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Show Review: TOBACCO + The Stargazer Lilies + Oscillator Bug [Lincoln Hall; Chicago; 9/17/14]

There are some things that, no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t un-see. Images are burned into your brain for all of eternity, in many cases haunting you and giving you nightmares. It’s the sort of stuff where you want to look away, but for whatever reason are unable to do so. I had one of these such experiences at Lincoln Hall this past Wednesday night with a triple bill show of Oscillator Bug, The Stargazer Lilies and TOBACCO. Let me tell you the story of how it destroyed me mentally.

Opening the night were Chicago’s own Oscillator Bug, who have been on this tour for a little over a week but are just now getting around to playing a hometown show in celebration of their debut album Bursts of the Million. While they’re technically a quartet when performing live, pretty much all of their fractured songs and compositions are built by frontman Zaid Maxwell, who started the project because he had these sounds and melodies in his head that wouldn’t go away and wouldn’t fit with any other band or project he was working on. The results are something truly unique, though most people describe Oscillator Bug’s sound as synth psych-pop. You’ve got to find some way to sum it up concisely. To my ears though, it’s more like a sonic assault. Songs overflow with more noise than often feels sensible, yet there’s still a clear melody and strong beats propelling everything forward. While there’s a central groove to most of their songs, sound effects and synths buzz around your head at all angles to the point where sometimes it can feel like there’s a little ADHD going on with too much to try and pay attention to. Of course it’s things like that which make the record worth repeat listens, mostly so you can pick up on everything that’s going on. Meanwhile in a live setting the assault extends beyond the mere auditory and into the visual, as lights surround the band on all sides and are consistently changing in time with the music. They’re not tremendously bright though, as ample attention is also given to the projection screen behind them, which shows a variety of psychedelic imagery. The band is a highly functioning machine while performing, and Maxwell plays ringleader throughout. I’d best describe his demeanor on stage as “staccato,” which is really to say he’s moving at a mile a minute, whether that’s in his halting vocal delivery or switching back and forth between a guitars, synths, pedals and other sound manipulators. He’s a one-man wrecking ball, and his three bandmates are right there at the core because there’s so much to do. Overall, Oscillator Bug’s 25 minute set was extremely high energy, fun and just a bit nuts to experience. More than a few people standing near me commented about how impressed they were after the band wrapped up, and in no way do I disagree with that sentiment.

Buy Bursts of the Million from Dymaxion Groove

Things got a little different with The Stargazer Lilies’ performance, but not in a weird or uncomfortable way. It was simply a sonic shift from the technicolor psych of Oscillator Bug into a world shrouded in muted tones and drones. The New York-based trio powered through a 40 minute set that was heavy on ambient and shoegaze melodies. It was glorious and beautiful and loud, which is really just as it should be. One of the main things I came to realize over the course of their set was that they have the word “stargazer” in their name partly because their music intends to be more uplifting than downtrodden (naturally, it’s also a type of flower). You may be inclined to gaze at the ground out of pure genre habit, but pay close enough attention to the way their songs are structured and do what you can to discern some lyrics, and suddenly there’s this positive harmony that shines through the cacophony. That’s a somewhat rare quality for a band like this to have, which is probably why they’ve been steadily on the rise over the course of the last year or so. There are two small areas in which their live show could use some improvement, and those are with the presentation and vocals. I understand that with most ambient drone-style performances the crowd is supposed to let their minds drift and internalize just about everything, but those not fully entranced may find the band’s deep lighting and projected images to be a bit boring. They’re not hyperactive like Oscillator Bug, nor are they danceable and showing crazy videos like TOBACCO (more on that in a minute). Then again, if you’re the filling in that band sandwich, there’s very little you could do that wouldn’t be perceived as boring. Aside from that, Kim Field does great work on the bass, and is equally talented behind the microphone – when you can hear her, of course. Guitars overpower everything in this style of music, but the vocals are there to function as their own gorgeous instrument and if they’re not properly mixed they’ll be completely drowned out. Field’s voice was barely audible during the songs, and the couple of times she attempted to engage in stage banter it was nearly impossible to hear and make out what she was saying. Outside of those couple of things, it was a highly enchanting set.

Buy We Are the Dreamers from Graveface/Bandcamp

The evening’s headliner was TOBACCO, but it might make more sense to call the guy “wacky tobacky” based on how much strange and offbeat humor played into his live set. Thoroughly aware that having a crowd watching a guy behind a table of buttons, knobs and laptops while lights flash can be pretty boring, one of the main elements in TOBACCO’s live show are videos projected on a screen behind him. He started his set by showing a clip of “The Jerry Springer Show,” which included a hilarious story that a guest told about finding his fiancee cheating with his best friend. From there, it was all about the weird, wild, perverse and strange, set to pounding beats and highly manipulated vocals. If you’ve heard of TOBACCO and maybe even heard his music, then that only tells one small part of this guy’s aesthetic. Music videos for songs like “Streaker” and “Super Gum” (both very NSFW) give you a much better idea of the visual and auditory madness that’s rules his set. I mean, that second video features re-edited video from an actual porno from the 80s wherein people have sex with a strange, female version of E.T.! Any newer videos that were shown during the performance, including “Streaker,” may have been shot within the last few years but had just the right tint and grain to make it look like a product of the 70s or 80s to keep with a running aesthetic and motif in the world of TOBACCO. So what you do during the set is watch the (mostly) psychologically damaging videos while dancing your ass off. Part of me wants to detail all of the figurative war crimes that my eyes bore witness to, but it’s probably better if you don’t know, just in case you want to discover and explore this box of horrors yourself. So is the TOBACCO live show worth your while? I’d liken the experience to a car crash – it may look nasty, and there’s certainly the possibility that people were hurt, but through whatever morbid Curiosity you can’t help but want to look. The man reaches into the dark recesses of your human inclination and plays around in the blood and pus. You’ll walk away feeling violated and maybe even a little offended, but some part of you also loved it and craves more. It’s incredible how close our sensations of pain and pleasure are to one another.

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Song of the Week: Movement – Like Lust

If you could create a musical baby between James Blake and Massive Attack, it would probably come out sounding pretty close to what Movement is doing right now. They’re the sort of band that likes to blur the lines between genres and refuse to be easily pinned down, though you can suss out a few major themes in both this song “Like Lust” and the track “Us,” which they released last fall. Both are intensely beat driven, dark grooves that contain multitudes of subtext beyond what you might otherwise pick up on with just a single listen. Similar things can be said about the vocals, which are soft but hint at an intensity and passion, particularly as the line, “When it feels like lust,” fades in and out, symbolically rising to the occasion. The buildup for the synths is noteworthy as well for how it changes the direction of the song ever so slightly to keep you invested for about a minute longer than what might seem reasonable. With tour dates supporting sonic cousins Darkside and their debut EP out in April, Movement have rightly earned themselves a position as a band to watch. Let’s hope they keep cranking out tracks as good as the ones we’ve heard so far.

Album Review: Mas Ysa – Worth EP [Downtown]

The journey of Thomas Arsenault and his musical pseudonym Mas Ysa is a strange and interesting one. Without going into too much detail (you can find out more via your favorite search engine), he spent his youth in Canada and Brazil, before eventually making his way to the U.S. for college where he befriended some creative types and really began to play around with instruments and sounds. He’s used those connections and skills to become a legitimate recording artist, complete with a record deal and opening slots for bands like Deerhunter and Purity Ring, before 99% of the world had even heard a single note. It’s impressive, really. Is his status as part of the music world today a result of sheer talent, or simply thanks to who he knows? Well, Arsenault’s debut EP Worth provides a pretty definite answer to that question.

“Why” was the first Mas Ysa song uploaded to Soundcloud last fall for consumption by anyone willing to listen, and the nearly 6.5 minute epic drew quite a bit of the right kind of attention. Given its boundary pushing, devil may care mixture of techno, synth pop, folk and other sounds, it was a breath of fresh air and one hell of a first impression. On the EP itself it comes second, following the brief instrumental intro “Vanya.” Which brings up an important point about construction and sequencing. Worth has the nine song track listing of a full length, but clocks in at just under 30 minutes from start to finish. Five of those nine songs are instrumentals that fall between just under a minute to just over two minutes. It’s easy to think of moments like that as filler, however Arsenault does his best to give each one a unique individual identity that quietly draws your towards it, like a moth to a flame. These small sonic experiments also work as perfect segues between the longer vocal tracks, often mentally preparing you for particular tempos and feelings.

Beyond the complex narrative that is “Why,” the other three “main” songs do a fantastic job of painting a full picture of Arsenault’s skill set. “Years” closes out the EP, and is the polar opposite of the frantic energy found at the beginning. It is a sparse and haunting ballad that makes full use of Arsenault’s often quivering and wounded vocals. “Life Way Up From” does something very similar, but twists ever so slightly towards the instrumentally weird, a move made with such confidence and intention that by the time you really notice you’re already too emotionally invested to resist. By contrast, “Shame” has echoes of “Why,” particularly in its forceful vocals and brisk pace, but the overall approach is less about holding on for the ride and more about introspection.

Perhaps the best thing about the Worth EP is how it comes across as fully realized by its creator. That clarity of vision is something that most artists struggle with early on in their careers, so it’s a great sign that Arsenault has a such a steady hold on it from the get-go. Let’s hope he keeps it going for the next release.

Buy the Worth EP from Amazon

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

Buy (III) from Amazon

Album Review: Cat Power – Sun [Matador]

If you do even a little bit of reading about Cat Power’s new album Sun, you’re almost guaranteed to be exposed to a few key details. Yes, the album was written in the wake of her breakup with actor Giovanni Ribisi. Yes, her finances wound up in shambles and she nearly had to declare bankruptcy. She plays almost every instrument on the album and produced it almost entirely on her own because she didn’t have money to pay other people. Let’s also not forget about her battles with alcoholism and stage fright, to the point where up until a few years ago going to a Cat Power show involved the risk of it not happening at all or shutting down early. You’ll hear all these things, many of which are intended to provide back story and increase your interest in the final product that is this new record. What you can really call them are distractions from what’s actually happening in the music. Forget what you’ve read before this and throw away your expectations. Chan Marshall has just pulled a 180 on us, and there’s no way to prepare for it.

Okay, so maybe “180” and “no way to prepare” are a little extreme in the case of Sun. After all her last album of original material, The Greatest, was a sonic shift in itself, as she recruited Louisiana’s Dirty Delta Blues Band to fill out her sparse acoustic guitar or piano arrangements in very classic ways. She also conquered her stage fright and became an enigmatic frontwoman exuding confidence and stability even though her personal life was anything but. While her sound has evolved again and the backing band is gone, Marshall puts her confidence on display more than ever before on the new album. Its cover features her with a rainbow shining across her face, and that plus the album title push forward the idea that these songs are the calm after a stormy career thus far. They sound that way too, beaming with more positivity and excitement than ever, and stepping out from the shadows of a black and white past into the full-on technicolor of 2012. This is the first Cat Power album to ever sound like it belongs in this particular era, and that step away from classic or more traditional sounds serves her even better than you might expect.

A very small part of how Sun sounds is likely due to the work of Phillipe Zdar, a French dance producer who’s worked with everyone from Phoenix to Cut Copy to Beastie Boys. He mastered this record and made small production tweaks to it without being too heavy handed or glossy. Its lack of shine actually adds to the overall charm of these songs, which otherwise might have suffered from sounding too clean-cut. Marshall’s very hands-on approach to this album probably benefits her in the long run, and it’s all the more admirable how far she steps outside her comfort zone to evolve. After recording a number of songs for this record and playing them for a friend, Marshall decided to toss them out because she was told they sounded sad and “like old Cat Power.” To her, this new album isn’t supposed to be anything short of a rebirth, a signal that her life and priorities have changed. The dynamic scope and lyrics of Sun go a long way towards proving that too.

On the Cat Power song “Colors and the Kids” off her 1998 classic Moon Pix, Marshall sang, “When we were teenagers, we wanted to be the sky.” Now much older and wiser, she echoes a similar sentiment on Sun‘s opening track “Cherokee,” with a chorus of, “Bury me, marry me to the sky.” While the more recent “sky” reference is actually about death, you can use the metaphor of marriage as a union where two become one to tie it in referentially to the earlier song. Stylistically though, “Cherokee” more calls to mind “Cross Bones Style” in both tempo and lyrical structure. The mechanical drum beat and the repeated mantra that is the chorus are equally gripping in both songs, though “Cherokee” goes places and innovates in a different sort of way. Starting with the electric guitar, then adding piano through the verses, the electronica elements show up in the chorus to take things to a whole new level complete with some chainsaw-like effects and even an eagle cry that may or may not be cheesy. No matter, because the song works as one of the poppiest and most engaging Cat Power songs to date.

The first third of Sun is actually very aesthetically pleasing and hit-oriented. Warbling synths and skittering beats feel right at home alongside some grinding electric guitar on the title track. Of course the lyrics also include a not-so-sly reference to the classic Beatles tune “Here Comes the Sun.” The light piano pop of “Ruin” is actually deceptive as the lyrics are about social justice and starvation, with a hook that includes the lines, “Bitchin’/ Complainin’/ From people who ain’t got shit to eat.” On “3,6,9” synths and handclaps lead an awfully catchy hook that sounds like it should be used in a future hip hop song. There may or may not be a reference to Lil Jon’s “Get Low” or Shirley Ellis’ “The Clapping Song” in the lyrics, but Marshall insists she wrote them after waking up with a really bad hangover, which makes sense with references to wine and the subtle suggestion of alcoholism. AutoTune also gets a little cameo via some of the vocal overdubs and at the very end of the song, where she quite indistinguishably repeats two words that many speculate are “Fuck me.”

Sun‘s midsection is more challenging on the ears as it moves away from easier pop melodies and into a slower, more experimental range. The record actually needs songs like “Always on My Own” and “Human Being” to keep you on your toes a bit and show off some extra artistic flourishes. Not everything works perfectly, but credit goes to Marshall for what’s really an admirable effort. By the time “Manhattan” kicks in with its lonely drum machine beats and looped piano chords, you’ve been transported to a different but no less important final third of the album. The buzzy and robotic “Silent Machine” adds some much needed energy to things after a few downtempo tracks, but it’s the 11 minutes of “Nothin But Time” that makes the biggest statement on the entire record. Written for the teenage daughter of her ex Giovanni Ribisi, the song is an ethereal pep talk that’s inspired and passionate and bears the markings of a classic track like David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Iggy Pop contributes some guest vocals on the second half of the song, and the way he shouts, “You Wanna live!” is like a slap in the face to anybody that’s ever considered killing themselves. Amid the many positive messages Marshall tries to push out there on this album that speak of the human condition with the vibe that we’re all in this together, it’s perhaps this most direct and deeply personal track that offers the best and wisest guidance. Very few tracks that soar upwards of eight or so minutes are actually worth the time to listen all the way through, but this is one that’s absolutely worth the investment.

While “Nothin But Time” would have made a fitting end to Sun, “Peace and Love” provides one last jolt of…something. It’s not an overtly weird song, but the electric guitar bounce and the very rhythmic way Marshall recites the lyrics turn it into an almost hip hop track. There’s not really an ounce of sincerity in it unlike so much of the rest of the record, and you can almost envision Marshall smiling and winking while she spouts out lines like, “100,000 hits on the internet/ But that don’t mean shit.” Such levity is welcome, because though you can’t really say the album is heavy-handed and dark in the least, it still lacks genuine fun to go along with the positive vibes. For once, it’s great to hear a Cat Power record that moves past everything she’s created in the past. Moon Pix and You Are Free are just two of a few important records in Cat Power’s nine album oeuvre, granted that status because of the times in which they were released and the emotion and grace in Marshall’s vocals and lyrics. Sun doesn’t deserve praise because it breaks the mold, but because it does so without fear and a reliance on anything or anyone. Also because it does everything well. Marshall proves herself to be a talent that can defy expectations and surprise us even seventeen years into her career. That’s a rarity worth celebrating.

Cat Power – Ruin
Cat Power – Cherokee

Buy Sun from Amazon

Snapshot Review: Purity Ring – Shrines [4AD]

According to the dictionary, a purity ring is a “type of promise ring that pledges abstinence.” In more plainspoken terms, by wearing a purity ring you promise to not have sex until you get married. As many who wear purity rings will claim, the wait is worth it. How fitting then for a band calling themselves Purity Ring to make us wait a long time before releasing their first full length album. First appearing in early 2011, they began releasing single after single, like a trail of breadcrumbs to keep us interested and engaged. It helped that they were really good songs, too. Describing their sound can be a little difficult, but it’s fair to say they’re like a more pop-driven version of The Knife or Crystal Castles, pairing skittering hip hop-esque electronic beats with often masked female vocals. The duo of Corin Roddick and Megan James are responsible for the project. Roddick handles the instrumental side, and James does vocals and lyrics. Their first single “Ungirthed” did just about everything right, fusing together little electro plinks with surges of bass, and James’ vocals playfully floating above it all. It was fun and surprisingly addictive, which was a trend that continued with additional singles like “Belispeak” and “Fineshrine.” A grand total of five out of eleven songs off their new album Shrines were released leading up to it, and there wasn’t a weak track among them. Now with the whole thing available for your consumption, the great news is that their previous success wasn’t a fluke. Even the non-singles carry hints of being potential future singles, and this record is so jam packed with them it can be a challenge to pick out the highlights. On any given day you might fall in love with “Crawlersout,” only to have “Lofticries” dig its claws into you the next time around. That’s a good sort of problem to have, though for fans that have been keeping up with the band since 2011, some of those earliest tracks will always be considered noteworthy moments. Newcomers to the Purity Ring bandwagon may initially find inspiration in certain songs, though the entire record might start sounding like an amorphous blob after awhile. Such a reaction is completely natural given that the template tools used to make this album don’t really change from track to track. Even the lyrics are thematically similar, filled with vibrant body imagery. “Sea water is flowing from the middle of my thighs,” James sings at the start of “Crawlersout.” The very next song is “Fineshrine,” where she encourages somebody to “cut open my sternum and poke my little ribs around you.” From the ringing ears and clicking teeth of “Ungirthed” to the sweating lips and starving hips of “Saltkin,” and even to the album cover featuring disembodied hands and lungs, Purity Ring are very easy to figure out, even if their distinct sound and lyrics can be challenging. It’s the angle they approach each melody and hook that makes the difference, rewarding close listening. If Shrines has a failure, it comes via the mid-album oddity of “Grandloves.” Isaac Emmanuel of Young Magic shares vocal duties with James in what feels like an ill-advised duet where he tries on his best computer-glitchy Beck impersonation. The song’s not bad by any means, but really more pedestrian and uninspired than everything that surrounds it. Otherwise it’s a very impressive debut from a band that continues to change and evolve with time. It might take them a few years to finally generate a follow-up LP, but if history is any indication, we’ll be hearing a new song or two or five before then. If it’s anywhere near as good as what we’ve been given on Shrines, it truly will have been worth the wait.

Buy Shrines from Amazon

Listen to me talk about Shrines on a podcast.

Album Review: Hot Chip – In Our Heads [Domino]

One of the greatest challenges about the dance music genre is how easily things can become stale. If dance artists aren’t consistently evolving from record to record, they’re prone to stagnation and may fizzle out. Don’t ever let the beat drop or let your audience get bored. James Murphy as LCD Soundsystem played his cards almost exactly right, crafting three of the best dance records so far this decade, each one building off the previous one, before calling it quits at the top of his game. Not every attempt at reinvention works out though, as best evidenced by Justice’s most recent effort Audio, Video, Disco, which boldly sought to bring bits of 70’s prog-rock into their club-heavy, pop single sound. Nice thought, but the end result was far weaker than it could have been.

Hot Chip probably fall towards the middle of the pack when it comes to building a successful career in dance music. Their 2005 debut album Coming On Strong was filled with smarmy bedroom pop, the kind that needed work instrumentally but was quite funny lyrically. Building off that, 2006’s The Warning hit almost all the right notes and generated hits like “Boy From School” and “Over and Over.” That trend continued on 2008’s Made in the Dark, though it peppered in more mature themes and slower balladry to calm the waters a bit. Such an adjustment suggested they were growing up, but the end results were more mixed and off-balance, like a teen going through puberty. 2010’s One Life Stand was the band’s full-on attempt at maturity and adulthood. It was a skillfully moderated meditation on love and settling down and the pleasure one could derive from that, and many loved how well it balanced the band’s celebratory and fun side with something calmer and more mature. Others balked under the impression that a more domesticated and ballad-dominant version of Hot Chip wasn’t what they signed up for based on their earlier material. In the time since that last record, band members took time out to work on some side projects. About Group, The 2 Bears and New Build were the three results, and while each carved their own distinct paths musically, they all had one thing in common: an upbeat and playful demeanor.

Thankfully, that seems to be where the members of Hot Chip’s heads are on their new album In Our Heads. This past March, Joe Goddard said in an interview that they intended for the album to exude “positivity.” That means an increase in tempos and moods and a return to some of the dance-addled style their first couple records played up so well. This time though, the band isn’t retreating so much as they are refining. The lessons learned in One Life Stand are not lost, but incorporated into the album both lyrically and in how some of the songs are structured. The electro-funk of “How Do You Do?” might function as the best distillation of what the entire record is about, with a chorus that includes the line, “You make me want to live again.” “Dont Deny Your Heart” smartly lays out a case for why a partner should “say yes” to love, using an 80’s-style synth pop base to make it that much more memorable.

Perhaps the greatest moments on In Our Heads come from the longest songs. It’s not because they’re long that makes them good, it just so happens to work out that way. The seven minutes of “Flutes” makes for one of the darkest yet most exciting tracks on the album. It’s a swirling techno beast that morphs into this shining dance party pillar before you can fully grasp what’s going on. Hot Chip have never made a song quite like it before, and it speaks exceptionally well towards their continuing evolution as a band. The same can be said for “Let Me Be Him,” which brilliantly skirts the line between ballad and dance track by placing a soft rock melody atop skittering beats. The longer it glides, the more beautiful it becomes, eventually breaking down into bird chirps and spaced out electric guitars that will make you salivate with sheer passion. Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor’s vocals swim in these fertile waters and set the right tone thanks to a line like, “My soul, my love is running away with me.” Played differently, the song could very well have fallen into the realm of excess or even poorly concocted parody. Its escape from such a fate only makes it stronger.

For those that prefer their Hot Chip funky and loud, as on a past single like “Ready for the Floor,” In Our Heads has “Night & Day” for your enjoyment. The groove is built around a wobbly bass line, and the chorus splits open with some laser-guided synths that send things into the stratosphere. Hot Chip’s trademark humor is well in place too, and if the video for the song doesn’t cause you to crack a smile, hopefully the deadpan faux rapping during the bridge will. “These Chains” also does excellent work by playing the darker cousin of “Boy From School,” quietly pulsating as Taylor and Goddard trade verses and harmonize with one another. It’s one of the record’s more subtle numbers, but pay close enough attention and you’ll find it sticking with you far longer than expected.

The greatest thing about In Our Heads is how ecstatic and joyful Hot Chip sound from start to finish. As One Life Stand could be a bit of a drag for those seeking the band that churns out dance hit after dance hit, that album remains a necessary step in their continued growth. Finally reaching maturity and adulthood doesn’t always mean putting away childish things though. In fact, maintaining a positive attitude and staying active can help keep you young. That seems to be the lesson the band is trying to teach us with this record. Even as they sing about love and holding onto the key relationships in your life, they’re still compelled to craft melodies that bring a euphoria of a different sort. Whether that pleasure lasts a minute or a lifetime, Hot Chip seem intent on spreading and sharing it with us. We should consider ourselves lucky.

Hot Chip – Night And Day

Hot Chip – Don’t Deny Your Heart

Buy In Our Heads from Amazon

Album Review: POP ETC – POP ETC [Rough Trade]

When talking about the self-titled debut album from POP ETC, it’s almost essential to forget what you know and think you know about The Morning Benders. The storyline plays out as follows: upon learning that their band name was being used as a homophobic slur in the UK, The Morning Benders made the executive decision to change their name to POP ETC. With the name change came a lineup tweak and a move from San Francisco to Brooklyn. It’s close to the musical equivalent of gender reassignment or witness protection, and such radical adjustments also provide the opportunity to reinvent yourself however you like. The old Morning Benders liked guitars and indie pop. They wrote a super catchy song like “Excuses” that found placement in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial and on “Best of” lists back in 2010. They corralled their musician friends from San Francisco like John Vanderslice and members of Girls into a small studio to play a song or two for fun.

By contrast, POP ETC like synths and commercial pop music. They use AutoTune liberally and even apply it to a cover of Bjork’s “Unravel”. They release mixtapes titled “New Influences Weekend Mix” and “1986 Weekend Mix” full of artists like Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Tears for Fears and Boys II Men. The moving parts might be the same, but this is an entirely new model and should be regarded as such. Those still in denial need only listen to the appropriately titled opening track “New Life” on POP ETC’s new album to best understand the group’s aim. Synths warble next to drum machines, and singer Chris Chu mourns the death of a relationship through R&B flavored sentiments and AutoTune. Somewhere, the 808s & Heartbreak version of Kanye West can relate. Top 40 and Urban radio stations should be licking their chops over the sparkling Drake-like bounce of “Back to Your Heart,” if only the lyrics weren’t so cringe-worthy. “She said, ‘Why do we bother?’/and I said, ‘I’m not your father,'” is just one moment in the song that might make you wince. First single “Keep It For Your Own” is perhaps the best four minutes of pure pop on the entire album, where light bits of acoustic guitar, bass and piano actually support the verses, the hook in the chorus is strong, and all the vocals/harmonies haven’t been modulated. It’s the only track on the record produced by Danger Mouse, and considering how well it works, they might want to have him do the entire thing next time.

So much of the rest of the album feels like a blatant attempt at mainstream pop it can be almost disturbing at times. “R.Y.B.” stands for rock your body, and not only did Justin Timberlake do a song about that very topic that was a whole lot better, but it’s easy to get the impression that ‘NSYNC would probably pass on it too. That and closing track “Yoyo” are both obnoxiously loud too, as if the synths have been turned up to 11 to distract you from how utterly mediocre they are. The faux R&B seductions of “Live It Up” and “I Wanna Be Your Man” have decent melodies and even some impressive harmonies in them, but stumble and fall from downright painful lyrics. “I ain’t never disrespect no woman/never called a girl a ho,” Chu AutoTunes on “Live It Up,” a song about sleeping with groupies while on tour. The chorus of “I Wanna Be Your Man” is the song title repeated over and over and over again ad nauseum, to the point where if you play this song for a girl you’re trying to woo she’ll likely say yes by the halfway point so the begging doesn’t have to go on any longer. You could say POP ETC are trying as hard as they can to develop a relationship with as many people as possible on this album, beating you over the head with a sonic lead pipe until you finally come around to the idea that they’re a good band.

They’d fare far better with a touch of moderation, as songs like “Halfway to Heaven” and “Everything Is Gone” display. Unfortunately such moments are too few and far between to make much of a difference. One thing that does make a difference is how and where you listen to the album. Like a blockbuster action film, sometimes you need a good popcorn record to mindlessly enjoy for awhile. If you’re out on a deck with a cold beverage and a good book or are at a party with your friends, a little POP ETC can be quite nice. Don’t be too surprised if the band starts to pick up some mainstream success from this album either. I mean it IS better than Ke$ha. That last sentence probably tells you all you need to know. In an ideal world, the transition from The Morning Benders to POP ETC would have gone a lot smoother. Chris Chu has proven he can write smart and addictive pop songs with guitars, and it stands to reason he could do the same without them. Let’s hope that next time the band returns they learn from this misstep and come up with some music that’s truly worthy of their new name.

POP ETC – Everything Is Gone
POP ETC – Halfway to Heaven

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Snapshot Review: Bear In Heaven – I Love You, It’s Cool [Hometapes/Dead Oceans]

2012 is arguably the year of the excellent synth-pop record. Releases from Grimes, Chromatics, Chairlift and Tanlines all have made great use of synths and dance-heavy electro beats to suck you in and leave you addicted. Now Bear In Heaven look to continue that trend with their third record I Love You, It’s Cool. This follows their 2009 breakthrough album Beast Rest Forth Mouth, a record that defied easy description with its psychedelic twists and towering pop choruses. The singles “Lovesick Teenagers” and “Wholehearted Mess” were two of the most addictive songs of that year, and proved they could also work on multiple levels thanks to Beast Rest Forth Mouth Remixed that came out a year later. Bear In Heaven must have learned quite a bit from those experiences the last few years, because they seem to have a firmer grasp on where they’re headed with this new album. The overall format is locked down pretty firmly, that being huge, synth-infused pop melodies made even denser than ever before thanks to some heavy use of sequencers. “Lovesick Teenagers” seems to be their point of inspiration when composing these songs, and it’s a smart choice to have made, allowing the record to sink into a groove that positively shimmers as it keeps your toe tapping. “Idle Heart” is an icily beautiful way to start things off, the synths washing over you like waves, the peace only disturbed by a distorted beat that pushes its way as far to the forefront of the mix as possible. There’s so much going on in first single “The Reflection of You” it even threatens to overwhelm Jon Philpot’s vocals, but it’s balanced just precariously enough to prevent that from happening. That actually happens multiple times on the album, and it’s almost enough to turn great songs like “Sinful Nature” and “World of Freakout” into something less impressive and catchy. Perhaps it’s all in how you listen to I Love You, It’s Cool that determines what truly catches your ear. Headphones seem to invoke fears of claustrophobia, every single available space filled with one element or another. Listening in the car is a little better, but a large theatre or outdoor concert venue is probably ideal for the breadth of these intense melodies. Huge as these songs may be, not to mention remarkably danceable, Bear In Heaven somehow fail to fully capitalize on the things they do right. With all the electronica elements splattered across every inch of this record (again making it ripe for remixing), the band seems unable to fully flesh out their ideas in 3-4 minute spurts. On most tracks they seem poised to build tension and then have an explosive release, but almost every time they do it too early, too late or not at all. Sometimes they just settle into an ambient section that fails to add to a song, leaving it to stagnate instead on the thought it could go on forever without interruption. The pieces of the puzzle are there, just not necessarily put together in the right order every time. Tracks like “Cool Light” and “Warm Water” wind up more as boring filler than engaging moments that keep the record going. That’s unfortunate, because at 10 tracks and 44 minutes, I Love You, It’s Cool turns out to be only a little more than half of a great album. Then again, maybe when they perform it live at a packed venue with people that came to dance, it’s a great record from beginning to end.

Bear In Heaven – The Reflection of You

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Album Review: Chromatics – Kill for Love [Italians Do It Better]

The journey of Chromatics’ new record Kill for Love is a fascinating one. Upon gearing up for a follow-up to the group’s 2007 record Night Drive, main man Johnny Jewel began talks with director Nicolas Winding Refn about crafting an 80’s-style synth pop soundtrack for his next film. The finished product was a little movie from last year some might remember called Drive. You know, that one where Ryan Gosling plays the ultra-cool driver who falls in love with his neighbor and basically goes on a killing spree to keep her safe. Yeah, that one. Anyways, upon completing work on the soundtrack to the film, Refn decided it wasn’t quite what he was looking for, and wound up using a score primarily composed by Cliff Martinez. Still, a couple of Jewel tracks still wound up on the soundtrack under the names of his three projects Chromatics, Glass Candy and Desire. The rest of the music was left on the cutting room floor.

At the end of last year, Jewel released Symmetry – Themes For An Imaginary Film, a 2.5 hour, 37 track project developed over 3 years as a conceptual tangent between Chromatics, Glass Candy, Mirage and Desire. In spite of the cover showing off the dashboard and steering wheel of a car, Jewel asserted that record was not the rejected Drive soundtrack. He has not said the same thing about this new Chromatics album Kill for Love. Of course he just generally hasn’t mentioned the film at all in relation to this record. Yet the back cover art has the album’s title written in the same font used in Drive‘s opening credits, and that’s just one of a few eerie parallels. The whole thing runs 90 minutes and 17 tracks too, not much shorter than the film itself. It might be fun to try and sync the two up if you’ve got some time on your hands, but it’s probably better just to make it the soundtrack to your own life.

See, Kill for Love, like much of Chromatics’ music, is best experienced while driving at night (I wonder why their last album was titled Night Drive). Get in your car, find an open highway or a country road, and hit the gas with this album pumping through your speakers. It’s not the sort of album you need to pay close attention to over its duration, but rather functions best as a way to enhance whatever it is your doing. The street lights blur into a monochromatic streak, the engine purrs just a little more smoothly, and even the most beat up clunker of a car will somehow seem more badass than before. Something about this music just brings those dark qualities to life, and makes the listening experience that much more special.

Kill for Love starts off in a remarkably fascinating way: with a cover of a classic Neil Young song. “Into the Black” is a piano and electric guitar driven rendition of Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” with singer Ruth Radelet behind the microphone. It’s not an easy song to cover and walk away from unscathed, and the mere fact they attempted it is a bold move on their part. Their rather brash confidence actually winds up retaining strong ties to the pure emotion of the original, which is a way of saying they didn’t completely fuck it up. The gears shift almost immediately after that, and straight into the territory Chromatics and Johnny Jewel are best known for – synth pop. The title track, complete with bubbling synths and a 4/4 rhythm, shines like a beacon of pop beauty rivaling some of New Order’s finest moments. Radelet’s passionately wounded vocal sets the tone best, weaving a tale of pills, booze, love, murder and desperation into something devastatingly relatable. If this record has one true high point, though arguably there are several, it comes from that title track.

This album is quite front-loaded with the most pop-heavy material, and together they create an impressive streak of hit after hit. “Back from the Grave”, “The Page” and “Lady” all shine individually, and 2/3rds of that trio already have full music videos to their names, intended as early leaks to build excitement for the new album. The real meat and potatoes of Kill for Love arrives with the 8.5 minute Italo house jam “These Streets Will Never Look the Same”. The beats pulse and the piano pounds, the main source of support being an Autotuned male vocal with a hook to die for. Just as you start to think the track is running out of steam at the halfway point, it devolves down to the most basic beat before rebuilding itself with a twist of lime to add a little zest in all the right places. That serves as a transitional piece into a much slower, instrumental part of the record.

“Broken Mirrors” and “The Eleventh Hour” make for 10+ minutes of drifting beauty, with slowcore single “Candy” sandwiched in between as a buffer to keep you from completely zoning out. Piano and synth ballad “Running From the Sun” has all the drama of daybreak on the streets of the city. The sunlight may bring sadness as the signal telling you it’s time to go home after a night of driving, but there’s also an innate beauty that comes along with that small light on the horizon. “You are the black sky/always running from the sun,” Radelet sings on “Birds of Paradise”, the female counterweight to the male themes of “Running From the Sun”. The boy and girl are entangled in this tragic romance, wishing they could be free of the darkness permeating their lives. As the record drifts towards its melodramatic conclusion, the pace picks up again with potential future single “At Your Door”. Hard times have fallen on the boy and girl, dreams have been shattered and he seems hesitant to continue on. “You know love never turns out/the way we all plan/but the door is still open/so give me your hand,” Radelet urges, though her pleads appear to fall on deaf ears. “There Is A Light Out On the Horizon” features a sad voicemail from a girl hoping to hear back from her boyfriend, but he promptly deletes the message as if he wants nothing to do with her anymore. So the story leaves her waiting on “The River”, reflecting on what is, what was and what could still be if he’d just come back to her. As with so many things in life, a happy ending is not guaranteed.

Kill for Love ends not with a bang, but more with a whisper. It’s a long one though, as “No Escape” somberly drifts along for 14 minutes that seems to be a meditation on the tragic themes of the story told. As it washes over you, there’s an almost post-rock sort of serenity that can be achieved if you’re in the right frame of mind. There is no epic crescendo that feels like a glorious explosion of beauty, but the way the track shimmers and fades shows just enough signs of life to offer hope at the conclusion. The sun is rising on a new day, and though it may mean the end of this particular night drive, the warm, dim glow of the dashboard against a pitch black sky is never too far away. Chromatics have crafted themselves something of a masterpiece. It enhances and throws some variation into the style established on their last album without ever sounding boring or staid. There are pure pop moments and pieces to dance to, matched equally by ambient balladry frought with emotion. All of it is sequenced perfectly to maximize its impact. Ideally you should listen to Kill for Love from start to finish without interruption, while cruising around a city with no place in particular to go. Throw on your scorpion jacket and grab your toothpicks, because tonight we’re going for a Drive.

Chromatics – Into the Black (Neil Young cover)
Chromatics – Kill for Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grimes – Genesis
Grimes – Oblivion

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Album Review: The Big Pink – Future This [4AD]

Ah, the dreaded sophomore slump. It is a curse that is inflicted upon many a band, most typically those that are desperate to repeat the success of their debut. If you look at bands like The Strokes and Interpol, both essentially took the blueprint of their first record and followed it to a T with startlingly solid results. Sometimes your sound works well enough to keep it going for a bit without people getting tired of it. Still others fear for their safety, knowing fans want and expect constant innovation and evolution, so there will be a radical sonic shift in a different direction that will either be massively successful or smell of failure. Then you have a band like The Big Pink. Success came rather easy to them, with their 2009 debut album A Brief History of Love earning accolades even while a single like “Dominos” was smartly and deceptively stupid. If that record taught them anything, it was that having a huge, easy to remember chorus brings in people from all walks of life in search of something they can sing along to. As such, their follow-up Future This sees The Big Pink putting aside some of the more artistic adventures of their first album in the hopes of becoming a stadium-sized pop band. If you were hoping to be beaten over the head with a large musical stick, welcome to your new favorite record.

In crafting Future This, the duo of Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell decided to go with a “beats first” approach. That is, they would come up with a beat they liked and would subsequently craft an entire song around it. They started to push forward with the idea that this might very well be a more “hip hop” record than anything else, but the end product certainly doesn’t reflect that, though certainly most of the tracks could be re-worked and remixed with that sort of edge to it. Guitars are hard to come by on this album as well, with the electronic elements and synths handling almost the entirety of the compositional bits. Only “Lose Your Mind” features some heavy riffage courtesy of the only guitar solo on the entire record. The lack of guitars isn’t exactly a bad thing as most everything sounds fine without them, but there are times when you’re left wondering if the blandness of some of the tracks could have benefited from a little extra instrumental spice.

Given that the band is shooting for the stars and appears to be actively seeking greater mainstream acceptance, much of Future This is dedicated to songs in the key of “Dominos”. Opening cut “Stay Gold” is perhaps the closest they come to copying that, so much so that you can pretty much insert the chorus fo “Dominos” in as a replacement and barely have a difference. Of course it’s catchy and moderately enjoyable as well, so it’s not all bad. Following that up is “Hit the Ground (Superman)”, which is most notable for its sampling of the relatively obscure avant-garde 1981 song “O Superman” from Laurie Anderson. Repurposed into a power ballad, it makes for a potential hit, though clocking in at nearly 5 minutes long it outstays its welcome by about 90 seconds. There are a few genuinely creative moments on the album, such as “The Palace (So Cool)”, which has a slow build and doesn’t take the easiest available sonic avenue. Furze is also provided with a chance to stretch a little more vocally, which he takes full advantage of to good effect. The mournful album closer “77” also does very well for itself, cutting away the loose party vibe of the rest of the record for a shot of genuine emotion. There’s piano and strings to accent the slow pulse beat and synths as well, bringing the right air of sentimentality in without being too overbearing. Credit goes to Paul Epworth and his production work for putting the right spin on not only that track, but the entire record, which could very well have come off as overly polished and bombastic.

One of the biggest pluses that A Brief History of Love had going for it was in spite of the many huge melodies spread out across that vast plain of an album, it still had some nuance and character to it. You could strap on some headphones and enjoy it nearly as much as you would were it blasting out of huge speakers at a stadium or beach party. That is, in essence, what Future This lacks. The Big Pink don’t sound completely whitewashed on their sophmore record, just less interested in personality and charisma this time. They’re seemingly aiming for bigger and better, but only got the first part right. And as well-fitting as this album might be for remixing thanks to the beats that permeate each and every song, it’d be far more helpful if the duo would put a little effort into actually writing some halfway decent lyrics. Coming up with an easily singable hook simply will not satisfy when it comes down to brass tax. Not only that, but even the most mindless moments on Future This, the ones clearly intended to bring the band greater popularity, don’t appear to be working their charms thus far. Sure, it’s far too early to write off this band and this record as a failure, but maybe if it is they’ll actually learn from the experience and come back stronger than ever.

The Big Pink – Hit the Ground (Superman) (Forest Swords Remix)

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Album Review: Korallreven – An Album by Korallreven [Hybris/Acephale]

The Swedes really know what they’re doing when it comes to nostalgic pop. Point to anyone from Peter, Bjorn and John to the Shout Out Louds and The Radio Dept. and there’s plenty of evidence to support such a statement. One of the latest Swedish imports to hit the worldwide music market is Korallreven, an electro-pop duo that’s also coincidentally a side project of Daniel Tjäder from The Radio Dept. Given that band’s increased success and critical acclaim over these last few years, crafting tighter and better songs than ever before, there’s the hope that Korallreven might take on some of those same qualities. Like any good side project however, it seeks to form its own distinct identity. Tjäder and his Korallreven cohort Marcus Joons took their time in crafting their first full length, partly due to wanting to make the highest quality songs possible and partly because The Radio Dept. were doing quite a bit of touring, something they hadn’t done much previously. With the end of 2011 looming close and nearly 2 years of sporadic work put into it, “An Album by Korallreven” crept into the marketplace in the hopes of soundtracking your holiday season.

Okay, so “An Album by Korallreven” doesn’t have any holiday affiliation to it, outside of being released the week before Thanksgiving. If you wanted to forego the traditional Christmas songs and put it on instead, it might make for a nice respite, and the general warmth of the record certainly provides comfort with the outside temperatures plummeting. Sonically Korallreven falls into the same category as a number of bedroom electro-pop acts that have already released albums in 2011. Using Air France or jj (or The Tough Alliance and Tanlines if you like) as strong examples, the songs on “An Album by Korallreven” play in the quieter electronica pool, taking a relaxed approach to beats while still playing around with pop-infused hooks that won’t let you go. It’s not quite fast enough to dance to much of the time, but it’s gorgeous and remarkably addictive instead. Such feelings make sense, given the entire project was first conceived while Joons was taking a holiday in Samoa. A quick Google image search for the South Pacific island for those unfamiliar with it will yield thoughts of pure paradise filled with crystal clear waters, pure white sandy beaches, waterfalls and palm trees as far as the eye can see. Weather-wise, it’s about the exact opposite of Sweden, and it most assuredly has inspired many a creative mind. But the island permeates so much of this record, from the Samoan-like backing choirs to the song title “Sa Sa Samoa” to the consistent use of the word Samoa in the lyrics to a number of songs. Between that and the chanting of, “A dream within a dream” on “Keep Your Eyes Shut”, you’re stuck in a gauzy haze for the album’s entire 45 minutes.

The idea of spacing out or falling into an altered state while listening to “An Album by Korallreven” is very nice and very tempting, but not always simple to accomplish. Most of us are busy people with things to do, and if you turn on this record as backing music it’ll function as purely pleasant and unmemorable. Such is the flaw of an album such as this. There’s nothing outright bad about it, things just kind of stagnate after a short bit and never fully wake up again. Even if you do sit down and focus on these very lush songs individually, what this record is really missing is heart. It’s all glossy postcard beauty without actually feeling the sun on your skin or the sand between your toes. The equivalent of visiting Hawaii but only on a layover where you never get to leave the airport. The most redemptive and enticing moments on the album come courtesy of guest vocalists. Victoria Bergsman has a great resume that includes being a former member of The Concretes, a current member of Taken by Trees and taking a most memorable guest vocal turn on Peter, Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks”, and she very much makes her presence felt on this record via the opening song “As Young As Yesterday” along with a reggae/Balearic turn on “Honey Mine”. Both are two of the record’s best moments, along with Julianna Barwick’s looped vocal turn on “Sa Sa Samoa”. But Korallreven also prove they know how to write a strong song without a guest vocal, as previous singles “The Truest Faith” and “Loved-Up” prove.

What “An Album by Korallreven” lacks more than anything else though is progression. Yes, these 10 songs are diverse enough to make them individually stand out, but stylistically there’s not a ton of variation. For a duo that have been working on this debut full length for over two years, they’re still at that same spot where they first grabbed everyone’s attention all that time ago. They’re offering no new twist or appear to be truly challenging themselves in any way whatsoever. Granted, much of their sound involves heavily drawing upon the past, but they don’t sound like they’re having a whole lot of fun doing it. Instead they feel coldly committed to establishing mood and hooks rather than offering the listener a more engaging and spontaneous experience. They do a great job with it, but in this day and age we’re going to need just a little more from them to make it truly stand out from their similar counterparts. For a dead of winter warm-up record though, you could definitely do worse.

Korallreven – As Young As Yesterday (ft. Victoria Bergsman)
Korallreven – Sa Sa Samoa (ft. Julianna Barwick)

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Album Review: Caveman – CoCo Beware [Magic Man!/Original Recordings Group]

There’s something to be said about going it alone. Most bands wallow in genuine independence, going unsigned either because they’ve yet to be discovered or are simply not good enough to become courted by record labels. As much as people claim that the record industry is dead in the water and that the current model of music distribution is broken, the fact remains that at least 90% of music coverage is devoted to “signed” artists. They have people paid to do PR for the artists they represent, so emails get sent out, phone calls are made, CDs are mailed, and the writers create the coverage in response. Most artists don’t have the time or funds to do all that hustling themselves. What’s rare are the artists that earn a significant amount of buzz via their own homegrown independent efforts, and then say no to labels when they come calling. Such is the case with Brooklyn’s own Caveman. They’ve only been around for a couple years, but have steadily built a fan base courtesy of playing everywhere around New York with high profile indie bands such as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Here We Go Magic and Cursive. Their dynamic live show matched with a powerful set of songs has drawn the attention of many high profile publication as well as a few record labels, but the band is devoted to their fans first and foremost. After eyeing a number of potential deals, the chose to go the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah route and stay independent. They formed their own record label, called Magic Man!, and first unleashed their debut album “CoCo Beware” digitally in September with the physical release arriving in stores this week. They’re playing a big role as one of the breakout bands of 2011, and if you’re not already in the know, now’s the time to start shifting your attention in Caveman’s direction.

Caveman’s sound is at once easy to recognize yet difficult to describe. That may be because they tend to come across like a hybrid of a few different bands. If you go simply from “CoCo Beware”‘s opening track “A Country’s King of Dreams”, the tribal drums and vocal harmonies will probably bring to mind Animal Collective. They’re a little too clean and pop-perfect to fully sell such a comparison though, which should be a comfort to those that find Animal Collective too obtuse. Others may argue the band oversimplifies things. There’s nothing wrong with casting your net for a wider audience provided you don’t dumb it down, which Caveman does not. There’s a great sense of front-loading on this album with the smooth synth-infused chug of “Decide” and the Real Estate-meets-The Dodos vibe on “My Time” both bearing the marks of catchy singles, but the stylistic twists the band undergoes over the course of 10 tracks keep you engaged even when things slow down. There’s a common thread of James Mercer musical projects via “Old Friend”, which sounds like a Shins song filtered through the more psychedelic and synthetic lenses of Broken Bells. The result feels a little more exhilarating than it has any right to be. The spacey guitars and intensely harmonized backing vocals feel like they were ripped straight from Grizzly Bear’s playbook on both “Great Life” and “December 28th”, though you definitely get the sense those guys would have done a little more with each of those songs. The final three tracks on the record play up the psychedelic side of the band a little more, which is why “Easy Water” has a MGMT-like thing going for it, “Thankful” touches on some Talking Heads and closing track “My Room” could be placed on a mixtape next to virtually anything from Here We Go Magic.

With all this name dropping going on, where’s Caveman in all this? Just because they can do a great job sounding like a number of different bands doesn’t mean they should be regarded with the same love and respect. What stands out the most in spite of all the similarities is that the songs on “CoCo Beware” are pretty damn good. These guys know how to write a hook, and sometimes that’s all you need. Plenty of bands try to imitate their heroes or imitate a certain sound that’s “hot” at the moment, in the hopes of gaining success from it. You don’t need talent to slap together a bunch of songs that sound like The Beatles. You need talent to make people believe they’re listening to The Beatles when they’re not. Play a Caveman track for a friend unfamiliar with the band, but who has a reasonable grasp on musical knowledge. It could be virtually any song on the album, save for maybe the instrumental “Vampirer”, which moody and cool as it is, stands out simply because it is an instrumental. Ask that friend what band he or she thinks is playing. An answer should come relatively quickly, though it will be the wrong one. For fun you can also see how long you can continue to lie to them and claim it’s the other band they named. The grand point is that on their debut album, Caveman are still actively seeking an identity. They’ve got bits and pieces of one, and have wrenched a number of very good songs out of it, but that air of distinction isn’t fully developed at this point. Most assuredly it will come with time and as their fan base continues to grow. Most likely the fans will dictate the direction they move in from here. At this very moment though, Caveman are a promising young band with plenty of life ahead of them. Even more if their live shows continue to earn raves from friend and foe alike.

MP3: Caveman – Old Friend

Caveman – Decide

Caveman – December 28th

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Album Review: Justice – Audio, Video, Disco [Ed Banger Records]

When you examine it really carefully, hopefully you come to the understanding that the French electronica duo Justice are really just two guys that know how to market themselves really well. They’ve adopted a style all their own, both musically and visually, that is excessive in most every way. The leather jackets, the sunglasses, the blindingly bright live show (hence the sunglasses), and songs that demand to be played at volumes higher than any doctor would recommend as healthy. The poor mixing doesn’t do much to help them either, but it still doesn’t stop songs like “D.A.N.C.E.” and “DVNO” from becoming indie dance hits and raising their profile to the point where they’re nearly ready to headline a music festival. And to think all that came from just their first record, titled “†” and otherwise pronounced “Cross” when speaking about it. With the other, vastly more popular French electro duo of Daft Punk working on things like film projects or soundtracks to “TRON” sequels with a rare tour date here and there, a certain void has been left these last several years that nobody has really volunteered or attempted to fill. On their way up, Justice certainly aren’t objecting to the positive press they’ve been getting for their music, because even as everything about it feels exploitative and obvious, the band possesses a certain winking charm through it all. Think of them like a really gorgeous person you can’t help but stare at, maybe even lust over, yet after a brief conversation with them you realize they’re dumber than a box of rocks. Not somebody you’d want to spend all your time with or get involved with long term, but if you’re able to shut them up and just stare for awhile, hooking up for a few hours isn’t out of the question. Justice has tended to be the auditory version of that, getting tiresome, obvious and even a little annoying after awhile. When you’re on that dance floor just looking to have fun for a short bit though, their music seems like a great idea. So a few years and a whole lot of touring later, Justice has finally polished off their sophmore record, “AUdio, Video, Disco”. If you were hoping the duo was going to get harder, better, faster or stronger this time, prepare to be sorely disappointed.

Mid-March was when Justice first unleashed the song “Civilization” on the world, primarily as a sign that they were still alive and presumably were preparing a new full album’s worth of material rather than just a one-off single. A portion of it essentially premiered in an Adidas commercial, a sign of exactly what sort of headspace the duo appeared to be in going forward with their careers. While the song still carried many of the laser beam-like synths that made “†” a club favorite, it marked the start of something a little bit different for Justice – closer attention paid to song structure, which ultimately meant more careful development and build-ups to payoffs rather than throwing you into the dance pool from note one. “Civilization” takes a minute of psych-pop swirling before the chorus finally slams into high gear, and even then actual verses calm the dance storm while some smooth piano work closes things out rather gracefully. Across the track’s 3.5 minute duration, the hook only comes around twice. Previous Justice singles pushed the idea that repetition was the key to memorability, which is perhaps why “Civilization” doesn’t particularly stick with you. In fact, barely anything on “Audio, Video, Disco” is pure enough dance pop to strike at the pleasure center of your brain, and that’s a problem when your fans have come to expect exactly that.

There’s some sense of brilliance at the heart of this record though, and it largely stems from how challenging these songs are to enjoy. The title track is a great indicator of exactly how far these guys have come and the perfect display of how they should have composed the entire album. The hook is consistently repeated, but goes through a series of sonic changes that range from heavy dancefloor beat to light and airy and nearly a capella. In essence it is a microcosm of how the full record goes, dancing one minute, held in suspended animation the next, and indulging in progressive fantasies after that. The problem is they make these shifts from track to track instead of within a single song. The primary influence on this record appears to have changed as well, moving away from the club environment just a bit to embrace a much more classic rock feel. Guitars have suddenly become a huge part of Justice’s sound, and inventive beats come second. You can absolutely hear The Cars’ influence on “Newlands” or Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” (with some flute) in “On’n’On” or Roxy Music’s riffage on “Brianvision”. Place some Queen-style march-like beats along with some synths behind these melodies and they become some sort of hybrid that’s not quite dance and not quite rock either. All these genres are blending together anyways these days, right? In essence yes, but such style twists are only effective if you know how to use them right. For the majority of “Audio, Video, Disco”, they do not know how to use them right.

You can’t blame Justice for wanting to expand on their sound and try something new. After all, their sound was somewhat novel on “†”, but if they tried to make the same thing as a sequel it’d sound bland and repetitive. Pop stars and DJ types from Skrillex to Deadmau5 have all adopted a similar style, sharply taking away its more unique aspects. “Audio, Video, Disco” avoids that trap, but winds up ineffective anyways because they fail to Frankenstein these disparate sounds into a genuine juggernaut. What it wants to be and what it is are two different things, and die hard fans of the first record will likely be left out in the cold, wondering what happened to this great electronica duo. For others, this can be considered a stepping stone for Justice. That’s not to say they’ll be trying out full-fledged arena rock next time around, but maybe they’ll use this new record as an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t so they won’t repeat their mistakes next time. Some artists go through growing pains on their way to brilliance, and this just might be theirs. At least the party vibe is still present, even if you can’t always d-a-n-c-e along to the b-e-a-t of every song.

Justice – Audio, Video, Disco (Single Edit)

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