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Album Review: Kanye West – Yeezus [Def Jam]

“How much do I not give a fuck? / Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up.” These are the words Kanye West spits out in the bridge to the song “On Sight,” the opening track off his new record Yeezus. It’s likely he’s addressing the media when saying them, however it makes a grand statement about the album as a whole. After a few records of ever-evolving but always smartly constructed and commercially accessible hip hop, West has had enough. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a crowning achievement of the highest order, enough to be called one of (if not THE) greatest records of the century. Crafting a follow-up certainly wouldn’t be easy, but in many ways West makes it look like child’s play. Those looking for challenging and obtuse in their hip hop will find it on this new album in spades, and though he’s purposely tried to avoid releasing any singles, it’s going to happen anyways since “Black Skinhead” has caught on.

Unlike the boisterous arrangements and orchestral flourishes that populated his last record, Yeezus goes for the stripped down, attack dog approach. West is angry at the world it seems, and though he throws out a lot of hate, he rarely threatens actual violence, which has largely been the case since the beginning of his career and has helped to separate him from his peers. Still, women don’t fare well on this record, particularly on the extremely sexual “I’m In It,” which includes lines like, “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign,” and the cringe-worthy “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce.” The only real “redemption” (if you can call it that) for women comes on the final track “Bound 2,” which is rumored to be written about his relationship with Kim Kardashian. Elsewhere he chooses to go anti-corporate advertising with a track like “New Slaves,” slamming corporations and any famous people (especially other rappers) accepting goods in exchange for promotions and shout outs. Ironic then how closely his pal Jay-Z is working with Samsung for the release of his new album. Also unlike his last album, West keeps the guests to a minimum on Yeezus, and several tracks feature only his voice, though with a fair number of samples and “producers” working on them. Frank Ocean shows up for a few seconds on “New Slaves,” and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon gets a couple of dramatic vocal workouts on “I Am A God,” “Hold My Liquor” and “I’m In It.” Though Kid Cudi shows up for a verse on “Guilt Trip,” the only other guests are up-and-coming Chicago rappers Chief Keef and King Louie, on “Hold My Liquor” and “Send It Up,” respectively. Everybody’s great, but West truly shines when he’s flying solo.

The divorce drama of “Blood on the Leaves” is the absolute greatest and most powerful piece on the entire album, buttressed by a Nina Simone vocal sample and a piece of TNGHT’s “R U Ready” that provide a profound mixture of sadness and venom. The acid-house squelch sample from Phuture’s 1987 classic “Acid Tracks” cut, which inspired a generation of rock bands from that era (Nine Inch Nails included) helps drive “On Sight” to an intense degree, and brings a certain synth element to this record that West has never attempted before. That sort of sound works well on a number of album tracks, but perhaps “I Am A God”‘s Blade Runner-esque haze with a Daft Punk production assist matches up best overall, somehow able to handle both a goofy eye-rolling moment like the line, “Hurry up with my damn croissants,” and the terrified, breathless screams that show up at the end. The only track that really breaks from the unified bare-bones production on this record is “Bound 2,” which smashes together The Ponderosa Twins’ “Bound” with Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s” and Wee’s “Aeroplane (Reprise)” in a melody that sounds like t was ripped straight out of one of West’s first two albums.

Still, the generally minimalist (down to the cover art) and rock n’ roll-like approach he takes on much of Yeezus is new territory for him to explore, and something that feels informed at least in part by some of the incredible, anti-commercial anger that has earned Death Grips the right kind of attention over the last couple years. Hip hop in general could use more of this type of boundary exploration. In this particular case the strategy is likely West’s attempt to feed his own ego; to prove that no matter what he does or how much he alienates his own fans, he will still be praised as the greatest thing to ever happen in music. The worst part about it is, to some degree he’s right. Very few, if any, rap artists can claim to have such an acclaimed and lucrative career over a 10-year period. The same can be said about almost every musician outside of that genre too. You hate to give such a self-aggrandizing figure even more ammunition, but full credit where credit is due, Yeezus is another near-masterpiece.

Kanye West – Hold My Liquor (ft. Chief Keef and Justin Vernon)

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Album Review: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City [XL]

The ship should have sailed on Vampire Weekend a long time ago. As in, the wave of backlash should have hit them right around the release of their second (and previous) album Contra in early 2010 and doomed them to a slow descent into obscurity. Yet every so often, an artist or band finds a way to rise above the fray and continue to persevere in spite of everything. Leave it to the guys with Ivy League educations to solve that puzzle and go from a debut with one hit single to a sequel with three. That’s not even mentioning all the commercial licensing they signed off on, continuing to build their “brand” of cardigans, boat shoes and balaclavas to a predominantly young, white audience. Perhaps most incredible through all this is that the quality of the music they’ve been making has dipped very little, if at all. What started out as a ferocious nod to Afropop and in many respects Paul Simon has since evolved into something darker and more considerate while still largely maintaining a giddy, indie pop vibe. Perhaps that’s the main reason why so many people love this band – they take challenging topics, difficult issues and high class living and make them into very on-the-level, non-pretentious, fun songs. One minute you’ll be bobbing your head and singing along to the chorus of a song, and the next minute you’ll hear a lyric that forces you to grab your dictionary to try and figure out exactly what frontman Ezra Koenig was getting at with that reference. You’re learning new things while you listen, and in a sense that raises the collective conscience and intelligence level for all involved. For whatever reason, Vampire Weekend are working to leave society better than when they found it, and perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to find fault in just about everything they’re doing. Their new album Modern Vampires of the City is their strongest collection of tracks to date, but it’s also their darkest and most challenging, all of which can be seen as major positives.

Most bands like to throw a single out as the first track on their records, because it provides a nice gateway into the rest of the album. If they don’t go with a single, then it’s usually something upbeat and fun to at least put you in a good mood before moving forward. The last two Vampire Weekend albums have featured “Mansard Roof” and “Horchata” respectively, and both fit right into that traditional first track pattern. For Modern Vampires of the City, the opening song is “Obvious Bicycle,” a track that might best be described as a piano ballad. It’s not exactly a magnet of a song that sucks you in, and the lyrics make it even worse. “Oh you ought to spare your face the razor / Because no one’s gonna spare their time for you / You ought to spare the world your labor / It’s been twenty years and no one’s told the truth,” pretty much spell out deep depression and a complete mistrust of others. Yet there’s also stoicism and beauty in the way it’s composed, and the delicately harmonized, easy to remember chorus gives it a certain replay value you might not otherwise expect. The buzzy, pop-driven side of the band shows up starting with the single “Unbelievers,” certainly one of the album’s strongest moments and most addictive tracks. Yet it too features a rather dark take on things, emphasizing the idea that it can be tough today to truly figure out exactly who or what you believe in, religiously speaking and otherwise. “Girl you and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train,” Koenig sings like there’s no escaping the fate that lies before him. There truly is no way of knowing if we’ve made the right decisions for our lives or our futures, which in many ways is crippling and could be considered a metaphorical freight train bearing down on us.

If you’re looking for a more “traditional” Vampire Weekend song, look no further than “Step,” which drops references to Angkor Wat, Dar es Salaam and Croesus amid sparkling harpsichords. Such challenging names and phrases are used in this case as more of a wink and a nod to their highly intelligent, “upper class” past rather than a legitimate attempt to go highbrow simply because they want to. The real deal behind this song is that the band borrows a couple of the main lines from the chorus from an unreleased track from the early ’90s called “Step to My Girl” by hip hop group Souls of Mischief. That track borrowed a saxophone melody from a 1972 song by Bread, which additionally Vampire Weekend also recreated with the harpsichord for this song. It’s fascinating how it all came together, and how the worlds of hip hop, smooth jazz and rock music from the past intersect via what sounds like a completely original and modern track. With that kind of history, maybe that is just a little more pretentious and challenging than it might otherwise appear. Similar things can be said for first single “Diane Young,” because while it is a whirlwind, roller coaster of a fun song complete with purposely goofy vocal modulations, there’s deeper meaning below the giddy surface. The subject matter is death, and the song title isn’t so much about a girl as it is, like the vocals, a slight modification of the more common expression, “dying young.” The lyrics support it, particularly with a reference to the Kennedy family, who are known for dying young. The music video also supports the idea, with a Last Supper-like scenario involving Jesus, who of course reportedly died at age 33.

Yet “Diane Young” also speaks to one of the overarching themes of Modern Vampires of the City, which is more about time running out on you than it is actual, physical death. Sure, death is certainly one of the possibilities of things to happen when the clock reaches zero, but it’s equally important to look at where the band is at in their personal lives. At the moment, they’re right at the border of what some might designate as “adulthood,” and all the “responsibilities” that come along with that. While there is no official hard line in the sand definition of what constitutes an adult, the ideas of getting married and starting a family certainly get wrapped up in that. In your own way, when you become an adult it marks the death of your youth, because there are new challenges and people to worry about and care for, taking away those times of freedom when you could do anything (…or anyone) you wanted to. Instead of staying out at some bar until 3 a.m. on a weeknight and showing up to work hungover a few hours later, you’re in bed by 11 and have to get up again at 4 because the baby is crying. The track “Don’t Lie” is actually all about that idea, and the quest to get in all the crazy and fun experiences you want to before making a full commitment to another person. “Young bloods can’t be settling down,” Koenig sings early on, but he’s also in love with a girl and feels just about ready to make that leap. The lines, “It’s the last time running through snow / Cause the fire can’t last and the winter’s cold,” speak to the need for love between two people, which should be fully appreciated, lest it be extinguished and you’re left alone in a harsh and loveless environment.

This path towards adulthood truly reaches its peak with the centerpiece of the record, “Hannah Hunt.” In many ways it seems like Vampire Weekend’s own maturity as a band gets unveiled in this track, like it’s something they’ve been purposely building towards for the last few years. Within this single ballad contains a multitude of sonic and textural innovations while the the lyrics and especially Koenig’s vocals overflow with emotion in a rousing and powerful way. The story line is a familiar one, in the sense that this could well be picking up on the lives of two characters we’ve spent time with previously in other Vampire Weekend songs on other albums. Here they’ve made the decision to escape from their own lives and hit the road to drive across the country in the hopes of starting over fresh. You may recognize this inclination as a more literal version of trying to outrun adulthood and other responsibilities that life hands us. Along the journey, this couple meets a gardener who talks about how plants move as they grow, and a man of faith who tries but fails to instill the narrator with a sense of personal accountability. Yet the real focus here is between these two people, our narrator and Hannah Hunt. Though their trip starts out promising enough, by the second verse of the song their relationship has grown cold, like the freezing beaches of Providence, Rhode Island which Hannah says she misses now that they’re on the opposite side of the country. And while the narrator wanders off to buy kindling for a fire, aka an attempt to get the flames of passion burning once more, Hannah chooses to burn a copy of the New York Times instead. The frustration builds, and eventually explodes outwards in the final 90 seconds of the song, going from a slow and meditative ballad to a soaring and gorgeous crescendo. Koenig’s voice follows suit, and he yells the chorus with such force you can almost hear tears rolling down his face: “If I can’t trust you then damn it, Hannah / There’s no future / There’s no answer / Though we live on the U.S. dollar / You and me, we got our own sense (cents?) of time.” It’s as harrowing as it is beautiful, and for those four minutes, that fictional clock through which we count the seconds and watch the hours stops completely.

While there are a few (perhaps arguably so, depending on personal interpretation) religious references in the first half of Modern Vampires of the City, it’s on the second half of the record where religion really come into topical focus. “I took your counsel and came to ruin / Leave me to myself, leave me to myself,” Koenig gripes at the start of “Everlasting Arms.” The song title itself alludes to the old hymn “Leaning on Everlasting Arms,” which is about the Day of Judgment. In his own way, Koenig spends the song passing judgment on God, trying to break off that relationship because it has caused him nothing but pain and suffering. An even greater indictment shows up on “Worship You,” which asks whether or not God deserves the love and praise given to him around the globe. There are references made to God’s “red right hand,” which play on the phrase of getting caught red-handed, implying guilt and wrongdoing. There’s also a political angle to the track, primarily dealing with the Middle East and Israel and the supposed protection offered to the Holy Land. “Finger Back” deals with similar issues, though the focus in this case is more on the cycle of violence in the region and how religion is the main reason for many conflicts. That also ties into the sharply depressing but stylistically intriguing penultimate track “Hudson,” which uses the historical context of explorer Henry Hudson and his death as a springboard to envision a post-apocalyptic New York hellscape in the years following the nuclear holocaust that is World War III.

Looking solely at the lyrics on Modern Vampires of the City and attempting to delve into the meanings and intentions behind the songs can make everything seem like a truly depressing march through sludge. The themes are dark and unpleasant, from the ticking clock of youth and life running towards its ultimate finish to the anger towards God and religion, and you might expect the music itself to match those tones. Yet that’s not the case by any means. The band has come a long way from their debut, but they haven’t lost their ability to write compelling melodies and hooks that grab your ear and refuse to let go. Listen to this album enough and you’ll find that a different track stands out each time, even some of the slower ones like “Ya Hey” and “Step” will give you a reason to keep coming back for more. A very lyrically bleak song like “Finger Back” is only dark and depressing if you can fully comprehend what’s being sung about, and Koenig’s rapid fire vocal delivery paired with a bouncy melody seem to suggest upbeat pop more than anything else. And that’s really the crux of this record as a whole: it deals with a lot of heavy issues, but always with a little wink and a nod to let you know that it’s not all bad. That sense of relatability and inclusiveness which gets developed while also ushering in a new found maturity makes this Vampire Weekend’s strongest effort to date. For a band that spends so much time on this record worrying about getting older and the proverbial deaths that go along with it, there’s a terrific amount of irony in the fact that they’re only getting better with age. It’s certainly something most other artists should look at with envy.

Watch the video for “Diane Young”
Watch the lyrics video for “Ya Hey”
Watch the lyrics video for “Step”

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Album Review: Savages – Silence Yourself [Matador/Pop Noire]

Before you read any of this, do me a favor: Take a close look at this photo. Notice any similarities between the people depicted? If you don’t, I suspect you’re blind. On the left is Jehenny Beth, singer for the band Savages. On the right is Ian Curtis, singer for the band Joy Division. Two different genders and two completely different people, however they could potentially be fraternal twins. Sure, Curtis died more than four years before Beth was born (under the name Camille Berthomier), but if you believe in reincarnation perhaps this connection is much deeper than skin deep. Joy Division was an all-male post-punk band from England that became well-known for their dark focus and intensity, particularly on stage. Savages are an all-female post-punk band from England that’s becoming more and more well-known for their dark focus and intensity, particularly on stage. In terms of label dealings, Joy Division signed with RCA, only to later buy out their contract because they were unhappy with how things were going. Despite Curtis calling Factory Records founder Tony Wilson “a fucking cunt” to his face and then repeatedly insulting him on stage one night, the band would eventually sign to Factory, a label best known for letting its artists do whatever they wanted and splitting all profits 50-50. Savages view record labels as evil, but a necessary evil. With Beth still entangled in label dealings from her last band with boyfriend Johnny Hostile, she pushed the idea of not signing to a label until their debut album was finished. Ultimately Silence Yourself is being distributed via Matador Records, in conjunction with Beth and Hostile’s own small imprint Pop Noire. “I believe artists make their own success,” Beth said after signing to Matador. “No record labels are my heroes today.” I don’t doubt that Curtis would have said something dramatically similar were he alive to survey the music scene in today’s digital age. There’s a rebellious, wild and angry spirit that runs through both of their world views, if you can define a person via their interview quotes. But what does all of this mean? A pessimist might view the similarities between bands as a series of coincidences that amount to nothing. An optimist could call this the second coming and the rise of a new band set to change the musical landscape once more for the better. Let’s just hope this new story doesn’t end the way the earlier one did.

To be perfectly clear though, Savages are not Joy Division, even if my first listen to Silence Yourself felt strangely similar to the first time I listened to Unknown Pleasures. That is to say, it felt like a door to an entirely new world of music had just been opened up. Unlike back in the late ’70s and early ’80s however, this sort of post-punk sound isn’t new or novel anymore. In fact, it’s downright out of style at the moment. Of course this is the sort of band that revels in contradiction and doing whatever the fuck they want without a care if it’s in style or out of style. As such, listening to their record can feel a bit like playing a “spot the influence” game. The Joy Division (and similarly Gang of Four) is there thanks to the extremely present and dominating work of bassist Ayse Hassan. Siouxsie and the Banshees comparisons run abound because Beth’s vocals often resemble that of Siouxie Sioux’s, though in more modern terms you can pick up on some early PJ Harvey or Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs when she escalates to a higher and more shriek-filled range. Gemma Thompson’s piercing and rusty chainsaw-sounding guitar work fondly recalls bands like Public Image Ltd, Bauhaus and Converge, while the incredible aggression through which Fay Milton attacks her drum kit draws power from krautrock like Faust and Can, with a bit of Sleater-Kinney era Janet Weiss thrown in for good measure. Savages sound at least a little bit like all of these bands, yet they still manage to break free and expose a sound that feels intense and unique as you’re listening to it. Such a quality is so rare in music these days it can easily give one the impression that this band is out to save rock and roll. They certainly play like it, and though it shines through the record, their raw nerve and extreme ferocity on stage are what they’ve built their reputation on. Simply put, Savages live up to their name.

Silence Yourself starts in an interesting fashion, with audio from the 1977 John Cassavetes film Opening Night. The scene in question is a crucial one, and comes about 50 minutes into the film. In it, the lead character of actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) sits down for a rather informal meeting at the apartment of the woman who wrote the script for the play she’s appearing in. This older, wiser writer Sarah (Joan Blondell) begins their conversation after some pleasantries by asking the actress how old she is. The actress dodges the question repeatedly and never gives an official answer, yet insists that she’s having trouble connecting to the part that’s been written for her because the character is so much older than her actual age. Of course the audio for the intro to the song “Shut Up” and the rest of the album gets cut off before the actual point of the scene is reached, leaving the lingering question of age hanging in the air. Yet lest you be confused, age is not the point of the scene, nor does it have anything to do with Savages’ music. No, the point is about fighting against perceptions and allowing for enough fluidity to maintain your own versatility. As Myrtle says a minute later in the same scene, “Once you’re convincing in a part, the audience accepts you as that.” Her concern is that once she plays this older woman character, she’ll be forever fixed in the minds of audiences as a senior citizen and it will change her career trajectory in the wrong direction. Similarly, Savages refuse to be easily categorized or boxed in. They’re about outward rebellion and an innate desire to turn the music world on its head. Thanks to the primal, uncompromising brutality of this debut album, they’ve done exactly that. At times it’s enough to shake you to your very core.

Just reading the band’s song titles like “Shut Up,” “No Face” and “Hit Me” can go a long way towards telling you what to expect from the Silence Yourself listening experience. And boy, “experience” is the right word to use, considering the physicality that blindly attacks you at every turn. As “I Am Here” creeps along down the dimly lit hallways of your mind, the chorus suddenly comes at you like a punch to the gut in a momentary flash of rage. These spikes in noise and aggression come to a head in the final minute of the track, when the intensity finally builds to a release point and Beth howls the song title over and over like a mantra as the pace gets faster and the noise louder. By the end there is no doubt that she has in fact arrived and made her presence known. If a close listen with good headphones doesn’t give you goosebumps, perhaps you should check your pulse. A very similar set-up and execution happens on the single “Husbands.” In that case all the band members steamroll ahead at full speed the entire time, only taking a momentary respite in the chorus as Beth moves from a whisper to a shriek while once again repeating the song title. The effective point of it in this case is to destroy the meaning of a word that many equate with marriage, love, family and security by creating a true nightmare scenario. It’s equally easy to believe that the track “Hit Me” is all about the horrors of domestic violence were you to only think of the lyrics and not the context behind them. The 100 second beating this song will give to your ears (it was recorded entirely live in the studio, by the way) was actually written from the perspective of porn star Belladonna, about a violent scene she agreed to take part in for the sake of sex, art and masochism. “I took a beating tonight / And that was the best I ever had,” she sings, consciously aware of the choice and refusing to play the victim. Provocative and button-pushing as the subject matter might seem, it’s not the point Savages are trying to make with their music. The ultimate goal is liberation and empowerment, even if that means crossing the lines of physical and psychological pain to achieve it. Sometimes it’s the only way we can learn and grow.

The emotions on Silence Yourself finally reach their true breaking point at two spots on the album, both of which wrap up their respective sides of the LP. It’s equally interesting to know that they’re also the songs that break from an attack dog-like format and attempt to truly inject the record with something more thoughtful and progressive. While the haunting and moody instrumental “Dead Nature” might be considered by some to be the singular throwaway track sitting at the center of the album, its actual purpose is to serve as a cooler and buffer before the onslaught of the second half begins. Call it the musical eye of a hurricane and an opportunity to take a breather. The true moment of power hits two minutes before that though, on “Waiting for a Sign.” That 5.5 minute dirge is perhaps the most terrifying white knuckle ride on an album full of them, even as it avoids the immediacy and hooks of everything else. As it plods along led by Hassan’s rumbling bass and Beth’s manic vocal, the final two minutes of this ballad are handed off to Thompson, who takes the old Beatles adage “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” literally, only in this case there’s nothing gentle about it. Thompson’s guitar is crying buckets of tears, and in turn squeezes our ears so tightly it’s difficult not to connect with that and break down right along with it. While the album’s closing ballad “Marshall Dear” doesn’t quite elicit the same strong emotional reaction as other tracks, it is important to the overall record because of what it introduces. Considering the blitz attack that most of Savages’ music so far subscribes to, it’s easy to predict that their sound has a limited shelf life that might stay viable for another couple albums at best. What’s hinted at on the final track is a continued evolution of the band as they incorporate more instruments such as piano and clarinet. In addition to being an incredible singer Beth is also a classically trained pianist. Though that skill is used rather sparingly here, it hints at a larger vision and destiny at play for a band that likely won’t take their own advice and silence themselves any time soon.

Video: Savages – Shut Up
Audio Stream: Savages – She Will

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Album Review: Little Green Cars – Absolute Zero [Glassnote]

Little Green Cars have that intangible quality talent scouts will tell you can only be described as “IT.” When someone has “IT,” they are undoubtedly destined for stardom. Indeed, this Irish five-piece band of 20-year-olds have crafted a debut album Absolute Zero that feels big and expansive and full of everything that seems to be popular in rock music today. Look at bands like The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and Mumford & Sons – they’ve all got a very similar, folk-strewn sound to them, replete with male-female vocal interplay and gorgeous harmonies that can send chills up your spine if heard at just the right moment. They’ve also got big, memorable choruses that are often easy and fun to sing along with whether you’re driving around town or in the crowd at a show. Little Green Cars have all these qualities and deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as those other, much more popular bands. Why they’ve yet to truly permeate the worlds of the masses perhaps best called neo-folk fanatics remains a mystery. As with most new artists, perhaps their time will be six months or a year from now, giving them a little bit of time to gather momentum before skyrocketing to the upper echelons. When the band embarked on their short U.S. headlining tour earlier this spring, they played small venues with low ticket prices. In Chicago they were going to play the 250 capacity Schubas, but thanks to some radio support and a $5 ticket price, demand was high enough that the show got moved to the 500 capacity Lincoln Hall. Strangely enough, the radio support for the band stopped immediately after they drove out of town. Apparently the station was only playing their song “The John Wayne” to sell tickets and nothing more, which also suggests they felt the song or the band weren’t good enough to leave in regular rotation. They’ll be returning to Chicago for Lollapalooza, where they’ve got a placement 2/3rds of the way down the lineup but are slated to play the same day as The Lumineers and Mumford like it’s kismet. Perhaps by the time August arrives, so will their moment to truly shine.

But let’s dive into the record itself and the strengths and weaknesses that can be found within. As with just about every band, you want to put your best foot forward and suck as many people into your record straight from the very first note. That probably explains why the single “Harper Lee” kicks off Absolute Zero. When the track begins, it’s just an acoustic guitar and Steve Appleby’s voice as he sings the line, “Like a crash I wait for the impact.” When the verse ends and the chorus enters, so does that impact. The full band comes in and charges ahead full speed with effortlessly harmonized “oohs” and a rather impressive lyrical hook. “There’s a gun in the attic, let me go grab it / I’d blow holes in my soul just so you could look past it,” Appleby effuses with the rest of the band in harmony backing him up. For those that don’t know, the song title is also the name of the famed author of To Kill A Mockingbird, and the while the lyrics have nothing to do with that on the surface, they do reflect a loss of innocence and the fight against becoming a responsible adult, which happen to parallel the themes found within the book. The ability to showcase such depth and creativity in a song that’s so anthemic and stadium-ready is a sign of Little Green Cars’ strength as a band and their desire to raise the discourse in mainstream folk today.

Those massive and memorable sing-along choruses mixed with strong lyrics are all over Absolute Zero, even taking a relatively mid-tempo track like “Angel Owl” and providing just the surge needed to keep it from falling into throwaway territory. Credit Markus Drav’s work as producer as key to this record’s success, because his previous jobs with Arcade Fire, Coldplay and Mumford & Sons have proven he knows how to make a big record that will inspire millions. If it weren’t for the intense harmonies, it’d be easy to suspect that the pounding piano and crashing cymbals of “Big Red Dragon” might have been pulled straight from a Keane or Coldplay record, which would be a strike against the band if it didn’t sound so good on them. In fact, the only real misstep on the entire album comes right at it’s center with the track “Red and Blue.” It sounds like it comes from a completely different band, straight down to the synths and AutoTune, both of which don’t appear anywhere else on the record. Arguably you could call it an attempt to pull off some sort of Bon Iver-esque ballad circa the Blood Bank EP era (see “Woods”), but that was 2009 and what worked then doesn’t always work today. A lot has changed in music over the last four years, believe it or not. Then throw in the fact that every single member of Little Green Cars has the voice of an angel, and it seems downright idiotic to let a machine process those vocals into something more inhuman and robotic. Why the band wanted to try such an odd approach and why they felt it fit in with the rest of the album remains a bit of a mystery.

It’s worth mentioning that Faye O’Rourke is the co-lead singer of Little Green Cars, and the three tracks on Absolute Zero where she takes over are some of the album’s strongest moments. She gives off a very Florence + the Machine vibe on “My Love Took Me Down to the River to Silence Me,” a track that starts with some gospel choir-like chanting of the song’s title but then allows her to belt out the chorus to the rafters. “This love’s killing me, but I want it to,” she wails, drawing the delicate line between pain and passion. O’Rourke chooses to play the long game on “Please,” starting out in aching ballad formation before transitioning to a surging and confident rock song at the end. Her versatility as a vocalist and her whipsmart songwriting would be quite impressive in most bands, but not so much in this band because it’s so chock-full of talent. That said, it’s a shame Little Green Cars played it so safe on this debut record, because they have the potential to be so much more than an Irish folk band that sounds like a whole bunch of other, more popular folk bands. At the very least, they prove that the same genre that’s brought us Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers still has a little bit of room left in it for people who know what they’re doing and can elevate a sound that grows more stale by the minute.

Little Green Cars – Harper Lee

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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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Album Review: Rhye – Woman [Republic / Innovative Leisure / Loma Vista]

Rhye is a group born out of mystery. The duo purposely tries to fall deep into the crevice of the unknown, choosing to let their music speak for itself rather than tossing out names and faces and back stories. Leave everything as simple and clear-cut as possible, and create your own bond with these songs. Of course, in today’s technology-heavy era, remaining anonymous isn’t something you can do for long, which is probably why a couple months before the March release of their album Woman, things started to come into focus. Rhye is Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal, two guys that met in Denmark when working with the Copenhagen-based group Quadron. They became fast friends, but didn’t actually pursue a project together until they both found themselves living in Los Angeles for varying reasons. The primary cause of Hannibal’s relocation from Denmark was a woman, while Milosh is a Toronto native who went to L.A. to try and help his solo music career take flight. For two musicians who had some previous pedigree working as solo artists or in other groups, it’s fascinating that Rhye was suddenly the thing that earned them both quite a bit more attention than they were otherwise used to. It only took a couple singles (“Open” and “The Fall”) released in 2012 to get people talking and naturally curious about who was behind them. The very sensual music videos for both singles and an EP released last fall continued to build anticipation for their debut full length as well.

Perhaps the main reason Rhye has gotten so much attention since they first emerged is due to the right combination of Milosh’s vocals and ’90s R&B-style minimalist instrumentals that are very “of the moment” thanks to artists like Frank Ocean and Miguel. This is sexy music for a large collection of people who are really starting to experience their own sexual awakening. The xx have played a major role in bringing such sensuality in music to the forefront, and Rhye’s record Woman plays to that crowd perfectly with unabashed intimacy and pure, love-spiked intention. It wouldn’t work nearly as well if Milosh didn’t have the voice of an angel that’s so syrupy and smooth you might mistake it for female if you knew nothing about the duo. Comparisons to Sade have been rampant, and they’d be a lot more difficult to accept if they weren’t so spot-on. That basic androgyny has probably helped with the band’s success more than anyone realizes, because it makes the songs that much more malleable to the human ear – you’re free to interpret how these songs apply to you and your own life without gender bias getting in the way. If a guy wants to imagine a girl is singing a song like “Verse” to him or vice versa, nothing is too much of a stretch and the less you know going in the easier such things become. The lyrics are never gender specific either, nor are they sexually explicit, which only serves to fuel your own imagination to help fill in the blanks as you see best. In a case such as this, the vagaries are commendable. All you really need to enjoy this record is the capacity to love another human being, and that accounts for about 99.9% of the population.

Not that 99.9% of the population is going to engage with and get sucked into Woman. It’s not a perfect record, and there are a couple small misfires amid the excellence. “One of Those Summer Days” pretty much comes as advertised, however its beautiful and hazy drift feels out of place on an album that often has a slight groove going for it. Somehow for those 4.5 minutes everything just stops and you can envision yourself laying out by the pool on a warm, clear day as the sunlight shimmers brightly off the water. There’s no structure or hook to the track, and the saxophone solo that pops up feels just a touch softcore porn soundtrack in nature. In other words, it’s all surface beauty with no depth or substance behind it. The title track, which is saved for last, has a similar aesthetic to it. Milosh repeats the title over and over again in different tonal fluctuations and syllabic stretches while a slow and simplistic synth melody holds steadfast. Horns and strings attempt to resuscitate the staid concept, but ultimately don’t do enough to make it worth the time and effort put in.

Still, eight out of the album’s ten tracks are top notch, and a few like “The Fall,” “Open,” “Last Dance” and “Major Minor Love” get even better the more you listen to them. There’s something truly special about this record, and it’s an indefinable quality that only really grabs hold of you in the quieter or more intimate moments of your life. Put on some headphones and really focus on how these songs are being created with such spare arrangements, and you’ll quickly find yourself wrapped inside Woman‘s tender embrace. Better yet, make it the soundtrack to your next make out session and witness how effective it can be at setting the right mood. Rhye is a truly talented band with two truly talented auteurs inspired by the love permeating their own lives. It’d make you jealous of such intense passion if the songs themselves weren’t excellent companions even on a lonely night without someone to hold you close. We don’t need to know who the people are behind them, just that they’ll be there for us no matter what our desires might be. It’d be nice if more records had that quality within them.

Rhye – Open

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Album Review: Foals – Holy Fire [Warner Bros/Transgressive]

The evolution of Foals has been a fascinating one. On their 2008 debut album Antidotes, they no doubt attracted the attention of tastemakers because of their somewhat unique take on the dance rock genre, which was at a high point during that time period. While some critics would argue that their songs were poor imitations of leading bands at the time such as Bloc Party and Maximo Park, others felt the math rock guitars were crucial to setting them apart from their peers and bringing a fresh twist to an increasingly stale sound. It’s not hard to say that at the time Foals lacked a certain emotional maturity which in turn froze a lot of listeners out and prevented them from engaging with the songs in a deeper way. Big changes and improvements arrived on 2010’s Total Life Forever, which was more plainspoken and heartfelt, and frontman Yannis Philippakis proved he could actually carry a melody beyond uttering short, declarative phrases. The melodies also got larger in scope, moving slightly away from the intricacies of their debut and into a widescreen, power chord territory with hooks that grabbed hold of you like never before. It represented the exact right steps the band needed to make at the time, and their continued evolution earned them a newfound respect among fans and critics alike. They hadn’t so much sacrificed anything as they added to what was already there.

On what’s now their third official full length Holy Fire, Foals once again push forward and work hard to grow in sound and stature. They take the best parts of their previous work and appear to commit to try and fix their previous flaws. Philippakis continues to grow as both a singer and a songwriter. He stretches himself vocally on this album more than ever before, and the payoffs are pretty exhilarating. The opening instrumental, appropriately dubbed “Prelude,” provides some nice ebbs and flows but still doesn’t quite prepare you for the track that immediately follows it. “Inhaler” has a late-90s alternative rock vibe going for it, which means there’s a certain amount of malice and bad intentions running like an undercurrent through the duration of the track. Sooner or later, the dark, masked feelings build up and require release, leading to the explosive chorus you don’t necessarily anticipate arriving until it lands. “I can’t get enough SPACE!” Philippakis yells into a seemingly endless void as the fuzz pedals and power chords drive his point home with all the force of a battering ram. It’s a cathartic, exciting and memorable moment early on in a record that winds up having a bunch of them. None quite operate on the same level as “Inhaler” when it comes to overall aggression, however most are equally as fun and addictive.

Chief among the many catchy songs on Holy Fire is the single “My Number,” a track that finds Foals in the purest of pop modes with a chorus that stays with you like it’s etched inside your brain. It’s easy to envision the song becoming a monstrosity of a hit in their live shows, and the video for it doesn’t do anything to dispel that notion. That’s really just the start of a great run of smart and effective tracks that include “Everytime” and “Bad Habit,” both serving as great reminders that while the song structures are very familiar and the hooks are intensely strong, there’s enough distinction in the intricate guitar work and vocals to set Foals apart from any similar-sounding peers. On Total Life Forever there were hints of this very broad yet indistinct stadium-sized band bubbling underneath the surface of some songs trying to wrestle control away from some of the more charming quirks that have earned them a decent amount of respect over the years. That they chose to avoid giving in to those impulses and occasionally push some experimental buttons is heartening and a great sign for their future.

Such experiments enter into play during much of the second half of Holy Fire, which is a little slower and less pop-driven yet compelling in its own unique way. On their previous albums, Foals have proven themselves relatively adept at the slow build in songs, turning otherwise innocuous ballads or mid-tempo numbers into hot-blooded explosions of noise or genuine rave-ups. When done properly, it can leave the listener exhilarated. In that sense, tracks like “Late Night” and “Milk & Black Spiders” are two of the best slow build tracks the band have ever put together, and that is a great sign of their growth and maturity these last few years. “Providence” plays off a similar template, though instead of moving from slow to fast it evolves from a dance track to a muscular rock song. You could well call it the Side B cousin of “Inhaler” from Side A. The band’s energy peters out in the final two cuts “Stepson” and “Moon,” coming across like the overcast sky beginning to show signs of daylight after a long night partying. The smile fades from your face as suddenly it’s time to come back to earth after the dizzying highs you’ve been experiencing the last few hours. This bout of sincerity and sadness feels earned and rightly placed at the end of the record, holding Foals in formation as a well-rounded band instead of a lopsided one. Perhaps the biggest fault with Total Life Forever was how its attempt at true balance led to a front-loaded bipolarity that sank like a stone halfway through. Thanks to a couple late album injections of energy though, this new album feels balanced in a much smarter fashion and makes the replay value that much higher. It’s fantastic to hear that Foals have learned this and many other lessons for Holy Fire, and with any luck they won’t forget them ever again.

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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.

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Album Review: La Big Vic – Cold War [Underwater Peoples]

Let’s start by throwing out the book on La Big Vic. That is to say, forget what you know or think you know about this band. If you already know little or nothing about them, so much the better. Their debut album, 2011’s Actually, didn’t receive that much attention, and perhaps that’s part of the reason why they chose to release a remixed version of it later that same year. You could say it speaks to their indecisiveness, that they’d act so quickly as if to say, “If you didn’t like that first version, here’s a different one we hope you’ll like better.” They are George Lucas, endlessly tweaking the Star Wars films until they’re nearly unrecognizable from their first form. It’ll be interesting to see if the band takes that same remix tactic with their sophomore album Cold War. It’s an interesting and different record from their first one to be sure, and it speaks better to their individual backgrounds while also bringing more focus and better pop structures to the forefront. Their first record and its remixed companion weren’t bad by any means, but they feel starkly different compared to how La Big Vic sounds today. You could say they’re looking for and are getting a fresh start.

La Big Vic is a trio made up of producer and multi-instrumentalist Toshio Masuda, synth guru and composer Peter Pearson and violinist and singer Emilie Friedlander. Before coming to America, Masuda was a member of a boy band and produced hip hop records and commercials. Pearson had some training as an apprentice to one of Pink Floyd’s live producers, and Friedlander was a music blogger and editor of the former Pitchfork offshoot Altered Zones. Their very disparate backgrounds ultimately wind up being a huge asset to their overall sound, as they pull from such a grand chasm of influences that range from electronica to jazz to psychedelia to synth-pop. Such a conglomeration doesn’t work on paper, which is why actually hearing it makes it seem that much more impressive of a feat. On Cold War nothing sounds too bizarre either, and you might actually say the final product is one part Zero 7 and one part Kaputt from Destroyer.

There’s a strong beat that flows like an undercurrent through many of the songs, lending them an almost trip-hop sort of vibe with a few unique twists along the way. Moments like the opening title track or Avalanches-esque vocal sampling in “Save the Ocean” reach a great head-bopping, toe-tapping groove, but also place themselves underneath a grey cloud that is threatening rain the entire time. That sense of unease and dread permeates most of these instrumentals only adds to their strange charm. Friedlander’s vocals aren’t any help either, jumping from a throaty moan to some sky-high falsetto cries of ecstasy that make you question whether or not such reactions are earned given how they bounce all over the place like a rubber ball in a small space. On “Emilie Say’s” she goes from an almost inhuman vocal high-pitched effect at the beginning to cascading through multiple octaves and eventually creating harmonies via multiple overdubs. In one sense it’s remarkably impressive, while on the other it lacks a certain degree of emotional investment. It’s easy to argue that inability to connect emotionally hurts your enjoyment of the final product, but it can just as easily be argued that such abstract ambiguity is purposeful to go along with the lyrics.

If there’s one real takeaway that Cold War offers up, it’s the remarkable clarity of intention that shines through almost every song. For a band that was built on flights of fancy and strange avenues of experimentation, this new album is strikingly straightforward, with big melodies and addictive hooks. The ease at which “All That Heaven Allows” or “Ave B” become stuck-in-your-head staples is impressive and would have been utterly unthinkable from La Big Vic two years ago. And while both of those tracks have a rather relaxed vibe to them, you’re also treated to ’80s synth pop dance tracks like “Nuclear Bomb” and “Cave Man” to twist things up in a fun and different way. In other words, this album has enough variety and experimentation on it to satisfy those in search of such elements while also placating anyone who wants something bigger, bolder and more commercially accessible. The band wants to have their cake and eat it too, and while the album might not quite be that first true masterpiece of 2013, it comes pretty damn close. The record also goes a long way to make sure that once you’ve heard it, you won’t ever forget this band again.

La Big Vic – All That Heaven Allows
La Big Vic – Ave B

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Album Review: FIDLAR – FIDLAR [Mom + Pop]

FIDLAR sound like a band you’ve heard before. They are not deeply original, and by that same token are not trying to be. It’s almost ironic that though their name is an acronym for “Fuck It Dog, Life’s a Risk,” they take very few of them in their actual music. This is skate punk at its blissfully ignorant core, content to get by on sheer energy and force. You don’t listen to this sort of thing for nuance, but instead for the heavy-hitting guitar riffs that speed past at a thousand miles per hour, the angry sneer in the singer’s voice and how almost every melody makes you want to smash into something. This is music that demands you get busy living or get busy dying. It’s brash, it’s snotty, and it doesn’t give a fuck what you or I think because you’re not supposed to be thinking in the first place. Sometimes you need a record like this to clear your head and shove all the pent up emotions out of your body. The release is nice, but once you get past that, is there anything left worth writing home about? That’s ultimately the true test of a good punk band – whether or not you can move beyond cliche and towards something deeper and better. For their self-titled debut album, FIDLAR only partially succeed at making that magic happen.

Let’s start with the song titles on this album, because they pretty much tell you everything you need to know up front. There are songs about drinking (“Cheap Beer” and “Blackout Stout”), drugs (“Wake Bake Skate” and “Cocaine”), surfing (“No Waves” and “Max Can’t Surf”) and being broke or having a low paying job (“Stoked and Broke,” “5 to 9” and “Paycheck”). There are even a couple songs about the military (“White on White”) and women (“Whore”) in there for good measure. If these guys were a little younger, they’d probably have included a few songs about high school and how much it sucks. Then again, The Ramones, who have a little stylistic similarity to FIDLAR, had no trouble writing about Rock n’ Roll High School well into their 20s. So it’s all a matter of personal preference, really. If a track like “No Waves” calls to mind Nathan Williams’ band Wavves both in title and sound, it may be a somewhat unintentional coincidence but more likely is a sly wink and nod to their friend and future touring partner. The fuzzy digital mess that the guitars make on most tracks is definitely lifted from Wavves, though just about every other aspect of FIDLAR’s music can be considered old school punk rock in the vein of Gun Club, Descendents, Circle Jerks and Fear. There are still plenty of bands out there trying to mine from that exact same cave, but few fare quite so well as these guys, which at the very least tells you they’re doing something right in the studio and on stage. That, and they know their influences backwards and forwards, meaning that behind all these live fast and die young songs there’s actual intelligence and intention.

While FIDLAR’s self-titled debut may be smarter than your average punk record, it also falls into some traps and cliches that make you wish they’d thought some parts through a little more. I mean, songs about drinking, drugs, surfing and being broke can only take you so far, right? When the chorus to “Cheap Beer” comes in and amounts to a shouted, “I / Drink / Cheap / Beer / So / What / Fuck / You,” you can’t help but wonder if they could do just a little bit better than that. Sure, it’s memorable, and I’m sure it becomes a shout-along in concert at a rapid-fire pace, but perhaps the level of discourse could be just a little less lowest common denominator. There’s definitely an undercurrent of darkness and maybe even depression at the heart of some of these songs that are indicated in the lyrics, and that’s certainly interesting even though they tend to glide right over it to get back to partying most of the time. In some weird sense, this record is a kindred spirit with Andrew W.K.’s I Get Wet, one of the most single-minded but subversively brilliant records of the last couple decades. FIDLAR haven’t quite found their ideal mixture of insanity and perfection just yet, but the earnestness and youthful energy they bring to every second of this album absolutely makes them a band to keep your eye on.

FIDLAR – Cheap Beer

FIDLAR – White On White

FIDLAR – Gimmie Something

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Album Review: Yo La Tengo – Fade [Matador]

It’s 2013 and Yo La Tengo are putting out their 13th album. Depending on your personal beliefs (or lack thereof) about the number 13, this could either be a very lucky or very unlucky record for them. When you consider their storied career and some of the most amazing collections of songs therein, you’d think the pressure might be higher. But of course when you hit your 13th record it’s likely you’ve already “peaked” and by this time fan expectations have fallen to the point where making a quality but not necessarily original album will satisfy most of the fan base. You listen to the last couple YLT records, 2009’s Popular Songs and 2006’s I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, and they fit well into the classification of the band’s “late period” recordings. What does that mean exactly? Well, the trio hasn’t exactly scaled back their energy in spite of their age and longevity, but they have embraced a more mature sensibility when it comes to composing their songs and arranging their sequences on records. The band’s earliest material was exciting and beloved because of its unpredictability and experimentalism during a time when not a lot of other bands were doing the same. They could go from serene calm to a roar in seconds, and look good doing it. These days, they favor structure and pacing, which means the overall flow of their albums is comfortable and intelligent, bringing its own set of benefits. You look at the track listing for Popular Songs and notice that the final three songs are between 9 and 16 minutes in length apiece, while nothing else that comes before it even reaches the 6 minute mark. So they saved the prog rock experiments for last, and that’s beneficial for fans that favor that side of them over everything else.

Looking at the track lengths for this new album Fade tells you astonishingly little, and in this particular case that’s a good thing. The two longest songs on the album, which are bookended as the first and last things you hear, both fail to cross the seven minute mark. With more than a couple 10+ minute jams on the last couple albums, the shorter song lengths and minimal 10 tracks here shrink this new record down to 46 minutes, making it their shortest full length in over 20 years. What does it all mean? Well, the band is getting more economical, likely in the hope that any extra fat is trimmed away in favor of something purer. There definitely is a feeling of balance and restraint across the record, mostly in how they peel away some of their sharper or rougher edges in favor of soothing calm and meditation. As 2003’s Summer Sun was a lackadaisical and sometimes lazy album built for life’s lush but quieter moments, this album feels similar in tone but with significantly less bloat. It also begs to be compared to Yo La Tengo’s much-hearalded masterpiece, 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, even though it’s missing the gritty rock songs that broke up some of the softer melodies, which kept you on your toes. There’s precision and weight prominently on display throughout this album, which might make it seem like one of the band’s less important efforts, but just because it’s one of their more insular and introspective long players doesn’t mean it loses strength and excellence.

One of Fade‘s biggest assets is how it can give you the impression that a melody is smooth and simplistic when in fact it’s anything but. Opening track “Ohm” establishes a nice groove over its nearly seven minute run time, and if you’re not paying close enough attention the squall of noise that arrives near the end will sneak up on you in the best possible way. “Two Trains” and “I’ll Be Around” are equally deceptive, their lush acoustic pleasantries thrown off course slightly thanks to a carefully picked but wayward electric guitar and some day-glo synth work. If you’re in search of the one song that best encapsulates the sound and the rush of feelings generated by this record, you can’t do much better than album centerpiece “Stupid Things.” The track was inspired in part by some health issues that Ira Kaplan dealt with somewhat recently, and embraces the impermanence of life and love as we grapple with whatever threads we have at our disposal. It’s ultimately a happy song and celebrates life’s little moments, but with a certain amount of unease at being a flawed and vulnerable human being. The guitar and strings make it beautiful and life-affirming, while the mechanical, motorik beat seeks to remove the emotion from the otherwise impassioned melody. It’s working on that subtle pattern of purposeful sabotage that helps separate Yo La Tengo from any similar-sounding peers and provokes an unintended reaction that keeps the active listener on their toes.

If you’re the sort of person that has to figure out exactly where Fade fits among Yo La Tengo’s storied and rather excellent catalogue, perhaps you’re thinking a bit too hard about a band that likes to play with and confound expectations. They’ve explored such a wide variety of sounds and themes over the last 20+ years that it’s become less about one album or song being better than the others and more about whether or not they’ve hit the creative wall. Are they still making interesting, exciting and good music worth listening to and buying? Absolutely. That’s more than can be said about 95% of artists with similar longevity and discography. The new album may be the most serene and relaxed of their career thus far, but by no means should you interpret these slower and shorter tracks as a sign of aging nor the album title as a suggestion that they should slowly drift off into the ether of history. It is instead at once reflective and reflexive, pondering life’s big questions while also keeping the proverbial wolves at bay. They may not be getting any better, which is all but impossible with the lengthy passage of space and time, but they’re definitely not getting any worse. Such consistency is more of a comfort than anything else, the knowledge that no matter what angle they approach each new record with, there’s some assurance the songs will still be good. Based on what they’ve presented with this album, one can only hope they’re willing to keep this wild ride going for another 20+ years.

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Album Review: Christopher Owens – Lysandre [Fat Possum/Turnstile]

The evolution of Christopher Owens has been interesting and strange when you really think about it. Everyone likes to mention the time he spent growing up in a cult, probably because it makes for an interesting back story to the music that his band Girls would go on to make. Across two full lengths and an EP, the way that band transitioned from breezy and brash drug-fueled pop to psychedelic and hazy Pink Floydian pop was a thing of beauty. It gave off the impression that while there were other members of Girls, Owens really came into his own as a frontman during those formative years and distinguished himself among his peers. When Owens suddenly announced he was leaving the band in mid-2012, the main question everyone asked was why, because they had become so successful and respected. Subsequently and in promotion for his debut solo album Lysandre, the explanation becomes much clearer: there were no other permanent members of Girls besides JR White, and the revolving door of musicians was exactly what Owens didn’t want Girls to be. Better to make a record on your own the way you want to make it, and then play it live with a backing band that’s not expected to be anything more. So now more in control of his career than ever before, Owens continues to dream big from a conceptual standpoint while going a bit smaller when it comes to the music itself.

Lysandre is a smartly written and composed album that pretty much details the ups and downs of a relationship he had during the early days of Girls. He focused almost exclusively on women throughout Girls’ catalogue, so it’s no surprise that theme continues on his first solo record. Yet unlike songs about “Laura” and “Lauren Marie” and “Myrna” and “Jamie Marie,” this is an album about one person in particular, given the name Lysandre to protect the innocent. It’s also a very sonically linked record that rewards those that pay close attention from start to finish. “Lysandre’s Theme” is the :38 introduction to the album, and that melody pops up again in almost every other song that follows. The repetition stays with you, even as all the other parts around it move in unfamiliar and different directions.

Speaking of different directions, it’s understandable that Owens might want to distance himself from the scrappy prog/psych-rock sound of Girls, which is perhaps why this album presents a shift towards more acoustic and spare arrangements to create simplistic pop songs and ballads. You get a song like “Here We Go,” which starts off very lush and beautiful with an acoustic guitar and Owens staying so calm his vocals are almost a whisper. Lovely as it is, about halfway through a flute enters the mix and flutters around the melody in a very distracting way. It’s enough to pull you out of the song and make you question why it needs to be there at all. The same can be said for a saxophone on “New York City,” a startlingly cheery pop song whose lyrics are about desperation, poverty, drugs and violence – basically the antithesis of what it sounds like. It’d be one thing if the track was a sly attempt at subversive humor, but there’s no indication Owens is having a laugh or trying to be ironic, which in turn takes away any meaningful points trying to be made. In the end it just feels a little uncomfortable. Of course nothing quite compares to “Riviera Rock,” the strange reggae instrumental that sits at the center of the album and comes off like a cross between elevator muzak and the intermission music they used to play when they took breaks in the middle of movies. It’s the album’s true WTF moment, and likely only exists to help pad out the album’s run time, which wraps up at an extremely lean 28 minutes.

For the handful of faults that Lysandre has, there’s also a handful of very good things to help balance them out. Unlike the poorly managed mixing of “Here We Go,” “A Broken Heart” actually manages to pull off an acoustic ballad complete with a flute that doesn’t sound overbearing or enters the song from out of nowhere. Owens’ vocal also hits on just the right amount of tenderness and vulnerability that’s required for the subject matter at hand. The bouncy and fun “Here We Go Again” doesn’t make any real missteps either, and is a great reminder that Owens is still happy to write pop songs in the vein of some of Girls’ best like “Lust for Life” and “Honey Bunny.” The second half of the album is actually quite strong on the whole, and moments like “Love Is in the Ear of the Listener,” “Everywhere You Knew” and “Part of Me (Lysandre’s Epilogue)” are very grounded and connect on their themes of unease, depression and ultimately acceptance with a strong dose of resolve.

When you really think about the good vs. the bad on Lysandre, along with its length, it becomes apparent that Owens would have been smarter to have just released this as a 5-6 song EP rather than a full length album. It would have been a whole lot stronger in that compact arrangement with all the fat trimmed out of it. Yet there’s still something admirable about how Owens treats this record as more of a sounding board than something he’s deadly serious about. His goal was to separate himself from the work he’d done previously in Girls and try to string together some intelligently crafted song experiments in the form of a concept album. In those things he succeeded. While it may alienate some and disappoint others, it’s important to recognize that he’s still trying to find his own voice and sound, and those growing pains might take a bit. Don’t worry though, because Owens has made it clear he’s not going anywhere or plans to stop making music any time soon. With that in mind, it’s likely Lysandre will be seen as a brief detour on his path towards greatness.

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Album Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! [Constellation]

The small subgenre of music known to most as post-rock seems to have run its course. That’s not to suggest that the steadied and beautiful hands that craft such intricate melodies have stopped doing what they do best. No, like any particular style of music, there are ebbs and flows, and what was once popular suddenly becomes shunned by the fickle masses as they search for the “next big thing.” You take a look at bands like Sigur Ros and Mogwai, and simply glancing at their catalogues will show you how the quality of their recordings appeared to drop compared to their earlier, late ’90s efforts. Of course the more you create the more material there is for comparison and criticism. Had there been more Nirvana or Beatles records, maybe their legacies wouldn’t have heen as strong as they are today. And while some of the disdain for many modern-day post-rock efforts stems from recycling old sounds and failing to make forward evolutionary progress, nobody seems to be entirely sure where to go next. A band like Swans certainly qualifies for the post-rock label, but have always had a large following among heavy metal, industrial and post-punk fans too, and being able to keep toes dipped into multiple pools has benefited them greatly. It’s helped their new record The Seer rank among some of 2012’s best. But when you break the genre down to its basest instincts, the ultimate goal is to make primarily instrumental music that speaks to our emotions and sends chills down our spines. You don’t even need to be original if what you’re creating pushes the right buttons. That principle applies to all music, with the understanding that it’s better to be good than cool.

In a sense, with their return from a hiatus along with their first album of new material in 10 years, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are filling a void we didn’t know was there in the first place. Though their music has little to no vocals save for the occasional sound clip, the band’s mission is far more politically oriented than you might expect. They’ve never shyed away from commenting on world issues, and the collective’s unofficial frontman Efrim Menuck has been called an anarchist on more than one occasion. They insert themselves into this commentary and these situations even though you won’t hear it addressed in the songs that they play. Well, as they argue (and it’s one of the reasons they took nearly a decade off), their music is created based on both physical and political pain happening around the world. They vanished about a year after 9/11 and as the U.S. was starting to become involved with Iraq and Afghanistan. You’d suspect these things would inspire the band, and their 2002 album Yanqui U.X.O. was its own political statement, with missiles on the album cover and interior artwork drawing connections between major record labels (AOL Time-Warner, BMG, Universal) and various arms manufacturers. There’d be plenty more political fodder and terror to draw from moving forwards for the band, but they chose to explore side projects and other avenues of creation for awhile. Now with the U.S. all but out of Iraq and Afghanistan wrapping up as well, one would hope that a period of relative peace was right around the corner. Yet Godspeed came back to life in late 2010 bigger and bolder than ever, though existing solely as a touring entity. Then came an October surprise. At the start of the month they announced there’d be a new album called Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, and that it would be released in two weeks’ time. They dropped that bomb on everyone.

Yet GY!BE would save their biggest shocker for those that actually listened to the new album. They haven’t changed their sound or done something drastic and unexpected. Quite the opposite in fact. These new songs sound more focused, beautiful and impressive than just about anything they’ve ever done. Nobody quite sounded like them during their initial run in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and nobody still sounds like them today. To those that would say this is a classic case of absence making the heart grow fonder, there’s an equally compelling argument to be made that expectations have only grown for the band in their time away. Just take groups like Pixies or Pavement as examples. Both went away for awhile and left some seriously important and great music in their wake. Upon their return, they chose to tour and only play their old stuff. Pavement has once more vanished into the ether, a band of myth and legend, while Pixies continue to tour and rake in cash almost exclusively because they can. But for so many success stories that don’t want to or are afraid to mess with their back catalogue and legacies, there are the ones that push forwards and hope for the best. Dinosaur Jr. and Guided By Voices are two good examples of bands with solid second halves of their careers (so far), while grunge stalwarts like Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden seem to be having the opposite effect with their “comeback” records. But getting back to Godspeed, perhaps they avoided some of the backlash that’s associated with comeback records because of the quick turnaround they pulled. Announcing a new album and then immediately selling it at shows followed by a traditional store release two weeks later didn’t give anybody time to react. With prejudging almost entirely removed from the equation, the collective listening experience has been tempered and thoughtful and understandably gobsmacked at how excellent these songs really are.

It’s a huge help that two of the songs on Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! are tracks the band was playing around with since 2003. There are live recordings of “Mladic” (formerly known as “Albanian”) and “We Drift Like Worried Fire” (formerly known as “Gamelan”) from the pre-hiatus period, making their studio recorded inclusion here a satisfactory note for long-time fans. What’s most fascinating is how much both of the songs evolved due to time and the addition of new players. They’ve kept many of the same parts so they’re recognizable as the same songs from years ago, but so much has also been re-imagined and re-purposed to give these songs a fuller and more dynamic feel. “Mladic” is heavier and more visceral than ever, slowly building over its 20 minutes with Middle Eastern-style guitars before hitting its stride in the final seven minutes with pure noise and intense orchestral changes. Rarely have GY!BE gone so dark, but it’s also immensely important that they do take those emotions to heart as part of a healthy balance with the lighter fare. It’s an exploration and ultimately expulsion of their demons, filtered through the glasses of an influential band like Swans. Once all that hand wringing finishes in dramatic fashion, relief and calm take over and provide solemn guidance through the rest of the record. “We Drift Like Worried Fire” is positively placid by comparison, and in fact shows off the band’s tender and minimalist side. Starting with precious few notes on a guitar, the track accrues more and more elements to create a lush stew of infinitely measurable beauty that is likely to make the boys in Sigur Ros jealous. At that point in time, about 10 minutes in, a peak is hit and there’s a sudden explosion of joyous emotion and sonic glory that is just about enough to restore your faith in humanity whether you lost it or not. The whole world suddenly fades away so you can be fully present in that moment because it is a knockout punch.

Naturally, the two shorter tracks on Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, clocking in at 6.5 minutes apiece, can feel like stopgaps compared to the duo of big showcase 20 minute monstrosities. If you buy the album on vinyl, “Their Helicopters’ Sing” and “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable” don’t even make the main 12″ but are instead relegated to a separate 7″. That doesn’t make them outcasts though, and if you buy a digital or CD copy of the record their placement at tracks two and four creates a nice buffer between the longer pieces and allows the group to continue to throw curveballs and variations in their already distinct sound. Both tracks are drones that are positively hypnotic when listened to with eyes closed and a clear mind. “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable” shows off a little more instability than its nearly equal length counterpart, but both bear an eerie sonic resemblance to some great moments on the F#A#∞ record. It’s just another great reminder that no other band has quite the mastery of sound or has carved such a distinct place for themselves in the world of post-rock. No matter the state of the genre right now or in the future, there’s very little that can change the power and emotional wallop this record packs into its four tracks and 53 minutes. We’ve missed you, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Welcome back.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Mladic

Buy Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! from Constellation Records

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

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

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

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

Crystal Castles – Plague
Crystal Castles – Wrath of God

Crystal Castles – Affection

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Album Review: …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Lost Songs [Richter Scale/Superball]

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead aren’t an ambitious band. They are beyond ambitious, and often to a fault. Ten years ago, they were unfortunate enough to be cursed with an almighty 10.0 on Pitchfork’s richter scale, and they’ve always seemed like a band still trying to recover from that madness. Being told you’ve crafted a perfect work of musical art is enough to make any artist lose his or her mind, because that little voice inside your head essentially teases you with the idea that maybe you can maintain the impossibly high standard you’ve established for yourself. The reality is, you’ve got to keep pressing on like it never happened, and hope that the lightning in a bottle once again shows up at your doorstep. Unfortunately for Trail of Dead, they felt like the next logical step was to take their sound bigger and more robust than ever before. It led to two gluttonous major label efforts, Worlds Apart and So Divided, that left long-time fans feeling like they were standing on the wrong side of the gulf those two titles implied. Those were the days of such sharp backlash and disappointment it sent the band soaring downward in a shame spiral one might never expect them to recover from. After a bunch of in-fighting and stripping down the lineup to just the four core members, 2011’s Tao of the Dead was the start of a real recovery for the boys. They continued to defy expectations with that record, creating a conceptual premise built on two seamless parts that were recorded only in the keys of D and F. In spite of how gimmicky it looked on paper, the record’s pure rock drive and generally shorter songs were a blessing in disguise showing how far they’d climbed back up from a low point just a few years earlier.

Now about a year and a half later comes Lost Songs, a straightforward, pure Trail of Dead rock record the likes of which they haven’t done in 10 years. The high-minded concepts are gone, as is pretty much any song that clocks in at over five minutes in length. If you go strictly by the standard edition of this album, it’s the band’s shortest since their 1998 self-titled debut. Even the cover art, unlike the intense and complicated pieces created by frontman Conrad Keely in the past, is black and white simplicity showing four silhouettes standing in the middle of a desolate town. This is about as basic as the band can get both musically and stylistically, which is why they’re practically hardcore punk once you clear all the debris away. The energy and intensity hits you immediately with “Open Doors,” then refuses to let up or give you a true breather until “Awestruck” arrives 10 tracks in. This heavy punch to the gut almost starts to wear thin after about 30 minutes, but Trail of Dead’s ingenuity and ability to showcase the quiet instrumental builds to explosive finales serves them particularly well here, leaving you satisfied even as you know what curveball is waiting around the corner. Songs like “Up to Infinity” and “Pinhole Cameras” are invigorating in exactly the ways they need to be early on. It’s also extremely pleasing to hear Jason Reece get behind the microphone again a few times on this album, as he’s been largely stuck behind the drum kit the last couple records. He’s a larger than life sort of guy, throwing himself fully into whatever he does. It’s the main reason why the percussion is so strong on this record, and why the songs featuring Reece’s vocals are some of the album’s biggest standouts. “Catatonic” in particular feels like a special moment for him, to the point where you can almost hear a stage dive built into it.

But Trail of Dead want Lost Songs to be about more than just a forceful collection of rock songs. They have every intention of using their power as musicians to consistently challenge both themselves and their audience, which is why much of the new album revolves around world politics. This isn’t the same sort of politics that the new Local H record is about, though. On a much closer level they’re trying to take up the mantle left behind by a band like Rage Against the Machine. The goal seems to be less of a commentary on our leaders and more of an effort to cure social injustices. The band dedicated their single “Up to Infinity” to Pussy Riot, even though the song was written about the Syrian Civil War. On “Pinhole Cameras” they empathize with those that appear to be “starving, living in this land of plenty.” In other parts of the record they spit venom at despots and try to slap people out of comas of ignorance to serious world issues. Heroic though these efforts might be, and as much as it fills a void in the current music climate, it’s unlikely to truly spark a revolution. You’ve got to give them credit for trying though, and if that’s what fueled the post-hardcore aesthetic of this album, so much the better. Trail of Dead have reclaimed the spark they lost many years ago. In the best sense, that makes this record full of found songs, for they are lost no more.

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Catatonic

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