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Album Review: Cass McCombs – Humor Risk [Domino]

Nobody is telling Cass McCombs that he should pursue a career in stand-up comedy. One listen to anything off his last couple records will tell you that the guy sounds clinically depressed. He could use a little lightening up. The irony is that some of our best comedians are severely depressed individuals. They use humor as a coping and defense mechanism, an escape from their otherwise dark lives, be it an abusive parent or navigating schoolyard politics. If somebody makes you laugh you’re less inclined to want to attack them verbally or physically. There’s also a sense of escapism in comedy, because the time spent performing makes you feel validated and appreciated. Watch the very darkly funny TV show “Louie” and you’ll get a great idea of how there’s depth and morbidity behind so much of what we laugh at. Cass McCombs is by no means music’s answer to Louis C.K., but some of his songs are intended to have undercurrents of comedy to them in spite of their pitch black outlook. Even by titling his album “WIT’S END” earlier this year the intention was not to evoke frustration, as it fits into the common phrase “I’m at my wit’s end”. He meant it more in a literal sense, as in the end of wit. Naturally, there was nothing funny about it (or so it would seem). A mere few months later however, McCombs is arguably in a different mood. As a companion piece to that, he’s now putting out his second long player of 2011, this one titled “Humor Risk”. It’s by no means a barrel of laughs, but if you can comprehend a whole lot of subtle witticisms, there are a fair number of moments on this album that will make you smile.

“Love Thine Enemy” is “Humor Risk”‘s opening track, and it examines the titular Biblical sentiment from a realist’s standpoint. “Love thine enemy but hate the lack of sincerity,” McCombs intones. Hopefully you’re able to grasp the funny part of that line, showing off how we may do what we’re told in spite of a strong distaste for it. Elsewhere McCombs has a little fun as part of a rather dark tale involving a drug smuggling operation run through the postal service on “Mystery Mail”. After seeing police descend on his house as he was returning home, the main character goes on the run only to have “the smirk is wiped from my smile/I was arrested for hopping a turnstile”. Upon being sent to prison, he contacts his cross-country drug smuggling partner Daniel, who has also been caught. “Daniel was indeed in the lion’s den/not the only lion killer in a California state pen,” McCombs amusingly intones, very much comparing his fate to that of the Biblical saint. He brings that reference back around again minutes later after his friend is killed in prison, singing, “Daniel was a good guy but a saint he ain’t”. Perhaps the most weirdly amusing track on the record though is “Meet Me at the Mannequin Gallery”, in which the main character seeks to get a mannequin made in his image, and is told a philosophical story by the gallery secretary intoning that not everybody has the distinctive features required to make a good mannequin. It’s a very WTF topic to spend a song on, but it does make for a great demonstration of how not every song needs to be an all-out pity party.

One of the kindest things you could say about “WIT’S END” was how thematically sound it was. That record may have been dark and depressing and slow, but the tone very much matched up and held steady from start to finish. “Humor Risk” runs more of the stylistic gamut. The balance between more uptempo numbers and somber folk songs works well enough here, even when the lyrics don’t always match up. “The Same Thing” is a sunnier acoustic melody, but it examines the dichotomy between love and pain, arguing that such differences are essentially nonexistent. Meanwhile the nearly 8 minutes of “Mystery Mail” is markedly upbeat rock and roll for a song that’s all about drugs, prison and death. Then again, those same topics and rocking melodies worked wonders for Johnny Cash. When you reach a slice of heavy depression like “To Every Man His Chimera”, it may feel like it belongs on the last record, but McCombs’s completely over-the-top vocal performance provides a sly wink against the uber-serious grain.

The grand point of course is that while a number of these new songs aren’t the epitome of lighthearted humor, even some of the more depressing moments are punctuated with energy and playfulness that makes them much more instantly likable. In that way this record also serves as a nice counterpoint to “WIT’S END”, though they’re not complete opposites of one another. This is the easier record to digest, actually perhaps the most normal and commercially viable McCombs has ever gotten over his six previous records. Yet the pleasantries and morbid rib ticklers also vary enough to make them seem like a piecemeal collection rather than a cohesive whole. The songs on “Humor Risk” were recorded in a number of locations around the country, part of the same sessions that yielded “WIT’S END”. This is far better than a b-sides or outtakes collection and none of these songs miss their mark by much, but there’s no real anchor holding the whole thing together. It’s freeing while simultaneously a little disappointing and difficult to engage with given McCombs’s past material. Hopefully next time he can get the balance just right. If he needs some help with that, perhaps he should call Morrissey. I hear that guy has a regular stand-up gig at the morgue.

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Album Review: Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire [Capitol/Pax-Am]

January 14, 2009: Ryan Adams posts a missive on his website. In it, he explained a decision to quit making music and blogging, citing a number of reasons including being away from loved ones while on tour, health issues, intense pressure and criticism from the media/fans/record labels, and the general loss of his dignity. He had come down with Meniere’s Disease, which affects the inner ear and causes everything from vertigo to tinnitus to hearing loss to general balance trouble. That’s not an easy thing to deal with, particularly as a musician. As part of stepping away from music, Adams got engaged to and then quickly married his long-time girlfriend Mandy Moore. and for awhile it seemed he was making good on his word and had fully quit the music industry.Yet in spite of that, Adams kept tooling around behind the scenes to pump out plenty of previously unreleased music for fans. Last spring Adams put out a heavy metal record called “Orion” on vinyl only via his Pax-Am label. The album was reportedly one of many things Adams recorded prior to his quitting music. Then came “Cardinals III/IV”, a compilation of unreleased material from his time with The Cardinals from back in 2006. Rumor had it there was plenty more material where that came from. If you truly believed that Adams was done with music though, it must have come as something of a surprise when just last month he announced that he was releasing a brand new solo record and would be going out on tour in support of it. “Ashes & Fire” is the title of the new album, his first official release without The Cardinals since 2005. His time with The Cardinals may be officially over, but apparently he intends to carry on making music in whatever capacity he so desires.

Early reports about “Ashes & Fire” seemed to suggest that this was a record in which Ryan Adams returns to his roots. That is to say, he’s taking the much more plainspoken, man-and-his-acoustic-guitar approach rather than something that has the full force of a band behind it or is largely electric in nature. Clearly then, it’s not quite the livelier alt-country sound he’d established with The Cardinals, nor was it the more electrified rock approach he pushed on his last solo releases “Love Is Hell” and “Rock N Roll”. No, to get that sparse, rootsy folk sound, he’d need to return to his first two records, “Heartbreaker” and “Gold”. As luck would have it, they’re also his two most popular and best records to date. In taking on such a task there’s are some inevitable flaws that go along with it. The Ryan Adams of 10 years ago is by no means the Ryan Adams of today. The sad, introspective young man has been replaced by a much more content and married guy on the verge of middle age. The headspace is different, for one. Trends in music have changed too, though honestly there’s probably always a place for a smart, Dylanesque folk singer. But there’s also the thought that perhaps Adams is backtracking with the very purposeful idea of reclaiming success and widespread popularity, that the progressive musical strides he’s made over the last decade apparently mean little to nothing to him. Adams’ last several records may not have been very good, but that doesn’t mean they were devoid of good ideas or new twists on old sounds. There may be a certain comfort in returning to your old stomping grounds, but is there really a point if you’re not going to apply a fresh perspective to it rather than simply revert to your prior ways? These are all things that should be asked of “Ashes & Fire” from the very beginning, and that’s not even bringing up Adams’ frustrations with record labels and fans.

The pressure is on Adams with “Ashes & Fire”, and not just because he doesn’t have a full band backing him up anymore. Though distributed through Capitol Records, this is the first record Adams has had total control over in awhile. Not that he was bending to the whims of executives at Universal Records the entire time, even if he implied as much in the blog post where he quit music. At first glance though, “Ashes & Fire” is a very interesting, if not lightly flawed record that is pretty much the best thing he’s done in years, even if it comes nowhere close to those gorgeously auspicious introductions we got with his first two albums. “I’m just looking through the rubble/trying to find out who we were,” Adams bluntly states on opening track “Dirty Rain”. He may be talking about a failed relationship, but the sentiment doubles as he attempts to rekindle the romance he once had with his fans. The very hushed and pure acoustic guitar and vocal opening of the track is heartening as well, a reminder of the days when it truly was just Adams doing all the work. Some light organ gets sprinkled in towards the end, but doesn’t distract from the overall song’s temprament, which is a good thing. Not so great is the production on the record, which to be fair is great overall but possibly just a little too polished. You can hear the occasional breath taken between words or the sound of fingers sliding up and down the neck of a guitar, but a record such as this truly benefits from raw and essentially minimal production. By no means does it have to be lo-fi to the point where the recording sounds damaged, but a more roughshod feel just works better in folk recordings such as this one. At least producer Glyn Johns doesn’t make Adams sound inhumanly perfect, so it makes the album easier to connect with a wider audience.

For the casual Ryan Adams fans, “Ashes & Fire” has a couple faster tempo tracks to help make a traditionally slow and sad trip a little less so. The title track isn’t going to get you energized for the day ahead, but it will get your toe tapping at least a little. The biggest overall track on the album comes from “Chains of Love”, which skips along good-naturedly and incorporates a string section that feels reminiscent of something you might hear on “Gold”. It’s no “New York, New York” or even “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)”, but the adult contemporary crowd should find some satisfaction with it as the most marketable, radio friendly thing here. “Lucky Now” also was smartly chosen as the album’s first single, as it doesn’t quite have the energy, but remains one of the record’s best slow burners with a hook that sticks with you more than anything else. The track also contains one of the record’s other begrudgingly backwards-looking lyrics, as this time Adams asks, “Are we really who we used to be?/Am I really who I was?” That aside, the positive message contained within the song is that time and love can heal wounds, among other things. It’s a testament to Adams’ path as a musician, from his depressed, heartbroken and drug-influenced early days through his cleaned up, sober married life today.

The biggest difference between the Ryan Adams of 2001 and the Ryan Adams of 2011 is how he writes his songs. The personal demons and issues have been set aside for the most part, making way for more abstract thoughts and third person narratives. Along with the title “Ashes & Fire”, there are plenty of other elements that make their way into these songs, from “Dirty Rain” to “Rocks” and the “Invisible Riverside”. Those are just the song titles, but the lyrics are about those things too, along with light and shadow and a few other similar bits. They’re mostly used in metaphor, and there’s a lesson or two to be learned from them as well if you pay close enough attention. Yet most of the lyrics are broad about nature, seeming to say a whole lot but in reality saying very little. Too often he relies on old or bland cliches to get his point across, when he used to do exceptionally well with the turn of a phrase. At least he’s not giving us platitudes or rhetoric that pretends to be intelligent. In that respect, it’s better than his records with The Cardinals. Actually there’s a lot of things about “Ashes & Fire” that make it better than almost all of what he’s put out in the last decade. Ryan Adams was almost always a better musician when on his own versus when he’d collaborate with a full band (not speaking of the Whiskeytown days). For a guy that appears to be ready to start the third phase of his career, this record isn’t a bad way to kick it off. Adams may not reclaim the critical praise and fan base he once had, but there’s still an unerring sense he’s got plenty of great music left to give the world.

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Album Review: Feist – Metals [Interscope/Cherrytree]

It’s somewhat funny how little most people know about Leslie Feist. Ask your average music fan these days how they know Feist, and they’ll likely make mention of her last album “The Reminder” and the hit single “1,2,3,4”, spurred in large part by an iPod/iTunes commercial. At least a wider variety of people know who she is, compared to a number of similar and in special cases better artists. Still, it’s a shame that her strong debut “Let It Die” fails to get noticed, along with her great contributions to Broken Social Scene before that. With such a step forward in the fame game and plenty of people keeping a close eye on what she does next, you’d expect Feist to go the crowd-pleasing route. After all, alienating a set of fans that just came on board with your last record would seem like the wrong move from a financial and business perspective. On the other hand, playing it safe also tends to result in a loss of musical integrity, falling under the guise of “selling out” and proclamations that your music “isn’t as good as it once was”. The good news to come from Feist’s third full length “Metals” is that she appears to make it clear that she’s sticking to her guns and continuing to explore new avenues for her particular sound. If that puts her newfound popularity at risk, so be it.

Okay, so Feist isn’t exactly rewriting her songbook or taking risks that are so obtuse your auditory gag reflex kicks in. If anything, she tries to stay cool and humble on “Metals”, pretty much keeping her head down trying not to stir the pot too much. A track like “A Commotion” causes just a little bit of one with its half-spoken chorus and male choir shouting the song title. “Anti-Pioneer” starts small and eventually swells with strings to the point of almost bursting, while “Undiscovered First” gets sharply rock and roll with some buzzsaw electric guitar work. Save for those momentary flashes of something different, there’s a remarkably even keel to the rest of the album. You can use any number of words to help describe it, such as nice, lovely, enjoyable and perhaps even somber, but those are all pretty middle-of-the-road terms. “Metals” is certainly better than a middle-of-the-road album. Those disappointed by the lack of lighthearted pop songs have only the earworm single “How Come You Never Go There” as their solace, and even that doesn’t come close to touching “1,2,3,4”. Mostly these new tracks play up Feist’s softer, slower and more ballad/torch song side, and if that’s a side of her you like, there’s so much to be pleased about. “Cicadas and Gulls” is acoustically perfect for a quiet ride through some pastoral countryside, shortly before it takes off into something bigger and more glorious and gorgeous. If you need sweet and simple, “Bittersweet Melodies” should suit you perfectly with its light touches of flute and xylophone for added spice. Feist goes nightclub cabaret on “Caught A Long Wind”, a slowly rolling acoustic and piano number that throws in some light strings for an extra dose of dramatic effect.

Sweeping drama doesn’t exclusively show itself in the instrumentals though. Right from opening track “The Bad in Each Other”, Feist is talking about relationships that are doomed to fail. At least it has the courage to do so in a brass section of glory. But “Metals” is really less of a romantic relationship-themed record than her last couple, instead choosing to shift focus a little bit to the sheer grandiosity of nature itself. You can catch those themes first and foremost by examining the song titles, which make references to wind and pioneers and cicadas/gulls and undiscovered things. The lyrics often espouse a respect and compassion for the natural world, primarily as a solace from the everyday issues we as human beings face. This movement away from more intimate moments and towards bigger and broader themes surprisingly doesn’t take much away from each track’s overall impact. That’s likely because while a sunset is very much a massive event in nature, a quieter song about it brings a certain personalization and the feeling of a day winding down towards an end rather than building up towards a beginning. If Feist is pandering to her extended fan base, it comes through almost entirely with her lyrics because of how generalized they are compared to what she’s done before.

The thing that made the first two Feist records so damn great was how free-flowing and charming they were. She could go from the sparse acoustics of “Gatekeeper” to a funkier, synth-laden “One Evening” and back around to a bright, handclap-infused pop single in “Mushaboom”. On “The Reminder”, toe-tappers like “I Feel It All” and “Sea Lion Woman” made for some serious thrills amid the more somber, lounge-inspired numbers. Such diversity is not really present on “Metals”, and it really could have used some. If she had crafted an entire record of fanciful pop songs that lack of diversity would still remain, though the music itself would be far easier to digest. Here is an album that feels like the end of a long day. It’s not necessarily tired or depressed, just a bit worn down and in need of some serious relaxation. Sit on your couch with some dim lighting and the alcoholic beverage of your choice and put this record on as your soundtrack. It should engage your mind as it relaxes your body. At least it’s still moderately effective in that way. Despite its flaws, one of the best things that can be said about “Metals” is that it is true to Feist’s uncompromising vision. It may not be what everybody else had in mind, but it’s probably better as a result.

Feist – How Come You Never Go There

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Album Review: Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer [Merge]

For years now, we’ve stood by and simply watched (or listened) as Matthew Friedberger unleashed solo record after solo record during brief breaks from his main band The Fiery Furnaces, of which he is a main part of along with his sister Eleanor. Well, technically speaking, Matthew has only released a couple solo albums, the double discer that was “Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School” back in 2006. This year though he’s freaking out and unleashing 8 albums of original material as part of a project called “Solos”, where he spends an entire record with just a single instrument and his own voice. If you separate out all of those various LPs in addition to the ones still forthcoming in 2011, he’ll have put out more solo full lengths than he has with The Fiery Furnaces. All the while, Eleanor Friedberger has done nothing on her own, leaving many curious as to what she might come up with were she to pursue such a path. Well, wonder no more, because last summer she recorded her first solo album. Now here we are, one year later, and that record is finally out, and very naturally titled “Last Summer”.

Anyone that’s ever heard a Fiery Furnaces album before knows what Eleanor is like behind the microphone. Her vocals are done in an almost sing-speak fashion, and that’s primarily due to the extensive amount of lyrics she’s got to spit out within the confines of a typical song. She writes the stuff too, and tells stories both real and fictional concerning her own life or the lives of others. On “Last Summer”, those hallmarks remain, though the stories she tells across this album are 100% true things that have happened to her. Not that it makes much of a difference in the end, except in making close analysis of the lyrics that much more poignant. She talks about a failed attempt to rekindle an old relationship on opening track and first single “My Mistakes”, even though the song itself is such a delightful slice of synth pop pie that you’d imagine it’d have to be about something more upbeat and fun. On the funky “Roosevelt Island” she details a trip she made to the New York neighborhood, leading off with an anecdote about encountering a doppelganger. “We saw a picture of a girl with the same hair and I posed next to her/Made a great photo but I never thought I’d see her again/Didn’t really ever want to see her again,” she sings with the most rapid-fire delivery possible. Dealing with the specific time frame of when the album was recorded, “Glitter Gold Year” mentions 2010 many a time, to the point where Eleanor begins to play around with just HOW she sings it. But she’s also apparently not happy with said “glitter gold year”, beacuse she also often repeats, “you said it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s worse”. Seeing as how “Last Summer” is a recording of tales from 2010, there most definitely is no way that’s getting erased anymore, not that we’d want it to anyways. Even the most experienced New Yorker can sometimes get lost in such a large city, and “Owl’s Head Park” is an amusing tale about how going to pick up a custom-made bicycle left her at the titular park and unsure of how to get home. “The boys on the F train said that frame was fresh/it was the color blue/but I didn’t know my way/so I couldn’t get home to you,” are a few lines that emphasize just how Friedberger is able to keep a plot moving along while also providing miniscule details that enhance what’s already there. It’s a big part of what makes The Fiery Furnaces so unique and exciting, and it plays the same role on her solo effort, though with slightly different sonic results.

The two separate Friedberger halves of The Fiery Furnaces work so well together because of how their individual dynamics come into play. Matthew is the guy who puts together all the weird sonic experiments, while Eleanor writes and sings behind those avant-pop sounds. Rare is the Fiery Furnaces track that is straightforward and simply structured. The closest moments you’ll get to pure pop from the band comes through in tracks like “Single Again,” “Here Comes the Summer”, “Benton Harbor Blues” and “Tropical Iceland”. If you loved those moments, or if they’re some of the only songs you actually like from the band because the rest is too strange, then “Last Summer” is the record you’ve been waiting for. The songs almost always hold a typical verse-chorus-verse structure, and the oddest instrument used is either the saxophone or harmonica. Actually, the saxophone solo that closes out “Owl’s Head Park” is one of the most fascinating moments on an album that’s by no means lacking in them. The vibe is very much 70s pop throughout, and various aspects of it show up on certain tracks. “Roosevelt Island” mines the territory of past greats like Stevie Wonder or The Commodores. There’s a nice bit of psychedelia on “Inn of the Seventh Ray”, particularly when Eleanor’s vocals are hit with the echo effect and the synths are bleeping about like they’re floating within that same ether. “I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight” has some more fun with the vocals, creating some splendid backing harmonies that essentially make it a girl group song. And a pair of beautiful acoustic guitar-based folk ballads turn up as well courtesy of “Scenes from Bensonhurst” and “One-Month Marathon”. Though there are obviously some personal instrumental touches in there, at their core they recall some of the amazing folk records from artists like Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez. There may be a mixture of diverse styles across these 10 tracks, but Eleanor’s own quirks along with a serious knack for crafting memorable hooks makes everything work, even if she never pushes too far in one direction or the other.

Weighing “Last Summer” against all the other music with a Friedberger name stamped on it is a tough thing to do. Matthew’s influence has undoubtedly been a good on for the sake of originality and experimentation, but there’s something to be said for exceptionally strong writing and powerfully addictive pop songs. “My Mistakes” factors in pretty well to be one of the best, catchiest things you’ll hear this calendar year, and there’s a secret sort of delight to be had from condensing the weirdness of The Fiery Furnaces into something wholly pure and easily digestible. The mood of the album too, given its summer release date, makes for a perfect soundtrack to one of those lazy days hanging out at home with the sunshine streaming in through the windows. Yeah it works best in summer, but even in the winter it can probably be used to warm you up a little bit and bring out that innate longing to travel to the Inn of the Seventh Ray or ride the Cyclone on Coney Island. These may be Eleanor’s memories of things that have happened to her, but the way that she spins those tales tend to put us there with her. Honestly, there are far worse ways to spend your money and 40 minutes of your life. While the album likely lacks the staying power of a “Blueberry Boat”, the immediacy and lack of a learning curve make it special in its own way. Matthew may be releasing 8 albums this year, but it’s doubtful that any one of them will be as lovely and wonderful as “Last Summer” is.

Eleanor Friedberger – My Mistakes

Eleanor Friedberger – Scenes from Bensonhurst

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Album Review: Viva Voce – The Future Will Destroy You [Vanguard]

Despite their new record “The Future Will Destroy You” being their sixth long player, somehow it always feels necessary to introduce or re-introduce Viva Voce every time they put out something new. Calling them forgettable is probably not the right thing to say, especially since they’re written a number of great and memorable songs, but they never seem to get enough press or notice for them. Consider them a bit of a lost treasure then, one of those secrets that if you know about them, your life feels just a little bit richer as a result. In fact, you’ve likely heard Viva Voce before whether you know it or not. Their songs have appeared in a number of popular TV shows from “Friday Night Lights” to “One Tree Hill”, and like many of those snippets, were enough to make you sit up and ask somebody who the band was before falling back into the plot and not following up properly on it. So as a primer, or a reminder for those that may have forgotten, here’s a snapshot of Viva Voce. The core of the band is made up of Portland husband and wife duo Kevin and Anita Robinson. They were the two there from the very beginning back in 1998, and it’s only been in the last couple years that they’ve added two new members to help flesh out their songs a bit more both in the studio and while performing. But Viva Voce have also done their fair share of label hopping across their catalogue, going from Asthmatic Kitty to Minty Fresh to Barsuk and now settling in with Vanguard for their newest record. They’ve toured with everyone from The Shins to Jimmy Eat World, and even established an alt-country side project called Blue Giant with some of their Portland friends that included Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk (who has since left the group). To call them seasoned musicians at this point is more than accurate, and while it’s not always the case, sometimes the records get better with age.

The best way to describe the sound of Viva Voce is probably folk-tinged psych-pop, which is just a fancy way of saying that while the band can get a little spacey and reverb-heavy in their compositions, they never reach so far out of bounds as to alienate the listener. “The Future Will Destroy You” may not feature their most upbeat collection of songs, but it does have some of their smartest and tightest to date. “Plastic Radio” opens the record with some buzzsaw guitars and a groove that’s just a touch retro and surprisingly danceable. Even more interesting is the way the song is structured, because there are essentially two separate hooks working in fascinating opposition with one another. The first is based entirely around the rise and fall of a fuzz-addled guitar, while the second is purely lyrical with Anita pushing the command to “smash that radio”. In between those things is a strong programmed beat and some funky keyboards that only add to the classic fun. The best thing about it though is how there are no actual verses in the song, but rather just a lot of ping-ponging back and forth between instrumental groove and the sung chorus. It’s a smart move in particular because you wouldn’t notice it unless you were paying very close attention. First single “Analog Woodland Song” is almost normal-sounding by comparison, though the way the guitars get choppy during the chorus adds that psychedelic edge to break out the charm that Viva Voce have become known for. The way the guitars meander in and around a sharp beat on “Diamond Mine” makes for some intense instrumental moments, so much so they pretty much outshine Anita’s reverb-heavy vocals over the first half of the song. Ironically the opposite is true on “Black Mood Ring”, where the harmony-heavy vocals (along with Kevin’s percussion work) dominate over the guitars and anything else that might stand in their way. The second half of the record contains some great tunes as well, the most notable probably being the title track, which chugs along with purpose despite its ominous lyrics and relatively patterned melody. The more acoustic-oriented melodies of “Cool Morning Sun” and “No Ship Coming In” bring out the band’s folksier side, and there’s a beauty and grace about them that isn’t especially present at other points on the album.

What “The Future Will Destroy You” does right is bring together a collection of songs that work very well together and are true to Viva Voce’s sound. That said, though this may be their tightest and most fully formed effort, it does little to advance what we already know about the band. There’s not a lot of exploration or pushing the envelope too far, which after so many years and albums you might come to expect. The small changes to the structure of a couple songs are less new ideas for them and more a return to something that has been toyed with previously. The same goes for the more extended instrumental passages, though they’ve never had so many non-vocal hooks as they do here. The ability to instill a memory of a guitar riff rather than actual lyrics is more challenging than it might appear, so kudos to the band for pulling it off multiple times. Perhaps their sonic experiments were placed more on the Blue Giant record, which tapped into a wholly different aspect of the band’s personality, even if there were a lot more cooks in that kitchen putting that record together. Kevin and Anita Robinson have returned to Viva Voce because the sounds and the lyrics they are writing make the most sense with that project. With some of the most commercially viable songs of their careers as well, one might hope they finally find the extended success they’ve richly deserved for awhile now. It’d be nice if I didn’t have to explain who they are again when their next record gets released.

Buy “The Future Will Destroy You” from Amazon

Album Review: Bon Iver – Bon Iver [Jagjaguwar]

By every indication, Justin Vernon is not the same man he was 3 years ago. It has been that long since his debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago” was recorded all alone under the moniker of Bon Iver out in a wintry Wisconsin cabin. The story about the creation of the album was about as perfect as the album itself, bringing with it the thought that maybe if we all just retreated from civilization perhaps we too might emerge with a similar bit of brilliance. Many have surely tried since then, but I haven’t heard any incredible “cabin in the woods” stories recently, and I’m guessing you haven’t either. But Vernon has done nothing but grow since breaking free of that self-imposed cocoon, moving forwards with a number of extra projects that includes the slow R&B collective Gayngs and the uber-experimental Volcano Choir. That’s not even making mention of his guest work on the latest Kanye West album along with the slight sonic leap forwards that was Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” EP. While supporting that first Bon Iver record on tour, Vernon recruited an actual band to play with, and they’ve been by his side ever since, working to carefully enhance the sparse and singular acoustic guitar arrangements. He very well could have raced back to that Wisconsin cabin to record the second Bon Iver full length, but given all that’s happened to him, one gets the impression that he’s moved so far beyond that classic tale both mentally and sonically that there would be no point looking back. So instead Vernon built a recording studio out of an old veterinary clinic in Wisconsin, where he and the rest of the band crafted the new album in bits and pieces during their free time over these last 3 years. This record is self-titled, and that’s most likely because it marks a second rebirth for Vernon, signalling that Bon Iver is no longer just a singular man with a guitar but instead a full-fledged band with a vast array of tools at their disposal.

A big part of what made “For Emma, Forever Ago” so charming was the simplicity of it. The thought that a voice and an acoustic guitar were just about all the tools you needed to craft amazing songs meant that production values, studio magic and a full band were unnecessary extravagances when push came to shove. In certain cases though, such as with tUnE-yArDs, stepping up from crappy bedroom laptop recording to legitimate studio and backing band has proven not only necessary, but essential towards unleashing the full potential of an artist. Those concerned that Vernon’s upward movement towards bigger and better has spoiled his ability to write and compose smart music needn’t have worried after all, for “Bon Iver” seems to fully recognize all of the best things about that last album and worked simply to expound upon them in new and interesting ways. The anchor, as it has always been, is Vernon’s voice. That stark falsetto is truly unique in today’s musical landscape, and he once again makes the most out of it. Doubled and tripled over harmonies, Auto-Tune and a host of other effects make the singing a weapon of its own, often rising above the main course of melody to create added depth and beauty. He never quite goes to the length of the a capella acrobatics that was “Woods” off the “Blood Bank” EP, but he doesn’t need to here, particularly because there’s so much else for your ears to pick up on. The subtle uses of horns, orchestral sections and saxophones mix with digital and electro effects to make a mix that’s purposely muddy and understated. There are no sweepingly epic or overtly dramatic moments on the album, even if there are songs that build to noisy and satisfying crescendos. Intimacy is maintained primarily though Vernon’s words and his delivery of them, but for the most part there’s a natural calm that flows through the entire record from an instrumental perspective, to the point where it’s not too difficult to catch a nap during a few songs should the conditions be right. That’s not to say this album is boring, just that like any good lullaby, when you mix quiet and beautiful sometimes you’ll just close your eyes for a minute and wake up hours later.

Starting with a few seconds of pure silence, “Bon Iver”‘s opening track “Perth” works the term “slow burn” in the best way possible. The carefully picked and slightly fuzzy electric guitar initially maps out the melody, and shortly thereafter a very martial drum line kicks in to help propel that even more. After running through a couple of verses with not much of a legitimate chorus, nearly the entire final half of the song is pure instrumental build to an explosion. Chords are hit, the drums get louder, a horn section comes into play, and the best “hook” we can ask for is based purely on the guitar notes and nothing else. This is an introduction to the evolution of Bon Iver, and it’s heartening to see the band loosed from the chains of a more conventional song structure. Soft rock and a more nature-infused alt-country intersect on “Minnesota, WI”. The first half of the song moves from spacey guitar and deep drums into an almost slowed down reggae groove where flutes and saxophones all gently work with one another next to Vernon breaking out his lowest register R&B vocal that comes across as more Tunde Adebimpe than it does Bon Iver. But there’s a smooth development that enters with a subtle but fast moving acoustic guitar that’s about the auditory equivalent of a babbling forest brook. Suddenly all the other instruments begin to fade away, and in their place comes a banjo and a slide guitar. There’s also a heavy synth that pulsates through the main melody as it grinds towards a conclusion in which all the sounds collide in a melting pot that only works because of its modesty and restraint. Not everything is pure innovation or extensive with what it contains. “Holocene” is much more a vocal showcase than anything else, though the acoustic guitar and xylophone are nearly as warm and welcoming. Still, the light touch of a bicycle bell on “Michicant” or the bird chirping on “Hinnom, TX” make those songs just a touch more charming past what they’re already doing.

If there’s a point of contention on this self-titled album though, it’s going to be with closing track “Beth/Rest”. Whereas everything leading up to that point had only hinted towards something more 80s soft rock/adult contemporary, Bon Iver goes for the jugular in the end with something that would register as pure homage were it also not infused with a couple of small modern-day flourishes. Still, trying not to think about Bruce Hornsby and his kinfolk whilst listening to the song is tough, unless you’re young enough to have never been exposed to such cheese. This fucking with the idea of what’s “cool” by creating a song that is patently uncool seems to have carried over with a number of artists this year. Destroyer’s “Kaputt” worked on a lot of the same principles and managed to succeed in spite of itself. A worse example would be Heidecker & Wood’s debut album, which left you wondering if there was a joke or extreme sincerity behind it. For Bon Iver, the thinking appears to be one of acceptance. What’s cool is relative, and while we all make mistakes from time to time, we shouldn’t have to defend things or music that we truly love no matter how bad it might be to others. Even then, were we to search hard enough, perhaps we can find something great about an otherwise terrible thing or song. For me, “Beth/Rest” is worthwhile and a solid album closer less because it’s a decent song and more because of what it represents and tries to do. Certainly it will have its critics, but where some will see fault others will see perfection. 80s adult conteporary may be a crap genre, but at least Bon Iver has taken the risk and wound up making that crap sound almost listenable.

To say that expectations were high for the second Bon Iver album would be an understatement. “For Emma, Forever Ago” touched so many people who identified with its sparse and somber message. It is a record about heartbreak and attempting to move past it. As a contrast, “Bon Iver” isn’t about a woman but instead more about a place or places. You look at the song titles, from “Minnesota, WI” to “Wash.” to “Calgary” and “Lisbon, OH”, and whether they’re real or not, they all dictate a location. There’s controversy about whether or not this new album is titled “Bon Iver” or if it’s “Bon Iver, Bon Iver”, as if dictating that the band were a city and state unto themselves. Whatever the reality might be, this is an album that is searching for a home. We all get a little lost sometimes and become unsure of where to go or who to turn to. Consider this your travelling companion as you seek that refuge from whatever it is that is causing you distress. It is your port in a storm, your warm blanket when you are cold, or your moment of clarity amidst a sea of confusion. These are incredible songs composed with the utmost care and skill so as to hold consistent and thematically strong. If JUstin Vernon had just turned in another record filled with acoustic guitar ballads it would likely be very nice, but ultimately a little disappointing. Consistent development of your own sound is important, and Bon Iver have grown in big ways here. The influence of Vernon’s other projects is stamped on this album, but never to the point of open distraction or in such a way where we’d consider it anything else than something Bon Iver would do. The quietly graceful tone and how most of the songs blend into one another also helps to see this as a singular piece rather than a collection of individual songs. Standout first single “Calgary” may give you a good idea of how this record sounds, but to fully understand it requires at least one time through without any breaks or pauses or skipping. Allow yourself to be enveloped in the natural serenity it offers. Try to forget what you know, or think you know about this band and the sort of music they make, just to see if it resonates with you. If it does, maybe you can build a little home for it inside your heart.

Bon Iver – Calgary

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Album Review: Marissa Nadler – Marissa Nadler [Box of Cedar]

There are thousands of female singer-songwriters out there, every single one of them hoping to find a big break. Most never make it beyond their own bedrooms, and it’s really the cream of the crop that tend to get enough notice to earn a record deal. Even then your future is by no means set in stone, as underperforming to label expectations can result in the plug being pulled from your deal. This unfortunate reality is one that Marissa Nadler knows all too well. Kemado released her 2009 album “Little Hells”, and while it was met with solid praise by those that heard it, apparently not enough people did hear it to satisfy her financial backers. So upon being dropped by her label, Nadler went on the offensive and did something that was relatively unheard of at the time: she asked fans to donate money via Kickstarter to help fund her next record. After reaching her goal, the rest of the pieces slid into place and became her fifth full length album.

As with any artist, not just female singer-songwriters, consistent innovation is the key to survival. Turn in the same record 3 or 4 times and people will write you off. Marissa Nadler has done exactly what she’s needed to across four albums, and now her self-titled new one continues that evolution. While gentle acoustic guitar and that gorgeous voice of hers are still the two main attractions in her songs, “Little Hells” saw her moving towards more lush and varied instrumentation. That trend continues here, with doses of everything from vibraphones to orchestration and a light dose of synthesizers. She’s not so much using more of these extra elements, but rather better at implementing them than before. A song like “Puppet Master” is a solid example of that, moving from a light acoustic guitar shuffle into something a little more retro and sprightly with some added playfulness via vibraphone. The fluid tempo changes along with a mood shift are just a couple of the ways this is a continued innovation from what’s come before. The way that opening track “In Your Lair, Bear” steadily builds in intricacy over the song’s duration without ever rushing or sounding out of place is a great testament as well to her maturity as an artist. Most others would not have pulled that off with such grace and poise.

There’s not much to be said about the development of Nadler’s voice, primarily because her beautifully calm yet disaffected presence has not changed much, if at all. In her higher octave ranges she still sounds very precious a la Joanna Newsom, but the way she juxtaposes that with darker and colder imagery is what helps to set her apart. The biggest way Nadler has grown from her last album is via her lyrics. The very impersonal and story-filled songs of her past now remove character names and fanciful elements to actually use the word “I” a whole bunch. Descriptions too are far more down to earth and realistic. Rather than going off on some obtuse and illogical sweep of romanticism, here she sees the forest for the trees and no longer reaches to those heights. That’s less to say she sounds defeated but more to say these songs become more easily relatable because they seem like she’s actually experienced them. When you’ve never truly loved before, there’s a wide-eyed innocence that permeates your world view and tends to make you believe that you’ll wind up in some sweeping epic of a relationship that’s just like the stars on the movie screen. The older and wiser you become in the ways of love, or alternately speaking the more you’ve had your heart broken, the more you come to realize what the real lessons to be learned are. So with songs like “Alabaster Queen” and “Baby I Will Leave You in the Morning”, Nadler is dealing with some of the tougher aspects of dealings between men and women. Despite its title, “Wedding” is not all magic, flowers and endless love, even if the downer of an implication is that sometimes people get married for the wrong reasons. It’s unfortunate that Nadler isn’t a more upbeat person in her songs, though if she were many of these songs might not be as effective.

With “Marissa Nadler” comes something of a plea. In spite of all the kind words that have been said about her in the past, present and presumably future, the fact remains that she’s one of those artists that is beloved by those that have heard her. The issue seems to be that not enough people have heard her. Sure, she raised enough cash to make this new record, but it wasn’t enough to keep her contract the last time around. Now pretty much entirely independent, there’s a distinct lack of promotion that tends to go along with that. In all likelihood this won’t be the last album we hear from her, but she may have to go around with her hand out asking for money again to help raise money for it. The hope is she won’t need to do that. Maybe you buy two copies of the record and give one to a friend. Maybe you just tell some friends about her. Whatever you can do individually to help her out so we don’t lose a talent like hers. Strong female singer-songwriters are not a dime a dozen, and the more you listen to their individual records the more you realize that it takes a certain special something to really connect with you in a meaningful way. Cat Power has it. So does Feist and Sharon Van Etten. And Marissa Nadler has it as well. Open yourself up to that power by giving her album a try.

Marissa Nadler – Baby I Will Leave You in the Morning

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Album Review: Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts [Merge]

Feel free to call Thurston Moore an old man. He may only be in his early 50s, but in rock star years, he’s closer to 70. Sure, you’ve still got your classics out and about still making music, your Paul Simons, your Bob Dylans and your Paul McCartneys, but they come so few and far between these days. It’s better to think of aging rock stars when they’re in a band, because the collective whole provides you with a stark legacy and a lack of focus on a particular individual. The last Sonic Youth record, for example, 2009’s “The Eternal”, did not seem like it came from a band that’s now officially 30 years old in and of itself without taking into account how old everyone was by the time they started. And while you have to essentially weigh any new stuff based on what came before it, we really only think of career highlights rather than the entire catalogue, particularly when dealing with 10+ records. In the case of Thurston Moore it’s even more, thinking about his already numerous solo efforts along with the Sonic Youth stuff. Perhaps the biggest and most pertinent question to be asking is how somebody like Moore can keep creating new music without surrendering to complacency or repeating the same old tricks. His new record “Demolished Thoughts” seeks to provide something close to an answer to that question.

One of the more interesting tidbits about “Demolished Thoughts” is that it was produced by Beck Hansen, otherwise known as simply Beck. He and Moore have never worked together before, and it’s a strange wonder as to why that is. It’s clear from this record that the combination of the two is an inspired pairing, and you can hear both of their influences present even if it is Moore doing all of the heavy lifting. The easiest and most favorable comparison you can make given the circumstances is to Beck’s “Sea Change”, a largely acoustic effort with small flourishes of orchestral beauty. There are even brief brushes of harp mixed in, and it is surprisingly graceful and oddly cohesive. And while most of the songs bear a quiet, almost folk-driven psychedelia (track lengths range from 4 minutes to nearly 7), there are moments of vigorous energy and sharp electric guitar. “Circulation” is naturally one of those tracks that gets your blood flowing, and it calls to mind a handful of old Sonic Youth cuts in the process. The same could be said for “Orchard Street”, though that’s more like a subdued acoustic rendition of an unreleased Sonic Youth song. Of course both those make perfect sense, as Moore also tends to save up tracks that are either rejected by or simply won’t quite work in his main band’s canon.

Just because a track isn’t moving along at a moderate pace doesn’t mean it lacks energy though. A song like “Blood Never Lies” glistens in the sunlight akin to a dew-covered flower at the start of a new day. The harps and strings on “Illuminine” create glowing pinpricks of light in an otherwise pitch black night. It’s the lush warmth that pulls that and many other songs on “Demolished Thoughts” out from the proverbial gutter of depression. An Elliott Smith album this is not, even if the topics of growing older and struggling to find happiness seem to permeate the highly poetic lyrics. What separates it out from your otherwise standard folk-indebted fare are the intelligent ways each song comes together to both acknowledge and destroy what we might otherwise expect from these genre tropes. Like how “Orchard Street” takes an extended instrumental detour for the entire last half of the song. Or maybe the way a light echo is applied to Moore’s voice on “In Silver Rain With A Paper Key” to better illustrate the loneliness and isolation the lyrics speak of. You’ve got to hand it to Beck, who most assuredly had something to do with these little extra touches that help turn very good songs into excellent ones.

It’s worth noting that most of Thurston Moore’s solo career has been of mixed to poor quality. He seems to use the time away from Sonic Youth as a testing ground or an idea dump, which has had a tendency to leave him seeming scatterbrained or incoherent. 2007’s “Trees Outside the Academy” was a lot like that, with a few solid songs smashed between a horde of attempts. There was no real theme or connection between the tracks, just sketch after sketch appearing to resemble something whole. That’s not to say it was a terrible record – in fact it was far from it. Compared with “Demolished Thoughts” though, it’s night and day. These new songs feel well thought out and purposeful, and though they may not be the most upbeat things, they never dwell too long in one darkened corner. It is actually one of the rare times a Moore solo record works on all pistons, giving a clear legitimacy to the venture and providing another outlet through which die hard Sonic Youth fans can get something of a fix. He may be getting up there in rock star years, but from the sound of it this “old guy” clearly has plenty of fight left in him.

Thurston Moore – Circulation
Thurston Moore – Benediction

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Album Review: Amor de Dias – Street of the Love of Days [Merge]

There’s been plenty of talk concerning the state of The Clientele these last couple years, primarily about whether the band would continue to exist beyond 2010’s EP “Minotaur”. The main issue on frontman Alasdair MacLean’s part was apparently a lack of inspiration, the thought that perhaps the project in its current state had reached all the potential it could possibly muster. “Maybe if we were asked to score a film,” he said several months back. So while we wait for an official decision as to whether The Clientele will ever make new music again, MacLean has been busying himself with a new project, one that he’s been working on sporadically in the last few years. Amor de Dias is his collaboration with Lupe Núñez-Fernández of the Spanish band Pipas. You might think that taking one part British 60s folk and another part Spanish indie pop would create an interesting mixture of sounds and textures, and on paper the concept most definitely seems frought with potential. Instead though, “Street of the Love of Days”, the debut album from Amor de Dias, showcases just how much the two apparently diverse projects its members came from have in common.

Acoustic folk seems to be the common thread between The Clientele and Pipas, and though it wasn’t exclusive to either band, it’s what comprises many of the songs on “Street of the Love of Days”. Of course there’s more to it than just that, including a few infusions of stylistic traits such as flamenco and bossa nova. Additionally, there are numerous guests that provide additional instrumental work on the record, ranging from Damon & Naomi to Gary Olson of Ladybug Transistor. The styles and additional instruments help to keep things varied just enough to maintain interest, which would otherwise be a huge problem considering how sleepy the entire record is. There’s not much that rises above lullabye status, and Núñez-Fernández’s whisper soft vocals trading off against MacLean’s smooth-as-silk calm voice fails to ignite anything. The thing is, exciting and lively compositions are probably the antithesis of what they were aiming for – not that they wanted to put people to sleep either. Subdued beauty is probably the best descriptor of “Street of the Love of Days”, and the album goes a long way towards avoiding anything that doesn’t fit that mold. As a singular work with such intentions, it succeeds brilliantly. Yet it’s also somewhat flawed.

As the record progresses, or simply to say virtually the entire final third of the album’s 15 tracks, there’s something of a breakdown that occurs. Most of those last few songs are under 2 minutes in length, and you get the impression they could all use an extension. It’s like they had more ideas or more to say, and instead of completing the thought/song the choice was made to just end it early. Nothing ever feels outright cut off, but when most of the songs on the first two-thirds of the album average between 3 and 4 minutes in length, all these quick cuts seem just a little suspect. The other issue with Amor de Dias in general is that the two parts that make up the whole, Núñez-Fernández and MacLean, have both made better music in their main bands. Something that’s been brewing over the course of three years deserves a little better than what we’re given on “Street of the Love of Days”, even if the album has a lot going for it. The creative energy, the variations in influences, and even in some cases the emotion in the vocals, are the bits and pieces that made The Clientele and (to a lesser extent) Pipas bands worth spending time with.

Though Amor de Dias may not quite live up to the promise it shows on paper, “Street of the Love of Days” is still an album worth both your time and money. With summer fast approaching, it’s not exactly coming out during the right season, but should you wait a few months for the leaves to start turning colors, you may find it to be the perfect soundtrack. After all, a re-done version of the Clientele track “Harvest Time” isn’t on here only because it’s a great song. There are lovely and great songs peppered across the record, more standouts in a field of beauty. “House of Flint” is one of the first and most interesting tracks, with MacLean operating at his most dynamic. A Núñez-Fernández highlight comes in the form of mid-album cut “Dream (Dead Hands)”, while MacLean strikes back again immediately afterwards on “I See Your Face”. And just before the final third of the record begins, the title track brings an extra dose of sweetness that carries through those shorter and shakier moments that follow. So as we wait to see what will become of The Clientele, Amor de Dias serves as a nice distraction. It doesn’t quite deserve to be considered a main project, but if this little band chooses to put out more records, there’s definitely still untapped potential that can and deserves to be explored.

Amor de Dias – Bunhill Fields

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Catch Amor de Dias on tour with Damon & Naomi:
May 20 Baltimore, MD – Metro Gallery
May 21 Philadelphia, PA – First Unitarian Church Chapel
May 22 Brooklyn, NY – Knitting Factory
May 23 Allston, MA – Great Scott
May 25 Toronto, ON – Horseshoe
May 26 Pontiac, MI – Pike Room at Crofoot
May 27 Chicago, IL – Lincoln Hall
May 28 Minneapolis, MN – Triple Rock
May 31 Seattle, WA – Tractor Tavern
Jun 01 Portland, OR – Bunk Bar
Jun 03 San Francisco, CA – Bottom of the Hill
Jun 04 Los Angeles, CA – The Satellite
Jun 05 San Diego, CA – Soda Bar

Album Review: Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues [Sub Pop]

There’s something both incredible and daunting about crafting a near perfect debut record, to the point where it gets named by everyone and their mother to be the best thing released that year. Fleet Foxes pulled off such an achievement, as their self-titled first album won over millions of hearts, minds and ears just a few years ago in 2008. The sun-streamed pastoral folk with rich vocal harmonies made for some glorious throwback to the heydays of Fairport Convention, The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” absolutely applies in this case, with the band having to deal with the pressures of immediate success and how to craft a follow-up album that might be equal to or greater than what came before it. Making the entire process that much more painstaking was a serious battle with writer’s block that frontman Robin Pecknold encountered, not to mention a large number of songs that wound up in the trash after the band considered them unsatisfactory. So it’s been a tough road, but Fleet Foxes have moved past it, incorporating their frustration and depression into a darker sophmore effort with a title that says it all, “Helplessness Blues”.

Right from the opening verse of first track “Montezuma”, there’s a noticeable difference in what Fleet Foxes are doing compared to their last record. “Sun It Rises” was the introduction to the self-titled album, and it featured warm acoustic strings and a pace that was just shy of galloping. It very much exuded the ethos of the title and lyrics, that of a warm ball of light sliding up from below the horizon. By contrast, “Montezuma” has a faster plucked guitar but deliberately slow lyrics that play to a lower register rather than a higher one. Robin Pecknold immediately stands out front as his vocals are not enveloped in harmonies as he begins by questioning his place in life. “So now i am older/than my mother and father/when they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?” he ponders moments before some backing harmonies step in to provide support and a bit more beauty amid the percussion-free fragility. Elsewhere in the song Pecknold ponders his own mortality, questioning if upon his placement in a coffin, “I wonder if I’ll see/any faces above me/or just cracks in the ceiling”. About mid-way through, a dam busts open and a shimmering keyboard emerges along with some more forceful harmonies to bring some added warmth to a relatively cold and troubled track. Yet despite having these nagging questions and feelings, the way Pecknold sings it projects a certain confident weariness, as if to say he hasn’t been living his life right but knows just how to get on the right path.

The way that “Bedouin Dress” develops makes for one of the more fascinating parts on the first half of the record. In what becomes a theme for much of “Helplessness Blues”, Pecknold continues to remain out in front of everything else with a solo vocal, with only touches of background harmonies here and there. There’s a little bit of a violin spread out across the track, helping to give it just a touch of alt-country vibe, but the overall structure truly takes the cake. The song has no official chorus, just a few different phrases that are repeated at various points with little to no discrimination. As such, it makes the track hard to pin down and equally unmemorable. Just because there’s no solid hook or make for easy recall doesn’t mean it’s any less great though, and the more defiant, experimental nature of the song gives it most of the credit it would have to earn elsewhere. In other words, it’s given a lot more wiggle room because it’s pushing boundaries and succeeding. Similarly, “Sim Sala Bim” somewhat follows the path of a story, with Pecknold on a diatribe as he questions why he’s in a relationship. “What makes me love you despite the reservations?/What do I see in your eyes/besides my reflection hanging high?” he selfishly wonders, also thinking maybe she put a spell on him. After two minutes of such precious thoughts though, the doors blow open and the final minute of the song is a full-on hard acoustic guitar strum, suddenly whipping the song into a frenzy it hadn’t even hinted at beforehand. It’s gorgeous and a rush and one of the things Fleet Foxes do best as learned from their debut album. The first third of the record continues to play with differing sounds and textures courtesy of “Battery Kinzie”, as the band places their guitars in the background in favor of pounding piano and drums. Unlike a number of tracks on the album that explore the boundaries of space and occasionally turn into extended jam sessions, “Battery Kinzie” wraps up in under 3 minutes and quite succintly after the second time through the chorus. Considering the pace and melody are lovely, it’s one of the few moments on the album you’re left wondering if they could have done more.

The two longest tracks on “Helplessness Blues” are actually ones that function more as separate pieces molded into singular entities. Clocking in at nearly 6 minutes, “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” begins with a bit of a psychedelic trip. Voices moan, breaking into “oohs” and “aahs” that pile on top of one another, both harmonizing and overlapping at the same time. An acoustic guitar and drums attempt to hold down some sort of order but to no avail, until all of that simply drifts away 2 minutes in to make room for the harmony rich acoustics of the second part of the track, complete with piano and flute accompaniment. The final 90 seconds of the song really shift into an entirely different gear as the drums become more insistent and crack the building tension wide open to a more majestic viewpoint. Towards the end of the record, “The Shrine/An Argument” is an 8 minute breakup saga that is the record’s Piece de Resistance. The most immediately noticeable thing about the track is that it features Pecknold stretching his voice to levels strained with heartbreak that feel completely geniune. Using the long-standing tradition of making wishes by throwing pennies into a fountain, Pecknold waxes poetic on a love that’s since vanished. “I’m not one to ever pray for mercy/or to wish on pennies in the fountain or the shrine/but that day/you know I left my money and I thought of you/only all that copper glowing fine/and I wonder what became of you”, he sings just before transitioning into the second part of the track, which may be a flashback to where their relationship disintigrated. “In the doorway holding every letter that i wrote/in the driveway pulling away putting on your coat/in the ocean washing off my name from your throat”, he mourns, and as the waves begin to draw closer and closer to him, he lays down in the sand in the hopes that he’ll be taken away “like pollen on the breeze”. The final two minutes of the track are resigned to a rather turbulent instrumental, the most troubling and experimental moment on the entire record. Trumpets and saxophones and woodwinds and a host of other instruments tumble over one another in a very squeaky and off-key fashion, like a drunkard with little to no experience trying to play his favorite song. As to the actual feelings it invokes, all the dischordant noise can be attributed to the sonic equivalent of crashing waves slamming down over and over on top of that grief stricken body laying on the beach quietly wishing for all that pain to just wash away. It’s a mighty powerful moment worthy of close attention and careful analysis. And despite the very dark nature of the song, it might just be the smartest written and composed Fleet Foxes track to date.

While “The Shrine/An Argument” may be the true standout track on “Helplessness Blues”, the title track best sums up the many different aspects of the band’s sound at work across the entire record. It’s fitting that the title track is also the first single given its energy and harmony-rich vocals. The storyline is a relatively classic one too, retreating back to much of the nature-inspired imagery of the band’s debut in the second half of the song, as Pecknold sings, “If I had an orchard I’d work til I’m sore”. But really the point is wishing to return to a life of simplicity, where the pressure to be something greater than yourself and achieve fame and fortune can be crippling. Though sadness pervades the lyrics of “Lorelai”, the rather straightforward and appealingly sunny melody suggests otherwise. Unlike most of the other songs on this record that are rather tough nuts to crack, it’s one of the few that seems to have potential as a future single. The other is closing track “Grown Ocean”, which emerges like a phoenix out of the semingly broken ashes much of the rest of the record seems to espouse. Not only does it have energy, but it’s positive outlook is a breath of fresh air after the more somber preceeding cuts. In some ways, the track almost feels tacked on to the end, particularly given the flow of the record and the stoic Gram Parsons-esque Pecknold solo acoustic number “Blue Spotted Tail” that meekly exists just before it. Yet that final release is required, lest you drown amidst the choppy waves of the blues.

In spite of how well it’s put together, “Helplessness Blues” is not an easy record to like. Time, patience and a hefty dose of empathy are required to fully grasp exactly what’s going on here, and if you’re not willing to give this album all that then you might find yourself turned off by it. Hooks and memorable choruses are hard to come by, as is energy at certain points, and most of the lyrics will take you to a dark place. The overall melodies remain strong however, as do those vocal harmonies despite being in shorter supply as Pecknold takes the reins just a little bit more than last time. The progression though is highly impressive. Instrumentally the band has expanded their core by leaps and bounds, playing a number of things barely heard on records today such as a Marxophone, Tibetan singing bowls and a touch of timpani. Despite this expansive set of instruments, the up-front elements in any track are always the acoustic guitar or piano with everything else buried in the deep crevasses of the background. Pecknold has also grown significantly as a songwriter, bringing sharper imagery to his words while also peppering them with strong emotional ties. Rather than write a record about the expanse of nature, with its “Blue Ridge Mountains”, “Meadowlarks” and “Ragged Wood”, he’s taking a look inward at his own insecurities and troubles. From worries about living the kind of life he desires or was told to desire through the shattered relationships that have left him beaten and bruised, it’s a different, more insular approach and one that works quite well. Between that and his dominant singing voice though, you’ve got to wonder exactly how much influence the other guys in the band had with the final product. It’s enough to make you think that a Robin Pecknold solo record could be coming down the pipe sooner rather than later. For the time being though, “Helplessness Blues” is once again another notch in the Fleet Foxes cap, pushing the band to different but equally (if not more) compelling places than their debut. With a record as good as this, the band proves they’re neither helpless, nor do they have a strong reason to be singing the blues.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

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Album Review: Cass McCombs – Wit’s End [Domino]

By all accounts, Cass McCombs is not a very happy person. If the music you make directly relates to your own mental state, then depression appears to be a prominent part of McCombs’s life. Not everybody is happy all the time, nor does it make logical sense for them to be, but some people find it tough to even force a smile even on the nicest of days. It’s probably a big reason why the use of anti-depression meds are sharply on the rise, particularly in recent years. Despite this, living in a state of consistent melancholy can prove to be beneficial for many creative types, spurning them to make emotionally significant pieces of art that strike a nerve with the masses. Elliott Smith is one of the most prominent purveyors of sad sack music, and his acoustic ballads continue to draw in new fans every year despite his unfortunate death in 2003. McCombs bears a lot of similarities to Smith from a thematic perspective, along with your Nick Drakes and your Leonard Cohens, exploring the darker recesses of the mind with melodies that are simple but lyrics that are not. He scored big with 2009’s “Catacombs”, a record that stripped away most of the arrangements of his past records in favor of a much more direct approach. At that time though, his lyrics suggested at least some modicum of happiness and romanticism. Songs like “Dreams Come True Girl” and the waltzy “You Saved My Life” were heartfelt and warm, finding a comfort zone for him after three decent but not overwhelmingly great records. Now he’s back with his fifth album “Wit’s End”, and while the instrumental template remains the same, emotionally it’s as the title itself describes.

The opening track and first single on “Wit’s End” is “County Line”, a song that essentially flips the love-stricken vibe of “Catacombs” on its head. Instead of being about falling in love or being in love, it’s about the frustration of loving someone and not receiving love in return. Another, more literal way of interpreting the lyrics is to say it’s a tragic song about a town that has succumbed to the wrong kind of element, be it drug addiction (as shown in the song’s video) or urbanization or crime in general. Whatever the intention, the song isn’t lighthearted or positive in any way, even if there’s just a touch of warmth that might as well be left over from the last album. It’s almost enough to say that “The Lonely Doll”‘s title speaks for itself, but what you can’t grasp is just how deceptively innocent the melody sounds. There’s a delicately struck xylophone that adds an almost child-like wonder to the song, almost as if to soundtrack a little girl playing in her sun-soaked room with her Barbie. Precious, yes, but there’s also sadness and tears among the lyrics about being alone and not having anyone in your life to genuinely count on. The pain of loneliness appears to be the overarching theme of the album itself, to the point where McCombs has openly stated as much in interviews. Though there is a prevailing darkness and depression across the record, one of the better and more fascinating things “Wit’s End” does is examine the concept rather than wallow in it. Doing so doesn’t exactly make this a cheerier affair, but it does separate it from the plethora of other, more similarly-minded releases.

One of the most engaging moments on the album comes courtesy of album centerpiece “Memory Stain”. Starting as a rather minimal piano ballad, as it plods with an almost classical flair over the course of 7+ minutes there’s a wealth of other instruments that slowly weave themselves into the song’s fabric. The clarinet is particularly effective, but a light dose of harpsichord and some castanets do a lot towards truly evoking the sadness of those memories you wish you could erase but like a bad clothing stain just can’t. The oddball percussion on “Hermit’s Cave”, with the snare drum striking loudly at unexpected times helps to keep the listener on their toes as it otherwise simply waltzes along with piano and acoustic guitar as professional dance partners. Album closer “A Knock Upon the Door” is similarly paced, like watching a white-sheeted ghost bob and weave across the moonlit dancefloor of an abandoned mansion. Across more than 9 minutes a litany of instruments come together like some sort of ramshackle symphony that includes a couple of woodwinds (a baroque recorder known as a chalumeau being one of them), an acoustic guitar and a banjo, along with some unconventional percussion in the form of metal lightly tapping upon metal. The eerie feeling it nails down is one that had only crept through the rest of the record until that point. After so many songs about loneliness, this haunting closer is the final push, appearing to imply that the hope of company or companionship may remain unfulfilled and the only things left willing to spend time with us are the spirits of those we have lost. It is the end of the classic film “Citizen Kane”, where the immensely wealthy Charles Foster Kane wanders through his empty mansion alone – a man with more money than he knew what to do with, but no friends or family left to share it with. What good is anything in life if you’re just going to keep it to yourself? In that regard, “Wit’s End” also teaches us a lesson about people, relationships and selfishness. But that meaning is only there if you want it to be, because in those moments of true desolation where you just wish there was somebody to talk to, this album can be your companion during your dark period. As with many things in life however, it’s no replacement for a real life human being.

Cass McCombs – The Lonely Doll

Cass McCombs – County Line

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Album Review: The Dodos – No Color [Frenchkiss]

Falling in love with The Dodos back in 2008 was so easy. The duo of Meric Long and Logan Kroeber effortlessly blended together ramshackle acoustic guitar fingerpicking, African-style rhythms and indie pop into a hybrid so organic it seemed to outright defy nature. That first record was “Visiter” and all-out jams like “Red and Purple”, “Jodi” and “Fools” were often so intensely strummed that it always felt like the song would break down at any moment because the guitar simply fell apart. It was really exciting and intense to listen to that album, which is probably why their follow-up, 2009’s “Time to Die” was regarded as such a disappointment. There were a number of factors that conrtibuted to this letdown of a sophmore album. Those changes included adding a third member Keaton Snyder which changed the group dynamic, relying on the ultra-clean production work of uber-producer Phil Ek, and the decision to place more of a focus on traditional melody rather than the off-the-rails, freewheeling style they were used to. Slower, denser and cleaner were the end results, and many balked at that. As if they’ve learned their lesson, The Dodos have set about trying to right the ship on their third album “No Color”. Their trinity of band members has now returned to its original twosome state, “Visiter” producer John Askew is once again behind the boards, and siren Neko Case was kind enough to contribute her pipes to back up Long’s vocals on a majority of the tracks. On the surface, it seems that everything’s coming up Dodos.

The booming thump of the bass drum at the start of “Black Night” signals that things are once again in their right place, and the rustic fingerpicked acoustic guitar that joins it moments later pushes it over the top. The pace is brisk and only gets brisker as the song chugs along through the imaginary alleyways of verses and main arteries of choruses, and the structural integrity of the song is such that it breaks from the usual verse-chorus-verse tradition but not far enough to call the main hook anything less than catchy. It’s one great reminder of how amazing The Dodos can be when fully left to their own devices. “Black Night” blends straight into “Going Under” without a moment’s hesitation, as if the two tracks are joined at the hip. The six minute adventure starts as a slower, more well-adjusted track with Neko Case making her first background vocal appearance. Once it hits the exact middle of the song though, the dam breaks open and a rush of buzzing noise and pure energy comes surging forward to send things into the stratosphere. Such a burst of noise might be considered jarring were it not well earned and smartly arranged. “Good” starts as a gallop and then moves into a full out stride, continuing to capitalize on the momentum the record has already established. “Is it better to be on or be good?”, Long asks. In this case, the band is not merely on and good, but instead on and great. Neko Case does sprinkle a bit of extra magic on “Sleep”, a song that would have been better titled “No Sleep” because it’s essentially about insomnia. The track races past like your mind does when all you want is the peace and quiet so you can pass out. It seemingly comes from a number of different places too, embracing that freeform style The Dodos have espoused at their best while also adding to that spaced out and unfocused mental state described in the lyrics.

After racing through the first few tracks at a highly brisk pace, “Don’t Try to Hide It” begins the slower and more subtle second half of “No Color” with a bit of parental-like support from your “parents” of Meric Long and Neko Case. We’ve all got little things about ourselves that would be interpreted as weird by others, and this is a song about proudly displaying your most unique qualities. The beginning of “Hunting Season” features a touch of the ‘ol vibraphone, and it’s enough to wonder if it was taken from a Keaton Snyder session before he exited the band or if that’s just a coincidence. It’s also not the most exciting or catchiest Dodos song, though Long’s emotional vocal performance is one of the highlights. It’s just the opposite that helps make “Companions” a better song than it has any right to be – intricate guitar playing and a very small bit of violin. The melody itself is pretty bland and ineffective, but the way that fingerpicked guitar rolls along is quite impressive. closing track “Don’t Stop” has the exact same issues, technically impressive but lacking in most other aspects. It does build energy just a little, and the incorporation of electric guitar and some vocal harmonies make for a good summation of the entire record. As a microcosm of the whole album then, that final song is only a little more than halfway good.

As exciting as it is to have the core team of Meric Long and Logan Kroeber recording and performing once again as a duo, along with their old producer John Askew back in place, this original recipe for success doesn’t always fully succeed as we see on “No Color”. There are tons of great things about this new album, including some of the most exciting and energetic melodies that The Dodos have come up with in some time. The return to the reliance on those shaky acoustic guitars and offbeat percussion is a huge plus too, as are Long’s lyrics – more vague and less clunky than they’ve ever been before. Not every song is winner though, and the second half of the album is much less compelling than the first. It’s not an energy thing, though arguably that does factor in just a little bit. If all the songs were as briskly paced as those first few we’d be worn out before the last couple even started. Pacing is part of the problem, with all the excitement right out of the gate and none really saved for the finish line. “Visiter” spread out the moments of grandeur pretty evenly, though to be fair about half of that record’s fourteen tracks could be called individual highlights. Hooks are also an issue. Songs like “Black Night” and “Sleep” are strong but don’t have the full staying power of a “Jodi” or a “Paint the Rust”. Maybe it just takes some time for them to fully sink in. After all, “Time to Die” was and is still the worst Dodos record, but these days it seems less like the trainwreck everyone labeled it as two years ago. Perhaps a year from now “No Color” will have that same effect, only rising in esteem from its current position as a pretty strong “comeback” album for the band. Thanks in large part to some serious freeform and fun songs, The Dodos have proven they know how to correct past mistakes and challenge the listener once again.

The Dodos – Don’t Stop

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Album Review: Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo [Matador]

My oh my has Kurt Vile come a long way in a short time. Upon leaving The War on Drugs, he embarked on a solo career that began officially in 2008 when his album “Constant Hitmaker” was released via the very tiny Gulcher Records. The following year, Woodsist gave that record a higher profile re-release, Mexican Summer put out his sophmore album “God Is Saying This to You” and Matador placed his third album “Childish Prodigy” on shelves. In other words, it was a flood of Kurt Vile music in 2009 when it’s often tough enough to keep track of just one record by an artist. The first two albums were extremely lo-fi bedroom folk recordings, like a Bob Dylan or a Tom Petty but with serious audio fidelity issues. That didn’t make them any less compelling though, and in fact the lack of quality was part of its charm. “Childish Prodigy” held that same aesthetic for about half the record, but the other half featured Vile’s touring band The Violators and therefore could be called a legitimate step forwards. The production got cleaner and the melodies more dense, but along with that some of the more unique qualities vanished. Still, there was inherent potential shining through the shakier moments, as if to say that if Vile focused just a little harder he might just rise to the level of indie superstar. Taking a little time off and also touring for the last year seems to have pushed him in the direction needed to get his act fully together, because his new record “Smoke Ring for My Halo” is filled with the dynamic and prolific moments that unveil an entirely new side that had only been hinted at up til now.

Kurt Vile has ditched the bedroom for a recording studio fully on “Smoke Ring for My Halo”, and as a result there’s a very crisp sheen over the entire album that really adds an unexpected beauty to it. While Vile has always been a superstar when it comes to finding wonderful little melodies that are compelling and adventurous, lush and gorgeous are words that don’t typically apply to them. The Violators are still backing him up, but their contributions are minimal compared to the guitar and vocals which takes precedence over everything else. The biggest adjustment though is with Vile’s vocals, because not much of his older material had the clarity with which to fully discern what he was singing about. It wasn’t so bad that every song was a mangled vocal mess, but when you’re pulling a D.I.Y job corners need to be cut somewhere. So what this new record reveals is that Vile is one hell of a lyricist. A standard love song like “Baby’s Arms”, which starts off the album, gets extra creative thanks to lines like, “shrink myself just like a Tom Thumb/and I hide in my baby’s hand/cause except for her there just ain’t nothing to latch onto”. For “Puppet to the Man”, expectations are defied as Vile says, “I get by now you probably think I’m a puppet to the man”, and it seems safe to assume that most everyone would deny that sort of accusation. Instead, he embraces it, concluding, “I’m shouting out loud because I know that I am” while also requesting help to get him unstuck from said puppetry. One of the most vivid and amazing songs on the entire record is “On Tour”, where the miseries and problems of touring are hinted at between gigs. “Watch out for this one, he’ll stab you in the back for fun”, Vile says, most likely talking about untrustworthy people in the music industry. But his passion for music also comes through in lines like, “I wanna sing at the top of my lungs/scream annoyingly/cause that’s just me being me/being free”. The stage is always the one place you can let your frustrations out without a care in the world, and if you like you can “beat on a drum so hard ’til it bleeds blood”. Darkness hovers all over “Runner Ups”, but Vile isn’t afraid to throw a little bit of black humor in for good measure. “If it ain’t workin’/take a whiz on the world/an entire nation drinking from a dirty cup”, he sings just before explaining that he may have lost his best friend but there are runner ups in waiting. And there’s something inherently brilliant about the way the words are arranged on closer “Ghost Town” that totally grabs you despite what appears to be pure simplicity. “When I’m out/I’m away in my mind/Christ Was born/I was there/You know me/I’m around/I’ve got friends/Hey wait, where was I?/Well, I am trying” doesn’t even make that much sense reading it, but hearing the words coming out of Vile’s mouth they become more like windows into his own personal daydream. The series of thoughts that we all have from time to time, where we drift between subjects effortlessly and without acknowledgement of the oddity of it all can be a powerful thing when harnessed properly. In this case, Kurt Vile makes it exactly that.

“Smoke Ring for My Halo” may thrive in new and unexpected ways thanks in large part to some great lyrics, but the tuneful and intimate melodies serve to enhance what’s already there. With the distortion and other effects almost entirely absent from this record, it leaves much more room for these arrangements to breathe comfortably and with increased virility. One guitar, whether it’s acoustic or electric, carefully picked or briskly strummed, matched with Vile’s voice is all that’s really needed, but the little extras give them an unexpected oomph in the right direction. The shakers and tambourines on “Baby’s Arms” aren’t designed to stand out, but it’s tough to think that the song would be better off without them. The way the guitar strings vibrate on “On Tour”, like they’re frayed or too loose and need a good tightening adds to the weariness of the words, while the soft plinks of the keyboard helps to break up the monotony of the same chords strummed over and over again. In the case of songs like “In My Time” and “Peeping Tomboy” though, the aggressive nature of the guitar work is more than enough to sustain interest in the song without having to really break out any extra elements for supplementary purposes. If the record does have a flaw though, it’s the lack of hooks and marketable singles. Vile’s not exactly known for his commercial prowess and earworms that stick in your head, but on occasion he has managed to pull a supremely memorable melody that you’ll find yourself humming as you go about your day. From “Freeway” to “Freak Train”, the rattle and hum of those tracks was a draw in the past, enough to make them highlights on records that fell anywhere from pretty good to just a little mediocre. Funny then that with the decrease in memorability comes an increase in respectability, the result of which is Kurt Vile’s strongest record to date. Weaker moments like “Jesus Fever” and “Society Is My Friend” are fewer and farther between than ever before, and are supported on all sides by bastions of strong songwriting and melodies that occasionally allow for streams of sunlight to filter through the darkness. It may not be perfect, but it’s definitely another huge step forwards for Vile in a very brief career already filled with them.

Kurt Vile – Jesus Fever
Kurt Vile – In My Time

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Album Review: Middle Brother – Middle Brother [Partisan]

Here are the fine details that you’re going to read in most every discussion of the band Middle Brother. The trio of guys in this band are the respective frontmen for three separate and more popular bands; John McCauley is from Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith is from Dawes and Matthew Vasquez is from The Delta Spirit. They first got together in late 2009 after Deer Tick and Dawes toured together and had a lot of fun doing so. McCauley and Goldsmith would later get together in Nashville during some downtime with their respective bands and invited Vasquez to join them in the studio. What they really liked about the dynamic was that all of them pushed each other to become better musicians. Originally they called themselves MG&V, the simple combination of first letters from their last names, and played a secret, unannounced show under that moniker during SXSW last spring. It was also around that time period they began to record a debut album, which is what is now showing up in stores this week as the self-titled “Middle Brother”. Given that it’s been about a year and a name change since this “supergroup” first clued everyone in to their existence, what’s been the hold up? Scheduling problems apparently. The guys wanted to have proper time to go out and tour to promote the record but were all busy with their main bands and couldn’t quite commit to it last year. This year though is a different story, and the record is arriving right at the cusp of a cross-country tour that, naturally, takes them right back to SXSW where they first debuted in 2010.

If you’re familiar with all three of the “main bands” Middle Brother pulls its members from, then you’ll know almost exactly what to expect from this trio. The group dynamic is pretty even-handed, in that McCauley, Goldsmith and Vasquez all take turns playing various instruments and handling lead vocals. And even when one guy is on lead vocals, it’s reasonable to expect that the other two aren’t far behind with some strong backing harmonies. The sound is very Americana and rootsy, a healthy alt-country twang amidst a couple of more pop-driven songs. On paper it’s easy to see why Middle Brother should work given the talents behind it, but what truly impresses is just how well it really does. For their very first album after not a long time working together, the album sounds like they’ve been doing it for years, not weeks. Part of that surely comes from being musicians and having their own separate full time bands, but whenever you’re working with new people there are always some hurdles to go over in trying to play to everyone’s best strengths. This is extremely strong from the get-go though, and that lack of a learning curve only immerses you in the listening experience that much more.

“Daydreaming” starts the album with some quiet and folksy acoustic guitar that’s nothing short of lovely, save for the lyrics that begin on the lines, “Early in the mornin’, too hungover to go back to sleep/every sound is amplified, heavy lights so dizzying”. The song is one of many on the record that mentions being hungover, but really once you get past that first half of the verse it becomes about pining after the woman you love, about wishing she could be right next to you in the times she’s not there. The well-placed harmonies only add to the track’s inherent beauty, and one gets the impression that if you listened to this song while staring out the window on a sunny spring day that there wouldn’t be a better soundtrack. Neil Young and Band of Horses meet on “Blue Eyes”, a mid-tempo alt-country song with a touch of player piano and lyrics about what some might consider to be the ideal woman. Sadness permeates “Thanks for Nothing”, an acoustic ballad directed at a heartbreaker, a woman that left a poor guy in ruins. “Now the only girls I meet all look for hearts that they can fix/but mine is more like a kid that has gone missing,” Goldsmith sings in a very defeated way. For every person that has had a partner you were in love with just crush that in the cruelest way possible, there is meaning to be pulled from this song. Things get genuinely fun on the song “Middle Brother” (on the album “Middle Brother” from the band Middle Brother…just to fully clarify), a strong country guitar groove that brings everything from handclaps to tambourines and piano. It’s a rollicking track that’s about being the “forgotten” middle child in a family and doing things like learning to fly an airplane to “make my mama proud” and “get my dad to notice me, even if I have to fly it into the ground”.

The centerpiece of the album is a cover of The Replacements’ “Portland”, which is nice in part because there aren’t nearly enough good Replacements covers out there (seriously). Middle Brother does a fairly standard rendition of the song, but the acoustic guitars shine just a little bit brighter in the mix to give it a very 2011 feel rather than the slightly muddier 1997 original. First single “Me Me Me” is a fast-paced and super fun, combining some serious piano pounding, furiously strummed acoustic guitars, and a raw vocal performance from McCauley. The harmonies are ripe and so is the hook, to the point where this is probably one of the best songs of 2011 thus far. If you want to be sold on this band, “Me Me Me” is where you’ll cash that check. Things take an interesting turn on “Someday”, which with its 60s girl group backing “oohs” and “aahs” and Vasquez’s throaty vocals sounds a lot like a throwback pop number rather than the Americana material that’s come before it. The song is great and worthy of being a future single, but it feels out of character compared to the rest of the record. Then again, if Middle Brother is about allowing the personal styles of all three band members to properly mesh in one singular album, that is a touch of Delta Spirit and makes sense from that viewpoint. Goldsmith delivers his most powerful and intense performance on the six minute “Blood and Guts”, slowly stirring himself into a rage as his relationship quickly disintegrates around him. “I just wanna get my fist through some glass/I just wanna get your arm in a cast/I just want you to know that I care,” he says just before his voice soars out of him with a force that truly does feel gutteral and blood curdling. There’s genuine emotion pouring out of this song and sad though it may be, without a doubt people will strongly identify with it. After the portrait of hard life touring that is “Mom and Dad”, “Million Dollar Bill” closes out the record in acoustic ballad style, with all three guys taking the lead on separate verses and holding up backing harmonies. It’s just a little bit lackluster of a way to end things, but beautiful nevertheless.

When talking about Middle Brother, there are a few bands you can look to for comparison. The Band, The Traveling Wilburys, Crosby Stills and Nash (sometimes Young), and their more modern-day counterparts Monsters of Folk are all apt names to be throwing around here. Funny also that each one of those is a supergroup of sorts with that Americana-type sound. So what Middle Brother is doing on their self-titled debut can’t particularly be called unique. What makes a project like this special are the talents involved and whether or not they’re put to full use. In this case, where not only is there relative equality between band members but also each has their own moment in the spotlight, things seem to have turned out exceptionally well. These guys really do push one another to be better in one aspect or another. There are many moments of brilliant lyrical content and/or vocals that reach exactly the right pitch to perfectly convey the points that are trying to be made. For a record about the overused subjects of women, drinking and life on the road, McCauley, Goldsmith and Vasquez prove there’s more that can still be said in a relatively original way. Is Middle Brother a better project than the three bands each of their respective members came from? Yes in some aspects, and no in others. It’s a highly worthwhile side project, really. Like all those other aforementioned “supergroups”, you can’t deny there’s magic when these three get together, but chances are they wouldn’t exist without their regular day jobs. So after some touring, McCauley will return to Deer Tick and Goldsmith to Dawes and Vasquez to Delta Spirit and such, and they’ll all put out potentially great new records that way. Then somewhere be it a year or five from now, they’ll get back to this collaborative project and hopefully the same chutzpah of this first record will continue on the second. In the meantime, be sure to see Middle Brother as they tour this spring. McCauley and Goldsmith are pulling double duty as Deer Tick and Dawes are playing full sets on the tour as well. Have a look at the dates below, and pick up the album – it’s a folk-driven delight.

Middle Brother – Me Me Me
Middle Brother – Middle Brother

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Tour Dates
March 2 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club *
March 3 – Boston, MA – Paradise Rock Club *
March 4 – Providence, RI – Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel *
March 5 – Brooklyn, NY – Music Hall of Williamsburg *
March 6 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom *
March 9 – Philadelphia, PA – Theatre of Living Arts *
March 10 – Rochester, NY – Water Street Music Hall *
March 11 – Toronto, ON – Opera House (with Deer Tick only)
March 12 – Chicago, IL – Metro *
March 13 – Madison, WI – Majestic Theatre *
March 14 – Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue *
March 15 – Lawrence, KS – The Granada Theater *
March 17 – Dallas, TX – Club Dada *
March 18 – Austin, TX – Brooklyn Vegan, Partisan Records, and KF Records Present: A Free SXSW Day Party at Swan Dive / Barbarella (SXSW)
March 19 – Austin, TX – Auditorium Shores/Ground Control Touring Showcase (SXSW)
April 3 – San Francisco, CA – The Independent ^
April 4 – Santa Cruz, CA – Moe’s Alley ^
April 5 – Santa Barbara, CA – Soho %
April 6 – Costa Mesa, CA – Detroit Bar %
April 7 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo %
April 8 – San Diego, CA – The Loft %

* = with Deer Tick and Dawes
^ = with Blake Mills
% = with Jonny Corndawg

Album Review: Elliott Smith – An Introduction To… [Kill Rock Stars]

The day that I discovered Elliott Smith was on October 21, 2003. Not coincidentally, that was the day he died. As a fresh-faced 18-year-old with an emerging taste for indie rock, Smith hadn’t yet reached my radar when the internet was flooded with sadness over his death. With both close friends and musicians I admired all pouring in tributes to this man, I felt like I had been missing out on some truly special music. That turned out to be very much the case, as upon my first listen to his 1994 album “Roman Candle” I was instantly enchanted by this scrappy folk singer and his acoustic guitar. And while that record served as my proper introduction to Elliott Smith, I didn’t fall head over heels for the guy’s music until “XO” reached my ears. Like a small brush fire reaching a massive pool of gasoline, an obsession formed, made all the more sadder that Smith wasn’t around to keep making more amazing music. After releasing a posthumous album he was working on prior to his death along with a collection of b-sides, Kill Rock Stars is now putting out “An Introduction To…” in lieu of what might otherwise be called a “greatest hits collection”. If you’re younger or simply just very late to the party, this is expected to be your easy guide into the world of Elliott Smith.

Of course if “An Introduction To…” were a greatest hits set, there would be a bunch of songs from Smith’s two most popular records, “XO” and “Figure 8”. In the end, there’s only one song from “XO” and nothing from “Figure 8”, and presumably that’s because Kill Rock Stars is putting out this collection and those two big records weren’t released on the label. Thankfully 5 of the 15 tracks come from the also-amazing “Either/Or”, and the rest pretty much skip around his discography, hitting most every mark, however briefly. As an introduction like it claims, this provides a well-rounded view of Smith’s career, with the hope that the individual tracks you gravitate towards most are the records you should seek out first. If they really wanted to get “introductory”, they could have limited the track listing to Smith’s first 3-4 albums, or at the very least ordered everything sequentially. Does the jumbled order of the songs make that much of a difference in the end? Not really as the sound and songwriting stays pretty consistent throughout, but it would be interesting to hear the slight pieces of progression over time. If you buy digital then you can order the tracks any way you like, too.

Long-time fans of Elliott Smith may be wondering just how valuable a record like “An Introduction To…” would be in their collection. Like Jeff Buckley or Nirvana, this being the third posthumous Smith release could come off as an attempt to squeeze more money out of a corpse. Some might take that viewpoint, but given the title and absence of unreleased material, this really does seem designed for either a younger generation that hasn’t heard of Elliott Smith or people that always admired the guy from afar but never really got into his stuff. Smith’s mostly sad, acoustic folk songs are tempered back a bit to make room for some (but not all) of his poppier stuff that’s a little easier to like while still running deep with meaning. It’s the unique approach he took to making his songs sound multi-layered full despite a wispy, almost whispered singing voice and a lone acoustic guitar. It’s the heartfelt and heartbreaking words he wrote and the impact they can have on our own personal struggles, made all the more tragic by the his own life and untimely death.

For that angst-filled or depressed teenager that’s looking for a kindred spirit, getting an introduction to Elliott Smith right now could be just what the music doctor ordered. For the stunted adult, trying to find exactly where he or she fits into this crazy world of ours, here’s someone who understands you. And if you discovered the guy awhile back but his music didn’t click with you then, maybe now’s a good time to give it a second listen. This is an exceptional and smart collection of songs, even if it is missing a handful of what might be called “key” tracks. In some ways that’s for the better, because once you inevitably move on and venture deeper into Smith’s catalogue, the discovery of such additional brilliance will be a welcome surprise. What won’t be a surprise though is how this all ends, with just a limited amount of material to digest and the constant knowledge that there won’t be any more. Like the hundreds upon thousands of artists we discover just a little too late, ultimately we can just be grateful to have had these moments and found meaning in these songs that we can listen to and share with others for the rest of our lives. We may know how this story ultimately ends, but the individual journey we take getting there is what makes it so immensely worthwhile. If you’re just now discovering Elliott Smith, congratulations, there’s an amazing, possibly life-changing collection of songs just waiting and begging to reach your ears.

Elliott Smith – Between the Bars
Elliott Smith – Twilight
Elliott Smith – Last Call
Elliott Smith – Angel in the Snow

Buy “An Introduction To…” from Amazon

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