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Tag: experimental

Show Preview: Cross Record at Schubas [4/30]


Let’s start with the basics. Cross Record is the wife and husband duo of Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski. They are based out of Dripping Springs, Texas (near Austin), where they own and run a ranch and recording studio. It’s where they crafted their latest album Wabi-Sabi, out now on Ba Da Bing! Records. If you’ve not yet heard it, stream “Steady Waves” and “High Rise” to get a better idea of what they’re all about.

The dark-tinged experimental folk that populates the record falls somewhere on the strange spectrum between Cocteau Twins, Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, Mount Eerie, Chelsea Wolfe, PJ Harvey and Here We Go Magic. That may touch on a lot of different sonic markers, but the nebulous nature of their songs defies easy description. Each one is inherently beautiful, yet also raw, obtuse and deeply emotional with a sense of danger or evil lurking just underneath the surface. That’s a large reason why the album’s title is so appropriate, as it’s a Japanese phrase meaning the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

Cross Record’s show at Schubas this Saturday will mark something a homecoming for the duo, as they lived in Chicago until a couple of years ago. Their notoriety has increased considerably since their last visit thanks to the release and critical acclaim of Wabi-Sabi, so it’ll be interesting to see how the new songs shape the overall performance. No matter what, it’s certain to be a special night you’re not going to want to miss.

Cross Record, The Loom and Blind Moon
Buy Tickets
10 PM / $10 ($12 Doors) / 21+

Show Review: The War on Drugs + Mark McGuire [Metro; Chicago; 3/23/14]


More so than any other day of the week, concerts on Sunday nights have a tendency to be absolutely terrible. It’s not so much the artist that’s performing, rather the crowd itself as the start of a new work week and Monday looms over us like the Sword of Damocles. Nobody wants to drag themselves out to a show at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, knowing full well they’ll wind up back home well after midnight and likely sleep deprived the next day. Mondays are already bad enough. Yet like any other night of the week, shows still happen and people still go to them, however begrudgingly. And so it was that more than a thousand people packed into the legendary Metro on Sunday night for a sold out show with The War on Drugs and Mark McGuire. They may not have been the most excited or enthusiastic bunch walking in (it’s just an observation and not a criticism), but walking out was a completely different story. The entire evening was a revelation, in the greatest and most unexpected ways.

I’ve spent the better part of the last month and a half immersed in Mark McGuire’s latest album Along the Way, which is just one release of many that he’s been involved with these last few years. It is his first solo effort since officially splitting with his experimental rock band Emeralds last year, and displays an impressive leap in style and composition that he’s never attempted previously. His older stuff played around with various guitars and effects pedals without much else thrown in. Between the electronic samples, drum machines, synths, piano and mandolins, among others, McGuire suddenly sounds like he’s got an army backing him up. If you thought recreating all that in a live setting would require a few additional band members, you’d be wrong. He came out on stage by himself, and thanks to intricate looping techniques, pedals and other triggers, the whole thing wound up being a pretty impressive display of one man’s talents. It yielded a surprise or two along the way as well, in particular a fair number of songs I thought made use of synths and keyboards were actually done by piling effects onto his guitar. I can’t recall the last time my ears were fooled in such a way. And to some degree it makes his material even better than before, because there’s a greater complexity in how it all comes together. Watching it happen before your very eyes is a real selling point too. I’ve been to so many shows where a truly solo artist does simple recreations of songs that are part of his or her catalog and it’s so normal you could call it boring. With a little bit of flair and a high wire risk level though, it’s the exact opposite. You watch intently as new passages get added to old songs, and subconsciously wonder what might happen if something went wrong. Thankfully McGuire is that sort of risk-taking artist, and it made for a remarkably compelling set.

Buy Along the Way from Amazon


The War on Drugs set up and soundchecked all their own equipment. That says something about a band, particularly when they’ve reached a certain level of popularity where they can hire somebody to do that job for them. Perhaps it’s a DIY attitude or a high degree of perfectionism, but whatever the reason, they should keep it up because they really have never sounded better. All the levels were perfect and it was one of the best mixed shows I’ve heard in a long time. Beyond sonic perfection, the band is also filled with extremely talented musicians who know that performing live is about more than just faithfully recreating what you hear on record. The War on Drugs don’t have the most energetic catalog in the world, and translating that into a show that doesn’t put you to sleep could be considered quite the challenge. In fact, at one point a handful of songs into the set, someone in the crowd yelled at the band to “pick up the pace a little bit,” and they responded by launching into their biggest hit and highest energy songs to date, “Red Eyes.” Sure, things could feel a little slow and lackadaisical at times, but they were never boring or bland for a single second.

One of the ways I judge any live show is by an unofficial measuring index known as the “goose bump factor.” If I get goose bumps, or a little bit of tingling down my spine at any point during a set, that’s a very positive sign that a band is doing something right. If it happens multiple times, there’s something truly special and maybe even unforgettable about the performance. There were several goose bump moments during The War on Drugs’ set, particularly during most of the songs off their excellent new record Lost in the Dream. In some cases, as with “Under the Pressure” and “Eyes to the Wind,” the live versions actually somehow sounded even better than they do on the album. The band only skipped one track from that record, and mixed in a handful of tracks from 2011’s Slave Ambient, plus covers of songs from Bill Fay and John Lennon. The covers might have been the weakest moments in the set, partly because the original versions are considered classics on their own right, and partly because they didn’t fit in quite so seamlessly with everything else. Yet none of it was bad or even mediocre. This band is far too talented to let that happen.

As the show started to reach the 90 minute mark, frontman Adam Granduciel asked the crowd for permission to skip the traditional encore so they could just keep playing. “We could say good night, leave the stage for two minutes while everybody cheered, and then return to say we have a few more songs to play for you,” he said, “or we could just not do that and play those songs anyways.” So they played onward, finally wrapping things up after close to two hours. A small portion of the crowd left before then, likely because the show had stretched past midnight and work or school was coming early the next morning. Those who stayed for the full experience walked out in very good spirits (far better than going in, from what I could tell), and I heard nothing but praise about the show. Indeed, it was pretty incredible. Dare I say one of the best concert experiences I’ve had in quite awhile. And just like that, I can’t wait for The War on Drugs to come back so we can do it all over again.

Set List
In Reverse
Under the Pressure
I Was There
Eyes to the Wind
Suffering
Red Eyes
I Hear You Calling (Bill Fay cover)
Burning
Baby Missiles
Lost In The Dream
Mind Games (John Lennon cover)
An Ocean In Between The Waves
Disappearing
Come to the City
Brothers
Black Water Falls

Buy Lost in the Dream 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

EP Review: How to destroy angels_ – An omen_ [Columbia]



It seems like a much longer period of time, but it’s only been about 2.5 years since we last heard from How to destroy angels_. What has the band been doing in that gap? Well, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have been creating the soundtracks to The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for starters. Progress with Htda has been slow to say the least, but at least there’s a good excuse as to why. Their 2010 self-titled debut EP wasn’t exactly a bold statement of originality, but there were some solid starting points that they could have worked from to build something fantastic and wholly worthwhile. What’s surprising about the new An omen_ EP is that they seem to have forgotten about that earlier material completely. You’re not going to turn this on and confuse it for another band, but subtle changes have been made to their approach that change your expectations for the project. Most specifically, they seem to be moving away from energetic songs with danceable rhythms that are ripe for remixing, and instead working with calm but very dark atmospherics that feel much more emotionally draining. For better comparison, the first EP was like Nine Inch Nails hit singles “The Hand That Feeds” or “Only,” while this new EP more crosses NIN’s Ghosts record and Reznor’s work with fellow Htda bandmate Atticus Ross on the soundtrack for The Social Network. So you’ll not get anything as fun as “Fur Lined” or The Knife-like as “BBB” appeared to be. The closest thing to a single An omen_ has is opening track “Keep it together,” which rolls past on a minimalist arrangement that’s one part skittering beat and another part bass vibration. The song title is the chorus hook, which gets chanted over and over by Mariqueen Maandig and Reznor until it sticks with you. Just because it’s the most memorable song on the EP doesn’t mean it’s the best though, because that honor goes to what immediately follows it – the seven minute “Ice Age.” The song takes this band to an entirely new place, but filters it so well most people won’t even notice. Peel the track down to solely the banjo and Maandig’s vocal, and you’ve got a very slight country song. With percussion, loops, static and electric guitar it becomes an ambient and precariously balanced musical thinkpiece that subtly challenges our preconceptions about this band and our expectations from Reznor.

By contrast, the rest of An omen_ falls into very familiar territory. “The sleep of reason produces monsters” and “The loop closes” are both primarily instrumental tracks, though Reznor does chant, “The beginning is the end and it keeps coming around again,” a bunch of times in the final 90 seconds of the latter song. Those words may remind NIN fans of the song “The Beginning of the End” from the Year Zero record. There is no direct correlation to it, but it serves as a good reminder of Reznor’s fixation on endings and beginnings. As he pushes his old band and previous work into the background and tries to start fresh, it’s nearly impossible to avoid looking back and making comparisons. This unending loop is both a help and a hindrance to How to destroy angels_, because unless they try something completely wild and unexpected, there’s a built in fan base both latching on and harshly judging at the same time. If you’ve been having trouble liking Reznor’s post-NIN work, this new EP isn’t going to win you over. Though they don’t sound too similar to one another, the two EPs Htda have put out so far share one common flaw: Maandig’s vocals. She doesn’t have a bad voice and can certainly hit all the notes as needed, but she falls short when it comes to injecting emotion into the songs. Most often she comes off like an actor that gets cast in the wrong role. These are dark, grimy and brooding arrangements, and her lilting voice has an innocence that doesn’t quite get to that same level. Reznor’s already proven himself in that regard, which is why his less frequent vocal work more often than not shows how great this band could be when firing on all cylinders. Since Reznor is married to her, Maandig isn’t likely to leave or get kicked out of the band, so it’s best just to accept her shortcomings and hope that with time she improves. The band’s debut full length set for 2013 would be a great place to start.

How to destroy angels – Keep it together

Buy the An omen_ EP from Amazon

Click past the jump to stream the entire EP!

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Album Review: Crystal Castles – (III) [Fiction/Casablanca/Universal Republic]



Crystal Castles make songs that are so beat and synth intensive, it’s tempting to think that the duo just sits in front of a computer and pastes a bunch of samples together underneath Alice Glass’ vocals. That dark wave sound has served them well through two full lengths, as they’ve also gone from a small and obscure act to powerful stars of the electronica world in a very short time period. Their success has been a bit perplexing too, because of how experimental and weird their music can get. If you listen to a lot of what’s popular in EDM these days, whether you include or exclude dubstep, most everything is built on similar principles and structures that keep ears pleased and bodies moving. Crystal Castles defy that logic by embracing the abrasive and muddled. They turn left when expectation tells them to go right. The critical acclaim that’s been heaped on their last two efforts Crystal Castles and (II) is understandable because they stand out in innovative and exciting ways. When Glass breaks out her high pitched scream and is subsequently drowned in a digital bath, it’s noticeably uncomfortable but great once you get used to it. In today’s hyperactive music scene, most don’t invest the time to adapt their tastes, so that so many have done so for this group is in part a testament to their excellence. Now we’re blessed with their third full length, appropriately titled (III), and it continues to try and take this odd musical conversation to a new level.

First of all, Glass and her counterpart Ethan Kath claim to have traded in their computers and gear while in the studio so as to step out of their comfort zones and into fresh concepts. Such a gamble winds up doing very little for them, because from note one of opening track and first single “Plague” you can’t confuse these songs for anything but Crystal Castles. Part of it is Glass’ distinct vocal approach, her yelps so covered in distortion that you can rarely understand a word. The other part is Kath’s staccato synth work, which is equally distinctive. So with or without their old gear and computer assistance they still find those same sonic paths, though there’s a certain focus that comes into play on this new record that we’ve never experienced with them before. Like a live band that’s just starting out, the more times they do something, the better they get at it. Three albums in, they know the drill and are now efforting to perfect it. The problem with that is their innovative tricks are no longer so innovative, and popular music has caught up with those sensibilities. In other words, Crystal Castles run the risk of becoming irrelevant if they don’t continue to adapt. For now, (III) streamlines what they’ve already got going, and it makes for their most easily digestible record to date.

Of course just because the album goes down smooth doesn’t mean it’s some cheery dance record you can get euphoric with in a club somewhere. On the contrary, beneath the glossy exterior of these songs are deeply troubled and disturbing lyrics about genocide, disease, corruption and oppression. It’s near impossible to understand most of what’s being said thanks to filters and distortion, but technically speaking it’s there. It begs the question – if Alice Glass makes some important statements about our world but nobody can make out what she’s saying, do we really care? From a different perspective, if we could make out every word, would it change how we listen to this record? Well, when the words can’t convey a clear message, the music itself does. “Wrath of God” comes across as the title suggests, as does “Violent Youth” and “Child I Will Hurt You.” Songs like “Pale Flesh” and “Mercenary” are witchy and wrought with a feeling of dread. Even the songs that are easiest on the ears like “Kerosene” and “Affection” carry with them a sense of despondency that’s not exactly charming. So though (III) isn’t as instrumentally experimental and challenging as the band’s previous two efforts, their approach and subject matter gets darker and more alien to offset it. The trade-off turns out to be not worth as much as you might expect, suggesting that maybe now is the time Crystal Castles need to really sit down and figure out how they’re going to proceed from here. The money is reasonably good and their popularity continues to rise, so maybe that will blind them from the truth that their novelty is starting to wear thin. The quality of what they’re offering can’t be considered poor by any stretch of the imagination, but you can see the sword of Damocles hanging above their heads and the winds shifting to some crazier and more fun EDM acts. Perhaps that’s the real reason why this record is so foreboding.

Crystal Castles – Plague
Crystal Castles – Wrath of God

Crystal Castles – Affection

Buy (III) from Amazon

Album Review: Tame Impala – Lonerism [Modular]



There’s something incomprehensively magnetic about Tame Impala. Identifying exactly what makes the Australian band’s music so compelling is a challenge in itself, primarily because common sense says that psych-pop songs without much in the way of song structure and choruses shouldn’t go down so easily and smoothly. We’ve been trained on verse-chorus-verse, and anything else almost always falls into the “experimental” category. Then again, bands like The Flaming Lips and MGMT have achieved massive popularity while doing things their own way and going completely off the reservation more than a few times. If they can do it, why not Tame Impala too? They’ve even been working with legendary psych-pop producer Dave Fridmann, the man behind The Soft Bulletin and Oracular Spectacular, for their 2010 debut full length Innerspeaker as well as this new one Lonerism. The way in which he shapes Tame Impala’s sound into something more commercially viable can’t be ignored, though his magic is nothing compared to frontman Kevin Parker’s influence, which is so immense you might consider this band a solo project with a bunch of hired hands to recreate the songs in a live setting. Of course some of the other guys in the band might take offense to such a statement, but on any given song Parker is responsible for vocals, guitar, bass, drums and keys, which is essentially everything. He even reduces Fridmann’s normal job of in-studio producing to that of giving him the unmastered studio recordings and asking for judicial editing and a little bit of polish. It becomes an effortless blend of DIY home recorded aesthetic and present day glossy production, which is one of Lonerism‘s biggest charms.

While there is a certain modern aspect to the record, so much of it sounds like vintage ’60s psychedelia that under the right circumstances you might be able to fool a bunch of people into thinking it’s directly from that era. That task becomes even easier because Parker’s voice has enough John Lennon in it to convincingly present songs as some of the former Beatle’s long lost solo recordings. The day-glo vocal harmonies and quirky bounce of “Mind Mischief” for example feels cut from the same hangdog cloth Lennon often adopted, and the swirling shift it takes towards the end is gloriously “A Day in the Life”-like in nature. But Parker’s talents go beyond simple and unavoidable mimicry because he’s able to consistently find ways to challenge our expectations while still hanging onto a very real pop sensibility. Listen to the six minute swirl of “Apocalypse Dreams” to get a real taste of how he’ll change things up just as you’re starting to get comfortable. Instead of being disappointed by his yanking of the rug from underneath our feet, where things head next are almost always equal to or greater than whatever preceeded it. In other words, you’ve got to trust Parker has your best interests at heart and follow him into the darkness. There’s even a song near the end of the record that explains quite perfectly how you should approach these tracks: “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control.” That sentiment makes “Music to Walk Home By” music you can walk home by, and “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The two songs on the album that really break free from any influences and previous work are the trunk-swinging stomp of “Elephant” and the gloriously strange drift of “Sun’s Coming Up.” Both stand out for completely different reasons as they represent Tame Impala at their most focused and unfocused. The former engineers an energetic, bass-heavy groove that’s jarring compared to everything else on the album, but it hits harder and is more addictive than anything else that comes before and after it. The latter track closes the record and might as well be two songs in one – a waltzy, dramatic piano ballad at the start and a shimmering, psychedelic guitar instrumental at the end. That imbalance doesn’t really do it any favors, but it does make for an excellent way to close out the record. All the other songs fly by on a breeze, so this gentle application of the brakes prepares us for the end. We’ve had all night to play, and now it’s a race against the impending day. “Sun’s coming up now / I guess it’s over,” Parker sings wistfully as the last lines of the album. For all the disappointment and heartbreak that’s chronicled throughout Lonerism, somehow this one cuts the deepest. Perhaps that’s because we too don’t want it to be over. Buried beneath the sadness is also triumph – the realization that the record you just heard was a masterful display of what modern psych-pop can and should be. Tame Impala have expanded and refined the core sound of their debut into a confident work of art worthy of being named one of 2012’s finest.

Tame Impala – Elephant (Canyons Wooly Mammoth Remix)

Buy Lonerism from Amazon

Snapshot Review: Grizzly Bear – Shields [Warp]



Sonically speaking, Grizzly Bear shouldn’t be the sort of band described as “difficult.” Close listens to their early work like 2006’s Yellow House prove they have a knack for writing slower but very complex and beautiful melodies replete with vocal harmonies. It’s not nearly post-rock, as there is far too much verse-chorus-verse structure contained within the songs and not nearly enough explosive crescendos and waves of sound. A better comparison would be to call them a less poppy version of that other animal band Fleet Foxes, because while their songs more often than not lack dynamic hooks, they make up for it in pure pastoral folk atmosphere. Of course there are moments on 2009’s Veckatimest such as “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others” that felt like they should have been massive hits but failed to fully connect for one reason or another. On their new album Shields, Grizzly Bear seem to have fallen off the map once again, pushing aside the small gains they made in the mainstream music world in favor of staying true to themselves and the purest of songcraft. They still sound rather effectively like themselves, as in you’re not going to mistake them for another band, but the ease and charm by which they worked their magic last time has been scaled back in favor of a much more cerebral and measured approach. The melodies reach a new level of complexity and detail, positively oozing with glorious ambience and texture. Opening track “Sleeping Ute” bounces, weaves and rolls like waves on a choppy but positively electric sea as the band stuffs a truckload of sounds into it. You absolutely need to devote time and effort to allow yourself to be absorbed in the world this record inhabits, and such precise attention winds up well rewarded with each successive listen. Much like Beach House’s latest album Bloom, this is a record less concerned with breaking new ground and more insistent on condensing the band’s strengths into something more potent and captivating than they’ve ever done before. The person who excels at this the most on this particular record is Daniel Rossen. He’s never quite been the shining star of Grizzly Bear (that honor goes to Ed Droste), and occasionally he’ll have a clunky song (see “Dory” on Veckatimest) or a quieter one (see “Deep Blue Sea” on Yellow House) amidst a gem like “While You Wait for the Others.” In the time since the band’s last record, he’s kept busy by recording and releasing a solo EP, which didn’t venture very far from anything he’d done previously. It made him a better songwriter and composer though, as his tracks “Speak in Rounds” and “A Simple Answer” are two of the album’s best moments. Of course there are quite a few of those when your record functions as a proverbial highlight reel of original music. Droste’s times to shine happen on the single “Yet Again” along with “Gun Shy” towards the end of the record. Of course it is those final two tracks “Half Gate” and “Sun in Your Eyes” that truly raise the bar for Grizzly Bear and any band that sounds like them. They swell with the sort of brightness and beauty you expect them to explode at any moment out of sheer intensity. So much of Shields is a dark and lonely journey punctuated by remarkable arrangements, but the last 12 or so minutes break free from that depression and that feeling is simply euphoric. Just when you think there’s no way Grizzly Bear can top themselves, here’s a record that proves they can. May there be many more as fundamentally challenging as this one in their future.

Buy Shields from Amazon

Snapshot Review: How to Dress Well – Total Loss [Acephale/Weird World]



How to Dress Well, aka Tom Krell, doesn’t make music that’s easy to listen to or enjoy by any stretch of the imagination. That can also be considered part of his charm though, that he doesn’t bow to anyone’s standards. There are influences, that’s to be sure, and you could hear flashes of Bobby Brown or Michael Jackson in some of the tracks on HTDW’s 2010 debut album Love Remains. Those influences were filtered through Krell’s unique lens, and there was such a lo-fi, effect-laden treatment to everything that it often felt like you were listening to an R&B record underwater. Krell’s falsetto vocals also tended to sound like they were recorded from the opposite side of a room, the distance providing a chasm of disconnection against the intimacy of the lyrics. It was a symbolic gesture more than anything else, as we’d later come to find out that his struggles with depression have often kept his family and friends at arm’s length. That more or less informs how the new HTDW record Total Loss functions, although this time the production work has become more polished and easier to listen to. Krell is also much more up-front and personal this time too, and it makes for an open wound of a record that’s an emotional wrecking ball with a heavy dose of beautiful composition. The R&B flavor is still present on this album, but it’s a little more scaled back and minimalist in terms of composition. There are plenty more icy textures that glide and drift past instead of big beats and vocal posturing. If you’re expecting a bunch of “Ready for the World” clones to create clear highlights across this album, you will probably end up sorely disappointed. There are tracks like “Cold Nites” and “& It Was You” that are some of the most fascinating and complex pieces Krell has ever put together, and while their melodies affixed with accoutrements like finger snaps and intense vocal harmonies may have a lighthearted air to them, the lyrics are anything but. Where this record truly excels though are in the moments when atmosphere truly takes over and beauty shines through. There are post rock symphonic bits like “World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You (Proem)” and “Talking to You” that cut so deeply while saying so little that you halfway expect Krell to turn into Sigur Ros at times. That’s a very good thing, and it shows plenty of promise for his future records. Then again, those same sorts of elements were all over last year’s Just Once EP, and they’re only minimally represented on Total Loss. In a sense, the mixture of different styles on this record can make it seem less than cohesive at times, and the lack of important benchmarks across the whole thing can leave it feeling a little front-loaded. This isn’t a perfect album, nor does it quite accomplish the great things Love Remains was able to do. What truly holds this record together in spite of everything are the lyrics, which tend to devastate at every turn. But while this record weaves its way through darkness, the end starts to shine some light through in a powerful and meaningful way. “Set It Right,” in which Krell names the many friends and family members both living and dead that he’s loved and cared for in spite of everything, is probably the most important track on the entire record. “As far as love goes, it’s one step at a time,” he sings like somebody hoping to rebuild a long dead or dormant connection. With any luck, this album marks yet another step in the right direction for How to Dress Well.

How to Dress Well – Ocean Floor for Everything
How to Dress Well – Cold Nites (Pete Swanson Remix)

How to Dress Well – & It Was U

Buy Total Loss from Amazon

Album Review: Efterklang – Piramida [4AD]



Have you heard Efterklang’s 2004 debut album Tripper? If not, now’s as good of a time as any to look it up. Spotify can help you out on that one if needed. Anyways, back then the Danish band had about 10 members and created atmospheric post-rock soundscapes that effectively brought to mind Sigur Ros with a little more electronic undercurrent. Fast forward to the present, and Efterklang is now a three-piece band that more or less creates beautiful and heartfelt pop songs. The difference is pretty huge, though it helps that they retain small pieces of their earlier selves. You can’t quite blame the band for wanting to find true success, but the way they’ve gone about it sometimes feels like too huge of a sacrifice. A lot of the elements that made them distinctively great have been washed away to make melodies easier to digest and remember. That’s largely what sabotaged their last album, 2010’s Magic Chairs. In preparation for the release of their new album Piramida, the band released a trailer that shows some of the lengths they went to in generating audio samples for it. In short, they traveled to Spitsbergen, Russia, located on the edge of the North Pole and home to Pyramiden, a town that was abandoned in the ’90s and remains as a decaying ruin today. They climbed inside huge, hollow tanks and recorded vocals and noises with the impressive echoes. They ran down boardwalks and plinked glass bottles with the microphones capturing it all – over 1,000 samples used across the album. Such effort is more than admirable, as not many artists would go to such lengths to add such unique charms to their records.

If you give a really close listen to the entire record, the little effects become that much more apparent and make what you’re hearing immensely more impressive. The only percussion on “Dreams Today” is the sound of footsteps across wooden planks. “Told to Be Fine” has a large hollow metal object being struck by something that sounds like but probably isn’t a basketball, while “The Living Layer” makes use of the many ways glass transforms sound when tapped at different angles and levels. Charming and well placed as all these elements might be, if you didn’t know to listen for them you probably wouldn’t notice or care where they came from. Efterklang might well be amateur foley artists, adding sound effects to movies after the fact because camera microphones didn’t pick them up properly. The point being, almost all of it could have been recreated in the studio without the need to go to an abandoned ghost town near the North Pole. That shouldn’t lessen or cheapen the experience of listening to Piramida because clearly the band was inspired by their trip in the right ways, but you are left wondering if they could have done something more or different with what they collected during their journey. For example, to make an atmospheric, post rock record like their earlier work using these sounds would be inventive and set them apart from their peers. Sadly, they didn’t do that. What they did do was create a smart and beautiful pop record that will impress you the more time you spend with it. The intricacies of opening track “Hollow Mountain” begin to reveal themselves once you realize it stacks upon itself by starting with a slow music box-like churn and not even launching into the first verse until two minutes have passed. From there, strings and horns all show up and eventually vanish amid icy synths, martial percussion and Casper Clausen’s relaxed vocal. The song makes for a decent single, but “Apples” which follows it is probably just a touch catchier and more upbeat.

There’s nothing on Piramida that’s intensely happy or toe-tappingly fun, but no matter what mood or shape the songs seem to take, they’re almost all compelling in one aspect or another. “The Ghost” starts innocently enough, but builds with unique percussion and harmonized vocals before entering a hornet’s nest of brass that eerily and enviously recalls Radiohead’s classic “The National Anthem” at its most frenetic point. Ballads like “Sedna” and closer “Monument” stand as particularly strong examples of how measured and carefully plotted arrangements can exude passion and elegance with lyrics that just as equally inspire. If this album has one unabashed highlight though, it comes from the 6.5 minute “Black Summer,” which transforms itself over its run time via intense build ups and releases aided along the way by stark piano work, the South Denmark Girls Choir and a jazzy little saxophone solo at the end. It’s exactly the sort of song you wish was the blueprint for the entire record, best blending the band’s earlier work with their more recent stuff. Alas, they don’t all operate at such a high level even if they’re all successful in one aspect or another.

It’s both a help and a hindrance to Piramida that despite their common elements each track could stand up well on its own. On the one hand, you want each individual track to be as strong as possible so you can drop in anywhere on the album and enjoy it. On the other hand, you also want that sense of wholeness in a record, where the entire thing goes down effortlessly in one 45 minute chunk. Efterklang aren’t quite able to strike the right balance here, which ultimately weakens the album’s overall impact just a touch. A bigger issue is the band’s indecisive nature when it comes to their sound. The atmospherics they’re creating are undoubtedly gorgeous, but they often feel taken down a notch when paired with more standard choruses. If they just surrendered to the melody instead of shoehorning differing structures in, the album would lose a lot of commercial viability but gain a greater sense of exploration and originality. Sometimes it’s more about the risks you don’t take than the ones you do, which is absolutely the case here. Still, what we do get from this record is largely quality, and a marked improvement over their last couple efforts. Let’s hope it’ll only get better from here, and that they won’t have to go to the other side of the world to make that happen.

Efterklang – Apples

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Album Review: David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant [4AD/Todo Mundo]



As with so many collaborations betweem famous musicians, having David Byrne and St. Vincent working together seems like a great idea on paper. In many ways, you can envision Byrne as a mentor to Annie Clark, a guiding spirit who’s been through the ringer a time or two with the Talking Heads and other projects, taking a talented young prodigy and trying to mold her on a path towards legendary success. Lord knows he doesn’t need the career boost and could probably get away with playing his classic songs for the rest of his life. Certainly Byrne’s work with Brian Eno has been the most highly regarded of his collaborations, with 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts being just the sort of strange, boundary-pushing effort to inspire a whole new generation of artists. He’s made plenty of great records since then, though arguably nothing will ever quite match his streak of greatness in the ’80s. As for clark, her ever-evolving sound has only become more potent with time, and the latest St. Vincent album Strange Mercy reaches a new peak of her songwriting and guitar skills. She doesn’t really need any favors either at this point, though the opportunity to work with Byrne is one that few smart artists would pass up.

But maybe it is that lack of necessity that makes their album together Love This Giant so comfortable and safe. Instead of taking the license of such a project and running wild with sonic experiments, what we get instead are concise pop songs punched up with a backing brass band. Such a lack of liberty would be more forgivable if the songs themselves were more compelling and memorable, but unfortunately that’s not the case either. The album’s opening song and first single “Who” is actually a very encouraging start, though it is less addictive and inspired than Byrne’s last big single with Brian Eno, 2008’s “Strange Overtones.” A less apparent highlight on the record is “Weekend in the Dust,” taking a canned beat and the funky horn section and turning them into a melody that feels rooted in ’80s or ’90s funk or R&B. It represents a markedly different approach for Clark, and even her halting Janet Jackson-esque lead vocals don’t sound like anything she’s done before. It’s the sort of boundary pushing this album could have used more of. Actually, it’s probably more of Clark’s take on some of Byrne’s known sounds, which then makes it a shame when he doesn’t really adopt much of her creative guitar work. In fact, her guitar is either absent or put behind brass for virtually the entire record, which is like having a million dollars stored in a safe at home but refusing to spend a dime of it even though you’re in debt. “The Forest Awakes” is about as guitar-heavy as this record gets, and even that provides meager offerings.

Yet it’s still Clark that comes off best on Love This Giant, and whether that has to do with songwriting, melody or general enthusiasm for the project is up for debate. Byrne mostly sounds bored, almost like he’s run out of things to say. Instead of using “I Should Watch TV” as a clever way to comment on today’s pop culture, he uses it to analyze exactly why he’s compelled to do as the song title suggests. You could say that it’s a noble search for deeper meaning, but the melody suggests a playfulness that’s simply not present otherwise. While the brass backing band is something of a bolder choice for both artists involved, one of the real tragedies is how whitewashed and bland they come off sounding. That’s especially true on tracks like “Dinner For Two” and “Lazarus,” both of which could use a little extra pep in their step and injections of instrumental creativity. Thanks to an additional assist from Antibalas and The Dap-Kings, “The One Who Broke Your Heart” is a surprising late album treat and probably the best use of brass on the entire record.

A large part of the disconnect on Love This Giant, instrumental and otherwise, probably stems from how it was pieced together. Recorded over three years in a variety of studios with files passed back and forth between Byrne and Clark, you can sort of tell that not everybody was in the same room or studio when this was created. Such are the potential perils of long distance collaboration. Inspired as this team up sounded initially, both Byrne and St. Vincent have done and will do bigger and better things down the line. Perhaps if they decide to do this again, as Byrne has done with Eno, things will turn out much differently and for the better.

David Byrne & St. Vincent – Who

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Album Review: Bjork – Biophilia [Nonesuch]


You’ve got to admire Bjork’s courage. She is consistently looking for new ways to innovate and challenge her fans, the same of which can’t be said about almost anybody else. Perhaps the closest and most recent example of forward-thinking technology mixed with music was when Damon Albarn composed an entire Gorillaz album, “The Fall”, on an iPad. Not much has been done since then, either due to lack of ambition or in more likely cases, lack of money by which to apply and use these new technologies. Music may be on an ever-increasing path towards digital distribution methods, but taking it beyond that realm is scary, unexplored territory for most. Bjork wallows in the scary and unexplored though. That not only goes for her eccentric outfit choices, but everything in and around her music too. Back in 2008 and essentially just before the start of the “3D craze”, Bjork released a 3D music video for her track “Wanderlust” off her last record “Volta”. That was highly interesting in itself. Now in 2011, she’s once again trying something innovative. You can get her new record “Biophilia” through traditional means such as CD, vinyl and mp3, but if you’re more adventurous you can pick up an iPad application that features interactive digital elements for each individual track. If you’re wealthy, there was also a super-fancy “Ultimate Art Edition” of the record that you could have ordered (it’s no longer available for sale) that featured an lacquered and silkscreened oak box filled with 2 discs of music, a 48-page cloth-covered book with thread-sewn pages, and 10 chrome-plated tuning forks that are each adjusted to the tone of a track off the album. That bad boy would have run you $800 if you so desired to spend it, and it was yet another way to explore the unique world that Bjork has created around herself.

For all the intricate and forward-thinking ways you can engage with “Biophilia”, it’s all no good if the music is crap. With so much energy being put into developing iPad apps or special colored tuning forks, have the songs lost their top priority in this arrangement? Or as a counterpoint, does the creation of an entire universe around a record deepen and enhance what’s already there? Admirable as her past efforts have been, Bjork hasn’t had an especially great record since “Vespertine” ten years ago, and there’s a certain sense that while the way she distributes her music is ever-changing, the songs themselves aren’t. The titles themselves tell you a lot of what you need to know, most of them single-word environmental elements such as “Moon” or “Thunderbolt” or “Virus”. Yes, the lyrics keep that same thread going, casting broad strokes to match the broad concepts. “To risk all/is the end all/and the beginning all,” she sings on opening track “Moon”. What exactly it means is for you to figure out. She makes more sense on “Cosmonogy”, telling the many different stories about how the universe came into existence, from the Big Bang to God emerging from a black egg. At least she uses some of the Earth and space motifs as metaphors for more relatable things such as life and love and intimacy. Destructive as “Virus” may be, it’s ultimately a love song seeking connection. “Like a virus needs a body/As soft tissue feeds on blood/Someday I’ll find you/The urge is here”, she sings amid the music box melody. The hope is simply to avoid becoming completely devoured as she “feed(s) inside you”. Meanwhile “Mutual Core” takes the movement of tectonic plates, those that are responsible for the global shifting of countries as well as disasters such as earthquakes and volcano eruptions, and tries to push two people into an emotional Pangaea. We can shift our own plates around to try and clear a space to our hearts to link up with another, but we all have personal volcanoes that erupt from time to time, and those can do serious damage to two bodies linked by one core. Not everything on “Biophilia” is blatant symbolism for something else, but the tracks that do push that angle tend to be better off than the ones that don’t.

Lyrics aside, the backing instrumentals on “Biophilia” have their own issues as well. There’s plenty of engaging moments, such as the super repetitive and naturally addictive single “Crystalline”, which starts off delicately enough with some innocent chimes but eventually descends into a heavy drum’n’bass rhythm in the final minute that’s simply killer. The mellotron on “Mutual Core” keeps the track firmly grounded, until the volcano eruptions occur, at which point the pace and tension builds as some gritty electro beats explode outwards and upwards before it all settles down once again. Twists and turns like that help to make the song one of the finest moments on the record. And though it fails to push into another gear, the customized gravity harps that populate “Moon” create the right atmosphere even as the lyrics are something of a failure. After a remarkably interesting start to the record however, there’s a certain stagnation that begins to permeate most everything from “Dark Matter” onwards. There’s organ and strings and a number of electronic beats that show up on “Hollow”, but the whole time it just drifts along completely formless and seemingly unaware of where its headed or when it might stop. A number of things were thrown at a wall in the hopes something would stick, but ultimately nothing did. For tracks like “Sacrifice” and “Thunderbolt”, it feels like a basic melody was created and then held for most of the duration, leaving Bjork’s vocals to do any sort of heavy lifting. She’s more than capable of hitting whatever notes she likes with those incredible vocal chords, but there are moments where it feels like she’s trying too hard to make a song more engaging by showing off that range. The more organic she can make it feel, the better.

If you’re paying attention to Bjork only for her music, “Biophilia” is yet another in her string of releases these last several years that doesn’t quite deliver on the excitement of her earlier records. Technology junkies willing to fork over the $10 for an album’s worth of iPad apps may enjoy this record quite a bit more thanks to the interactive element, because playing around with lightning bolts and colorful balls carries a certain degree of satisfaction along with it too. The whole thing is very well put together and is visually gorgeous as well, akin to many of Bjork’s music videos. Keeping the songs and the apps together places limits on the ease of which you can hear the music, which we may need to remind ourselves comes first and foremost. Actually she may also need to remind herself that the music comes first and foremost. Yet it remains a challenge to separate Bjork the person, all of her visually striking costumes and futuristic ways of applying her music to new formats, from the songs she creates. If she were to strip away all the dazzling bits from her persona and were to simply release a record like any other artist, might that be the spark she requires to get her songwriting and composing mojo back? There’s only one way to find out, and unfortunately there’s no app that can do it for her.

Buy “Biophilia” from Amazon
Buy the Biophilia app from iTunes

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