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Tag: chillwave

Show Review: Washed Out + HAERTS [Metro; Chicago; 9/13/13]

There was a chill in the air all throughout Chicago this past Friday night. It was odd only because not a day or two earlier, temperatures were in the mid-to-upper 90s. You could say that fall showed up from out of nowhere. Or maybe it had something to do with the “eerie” Friday the 13th, where bad things happen because of a random day on a calendar. But if you’re looking for a more honest, completely non-scientific explanation for the seasonably cool weather, it’s because Washed Out (aka Ernest Greene) came to town. Greene was one of the original artists to get wrapped up in the “chillwave” genre descriptor when it first came to prominence around 2008. Chillwave grooves might be quite lovely overall, but they project a rather frigid demeanor as well. You’re invited to sit back and relax, but don’t get too comfortable. The chillwave tag might be all but dead these days, and Washed Out may have transitioned to greener pastures via the latest album Paracosm, but that doesn’t mean the city of Chicago has to accept it. We are the Windy City after all, and just like our weather our opinions about things can change dramatically thanks to even the slightest passing breeze. For the sold out crowd at Metro on Friday however, the physical and mental temperature rose big time thanks to cerebral but immensely fun sets from two bands that ignited a dance party of sweaty bodies.

Starting the night off right was New York band HAERTS. They’ve spent the last few months gathering more and more attention for their singles “Wings” and “All the Days,” both of which are bouncy and dynamic pieces of synth pop. You could call them part of a trend in 2013, boasting a similar sound and style to that of Chvrches, another band poised to hit it big despite not having an album out yet. At least Chvrches have got an EP right now. HAERTS are readying their debut EP, titled Hemiplegia, which has been in the works for awhile but will finally be out on September 24th. This tour with Washed Out provides a nice preview of what to expect from this young band in the immediate future. The good news is that the outlook continues to appear bright, and the new songs tend to be as strong as the pair we’ve already been exposed to. They played all four tracks from their EP, including the aforementioned singles, then dove into material that will presumably be on their full length, which is still tentatively due later this year. This is material they’ve been performing and essentially sitting on for at least a year now, if producer Jean Philip Grobler (aka St. Lucia) is telling the truth. One of the best and catchiest of the new tunes is “Heart,” and you can watch the band perform a live rendition of that as part of a recent Yours Truly session. Outside of all that, I’m not sure about the titles of anything else they performed, except to say that there was another fun one and also a slow ballad. On stage, HAERTS sound good and look good too, but those two elements alone don’t win you awards for being a great live band. Their faithful renditions of their recorded output left little room for sonic detours, and the overall stoicism stripped back any genuine emotional impact the songs might otherwise have had. In other words, they might do even better than they currently are if they adopted a looser and more playful attitude on stage. Maybe that’s a quality you attain with time. For now though, HAERTS packed a lot of punch into their opening set, and the crowd got a little bit into it. Hopefully the next time they come through town it will be on a headlining tour in support of their record, and they’ll be better than ever.

The first thing that amused me about Washed Out’s set happened before any notes were even played. It was that the entire stage was decorated in flowers and vines and even patches of fake grass, all in service of fulfilling Ernest Greene’s grand, nature-laden vision. After an album and an EP of intimate but emotionally cold music, the new Washed Out record Paracosm seeks to change things by adding warmth and more organic elements overall. It very much sounds like a summer album to help connect you with the world around you, and all the album art and music videos push this theme even further with flowers, plants and jungle animals. That’s why the look of the Metro stage was so appropriate and equally fascinating. But as far as organic elements go, the biggest positive the new record has to offer is a lot of live instrumentation. In the past, Greene has used samples played off a laptop both in recorded versions of songs as well as in concert. When I last saw the band in fall of 2012, there were more people playing live instruments than I expected, but a laptop was still used from time to time. Now in fall of 2013, all of that computer technology has been eliminated. A handful of people joined Greene on stage to help bring everything to life, and the results were positively lovely.

Starting with Paracosm‘s opening track(s) “Entrance/It All Feels Right,” the crowd got into it right away and bounced along with its upbeat rhythm. Greene strummed an acoustic guitar and sang in tandem with one of his bandmates to create a dual, echo-laden vocal. That vocal style would be adopted for much of the set, and it begs the question of whether or not this choice had anything to do with a lack of confidence/vocal weakness or is intended to be an aesthetic that’s there solely to provoke certain vibes. Whatever’s behind it, everything sounded (and felt) right/well constructed. There was a surprise early on in the set when the band played “Belong,” off the 2009 High Times EP which is the first and probably least recognized Washed Out recording. The live version on Friday night was a bit different from the studio version, which is understandable given how much the show and on stage personnel has evolved since then. The same went for “New Theory” and “Get Up” from the Life of Leisure EP, though there was a certain faithfulness to the recorded original, just recreated by people instead of a computer. Overall the dozen songs performed were pretty evenly split between the varying Washed Out albums and EPs, and actually it could be said the new album was slightly underrepresented by only squeezing three (technically four if you count the 90 second instrumental “Entrance”) of its songs in. Of course they were the poppiest and most enjoyable tracks on the record, and that was perhaps the underlying strategy when performing live – to never let the energy drop. The crowd was dancing and having a great time, so why slide one of the slower and less engaging cuts into the set? The second half in particular was heavy on the hits, with new single “Don’t Give Up” leading into “Feel It All Around” (aka the Portlandia theme song), and “Amor Fati” to close things out in a fun way.

Greene wasn’t a man of many words during the Washed Out set at Metro, but he did introduce the first song of the encore as “one for the old school Washed Out fans in the house.” The band then launched into “Despicable Dogs,” which is actually a cover/remix of a Small Black song that was put together for a split EP back in 2009. Of all the unexpected surprises during the set, that one probably qualified as the biggest. Technically speaking, the band took that song and made it their own, but it wasn’t that far removed from the chillwave original anyways. The novelty was the main selling point. Reflecting on the show afterwards, there were a lot of those unique touches that popped up throughout the 65 minute set, all the way down to the decor. Chillwave may be a subgenre of music on its last legs, but not only did Greene prove himself to be at the top of that pile, he managed to prove there’s still plenty of life left in that particular sound. His continued evolution remains our gain.

Washed Out – Amor Fati

Paracosm full album stream:

Buy Paracosm from Sub Pop

Set List
Entrance/It All Feels Right
New Theory
Get Up
You and I
All I Know
DonÔÇÖt Give Up
Feel It All Around
Amor Fati
Despicable Dogs
Eyes Be Closed

Album Review: Washed Out – Paracosm [Sub Pop]

Considering the increasingly short life cycles of trends in music these days, it’s gotten almost difficult to remember that there was once a subgenre of music known to many as chillwave. It’s been nearly five years since that word introduced us to artists like Neon Indian, Toro y Moi and Washed Out. Two years after it started, the sound got tired, produced diminishing returns, and artists were forced to adapt/innovate or die. For Ernest Greene of Washed Out, he spent his 2011 debut album Within and Without both perfecting and updating the sound of his earlier EPs. While it wasn’t a record that lent itself to any particular distinction among its nine songs, what it lacked in establishing singles it more than made up for in cohesiveness of sound and structure. It’s exactly the sort of evolution that was needed at the time, and the increased clarity on the production and vocals spoke to a much greater clarity of overall vision for the project as well.

Now in 2013 with that sound even further removed from many radars, Greene makes yet another stylistic leap on Paracosm in a bid to keep things interesting. You’re certainly not going to mistake his work for any other artist, and these aren’t earth-shattering changes by any means, but subtle shifts in tone and instrumentation do show us a new side of Washed Out. The new album sounds so warm and tropical it’s practically the opposite of the icier textures chillwave became known for, and it’s so lush and crisp that affixing the name Washed Out to it feels like you’re mislabeling it. Of course in case you need to be hit over the head with this idea, one look at the floral arrangement on the album cover or watching videos for “It All Feels Right” and “Don’t Give Up” will do everything but physically take you out into nature and prove it’s a great pairing with this music. Hell, when it’s not little snippets of indiscernable conversations from a crowd of people that’s plays at the beginnings and ends of most tracks, you get birds chirping and the basic sounds you hear when you hit the “jungle” setting on the white noise machine next to your bed. Obvious though it might be, the visual (and in some respects sonic) representations associated with this album are intended to enhance what’s already there, which it succeeds at doing in spades. If you think you’ve heard Paracosm because you played it through headphones while sitting at your desk or on your couch one afternoon, the experience changes dramatically if you’re laying on the grass in a park on a sunny day or wandering through a local forest preserve.

Beyond all the physical representations injecting additional mood and meaning into the music, one of the key influencers on this record is the use of more than 50 total instruments rather than sampling. The early recordings were extremely sample-dominant, and while Within and Without started to incorporate a wider variety of organic elements (particularly as part of the live show), this is really the first time guitars and live drums have been used on a Washed Out album. There’s also a host of other, stranger instruments that were used on various songs that might not be so easy to pick out unless you’re really listening closely. Some of those instruments and sonic influences have been chronicled as part of a short documentary by The Creators Project (Part I, Part II), which is insightful and worth your time to watch if you like geeking out about that sort of stuff.

Focusing on the actual songs of Paracosm, as with most albums this one is front-loaded. Outside of the 80 second instrumental intro “Entrance,” the first four actual songs on the record could each serve as potential singles. It’s fitting that “It All Feels Right” really kicks things off, as the track is a spiritual (but not really sonic) cousin to the most popular Washed Out song to date, “Feel It All Around,” which you may recognize as the theme to Portlandia. Both are relaxed but bouncy in their tempo, and lyrically invite you to “feel” positive about life. One of the things that’s more apparent on the new album are Greene’s lyrics, which are never without a touch of reverb but are still clearer than any previous records. If you pay close enough attention to what’s being said, there is some realization that maybe these words would be better if we couldn’t hear them so well. Lines like, “Weekend’s almost here now / It’s getting warmer outside / It all feels right,” might as well appear on the next Black Eyed Peas single because they’re so pedestrian. This has been Greene’s biggest problem since day one, and unlike the forward progress in composition and live instrumentation, he doesn’t seem to be making any effort to improve his writing skills. We understand the theme, along with the overall vibe of a song, is going to place emphasis on laid back, fun in the sun with friends. It’s a great thing to be known for, but it starts to come across as really repetitive the closer you look.

What saves “It All Feels Right” and many of the other poorly worded songs on Paracosm are the arrangements. Official single “Don’t Give Up” does a particularly spectacular job with this, resulting in such a complex melody you’ll keep discovering new layers buried within it several listens later. That chorus is an incredible earworm too. While “Weightless” may not be the most engaging track from the first half of the album, the mixture of synths creates an overall sound that skirts the line between M83 and Cocteau Twins. If it’s commercially viable you’re looking for, “All I Know” might just be the poppiest Washed Out song ever, and it doesn’t feel like anything was sacrificed or lost to get to that point. It’s impressive in its own way, and gives us a glimpse into a potential future for this project where commercial accessibility leads to a broad fan base and hordes of commercial opportunities (see again, M83). “Great Escape” does a fantastic job of tapping into the more soulful side of Greene’s vision, even if that means conjuring up memories of Marvin Gaye classics in the process. Sure it might draw some unfavorable comparisons, but at the same time it adds layers to what we’ve already heard while not straying very far from the overall relaxed and tropical vibe.

As Paracosm starts to wrap up around the lengthy title track, the tempo slows and the synths pretty much take things into cruise control. It doesn’t necessarily get boring, but it can feel a bit whitewashed (word use intentional) and eerily reminiscent of some moments on Within and Without. You could argue that these final songs help to balance out the record, set against the pop-oriented first half. It all flows well thematically, but just because you have that doesn’t automatically make it good. It just makes it more bearable. The positive outlook is that this is the overall best and most advanced Washed Out record to date. It’s issues involving poorly written lyrics, Greene’s limited/always obscured vocal range, and pacing issues towards the end all ultimately pale in comparison to the goal of this music, which is to provide a soundtrack to your relaxing day of fun in the sun. That’s one thing it definitely succeeds at, and what kind of people would we be if we yelled at him for it?

Stream the entire album on Soundcloud for a limited time!

Buy Paracosm from Amazon

Album Review: Neon Indian – Era Extra├▒a [Mom & Pop/Static Tongues]

Of the many chillwave/glo-fi acts to emerge out of that hype cycle a couple years ago, Neon Indian was easily one of the most unique. Sure, the Alan Palomo-fronted project had that distinctive 80s washed out bedroom electronica feel to it, but there haven’t been a lot of artists that incorporate 8-bit video game noises and distorted guitar lines. Throw Palomo’s overly soft-on-the-ears vocals in as well, and Neon Indian’s debut “Psychic Chasms” turned him into a proverbial indie star. Last year he did a one-off single for Green Label Sound called “Sleep Paralysist”, and a couple months back he recorded a psychedelic freak-out EP with The Flaming Lips. Both of those things marked shifts in direction for Palomo and Neon Indian, yet none of those things quite encapsulate what is going on with his second long player, “Era Extra├▒a”. Then again, if you’ve been paying attention to how things are going with other chillwave artists these days, you’re surely aware that like any hype cycle, it’s lifespan is running short. Changes are all but required to survive, and it’s fascinating to hear how the artists within the genre are reacting individually. If you’re Palomo, you go to Finland by yourself and see what sorts of batshit ideas fly out of your head. Rather than putting him in a straightjacket though, “Era Extra├▒a” actually winds up bringing a greater focus to his unique sound.

As it has played out with a number of other chillwave artists, “Era Extra├▒a” boasts a marked step forwards in production style. “Psychic Chasms” was crafted and recorded primarily in Alan Palomo’s bedroom, and you could pretty much tell that from the way it sounded. Now utilizing an actual studio and with actual producer Dave Fridmann, the new album sounds cleaner and bigger than ever before. There are still a handful of woozy, fully retro-fied moments, in particular the 3 instrumental “Heart” interludes, but while the era remains firmly entrenched in the 80s, we’re now dealing in technicolor rather than something paler and more faded. If this were the last record, a track like “Hex Girlfriend” might otherwise have vocals buried in the mix and filled with so much lo-fi reverb that the lyrics border on indecipherable. Now better produced and devoid of any vocal effects, the vocals come across as clear and dominant, a positive when placed among shoegazey guitars and woozy synths. In almost direct opposition to that, the album’s title track features highly polished synths and strongly driven bass, a combo that feels markedly M83/New Order-ish, but then the vocals wind up lowest on the totem pole and oozing with so much reverb that they’re nearly pointless. A huge positive is that the song is paired next to “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)”, a track that is a spiritual and sonic cousin but does a far more interesting job blending textures and pulling off the M83 style. In fact, the sequencing on the entirety of “Era Extra├▒a” is rather inspired, as the grungy, guitar-heavy shoegaze numbers “The Blindside Kiss” and “Hex Girlfriend” wind up neighbors, while there’s an almost LCD Soundsystem-like quality to “Future Sick” and “Suns Irrupt” even if neither track ever quite gets to that level of brilliance. Palomo even has “Arcade Blues” tacked onto the very end of the record with the word “single” in parentheses because he wanted to include it as a bonus track even though it didn’t fit in stylistically with the rest of the record. He’s right about that, and it makes for a great little addendum to everything that came before it.

Palomo also shows off his expanding skills as a composer, building more creatively stimulating and intricate melodies than ever before and utilizing an army of sound effects to accent increasingly complex choruses. First single “Polish Girl” experiments a little with verse structure, namely by placing a bit of instrumental space between the chorus and verses that serves as its own hook. It’s not noticeable unless you’re really looking for it though, which is one of the reasons why the song works so well. In other spots, it’s little moments that make you sit up and take notice. The static-filled, bubbling synth open to “Hex Girlfriend” and the twinkling synths that bring the title track to its conclusion are just two of the more soberingly beautiful bits that bring an extra dose of charm to songs that are far more expansive and party-oriented than most of Neon Indian’s earlier stuff. Yet it never wanders from the singular path it appears to be on, streamlined and to the point more than ever before. And while some of the textures and approaches to most of the songs have changed on “Era Extra├▒a”, the lyrical topics stay within the ballpark. Yes, there’s the inevitable topic du jour of relationships, primarily failed ones, that Palomo gets down about from time to time. That comprises much of the first half of the album, while the second half is more about distancing yourself from the world at large primarily through disconnection. “Future Sick” is all about falling behind the times technologically, while “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)” is about the need to carve your own path in life or risk being left in the dark. The melodies themselves may be uplifting and danceable, but by no means do all of them project positive messages.

If there’s one thing “Era Extra├▒a” lacks, it’s a more lighthearted approach. It’s a big part of why “Arcade Blues” doesn’t fit within the solid structure of the rest of the record. Not that “Arcade Blues” is a single overjoyed moment on this album – from the title alone you can tell it’s not a happy song. What it does right though is through the smart and liberal use of video game samples, remind us of those afternoons after school or weekends in which we’d go to the arcade with friends and have a blast pumping those machines full of quarters. Palomo may have preferred another method of distraction, but there was a certain satisfaction to be gained from everything as classic as Pac Man to putting the pedal to the floor in a driving game or knowing that your parents didn’t want you playing Mortal Kombat. That he only finds sadness in an arcade while simultaneously exploiting video game sound effects is almost counterintuitive. This, coming from a guy that used to perform in his early pre-Neon Indian days while wearing a Nintendo Powerglove. It’s that uncertainty, that push towards something darker as the music itself sounds lighter than ever, that makes “Era Extra├▒a” weaker than its predecessor. For all the advances Neon Indian has made sonically, verbally and psychologically Palomo has run the other way. He’s retreated into this more pessimistic and serious place but can’t even be bothered to try a little sarcasm on for size. The record is still a success, but not nearly what it could have been had the outlook been a little brighter. With big, fun-sounding music, you want to have the artist reflect that back at you with their words. LCD Soundsystem had their fair share of sadder songs (“All My Friends”, “Someone Great”), but those were often balanced out with silly numbers (“North American Scum”, “Drunk Girls”). Once Alan Palomo is able to find that same dichotomy, Neon Indian will truly hit the big time.

Neon Indian – Polish Girl

Neon Indian – Hex Girlfriend

Neon Indian – Fallout

Buy “Era Extra├▒a” from Amazon

Album Review: Washed Out – Within and Without [Sub Pop/Weird World]

Do you recall when people were trying to suggest that the chillwave/glo-fi sound was the future of music? The thought was that this wasn’t just another hyped subgenre but instead something that would become an evolutionary sea change. Personally, I chalked it up to more blowhards talking out of their asses, and assumed the chatter would die down like it always does, when the “next big sound” arrives. That hasn’t necessarily hit just yet, but the electronic sound with the lo-fi production is dying a slow death. Some artists, such as Memory Tapes, appear either slow or entirely unreactive to this evolution, using their most recent full lengths or EPs to hold steadfast in the same sounds they first arrived on scene with. Others, such as Toro Y Moi, have played it much smarter by upgrading to a far more clean-cut and “normal” approach. It’s a survival tactic, but it’s also a great way of showing that underneath the poorly produced exterior lies an album’s worth of highly catchy and easy to love synth-pop songs. This is where Washed Out comes in. The project under which Ernest Greene operates, Washed Out’s sound has been very much a direct indicator of what the name suggests. As such, you might expect Greene to stick with that same path for the new record “Within and Without”. The good news is that music is about so much more than just a name.

Freshly signed to Sub Pop Records thanks to two strong EPs worth of chillwave, Washed Out was given access to a professional studio and other such monetary advantages to help create “Within and Without”. The results are as you might expect – glossy and vibrant, with the synths riding up front and the vocals not much farther behind. It’s dance music, but not nearly in the traditional sense of the word. Subtlety is the name of the game, and the melodies will often slyly sneak up on you and snatch your attention when you least expect them to. There are no immediate hooks or blatant singles like “Feel It All Around” was on the “Life of Leisure” EP. Instead, a track like “Soft” may pass you by on the first go-around as being nice to listen to, but ultimately unmemorable. Then you’ll give it two more close listens, perhaps once with headphones, and suddenly that melody just won’t leave you alone. That’s just one example out of several across the album that reward multiple listens, drawing you in the more attention you devote to it. The relaxed pace is a big part of what makes “Within and Without” work as well, and there’s a certain truth contained within the album cover that features two people lying naked together in the heat of passion. Making love to things like the title track or “You and I” is perfectly sensible and nearly encouraged. But even if you don’t have somebody to get it on with while listening to this album, the sheer ambiance and warmth of it is great to put on at a party or in the background while you’re working or even after a long day where you need to relax. Despite the adjustment in fidelity, this is still CHILLwave after all, and the point is sort of missed if you don’t “chill out” while listening to it.

One of the issues this record runs into is that it might be heard as overly smooth by some, the better production values actually reducing the effectiveness of the material. There is the potential for the entire 40 minute album to slide right past without much notice, but that’s more the result of a poor attention span than it is poor content. From the small bit of cello on “Far Away” through much of the live percussion that unveils itself via a song like “Echoes”, it’s the little things that make “Within and Without” the best set of recordings from Washed Out yet. And even in spite of the better sound quality, that doesn’t make Greene’s vocals a whole lot clearer or more discernable. Between some attached reverb and the placement of the synths and other elements higher in the mix, you’ll likely still be left wanting if the hope was to comb over each and every word and the potential meanings behind them. Greene isn’t a bad singer by any means, but it’s clear that he’d like the focus to be squarely on melody. Besides, you can pretty much already discern from themes and song titles that these songs are about love and longing and summertime and the general sadness of time passing. Sometimes words don’t do those emotions justice anyways. To me, this record is the sonic equivalent of swimming underwater in a crystal clear pool on a sunny day. If that doesn’t seem like an amazing idea to you, then maybe this album or Washed Out in general just won’t click in the proper way. For everyone else, be warned that there’s only a couple months left of summer during which this album will be at its peak enjoyment level.

Washed Out – Eyes Be Closed
Washed Out – Amor Fati

Buy “Within and Without” from Amazon

Album Review: Panda Bear – Tomboy [Paw Tracks]

Noah Lennox may be able to see the future. A little record he released back in 2007 under the Panda Bear moniker called “Person Pitch” struck hard amongst those with a love of memorable 60s pop infused with a sharp dose of psychedelia. Think of Brian Wilson’s music with more of a dosed electronica edge. It was a record so dense and complex that many struggled to fully grasp what it was doing, and though the reaction was mostly bewilderment, there was a consensus it was brilliant. Thinking about it in the most practical way possible, one could easily imagine trends in music to eventually head in the exact direction that “Person Pitch” was already showing us, thereby providing us with a glimpse into not what was but what would be. Nobody caught up to that record in 2008 or most of 2009, but somewhere near the middle of that year the rumblings of a new musical subgenre that some called chillwave and others called glo-fi began to seep out into the general populace. Though not exactly the same, the sound bore some of the distinctive fingerprints of music Panda Bear had put out a couple years earlier. Not only that, but upon reconvening with his bandmates in Animal Collective, they subsequently released their miracle of an album “Merriweather Post Pavilion” and it became like anything Lennox touched was turning to gold. That sort of Midas power is either a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it. All that praise can be nice, but the pressure can build to the point of madness. Plenty of people were salivating at the mere thought of new Panda Bear material, and as soon as some began to trickle out in the form of sone 7 inch singles previewing a full length without a release date, they were swallowed up immediately and obsessed over. It should come as little surprise then that Lennox waited quite awhile before finally putting the finishing touches on his new long player “Tomboy”, and though he surely hoped some of that anticipation would dissipate, in all likelihood it would have remained just as fevered had he waited another 4 years.

Instead of feeding the beast with a new Panda Bear record that has loftier ambitions than the one before, “Tomboy” shoots for something closer to normal. All those samples and complicated melodies that made “Person Pitch” such a gripping listen have been stripped back in favor of a closer focus on actual instruments such as guitars and drums. What used to be lush pieces that teemed with the life of a fully formed sonic landscape have now been trimmed significantly to the barest of essentials. For the majority of the record, it’s an exercise in minimalism. Despite some of these more drastic changes, the new album is no less of a psychedelic trip down memory lane than last time. If you’re looking for an extended journey in the form of a longer cut a la “Bros”, you’ll be left just a bit disappointed with the more concise songs that are clearly separated from one another yet fail to offer a whole lot of distinction between them. Just because there are no clear highlights doesn’t mean the majority of the tracks are terrible or that the record as a whole is disappointing. It’s far from either of those points actually, as this album is more like a colorful and beautifully painted mural rather than a whitewashed wall of nothing. As one gigantic piece, it’s rather fascinating but difficult to know exactly how to give it a proper listen in individual chunks. Simply dropping in on a centrally located track like “Drone” can create an odd sensation, particularly with its spacious yet direct melody that thrives on only vocals and synths. Start from the beginning with “You Can Count On Me” and it’s just busy enough to build a bridge between old material and new. The progression from that into the title track and so forth comes across as nuanced and refined, more than most might realize. “Person Pitch” may have had those longer cuts to push you into sticking out the entire record, that if you would stay for 12 minutes you might as well stay for 40, but digesting all of “Tomboy” in one sitting reflects a similar mentality despite the bite-sized track lengths. It seems that Lennox is trying to do more with less on most every aspect of this record.

What many fail to realize is that Panda Bear’s attempt to take a lot of the same complex ideas and genre tropes from the last album and work them into “Tomboy” is in many ways more challenging than ever. To put it another way, he’s like the MacGyver of chillwave, trapped inside a room with limited utensils at his disposal and trying to break out without the assistance of the door key that’s actually in his back pocket. Call it the thrill of the chase or just the inclination to try and do something different from all the other acts these days trying to pull off a similar sound, the results are still remarkably effective. The sun bakes and waves crash all over “Surfer’s Hymn”. There’s a slight doo-wop 50s charm smeared across “Last Night at the Jetty” that also makes it one of the most accessible things Lennox has ever created. Meanwhile “Alsatian Darn” shimmers with some of the most gorgeous psych-pop moments on the entire album. The pairing of the two longest tracks on the record right near the end feels genuinely inspired as well, taking the easier, more accessible stuff out front and the expansive mental zone outs of “Friendship Bracelet” and “Afterburner” in the back. Then “Benfica” slides in at the end to sort of tie everything together, to the point where the last few seconds make a firm period at the end of a 50 minute sentence.

Why “Tomboy” isn’t the mindblowing adventure that “Person Pitch” was can primarily be chalked up to the ever-changing musical landscape. As “Person Pitch” was very much ahead of its time, the start of a revolution that has bred countless imitators, “Tomboy” is pretty firmly rooted in the present. Where could Lennox have realistically gone with this new record? The mind can’t fathom because most of us don’t know an inspired or fresh idea until we actually hear it. At the very least, it was admirable of him to try to differentiate himself from similar-sounding counterparts by scaling back the instrumentation and increasing the overall accessibility through hooks and less obtuse melodies. What this album does more than anything else though is continue to prove that Lennox remains one of the most brilliant minds making music today. Even when falling perfectly in line with where the hype cycle is at these days, he takes all these other punks to school and shows them a thing or two about how to make good music great. It’s that angelic voice, twisted in reverb. It’s the structure and the way every piece of every song feels vital even when it isn’t. Everyone attempting to make music like this should feel lucky to have such a great example of how it’s done right. As for the rest of us, we’re lucky just being given the opportunity to listen to it, and as often as our ears will allow.

Panda Bear – Last Night at the Jetty

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Album Review: Toro Y Moi – Underneath the Pine [Carpark]

When we last left Toro Y Moi, aka Chaz Bundick, he was riding high on his 2010 debut record “Causers of This”. It was one of a multitude of entries last year underneath the much-hearalded banner of glo-fi/chillwave. In case you’ve been living underneath a rock for the last year or two, what has earned glo-fi/chillwave a strong reputation has been the smart way in which artists have taken electronica-based sounds and repurposed them with a more lo-fi edge. Crappy, home-recorded tracks aren’t exactly the genre’s defining qualities, but they’re certainly one of the ways you can recognize chillwave when you hear it. You need to have a better head on your shoulders than a lot of more mainstream, studio-recorded electronica artists as well. Toro Y Moi certainly falls into that category, as do notables such as Twin Shadow, Neon Indian, Washed Out, Small Black and Memory Tapes among others. While many of them have put out debut records in the last year or two, Toro Y Moi is first out of the gate with a sophmore album, and at a time when chillwave is naturally burning out of its hype cycle. Chaz Bundick seems to know this, which is probably why his new album “Underneath the Pine” makes some necessary sonic leaps forward to keep a fickle collection of music fans interested and in his corner.

Like the “demise” (i.e. decrease in popularity) of lo-fi a couple years back, the smartest and easiest route off the glo-fi/chillwave path is to clean it up and add more hooks. “Underneath the Pine” does pretty much exactly that, with Bundick putting something of an actual studio budget to use and throwing a bit of polish on what are now more energetic, pop-driven arrangements. That was pretty well evident from the first two tracks released in advance of the album, “New Beat” and “Still Sound”. Both are excellent dance floor singles on their own, exploring a number of old school influences that includes soul and funk to create a more fractured and innovative take on what might otherwise be considered traditional. Both these songs are also notably more concise and fun than much of what was on the “Causers of This” debut. The whole “chill” part of chillwave was to place a bit of emphasis on more laid back and relaxed song structures. Electronica for the calmer set, something that wasn’t concerned with hitting those big beats that send the clubs into overdrive. “Underneath the Pine” still isn’t that modern, club-banging huge electronica album, but is rather an intricate, smartly composed set of songs that just so happen to at the very least get your toe tapping.

As the singular entity behind Toro Y Moi, Bundick really shows off how creative and instrumentally dense he can be with the strong variety of instruments across each track. Given how he implements things like keyboards and looped vocal harmonies, there are sections that do seem sharply inspired by a Stereolab or Broadcast or even Teenage Fanclub given the right circumstances. It’s slightly off from widesceen appeal, but unique and engaging enough to satisfy those with more open minds and penchants for a number of classic tropes. Xylophones and harpsichords (both likely “artificially created”) permeate the main melody of “Go With You” to throw it just a touch off-kilter and keep you guessing as to where it will go next. The way the acoustic guitar blends almost effortlessly with the woozy synths in “Before I’m Done” is simply wonderful, before the trippy psychedelic breakdown comes in the last minute. The collision of traditional piano and synth on “How I Know” gives the upbeat cut more depth than what might otherwise be recognized a 60s-tinged dance number. Bongos are just a small part of what makes “Light Black” one of the record’s most exciting and odd adventures,circumventing a standard song structure for something more playful and “out there”. And the heavy-handed, messed up piano combining with the psych-pop tropes on “Good Hold” makes for an effective Brian Eno-esque underwater adventure that sails seamlessly into closer “”Elise”.

While there was at least one bonified indie hit on the first Toro Y Moi album “Causers of This” courtesy of the track “Blessa”, what that entire record primarily lacked was a real reason to stick with Chaz Bundick’s project. He had the zeitgeist of being a chillwave artist but less actual buzz than his peers. To be fair, there was an overflow of the genre and not everyone can get the coverage they want or deserve. So Bundick was smart to not only keep working over the last year by consistently contributing remixes of other artists’ work, but also handling a very club-riddled “history of electronica” sort of side project known as Les Sins. Then to come running out of the gate this year with “Underneath the Pine” provides more justification as to why he not only needs more of our attention, courtesy of some stronger-than-ever songs that move beyond the overhyped subgenre that plucked him from obscurity and into something that’s more instrumentally conscious and pop-ready. In other words, Toro Y Moi has moved up the ladder and you need to be paying close attention. Here’s a really fun and moderately experimental electronica record that has more in common with most bands today than the actual dance music scene. It’s about time somebody did this the right way, and the cliffhanger we’re all left with is how Bundick is going to change it up on us again next time.

Toro Y Moi – Still Sound

Toro Y Moi – New Beat

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