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Album Review: Atoms for Peace – AMOK [XL]



The first time Thom Yorke tried to do anything away from Radiohead, the result was 2006’s The Eraser. That record arrived as something of a surprise to many, who thought that perhaps this was the beginning of the end for Radiohead, and that Yorke would go on to traverse his own unique path of further fame and fortune. Here’s the thing about that first solo effort though: interesting as it might have been, it lacked the depth and experimental nature of Radiohead’s best work. The instrumentals were culled largely from leftover scraps that Nigel Godrich had been piecing together with Yorke over a number of years, and many of the songs came to feel like lesser recreations of one of Radiohead’s great accomplishments, Kid A. In other words, it wasn’t the easy home run you might expect from a man who’s a hero to many and a god to many more. The lesson The Eraser really taught us was that those other guys in Radiohead – Jonny, Colin, Ed and Phil – are geniuses in their own rights as well, and there’s a reason what they do together works in a brilliant and legendary fashion. Whether it was a function of Yorke simply wanting to play those solo songs live or the idea of collaborating with other artists he respects and admires, in 2009 when Radiohead was on a break he got together with Godrich, Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Joey Waronker (R.E.M., Ultraista) and Mauro Refosco (Forro in the Dark) for a short tour to play tracks from The Eraser. They called themselves Atoms for Peace after one of the songs on that record, and essentially decided that if they liked each other enough and had the motivation, they’d make some new music together. Welcome to 2013, where Atoms for Peace are now releasing their first official full length as a band that they’ve titled AMOK.

If you give AMOK a quick surface listen without paying very close attention, it’s easy to come away with the idea that perhaps the talents of this “supergroup” are being wasted. The album sounds a whole lot like The Eraser with perhaps a little bit of Radiohead’s last effort The King of Limbs thrown in. Considering Yorke put that solo effort together with only the help of Godrich, you may be left wondering what if any effect Flea, Waronker and Refosco have had on this project since joining the band. The short answer is kinetics. In their 2009 live dates, they brought unexpected and fresh life to Yorke and Godrich’s recorded compositions, turning an introverted record into an extroverted one you could practically dance to. That same vibe is reflected once again with AMOK, because while the tracks most often reflect Yorke’s traditional discontent with the world around him, there are denser layers and fuller arrangements this time to back him up. It’s not terribly noticeable, but enough that you can envision a bunch of “Lotus Flower“-style dance moves going on behind the microphone more often than not.

Because Waronker and Refosco are the main forces of percussion on this record, it’s fascinating to hear the many flourishes that they add and don’t add to these compositions. Apparently these songs came together by Yorke and Godrich handing practically finished tracks to the other three guys, who then took it upon themselves to squirm their way into the melodies. There’s plenty of skittering, electronic beats going on to form a nice base on most songs, and with something like opening cut “Before Your Very Eyes” it becomes so much more with an Afrobeat-style hodgepodge of brushed cymbals, bass drum and a whole lot of other unidentifiable clicks and clacks. The best moment for live percussion comes via “Reverse Running,” when you can actually hear the snares punching and cymbals crashing for the duration. But then you listen to a track like “Default” which immediately follows it, and the only organic-sounding elements in the entire thing include a grinding noise during the verses and a bell that clangs once during the chorus. Everything else is so heavily embedded in manufactured (yet complex) rhythms and synths that it can feel like the only bits of humanity to be found are in Yorke’s airy vocals, and even those can get buried on occasion.

Picking out Flea’s work on AMOK can be a challenge at times too, as he certainly doesn’t stand out as much in Atoms for Peace as he does with the Chili Peppers. On a track like “Ingenue” his bass has so many filters applied to it, distinguishing it from the synths is nearly impossible unless you know his unique playing style, which almost always has its own personality no matter what effects might try to obscure it. With “Judge Jury and Executioner” though he’s shoved so far into the background and given so precious little to do beyond staying the course the melody pulls him in that any unknown bassist with a halfway coherent knowledge of the instrument could pull the same thing off without a problem. It feels entirely accurate to say that Flea is underutilized for much of the record, though he is given a few moments to genuinely shine the best way he knows how. “Dropped” and “Stuck Together Pieces” wouldn’t be nearly as good, exciting or propulsive without his intricate and dynamic bass manipulations, to the point where you could say they steal focus away from everything else going on. It’s interesting too because whenever Flea is given songs to take control of, it can also feel like all the other guys in the band are purposely stepping up their performances to both compete and compensate with his great talents.

Which brings it all back to Yorke. Atoms for Peace started as his project, but arguably he’s brought in other people because he doesn’t want to carry the entire burden himself. Listening to the vocals and lyrics he turns in on AMOK, the idea of retreat seems even more obvious. On most of his recordings, be they with Radiohead, solo or in a guest spot on someone else’s record, he takes a very present and commanding approach with his vocals. It’s gone a long way towards turning a number of good tracks into great ones. The King of Limbs certainly wasn’t Radiohead’s finest hour, however it could have been much worse without Yorke’s gripping and emotionally courageous performance. So why does he sound so deflated and disinterested on this Atoms for Peace record? The mix likely has something to do with it, as the instrumentals nearly bury his voice on most tracks. He doesn’t help matters much either by singing in a quieter, sometimes whispered tone of voice. The intention may have been to show fragility and weakness in the face of difficulty and tragedy, but he’s never gone that direction before and almost every song he writes is based on those or similar themes. Lyrically speaking Yorke isn’t quite on his A-game either, practically telling the listener that on “Unless” when he chants, “Care less / I couldn’t care less” for the first 90 seconds of the song, and a whole lot more before it ends. Of course that’s not his real attitude towards writing lyrics, it just made for a convenient example. As does “Default,” which thanks to phrases like, “The will is strong, but the flesh is weak” and “I’ve made my bed, I’ll lie in it,” registers as riddled with cliches and implies shaky songwriting overall.

As easy as it is to criticize AMOK for all the things it seems to do wrong, it’s equally important to mention the things it gets right. If you’re in a certain mood, you can strap on some headphones and turn this record on and become completely enveloped inside its world. There’s something incredibly compelling about this collection of songs that makes them easy to love in spite of its perceived warts. You could say it has both everything and nothing to do with the parties involved. Yorke is hailed as a genius and is likable enough to make you want to root for him, and the talent he surrounds himself with all have their own amazing things going on too. So in one sense if you’ve liked anything Yorke has done before, why should you stop now, even if it is a lesser effort? On the other hand, think about the context in which you’re listening to AMOK. With the degree of talent involved, there’s also a certain amount of weight applied to this band and record that absolutely wouldn’t be there if Atoms for Peace was actually a bunch of unknown names. If this were some random band’s debut album, they’d be hailed as smart and a name to keep an eye on. The tragedy is they can never return to that clean slate and get away with it, because we know too much about the genius that can pour out of these people based upon their pasts. This album isn’t as good as anything Radiohead have done to date, The King of Limbs included. It doesn’t quite eclipse The Eraser either, because it’s so cerebral and dispassionate that you almost don’t want to dance to it despite the creative Afrobeat polyrhythms on many of the tracks. This is a difficult and challenging record trying so hard not to be. It’s successful on the surface, but the deeper you dive the shallower it becomes. At this point, let’s just hope that should this project continue, that Yorke & Co. will be unable to sink much lower.

Buy AMOK from Amazon

EP Review: Minor Characters – Heal Me, Healing Times [Self-Released]



Let’s start with an introduction. If you’re not relatively familiar with Chicago’s local music scene, the band Minor Characters may not have ever registered on your radar. Their ultimate plan is world domination, but as with any band or person that ever had the drive to pick up and play an instrument, we’ve all got to start somewhere. In the case of Minor Characters, they first got together at the end of 2010 and have been working hard to pay their dues ever since. They play as many live shows as possible, and through that avenue have built up something of a cult following in Chicago’s local scene. That hard work has paid off in other ways too, which is probably why they recently placed third in The Deli Magazine’s poll of Chicago Emerging Artists for 2012. But the reach of Minor Characters does extend beyond the city of Chicago, as they’ve done a fair amount of touring out of town and will be making their way to SXSW in March to hopefully introduce themselves to crowds eager to hear what they’ve got to offer. Of course everyone is also welcome to discover them via their self-titled EP that was released in late 2011. Five tracks isn’t exactly the largest or best catalogue, but really those songs served as a great foundation upon which to build from. As the old saying goes, better quality than quantity. So that was a great start for the band, but they’re just getting warmed up. Their second EP Heal Me, Healing Times looks to expand upon what they’ve already done and showcase the great strides they’ve made in the last year or so.

It’s always interesting to see how bands describe themselves in press materials. Minor Characters say that they are influenced by 60’s folk, The Beatles and Radiohead. If you’re a music fanatic, that’s sort of like the holy trio of influences, and most artists would kill just to be mentioned in the same breath. But here’s the thing: just because you’re inspired by another band or genre doesn’t mean you have to conform to or sound like it. Sometimes it’s just nice to have that knowledge base going in, because if a band says they’re inspired by Nickelback and Creed, that might raise a red flag before you hear a single note. When it comes to Minor Characters, perhaps it’s best to say that they’re a mobius strip of different sounds that come together to form something that feels entirely familiar yet unique at the same time. For example, their guitars on a track like “Sun Trials” feel tuned to the frequency of Grizzly Bear, but the melody itself doesn’t quite have the same multi-instrumental layers or stark stoicism to make a true match. That’s not a bad thing, as the chorus soars and aches with emotion and the band makes some smart, creative choices when it comes to overall structure and lyrics. If you listen closely in the final minute of the song, a high-pitched, static drone slides into the background that nearly recalls the deflated ending of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” but in a much more subtle fashion. There’s also a few carefully picked notes in the verses of “Aurora Borealis” that bear an eerie resemblance to Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” though maybe that’s more the result of transference after reading the band’s bio. The opening title track can leave the taste of Real Estate in your mouth thanks to its lazy summer day start before getting a strong tempo infusion and becoming a rather addictive indie pop song. Between that and the heartbreaking piano ballad “Expatriates” that closes out the short set, the band’s diverse array of talents are well displayed here.

Enjoyable and compelling as the Heal Me, Healing Times EP might be, there are a couple of small issues with it that need addressing. First and foremost is the length. You get four songs and a total run time of around 17 minutes, which really passes by in a flash. You’re left wanting more, and while that’s always a good thing, it’s also frustrating because it seems like this band is ready to take the plunge and go for the full LP. There are likely reasons why they’re holding off on it, perhaps for financial reasons or to serve as a stopgap as they consider signing to a label. But beyond the EP’s brevity, there are moments on it that feel just a little restrained or held back from something greater. Right now Minor Characters are striking a precious balance between a very normalized, pop-driven world and off-the-charts experimentation. The songs are clean cut and catchy enough to satisfy large audiences, but the rather literary and expository lyrics paired with a few strange effects add just enough dissonance to give you a glimpse into a different dimension. Somewhere down the line, be it months or a year or two from now, they’re probably going to have to fully commit to which direction they want to take. One path brings mainstream success and money but little critical acclaim, while the other path is the more challenging but brings gravitas and integrity to their music. If they’re lucky and can do it right, maybe they can have both. Either way, they’re a band with a wealth of talent worthy of much bigger and better things than where they’re currently at. The Heal Me, Healing Times EP is proof of that, building upon their earlier material and setting them apart from the hundreds of other Chicago bands trying to reach that next great peak. To put it another way, Minor Characters are finally ready to step out of the background and into the spotlight.

Stream the entire Heal Me, Healing Times EP

You can buy the Heal Me, Healing Times EP from Bandcamp or iTunes starting on 2/25/13, or get a copy from them at one of their shows.

Show Review: Radiohead [First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre; Chicago; 6/10/12]


“I have no idea who I am anymore,” Thom Yorke joked near the end of Radiohead’s set at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre on Sunday night. Plenty of people could say the same thing sincerely about Yorke and his bandmates once the show was over. For incessant Radiohead devotees and casual fans alike, the band’s trajectory since releasing The King of Limbs last year has been anything but normal. They’ve forsaken guitars and more traditional song arrangements for music that’s heavily influenced by the electronica subgenre IDM and kinetic polyrhythms. The response hasn’t exactly been enthusiastic so far, in large part because it’s quite a bit different from some of their most popular work on albums like In Rainbows and OK Computer. The closest cousin to The King of Limbs is Kid A, and even that was more of a subtle art statement than a fidgety dance record. Still, it was the new album with its twists and turns that transformed Radiohead’s live show from a display of superb rock craftsmanship into a morbid dance party. Consummate professionals that they are, the band is in no worse shape because of it.

Things didn’t exactly get off to a mindblowing start though. Opening with “Bloom,” the live rendering of it felt just a little sluggish and mixed with a little too much bass. With most of the crowd utterly distracted because the band was on stage and they needed documented pictures of it immediately, the so-so launch either went unnoticed or was shrugged off as soon as “There There” kicked in. It’s also worth noting that as with any new album, sometimes it takes a band a bit to figure out the right way to perform certain songs. Perhaps “Bloom” is one of those. But from that point onwards, things only got better. “There There” benefited from the dual drummer attack Radiohead is using to supplement their newest material. Portishead’s Clive Deamer does a wonderful job working in tandem with Phil Selway, and in certain situations even Jonny Greenwood or Ed O’Brien would pick up some sticks and add extra fuel to the percussion fire. That was perhaps most noticeable on “Morning Mr. Magpie,” one of a couple tracks from The King of Limbs that managed to exceed the recorded version.

The middle of the main set attempted to calm things down a bit starting with piano ballad “Codex,” but when you’ve got a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands that can get a little tricky. As Yorke’s falsetto moaned into the night and the keys were tapped with measured grace, some overzealous fans felt it necessary to cover the quiet with quite a few “Wooo”‘s and “Yeah”‘s. It stripped away some of the power that moment could (and was intended to) have had, which was unfortunate. Also just a touch unfortunate was the live treatment given to “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy.” Fantastic as it is that Radiohead chose to perform one of their best b-sides because it was a good sonic match with everything else that night, it was the only other song besides “Bloom” that didn’t hit the way it was supposed to. There’s an underlying dread about a political menace woven through the song, as Yorke himself explained when introducing it, but the band dragged while playing it and sucked some of the raw emotional power out as a result. The recorded version on the “Pyramid Song” single gets it all the way right.

The second half of the main set was about as perfect as anybody could ever ask for. The song selection was a fantastic mix of old and new, a pair of huge hits, and a massive dose of energy that sent the crowd into a frenzy. There was the sing-along to “Karma Police,” Yorke sending his voice soaring on “Reckoner,” the dance party on stage and off for “Lotus Flower,” the fuzz and buzz combo of “Myxomatosis” and “Feral,” with a closing capper of “Idioteque.” No doubt those last several tracks fulfilled the vision Radiohead had to shift their direction towards a much more physical live show. If they can find a way to harness that magic for the entire night and not just a majority of it, who knows what that would do to a crowd. Bodies might explode from sheer ecstasy.

In the last week or two, word quickly spread around the internet that Radiohead had a brand new song called “Full Stop” that they were playing around with during soundchecks on tour. A couple people managed to get some shoddy recordings of the band messing around with it, but it had never been performed during a show before. That is, until this show. With bright tye-dyed rainbows of color splashed across every video screen surrounding the band, the excitement in the air was palpable and every hair on my body was standing straight up. Holding true to the more electronica-based material from The King of Limbs, the song starts fast with a hazy keyboard base. Tension and speed quickly build atop one another until the dam fully breaks about three minutes in. Yorke’s voice yo-yos between normal and falsetto near the end so many times he sounds like a skipping record. Call it euphoria from hearing it live for the first time, but I think “Full Stop” is destined to be a hit. “It’ll get better with age,” Yorke said after they’d finished playing it. If it’s this good now, who knows what it’ll sound like five years from now. It’s tough to even fathom.

The first encore wrapped up with a ripped up rendition of “Bodysnatchers,” which was the most rock and roll the band got all night. Then Yorke stepped back behind the piano and teased a little of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” before blending it seamlessly into “Everything In It’s Right Place.” That’s sort of typical Radiohead fare, and they’ve been doing those sorts of things for years now. Relatively new to their encore plot is the stark and stripped down version of “Give Up the Ghost,” which Yorke and Jonny Greenwood played to start the second encore while everyone else remained backstage. Thankfully this time the crowd was much more sedate and respectful relative to the emotion and quiet of the song, and it represented one of the more powerful moments of the evening. “Identikit” is another new song they played that hasn’t yet appeared in studio recorded form, and like “Full Stop” it’s a percussive dance juggernaut worthy of getting excited about. After ignoring almost their entire pre-Kid A catalogue all night, Radiohead finally said goodnight with the show-ending classic “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” “Immerse your soul in love,” Yorke sang as the last lines of the song. With their stellar execution, jaw-dropping stage set-up, quite a bit of dancing and upbeat demeanor, the band gave out plenty of soul-immersing love to the Chicago crowd on Sunday night. I’d like to think we returned that love in full.

Watch Radiohead perform “Full Stop” for the first time

Set List
Bloom
There There
15 Step
Kid A
Staircase
Morning Mr. Magpie
The Gloaming
Codex
The Amazing Sounds of Orgy
Karma Police
Reckoner
Lotus Flower
Myxomatosis
Feral
Little By Little
Idioteque
ENCORE 1
Separator
Full Stop (FIRST TIME PERFORMED)
Bodysnatchers
The One I Love–>Everything In It’s Right Place
ENCORE 2
Give Up the Ghost
Identikit
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Street Spirit (Fade Out)

Snapshot Review: Liars – WIXIW [Mute]



Liars are undoubtedly a talented band. They’re also impressively weird, to the point where even some of their most hardcore fans have probably felt a little alienated at times. In effect, they are the onion of bands: multi-layered, not for everybody, and sometimes they’ll draw tears from your eyes. If you’re listening to “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack”, those tears might be the result of sheer beauty, whereas “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant” could easily bring forth tears of terror. So yeah, it’s not easy to pigeonhole Liars, and they seem to like it that way. Not knowing what to expect from them on each new album is an exciting proposition, even if it doesn’t always work out. For the most part they’ve been smart with career twists and turns, jumping from a concept record about witches (They Were Wrong, So We Drowned) to one that places a huge emphasis on percussion (Drum’s Not Dead) and then attempting to grind out something more straightforwad with heavy post-punk leanings (Sisterworld). On their new album WIXIW, the band once again explores new territory, this time peeling away most of the guitars and focusing on programmed beats and electronica elements. Many are calling it a “Kid A-like shift”, in reference to Radiohead’s steep change in sonic direction after the immense success of OK Computer. Liars frontman Angus Andrew even sounds a little like Thom Yorke on a couple tracks, perhaps most notably on “Ill Valley Prodigies” and “His and Mine Sensations”. Apt as those comparisons might be, the last thing you want to do is try and imitate a record that many believe was the finest thing released in the last dozen or so years. The band hasn’t said that was their intention, so maybe the similarities are wholly accidental. Really the whole “abandon instruments and go electronica” thing has become a plague among artists in recent years, with most citing the apparent limits that guitar and drum combinations have versus the wider realm of programmed sounds. That’s the main reason why Liars did it too, as they’ve said in recent interviews. Hell, that’s probably Radiohead’s excuse as well, only they did it before it was cool. Parts of WIXIW feel like a cop-out because of it though. It’s as if the band has lost confidence in their own ability to generate something original, so they’re creating new music based on sounds and influences they know are cool at the moment. That doesn’t mean the record is terrible or devoid of original ideas though. Opening track “The Exact Colour of Doubt” features calming waves of synths and handclap percussion that is downright beautiful. Single “No. 1 Against the Rush” glides, pulses and tinkers in a very Brian Eno-like fashion, even evolving the final minute of the song into a touch of instrumental madness. Those moments when Liars can condense some of their best elements from earlier records into the more electro-based structures are what work best. The rhythmically complex and bassline-driven madness of “Brats” is the band’s classic rave-up with a synth-etic twist, and “A Ring On Every Finger” puts a Depeche Mode spin on some of their favorite tribal rhythms. Most of these songs are interesting at least in concept, and the closer attention you lend them the more carefully composed they seem. That your perception of this record can change over time definitely makes it worth repeat examinations, even if those changes cause you to like it less. When you’re Liars, that comes with the territory. WIXIW may not be the shining moment for this band, and their own bout of self-doubt spawning its creation isn’t helping, but nobody else could have made this album. Sometimes that’s enough.

Buy WIXIW from Amazon

Set List: Radiohead at First Midwest Bank Ampitheatre [Tinley Park, IL, 6/10/12]

Radiohead made their “Chicago” stop on the King of Limbs tour tonight, and I was there to witness all the action. I’ll have a full report for you in a day or two, but in the meantime, here’s the full set list for your pleasure. It includes the first-ever live performance of new song “Full Stop”. To say that every hair on my body was standing on end and shivers went down my spine during that song is putting it lightly. When a reasonable quality video of it hits YouTube, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Set List
Bloom
There There
15 Step
Kid A
Staircase
Morning Mr. Magpie
The Gloaming
Codex
The Amazing Sounds of Orgy
Karma Police
Reckoner
Lotus Flower
Myxomatosis
Feral
Little By Little
Idioteque
ENCORE 1
Separator
Full Stop (FIRST TIME PERFORMED)
Bodysnatchers
The One I Love–>Everything In It’s Right Place
ENCORE 2
Give Up the Ghost
Identikit
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Street Spirit (Fade Out)

Snapshot Review: Here We Go Magic – A Different Ship [Secretly Canadian]



The progression of Here We Go Magic over the course of their now three albums has been nothing short of fascinating. Luke Temple started the project like many others, with some recording equipment in his bedroom. The band’s 2009 self-titled album resulted directly from those sessions, a supremely lo-fi yet strikingly catchy examination of the freak folk and psychedelic genres. If songs like “Fangela” and “Tunnelvision” didn’t get stuck in your head after a couple spins, there was something wrong with you. Things progressed as you might expect – attracting all sorts of attention, Temple expanded the band out into a full-fledged five piece, though the second HWGM record Pigeons was recorded in a house with only slightly better equipment. The fidelity remained relatively the same as the first album, even as the arrangements were a lot more complicated and busy. The band’s sound changed somewhat too, abandoning the white noise instrumentals and most of the African polyrhythms in favor of something more synth-based and dream pop in nature. Good as that record was, it also made the band seem just a little indecisive about what musical direction they hoped to take for the future. They lacked conviction and a truly unified sound. When you hear the wild mixture of echoing drums that begin HWGM’s third album A Different Ship, there’s a remarkable familiarity to it that raises your spirits for just a minute in the hopes that this might finally be the moment when everything comes together perfectly as part of Temple’s master plan. The initial shock arrives on the second track, once the instrumental intro finishes off. “Hard to Be Close” glides out of its gates with clarity and whimsy that tells you they used an actual studio with an actual producer this time. The dirt and grime of the past two records are gone, and Temple’s vocal sits at the front of the mix. It also feels a lot like puberty arrived since that last full length, as Temple’s voice has dropped a couple octaves from the falsetto he typically uses. Once again this band has gone through more sonic growing pains, still unsettled as to what they want to sound like. They jump genres on a whim and while it’s impressive to hear them reasonably balance everything with some degree of uniformity, you come away with no better idea of where this band is headed than you did at the start of the album. The icy drift of “Alone But Moving” feels like a direct tribute to Radiohead, with Temple breaking out his Thom Yorke-ian falsetto and Nigel Godrich producing it. After delving into some serious yet unremarkable psychedelia for a few tracks, “How Do I Know” suddenly roars to life like it belongs on an entirely different record. The song itself is great and catchy, but it really serves as a red flag by pointing out the flaws with much of the rest of the album. By cleaning up their sound and getting Godrich behind the boards, the curtain behind Here We Go Magic is lifted, and we’re left not with the great and powerful Oz but instead a regular man with a special effects budget. It’d help if there was some semblance of deep emotion or heft to fill in the gaps the lack of instrumentation leave behind, but alas Temple prefers to keep his distance from those things. That leads to something like the sprawling finale “A Different Ship”, which spends most of its 8+ minute running time in some adult contemporary haze that devolves into a largely do-nothing drone. Like so much of the entire record, it feels lost at sea with no real idea where it’s headed. Occasionally land will be spotted and you get a nice spark of fun and inspiration, but it vanishes almost as quickly as it arrives. If this is what it’s like on A Different Ship, perhaps the better idea would be to return to your original one.

Here We Go Magic – How Do I Know

Here We Go Magic – Make Up Your Mind

Buy A Different Ship from Amazon

Mid-Year Roundup: 5 Disappointing Albums From 2011 (So Far)

Every year around the start of July, it becomes abundantly clear via the calendar that we’ve hit the halfway point. Six out of twelve months have passed, and given that amount of time it feels appropriate to look back briefly on some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the music we’ve heard thus far. Rather than approach it in a typical “Best Albums” format (no hints as to the “master list” that will emerge in December), I like to instead examine the first half of the year in terms of “surprising” and “disappointing” albums. The differentiation between the two isn’t as simple as good and bad or black and white. There are records on the Surprising Albums list that won’t show up at year’s end as the “Best of” anything, and by that same token, just because a record winds up on the Disappointing Albums list doesn’t mean it’s destined for the bargain bin. In order to achieve the designation of being “surprising”, a record simply needs to blow my expectations out of the water. You turn it on expecting a total crapfest and wind up with something that at the very least leaves you moderately satisfied. A strange turn of events towards the positive side of the spectrum. Opposing that, those albums designated “disappointing” earn that label by building expectations prior to its release and then failing to meet them. Everyone WANTED to like the fourth Indiana Jones movie of the 3 “Star Wars” prequels, but in the end it was letdown city. You earn a reputation for greatness and then slip up for whatever reason. So as to avoid any sort of confusion or suggestion that any list is ordered in such a way that these albums are ranked, I’ve arranged each list to be alphabetical by artist. If you like, feel free to also click onto the links provided to read my original reviews of the albums on these two lists. Today we’ll tackle my list of “5 Disappointing Albums”. If you missed yesterday’s list of “5 Surprising Albums”, you can read that piece by clicking here. I hope you have fun and enjoy these lists, and by all means feel free to let me know what some of your most surprising and disappointing albums from the first half of the year are in the comments section.


Bright Eyes – The People’s Key (Original Review)
It’s just a tiny bit unfair to say that “The People’s Key” was a disappointing album. For devoted Bright Eyes fans, this was more of a record that wanted to give something back after a pair of mediocre-to-bad solo/Mystic Valley Band long players. Oberst was exploring more of an alt-country angle that devolved into frat boy rock after awhile and just wasn’t working. By contrast, “The People’s Key” sought to bring something good back to the Bright Eyes name, maybe for one last time before it gets retired, and does a relatively good job doing so. Oberst’s lyrical witticisms are strong and viable, and the songs themselves are among the most commercially pleasant that he’s ever written. The record is a full step ahead of even the last Bright Eyes album, 2007’s “Cassadaga”. So what makes this record so damn disappointing then? If this is the best album Oberst has been associated with in years (save for Monsters of Folk), shouldn’t this small victory come as a pleasant surprise? On paper, that’s absolutely what it should be. In context, this is more of a pyrrhic victory than anything else. Oberst may still know how to string words together that are jaw-droppingly brilliant, but now they’re colder and more distant than ever. We easily could have and should have given up on the thought that maybe Bright Eyes would return to the days of “Fevers and Mirrors” where he was an emotionally scarred and scared kid, but if that side of the band changed your life, giving up is that much harder to do. Then there’s the concept of “selling out”, which to his credit Oberst hasn’t really done, but the much more rocking and much more easy to digest nature of “The People’s Key” seems to suggest it’s what he wanted. There’s something coldly calculated about this record in how it seems designed to please people. If this truly is the final Bright Eyes record, we definitely know he could have done better, even if it meant torturing his soul for just a little longer. That’s all we really wanted anyways. Buy it from Amazon


Panda Bear – Tomboy (Original Review)
To those that used “Tomboy” as their introduction to Panda Bear, I feel a little sorry for you. It’s by no means a bad record, but to put it more broadly, it’s like first hearing Weezer via “The Green Album”. Your experience with the artist isn’t ruined, but there are far better entry points you could have taken. With Panda Bear, your one and only spot to jump in was via “Person Pitch”. That was a record not just mindblowing in 2007 when it was first released, but it’s one that continues to shake worlds even today. It was a record fiercely ahead of its time, launching a whole other genre unto itself that wouldn’t fully blossom until over a year later. Plus, it shared some of the spotlight with the Animal Collective record that would soon follow it, “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, which is very much its own story too. So it was a very good couple years for Noah Lennox. Where “Tomboy” found him earlier this year was in a lot of the same headspace where those two albums were made, but in a world that had vastly changed its musical landscape since then. What was once ahead of its time and brilliant suddenly registered as being a retread of old ideas and at the very most exploitative of current trends. Panda Bear still stands higher than many of his now similar counterparts on “Tomboy”, but the hope was for less of that and more of an admirable attempt towards keeping the expansion of his sound going with even fresher techniques this time. Was he out of ideas, or just trying to bide some time? We’ll know for sure next time. Buy it from Amazon

MP3: Panda Bear – Last Night at the Jetty


Radiohead – The King of Limbs (No Original Review)
I have never reviewed a Radiohead album, and by all accounts I probably never will. I bear no hatred or ill will towards the band, and in fact my feelings are closer to the opposite. My primary concern is that once I start writing about the band, I won’t be able to stop myself. I intensely study every single Radiohead album to the point where a day rarely goes by in which I don’t hear one or more in full. I would write a 300 page book on them in 10 days if somebody would commission it. I go from vinyl to CD to mp3 to nitpick little details and discover elements unique to each format. Obsessive is one way to describe it. The point being, I continue to hold the belief that there has never been a legitimately bad Radiohead record (not even “Pablo Honey”), and “The King of Limbs” only affirms such a stance even more. What amuses me is all the anger being heaped upon the band for making an album that’s a completely logical progression from where they’ve been before. Coming off the success that was “In Rainbows” is what essentially screwed them. Say the band had reversed the release order of their last two albums, so “The King of Limbs” came out in 2007 under a “pay what you want” scale and “In Rainbows” was a carefully priced “newspaper album”. My argument is that the reaction to both records would have been noticeably different. In fact, “The King of Limbs” feels like a natural progression out of the “Kid A”/”Amnesiac” days more than anything else, combined with a slice of Thom Yorke’s solo effort “The Eraser”. But the cold hard truth is as follows: after a hugely successful revival and radicalization of the music business that was “In Rainbows”, Radiohead retreated into their own heads and made the record they WANTED to make, fan reaction be damned. They’re really fucking brilliant still, it’s just this doesn’t seem to be the expected or right thing to be doing at this juncture. So people have been bitching and moaning about it, and they’ll continue to bitch and moan about it until Radiohead straightens up and flies right again. The only reason this record should be a disappointment is if you were expecting something truly revelatory or earth-shattering. As for me, that’s what I expect from the band every time. Buy it from Amazon


The Strokes – Angles (Original Review)
After the mess of a record that was “First Impressions of Earth”, The Strokes were on the verge of breaking up. They never officially announced a break up, but given their lengthy hiatus and establishment of other projects, you could easily understand if they pulled a Jack White and woke up one day saying that The Strokes had nothing left to offer the world. What motivated these guys to get back together again was likely more monetary than anything else. The return of The Strokes meant that dollar signs were in their future, as evidenced by a number of sold out shows when they first began to resurface. Shortly after word had gotten around that a new album was on the way, the band put out a new single “Under Cover of Darkness”. Unlike their douchey third album, the song sounded like it belonged in the same sessions as their first two amazing records, and that only pushed hopes and dreams higher that now was the time The Strokes would truly be able to capitalize on their success. Then again, reports were also surfacing of band members calling one another out for things and word that Julian Casablancas came in and recorded his vocals separately from the rest of the band. Not a great sign for personal relationships, but if the album worked then so be it. “Angles” turned out to be a small failure almost entirely because of the band’s inability to fully cooperate with one another. Traverse its 10 songs and you’ll find a handful of different perspectives written into what was supposed to be just one. This disconnection ultimately hurt the album, yet it remains better than “First Impressions of Earth”, which is something of a compliment. Word on the street is that everybody’s friends again and recording for the next Strokes album has been good so far. Start crowwing your fingers now. Buy it from Amazon


TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light (Original Review)
The fellas in TV on the Radio had been on a hot streak the likes of which had not been seen since Radiohead pulled off the perfecta trifecta that was “The Bends”, “OK Computer” and “Kid A”. The TVOTR perfecta trifecta amounted to “Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes”, “Return to Cookie Mountain” and “Dear Science”. All three of those albums were at or close to being named the best albums of their respective years by a number of publications (including this one). Not only that, but those three records were released in a span of 6 years that coincided perfectly with a tour-record-tour-record pattern. Naturally, they were in need of a break. The hiatus came, band members focused on side projects, and after close to a year off they reconvened to craft their fourth full length. Either they needed to take a longer break or have simply run out of fresh ideas, because “Nine Types of Light” represents a new low from a band whose level of respect was at an all-time high. That’s not calling the album bad, that’s saying a couple small blemishes have appeared on what was once a pristine surface. There are a few distinct album highlights, from “No Future Shock” to “Will Do” and the effervescent closer “Caffeinated Consciousness”, but the weakest turns are made via the slowed down, quieter moments. TVOTR can do sleepy ballads very well, as evidenced by their past ones, but when you string a few of them together it starts to drag the entire album down. Such is the case here, even if each one is frought with substance and meaning. “Nine Types of Light” is a step down for the band, but more like a minor half-step than a taller, cliff-sized one. Buy it from Amazon

TV On The Radio – Will Do

EP Review: Amanda Palmer – Amanda Palmer Plays the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele [Self-Released]

Amanda Palmer is great. First as part of The Dresden Dolls, later as a solo artist, and currently as one half of the duo Evelyn Evelyn, she’s a true original who embraces both showmanship and the do-it-yourself ethos. Now that she’s free from the constraints of her contract with Roadrunner Records after a hard-fought battle to be released, Palmer has taken on the burden of being a true solo artist by foregoing a record label and releasing all her music independently from here on out. Fan support is crucial for this venture, which is why she offers plenty of purchasing options for whatever projects she does. This week, she released an EP’s worth of Radiohead covers, as performed on her ukulele with the occasional piano or violin part to flesh out the arrangements.

Covering Radiohead is basically the most impossible of impossible tasks. It’s not something to be undertaken lightly, though perhaps that might be the smartest move considering there’s no way you’ll ever top the original versions of the songs. Complete reinterpretations also hold some weight, as renowned classical pianist Christopher O’Riley released two albums of Radiohead songs dressed up with the instrumental flourishes of a grand piano. There was also the “Rockabye Baby” Radiohead album, which used glockenspiels to turn the band’s songs into lullabies. What Amanda Palmer does is deliver mostly straight interpretations of some of Radiohead’s most iconic tracks, though the ukulele really brings a more “acoustic-lite” feeling to the whole thing. On the EP’s opening “Fake Plastic Trees”, Palmer mostly uses the ukulele to keep some sense of rhythm in the song, because there are barely any chord changes. Instead, the melody carries via her voice. Though she can clearly handle the vocals (though does any voice REALLY compare with Thom Yorke’s?), on the whole the track comes off a bit thin. Of course when you’ve only got a uke, thin is about the best you can do. “High and Dry” fares a little better, as it lends itself to the ukulele, but it’s the very small splashes of piano that additionall help the melody where it most desperately needs it. Still not great, but satisfactory. Continuing with the upward mobility, “No Surprises” wisely adds not only piano, but just a hint of toy piano along with some overdubbed harmonies. Given the original’s relative simplicity, it’s not too difficult to replicate. Both “Idioteque” and the two versions of “Creep” function as expected, though none of them really grab you like they should. What does work in the most effective way imaginable, is Palmer’s version of “Exit Music (From A Film)”. There is no ukulele this time, it’s instead supplanted by the piano. Compared to the plain acoustic and atmospherics of the Radiohead version, it feels as emotionally bare and paranoid as the original. Some bits of cello and violin also add to the dramatic flair, and it practically makes the entire EP worthwhile on its own.

What does make the entire EP worthwhile is the high, high cost of 84 cents for all 7 songs. All those songs for cheaper than a single iTunes track, and you get a choice of 320k mp3, lossless, or a handful of other formats. Yes, there’s also the option to pay any amount higher than 84 cents should you feel it to be worth that. And while most of the other possible packages for purchase are already sold out, there’s a T-shirt and digital version of the EP combo for $20 still available, along with the most expensive $1,000 version which gets you a 32GB iPhone, a DVD, a vinyl and digital version of the EP, a shirt and various other trinkets, plus a personal phone call from Amanda who will play a cover song for you and sing a Haiku of your choosing as well. Yes, there are some choices. Unless you’re a hardcore Amanda Palmer fan who is willing to support every little thing she does, chances are just the digital version of the EP will suffice. For 84 cents, this is worth a purchase if you like Palmer, Radiohead or both of them even a little bit. Hell, maybe even throw 5-10 bucks her way and help pay her bills for another month. This isn’t going to change your life, nor will it probably compel you to listen to it repeatedly, but it is a novelty worth having on hand for the occasional times you want to hear a halfway decent Radiohead cover. Or just Amanda Palmer singing songs you’re more readily familiar with, if you’re not her biggest fan.

Stream the songs and purchase the EP via Amanda Palmer’s official site

Show Review: Atoms for Peace [Aragon Ballroom; Chicago; 4/10/10]


While the members of Radiohead are out and about doing various other things to keep busy in between studio time, band frontman Thom Yorke has decided to play some shows around the U.S. in support of his 2006 solo record “The Eraser”. Yes, it’s been 4 years since that album was released, but given that Yorke never toured around it back then doesn’t mean he can’t tour around it now. He’s also recruited a motley band of musicians to help translate the largely electronic record into something a full band can perform on stage. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea is the second most prominent member of this newly formed band, which is filled out by longtime Radiohead producer and friend Nigel Godrich, drummer Joey Waronker and multi-instrumentalist Mauro Refosco. They settled on the name Atoms for Peace and have been making their way across the country playing a handful of dates before wrapping up at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California. The tour reached Chicago for a pair of sold-out shows this past weekend at the Aragon Ballroom.

Opening both shows was electronica artist Flying Lotus, who has a new album “Cosmogramma” coming out in a couple weeks with a track that features Yorke on vocals. Unfortunately Yorke didn’t make an early appearance Saturday night to perform the track, but the set was still excellent anyways. The challenge was mostly trying to get a massive crowd moving while you’re hanging out behind a laptop on a table with a lone spotlight overhead. Girl Talk remains one of the most exciting electronica artists out there today for the wild lengths he goes to get an audience energized and having a good time. Flying Lotus is no Girl Talk. He did keep the tempo largely upbeat for his set though, and for a room full of people all there with the express purpose of seeing Atoms for Peace, that anyone danced at all was an accomplishment. While much of the set sounded like standard club DJ fodder, there were a few elements thrown in here and there such as horns and harps that deviated from expectations and provided some added excitement. Still, it wasn’t nearly as thrilling as your average band playing instruments on stage.

The between-set talk amongst the crowd was all about how Yorke and his bandmates were going to translate the minimalist electro-based sounds of “The Eraser” into something a five guys could play with traditional instruments. As soon as Atoms for Peace took the stage, it was clear that would be a non-issue. Amid intense roars from the crowd, the band gave a quick wave as Yorke quickly sprang across the stage to the piano and began hammering out the first few notes of the album’s opening title track. Flea quickly joined in on bass, bouncing, bobbing and weaving around like there were insects all over his body and he was trying to shake them off. Waronker and Refosco doubled up on percussion duty while Godrich manned keyboards and all sorts of other electronic gizmos. All said and done, the guys took the quiet and mournful tone of the song and cranked it up a couple extra gears. It was a conceptual arrangement that worked out like gangbusters, giving the track a life that you’d never expect it to have.

The rest of the set went similarly, with Yorke bouncing between piano and guitar or just entirely freaking out and dancing across the stage with a microphone in hand. Flea continued to match his energy at every turn, putting on his wild man show less for the attention and more out of his own necessity to play his bass with as much punctuation and personality as possible. For “Skip Divided”, Flea set down his bass and picked up a melodica. That gave the song some Middle Eastern flavor, though the instrument did wreak havoc with the Aragon’s speakers, which squelched painfully every now and then. Refoso’s everyman role had him playing some particularly odd instruments, one of which was the surreal and odd Brazilian bow. Meanwhile Godrich and Waronker both equally held their own in compositional and rhythmic strength, continuing to add propulsion and intensity to songs that had only hinted at it on record. They took these small and personal melodies and turned them into something stadium-sized and crowd-pleasing. The energy in the music also translated to energy on stage, and that in turn resulted in particularly inspired performances towards the end of the set with “Harrowdown Hill” and “Cymbal Rush”. Both songs operated as slow burners on stage, starting out quiet and then building tension until they finally burst into cathartic explosions of energy and sound that thrilled and satisfied. They took the main part of the set out on a particularly high note, and gave the crowd something to really cheer about.

At the start of the encore, Yorke returned alone to play some quieter songs on both the piano and guitar. He started with a brand new song he’s been working on with “his other band” Radiohead, which is currently being called a number of different things, including “Chris Hodge” and “Let Me Take Control”. Either way, with just Yorke and an electric guitar, it was a surprisingly small and intimate moment following a set that was nothing short of huge and bombastic. Yorke also performed an unreleased song from the “Kid A” era known as “The Daily Mail” on the piano before launching into a crowd-pleasing “Everything In Its Right Place”. The full band finally returned for a performance of Radiohead b-side “Paperbag Writer”. The energy and arrangements kicked back into high gear for “Judge. Jury. Executioner”, and the percussion was out of control for “The Hollow Earth” while Yorke flailed around like a man possessed. “Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses” brought an official and highly satisfactory end to the fun and occasionally strange evening. Each member of Atoms for Peace set down their instruments one by one and wandered off the stage with a quick wave and the screams of a clearly impressed audience.

Looking at the entire show from a sound perspective, given that the Aragon is notorious for their shoddy acoustics, Atoms for Peace fared relatively well on Saturday night. Whoever was handling the soundboard clearly knew how to get the most out of the band, though there were some small issues early on as Yorke’s vocals were a little low in the mix and being drowned out by the guitars and percussion. There was also the aforementioned squelching that was coming through the speakers during “Skip Divided” while Flea was playing the melodica. Outside of those small sound issues, I had a minor problem with the manner in which the band performed the songs. “The Eraser” album is one of quiet and dark mystery and intimacy, and Atoms for Peace chose to reconstruct the melodies to suit the large venue and keep the crowd satisfied. It’s an understandable decision to make, and it was definitely interesting to hear how each song was changed, but that loss of reflective, personal moments bothered me just enough so that I felt it worth mentioning. Of course with sweaty bodies piled upon sweaty bodies across the floor of the Aragon, one could say that everyone got more than their fair share of intimacy during the show anyways.

Set List:
The Eraser
Analyse
The Clock
Black Swan
Skip Divided
Atoms for Peace
And It Rained All Night
Harrowdown Hill
Cymbal Rush
-ENCORE-
New Song (aka Chris Hodge or Let Me Take Control)
The Daily Mail
Everything In Its Right Place
Paperbag Writer
Judge Jury & Executioner
The Hollow Earth
Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses

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