focus on each song reveals gems you probably didn’t notice originally. Sometimes the best albums are ones that sneak up on you. This is one of those.
2012 is arguably the year of the excellent synth-pop record. Releases from Grimes, Chromatics, Chairlift and Tanlines all have made great use of synths and dance-heavy electro beats to suck you in and leave you addicted. Now Bear In Heaven look to continue that trend with their third record I Love You, It’s Cool. This follows their 2009 breakthrough album Beast Rest Forth Mouth, a record that defied easy description with its psychedelic twists and towering pop choruses. The singles “Lovesick Teenagers” and “Wholehearted Mess” were two of the most addictive songs of that year, and proved they could also work on multiple levels thanks to Beast Rest Forth Mouth Remixed that came out a year later. Bear In Heaven must have learned quite a bit from those experiences the last few years, because they seem to have a firmer grasp on where they’re headed with this new album. The overall format is locked down pretty firmly, that being huge, synth-infused pop melodies made even denser than ever before thanks to some heavy use of sequencers. “Lovesick Teenagers” seems to be their point of inspiration when composing these songs, and it’s a smart choice to have made, allowing the record to sink into a groove that positively shimmers as it keeps your toe tapping. “Idle Heart” is an icily beautiful way to start things off, the synths washing over you like waves, the peace only disturbed by a distorted beat that pushes its way as far to the forefront of the mix as possible. There’s so much going on in first single “The Reflection of You” it even threatens to overwhelm Jon Philpot’s vocals, but it’s balanced just precariously enough to prevent that from happening. That actually happens multiple times on the album, and it’s almost enough to turn great songs like “Sinful Nature” and “World of Freakout” into something less impressive and catchy. Perhaps it’s all in how you listen to I Love You, It’s Cool that determines what truly catches your ear. Headphones seem to invoke fears of claustrophobia, every single available space filled with one element or another. Listening in the car is a little better, but a large theatre or outdoor concert venue is probably ideal for the breadth of these intense melodies. Huge as these songs may be, not to mention remarkably danceable, Bear In Heaven somehow fail to fully capitalize on the things they do right. With all the electronica elements splattered across every inch of this record (again making it ripe for remixing), the band seems unable to fully flesh out their ideas in 3-4 minute spurts. On most tracks they seem poised to build tension and then have an explosive release, but almost every time they do it too early, too late or not at all. Sometimes they just settle into an ambient section that fails to add to a song, leaving it to stagnate instead on the thought it could go on forever without interruption. The pieces of the puzzle are there, just not necessarily put together in the right order every time. Tracks like “Cool Light” and “Warm Water” wind up more as boring filler than engaging moments that keep the record going. That’s unfortunate, because at 10 tracks and 44 minutes, I Love You, It’s Cool turns out to be only a little more than half of a great album. Then again, maybe when they perform it live at a packed venue with people that came to dance, it’s a great record from beginning to end.
The back story of Willis Earl Beal is fascinating enough to make for a great film. A Chicago guy, he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico for a few years in 2007 simply because he heard it was a very desolate and beautiful environment in which a creative person could pursue art without distraction. Without much in the way of a job or friends, Beal created a flyer that contained a hand-drawn self-portrait, a little bit about his background and personality, and a phone number people could call. He hoped to make some friends this way, and even said he’d play a song for you if you called him. Such an odd flyer eventually caught the eye of a few like-minded creative people who were interested in helping Beal further his art. Found Magazine got wind of him and wrote a feature story on him. They also released a limited edition box set called The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection, complete with his poetry, illustrations and music. Things were looking up for Beal, yet he quickly left Albuquerque in 2010 and returned to Chicago with only the clothes on his back despite having live shows and recording studio time booked. He moved in with his grandmother and brother and once again without a job began distributing flyers with his story and his phone number on them. He wasn’t on the internet and things like email and social media were largely foreign to him. Yet he was still tracked down by the people at XL offshoot label Hot Sorcery, likely after doing well on the reality talent competition The X Factor. Their first release with Beal’s name on it is Acousmatic Sorcery, an 11-track collection of home recordings pieced together over the last few years. The quality is, understandably, nowhere near top notch. Most, if not all of these songs were originally recorded to cassette using a karaoke machine with a busted speaker and a Radio Shack microphone. It winds up sharing many of the same qualities as tUnE-yArDs’ laptop-recorded debut BiRd-BrAiNs, in that it’s messy but gets the point across. That point is Beal’s voice. “Take Me Away” is the official introduction to it on the record, and the song is an excellent showcase demonstrating the power and emotional intensity at which he operates. The track starts a capella before he’s joined by some homemade percussion that sounds like banging on the bottom of a plastic garbage can. Those are all the elements in the song, and essentially they’re all you need. Beal howls and hums with the intensity of a great blues singer, crossing somewhere between Tom Waits and Buddy Guy. By contrast, “Evening’s Kiss” sounds like a completely different artist, where Beal’s voice is so calm and precious it’s somehow less muscular than the sparsely plucked acoustic guitar accompanying it. That and “Sambo Joe From the Rainbow” are very traditional folk singer-songwriter style, also something Beal does quite well. Where he’s a little off though are on the more hip hop flavored tracks. “Ghost Robot” and “Swing on Low” are both based around beats and rhymes, though the former is quite a bit heavier on those elements. Both sound nothing like modern-day hip hop, and instead flounder closer to cheesy 80’s style rap but with more off-putting or weird time signatures. There are a few cringe-worthy lines in there (and other songs) as well, furthering the thought that while Beal is an exceptional singer, he’s not always the greatest songwriter. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a bunch of well-written material on this record, because there is. For every handful of inspired lines, there’s usually one that doesn’t quite match it. Nevertheless, Acousmatic Sorcery is very much a great introduction to the world that is Willis Earl Beal. It is very much the world of an outsider artist, one who lives in the shadows rather than the spotlight, and who in spite of his outgoing personality seems to have a lot of the same reclusive qualities as a Daniel Johnston or Wesley Willis or Jandek. On that same idea we’re left wondering exactly what Beal is going to do next and when he’s going to do it. With some touring under his belt and an actual recording studio to work in, it will most definitely be interesting to see if he can capitalize on the very promising start he’s shown here.
Yellow Ostrich began as a solo project Alex Schaaf started a few years back in Wisconsin. Unlike fellow Wisconsin native Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Schaaf didn’t lock himself away in a remote cabin in the woods to make music. He did almost the exact opposite, in fact. After developing a strong local following, he packed his bags and moved to New York. There he hooked up with Bishop Allen drummer Michael Tapper to develop Yellow Ostrich’s second album The Mistress. That earned the attention of Barsuk Records, who signed the band and re-released that sophmore full length late last summer. By that time multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez had joined the band and they were already in the early stages of developing a follow-up. Strange Land is the result, and the triumvirate of collaboration broadens their sound more than ever before. The earlier Yellow Ostrich efforts were built largely on a mixture of guitars and vocal loops, but this full band approach appears to be the sort of medicine needed for them to truly break out of the shell they’ve been hiding in. They now appear as a band prepared to conquer the world with these songs, and they’re practically built for a uniquely engaging live show. Yet all is not well in Yellow Ostrich’s world. In spite of the record’s overwhelming enthusiasm, the band takes its eye off the prize more than a few times. A number of tracks, including “Daughter” and “I Want Yr Love”, skate perilously close to the 5 minute mark, and listening to them can sometimes feels more like a chore than an enjoyable experience. Longer songs aren’t bad, but when you realize there was a great cut-off point that went ignored 2 minutes earlier, frustration quickly sets in. Quite simply, the band gets a little greedy and can’t always keep their melodies as sharp and focused as they should be. It doesn’t help that they produced the album on their own, because nobody was around to teach them about streamlining their approach. Nobody told them what a memorable hook sounds like either, apparently. You may come away from Strange Lands being unable to recall much of it. Playfulness and energy, not to mention the sonic innovations compared to the last record, doesn’t make up for a touch of restraint and one more wallop of the chorus. But Yellow Ostrich is still a growing band, as clearly evidenced by the personnel expansion over their last two albums. In spite of its faults, Strange Lands shows a band with great promise for the future. Now might be a great time to start paying attention.
Ceremony are old school punk rockers. They take pride in avoiding social media of any kind, emphatically stating on their website that they do not have Twitter, Facebook or Myspace. When preparing their new album Zoo, singer Ross Farrar chose to write a letter using traditional pen and paper to outline for fans what the music was going to be about and how things had changed since their last album. “There are songs on the record that sound fast, slow, eerie, full, or abrupt, each one different, but at the same time very similar,” he wrote. That’s a very accurate way of describing it, and for the band’s biggest fans, that’s probably not good news. Quick and dirty has been Ceremony’s ethos for their first three records, and that’s not quite the case anymore. Moving from underground punk label Bridge 9 Records and onto indie superlabel Matador certainly didn’t win them any cheers either. Yet punk band labelmates Fucked Up have done a nice job proving that you can have success without losing any of your edge. The same can be said of punk supergroup OFF! and young upstarts Iceage, both of whom have been doing great work in reviving a genre that once called Blink-182 a member. That said, it’s a little unfair to call Zoo a hardcore album. It lacks the sharp edge and white knuckle energy to earn such a descriptor. The easiest way to describe this record is to slap a post-hardcore tag on it, which is a fancier way of saying the music is heavy but not quite heavy enough to kick you in the teeth. This more tempered approach enables the band to experiment a bit without ever straying too far from their base. Only “Citizen” really sounds like classic Ceremony. Most of the time the band seems like they’re aiming for garage rock and using early 00’s bands for inspiration. At any given moment a track bears the markings of The Hives, The Vines or The White Stripes. “Quarantine” does a surprisingly good job of re-creating the sound of pre-Dookie Green Day, and the driving bass on “Hotel” gives it a very Joy Division feel (who, of course, they’re named after). There are also potions of Zoo that pay tribute to the godfathers of punk rock. You can absolutely hear the influence of Pink Flag-era Wire, This Nation’s Saving Grace-era The Fall, and even a little Metal Box-era Public Image Ltd. on bits like “World Blue” and “Community Service”. The worst part about the similarity is that Ceremony isn’t quite in the same league as those heavy-hitters. There are a lot more hooks on this album compared to the band’s older material, yet most of the songs are shockingly unmemorable. John Goodmanson produced it, and he turns out to be a positive influence on the overall sound of the record, adding depth and color to even the most plain-sounding songs. Unfortunately, there are quite a few of those plain songs on Zoo, and it causes 12 tracks and 36 minutes to sound like something much longer. Ceremony may have broken free from their hardcore punk habitat to try and explore other options available to them, but this record is evidence enough that some animals truly belong in cages.
Those that have caught onto Bowerbirds in the last few years, whether it was through their 2007 debut album Hymns for a Dark Horse or its 2009 follow-up Upper Air, probably have a pretty good grasp on what the band is all about. The word “rustic” gets thrown around a lot when talking about a band like this, presumably because they’ve got a down home charm that transcends all the way into their lyrics. So you get a lot of acoustic guitars and graceful pianos, maybe some violins and glockenspiel for good measure. Imagine a less inventive version of Fleet Foxes without more muted vocal harmonies, and Bowerbirds is a band that should come to mind. Perhaps it’s better to simply say they’re peers with Iron & Wine and Midlake in their pastoralism. Navigating an urban jungle while listening to their songs never feels quite as good as it does when it soundtracks your trip into the woods or through an open field. That was the case with the band before, and with their third long player The Clearing it’s essentially more of the same. The changes made to their sound are largely cosmetic, with the instruments a little less buzzy and the vocals a little more up-front in the mix. Bowerbirds have also grown a little in their compositional abilities. That’s clear from the opening track “Tuck the Darkness In”, starting with just an acoustic guitar and vibraphone but slowly building and adding more instruments until it explodes in a cacophony of noise for the final 90 seconds. Following that up is “In the Yard”, which invites a whole other collection of instruments into the fold paired next to Beth Tacular’s sweet vocal, also essentially a paradox to Philip Moore’s from the track before. This pair of songs is evidence of growth not because of how far apart they are sonically, but rather how close. They compliment one another to help form a fully functional portrait of the band. It’s a shame that can’t be said of every track on The Clearing, but there are definitely more winners than losers thanks to moments like “Stitch the Hem”, “Hush” and “Sweet Moment”. Most follow the same slow burn beauty pattern established at the very beginning, though it’s consistently fascinating to keep track of the many instrumental layers that are placed atop one another. Sometimes it doesn’t work, as is the case with “This Year” and “Overcome With Light”, both of which are burdened with the curse of being too conventional for their own good. Lyrically speaking the band continues on the path of their prior albums, using nature imagery as metaphors for our personal lives. Great as it all sounds when it comes together, so much of The Clearing feels like a musical safety net. There’s so much beauty in these songs, yet they often feel like things we’ve heard before in their catalogue and the catalogues of similar bands. Bowerbirds may have grown some on this record, but they’ve only moved a foot when a yard was needed.
Fanfarlo’s 2009 debut album Reservoir was quite a bombastic and enthralling indie pop record that earned them comparisons to early Arcade Fire. The melodies were big and often incorporated violin and horns into their vast soundscape. Singer Simon Balthazar can quite easily channel Zach Condon of Beirut on any given song, so it’s no wonder there were a few mentions of that band as well when making reference points. But no band wants to be pigeonholed, and bearing the status as a second-rate Arcade Fire or Beirut can be a little frustrating. Of course there are worse bands to be compared to. Still, Fanfarlo were conscious of this when putting together their sophmore effort, Rooms Filled With Light. They’ve expanded their sound and instrumental arsenal to work in more synths and samples, among other things. The results are still very indie pop-inspired, but with a heavier 80’s touch. It’s not so impactful you’ll think the band has gone new wave, but a few tracks might bring to mind some great Talking Heads moments. Have a listen to tracks like “Lenslife” and “Feathers” to see if you can hear some of that bleeding through. What’s utterly fascinating about the whole record is that in spite of its broadened influences and instruments, there’s nothing on it that feels retro or dated. The band’s ability to make older elements sound new again goes a long way towards proving they’re more than just a flash in the pan. Still, that pan has so much flash in it, as almost every song on Rooms Filled With Light is extremely well structured to maximize enjoyability and memorability. The band has already technically released 3 singles (or at least 3 music videos) for “Replicate”, “Deconstruction” and “Shiny Things”. Don’t be surprised if additional videos emerge for “Tunguska”, “Tightrope” and “Dig”, as they’re worthy of that sort of attention as well. Delightful as it all is, there are moments like on their debut where the band goes a little too cutesy or twee. They tread into the waters of Noah and the Whale, who are by no means a bad band, just a slightly misguided one. When you’re always looking to that next chorus repetition to hammer that hook home sometimes you forget that the road off the beaten path can sometimes be even more rewarding. For all the satisfaction that comes from broadening your influences, it means less if you play it safe anyways. Fanfarlo have made one of the more addictive records so far in 2012, but it satisfies with all the grace of a summer movie blockbuster. It’s big, loud, brash and will send a little thrill up your spine, just don’t expect to hear it talked about during awards season.