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Show Preview: Cross Record at Schubas [4/30]

Let’s start with the basics. Cross Record is the wife and husband duo of Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski. They are based out of Dripping Springs, Texas (near Austin), where they own and run a ranch and recording studio. It’s where they crafted their latest album Wabi-Sabi, out now on Ba Da Bing! Records. If you’ve not yet heard it, stream “Steady Waves” and “High Rise” to get a better idea of what they’re all about.

The dark-tinged experimental folk that populates the record falls somewhere on the strange spectrum between Cocteau Twins, Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen, Mount Eerie, Chelsea Wolfe, PJ Harvey and Here We Go Magic. That may touch on a lot of different sonic markers, but the nebulous nature of their songs defies easy description. Each one is inherently beautiful, yet also raw, obtuse and deeply emotional with a sense of danger or evil lurking just underneath the surface. That’s a large reason why the album’s title is so appropriate, as it’s a Japanese phrase meaning the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

Cross Record’s show at Schubas this Saturday will mark something a homecoming for the duo, as they lived in Chicago until a couple of years ago. Their notoriety has increased considerably since their last visit thanks to the release and critical acclaim of Wabi-Sabi, so it’ll be interesting to see how the new songs shape the overall performance. No matter what, it’s certain to be a special night you’re not going to want to miss.

Cross Record, The Loom and Blind Moon
Buy Tickets
10 PM / $10 ($12 Doors) / 21+

Show Review: Wild Child + Pearl and the Beard [Lincoln Hall; Chicago; 1/31/15]

Let me set the scene: It’s a Saturday night at the end of January in Chicago. According to the weather reports, something wicked this way comes. Specifically, a monster snowstorm set to pile on more than a foot of the white stuff between Saturday and Monday morning. It has the real potential to be a record breaker too, possibly capturing a coveted spot on the Top 10 biggest snowfalls to ever hit Chicago. Yet in spite of this and the myriad of warnings from meteorologists to avoid travel if possible, the bands Pearl and the Beard and Wild Child still performed in front of a sold out crowd at Lincoln Hall that very evening. We Chicagoans are a tough and proud people, refusing to let winter keep us away from enjoying some live music. Thankfully bands like these are also willing to come around when we’re at our weather worst. So how did it all go, conditions outside notwithstanding? Let me give you the play by play.

Pearl and the Beard are a Brooklyn-based trio with a fascinating dynamic and sound. While Jocelyn Mackenzie handles drums, Jeremy Lloyd-Styles plays guitar and Emily Hope Price does the cello and keyboards, when it comes to vocals there is no technical frontman or frontwoman or lead singer. All three of them are equally talented at their individual instruments, yet can also belt out a song with ease. They may all take turns behind the microphone, but more often than not add a little extra grace and beauty to their songs with some highly impressive harmonies. The cello goes a long way to contribute some additional beauty as well, all of these things contributing to the band’s unique and difficult to describe sound. Their set at Lincoln Hall was the final stop on their tour with Wild Child, and though they confessed to being a little bit worn down and sick, as one might expect during a long winter touring cycle, it seemed to have little to no effect on their performance. Just about every note hit with the right inflection and energy, engaging the crowd and encouraging sing-alongs for those familiar with some of their singles. Not being terribly familiar with their records, this show was a bit of an introduction for me, and a pretty positive one at that. Their eclectic approach and style may make them hard to pin down, but quite easy to like. That they all seem to have a pretty great sense of humor helps too, providing a few laughs between songs keeps everybody in a jovial mood. If the handful of new songs they played from their forthcoming record Beast are any indication, 2015 might just be the year that Pearl and the Beard reach a whole new audience.

Buy Pearl and the Beard music on iTunes

As far as headliners Wild Child go, let’s just say that they’ve already built a rabid fan base for themselves. I mean, they probably could have sold out Lincoln Hall without any openers if they had wanted to, and it stands to reason the next time they come through Chicago it’ll be at a significantly larger venue. What’s fascinating to me is that they’ve done all this with no radio support or mentions from a number of prominent music publications. Still, NPR has really championed them, and most of their singles have gotten a massive amount of streams on YouTube, Spotify and The Hype Machine, so clearly people are catching on anyways. In case you’re not familiar, here’s a quick play-by-play. The Austin seven piece have released two full lengths to date, 2011’s Pillow Talk and 2013’s The Runaround. Their sound is described by most as indie pop, though with so many members and instruments it’s more like a collection of styles and genres incorporated into traditional pop structures. I’d say that folk pop is sort of their base, as most of their songs fall somewhere on the spectrum between The Lumineers, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Of Monsters and Men, Vance Joy and The Head and the Heart. There’s that acoustic guitar base, the male and female traded off vocals/harmonies, touches of violin, cello and banjo, and choruses that everybody can collectively sing along to. In fact, such actions are strongly encouraged during their live show.

The crowd at Lincoln Hall was more than happy to oblige with the request, leaving the band equally grateful and blown away by the extreme enthusiasm. What else can I say about their set? It was lovely, it was fun, and it was full of should-be hits from across their catalog. The best moments offered up a range of emotions, like when they transitioned from a joyously high energy song that had everyone on stage singing and playing as hard as they could, then followed it up with a stirring ballad that featured only principal members Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins while the rest took a short break. Through it all what shone through most was their passion, both for the material and for their fans. While I can’t quite call myself a fan due to a general ambivalence in regards to their music, at the very least they know how to put on a good show. That’s really all I was hoping for, and am thankful that Wild Child was able to deliver in that aspect.

Buy The Runaround on iTunes

Show Review: The War on Drugs + Mark McGuire [Metro; Chicago; 3/23/14]

More so than any other day of the week, concerts on Sunday nights have a tendency to be absolutely terrible. It’s not so much the artist that’s performing, rather the crowd itself as the start of a new work week and Monday looms over us like the Sword of Damocles. Nobody wants to drag themselves out to a show at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, knowing full well they’ll wind up back home well after midnight and likely sleep deprived the next day. Mondays are already bad enough. Yet like any other night of the week, shows still happen and people still go to them, however begrudgingly. And so it was that more than a thousand people packed into the legendary Metro on Sunday night for a sold out show with The War on Drugs and Mark McGuire. They may not have been the most excited or enthusiastic bunch walking in (it’s just an observation and not a criticism), but walking out was a completely different story. The entire evening was a revelation, in the greatest and most unexpected ways.

I’ve spent the better part of the last month and a half immersed in Mark McGuire’s latest album Along the Way, which is just one release of many that he’s been involved with these last few years. It is his first solo effort since officially splitting with his experimental rock band Emeralds last year, and displays an impressive leap in style and composition that he’s never attempted previously. His older stuff played around with various guitars and effects pedals without much else thrown in. Between the electronic samples, drum machines, synths, piano and mandolins, among others, McGuire suddenly sounds like he’s got an army backing him up. If you thought recreating all that in a live setting would require a few additional band members, you’d be wrong. He came out on stage by himself, and thanks to intricate looping techniques, pedals and other triggers, the whole thing wound up being a pretty impressive display of one man’s talents. It yielded a surprise or two along the way as well, in particular a fair number of songs I thought made use of synths and keyboards were actually done by piling effects onto his guitar. I can’t recall the last time my ears were fooled in such a way. And to some degree it makes his material even better than before, because there’s a greater complexity in how it all comes together. Watching it happen before your very eyes is a real selling point too. I’ve been to so many shows where a truly solo artist does simple recreations of songs that are part of his or her catalog and it’s so normal you could call it boring. With a little bit of flair and a high wire risk level though, it’s the exact opposite. You watch intently as new passages get added to old songs, and subconsciously wonder what might happen if something went wrong. Thankfully McGuire is that sort of risk-taking artist, and it made for a remarkably compelling set.

Buy Along the Way from Amazon

The War on Drugs set up and soundchecked all their own equipment. That says something about a band, particularly when they’ve reached a certain level of popularity where they can hire somebody to do that job for them. Perhaps it’s a DIY attitude or a high degree of perfectionism, but whatever the reason, they should keep it up because they really have never sounded better. All the levels were perfect and it was one of the best mixed shows I’ve heard in a long time. Beyond sonic perfection, the band is also filled with extremely talented musicians who know that performing live is about more than just faithfully recreating what you hear on record. The War on Drugs don’t have the most energetic catalog in the world, and translating that into a show that doesn’t put you to sleep could be considered quite the challenge. In fact, at one point a handful of songs into the set, someone in the crowd yelled at the band to “pick up the pace a little bit,” and they responded by launching into their biggest hit and highest energy songs to date, “Red Eyes.” Sure, things could feel a little slow and lackadaisical at times, but they were never boring or bland for a single second.

One of the ways I judge any live show is by an unofficial measuring index known as the “goose bump factor.” If I get goose bumps, or a little bit of tingling down my spine at any point during a set, that’s a very positive sign that a band is doing something right. If it happens multiple times, there’s something truly special and maybe even unforgettable about the performance. There were several goose bump moments during The War on Drugs’ set, particularly during most of the songs off their excellent new record Lost in the Dream. In some cases, as with “Under the Pressure” and “Eyes to the Wind,” the live versions actually somehow sounded even better than they do on the album. The band only skipped one track from that record, and mixed in a handful of tracks from 2011’s Slave Ambient, plus covers of songs from Bill Fay and John Lennon. The covers might have been the weakest moments in the set, partly because the original versions are considered classics on their own right, and partly because they didn’t fit in quite so seamlessly with everything else. Yet none of it was bad or even mediocre. This band is far too talented to let that happen.

As the show started to reach the 90 minute mark, frontman Adam Granduciel asked the crowd for permission to skip the traditional encore so they could just keep playing. “We could say good night, leave the stage for two minutes while everybody cheered, and then return to say we have a few more songs to play for you,” he said, “or we could just not do that and play those songs anyways.” So they played onward, finally wrapping things up after close to two hours. A small portion of the crowd left before then, likely because the show had stretched past midnight and work or school was coming early the next morning. Those who stayed for the full experience walked out in very good spirits (far better than going in, from what I could tell), and I heard nothing but praise about the show. Indeed, it was pretty incredible. Dare I say one of the best concert experiences I’ve had in quite awhile. And just like that, I can’t wait for The War on Drugs to come back so we can do it all over again.

Set List
In Reverse
Under the Pressure
I Was There
Eyes to the Wind
Red Eyes
I Hear You Calling (Bill Fay cover)
Baby Missiles
Lost In The Dream
Mind Games (John Lennon cover)
An Ocean In Between The Waves
Come to the City
Black Water Falls

Buy Lost in the Dream from Amazon

Album Review: Sun Kil Moon – Benji [Caldo Verde]

When someone’s very personal vision is on display for all to consume, they’re taking a huge risk putting themselves “out there,” since the reaction to it can range anywhere from hugely positive to incredibly negative. Yet there’s also something wholly refreshing about it too, because even if it sucks at least nobody can accuse the artist of compromising or playing it safe. That’s probably why the best books, films and albums also operate on the fringes of popular culture, because people actively crave the most positive and idealistic things, and anything that doesn’t conform or forces you to relate to it in more than a superficial way fails to provide the necessary escapism from their not-so-great lives. Which makes a great case for why there’s likely to be a heavy division between those who love and those who hate Sun Kil Moon’s sixth record Benji. Then again, most of those who won’t like the album are probably not even aware enough about music to even know this exists in the first place. It’s what’s known as a specialty record, with a sharp emphasis on “special.” Rest assured that no matter how you react to it, you’re unlikely to forget this listening experience.

If you examined Benji solely for its instrumental composition and remove Mark Kozelek’s vocals from the equation entirely, there’s a very good chance you’d shrug and think of it as just another folk record. There’s nothing flashy or wholly experimental about the way these songs come together, even though they’re more varied and dense compared to more recent Sun Kil Moon efforts. That’s largely done intentionally, so as not to distract from the lyrics and the way they’re being sung. More specifically, every track isn’t so much a song as it is an intensely personal story pulled directly from Kozelek’s life. He’ll talk about his parents (“I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”), other family members who have died (“Carissa” and “Truck Driver”), serial killers (“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”), provide explicit details of his sexual history (“Dogs”), and give his perspective on one of America’s most recent tragedies (“Pray for Newtown”). Is any of it true? Is all of it true? A little research about the names, dates and location details in every song appears to point towards complete honesty, though on occasion a name might be changed to protect the innocent. Every tale is told with such interesting and vivid specificity that you can picture it in your head, while also generalized enough that just about anyone can relate to it. That remarkable balance is what turns this from a good record to a great one.

Given that somebody dies in almost every single song on Benji, you might think that this is a pretty depressing album. How Kozelek avoids falling into that trap is by painting vivid portraits of the people he’s singing about. Their experiences turn out to be just like our own, a grand mixture of triumphs and failures, happy moments and sad ones, and everything in between. Don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to make it through this lengthy record in one sitting due to all the emotions it conjures up. That’s just part of what it means to be a living, breathing human being. Kozelek writes about all these people and topics because they’ve changed his life in some way, and creating poetry out of them is his way of returning the favor. One can only hope it will inspire others to do the same.

Buy Benji from Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

Little Green Cars – Harper Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Lysandre from Amazon

Snapshot Review: Grizzly Bear – Shields [Warp]

Sonically speaking, Grizzly Bear shouldn’t be the sort of band described as “difficult.” Close listens to their early work like 2006’s Yellow House prove they have a knack for writing slower but very complex and beautiful melodies replete with vocal harmonies. It’s not nearly post-rock, as there is far too much verse-chorus-verse structure contained within the songs and not nearly enough explosive crescendos and waves of sound. A better comparison would be to call them a less poppy version of that other animal band Fleet Foxes, because while their songs more often than not lack dynamic hooks, they make up for it in pure pastoral folk atmosphere. Of course there are moments on 2009’s Veckatimest such as “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others” that felt like they should have been massive hits but failed to fully connect for one reason or another. On their new album Shields, Grizzly Bear seem to have fallen off the map once again, pushing aside the small gains they made in the mainstream music world in favor of staying true to themselves and the purest of songcraft. They still sound rather effectively like themselves, as in you’re not going to mistake them for another band, but the ease and charm by which they worked their magic last time has been scaled back in favor of a much more cerebral and measured approach. The melodies reach a new level of complexity and detail, positively oozing with glorious ambience and texture. Opening track “Sleeping Ute” bounces, weaves and rolls like waves on a choppy but positively electric sea as the band stuffs a truckload of sounds into it. You absolutely need to devote time and effort to allow yourself to be absorbed in the world this record inhabits, and such precise attention winds up well rewarded with each successive listen. Much like Beach House’s latest album Bloom, this is a record less concerned with breaking new ground and more insistent on condensing the band’s strengths into something more potent and captivating than they’ve ever done before. The person who excels at this the most on this particular record is Daniel Rossen. He’s never quite been the shining star of Grizzly Bear (that honor goes to Ed Droste), and occasionally he’ll have a clunky song (see “Dory” on Veckatimest) or a quieter one (see “Deep Blue Sea” on Yellow House) amidst a gem like “While You Wait for the Others.” In the time since the band’s last record, he’s kept busy by recording and releasing a solo EP, which didn’t venture very far from anything he’d done previously. It made him a better songwriter and composer though, as his tracks “Speak in Rounds” and “A Simple Answer” are two of the album’s best moments. Of course there are quite a few of those when your record functions as a proverbial highlight reel of original music. Droste’s times to shine happen on the single “Yet Again” along with “Gun Shy” towards the end of the record. Of course it is those final two tracks “Half Gate” and “Sun in Your Eyes” that truly raise the bar for Grizzly Bear and any band that sounds like them. They swell with the sort of brightness and beauty you expect them to explode at any moment out of sheer intensity. So much of Shields is a dark and lonely journey punctuated by remarkable arrangements, but the last 12 or so minutes break free from that depression and that feeling is simply euphoric. Just when you think there’s no way Grizzly Bear can top themselves, here’s a record that proves they can. May there be many more as fundamentally challenging as this one in their future.

Buy Shields 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

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Snapshot Review: The Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now [Dead Oceans]

One of the most fascinating things about Kristian Matsson is how he’s able to take very familiar folk sounds and turn them into something that seems fresh and exciting. His first two albums as The Tallest Man on Earth were built solely on his raspy vocal and either an acoustic guitar or a piano. The songs are also almost entirely home recorded outside of a traditional studio, giving them an additional ramshackle quality that speaks well to Bob Dylan’s earliest material. Matsson is from Sweden, but he uses and reveres classic American folk as his template. His last full length The Wild Hunt was very propulsive and catchy, with an emotional core that often made you feel like the man was playing as if his life depended on it. Just listening to him wail on “You’re Going Back” or “King of Spain” either sucked you in completely or left you out in the cold, as his abrasive yet heartfelt vocal isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. On his third long player There’s No Leaving Now, the gears have slightly changed (or evolved, if you will) for The Tallest Man on Earth. The music still retains that slightly gritty, home recorded quality, however Matsson plays around with multi-tracking a little, creating fuller arrangements with more instruments. “Revelation Blues” is where the extra bits are most evident – a lightly brushed snare drum along with small flourishes of piano and woodwinds compliment the main melody strung together by a carefully picked guitar. Other than that, only the occasional slide guitar on top of an acoustic is an indicator there’s more instrumentation than usual. The alt-country quiet of “Bright Lanterns” is probably where that’s implemented best. Outside of the guitar-driven tracks, the title track differentiates itself simply by being a piano-centered ballad in the same vein of “Kids on the Run” from the last record. Matsson does an excellent job wrenching the sadness out of the song. Such powerful displays of emotion were some of The Wild Hunt‘s strongest points. There’s No Leaving Now loses some of that primarily due to more languid and relaxed melodies where the vocals don’t require so many acrobatics. The album’s two most energized songs “1904” and “Wind and Walls” are also two of its best, even though their lyrics don’t entirely make sense. It’s the way he sings lines like, “But the lesson is vague and the lightning shows a deer with her mind on the moor/and now something with the sun is just different/since they shook the earth in 1904,” that somehow makes them seem far more coherent than they appear when written down. Still, not everything on the record is so convincing or vibrant, as songs like “Leading Me Now” and “Little Brother” breeze past pleasantly but forgettably too. Matsson can and has done better work than this, and three albums in it might be time to start asking if his particular troubadour brand of folk is wearing a bit thin. It’s nice to hear him spreading his wings just a little and fleshing out some of the tracks a bit more, but it means very little in the end if the songs aren’t worthy of that expansion. Ironically, There’s No Leaving Now often comes off like Matsson has gone away on vacation, perhaps to the beach depicted on the album cover. Wonderful as it can be to take some time for yourself and forget about your troubles, it’s no way to live. Sooner or later the world will come find you. Let’s hope for the next album that The Tallest Man on Earth pulls his head out of the clouds and reconnects with the emotions and excitement that made his earlier records so vital and fascinating.

The Tallest Man on Earth – 1904

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Snapshot Review: Mount Eerie – Clear Moon [P.W. Elverum & Sun]

Phil Elverum has always been a bit of an odd creature. That’s not to call him difficult or some sort of an outcast, though maybe he’d prefer those descriptors. After folding up his band The Microphones almost 10 years ago, he’s operated in the most independent way with the creation of Mount Eerie. He’s foregone signing to any record label, instead starting up P.W. Elverum & Sun as a way to operate. He’s also notoriously hesitant to do any press surrounding his releases, perhaps feeling that those who want to find his music will know where to look. He lives in Anacortes, Washington, which is a somewhat remote town about an hour outside of Seattle. You’d think he’d want to be left alone, except he keeps making and releasing music. His current project is a double album of sorts, two sides of the same coin set to be released four months apart from one another. The first half of that arrives now with Clear Moon. For those that have heard a Mount Eerie or Microphones record before, there are a lot of familiar markers that have shown up in Elverum’s work before that continue on this new album. There are the short instrumental and experimental tracks that have no title other than “(something)”, there’s the gratuitous use of the “pt. 2” signifier even if pt. 1 is nowhere to be found, and let’s not forget about some similarly worded song titles. None of these things truly matter in the end, but they are part of the guy’s unique charm. The last Mount Eerie record Wind’s Poem was a small departure for Elverum, taking a new love of heavy metal to heart and bringing a new ferocity to an otherwise docile sound. Almost amusingly, though the melodies got bigger and much louder on that album, his vocals maintained his classic calm and even mumble the entire time. The paradox was palpable but engaging all the same. The metal and volume get largely shelved on Clear Moon, in favor of the more sedate, folk-based beauty that Lost Wisdom espoused. Only the brash, horn-infused “Lone Bell” pumps some serious and somewhat terrifying muscle into the proceedings. It brings forth the sort of intensity nightmares are made of, but more the kind where there’s something terribly wrong in paradise but you’re not exactly sure what. Unsettling is a great descriptor not only for that song, but the entire record. The underlying theme is all about trying to find what defines “home” for you personally. Opening track “Through the Trees, Pt. 2” has Elverum on a quest across mountains, wilderness and even the Internet to try and find things “just to remind myself that I briefly live.” That follows with “The Place Lives” and “The Place I Live,” wherein he gazes upon nature and questions his importance in the scheme of the universe. The poetic lyrics are worded precisely enough to keep you questioning whether he feels bothered or content with where he’s at. They’re also designed to probe our own consciences and provide us with some food for thought. The places we live and the homes we build for ourselves are in many ways as temporary as life. It’s a comfort to be able to settle somewhere and form a life around it, but how much of an impact on the world we have in that setting is entirely our own choice. Through beautiful bits like “Yawning Sky” and heavier dirges like “Over Dark Water”, Clear Moon does a sharp job of balancing the light and the dark so we’re not completely overwhelmed on either front. Elverum says that the other Mount Eerie record he’ll be releasing this year, titled Ocean Roar, will be darker, weirder and heavier. Let’s just hope it doesn’t lose any of the lush beauty and contemplative lyrics that this one has in spades.

Mount Eerie – House Shape

Mount Eerie – Lone Bell

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Snapshot Review: Father John Misty – Fear Fun [Sub Pop/Bella Union]

photo credit: Maximilla Lukacs

“Look out Hollywood, here I come,” Joshua Tillman sings on “Funtimes in Babylon,” the opening track to his record Fear Fun, and his first under the moniker of Father John Misty. It’s a line that feels very appropriate given the situation that Tillman has put himself in. As the drummer and backup vocalist for Fleet Foxes, he played an important role in helping to shape the band’s backwoods folk sound and glorious harmonies that have earned them rave after rave review. Fleet Foxes have become increasingly popular over the last few years and pair of records, to the point where they’d come awfully close to headlining a major music festival. They certainly fared well last summer, headlining the smaller and more boutique setting that is the Pitchfork Music Festival. One wonders why anyone would voluntarily leave a band just as success was genuinely finding them. Yet that’s the path Tillman has chosen for himself. He had a reasonably established solo career under his given name of J. Tillman even before joining Fleet Foxes, and his records like Vacilando Territory Blues, Year in the Kingdom and Singing Air began to earn some real attention as a direct result of his other success. Presumably wanting to explore that further and escape the back of the stage drum kit, he announced last year he was leaving the band to focus full time on his own music. He cut a deal with Sub Pop and changed his performing name to Father John Misty.

With a new label and new name he’s also shifted his style as well on the new record Fear Fun. The material he released as J. Tillman was singer-songwriter folk with alt-country leanings. He was in a class with Nick Drake, Will Oldham, Gram Parsons and Damien Jurado. A fair amount of those similarities are retained on this new record, but Tillman has expanded his sonic palette a bit and moved his focus from the dreary rains of Seattle into the sunny disposition of Los Angeles. Much of the album was written after a bout of depression and writer’s block, which he attempted to shake off by jumping in his car and driving down the West coast with a huge bag of mushrooms and no set destination. He began writing a novel (the likely inspiration for the song “I’m Writing a Novel”), and suddenly his songwriter instincts kicked back in. Upon settling into what he describes as a spider infested tree house in Laurel Canyon, Tillman felt like he’d finally found his true voice. That voice was different from anything he’d done before; the goal was to destroy the artifice of fiction in his music and approach his songs with a candor and honesty so many others actively avoid. Not only is it refreshing to hear, it’s also pretty funny. “Pour me another drink/and punch me in the face/You can call me Nancy,” Tillman sings at the start of “Nancy From Now On”. That’s not meant to be taken seriously, as is much of “I’m Writing a Novel”, where Tillman has a bad drug trip: “I ran down the road/pants down to my knees/screaming please come help me that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me”. It’s not all fun and amusement though. Single “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” is a darkly themed Neil Young-ian dirge about a death in the family, that features Tillman pleading, “Someone’s gotta help me dig.” On “Now I’m Learning to Love the War”, he makes the connection between fighting in the Middle East and the creation of music. “Try not to think about/the truly staggering amount/of oil that it takes to make a record,” he points out in something of a depressing fashion.

As straightforward as Fear Fun can be lyrically, its overall execution winds up being a little more complex. Tracks like “Funtimes in Babylon”, “O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” and “Everyman Needs a Companion” are gorgeous folk numbers with echo-laden harmonies that almost instantly recall Fleet Foxes. Tillman apparently wanted to help create a bridge between fan bases, and this record is pretty successful at doing just that. Yet it’s also adventurous in its eclecticism. Pedal steel and Americana take center stage on “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2” and “Well, You Can Do It Without Me”, while “Tee Pees 1-12” breaks out the fiddles and hand claps for a good ol’ fashioned hoedown. Along the way classic records from Harry Nilsson and Waylon Jennings tend to come to mind, though never at the same time. The variety serves the album well, particularly because all the sounds are rooted in the same basic elements and ideas. Turns out that after seven records as J. Tillman and two in Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty arrives fully formed and with a set of songs that are difficult to resist singing or humming along to the more time you spend with them. With a new name, home, label, record and sound, Tillman finally feels ready for the spotlight. Hollywood, he has arrived.

Father John Misty – Nancy From Now On
Father John Misty – Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings

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Stream the entire album after the jump!

Snapshot Review: Willis Earl Beal – Acousmatic Sorcery [XL/Hot Charity]

The back story of Willis Earl Beal is fascinating enough to make for a great film. A Chicago guy, he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico for a few years in 2007 simply because he heard it was a very desolate and beautiful environment in which a creative person could pursue art without distraction. Without much in the way of a job or friends, Beal created a flyer that contained a hand-drawn self-portrait, a little bit about his background and personality, and a phone number people could call. He hoped to make some friends this way, and even said he’d play a song for you if you called him. Such an odd flyer eventually caught the eye of a few like-minded creative people who were interested in helping Beal further his art. Found Magazine got wind of him and wrote a feature story on him. They also released a limited edition box set called The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection, complete with his poetry, illustrations and music. Things were looking up for Beal, yet he quickly left Albuquerque in 2010 and returned to Chicago with only the clothes on his back despite having live shows and recording studio time booked. He moved in with his grandmother and brother and once again without a job began distributing flyers with his story and his phone number on them. He wasn’t on the internet and things like email and social media were largely foreign to him. Yet he was still tracked down by the people at XL offshoot label Hot Sorcery, likely after doing well on the reality talent competition The X Factor. Their first release with Beal’s name on it is Acousmatic Sorcery, an 11-track collection of home recordings pieced together over the last few years. The quality is, understandably, nowhere near top notch. Most, if not all of these songs were originally recorded to cassette using a karaoke machine with a busted speaker and a Radio Shack microphone. It winds up sharing many of the same qualities as tUnE-yArDs’ laptop-recorded debut BiRd-BrAiNs, in that it’s messy but gets the point across. That point is Beal’s voice. “Take Me Away” is the official introduction to it on the record, and the song is an excellent showcase demonstrating the power and emotional intensity at which he operates. The track starts a capella before he’s joined by some homemade percussion that sounds like banging on the bottom of a plastic garbage can. Those are all the elements in the song, and essentially they’re all you need. Beal howls and hums with the intensity of a great blues singer, crossing somewhere between Tom Waits and Buddy Guy. By contrast, “Evening’s Kiss” sounds like a completely different artist, where Beal’s voice is so calm and precious it’s somehow less muscular than the sparsely plucked acoustic guitar accompanying it. That and “Sambo Joe From the Rainbow” are very traditional folk singer-songwriter style, also something Beal does quite well. Where he’s a little off though are on the more hip hop flavored tracks. “Ghost Robot” and “Swing on Low” are both based around beats and rhymes, though the former is quite a bit heavier on those elements. Both sound nothing like modern-day hip hop, and instead flounder closer to cheesy 80’s style rap but with more off-putting or weird time signatures. There are a few cringe-worthy lines in there (and other songs) as well, furthering the thought that while Beal is an exceptional singer, he’s not always the greatest songwriter. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a bunch of well-written material on this record, because there is. For every handful of inspired lines, there’s usually one that doesn’t quite match it. Nevertheless, Acousmatic Sorcery is very much a great introduction to the world that is Willis Earl Beal. It is very much the world of an outsider artist, one who lives in the shadows rather than the spotlight, and who in spite of his outgoing personality seems to have a lot of the same reclusive qualities as a Daniel Johnston or Wesley Willis or Jandek. On that same idea we’re left wondering exactly what Beal is going to do next and when he’s going to do it. With some touring under his belt and an actual recording studio to work in, it will most definitely be interesting to see if he can capitalize on the very promising start he’s shown here.

Willis Earl Beal – Evening’s Kiss

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EP Review: Daniel Rossen – Silent Hour/Golden Mile [Warp]

Daniel Rossen is best known for his exceptional work in Grizzly Bear and less known for his side project Department of Eagles. The man is in many ways a wellspring of creativity and gorgeous melodies, boosted all the more by his unique guitar playing. You don’t even need to hear his voice to know he’s had a hand in a song. He’s also exceptional when it comes to arranging songs – breathing plenty of life into a track without overstuffing or cluttering it up. The last couple years Rossen has been working hard and touring with Grizzly Bear in support of their 2009 album Veckatimest. That record brought a somewhat unexpected dose of legitimate popularity to the rather subtle indie band, and all those guys did a great job handling the additional responsibilities that came along with an increased profile. Last year Rossen wrote a bunch of songs to prepare for the next Grizzly Bear LP, but a handful of them didn’t quite fit for one reason or another. It was mostly an issue of collaboration, in that he’d done about 90% of the work on these songs and felt like a more evenly balanced approach would benefit the band as a whole. Instead of ditching the tracks entirely or saving them for a rainy day re-working, Rossen chose to throw some polish on them and push them out into the world on his own. The Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP is the result, and it highlights exactly what makes the man an asset to whatever project he’s working on at the time.

Like The Beatles, Grizzly Bear is made up of four distinct personalities, and their working in tandem with one another creates beautiful records with intense vocal harmonies. It makes plenty of sense then that Rossen’s solo EP sounds an awful lot like something Grizzly Bear would put out, mixed with a touch of his other, similarly styled band Department of Eagles. Every song except for “Saint Nothing” features a lush acoustic guitar base, often supplemented with a smart variety of other instruments from electric and pedal steel guitar to piano, bass drum and even a string section. In its full glory you get the impression it’d make for the perfect soundtrack to time spent alone reflecting on the immense power of nature.

From start to finish, the EP plays like the storyline of a man retreating to the woods in search of serenity and meaning in his life. Opening track “Up On High” makes the lyrical observation of, “In this big empty room/finally feel free.” Though it’s not explicitly stated, that “big empty room” could very well be a forest devoid of people. “Silent Song” continues that trend with mentions of hills and fields and digging. Rossen’s lyrics aren’t exactly what you’d call poetry, but everything else about the songs is so impressive it’s tough to pass too much judgment on the guy for a few clunky or bland lines. When all else fails, you can look to the immense spectacle that is “Return to Form” for guidance. What starts as a babbling brook of acoustic guitar work builds to an orchestral crescendo complete with some electric guitar riffs stolen almost directly from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Ok, consider it more of an homage than anything else.

By the time “Golden Mile” turns up after the meditative piano dirge of “Saint Nothing”, the mood has become sprightly and upbeat. “There is bliss in this mess/there is madness all around,” Rossen sings, and you can almost hear a wink and a smile tacked onto it. Our world-weary main character has returned from his retreat into nature having learned a valuable lesson; when life becomes a burden and your emotional reservoir fills with despair, take a few moments for yourself and appreciate the little things. That same lesson can be applied to the Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP itself. At 5 tracks and 23 minutes, this is a small, elegant delight to enjoy when you need a few moments of peace. It’s also a nice stopgap for those unable to wait for this fall’s new Grizzly Bear album. Daniel Rossen may just be one leg of the Grizzly Bear table, but this EP goes a long way towards proving that should he truly want to, he can stand on his own.

Daniel Rossen – Silent Song

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Album Review: Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself [Mom + Pop/Bella Union]

Andrew Bird hasn’t changed. At least not on the surface. If you’ve spent at least a little bit of time with any of his last couple albums, you pretty much know what to expect from the guy and the genuine surprise comes from the fact that he does it so damn well. Every arrangement is delicate, effortlessly and intricately blending ukulele, acoustic guitar, violin both played and plucked, staid percussion and that unmistakable whistle. The combinations may vary, and sometimes there’s an electric guitar or two, but the end product is often beautiful, naturalistic and anchored by Bird’s lilting vocals. His sonic adventures show up less on his albums and more in his extracurricular activities, which include a collaborative art installation piece called Sonic Arboretum and heavy work on the soundtrack to the indie film Norman. He’s also the sort of guy that is busy all the time, and when he’s not writing and recording music or preparing some art project he’s typically touring. Last year a documentary called Andrew Bird: Fever Year made its way around film festivals. It captured the final months of Bird’s extremely long 2010 tour in support of his last album Noble Beast and the physical/mental toll it took on him. He had fevers every single day and wound up on crutches due to an on-stage injury. He had worked so hard his body was headed for a full breakdown. It seems fitting then that he took time off in early 2011, settled down in New York, and became a father for the first time. Yet despite his rather massive life changes, his music still comes from the same place. Last fall Bird gathered up his core band of Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker and Mike Lewis and returned to the Western Illinois barn where they recorded bits of the last couple long players in preparation for the next one. Break It Yourself is the result, an unflinching yet instantly familiar collection of songs that seeks to impress less with innovation and more with pure songcraft.

Though he’s still working with the same tools and environment as before, Bird tried something a little different when putting together songs for Break It Yourself. Instead of entering his home studio with a bunch of songs that just needed to be set to tape, he instead recorded a series of jam sessions with the band in the hopes something great would emerge. The lack of preparation brought a looseness to much of the album that’s a bit more refreshing than some of the more staid and perfectionist moments on his last couple efforts. Nowhere else will you get such a sprightly and inspired song like “Danse Carribe”, which builds into a blissful African rhythm set against Bird playing his violin with a vigor more reserved for the time the Devil went down to Georgia. There’s something very DeVotchKa-esque about it too, though that may have more to do with Bird’s vocals taking on Nick Urata’s familiar emotional yearn. Almost equally compelling is the shuffle of “Near Death Experience Experience”, the subtle pinpricks of electric guitar causing slight ripples in the track’s otherwise smooth demeanor, like a drop of water falling into a placid lake. A similar punchiness comes through on the bridge to “Give It Away”, which sounds like a slice of an entirely different song before a switch is flipped and it regains its composure in the final 90 seconds. Quick changes like that or protracted intros to songs like “Desperation Breeds” and “Hole in the Ocean Floor” serve well at keeping fans on their toes by breaking with expectation in engaging ways.

Yet there’s also a fair bit of Break It Yourself that stays tried and true to the Andrew Bird way of doing things. The second half of the album feels remarkably familiar, and not necessarily in a good way. St. Vincent makes a positively lovely appearance on “Lusitania”, though it’s a shame she didn’t bring her favorite guitar along for the ride because everything else about the song feels whitewashed and plain. “Orpheo Looks Back” begins with so much promise and energy before running out of steam halfway through. It only fares a little better than “Sifters” and “Fatal Shore”, two languid numbers that have nothing to offer except for their relatively smart lyrical content. If those don’t completely put you to sleep, there’s a singular late album surprise that turns out to be one of the finest pieces of music Bird has ever composed. “Hole in the Ocean Floor” measures itself out across 8+ minutes that may be serene, but are jaw-droppingly beautiful and exquisitely measured. The violins interweave with one another, the ukulele is the gooey center of the track, and that impressive whistle knows just the right moments to make its presence felt. There are barely any vocals, but there’s little need for them given so much is said with the track’s mournful tone anyways. A song like this goes a long way towards making an artistic statement beyond mere convention, and in some ways makes you wish Bird had used the song as a template for the entire album. Instead, it shows up at the end, followed only by the 3 minute instrumental “Belles”, which functions more as time to meditate on the track that came before it rather than something important or essential.

Clocking in at just about an hour, Break It Yourself can feel just a little overlong and downright boring at times. Bird could have cut a couple of songs on the second half of the album and it would have made for a much tighter and brighter experience. Of course when your lyrics are about the decline in bee population (“Desperation Breeds”), death (“Near Death Experience Experience”) and failed relationships (“Give It Away”), even a “brighter” experience may not be as sunny as you’d hoped. Bird has never been the most positive and upbeat songwriter anyways, and has six other solo efforts to prove it. He does continue to grow as a musician and lyricist after all that time, and there’s plenty of evidence on this new record that will grab and hold your attention out of interest for where it will head next. His niche is firmly established and not easily copied which is part of the draw, but it’s his drive to explore those sounds and how they’re used through art and film that makes him the sort of artist you root for even if he comes up short on occasion. Break It Yourself may not be the evolutionary breakthrough Andrew Bird undoubtedly hoped it would be, but its littered with a host of excellent moments and the implied promise that he won’t stop pushing himself so long as we keep listening with eager ears.

Andrew Bird – Eyeoneye

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Snapshot Review: Bowerbirds – The Clearing [Dead Oceans]

Those that have caught onto Bowerbirds in the last few years, whether it was through their 2007 debut album Hymns for a Dark Horse or its 2009 follow-up Upper Air, probably have a pretty good grasp on what the band is all about. The word “rustic” gets thrown around a lot when talking about a band like this, presumably because they’ve got a down home charm that transcends all the way into their lyrics. So you get a lot of acoustic guitars and graceful pianos, maybe some violins and glockenspiel for good measure. Imagine a less inventive version of Fleet Foxes without more muted vocal harmonies, and Bowerbirds is a band that should come to mind. Perhaps it’s better to simply say they’re peers with Iron & Wine and Midlake in their pastoralism. Navigating an urban jungle while listening to their songs never feels quite as good as it does when it soundtracks your trip into the woods or through an open field. That was the case with the band before, and with their third long player The Clearing it’s essentially more of the same. The changes made to their sound are largely cosmetic, with the instruments a little less buzzy and the vocals a little more up-front in the mix. Bowerbirds have also grown a little in their compositional abilities. That’s clear from the opening track “Tuck the Darkness In”, starting with just an acoustic guitar and vibraphone but slowly building and adding more instruments until it explodes in a cacophony of noise for the final 90 seconds. Following that up is “In the Yard”, which invites a whole other collection of instruments into the fold paired next to Beth Tacular’s sweet vocal, also essentially a paradox to Philip Moore’s from the track before. This pair of songs is evidence of growth not because of how far apart they are sonically, but rather how close. They compliment one another to help form a fully functional portrait of the band. It’s a shame that can’t be said of every track on The Clearing, but there are definitely more winners than losers thanks to moments like “Stitch the Hem”, “Hush” and “Sweet Moment”. Most follow the same slow burn beauty pattern established at the very beginning, though it’s consistently fascinating to keep track of the many instrumental layers that are placed atop one another. Sometimes it doesn’t work, as is the case with “This Year” and “Overcome With Light”, both of which are burdened with the curse of being too conventional for their own good. Lyrically speaking the band continues on the path of their prior albums, using nature imagery as metaphors for our personal lives. Great as it all sounds when it comes together, so much of The Clearing feels like a musical safety net. There’s so much beauty in these songs, yet they often feel like things we’ve heard before in their catalogue and the catalogues of similar bands. Bowerbirds may have grown some on this record, but they’ve only moved a foot when a yard was needed.

Bowerbirds – In the Yard
Bowerbirds – Tuck the Darkness In

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