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Album Review: Phoenix – Bankrupt! [Glassnote]

The success of Phoenix is just a little bit perplexing. They’ve been plugging away and working hard as a band for close to 15 years now, but it wasn’t until their fourth album, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, that they finally saw any sort of measurable success. It’s equally strange that the popularity of that record and their introduction to the mainstream populous really offered nothing different or more attractive than their previous efforts. Indeed, this band has been writing incredibly addictive and danceable songs since at least 2000, it’s just not a lot of people bothered to pay attention for all those years. So what changed? Tastes, most likely. Phoenix have been ready and waiting this whole time, the general public was still trying to work up to their sound. Either that, or they had a piss poor team promoting their music until their last record. No matter how you look at it though, the band paid their dues. To those of us that have been listening to them for several years already it wasn’t so much a matter of if they’d ever be successful but when. Spurred solely on the singles of “1901” and “Lisztomania,” they rocketed to stardom, to the point of major music festival headliner status, which when you think about it is about the most confounding thing of thos entire crazy tale. Are two really great, really catchy songs all one needs these days to earn a place along side the likes of Pearl Jam or Green Day or Coldplay? Apparently so. As they cash in and prepare to headline virtually every major music festival in 2013, Phoenix are finally unleashing their Wolfgang follow-up, which is ironically titled Bankrupt!.

The album sounds like they spent a whole lot of money on it to make it sound as shiny and grandiose as possible, which is what you might expect as they’re trying to metaphorically top themselves and extend their shelf life another few years. Yet Phoenix has always been a big, anthemic band with a super clean sound, so you’re not going to notice much of a difference except that they really try to maximize what they can do with that sound. First single and opening track “Entertainment” is a great example of that, aiming for a grand slam sort of synth pop song with a dash of Asian-sounding keyboards to lend the French band a little more international appeal. The song itself is about the band’s experience with fame and singer Thomas Mars’ largely passive feeling about being viewed as this big rock star. Despite it’s aims and very “1901”-like feel, something about the track feels just a little bit off. The fluctuation in tempo knocks it back on its heels a little, and there seems to be some slight hesitation in the band’s approach that prevents them from really, truly, genuinely going for broke (album title pun intended). It may be largely satisfying the masses thanks to the strong and forceful hand of promotion and radio airplay, but that awkward distance makes it feel like the least effective of their major singles so far.

In fact, Bankrupt! as a whole is has less going for it in the way of singles than just about any of Phoenix’s previous records. It’d be nice to think that they weren’t concerned about such things, and maybe they aren’t, but on songs like “Drakkar Noir” and “The Real Thing” there’s a certain forcefulness built into their structure and hooks that feels more coldly calculated than genuine and organic. Despite this small issue on a couple of tracks, less effective single material leads to some interesting and perhaps better developments in terms of overall album cohesion. Whereas Wolfgang could often feel like a record built around its singles with not much else to inspire in between, the new album brings a consistency and pattern that flows far better despite being less memorable. The same can be said for the lyrics, which have continued to grow ever more obscure and random with each new record from the band. Mars often sings in what feels like half sentences, starting one thought but then finishing it with another that comes across as completely out of context. If you’re looking to connect with these songs on a deeper level, perhaps it’s best if you fill in your own blanks and interpret the lyrics in whatever fashion best suits your own life rather than trying to penetrate the impenetrable.

The best moments on Bankrupt! come when Phoenix sound most relaxed and in their comfort zone. “SOS in Bel Air” is the brightest spot on the album, a jittery would-be single that’s well on par with some of the best things they’ve ever done. Sliding from that into the toe-tapping “Trying to Be Cool” makes for the strongest pairing of tracks as well, right before the colossal mistake that is the seven minute title track shows up to add dead weight in the middle of the record just as it started to hit its stride. Still, “Don’t” and the upbeat closer “Oblique City” are great second half highlights that serve to add balance to the album and keep the listener properly engaged. For the legions of new fans that discovered this band via their last album in 2009, there’s enough going on with Bankrupt! to keep you happy. Like Mumford & Sons, who are arguably the biggest thing in music today, the formula hasn’t really changed and they certainly don’t stumble much in the face of what might be seen as overwhelming pressure to maintain their status among that same upper echelon. What’s truly lacking on this record is a sense of drive and experimentation. Then again, Phoenix have never been the sort of band to rock the boat much with each new album. You’d hope that success would afford them greater freedom and more leeway in their sound, but perhaps where they’re truly bankrupt is in the new ideas department. Oh well, after 15 years of hard work and paying their dues, they’re more than entitled to a victory lap.

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Show Review: New Order [Aragon Ballroom; Chicago; 10/21/12]

Let’s go over a brief history of New Order. In the wake of the tragedy that was Ian CUrtis’ suicide, the remaining members of Joy Division decided to become New Order, with guitarist Bernard Sumner taking over the role of frontman. While Joy Division was an influential band that will likely remain legendary because of what they accomplished in a very short duration, it’s New Order that really earned their keep, building critical acclaim with music that was essentially ahead of its time. Many have followed in the sonic footsteps of New Order, but none have had been able to replicate their success in quite the same way. As is natural though, they were also a band of a very specific time and place. They were around for the explosion of the Manchester music scene, signed to Factory Records thanks to the insane brilliance of Tony Wilson, and were pretty much given free range to do whatever the hell they wanted with such opportunities. You can’t get a deal that great these days no matter what band you’re in. But the ’90s weren’t as kind to New Order, and they broke up in 1993 to pursue side projects. They got back together in 1998, made a couple more albums and did a couple more tours before breaking up again in 2007. This time, the breakup was more the result of bassist Peter Hook refusing to work with Sumner any more. Sumner subsequently announced he no longer wanted to make music under the New Order name. While all the other guys in the band (including Sumner) went on to do more side projects, Hook chose to dig up the past and began playing old Joy Division albums in full with a backing band he called The Light. While some were excited by that prospect, many felt that Hook was doing damage to Joy Division’s legacy and was clearly only out to make money off the corpse of Ian Curtis. Perhaps in part to protect their own legacy, New Order officially reformed in late 2011 without Hook, but with keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, who had left the band more than 10 years earlier to become a wife and mother. They played a handful of shows in late 2011 and early 2012, but didn’t make it to North America until this fall, where a short tour rolled through Chicago this past Sunday night. Here is a recap of how things went.

It’s been seven years since New Order played a show in Chicago, and to my understanding that show was a little shaky. A friend told me the band was using lyrics sheets and teleprompters to get through most of the songs. When you’ve been around for a few decades, I guess your memory can get fuzzy. But lyrical crutches aside, I guess their energy was also a little down. One wonders if tensions between band members (or just Hook) caused problems back then. Whatever their issues might have been, they showed no signs of fatigue or bad memory during their show at the Aragon Sunday night. Every note was hit and every lyric was correct. Looking at reviews of the band’s show in New York a couple days earlier, that wasn’t entirely the case, as Sumner reportedly forgot some of the words to “Ceremony.” Better to have that happen though then to stand there reading off a sheet of paper. Even the best bands forget a verse or two now and then. But like all the other shows on this tour, New Order has been smart and stuck with a veritable greatest hits melange of career-spanning material. They spread it out generously over two hours, though it’s tough to top the first few songs that included “Crystal,” “Regret,” “Ceremony,” “Age of Consent” and “Love Vigilantes.” What’s just a little odd was the crowd reaction to those songs. While the band appeared to be in top form, in particular on “Ceremony,” it seemed exceptionally tough to get people motivated to dance. These were glossy ’80s hits that continue to provide inspiration to club DJs around the world, yet I saw very little movement outside of head bobbing in the early part of the set. Now once “Bizarre Love Triangle” landed about 10 songs in, it was like a switch flipped and everybody woke up. Suddenly even a deep cut off Power, Corruption & Lies like “5 8 6” was met with some sharp dance moves. Of course it was all building to something, and the final 1-2 punch of “Blue Monday” and “Temptation” sent everyone into a frenzy the likes of which I haven’t seen since LCD Soundsystem a couple years ago. For those final 15 minutes, the disco ball dropped and I think New Order shined as brightly as they did in their ’80s heyday.

For all the critical tongue lashing I give to Peter Hook for playing Joy Division albums in full these days, when New Order chose to play an encore of Joy Division songs it didn’t feel as cheap. After all, they’ve been throwing a couple Joy Divison songs into their sets for decades now. They’re always used as toppers on an already great show, and always in expressed tribute to Ian Curtis. They present the songs with reverence so it doesn’t come off as cheap exploitation. After all, most of them were as much a part of Joy Division as Curtis was, it’s only his trademark baritone that’s missing from the proceedings. But my what a baritone it was. Sumner can’t quite get there no matter how hard he tries. Their rendition of “Heart and Soul” was okay, but the crowd didn’t react well to it, probably because it was a deep cut on Closer. “Atmosphere” was triumphant in its own way, and the background video did draw some big cheers. Of course it was only fitting to close the night with “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and it gave everyone the opportunity to dance around one last time. With that, the band waved goodnight to their adoring fans. Everyone left with a smile on their face and sweat on their bodies, which is a testament that a good night was had by all. The absence of Hook may have given many the impression that this wasn’t a legitimate New Order show, but anybody that has seen the band since he left will likely tell you that Tom Chapman is a solid if not great replacement for him. New Order’s future is likely that of Pavement’s or At the Drive-In’s in recent years – they will tour for a set period of time to play the hits, and then once again vanish into the ether as everyone returns to their side projects. It’s probably better that way, to keep their legacy as strong as possible. Whatever they choose to do next, it’s just refreshing to know that a veteran band like this hasn’t really lost a step, and that their music still feels as relevant today as it did when it was first created.

Set List
Age of Consent
Love Vigilantes
Here to Stay
Your Silent Face
Close Range
Bizarre Love Triangle
5 8 6
True Faith
The Perfect Kiss
Blue Monday
Heart and Soul (Joy Division)
Atmosphere (Joy Division)
Love Will Tear Us Apart (Joy Division)

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Snapshot Review: California Wives – Art History [Vagrant]

Let’s take a quick history lesson for the artsy Chicago band California Wives. They formed in 2009, self-released an EP in 2010 to a fair amount of buzz, and started touring nationally. One of their biggest career highlights so far came last fall when Peter Hook, formerly of Joy Division/New Order, invited the band to open for him on the Chicago date of his tour demoralizing performing Joy Division’s Closer. Considering California Wives sound a lot like classic New Order, the selection made a lot of sense. After fully solidifying their lineup earlier this year, the band signed to Vagrant Records in the spring and began to prepare their debut full length album. The result is Art History, and like so many bands it features a collection of the best songs they’ve written since their earliest days. That means 4/5ths of the Affair EP is here, plus a bunch of stuff they’ve been performing for awhile now but have never officially recorded before. Producer Claudius Mittendorfer (Interpol, Neon Indian) helped the band reinvent their sound a bit though, and as a result even the stuff you might otherwise have been familiar with is tweaked in such a way that it feels like you’re hearing it for the first time all over again. Songs like “Blood Red Youth” and “Purple” get 30-60 seconds chopped off their runtimes in the interest of being more concise. Some of the more jangly guitar parts and heavy bass lines get whitewashed over or placed further back in the mix to streamline the songs just a bit more too. The New Order comparisons aren’t quite so apt anymore, though they retain that ’80s sheen thanks to the heavy use of synths. Now they’re probably best classified as The Cure filtered through the more modern lens of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. That works well enough for them, as Art History winds up being a day-glo pop journey that satisfies at every turn with melodies and hooks that will get stuck in your head for days. The highlights are mostly carryovers from the Affair EP, and they’re spread out generously across the album, making minor moments like “Los Angeles” and “Better Home” seem like better songs because they’re sandwiched in between two great ones. A couple brand new songs like “Marianne” and “The Fisher King” do well on their own too, with the former perhaps making the band’s strongest single to date. So yes, there are plenty of things to love about this album. There are also some not-so-great things too. Creatively speaing, Art History doesn’t break any new ground, nor does it even try to. It is by all accounts a very “safe” record, and that lack of exploration can make you feel like you’ve heard some of these songs before and done better. While many of these songs have memorable hooks, you’re sometimes left wondering if they stick with you because they’re genuinely good or simply because they repeat them so many times. How many times, you ask? Well, in the nearly four minutes that are “Tokyo,” the hook hits you 10 times. On “Twenty Three” that grand total is 8. Both are quite a bit higher than average, and that’s just two examples of many on the album. And while they don’t have to abide by traditional song structures to make an impact, the lack of a bridge in pretty much every song is just a little confounding too. What Art History amounts to in the end is a promising debut from a band that needs more time to develop and find their own niche. These songs are superficially pleasing enough to build a strong worldwide audience for California Wives, and if popularity is what they want it’s within their reach. As for critical acclaim, that one’s going to take some work.

California Wives – Purple
California Wives – Marianne

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Snapshot Review: Yeasayer – Fragrant World [Secretly Canadian]

As a general rule, you could well say that whenever the lead singer of a band starts picking fights with random people and things in interviews, it’s a sign of trouble. That doesn’t always mean an epic war of words between two or more parties. More often than not it’s a cry for attention, the idea of saying something inflammatory to get your name in the press because it might not be there otherwise. Billy Corgan has been pulling this trick for decades, and it’s kept the Smashing Pumpkins on people’s minds even during the last decade when they were churning out loads of crap. Which brings us to Yeasayer’s Chris Keating. Chatting with Rolling Stone about the band’s new album Fragrant World, he openly insulted R. Kelly and the current state of EDM (electronic dance music). And while he complimented Frank Ocean’s excellent work in the R&B genre, he capped it off by saying the genre should “gay it up a little,” referencing Ocean’s bisexuality. Of course he’s still better off than Surfer Blood frontman John Paul Pitts, who is dealing with a much more serious situation right now. But Keating’s comments are helpful because they give the band headlines while distracting from reviews of their new record. If your album is good, the attention will find you even if you don’t open your mouth. So yes, pulling a quote stunt like he did feels like an act of pre-release desperation. Hearing the first two Yeasayer albums All Hour Cymbals and Odd Blood, you might imagine that such a talented band with a great ability to avoid being confined to a particular label or genre would continue to flourish. Unfortunately their unique mixture of freak folk and psych-pop has been brushed off in favor of something decidedly more minimalist and dark. Arrangements are no longer packed with an array of colorful instruments, instead synths and electronic beats seem to be the two driving forces on their songs. Sometimes, as in the chorus of “Fingers Never Bleed,” it brings out a very ’80s R&B vibe that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Janet Jackson record. Other times it can sound like Chromatics filtered through the lens of The xx, as on “Damaged Goods.” That might make it seem like there’s a reasonable amount of variety across the album, as with the previous two Yeasayer long players. Actually, Fragrant World is the most cohesive and sonically solid record the band has ever made.

It’s a shame then that these are also the most uninteresting and unremarkable songs they’ve ever created as well. Even if you have the patience to listen through the whole thing a half dozen times, it’s unlikely you’ll come across many tracks that distinguish themselves from the pack and actually stay with you. The album’s midsection of “Devil and the Deed,” “No Bones” and “Reagan’s Skeleton” do the best jobs of being reasonably catchy and memorable. As much as they do right, they also just sort of drop off without trying anything truly new or different. There aren’t any twists in spots where there should be, and it feels like something’s missing as a result. The shift away from fuller and more complex arrangements also brings the band’s lyrics into a greater spotlight than ever before. Anyone that’s paid close attention to their last two albums knows Yeasayer aren’t the most prolific songwriters. Their skillfully crafted songs have gone a long way towards covering that problem up. Now pushed to the surface, the words are just another way the band stumbles and falls. It might be a little more forgivable if they had kept some of the uplifting and inspiring themes of their last couple records. Unfortunately much of the new album is about death and darkness, so if the bass-heavy melodies don’t bring you down then the lyrics probably will. “My girl says that all the rain promises is to give life to the seeds/Live in the moment/Never count on longevity,” Keating sings on “Longevity.” While it’s probably not intended that way, you could imagine those lines being mirrored back at the band and their career so far. While it’s admirable that they’re not content to sit still and fully commit to a certain style or genre of music for very long, it could also spell trouble for them if they make one too many wrong moves. Fragrant World may be the start of that inevitable downfall, or it could be a small misstep in an otherwise strong career in music. For the sakes of everyone, let’s hope it’s the latter.

Yeasayer – Henrietta

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Snapshot Review: Frankie Rose – Interstellar [Slumberland]

You may know Frankie Rose from any number of bands she’s been in the last few years. She’s been the drummer for Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts and Dum Dum Girls, which if you know all those bands you know they’ve got a lot in common sonically. They were all part of the lo-fi garage rock revival that took place not so long ago, and her leaving those bands also pretty much coincided with the hype dying down on that sort of music. In 2010 she took matters into her own hands and started Frankie Rose and the Outs, an all female band that had a very retro 60s girl group vibe to it. Once again restless and discontent with what she was doing musically, the Outs became out of a job late last year. Rose is now continuing on her own, under her own name, though with a couple supporting players to fill out the sound. She’s also changed her sound again, and her new album Interstellar takes a cue from 80s new wave. Listen carefully and you’ll hear shades of New Order, The Cure, and The Human League in their finer moments. The synths sparkle, the drums burst open and echo, and Rose’s light, airy vocal keeps it all afloat. There are great retro pop moments all over this thing, from the beat-heavy “Know Me” to the ridiculously catchy “Night Swim”. She’s overdubbing her own vocal harmonies now too, and it adds a precious beauty to ballads like “Pair of Wings” and “Apples for the Sun”. The focus and strength on display across the record is remarkable, and it’s a real pleasure to hear her embrace that and excel despite the continued tweaks to her style and band personnel. Interstellar isn’t the sort of album you deeply analyze, but the more time you spend with it the more the little moments make their presence felt. In some ways, those are the most rewarding kinds of albums.

Frankie Rose – Know Me

Frankie Rose – Night Swim

Frankie Rose – Interstellar

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Album Review: Grimes – Visions [4AD/Arbutus]

Claire Boucher is nothing if not productive. As the singular force behind the musical pseudonym Grimes, she has released four full length records in the last 2 years. That started with 2010’s Geidi Primes, blossomed into Halfaxa later that year, and then continued building with Darkbloom last year. If you’ve heard approximately zero of those first three records, don’t beat yourself up too much; they sit and taunt from the deepest of deep levels in Canada’s underground electro scene. That is to say they were impressive and influential enough to earn Grimes some attention, but difficult and unfocused enough to keep her out of the spotlight for all practical purposes. Each of those first three albums was intended to play up a different side of her influences, and none of them were really all-encompassing efforts. Boucher herself has basically called them practice records for the real thing, which has finally resulted in her brand new album Visions complete with a brand new home on indie stalwart label 4AD. The end product is a remarkable and rather breathtaking skew on traditional pop music and electronica, complete with a supremely psychedelic edge that slices deep into your emotional reservoir even as it prods the pleasure centers of your brain with seductive beats and hooks.

The first thing you should know about Grimes is that she’s a producer before she’s a musician. Those two things are not mutually exclusive, but the whole point of mentioning it is because it affects the way she puts together songs. In fact, Boucher is doing what so many other forward-thinking artists are doing these days, which is attempting to break the rules of traditional songwriting and composing through the use of technology. At its core, Visions is a record created by a voice and a keyboard. Listening to it, there’s almost no way you’d realize that given all that’s going on. Virtually everything is run through some sort of filter or effect, and portions of songs are dubbed and overdubbed and smashed atop one another like some sort of sonic sandwich. Credit goes to Boucher for knowing when to stop adding more, because in more than a few cases it feels like the depths of some of the songs could be infinite. Her restraint is admirable and a great sign that she knows what she wants and tweaks it ever so slightly until she gets there. The ultimate result is a record that’s equal parts pop music and ambiance, pleasure and pain, not to mention human and computer.

The first track on Visions is “Infinite Love Without Fulfillment”, and it immediately lays out what to expect for the rest of the record. Lasting a mere 96 seconds, it confounds traditional song structure while maintaining a very danceable rhythm and sugar-sweet vocals. Boucher’s voice takes on 3 distinct personalities on the track, and they intermingle with one another with no regard for decency or clarity, to the point where it becomes like trying to listen to a single conversation in a room full of talking people. In spite of the perceived vocal confusion and the challenge of distinguishing lyrics, there’s a symbiosis and elegance to how all the moving pieces of the song work together. Indeed for most of Visions you’ll struggle to understand what Boucher is singing about, and that’s not always because of overdubbing. On the song “Genesis” for example, her singular voice is so drenched in echo it becomes the auditory effect of trying to see the car in front of you while driving through a dense fog. “Eight” turns one of her vocals into a deep-voiced robot and another into a woman that’s clearly been breathing in way too much helium. Despite all the different ways Boucher throws her vocals around, there are a few moments of genuine clarity, and those brief snapshots tend to be about relationships going through some sort of turmoil. “Oh baby I can’t say/that everything will be okay,” Boucher sings on “Circumambient”, signaling right from the start that there’s problems. Towards the end of “Skin”, she’s also in a sad place, espousing, “You touch me again and somehow it stings/because I know it is the end.”

Lyrical content is really the last thing you should be looking for on Visions though, because it’s far more about how these songs come together than it is any message they’re trying to get across. Boucher herself has said in interviews that she often feels the need to cover up her lyrics out of self-criticism over her skills as a writer but also because the melodies themselves should be telling you how to feel and not the words. With so much emphasis placed on what’s being said and not the way it’s being said, that’s a very refreshing take on pop music. Think of this record like a synth-pop inspired version of Sigur Ros, where the vocals are first and foremost another instrument in the mix rather than something intended to sit front and center as a path to deeper understanding. Or, even better, there are portions of the album that are very K-pop and J-pop influenced, and whether you’re a fan of Dance Dance Revolution or simply like those sorts of songs without speaking the language, there’s plenty of moments such as “Nightmusic” that you’ll be able to wholly enjoy. In fact, there’s a whole host of influences on Visions that may tickle your fancy depending on your tastes. Obviously if you’re into electronica and its many subgenres like IDM and Balearic you’ll be impressed with the strong beats that populate much of the record. The same goes for devotees of 80s pop, wherein the strains of a track like “Vowels = space and time” calls to mind Stacy Q or “Oblivion” has something distinctly Cyndi Lauper about it. And while 2011 was the year of the R&B revival, songs like “Be A Body” and “Skin” break out those influences as well, the former even impressing with some sky-high Mariah Carey falsettos. In spite of the various swaths of genres across the album, it all holds together quite nicely thanks to Boucher’s dynamic production style and ability to put together a very strong melody.

It goes without saying that Grimes is one of the most exciting new talents to emerge out of an ever-evolving music scene. Her previous records all hinted at what Visions would be in one way or another, and it’s extremely pleasing to hear her finally fulfill much of that early potential. For all of its oddities, this record is extremely listenable from start to finish, and cuts like “Genesis”, “Oblivion”, “Circumambient” and “Nightmusic” make it supremely catchy as well. In many ways these songs feel like the next step towards a genuine breakthrough in music, one in which a multitude of styles gives birth to a beautiful new hybrid that’s more aesthetically pleasing than any single one of them on their own. The best part is there’s continued room for improvement and growth, even as this record hovers near the precipice of perfection. Grimes has been an artist to watch from the day she first started releasing music 2 years ago, but only now, thanks to Visions will she begin to earn the attention she truly deserves.

Grimes – Genesis
Grimes – Oblivion

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Album Review: Chairlift – Something [Columbia/Young Turks]

Surely you remember the band Chairlift from those countless times you heard their song “Bruises” a couple years ago in an iPod commercial. Don’t remember “Bruises” exactly? Does the line “I tried to do handstands for you” jog your memory? If not, don’t worry yourself too much. The band was in many ways a one-hit wonder, and their 2008 debut album Does You Inspire You didn’t really inspire on the whole. Outside of touring, they haven’t really done much the last couple years, though there have been some changes. Band co-founder Aaron Pfenning is gone, choosing to focus exclusively on his other musical project Rewards after his romantic relationship with bandmate Caroline Polachek dissolved. Polachek now only has multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wimberly to back her up, and that’s impacted Charlift’s sound somewhat. Pfenning’s occasional vocal presence has vanished, as has his guitar work, leaving the band’s sophmore album Something in a very synth-based 80s pop space. And you know what? The results turn out much better for them.

First thing’s first, Polachek spends much of Something in the role of a woman scorned. That is to say breakups are on her mind, and that’s not surprising given she experienced one with her former bandmate Pfenning. You’d be smart to be wary of reading too much into any of the lyrics though, as many of them are clearly fictitious or fantasy-oriented rather than literal. She’s not REALLY trying to kill or seriously maim another person, though we can’t really rule out emotional hatchet jobs. There are a few moments of pure passion and love though, as on “I Belong in Your Arms”, which with its tenderness, brevity and addictive chorus makes for one of the album’s strongest moments. It is the “Bruises” of this album, though not quite as catchy or marketable. Mostly what’s stronger on this record outside of the subject matter is the way it gets dealt with. Polachek backs off on some of the more vexing metaphors from the band’s debut and instead tries something more emotionally direct, to excellent effect. She seems genuinely saddened singing the line, “The look in your eye says you don’t love me anymore” on “Cool As A Fire”. The soaring chorus only provides more aid to her excitement as she sings, “Have we met before/amongst the buzzing of billions/clear like yesterday when you look at me and smiled” on “Met Before”. Also impressive is the chorus to “Guilty As Charged”, which rightly claims, “If I gave you what you’re asking for, you know you wouldn’t want it anymore”. Smart, plainspoken and with hints of humor, it appears Polachek has a much better idea of what she wants to say and how she wants to say it – a sharp difference from the debut in which many of the moments felt forced or uninspired.

Equally intriguing about Something outside of the great lyrics are how all the songs are put together. Save for “Met Before” and “Frigid Spring”, there’s very little use of guitar on this record. Synths are the instrument of choice, and that combined with some excessive polish on the production end takes you straight to the 80s. If you were to play this album for someone without telling them anything about it, most would probably guess it was either made in the 80s or is new coming from an artist that was popular in the 80s. Polachek’s voice earns more gravitas on this record versus the last, and she takes those reins and runs with them. She channels everyone from Kate Bush to Laetitia Sadler to Christine McVie and maybe even a touch of Cyndi Lauper at times, and not once does she sound uncomfortable or out of her element. Wimberly is far quieter than Pfenning was behind the microphone, in that his vocal presence is barely felt. His true star turn comes with backing vocals on the occasional track and a pseudo-duet with Polachek on addictive single “Amanaemonesia”. The rest of the time he’s simply that guy crafting the beats or sending a melody soaring just to keep up with Polachek’s strong singing. They are the yin and yang of Chairlift, perfectly complimenting and pushing one another to excel in different ways.

It’s a shame that Something is a record that will probably be just as, if not more ignored than its predecessor. Despite the strong collection of healthy and marketable pop songs, it’s unlikely you’ll be hearing much from the band on the radio or in TV commercials. There’s just a slight element of offbeat weirdness to many of these tracks that can turn off more mainstream audiences, to start. While there’s not a massive difference between Does You Inspire You and Something sonically, that first album at least had several moments that felt rooted in the present, likely caused by more guitars and less synths. Given that The Killers aren’t still rocking their 80s pop-rock sound established on Hot Fuss, it’s relatively safe to say not everything old becomes new again and stays that way. Still, as glo-fi/chillwave continues to survive and mine much of their material from the 80s, so Chairlift can do so in a much bigger and blatant way. Besides, a great pop song is a great pop song, no matter what decade it’s rooted in. This is the record that may not give the band the additional popularity they were hoping for, but it does earn them one crucial piece of success pie – critical acceptance. There’s no sophmore slump for Chairlift, maybe because they were already in a slump with their first album. Something is the record where they rise to the occasion, learn from their mistakes, and hit back at the hearts of the coldhearted. They’re alive and well and will run you over in their car to prove it.

Click past the jump to stream the entire album (for a limited time only)!

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Album Review: M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming [Mute]

90% of double albums are failures. In more recent years, everyone from Foo Fighters to the Red Hot Chili Peppers have attempted to show off creatively by unleashing multi-disc efforts. Some claim the music is all thematically sound, tied to a concept or something else, and therefore entirely necessary to extend beyond your traditional single album length. Others say they went into the studio and got far more recorded than anticipated, and because everything was so great, instead of cutting tracks they just left it as-is, bleeding it out into dual records. You’ve also got a band like Radiohead, who made “Kid A” and released that, then followed up 8 months later on with “Amnesiac”, essentially more new songs from those same sessions but contextually different. A staggered release schedule forming two separate albums tends to be the smarter move, particularly in this day and age when albums are largely down for the count and singles reign, the attention span of music fans growing increasingly shorter by the day. Still, there is the occasional double album that works, generating enough positive response to go down with the status of “legendary”. We’re talking Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”. It was reportedly that Pumpkins record which served as the main inspiration for M83’s main man Anthony Gonzalez to craft his own double album “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”. This may be one of the worst times in music trends to unleash 73 minutes of music intended to be heard in one sitting, but let’s just be thankful somebody has the balls to keep trying anyways.

The first thing you look for in any double album is filler. Instrumental tracks? That’s typically the first sign of filler, but if you know M83 then you also know they do a fair share of instrumentals on their single disc records. Their electro-synth sound is built to where instrumentals can be not only welcome, but sometimes encouraged. One listen to “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts” will teach you all you need to know about M83 and instrumentals. There’s somewhere around a half dozen instrumentals spread across the 22 total tracks here, and almost all of them are wholly engaging or serve a particular purpose other than apparent filler. This isn’t a record with an overarching theme or concept holding it all together, outside of just a generalized dream state it otherwise seeks to achieve. Yet there are so many big pop songs and dramatic ballads that transitional pieces and more minor moments are almost required as balance. “Train to Pluton” or “Fountains” may not be the most exciting or brilliant pieces of music, but they are fully functional set-up pieces and never really hurt the overall pacing that gets established. You can also look at moments like “Where the Boats Go” and “When Will You Come Home?”, the former which aids the adjustment from the red hot “Reunion” into the massive drift that is “Wait” and the latter which serves as the start of a trio of songs that effortlessly blends the first disc with the second.

Long time fans of M83 should automatically feel comfortable with “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”, as the 80s synth-pop motifs continue to permeate everything Gonzalez touches. That’s his thing, crafting a soundtrack to an imagined version of his teenage years. The last record “Saturdays=Youth” felt like musical accompaniment to a long-lost John Hughes film, and while there’s still some resemblance to that on the new double album, it comes across as far less cinematic in nature. That doesn’t mean it’s any less expansive or epic though, as it’s tough to call 74 minutes of music minimal or small. But those bigger, arena-style melodies were explored in a similar fashion on “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts”. To bring out the full M83 past album retrospective, fans of “Before the Dawn Heals Us” will find the darker, more urban pop of that record bearing an influence here as well. Darkness would be a theme on this record, as any record with the word “dreaming” in its title hopefully implies sleeping and night time. Despite all this looking back providing a “complete picture” of what M83 has been all about, there’s still the future to be concerned with. In response to that, Gonzalez has taken to expanding the number of instruments on this record to include the occasional saxophone (“Midnight City”) or flute (“New Map”) while pushing his own vocals into entirely new territory.

Past singles like “Kim & Jessie” or “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” provide great reference samples featuring Gonzalez keeping his vocals restrained at an almost whisper-like level. It becomes apparent from the very first track on the new album, the aptly titled “Intro”, that those days of calmly reserved, passive singing are over. Gonzalez’s voice may not be the most impressive thing when he’s belting out songs at full volume as his newfound range and key reveal some limitations, but you’ve got to give him credit for laying it all out there. He sounds a full octave higher than he used to, now fully up-front and brimming with confidence, taking the reins like he’s ready to conquer the world. For once his singing matches the scope of his arrangements, which is probably why cuts like “Midnight City” and “Steve McQueen” also make for some of M83’s best songs to date in a catalogue dense with highlights already.

If you’re not prepared for it, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” might seem like a chore to listen to from start to finish. There’s so much material to digest that it can be a little overwhelming at times, making it that much harder to become enraptured with important moments because there are quite a few. To Gonzalez’s credit he spreads them out fairly evenly to continually engage the listener for the duration, though the first five tracks of each disc can feel like a pileup of pure sonic delight. There may not be a storyline or abstract concept linking these tracks together, but like the two halves of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, each separate disc has a sonic counterpart on the other. Consider them then like fraternal twins – different, but inextricably linked to one another. The more carefully you listen, the more obvious it becomes. It would seem then that going the double album route has worked out remarkably well for M83. Count this was one of those rare cases where a multi-disc effort is worth the time and money you invest in it. There are not really any bad songs in this bunch either, and even the child’s spoken word moments of “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” can’t derail the momentum this beast generates for itself. Will it go down in history as one of those rare double albums that still gets talked about 5, 10 or 50 years down the line? Probably not, if only due to technology. Up until the early 00s, album releases were regarded as events, and people’s options were confined to physical mediums such as vinyl, cassette tapes and CDs. You couldn’t really skip any tracks on The Beatles’ “White Album” because at the time that luxury didn’t exist. With the advent of the digital era, not only are people skipping or cherry picking, but access to music itself has become so fluid there’s far more music to take in than any one person can even begin to digest. Hence the rise of the single, so we can listen to that song and get on to the next artist. But here’s a piece of work that while created today is distinctly 80s in sound and scope. If you’re a child of the 80s or earlier decades, that’s something you can understand, even as you may have a hard drive filled to the brim with other music. Calm yourself down and set aside 74 minutes to take in “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” at least once in full. Hopefully it will speak to you and maybe even reinstill a faith in the long player. The death of the album (single or double) has been greatly exaggerated, and M83 makes for some great evidence in support of that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try and find the exact time when this album and the film “The NeverEnding Story” sync up perfectly.

M83 – Intro (ft Zola Jesus)

M83 – Midnight City

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Album Review: The Drums – Portamento [Frenchkiss/Moshi Moshi/Island]

It’s been just over a year since The Drums released their self-titled debut album, and for all the touring they did to promote it, for whatever reason the band had enough time on their hands to write and record a follow-up. This in spite of undergoing a lineup change last fall as well. There are a number of potential reasons for a band to crank out another record so quickly. If you’re like Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox or The Fiery Furnaces’ Matthew Friedberger or Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard, songwriting comes so naturally that it becomes problematic if you aren’t consistently making new music. Other bands and artists will keep creating new music in order to keep the hype cycle going, keeping your name on the tip of everybody’s tongues. Then you’ve got those that did relatively well with their last album, but are being pressured by their label to hurry up and record something new in the hopes of generating more cash while the iron is still hot. Of course some artists have also been operating with a low profile for a lengthy period of time and have built a large catalogue of songs and demos that are just waiting to get that studio polish on them. Where do The Drums fall in amongst these possible options? Well, with their new record “Portamento”, it’s a little tough to say. Based purely on conjecture and the songs on this new album, it would seem that the band probably should have given some more time and consideration when putting together their sophmore record.

What brought The Drums moderate success in the first place was their whistle-happy song “Let’s Go Surfing” off that debut album, a track that was super catchy and embodied the spirit of its title. In fact, “surf rock” is one of the descriptive labels you could affix to the band’s sound, though they go far beyond that. They earned early comparisons to New Order and Joy Division, along with The Cure and The Smiths, essentially amounting to their sound being well within the realm of 80s synth-pop, but again with that sunnier, surf edge to it. The funny part is that in spite of their lighter and brighter pop side, the band is more interested in poking fun at those elements and recent surge in popularity than they are succumbing to their charms. Plus, though the melodies themselves might be charmingly upbeat, close examination of the lyrics reveal a much darker and more depressed side of the band. That’s a big part of where the 80s new wave influence comes in, along with a bunch of bass-dominant songs. There’s a certain script that The Drums followed on their debut that felt wholly unoriginal while still sucking us in and winning us over. Here appeared to be a band on the verge of either making it or breaking it based solely on whether or not they played their cards right.

“Portamento” does very little to change what we’re already familiar with about The Drums. They’re still all about those super catchy 80s-inspired melodies with just a hint of lighthearted surf, but they do throw in a twist or two to project at least some evolution. The songs go a touch darker in mood this time around, whether it’s discussing the absence of an afterlife in “Book of Revelation” and “Searching for Heaven” or emotional unavailability in relationships in “Hard to Love” and “I Don’t Know How to Love”. Yet there’s still a very toe-tapping and easygoing feel to many of the melodies. Instrumentally speaking, the band has broadened their sonic palette just a little, adding in things like vocal looping and a greater reliance on synths which means pulling away from guitars just a touch. Yet it doesn’t work out too well, especially on “Searching for Heaven” where synths and vocals are the only two elements in play. Pinned to start the second half of the record, the track just limps along with little to nothing going for it outside of Johnathan Pierce’s vocals, which come across as oddly off-key and disaffected. It becomes one of the album’s standout moments for all the wrong reasons. While nothing else ever gets quite so poor in quality, “Portamento” is absolutely front-loaded with all the best moments. Either that, or after the first half the second half starts to sound like virtually the same songs over and over again. The tempo stays relatively quick and the choruses keep pushing hook after hook like they’re going out of style, but they’re rendered as blunt and moderately ineffective on tracks like “If He Likes It Let Him Do It” and “In the Cold”.

The good news is that The Drums still have at least a handful of super addictive songs on “Portamento” to keep us on the leash for a little while longer. “Days” is by no means their most creative effort, but it’s tough to not find yourself humming it to yourself a few hours after hearing it. There’s a saxophone that pops up on “What You Were” that is a nice little treat when paired with the brisk pace and dreamy atmosphere. First single “Money” is super fun and super danceable, even if the chorus strikes far too many times over 4 minutes that it begins to feel uncomfortable. Amidst the lowlights the second half of the record brings, “I Need A Doctor” is either a good song or feels a lot like one because it’s sandwiched between two bad ones. “How It Ended” closes the record on a strong note though, practically rediscovering the energy and playfulness of the first half of the album and leaving you wondering why the entire record couldn’t have maintained that same quality.

In a nutshell, if you liked the first Drums record, you’ll likely feel the same way about the second. There are no tracks on “Portamento” that are as strong as “Let’s Go Surfing” was, but there are still plenty of successes on it in spite of that. Even then, it’s easy to call this new record a disappointment, largely because the band appears entirely reliant on big choruses and brisk tempos to get by. They seem to figure that the more times you hear a hook, the greater chance it has of getting stuck in your head. As the old saying goes though, quantity does not always equal quality. Even when you are faced with a quality chorus that doesn’t necessarily mean the more times you hear it the better. If you were to eat your absolutely favorite meal every single day, eventually you’d grow tired of it and desire a little more variety. The small sonic experiments with synths and looping and horns don’t nearly provide the sort of variety you might hope for. None of the songs on this album make it past the 4.5 minute mark, but with how quickly they bounce from verse to chorus to verse, there are times where you just want to check and see how much time is left because it starts to feel like it’s been going on forever. The same can be said about the entire record, which may only be 45 minutes but feels closer to 60. Time flies when you’re having fun, and it moves like a snail when you’re not. The Drums may have approached “Portamento” with good intentions and the hope of sustainability/increased popularity, but the reality of the situation is that they’re trying too hard. Perhaps if they ease back on that throttle just a little, take their time and write more carefully layered melodies, success will find them instead of the opposite.

The Drums – Money

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Album Review: Active Child – You Are All I See [Vagrant]

Last summer, Active Child released the “Curtis Lane” EP. It was a collection of 6 songs that made for a fascinating introduction to Pat Grossi’s pet project, unique in the way that harp, synths and vocals were all blended, chopped and screwed into an electronic filter with dizzying results. The crossroads that EP presented were directional, with Grossi taking a shot at the slow moving and shimmery synth melodies on one side and more beat-driven 80s dance numbers on the other. Everything worked together relatively well, but the dichotomy suggested that he’d need to make a clearer and bolder choice of direction for whatever he chose to record next. It’s been over a year, one mostly filled with extensive touring around the world, but Active Child finally got around to making a debut full length, titled “You Are All I See”. With his harp and a powerful falsetto voice that even angels are jealous of, Grossi has taken a sharper turn towards ethereal beauty and away from the dance floor, and it’s doubtful anybody will disagree with that decision.

Just because Grossi has made the right decision when it comes to Active Child’s overall sound doesn’t mean that “You Are All I See” is automatically a great record. The title track that starts the record begins with waterfalls of harp eventually leading to touches of synth and that heavenly vocal rising above it all, often overdubbed to create soaring harmonies. Those first four minutes are so gorgeous that you get the sense nothing else on the album will be able to top it from a beauty perspective. That’s pretty much true, but beauty isn’t everything, and a number of other tracks come close to that same level of musical splendor anyways. Electronic textures and synths take over on first single “Hanging On”, and the results sound a bit like something that Justin Vernon’s side project Volcano Choir might put out, but with a little more mainstream R&B influence. The R&B aspect goes into full gear courtesy of “Playing House”, Grossi’s team-up with How to Dress Well aka Tom Krell. If you’re looking for an indie version of a sexy jam to “get it on” to, here’s your track. The slow clap looped beat matched against high-pitched synths and Krell’s expressive vocal (with Auto-Tune harmonies) not to mention seductive lyrics create the perfect environment for taking off your clothes and making some sweet love. Go ahead and give it a try. Let me know how it went afterwards.

As “You Are All I See” fully develops, in spite of a few stylistic shifts the majority of it maintains a delicate 80s electro-synth-pop vibe, its closest cousin actually being the last M83 album “Saturdays=Youth”. The main issue is that it’s not nearly as energetic or engrossing as M83, often adopting a more meditative tone that becomes formless and drags after awhile. Even Grossi’s consistent and dynamite voice can’t quite save much of the middle of the record. “See Thru Eyes” and “High Priestess” in particular fail to inspire in the wake of the first third of the album. When “Way Too Fast” shows up, the minimalist electro atmospherics blended with Grossi’s vocals pitch-shifted through multiple filters makes it sound like an outtake from the James Blake record. It actually makes for one of the most fascinating moments on the entire album even if it doesn’t quite equal the high watermark Blake established earlier this year. Almost like a cast off from the “Curtis Lane” EP, “Shield and Sword” brings the tempo to dance club level but stops short of becoming fully fleshed out and engaging. It also feels just a slight bit out of place.

If there’s hope for “You Are All I See”, it comes in the form of closing track “Johnny Belinda”. There are many ways to describe the track, whether it be operatic, cinematic or even symphonic, but primarily it’s just plain epic. The army of violins and cellos create a massive and ominous rumble while harp gets sprinkled in as a bit of extra spice and beauty. Grossi’s voice, backed by some operatic moans, tells the sad tale of lost love. It is the sonic equivalent of a man adrift at sea in a small lifeboat as a storm rages and waves crash on top of him. And it works. To think that one man (with obvious help) could put together an immense track like that proves that this is a project worth keeping an eye on. If every track on “You Are All I See” was this well written and composed, Active Child would have a game-changing album on his hands. Unfortunately a couple clunkers pushes it off the mark and leaves us to wonder what might have been. The record’s primary issue though is virtually the same problem that has plagued Active Child from the beginning – an inability to commit to one particular style or another. Grossi has broadened his horizons rather than reduced them, going from R&B one moment to synth-pop the next, with shades of soul, classical, gospel and a number of other styles in between. Simply having your record sound beautiful doesn’t mean you’re stylistically dialed in. Hopefully from touring around this record Grossi will learn what works best and streamline that approach for the next record.

Active Child – Playing House (Ft. How To Dress Well)

Active Child – Hanging On (White Sea Remix)

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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: Ford & Lopatin – Channel Pressure [Software/Mexican Summer]

You may have heard of Ford & Lopatin before, whether you know it or not. The two sides of this penny have been pretty well known for some work they’ve done previously, with Joel Ford having been a member of the band Tigercity and Daniel Lopatin making music under the moniker Oneohtrix Point Never. Outside of that, the duo have also been recording together for a little while now but using the name Games. After a series of mixtapes and and other general messing around in a studio, last year’s Games EP “That We Can Play” attracted some strong attention amongst the online community, bringing the appropriate hype along with it. Attached to that hype came some serious threats of lawsuits, because as you might expect the word “games” is far more common than you’d think, and also perhaps some of the samples they used weren’t entirely above board. So Ford & Lopatin it is, the combination of which is uncommon enough to where they can avoid any legal implications. Their official debut full length is titled “Channel Pressure”, and if you closely examine the cover art or just think of their old name Games, you should gain a surprisingly strong grasp of what the record might sound like.

Take one part electronica, another part 80s synth pop, and mix them together with a number of sonic elements that might otherwise be most at home on classic video games circa Atari or original Nintendo, and you’ve got the majority of what Ford & Lopatin are doing all over “Channel Pressure”. In order to best understand this sort of music, it really helps if you lived through it. As a child of the 80s, hopefully at some point you stayed up all night playing video games either at a friend’s house or at your own, depending on who had a system and what games. That was almost an essential part of any boy’s upbringing back in those days, and it’s those fond times that are triggered when listening to this record. It also helps if you’ve at least seen movies like “The Wizard” (starring Fred Savage) and “Tron” (the original) for what might best be described as “incidental music points” on the soundtrack. Like those movies and like those old video games, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in the way of vocals or lyrics, but sometimes if you kept listening to a particular song the instrumental would stick in your head anyways. Ford & Lopatin allow synth-laden instrumentals to take up most of “Channel Pressure”‘s running time, but they do make a concerted effort to bring in vocals whenever possible. Ford handles some of the singing, but Jeff Gitelman of The Stepkids and the effortlessly strange Autre Ne Veut each contribute a little bit as well, working to make this a much more traditional pop record than anything they’ve done in the past.

The way the songs on “Channel Pressure” are patterned is primarily in a staggered fashion, in which the instrumentals tend to fill in gaps or connect two songs with vocals. The first half of the album features three distinct highlights, all of them being the songs in which actual singing takes place (the chopped up “singing” that takes place on the title track doesn’t really count). For a first single, “Emergency Room” is remarkably fun and light, despite the darker content of the lyrics. The energy and strong bassline practically challenge you not to dance, while the swirling, woozy electro-synth bits in the background knock the track off-kilter in a fascinating way. The consistent repetition of the chorus helps too towards making this one of the record’s best and most memorable moments. The same cannot be said for “Too Much MIDI (Please Forgive Me)”, a song that gets by less on a hook-filled chorus and more courtesy of a generally strong groove that feels just a shade off something New Order would have done back at the height of their popularity. Tears for Fears is probably the best comparison to make when talking about “The Voices”, what with how the synths are layered and the few shimmering bells that pop up each time the remarkably catchy chorus rolls around. Paired directly next to the disco funk of “Joey Rogers”, it’s remarkable how two of the album’s most engaging tracks show up in the middle rather than at the more preferred junctures of the beginning or end. Still, the quality does drop just a little after that, with only Ne Veut’s surprisingly stable vocal turn on “I Surrender” and the pulsating, glitchy “World of Regret” providing moments worthy of being called great. In total that makes just under half the record worthy of your time, while the rest ranges anywhere from smooth transitional material to outright throwaways. The way those bigger moments are spread out across the duration of the album is immensely smart though, the little breadcrumb trails of delight just providing enough inspiration to keep you interested until the next one rolls around.

The good, if not great news for Ford & Lopatin is that “Channel Pressure” on the whole works better than it has any right to. Even when it’s not hitting the marks it needs to, the overall form and consistency of the record helps to make it stable. The outright pop songs they have put together are pretty great too. What should be of concern is how it apes so much of the excellent synth pop from the 80s yet fails to carve its own territory out of that niche. This album is unique if only because few if any artists are making music like this anymore. It is the bygone product of a bygone time, but in the sense that everything old is new again, Ford & Lopatin make a strong argument for bringing it back. They’re just hoping enough people will agree with them.

Ford & Lopatin – Emergency Room

Buy “Channel Pressure” from Amazon

Album Review: Cold Cave – Cherish the Light Years [Matador]

Remember when the 80s received a much-heralded comeback thanks to The Killers and a host of other synth-heavy pop/rock bands? The first year or two it was a great revival of a genre that many in a younger generation had never had the chance to fully experience before. But just like digging around a box filled with the toys your parents had when they were growing up, you’ll dig around and find some great stuff but after a brief while drop those for something newer and cooler. This is the cycle of music we’re living with these days, where trends come and go with the passing of the wind, and your only real responsibility is to try and keep up. So the 80s revival came and went, and the bands that helped to propogate it either changed their sound or died off like the proverbial dinosaurs they were. Still, the argument stands that good music is always good no matter the genre or time period, meaning that some band could well try and pull off a 50s revival and succeed purely on their own volition. Cold Cave isn’t quite going to do that, but instead they’re crushing hard on the 80s in the best and most respectful way possible. Unlike, say, Chromeo, who exploit every 80s cliche imaginable, Cold Cave are looking to actually rival some fo their synth-pop heroes, from New Order to Tears For Fears and The Cure. Their 2009 debut album “Love Comes Close” had a very lo-fi, minimalist 80s vibe to it, perhaps because that was the best they could do with the materials they had. Flush with some money thanks to lending a couple songs out to TV commercials the last couple years, their new record “Cherish the Light Years” shimmers, sparkles and explodes with all of the sheen that the 80s had to offer.

For those not familiar with Cold Cave, it’s the brainchild of Wes Eisold, former frontman for a couple of hardcore punk bands that includes Some Girls and Give Up the Ghost. Originally starting as a solo project a few years ago, he brought in a few people to help him realize his sonic vision, which was to craft synth-heavy pop with dark industrial undertones, much like many of his musical heroes from the 80s UK music scene. A big boost to the project came when former Xiu Xiu member Caralee McElroy got on board, adding a fascinating female vocal counterpoint to Eisold’s deep but emotionally complex croon. She only stuck around for about a year though, long enough to become a formidable presence in the band with her contributions to “Love Comes Close” and the subsequent tour supporting it. Former Mika Miko frontwoman Jennifer Clavin is her non-technical replacement, in that she handles McElroy’s vocal parts but does not sing on any of “Cherish the Light Years”. Instead, Eisold has fully taken the reins back as frontman, boosted by better production values and increased confidence and strength gained while touring in support of the first album. Looking at their situation from afar, there seemed to be good reason to worry that Cold Cave might not have that same magic once again with the lineup change. The lesson to learn here is to never count Wes Eisold out, because when life gives you oranges instead of lemons, you shut down your lemonade stand and start an orange juice one.

The very instant that “Cherish the Light Years” starts with “The Great Pan Is Dead”, you are completely bombarded with noise. The guitars are already turned up to 11 and raging as if you’re walking in on them mid-stride. It’s an auditory shock to the system not unlike the feeling you get when jumping into an ice cold swimming pool. As hard and harsh as that noise might be initially, once your ears become acclimated to it, the synths come soaring in mixed with a sprinkling of bells that are the sonic equivalent of stars strewn across the night sky. This is Cold Cave the stadium conqueror, a far cry from the meeker, more traditional approach the last record had. Eisold is clearly sold on that pattern of thinking too, as his vocals hit with that same vigor and ferocity needed to compete against all that’s going on around him. It’s an exciting start to an album that doesn’t get much less thrilling as you go, scoring body blow after body blow through sheer bombast and walls of noise. Cold Cave becomes New Order at the height of their popularity. They channel Suede one moment, The Cure the next and The Walker Brothers after that. All at once it preys on your nostalgia while simultaneously wowing you that a contemporary band can pull off that sound with equal parts conviction and perfection. The small tragedy is that for such expansive and addictive synth pop, it’s not going to get the popular support it needs to actually be played in stadiums and other massive venues around the world. Tracks like “Pacing Around the Church”, “Catacombs” and “Icons of Summer” have the gusto and hooks to be radio hits but sadly will never be because they’re not “contemporary”. It functions on a lot of the same principles that M83’s “Saturdays=Youth” exposed with its John Hughes-inspired manifesto, and will likely be treated the same way – respected only by those that can truly appreciate a classic for a classic.

“Cherish the Light Years” is not quite a perfect record, but by that same token it’s nice to know there’s some real humanity in Cold Cave. The pepper spray of horns on “Alchemy Around You” makes it stand out from the rest of the record just a little bit, and while the dash of variety is appreciated, it pulls you out of the singular track everything else is on. You wanted to take a straight shot down the highway, but construction has shut down part of it, so there’s a brief detour that adds 5 minutes to your trip. Despite the track being a small distraction though, it’s no less fascinating than anything else on the album and is yet another cut with “potential single” written all over it. One of the other issues this record has is the sheer force of it all. Nine tracks and 40 minutes really takes it out of you when there’s barely any slowing down. The race to the finish line leaves you exhausted before quite reaching the excellent closer “Villains of the Moon”, something that becomes all the more noticeable if you listen to these songs separately away from the contextual whole of the record. The mixing, too, has some issues because everything is thrust at such a high level competing for your attention. Sometimes it comes across like staring at a wall of TVs set to different channels but at the same volume. There’s only so much you can absorb and while one part of a particular song might appeal to you more than another, everything is whitewashed so any subtleties or nuances fail to exist. Those little bits are often what make the best songs continually rewarding, with the discovery of new elements that have been quietly buried beneath the main melody. So yes, “Cherish the Light Years” is a gothic new wave sledgehammer, forcibly spraying the guts of the 80s all over you whether you like it or not. The great news is there’s a whole lot to like, and even love. If this were 1984, Cold Cave would have just made a name for themselves. In our current musical landscape, they just earned themselves a load of stock as the question looms large as to if anyone else will buy it and drive that price upwards.

Cold Cave – The Great Pan Is Dead
Cold Cave – Villains of the Moon

Buy “Cherish the Light Years” from Matador Records

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