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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: La Big Vic – Cold War [Underwater Peoples]

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Cold War from Amazon

EP Review: How to destroy angels_ – An omen_ [Columbia]

It seems like a much longer period of time, but it’s only been about 2.5 years since we last heard from How to destroy angels_. What has the band been doing in that gap? Well, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have been creating the soundtracks to The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for starters. Progress with Htda has been slow to say the least, but at least there’s a good excuse as to why. Their 2010 self-titled debut EP wasn’t exactly a bold statement of originality, but there were some solid starting points that they could have worked from to build something fantastic and wholly worthwhile. What’s surprising about the new An omen_ EP is that they seem to have forgotten about that earlier material completely. You’re not going to turn this on and confuse it for another band, but subtle changes have been made to their approach that change your expectations for the project. Most specifically, they seem to be moving away from energetic songs with danceable rhythms that are ripe for remixing, and instead working with calm but very dark atmospherics that feel much more emotionally draining. For better comparison, the first EP was like Nine Inch Nails hit singles “The Hand That Feeds” or “Only,” while this new EP more crosses NIN’s Ghosts record and Reznor’s work with fellow Htda bandmate Atticus Ross on the soundtrack for The Social Network. So you’ll not get anything as fun as “Fur Lined” or The Knife-like as “BBB” appeared to be. The closest thing to a single An omen_ has is opening track “Keep it together,” which rolls past on a minimalist arrangement that’s one part skittering beat and another part bass vibration. The song title is the chorus hook, which gets chanted over and over by Mariqueen Maandig and Reznor until it sticks with you. Just because it’s the most memorable song on the EP doesn’t mean it’s the best though, because that honor goes to what immediately follows it – the seven minute “Ice Age.” The song takes this band to an entirely new place, but filters it so well most people won’t even notice. Peel the track down to solely the banjo and Maandig’s vocal, and you’ve got a very slight country song. With percussion, loops, static and electric guitar it becomes an ambient and precariously balanced musical thinkpiece that subtly challenges our preconceptions about this band and our expectations from Reznor.

By contrast, the rest of An omen_ falls into very familiar territory. “The sleep of reason produces monsters” and “The loop closes” are both primarily instrumental tracks, though Reznor does chant, “The beginning is the end and it keeps coming around again,” a bunch of times in the final 90 seconds of the latter song. Those words may remind NIN fans of the song “The Beginning of the End” from the Year Zero record. There is no direct correlation to it, but it serves as a good reminder of Reznor’s fixation on endings and beginnings. As he pushes his old band and previous work into the background and tries to start fresh, it’s nearly impossible to avoid looking back and making comparisons. This unending loop is both a help and a hindrance to How to destroy angels_, because unless they try something completely wild and unexpected, there’s a built in fan base both latching on and harshly judging at the same time. If you’ve been having trouble liking Reznor’s post-NIN work, this new EP isn’t going to win you over. Though they don’t sound too similar to one another, the two EPs Htda have put out so far share one common flaw: Maandig’s vocals. She doesn’t have a bad voice and can certainly hit all the notes as needed, but she falls short when it comes to injecting emotion into the songs. Most often she comes off like an actor that gets cast in the wrong role. These are dark, grimy and brooding arrangements, and her lilting voice has an innocence that doesn’t quite get to that same level. Reznor’s already proven himself in that regard, which is why his less frequent vocal work more often than not shows how great this band could be when firing on all cylinders. Since Reznor is married to her, Maandig isn’t likely to leave or get kicked out of the band, so it’s best just to accept her shortcomings and hope that with time she improves. The band’s debut full length set for 2013 would be a great place to start.

How to destroy angels – Keep it together

Buy the An omen_ EP from Amazon

Click past the jump to stream the entire EP!

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

Snapshot Review: How to Dress Well – Total Loss [Acephale/Weird World]

How to Dress Well, aka Tom Krell, doesn’t make music that’s easy to listen to or enjoy by any stretch of the imagination. That can also be considered part of his charm though, that he doesn’t bow to anyone’s standards. There are influences, that’s to be sure, and you could hear flashes of Bobby Brown or Michael Jackson in some of the tracks on HTDW’s 2010 debut album Love Remains. Those influences were filtered through Krell’s unique lens, and there was such a lo-fi, effect-laden treatment to everything that it often felt like you were listening to an R&B record underwater. Krell’s falsetto vocals also tended to sound like they were recorded from the opposite side of a room, the distance providing a chasm of disconnection against the intimacy of the lyrics. It was a symbolic gesture more than anything else, as we’d later come to find out that his struggles with depression have often kept his family and friends at arm’s length. That more or less informs how the new HTDW record Total Loss functions, although this time the production work has become more polished and easier to listen to. Krell is also much more up-front and personal this time too, and it makes for an open wound of a record that’s an emotional wrecking ball with a heavy dose of beautiful composition. The R&B flavor is still present on this album, but it’s a little more scaled back and minimalist in terms of composition. There are plenty more icy textures that glide and drift past instead of big beats and vocal posturing. If you’re expecting a bunch of “Ready for the World” clones to create clear highlights across this album, you will probably end up sorely disappointed. There are tracks like “Cold Nites” and “& It Was You” that are some of the most fascinating and complex pieces Krell has ever put together, and while their melodies affixed with accoutrements like finger snaps and intense vocal harmonies may have a lighthearted air to them, the lyrics are anything but. Where this record truly excels though are in the moments when atmosphere truly takes over and beauty shines through. There are post rock symphonic bits like “World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You (Proem)” and “Talking to You” that cut so deeply while saying so little that you halfway expect Krell to turn into Sigur Ros at times. That’s a very good thing, and it shows plenty of promise for his future records. Then again, those same sorts of elements were all over last year’s Just Once EP, and they’re only minimally represented on Total Loss. In a sense, the mixture of different styles on this record can make it seem less than cohesive at times, and the lack of important benchmarks across the whole thing can leave it feeling a little front-loaded. This isn’t a perfect album, nor does it quite accomplish the great things Love Remains was able to do. What truly holds this record together in spite of everything are the lyrics, which tend to devastate at every turn. But while this record weaves its way through darkness, the end starts to shine some light through in a powerful and meaningful way. “Set It Right,” in which Krell names the many friends and family members both living and dead that he’s loved and cared for in spite of everything, is probably the most important track on the entire record. “As far as love goes, it’s one step at a time,” he sings like somebody hoping to rebuild a long dead or dormant connection. With any luck, this album marks yet another step in the right direction for How to Dress Well.

How to Dress Well – Ocean Floor for Everything
How to Dress Well – Cold Nites (Pete Swanson Remix)

How to Dress Well – & It Was U

Buy Total Loss from Amazon

Album Review: Frank Ocean – Channel Orange [Def Jam]

Frank Ocean’s sexuality shouldn’t matter. Why his revelation that he’s bisexual has made so many waves (pun intended) is because people working in the hip hop and R&B genres are often considered intolerant of anyone who’s not 100% straight. There’s a fair amount of anti-gay rhetoric and hurtful slang used in tracks without even blinking an eye or somebody speaking out against it, and so for Ocean to come out in that sort of environment takes an incredible amount of courage. He’s weathered the storm quite well so far, though the realities of his situation might be a bit different than what we’re seeing through the eyes of the media. Now let’s just hope he doesn’t get stereotyped because of it, or made an unofficial spokesperson for all things bisexual or homosexual in the music community. The ultimate hope is that if you make great art that people will see past any labels and appreciate it solely for what it is. The great news for Ocean is that his newest album Channel Orange does exactly that, transcending topical, musical and many other boundaries to help make it one of the most fascinating and exciting full lengths of 2012 so far.

Whether you’ve been paying close attention to the R&B and urban styles of music the last few years or not, chances are you’ve become aware that the increased popularity of AutoTune has been both a help and a hindrance to music in general. At its best, AutoTune is another creative tool that can be used to take vocals or accent tracks in ways many never thought possible until now. At its worst, it’s an annoyance, detracts from the humanity in a song, and allows singers to cheat by taking their vocals to places they couldn’t otherwise go on their own. Ocean doesn’t use AutoTune on Channel Orange, nor is it apparent that he needs to. His vocals are smooth as silk, and his range is far more vast than you might expect. Listening to opening track “Thinkin Bout You,” Ocean holds a pretty even keel together until the chorus hits. Reacting to being wounded by a love interest, he flips into a soaring falsetto that makes for an impressive emotional outpouring of his pain. Sad though it may be, it’s also one of several very catchy songs on this record.

The lightly bouncing and effortless “Sweet Life” celebrates the excess associated with being rich, ultimately settling on the very addictive creed of, “Why see the world/when you’ve got the beach?” But that sort of reaction isn’t meant to be taken at face value, instead it’s more about the search for meaning beyond what money and the song’s title describe. Similarly, “Super Rich Kids” uses a plodding piano chord that sounds like it was ripped from Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” to both mock a life of massive weath and relate to the consistently greedy emptiness it causes. “A million one, a million two/a hundred more will never do,” he sings like a man trapped in a prison of money from which there is no escape. As a 24-year-old still in the earliest stages of his career, Ocean isn’t nearly at the point yet where he could be considered a financial heavyweight. These songs aren’t so much personal stories or feelings he’s describing, but rather character morality tales that are always human and surprisingly relatable. “Crack Rock” turns a drug addict into somebody we can sympathize with, while “Lost” is about the personal relationship between a drug dealer and a drug mule, how they may love each other but can’t stop using one another either. Love and religion intertwine on “Monks,” where the passion a crowd has for a musician parallels that of a deity, the Dalai Lama and Buddhism being the example used. Thematically similar but all the more devastating is “Bad Religion,” where he likens unrequited love to a cult because of its exclusivity, obsession and inability to give anything back to you. The line in the chorus, “I can never make him love me,” is thought by many to be related to the letter he wrote about his attraction to a man that didn’t feel the same way. Whether or not that’s actually the case, the frustration and sadness in his voice is very, very affecting.

Lyrical content and stories aside, Channel Orange also has plenty to offer in terms of composition. This is not your standard R&B slow jam style record. Ocean is offering up so much more than contemporary leaders of the genre like R. Kelly and Usher are trying these days. The risks he’s taking have more in common with Kanye West’s last album, the near perfect My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, than almost anything else around. If that record set a new bar for hip hop, Ocean’s seeks to set a new bar for R&B. He’s taking many of the greats such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Prince, and applying some of their best qualities in mind to tracks that are extremely modern in body. The organ and spoken word opening of “Bad Religion” is eerily reminiscent of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” but moves in a polar opposite direction with the entrance of mournful piano chords and dramatic orchestration. Southern style rhythm guitar and church organ blend quite effortlessly with drum machine beats on closing track “Forrest Gump,” and together they give the song a tenderness that betrays a line like, “I wanna see your pom-poms from the stands.” If you really want to understand what this record is all about and see how Ocean has turned R&B on its head, look no further than “Pyramids.” The sprawling, nearly 10 minute track moves from ambient electronica to dancefloor synth-pop to a soulful slow jam to a psychedelic guitar solo without ever sounding out of place or clumsy. Altogether it’s unlike anything else in music today, and it’s that much more brilliant because of it.

If Channel Orange has one problem, it’s sticking with the time honored tradition of adding interludes between a few songs to expand its overall length and track listing. Some of them, like “Fertilizer” and “White,” serve more like brief sketches of songs and glimpses of potential wasted. The bookend tracks titled “Start” and “End” feel even more pointless, the former using the sound of a Playstation powering on while the latter has the sound of somebody getting out of their car and walking into their house. Only “Not Just Money,” featuring a woman talking about how there’s more to life than dollars and cents as she struggles to feed her family, actually feels appropriately used. It’s sandwiched in between “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids,” emphasizing the moral lessons they’re looking to teach. Outside of those shrug-worthy and mostly pointless moments, everything else about this album is ironclad and near perfect. While it lacks the same theatricality and reinvention, Channel Orange can be favorably compared to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust record. Following on the heels of his controversial 1972 interview in which he confessed to being gay (which later turned out to be…not so much), Bowie was on the verge of calling it quits. Coupled with the legendary Ziggy Stardust however, Bowie’s profile rose significantly and he became the powerful force in music that many look up to today. Ocean is only getting his career started, but with the revelations about his sexuality and the excellence of this new album, you can almost see the same sort of career trajectory emerging. Time will tell for sure if that holds true, but for the moment this looks like the true birth of the next music superstar.

Frank Ocean – Pyramids
Frank Ocean – Sweet Life

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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

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Snapshot Review: Liars – WIXIW [Mute]

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

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Snapshot Review: Death Grips – The Money Store [Epic]

If you didn’t notice in the title of this post, Death Grips are signed to Epic Records. They’re officially labelmates with everyone from Drake to Incubus and Meat Loaf. What’s odd is how the group sounds like they should be signed to anything BUT a major label. That’s not to call their material bad, but it’s been a long time since such an odd, fringe-type act was signed to anything other than an indie label. If you want to go underground and weird, transitively sometimes brilliant, you sign to a company that seeks to take that sort of risk without meddling in your creative process. From the sound of their debut album The Money Store, Epic didn’t even try to send them notes. They were probably too scared to. The genre classifiers and wordsmiths have puzzlingly tried to describe Death Grips as being rap rock. Considering there may be one single guitar used on one single track (or not…these sounds could have come from anywhere), the “rock” tag need not apply to this group. No, what Death Grips are doing somewhat defies description. The project is made up of three people: Stefan Burnett aka MC Ride on vocals, Zach Hill on drums and production, and Andy Morin aka Flatlander on production. The goal of Hill and Flatlander as producers is to splice together these beats and electronica elements to compliment MC Ride’s words. But this is anything but traditional hip hop. MC Ride prefers a vocal style closer to that of a hardcore punk band than anything else. He seems to take cues more from Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains and Fugazi than Jay-Z, Kanye West or Snoop. Everything is shouted with such a spitfire rage that most of the time you can’t tell what Ride is saying. When you can make out his vocals, you learn they’re primarily nonsensical phrases strung together to complete rhymes. It need not be clever or inventive because the delivery takes care of that for you. Hill and Flatlander take a similar approach when providing the base and beats of each track. Virtually everything comes off like the soundtrack to a 1980’s Nintendo game that’s been chopped and sped up to about three times its normal rate. The record breezes by as a result, 13 tracks in 41 minutes with only the finale of “Hacker” sneaking past the four minute mark. There are so many ideas and experiments packed into that time, it can feel like the sonic equivalent of ADD. The good news though is that every track is a legitimate banger, perfect for the clubs and ripe for remixing. Singles like “I’ve Seen Footage” and “Blackjack” may stay with you for just a little longer thanks to the massive amount of repetition in their choruses, but stick with The Money Store long enough and the charms of each individual track will unveil themselves to you. Perhaps that’s what earned Death Grips the respect of L.A. Reid and Epic Records. This may be the most individualistic and unique act signed to a major label in quite some time, but if they’re successful the great news is they won’t be the last.

Death Grips – Get Got
Death Grips – The Fever (Aye Aye)
Death Grips – Lost Boys
Death Grips – Blackjack
Death Grips – I’ve Seen Footage

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Click past the jump to stream the entire album!

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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Buy Kill for Love on CD from Italians Do It Better

Click past the jump to stream the entire album!

Album Review: School of Seven Bells – Ghostory [Vagrant/Ghostly]

One of the first things you’ll hear mentioned in any press about School of Seven Bells surrounding their new album Ghostory is that they’re down a member. After two albums as a trio of Benjamin Curtis (ex-Secret Machines), Alejandra Deheza and Claudia Deheza (ex-On!Air!Library!), Claudia abruptly left the band in the middle of a 2010 tour suporting their last full length Disconnect From Desire. There was no official explanation given for her exit, but it’s very possible that the romantic relationship between Benjamin and Alejandra left Claudia feeling like a third wheel both personally and professionally. Soldiering on without her certainly leaves a twin-sized hole in the band’s sound, as the intertwining vocal harmonies of the two sisters were one of SVIIB’s defining characteristics. As a means of offsetting such changes, the duo uses vocal overdubs and multitracking to keep things stable, even as the overall style of their music continues to evolve as well.

Ghostory is at its core a concept album, though you might be wise to simply take it at face value rather than closely analyze plot and characters. As the album’s title suggests, there are plenty of ghosts floating around in these songs, and they haunt the main character of Lafaye in both a positive and negative way. They aren’t literal ghosts but figurative ones, as our memories of people and places and strong emotional events can stay with us and haunt us for much of our lives. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many of the songs are thematically dark, about predators and toxic people that we’ve all mistakenly become friends or lovers with at times. Our judgments are not always perfect. “Low Times” feels fitting as the album’s 6.5 minute centerpiece, an insistent and rather bitter track that pushes back against a particularly bad break-up. Similar themes permeate much of the record, though none perhaps moreso than “Scavenger”, where Deheza angrily criticizes her ex with lines like, “I made you feel something because you could feel nothing.” And though it is never officially spelled out for you, a couple tracks are informed or at least partly influenced by Claudia’s departure from the band. Listening to opening track and first single “The Night”, lyrics such as “The light of day gives me no relief/because I see you in everything” and “You have my arms, you have my legs” seem to reference the physical and mental connections that twins share. Press materials for the album mention that Ghostory is as much about Lafaye’s journey as it is the band’s, so of course making such connections are about as obvious as they can get without somebody spelling it out for you.

As much as SVIIB’s journey the last couple years has been about loss, listening to Ghostory you understand it has also been about growth and strengthening perceived weaknesses. Somehow they seem to have gotten better in spite of everything, as the new album is their most cohesive and exploratory to date. Their first two records Alpinisms and Disconnect From Desire took on gothic synth-pop with the sort of vigor reserved for a band like Depeche Mode in their heyday while also drawing accurate references to shoegaze and My Bloody Valentine. There’s still a lot of that on the new album, but they’re also bringing in a heavier electronica influence to make their songs more beat-heavy and dancefloor ready. The choruses and hooks are better than ever too. If you thought SVIIB’s music was ripe for clubs before, don’t be surprised if they recruit some friends and unleash a remix record several months or a year down the road. Tracks like “White Wind” and “Lafaye” are just two standout moments of a handful best experienced in a dark room with a pulsating light show and bodies writhing up against one another. But in case all of that wasn’t enough, Ghostory wraps up with “When You Sing”, an 8.5 minute thrill ride that stands right next to the even longer “Sempiternal-Amaranth” from Alpinisms as a band-defining moment. Whether their songs are 3 minutes or 10, School of Seven Bells are always careful to not let a melody go beyond its expiration date.

2008 was the year School of Seven Bells toured with M83. The two bands shared something of a sonic bond then, and now a few years later they have even more in common. There are moments on Ghostory that would be right at home on M83’s highly acclaimed 2011 double album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and vice versa. That says something about the evolution of both bands. Heavy reliance on shoegaze textures and hazy vocal performances/lyrics have given way to extremely clean production, up-front and clear vocals, along with a greater openness and warmth to the lyrics than ever before. The fog is gone and we’re now left with the realization there was an even greater band being obscured by it. In spite of all they’ve been through the last couple years, SVIIB are blossoming rather than retreating. They’ve always been meticulous in crafting their songs, but Ghostory is the first time that Benjamin and Alejandra have truly collaborated in the writing and composition of a record – something they used to do separately. The results are right there across 9 beautiful and darkly fun tracks that function best as a defining statement of what this band is all about. Hopefully working their magic and putting out this excellent third record won’t come back to haunt them when they try to settle in and make a fourth.

School of Seven Bells – The Night
School of Seven Bells – Lafaye

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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: 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)

Buy “An Album by Korallreven” from Amazon

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