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Tag: indie pop

Album Review: Real Estate – Atlas [Domino]

If you’ve heard a Real Estate record before, very little may surprise you about their new one Atlas. It’s another collection of lackadaisical songs with weaving guitar melodies supplemented by jangly chords. This time however, everything gets alternately clearer and cloudier. How so? Well, to start this is the first Real Estate album that’s been cleanly produced and doesn’t have touches of lo-fi haze built into it. Matt Mondanile’s serpentine guitar work benefits most from this adjustment, glimmering like a freshly polished diamond. It’s most effective on tracks like “Primitive” and “Had to Hear,” when you could almost refer to those lead guitar parts as another voice that acts in tandem with Martin Courtney’s silky vocals. This is a band that has quietly become a well oiled machine, as they now know what works and how to get there with the least amount of trouble. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the lyrics on Atlas, which bring the dizzyingly fun highs of their previous records down to earth. Real Estate were the sort of band that wrote songs about spending time at the beach or bumming around suburbia with your friends on a summer day, but now the sky has become overcast and the temperature has taken a nosedive. “Our careless lifestyle, it was not so unwise,” Courtney sang on “Green Aisles” from the band’s 2011 record Days. As nice of a sentiment as that was, those days (so to speak) are over, and now it’s time to grow up and be a responsible adult. Going along with that are relationship struggles (“Talking Backwards”), crippling anxiety (“Crime”) and the realization that everything changes and we can never truly go back (“Past Lives”). Pairing those emotions with the band’s trademark sound proves to be a rather inspired combination, resulting in their catchiest and most mature album to date. It’s also their best, right down to the carefully structured sequencing. All of this shows that Real Estate have certainly learned a thing or two both personally and professionally over the last few years. Now it’s time for them to teach us, and that goes well beyond simple guitar tab videos.

Music Video: Talking Backwards
Music Video: Crime

Buy Atlas from Domino Records

Song of the Week: Real Estate – Crime

One of the best and worst things about Real Estate is that you can turn on any of their songs and instantly know who it is. The benefits are obviously the ease of recognition; that they have such a distinctive sound and style that you can pick them out of a crowd. Where things turn potentially bad is that with their third full length coming out soon, the idea of forward progression and general sonic evolution appears to elude them to a degree. Put this new song “Crime” on a playlist next to “Suburban Beverage” from their first album, and to the untrained ear they could easily have come from the same record, no matter if it was recorded in 2009 or 2014. Yet maybe the reason why Real Estate continues to pull from the same proverbial sun-soaked and lackadaisical mine a few years later is because it has yet to grow tired or stale. In many ways the music they make is born out of time, and with a clear lack of other artists following in their wake to drive the sound into oblivion, there’s no need to move from their current plane of existence. At least not yet. Looking at the guitar tabs for “Crime,” which the band kindly released in lieu of today’s traditional lyric video, it becomes instantly clear that as relaxed and practically minimal as their melodies may sound, there’s a lot more complexity to them than you might think. Maybe they really have been evolving this whole time in the most subtle and interesting ways, and we’re the criminals for not paying close enough attention to truly notice.

Preorder Real Estate’s Atlas [out 3/4/14] from Domino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Modern Vampires of the City from Amazon

EP Review: Minor Characters – Heal Me, Healing Times [Self-Released]

Let’s start with an introduction. If you’re not relatively familiar with Chicago’s local music scene, the band Minor Characters may not have ever registered on your radar. Their ultimate plan is world domination, but as with any band or person that ever had the drive to pick up and play an instrument, we’ve all got to start somewhere. In the case of Minor Characters, they first got together at the end of 2010 and have been working hard to pay their dues ever since. They play as many live shows as possible, and through that avenue have built up something of a cult following in Chicago’s local scene. That hard work has paid off in other ways too, which is probably why they recently placed third in The Deli Magazine’s poll of Chicago Emerging Artists for 2012. But the reach of Minor Characters does extend beyond the city of Chicago, as they’ve done a fair amount of touring out of town and will be making their way to SXSW in March to hopefully introduce themselves to crowds eager to hear what they’ve got to offer. Of course everyone is also welcome to discover them via their self-titled EP that was released in late 2011. Five tracks isn’t exactly the largest or best catalogue, but really those songs served as a great foundation upon which to build from. As the old saying goes, better quality than quantity. So that was a great start for the band, but they’re just getting warmed up. Their second EP Heal Me, Healing Times looks to expand upon what they’ve already done and showcase the great strides they’ve made in the last year or so.

It’s always interesting to see how bands describe themselves in press materials. Minor Characters say that they are influenced by 60’s folk, The Beatles and Radiohead. If you’re a music fanatic, that’s sort of like the holy trio of influences, and most artists would kill just to be mentioned in the same breath. But here’s the thing: just because you’re inspired by another band or genre doesn’t mean you have to conform to or sound like it. Sometimes it’s just nice to have that knowledge base going in, because if a band says they’re inspired by Nickelback and Creed, that might raise a red flag before you hear a single note. When it comes to Minor Characters, perhaps it’s best to say that they’re a mobius strip of different sounds that come together to form something that feels entirely familiar yet unique at the same time. For example, their guitars on a track like “Sun Trials” feel tuned to the frequency of Grizzly Bear, but the melody itself doesn’t quite have the same multi-instrumental layers or stark stoicism to make a true match. That’s not a bad thing, as the chorus soars and aches with emotion and the band makes some smart, creative choices when it comes to overall structure and lyrics. If you listen closely in the final minute of the song, a high-pitched, static drone slides into the background that nearly recalls the deflated ending of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” but in a much more subtle fashion. There’s also a few carefully picked notes in the verses of “Aurora Borealis” that bear an eerie resemblance to Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” though maybe that’s more the result of transference after reading the band’s bio. The opening title track can leave the taste of Real Estate in your mouth thanks to its lazy summer day start before getting a strong tempo infusion and becoming a rather addictive indie pop song. Between that and the heartbreaking piano ballad “Expatriates” that closes out the short set, the band’s diverse array of talents are well displayed here.

Enjoyable and compelling as the Heal Me, Healing Times EP might be, there are a couple of small issues with it that need addressing. First and foremost is the length. You get four songs and a total run time of around 17 minutes, which really passes by in a flash. You’re left wanting more, and while that’s always a good thing, it’s also frustrating because it seems like this band is ready to take the plunge and go for the full LP. There are likely reasons why they’re holding off on it, perhaps for financial reasons or to serve as a stopgap as they consider signing to a label. But beyond the EP’s brevity, there are moments on it that feel just a little restrained or held back from something greater. Right now Minor Characters are striking a precious balance between a very normalized, pop-driven world and off-the-charts experimentation. The songs are clean cut and catchy enough to satisfy large audiences, but the rather literary and expository lyrics paired with a few strange effects add just enough dissonance to give you a glimpse into a different dimension. Somewhere down the line, be it months or a year or two from now, they’re probably going to have to fully commit to which direction they want to take. One path brings mainstream success and money but little critical acclaim, while the other path is the more challenging but brings gravitas and integrity to their music. If they’re lucky and can do it right, maybe they can have both. Either way, they’re a band with a wealth of talent worthy of much bigger and better things than where they’re currently at. The Heal Me, Healing Times EP is proof of that, building upon their earlier material and setting them apart from the hundreds of other Chicago bands trying to reach that next great peak. To put it another way, Minor Characters are finally ready to step out of the background and into the spotlight.

Stream the entire Heal Me, Healing Times EP

You can buy the Heal Me, Healing Times EP from Bandcamp or iTunes starting on 2/25/13, or get a copy from them at one of their shows.

Snapshot Review: Eternal Summers – Correct Behavior [Kanine]

If you’re going to pick a band name as emotionally evocative as Eternal Summers, you’d best have the material to back it up. People get excited about summer, because it means time off from school or work, warm weather, and lazy days by the pool or lake with family and friends. It’s a special season to say the least, and one we often wish would go on forever. The road hasn’t always been paved with sunshine and blissful happiness for Eternal Summers though. They’ve spent the last few years in relative obscurity, part of a somewhat secret music community in their hometown of Roanoke, VA called Magic Twig. It’s a loose collective of musicians that work with one another without much regard for official band membership. They have their own recording studio and embrace the DIY/lo-fi aesthetic. Guitarist/singer Nicole Yun and drummer Daniel Cundiff met that way, and with their minimal pop powers combined they became established enough to earn a record deal. After a couple of EPs, 2010 saw the release of their first full length Silver. While it certainly achieved some degree of measurable success, reviews weren’t exactly glowing with affection for the duo. Then further tragedy struck: while on tour, their gear was stolen. Yun’s special Parker Nitefly guitar was among the losses, and she didn’t have the money to pay for a new one. Other guitars didn’t quite have the sonic range to pull off some of their songs, so to compensate for the low end they brought in bassist Jonathan Woods. Becoming a three-piece has fleshed out Eternal Summers’ sound more than ever, as has their decision to outsource the mixing of their new album Correct Behavior to New York, where The Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner and producer Alonzo Vargas took care of it. They may have been concerned about letting other people have some degree of control over their sound, but the end product really shines positively on the growth of the band and provides the leg up needed to get the attention they deserve. Helpful as these changes might be, in the end they don’t amount to much if the songs themselves aren’t good. Thankfully Eternal Summers don’t have that problem, as this album features stronger lyrics, more confident vocals and more candy-coated hooks than anything they’ve ever done before. First single “Millions” kicks things off in a very bright and bouncy fashion, really hammering home the fuller sound and putting Yun’s vocals at the front of the mix. “I’ve got to shake this shell and break it into millions,” she sings, and while it’s supposed to represent a new found freedom in your life, in many ways it also feels like the band is starting fresh and embracing the same ideals. That same intense energy and playfulness continues to carry on through super addictive songs like “Wonder,” “You Kill” and “I Love You.” All together those first four songs make for one of the best starts of any record so far this year. Cundiff’s drumming is propulsive in exactly the ways it needs to be, especially on more punk rock numbers like “You Kill” and “Girls in the City.” Yun also gets in some intelligent guitar solos on “Wonder” and “Heaven and Hell,” likely the result of not having to worry about being the only guitar in the band anymore. There are a few moments where Correct Behavior slows down, which help balance out the record nicely and give you a chance to catch your breath. “It’s Easy” and “Good As You” are dreamy and beautiful in all the ways they need to be, holding your attention when they very well could have killed the mojo established by the quicker, more upbeat tracks. Perhaps the biggest standout on the entire album comes right in the middle with “Girls in the City.” It’s the only track where Cundiff handles the vocals, and the post-punk melody blended with his very cut-and-dry baritone makes it comparable with something you’d hear from Joy Division or Crystal Stilts. Eternal Summers showed hints of such influences on their previous releases, however it’s never come across as clearly as it does here. The only real problem is that it doesn’t mesh as well with the breezier pop stuff that’s all over the rest of the record. Finding a better way to incorporate new and different styles is one of the things they can work on for their next long player. In the meantime, Correct Behavior goes a very long way towards making Eternal Summers the sort of band you want soundtracking those times of fun in the sun.

Eternal Summers – You Kill

Eternal Summers – Millions

Buy Correct Behavior from Amazon

Snapshot Review: Ramona Falls – Prophet [Barsuk]

photo by Jeni Stembridge

Brent Knopf formed Ramona Falls in early 2009 while recording on Menomena’s third album was delayed. The Ramona Falls debut full length Intuit featured collaborations with 35 different musicians on both U.S. coasts, and was generally well-received. One of the keys to making that record work was an uncanny ability to surprise the listener at every turn. A violin solo would pop up here, a choir there, and genre influences would shift wildly from looped electronica one moment to Eastern European folk the next. It sounds terribly unbalanced, but there was a subtlety and charisma behind it that sucked you in. After touring in support of Menomena’s record Mines was complete at the end of 2010, Knopf announced he was leaving the band to focus on Ramona Falls. Now that this project has his full attention, you’d expect Ramona Falls’ second record to be even denser than the last, continuing the evolution into obscurist pop. Then again, expectations can often be misleading.

The new album Prophet surprises mainly in how it pulls back on the reins of experimentation a little in favor of something that’s rather normal-sounding and pop-friendly. On the surface, it seems that Knopf is in search of some sort of mainstream success. Before he can actually get there though, he’s in dire need of some confidence on one end of his musical spectrum. The arrangements on this album are muscular and bright, but his vocals are almost exactly the opposite. He sings like a hybrid of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, The Clientele’s Alasdair MacLean, and Sufjan Stevens, which is to say in a lilting, almost whispered fashion. His inability to match the enthusiasm and grandiosity of the busy melodies actually hurts its overall effectiveness. More often than not his singing winds up nearly drowned out by everything going on, and even when it meshes well with the environment it lacks the gravity and emotion required to truly hit home. The lyrics are more personal than anything Knopf has written before, but they suffer because of the straightlaced and flat way they’re sung. Opening track “Bodies of Water” is about the double-edged sword of romantic relationships, how you grow and share as a person but also expose yourself to the potential to get hurt. The complicated arrangement speaks well to the message of the song, but the vocals fall short. “Brevony” is a heavy and ferocious electric guitar cut, and though there are references to wrath and anger, Knopf calmly sings those words and destroys their potential impact. Not everything gets ruined due to some imperfect vocals. First single “Spore” is a slow and bubbling electro build to an energetic release, and Knopf pushes his voice accordingly. Though it feels disturbingly like an early Death Cab for Cutie song, “If I Equals U” maintains a certain degree of calm that makes its execution quite comfortable. Sad break-up song “Proof” might just win the award for album’s best though, with a complex yet delicate arrangement that includes orchestration and some careful plucking.

Perhaps Knopf’s biggest mistake in putting together this new Ramona Falls record was that he made it too energetic and upbeat. Normally such a thing would be encouraged because it tends to make a record more interesting. There is quite a bit about Prophet that is interesting and enjoyable as a direct result of this approach. The songs are far more rock oriented, but pounding pianos or blaring horns always make their presence felt here or there to throw a slight twist on an otherwise pedestrian melody. It’s in that way this record bears similar markings to Intuit. But using that record and his previous work with Menomena as examples, Knopf benefits most from careful and precarious execution; a certain fragility in the composition that matches the fragility in his voice. The greater confidence he attains instrumentally, the louder or more brash he gets, and the easier it is for him to stumble. A fair portion of this album leaves him tripping and trying to catch up with the many ideas spilling out through various instruments. Maybe with some vocal help he can catch up, or maybe he can scale back just enough to put everything back in its right place.

Ramona Falls – Spore

Ramona Falls – Sqworm

Buy Prophet from Barsuk

Album Review: Tennis – Young and Old [Fat Possum]

Tennis is a band that was born out of a concept, rather than vice versa. Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley lived what many might consider a dream for several months. Married and finished with college, they sold their possessions and bought a sailboat, then leisurely traversed up the East Coast on it. Consider it almost the alternative to spending a year backpacking in Europe. Their adventures and intense time spent together inspired them along with their shared love of music led to the creation of Cape Dory, their debut album. It was a fun little indie pop record that in many ways was a musical scrapbook of their trip, given that all the songs related to experiences they had and feelings felt during that time. Considering the duo has been touring almost nonstop since their album came out 13 months ago, it’s something of a wonder they found the time to write and record a follow-up. Even then, without a sailing excursion to mine for material, what would they come up with for the all-too-important sophmore effort? And though their first singles were lifted on the wings of blog hype, their debut wasn’t nearly as well-received as they might have hoped for. Does that put more or less pressure on them to make a great second album? With The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney in the producers chair and drummer James Barone being upgraded to full-time band member, Tennis’ new record Young and Old seems out to prove the band is better and broader than two people in love on the high seas.

“Took a train to/took a train to get to you,” Moore sings as the very first lines on opening track “It All Feels the Same”. Unintentional though it may be, there is a certain parallel to be drawn between that and the sailboats dominating all of Cape Dory. Fear not, friends; Young and Old is not a record about train travel or really any form of transportation. The song “Traveling” is sort of the lone exception in that regard. In fact, this new album is in many ways the topical opposite of the last one. Cape Dory was all about beautiful locales and a couple in love with the sea and one another. The relationship between Moore and Riley may be as strong as ever, but they’re either no longer writing songs about their own experiences or are trying to expose us to another side of things on the new record. “Paradise is all around, but happiness is never found,” Moore somberly professes on “High Road”. Emotions run high throughout the record, and there’s plenty of turmoil to go around which gives Moore the chance to show off her range on multiple levels. “How much is required to set things right?/Have you confused your power with might?” she emphatically interjects on “Origins”, while on “Take Me to Heaven” she wishes she could believe in an afterlife: “My mistakes, imperfections, they make me long for a place where they can’t overtake me.”

Dark as this album might be lyrically, the songs on Young and Old are far catchier and uptempo than you might expect. There were a few outright misses on Cape Dory that felt more like padding between the hits, but virtually everything on the new album stands well on its own and could be considered a potential future single. One of the bigger reasons why that’s the case is the sheer muscle and sonic building the band displays this time. The guitars are stronger and are covered in an extra layer of fuzz, the drums are far more forceful and the piano works itself higher into the mix. Patrick Carney deserves some credit for how he pushed the band in the studio, though you’ve got to wonder how many of these new adjustments came about organically through time spent performing on the road. Even a quieter and more somber track like “My Better Self” has a bit of oomph and insistence to it, infused with handclaps for good measure. Moore’s vocals get an upgrade too, with plenty more backing harmonies and “ooh oohs”, or in the case of “Petition”, some very retro “sha la las”. It all contributes towards helping Tennis sound quite a bit like a lighter, poppier version of Beach House, which is by no means a bad thing.

As delightful and forward-moving as Young and Old is, it in many ways feels like a stepping stone for Tennis. Their debut album proved they could write at least a few strong pop songs. This new record proves they were more than just a flash in the pan and are invested in career longevity. It features a fair amount of growth for the band, but it lacks true sonic innovation. We’ve heard songs like these before, though arguably never delivered with quite the same scalpel-like precision and overall catchiness that they are here. This trio is talented to be sure, and it’s great to hear them moving past boat stories and unveiling new layers, but they’re not quite where they need to be just yet. They can do better, though getting there might just require taking some serious sonic risks and alienating what’s currently an expanding fan base. If success is all they desire, Young and Old is another grand investment towards achieving massive popularity. If it’s genuine respectability they’re aiming for, they’re inching towards that too. For most, a crossroads will emerge where they’ll be forced to choose one or the other. Play your cards right though, and you can have both. Look forward to Tennis’ next record, it’ll probably be the one that either makes or breaks them.

Tennis – Origins

Tennis – My Better Self

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Album Review: Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness [Arts & Crafts]

Most bands that survive for at least a few records almost always have one of those “game changing” albums during which they make a radical adjustment to their sound. The thinking is that the shift in direction will keep the band themselves from getting bored while challenging current fans and courting new ones. Musical trends change too, and sometimes a band doesn’t want to sound like they’re “behind the times” or are desperate to sound like whatever’s hot at the time. These shifts are all the more noticeable the higher profile the band is, which is why U2’s transformation in the 80s was so noteworthy, and why Radiohead’s move towards all-out electronica on “The King of Limbs” resulted in a lot of backlash (see also: the knife twist between “OK Computer” and “Kid A”). But sometimes a band changes their sound in the most organic way possible: slowly developing it record by record. Such truths are most evident provided you’ve been keeping up with a band from song 1, and the younger the band members are at the time, the better. Such is the case with Los Campesinos!. The Welsh collective first came to everyone’s attention via 2007’s “Sticking Fingers Into Sockets” EP, then a bunch of fresh-faced college dropouts with pop culture obsessions and heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics. Their sound was undeniable winsome indie pop, complete with glockenspiels galore, shout-along lyrics and choruses that were catchy as all get-out. The exclamation point at the end of their name said it all, along with song titles such as “You! Me! Dancing!” and “We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives”. Such fun and addictive simplicities were maintained on the band’s 2008 full length debut “Hold On Now, Youngster”, but very shortly thereafter things began to change.

Several months after the release of their first full length, Los Campesinos! released the 10-track “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed”, a limited edition “mini album” containing all new songs that was recorded a couple months prior during a brief break from touring. The title alone said volumes about it, but track titles like “Miserabilia” and “Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #1” also helped to spell it out for you. The quick tempos, shouty choruses and glockenspiels all began to take a back seat to heavier guitar work and singer Gareth Campesinos’s hyper-literate lyrics. Their sly, winking humor was largely replaced by astute commentaries on the pitfalls of relationships be they romantic, friendly or familial. Think of these transitional stages like a child growing into an adult, with those first couple pieces of music containing an almost child-like innocence, the “mini album” getting darker and dirtier as puberty set in, and then their last full length, 2010’s “Romance Is Boring” parlaying that growth into young adulthood. What are some of your main goals between the ages of 18-25? Drinking and fucking tend to be the two most easily associated with the era, and that last album had both, though much more of the latter. It should come as no surprise then that the band decided to title its fourth (or third, depending on what qualifies) long player “Hello Sadness”. You get one quick guess as to what the general mood of the record is.

For those playing the home game, if you said the mood of “Hello Sadness” was sadness, you would be correct. You win the award for Most Obvious Correct Answer. And while the lyrics do paint an overwhelming portrait of sad-sackery, the good news is the music doesn’t fully embrace that same sentiment. Listening to a bunch of heartbroken or suicidal songs in which the tempo goes overly heavy will likely put you in the same sort of mood the album evokes, and not a lot of people want to listen to albums that bring them down both verbally and sonically. That’s one of the biggest hurdles “Romance Is Boring” faced, and though the band handled the darker stuff extraordinarily well, that record dragged much more than it soared. The cute keyboard-spattered “By Your Hand” opens “Hello Sadness” and it it immediately pushes back against the downer vibe on the last record with one of the band’s catchiest melodies to date. The lyrics may be all about hoping a girl will kill you rather than break your heart, but the instruments bounce along with such zeal it almost makes the experience seem pleasant. The full band sing-along of the chorus is classic Los Campesinos! by now, and while it’s not the sugar rush of a past opener like “Death to Los Campesinos!”, it maintains a bright appeal in spite of its morbidity. Even the title track, with the sentiment of, “goodbye courage/hello sadness” chugs along like a modern adaptation of 80s dark-tinged pop classics, the bass line akin to some New Order gems and Gareth’s vocals take on an almost Robert Smith-esque quality paired next to his Dickensian imagery.

Speaking of Gareth’s vocals, he’s matured them along with the band, pulling away from some of his trademark yelps and not trying to stretch his range beyond what he’s capable of. The result is better control and power, a wise choice given he’s not sharing lead singing duties as much since Aleks left the band (this is their first record without her). While Gareth has always been a fine singer given the outpouring of dramatic shit he spouts off from song to song, this is the first Los Campesinos! record where all his vocals emote in exactly the way they need to. He spits fire on “Hate for the Island”, adopts a snotty punk attitude on “Songs About Your Girlfriend” and is frought with worry on “Baby I Got the Death Rattle”. Given that this record was written and recorded reportedly after Gareth suffered a pretty big break-up, these songs are probably that much more personal to him and you can largely hear it in his voice. It’s a shame then that his lyrics aren’t quite what they used to be. For a band that once even titled a song “We Are All Accelerated Readers” and then pretty much proved it with hyper-literate witticisms that commented on eveything from Rousseau to “Jane Eyre”, there’s a certain sense that things are a bit blander and less clever on “Hello Sadness”. The cleverness factor may be down a bit, but the smart wordplay largely remains intact. It’s difficult to criticize lines such as, “Your body above me, sobbing down/My cheeks wet from your tears/They extinguish each of the burning thread veins/Flow down to my ears/Now they rest in two tiny reservoirs/That overfed the wedded canals” when the images they conjure up are impressively powerful. Even the most depressing lines about death are made that much more engaging to listen to because of the way they’re phrased. “My memories are sepia/But the photograph is not/An historian is fucking with them/As deadly as garrotte”, he sings on “Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)”. You might need a dictionary to truly understand what he’s getting at, but that’s also part of what makes the lyrics so damn good. Some might argue the use of such challenging vocabulary is really Gareth’s way of bragging about how smart he is, but by that same token none of the classical authors felt the need to “dumb down” their words. That’s not to say Gareth is on par with classic literature, but most assuredly nobody else is penning songs quite like him these days.

Perhaps the reason that Los Campesinos! toned down their sillier bits is because like any full grown adult the days of goofing around are largely over. Then again you’re only as young as you feel, and we all probably know a few people over the age of 40 that could use a bit of maturity. It’s not like the band is all of a sudden filled with middle-aged adults either. They’ve yet to reach their late 20s but come across like they’re twice that age. Have they grown up too much, too fast? Their albums have all logically progressed from one into the next, but would they have been wrong to have stayed lighter and poppier for another record or two? Probably not, and given that “Hello Sadness” is a relatively serious adult album, where can they go from here? That will probably be most dependent on whatever headspace Gareth is in at the time. At least on this latest effort they’ve found their pop edge again. There really hasn’t been much to call single-worthy on the band’s last two efforts (even as there have been singles), which is why “By Your Hand” and the title track seem a little like a sonic regression to their earlier days. The overall balance of the record is a little off too, with the front half bringing far more energy and hooks while the back half is a more subdued and depressing affair. The key transitional moment and true crux of the album comes via “Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)”, a five minute electric guitar-heavy excursion that is both harsh and gorgeous, lively and stagnant. It stands as a great testament to just how far Los Campesinos! have come in four short years, and is also a gentle reminder that as much as it crushes our spirits, sometimes sadness is worth welcoming into our lives.

Los Campesinos – By Your Hand

Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness

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Album Review: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical [Self-Released]

Hop in your imaginary time machine and take a trip back to the year 2005. At the rate our technology is moving, quite a bit has changed in the last 6 years. Music blogs, for one, were still in their relative infancy, a select few becoming tastemakers for so many. Like weeds though, more kept sprouting up every day, wanting their own piece of the pie and trying to earn some legitimacy by breaking new artists on their own. Sometimes it worked, often it did not. One of the few bands to actually gain traction from those early bits of experimentation was Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. A five piece from straight out of Brooklyn, CYHSY were pretty much the ultimate DIY-ers, recording and distributing their own music without any assistance. After passing along a few free mp3s from their self-titled debut album to some influential music blogs, their popularity suddenly exploded, to the point where they couldn’t really handle all the orders that were coming in. To their credit, they never asked for any help once their popularity skyrocketed, and plenty of labels and distributors came calling. In one of the first cases of good hype going bad though, with their second record “Some Loud Thunder” Clap Your Hands Say Yeah chose to throw a little variety into their whimsical and upbeat indie pop sound, incorporating elements of prog-rock, dance rock, and world music into the melting pot and disappointing a lot of fans in the process. There were some good songs on that sophmore effort, just not enough to keep a positive word of mouth going about the band. So initial negative sentiment began to catch on and soon the band that had been lovingly embraced by the forward-thinking indie music community was now left for dead on the side of the road.

After briefly touring in support of their second album, CYHSY vanished for awhile, only playing a random show now and then while reportedly working hard on their third full length. Rumors of a hiatus emerged, particularly as frontman Alec Ounsworth put out a solo record as well as a second, different album as part of a new project called Flashy Python. Both records were released within months of one another in 2009 and were subsequently dismissed in about that same time frame. A couple of the guys also formed a new project called Uninhabitable Mansions with Au Revoir Simone’s Annie Hart – something that started as a band and art project but eventually became a record label. They’ve released records from Pursesnatchers and Radical Dads in the last year. CYHSY guitarist Robbie Guertin plays drums in Radical Dads, and their debut record was produced by CYHSY drummer Sean Greenhalgh. Realigning ourselves to the present day, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah suddenly and dramatically reappeared last May by announcing they’d be releasing their third album, their first in four years, this September. An mp3 for the song “Same Mistake” was unleashed a month later and quickly began to stoke the flames of hype once again for the band, with early comments seeming to suggest the guys had rediscovered the magic that earned them all that praise in the first place. While a great new song or two certainly bodes well for an entire record, the one lesson to be learned from this hype-a-minute world is to avoid making snap judgments until you’ve heard the whole thing. As it turns out, titling the record “Hysterical” was an inspired choice, primarily because it is exactly that, only we’re laughing at the band instead of with them.

Okay, so “Hysterical” is not really a laughably bad record. First single and opening track “Same Mistake” is actually remarkably good, with Ounsworth’s trademark woozy, off-key wail and a chorus bordering on anthemic anchoring the whole thing in place and reminding you just why this band earned so much hype in 2005. Yes, they deserve to continue making music, provided that music remains lightheartedly catchy. Yet it’s notable that in that very first track Ounsworth espouses, “We’ll make the same mistakes”, not trying to but actually implying they may still screw up this second chance. The crux of the band’s problems lies with the unerring sense that they can just work from their 2005 template and achieve similar success. Tastes and trends evolve from year to year, and unless you’re one of the few bands whose sound is only best described as “timeless”, you’re going to need to prove things have changed from record to record. At least “Some Loud Thunder” took some serious (and arguably too many) chances in the hopes of broadening the CYHSY sound established on their debut. As a contrast, “Hysterical” holds steady on the hope that if you liked songs such as “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” and “Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away”, you’re going to equally enjoy this new material. The good news is that nothing on the new album sounds like an outright failure. Taken completely on their own, every track has some merits to it and is effectively charming. Put them together though, and you’ll notice a glaring sameness to the whole thing. Whether it’s the 3 minutes of “Maniac” or the 7+ minutes of “Adam’s Plane”, the band operates at a cruising altitude that while nice is also supremely safe. Taken in one massive lump, you’ll likely come away feeling the album was nothing short of a delight, but identifying specific highlights or hooks will suddenly prove exceedingly tough. At least moments like the fuzzed out guitar solo over the last half of “Into Your Alien Arms” and the spacey string section on “In A Motel” stand out specifically because they’re small breaks in the pattern. That doesn’t automatically make them better songs as a result.

What “Hysterical” ultimately ends up being is sad. Many of the songs aren’t upbeat in nature even if they have a spring in their step instrumentally. In addition to that, you wind up feeling just a little sad that a band with so much going for them initially have seemingly become tied up in the notion that they can reclaim their status as an important and meaningful band simply by repeating the formula that made them a success from the start. Even if they’d crafted a mixture of their delightfully catchy self-titled debut and their last album “Some Loud Thunder”, by no means would that have earned them any greater shot at the good graces of the hype-a-minute world we live in today. Bands that pander don’t earn a spot at the exclusive table – it’s the ones that take risks and are able to prove their worth via innovation that get the praise. That’s an extremely tough thing to do, and I for one don’t envy any band trying to make something of themselves these days. The game has changed since 2005, so you either adapt or die. With any luck, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will find a way to do the former rather than the latter.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Same Mistake
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Maniac

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Album Review: Viva Voce – The Future Will Destroy You [Vanguard]

Despite their new record “The Future Will Destroy You” being their sixth long player, somehow it always feels necessary to introduce or re-introduce Viva Voce every time they put out something new. Calling them forgettable is probably not the right thing to say, especially since they’re written a number of great and memorable songs, but they never seem to get enough press or notice for them. Consider them a bit of a lost treasure then, one of those secrets that if you know about them, your life feels just a little bit richer as a result. In fact, you’ve likely heard Viva Voce before whether you know it or not. Their songs have appeared in a number of popular TV shows from “Friday Night Lights” to “One Tree Hill”, and like many of those snippets, were enough to make you sit up and ask somebody who the band was before falling back into the plot and not following up properly on it. So as a primer, or a reminder for those that may have forgotten, here’s a snapshot of Viva Voce. The core of the band is made up of Portland husband and wife duo Kevin and Anita Robinson. They were the two there from the very beginning back in 1998, and it’s only been in the last couple years that they’ve added two new members to help flesh out their songs a bit more both in the studio and while performing. But Viva Voce have also done their fair share of label hopping across their catalogue, going from Asthmatic Kitty to Minty Fresh to Barsuk and now settling in with Vanguard for their newest record. They’ve toured with everyone from The Shins to Jimmy Eat World, and even established an alt-country side project called Blue Giant with some of their Portland friends that included Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk (who has since left the group). To call them seasoned musicians at this point is more than accurate, and while it’s not always the case, sometimes the records get better with age.

The best way to describe the sound of Viva Voce is probably folk-tinged psych-pop, which is just a fancy way of saying that while the band can get a little spacey and reverb-heavy in their compositions, they never reach so far out of bounds as to alienate the listener. “The Future Will Destroy You” may not feature their most upbeat collection of songs, but it does have some of their smartest and tightest to date. “Plastic Radio” opens the record with some buzzsaw guitars and a groove that’s just a touch retro and surprisingly danceable. Even more interesting is the way the song is structured, because there are essentially two separate hooks working in fascinating opposition with one another. The first is based entirely around the rise and fall of a fuzz-addled guitar, while the second is purely lyrical with Anita pushing the command to “smash that radio”. In between those things is a strong programmed beat and some funky keyboards that only add to the classic fun. The best thing about it though is how there are no actual verses in the song, but rather just a lot of ping-ponging back and forth between instrumental groove and the sung chorus. It’s a smart move in particular because you wouldn’t notice it unless you were paying very close attention. First single “Analog Woodland Song” is almost normal-sounding by comparison, though the way the guitars get choppy during the chorus adds that psychedelic edge to break out the charm that Viva Voce have become known for. The way the guitars meander in and around a sharp beat on “Diamond Mine” makes for some intense instrumental moments, so much so they pretty much outshine Anita’s reverb-heavy vocals over the first half of the song. Ironically the opposite is true on “Black Mood Ring”, where the harmony-heavy vocals (along with Kevin’s percussion work) dominate over the guitars and anything else that might stand in their way. The second half of the record contains some great tunes as well, the most notable probably being the title track, which chugs along with purpose despite its ominous lyrics and relatively patterned melody. The more acoustic-oriented melodies of “Cool Morning Sun” and “No Ship Coming In” bring out the band’s folksier side, and there’s a beauty and grace about them that isn’t especially present at other points on the album.

What “The Future Will Destroy You” does right is bring together a collection of songs that work very well together and are true to Viva Voce’s sound. That said, though this may be their tightest and most fully formed effort, it does little to advance what we already know about the band. There’s not a lot of exploration or pushing the envelope too far, which after so many years and albums you might come to expect. The small changes to the structure of a couple songs are less new ideas for them and more a return to something that has been toyed with previously. The same goes for the more extended instrumental passages, though they’ve never had so many non-vocal hooks as they do here. The ability to instill a memory of a guitar riff rather than actual lyrics is more challenging than it might appear, so kudos to the band for pulling it off multiple times. Perhaps their sonic experiments were placed more on the Blue Giant record, which tapped into a wholly different aspect of the band’s personality, even if there were a lot more cooks in that kitchen putting that record together. Kevin and Anita Robinson have returned to Viva Voce because the sounds and the lyrics they are writing make the most sense with that project. With some of the most commercially viable songs of their careers as well, one might hope they finally find the extended success they’ve richly deserved for awhile now. It’d be nice if I didn’t have to explain who they are again when their next record gets released.

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Album Review: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong [Slumberland]

Some of the greatest things about becoming successful are the opportunities that come your way as a result. Two years ago, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart earned themselves a huge wave of buzz thanks to their self-titled debut album. As you need to do when being the recipient of such praise, they followed their record with extensive touring and a couple of stopgap releases to keep everyone from forgetting about them. So an EP and a 7″ single later, POBPAH have readied their sophmore full length “Belong”, and this time things are different. They’re still signed to one of the more decidedly indie record labels around in Slumberland, but that doesn’t mean the record sounds that way. The ultra lo-fi haze that hung over their debut has been cleaned up significantly this time around courtesy of a 1-2 heavyweight combo of uber-producer Flood and uber-mixologist Alan Moulder. Those two are basically a dream team for the band, given their long history helping make some of their favorite records by some of their favorite bands – from My Bloody Valentine and Ride to The Smashing Pumpkins and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Together they’ve been responsible for more than a dozen classic records, and the hope is probably that “Belong” will wind up among them.

The change in The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is immediately noticeable from the very first notes of “Belong”, leading straight out of the gate with a broad, energetic and fun title track. Granted, POBPAH have always been those three things, just a little hazier and with a more “head down” mentality prior to now. Here not only are the guitars more polished, but so are Kip Berman’s vocals and the hook. This newer, fuller and more confident version of the band comes across like an announcement of purpose – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are going mainstream. Listen to the next two tracks on the album, “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” and the irrepressably catchy first single “Heart in Your Heartbreak” and those implied notions of going huge become that much more vivid. It also creates something of a debate amongst the independent music community about crossover acts and the consistent shunning of them. Embrace Kings of Leon when they put out “Youth and Young Manhood”, but patently reject them when “Sex On Fire” catapults them to fame and fortune. Just the use of the word “mainstream” has a taint to it, like bands that wear it are polluted with some sort of fungus. The thing about The Pains of Being Pure at Heart though, is that they’ve not yet reached the point of success on a massive scale. “Belong” sounds like it’s trying really hard to though, but before you have an adverse reaction to the thought, take under consideration that success on your own terms and from a tiny label such as Slumberland is an accomplishment thousands of bands can only dream of.

More importantly, the wealth of hooks and sheen on this record, translating to a super-easy-to-digest sound, only helps The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Instead of hindering their intentions, “Belong” finally feels like the first time they’re actually able to fully realize their sound. Underneath the haze and shy demeanor of their debut was this juggernaut, and now its legitimately exposed. Not only that, but the songwriting has improved this time around too. Instead of implying a number of things and leaving the listener to reach their own conclusions, we get direct references and things spelled out, though never to the point of treating us with kid gloves. These are songs that feel personal and upfront rather than colder and mysterious, and that’s a great thing. With that also comes the risk of running afoul by being too vanilla or alternatively too conceptually strident, and this record has only a couple of those moments. Everything else is above board and smartly written, in line with all the other elements at work here. The slower ballads like “Even in Dreams” and “Too Tough” particularly stand out lyric-wise, mostly due to their under-reliance on hooks to get their point across and the necessary drama to warrant toning down the upbeat charm that’s pretty much everywhere else.

Given that Flood and Alan Moulder (many times in tandem) were responsible for some of the best records of the 90s and since The Pains of Being Pure at Heart take many of their influences straight from that decade, the coming together of all these parties was divinely inspired. “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” comes across like a direct decendent of Ride, while closing cut “Strange” bears a strong resemblance to the more pop-friendly side of My Bloody Valentine. Slices of shoegaze mixed with slacker rock and heartbreak pop congeal to make for a very special record that’s wildly interesting and majorly successful. The real shame would be if this album didn’t score POBPAH the exact things they seem to be aiming for, which is tons of radio airplay, placement in commercials, and a devoted fanbase of millions. Prior to this they were just indie darlings, but here they’ve proven they can play in the same league with the big dogs and do it better than most of them to boot. So long as they don’t fall prey to the pitfalls that normally handicap great indie bands that blow up huge (sign to a major label, give in to “pressure” to change, show no love to their earliest fans, etc.), things will be a-ok. Otherwise, we might wind up living out the heartbreaking tale that is “Anne with an E”.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – Belong

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Album Review: Peter Bjorn and John – Gimme Some [StarTime]

Peter Bjorn and John are a curious trio. With the rise of bands out of Sweden making dynamic indie pop songs in English, their record “Writer’s Block” stood out amongst the fray and garnished a single that broke into the big time and was universally hailed by the music criterati. That song was “Young Folks” and the intense whisle-bound hook along with a guest vocal performance from Victoria Bergsman helped to seal off its brilliance and give the boys a little leeway when it came time for a follow-up. They took the opportunity and ran with it, the product of which was the all-instrumental “Seaside Rock”. As you might expect, not many people paid attention to it because there was no chance it’d yield another “Young Folks”. Around the same time, primary lyricist and vocalist Peter Morén put out his first solo album, which was full of quiet folk songs that didn’t win him any favors either. Peter Bjorn and John returned to vocals and pop music with 2008’s “Living Thing”, though they went very dark and percussion-heavy rather than lighter and catchier. For one reason or another they also seemed to feel like maybe dropping a whole bunch of f-bombs in the hook of a song would charm people, though it didn’t seem to be a problem for Cee-Lo Green last year. So five years and a host of failed experiments later, the guys seem to be making a much more conscious effort to reclaim the spotlight with their new record “Gimme Some”. In this case, it’d seem the titular “Some” is fame, fortune and hits.

“You can’t can’t count on the second try/the second try is such a comedown”, Morén sings on “Gimme Some”‘s first single “Second Chance”, which is practically modeled after the band’s subsequent failure when attempting to sustain their success. Ironically, it’s also Peter Bjorn and John’s strongest song since “Writer’s Block”, with a strong enough hook that it’s already earned some prominent commercial placement. It’s one of a few tracks with just the right spunk to break them out of their self-imposed funk. “Breaker Breaker” is pretty well charming too, with some fuzzed out guitars and a smattering of punk rock attitude. That same furious attack is also applied to “Black Book” and “Lies”, both of which show up later in the record and give it a much-deserved spike of fun and energy. “Lies” in particular is irresistably catchy and well-constructed to the point where it legitimately feels like one of Peter Bjorn and John’s best. Again, it’s no “Young Folks”, but most bands don’t even get one of those kinds of incredible songs, let alone two (unless that band is The Beatles). Even when they’re not playing the quick and catchy game, the hefty percussion, complete with handclaps and a descending guitar line makes a song like “Eyes” worthwhile and enjoyable. Whenever the band is able to develop a song into a solid groove that’s not necessarily fast but interesting and then sustains it for an extended period of time, it tends to pay off in spades. The final minute of “Eyes” is one of those moments, though the most exceptional example comes courtesy of the 5.5 minute closing track “I Know You Don’t Love Me”. The song may not have the chutzpah of a supreme PB&J like “Up Against the Wall”, but it’s probably their most engaging long form track since. There’s not really any better way to close out the record.

The start of the record is a different story. Coming out of the gate strong is important for many bands, but apparently not Peter Bjorn and John. “Tomorrow Has to Wait” can only muster up a mid-tempo pace amid a martial drum beat as Morén sings about a day so wonderful you want to postpone the next one. The hook is merely okay, as is the song, and you get the impression it might have functioned better were it positioned later in the record. The boys try to go a little calypso on “Dig A Little Deeper”, with a fun-in-the-sun guitar jangle and backing “oh-oh”‘s. All that’s really missing from the song are some steel drums, though the use of bongos pretty much handles that nicely. The track is interesting and fun to say the least, a little different from what we might otherwise expect, which is also what the song is coincidentally about. Their intentions may have been to throw a little spice into the record, but when you pair it with exceptionally weak lyrics (“all art has been contemporary”???) it doesn’t help things. Also, while it might be very light and a little silly, it’s also just a tiny bit cheesy and bland overall – ultimately a risk not worth taking. Other parts of the record are simply bland an ineffective, courtesy of tracks like “May Seem Macabre” (which can’t seem to decide if it is or isn’t macabre) and “(Don’t Let Them) Cool Off” (which does stay hot but sounds like it could have been written by any number of bands).

The full story with “Gimme Some” is that Peter Bjorn and John have made a recovery. Granted, it’s not nearly a full recovery, but they’ve created a record that will guarantee their longevity for at least two more, even if those turn out to be more crappy experiments. They’ve got a fair chance to score at least one more hit single, on which they’ve already made more headway than they have in years, and even besides that a few songs that are just generally good for their live shows. This is a far cry from “Writer’s Block”, but it’s also a significant step back in the right direction after the absolute mess that was “Living Thing”. Either PB&J have taken their time thinking about how to make this all right, or they’ve fallen on the sword and forced their own hands into a sonic direction they wanted to give up on a few years ago but are now only returning to with the hopes of cashing in. Whatever the reason, “Gimme Some” will indeed get them some as claimed, ranging from everything just mentioned to both popularity and unpopularity. At its simplest, those that have been sticking with the band through thick and thin know all too well what they’re capable of, though it’s been a string of consistent disappointment since then and up until now we’ve been left with only little bit of light remaining at the end of the tunnel. Now that things are getting brighter once more, maybe next time there will be a reason to break out the sunglasses.

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