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Tag: orchestral pop

Listmas 2014: The Top 50 Albums of the Year [#10-1]

This is it! The final post of 2014 also marks the conclusion of Listmas and specifically this Top 50 Albums of 2014 countdown. It’s been a long road with plenty of bumps and delays along the way, but we’ve finally reached the peak of this imaginary mountain. At this point I’d like to give a special thank you to everyone who read something, clicked on something or downloaded something here at Faronheit over 2014. All of the content that’s posted here is for you to discover and enjoy, and I’m grateful for anyone who visits with that intention. It hasn’t been the best year for the site content-wise, but the hope is to generate more and return to form in 2015. Typically I’d tease a bunch of new features and exciting things in development for next year, but honestly most of that stuff either gains no traction or simply falls off never to be heard from again, so let’s just stick to the mantra of more everything and go from there.

So what can I say about these Top 10 Albums of 2014? Well, like the other entries in this list, there’s plenty of variety in terms of genre and style. It goes from weird to fun to noisy to sexy to relaxing to adventurous and back again. If you’ve been following me on Instagram these last few weeks, you’ve been given access to an early preview of the eclectic Top 5, though I can assure you that #6-10 are as equally exciting and wonderful. And hey, while I wasn’t able to write a lot of album and show reviews this year, some of the ones I did write about make an appearance here. Also worth mentioning: a particular pair of artists who are members of my Class of 2014 had an exceptionally great year, helping to continue to support that program. So I’m not going to spend any extra time talking this up. Please join me past the jump for the big reveal of my absolute favorite albums of the year.

Previously: [#50-41] [#40-31] [#30-21] [#20-11]

Album Review: Owen Pallett – In Conflict [Domino/Secret City]

A fair number of people have absolutely no idea who Owen Pallett is, even though they’ve likely heard his music in one place or another. His primary claim to fame has been as a composer/unofficial member of Arcade Fire, most recently earning an Oscar nomination for his work with the band on the soundtrack to the 2013 film Her. Most, if not all of the band’s string arrangements come directly from his brain. He’s composed for other bands on occasion as well, including Beirut, Grizzly Bear and The Mountain Goats, the latter of which was a lyrical inspiration for his new solo record In Conflict. After releasing solo material in the mid-00’s under the Final Fantasy moniker (which he was forced to change due to a lawsuit with video game creators Square Enix), in 2010 Pallett put out Heartland under his own name. Like everything he had done up until that point, Heartland was a concept record, telling the story of Lewis from a fictional realm called Spectrum, who faces off in a battle with his God (named “Owen Pallett”). It was a rich and engrossing album that practically demanded to be heard in full in one sitting, each thread connected and lightly pulling on the one before.

In Conflict is similar in that it too is best digested all at once; however conceptually speaking there is no singular narrative or storyline to follow. There are themes though, and many of the songs deal with self-doubt, depression, loneliness and the challenges of connecting with others. These are things we all face from time to time, though some of us deal with it a lot more than others. There seems to be a lot greater resonance the older you are too, as friends slowly disappear into their marriages and families, what’s a thirty or forty-something single person with no children to do? In the opener “I Am Not Afraid,” Pallett appears to have come to some sort of a resolution about his life. “I’m not at all afraid of changing / but I don’t know what good it would do me / I am no longer afraid / The truth doesn’t terrify us, terrify us / My salvation is found in discipline,” he sings with confidence.

Yet as quickly as he finds direction, he loses it once more. “On A Path” is about losing your place or outgrowing your hometown and the subsequent wanderlust as you search for a new place to settle. Mental illness and the “It Gets Better” Project are the focus of “The Secret Seven,” inspired in part by the suicide of gay violin student Tyler Clementi. Pallett seeks to relate his own experience with mental illness as a teen as well as those of his friends in the hopes of helping others dealing with the same issues. He even gives out his phone number at the end of the song so those in despair can call him to talk if need be. Later in the record “The Sky Behind the Flag” deals with the desire to control every aspect of our lives and exert that same influence on the world at large. The idea is that such micromanagement can only end in destruction and implosion, as others as well as the universe do not like being ruled by an iron fist. Above all else however, “The Riverbed” probably best represents the album’s overall themes. The subject matter on that track ranges from writer’s block to depression to alcoholism to growing older without children, which is basically a nasty cocktail of anxiety and dread. Dark as it may get, the final verse seeks to provide some degree of solace, particularly with the line, “Try to admit that you might have it wrong.” In other words, though you may be haunted by your failures, perhaps everyone else considers you a success.

Such is the point of a record titled In Conflict, as our mental states often clash with one another in obtuse ways. That idea also comes through from the instrumental side of things, supported in no small part by the master of the oblique, Brian Eno. While Pallett does an incredible job with string/orchestral arrangements and there are plenty of them on this album, he’s also chosen to expand his sound to incorporate more electronic elements. He’s done a fair amount in that area before, but never to such an extent. Pretty much every song has at least a touch of violin in it, but there’s also a wealth of digital effects like beats and bleeps, often accompanied by some sort of synth or Mellotron as they work well together. Those sorts of moments are particularly evident on “The Passion,” “Infernal Fantasy,” the title track and a couple others. It’s easy to say that this is where Eno’s influence bleeds through the most, as the non-symphonic, non-guitar areas are almost always his specialty. The only disappointing thing about it will likely be how some of these songs come across when performed on stage. There’s a certain excitement that comes with watching Pallett build sonic landscapes through his unique looping techniques, and electronic/synth stuff pulls him out of that world, however temporarily.

As a whole, In Conflict represents yet another masterstroke from Pallett, who has increasingly proven to be one of the top composers making music today. The lack of any official conceptual elements connecting all of the songs through characters or ideas relieves us from the distraction of trying to analyze and dig out some sort of storyline so we can focus on what’s really being done and said on the individual tracks. Every moment is fascinating in one way or another, be it a delicate instrumental composition or a single word/phrase. Whether or not they are influenced by or autobiographical to the man behind them is certainly up for debate, but what’s not is their intention to provoke a response from the listener. Hidden beneath the themes of fear, anger, depression and anxiety is the message that everyone has their own path, and the choices you make, no matter how good or bad, are an attempt to do what’s best for yourself. Thankfully, this record allows Pallett to give us the best of his conflicted, brilliant self as well.

Owen Pallett – Song for Five & Six

Buy In Conflict from Domino

Album Review: Lo-Fang – Blue Film [4AD]

Lo-Fang, aka Matthew Hemerlein, is a very talented guy. His early singles proved as much, showing off a diverse range of styles and instruments, all of which he played himself. Throw in some pretty catchy choruses, and you’ve got all the makings of a superstar. At least that’s what it looks like on paper. He may well rise above the fray and build an audience from the ground up, and having teen wunderkind Lorde in his corner to take him out on tour will undoubtedly help push things in the right direction. What’s unfortunate however is how Hemerlein’s debut album Blue Film turns a promising singer-songwriter and composer into a small disappointment. Turns out when you focus on only one or two aspects of your songs, there are other pieces that suffer.

If Blue Film was an entirely instrumental record, it would have turned out pretty great, what with the very Andrew Bird-like mixture of guitars, violins and synths. That’s the arena where Hemerlein really proves his worth as a musician. The other half of that includes vocals and lyrics, which is where this album really takes a turn for the worse. There are clunky and awkward lines in virtually every single song, and those mouthfuls are akin to someone trying to forcefully connect two puzzle pieces together that do not fit. “I never figured out how to / Unfold your paper cranes / Origami agony,” are kind of strange and ultimately meaningless lines from album opener “Look Away,” though the hook and gorgeous composition do a great job of averting total disaster there. While the nearly seven minutes of “#88” makes it a touch too long to be an official single, it’s one of the few tracks released in advance of the record that does a fantastic job of showing off Hemerlein’s musical diversity and influences. Unforunately it too suffers from a few lines that might as well have been pulled from the book of most commonly used lyrics.

It stands to reason that even the blandest of lyrics can be made better or more colorful by a clear emotional investment from the person singing them. No matter what the subject matter of a song, from reflections on the world around you to the morality of cheating on your significant other to trying to be a better person, it seems like Hemerlein treats everything with a calm and nearly apathetic tone of voice. Even just a hint of genuine passion or the stretching of his vocal range from time to time could have given some extra life to songs that desperately needed it. Then there’s the matter of the two covers on Blue Film, both of which seem like ill-advised choices. The first is “Boris,” from the female duo BOY, which is a very dark song about sexual harassment in the music industry. These women are singing about their experience, but in Hemerlein’s hands the perspective shifts to the creepy guy offering them Codeine. If covering “You’re the One That I Want” from the musical Grease seems like a bad idea for an artist who largely deals with orchestral pop, you’d be correct. Hemerlein slows the tempo down to a delicately composed crawl, which changes the mood from upbeat and fun to downright desperate. It’s fits in perfectly with the rest of the album for that very reason, but it begs the question of why he felt the need to do it in the first place.

Prior to signing with 4AD, Hemerlein was planning to release Blue Film as a mixtape. As most mixtapes are, it probably would have been free. When the label heard what he had put together, they wanted to release it as Hemerlein’s debut album. Hindsight being 20/20, maybe they should have waited for the next batch of songs before trying to provide a proper introduction to Lo-Fang. Surely whatever he does next will be better than this.

Buy Blue Film from 4AD [or iTunes]

Album Review: Efterklang – Piramida [4AD]

Have you heard Efterklang’s 2004 debut album Tripper? If not, now’s as good of a time as any to look it up. Spotify can help you out on that one if needed. Anyways, back then the Danish band had about 10 members and created atmospheric post-rock soundscapes that effectively brought to mind Sigur Ros with a little more electronic undercurrent. Fast forward to the present, and Efterklang is now a three-piece band that more or less creates beautiful and heartfelt pop songs. The difference is pretty huge, though it helps that they retain small pieces of their earlier selves. You can’t quite blame the band for wanting to find true success, but the way they’ve gone about it sometimes feels like too huge of a sacrifice. A lot of the elements that made them distinctively great have been washed away to make melodies easier to digest and remember. That’s largely what sabotaged their last album, 2010’s Magic Chairs. In preparation for the release of their new album Piramida, the band released a trailer that shows some of the lengths they went to in generating audio samples for it. In short, they traveled to Spitsbergen, Russia, located on the edge of the North Pole and home to Pyramiden, a town that was abandoned in the ’90s and remains as a decaying ruin today. They climbed inside huge, hollow tanks and recorded vocals and noises with the impressive echoes. They ran down boardwalks and plinked glass bottles with the microphones capturing it all – over 1,000 samples used across the album. Such effort is more than admirable, as not many artists would go to such lengths to add such unique charms to their records.

If you give a really close listen to the entire record, the little effects become that much more apparent and make what you’re hearing immensely more impressive. The only percussion on “Dreams Today” is the sound of footsteps across wooden planks. “Told to Be Fine” has a large hollow metal object being struck by something that sounds like but probably isn’t a basketball, while “The Living Layer” makes use of the many ways glass transforms sound when tapped at different angles and levels. Charming and well placed as all these elements might be, if you didn’t know to listen for them you probably wouldn’t notice or care where they came from. Efterklang might well be amateur foley artists, adding sound effects to movies after the fact because camera microphones didn’t pick them up properly. The point being, almost all of it could have been recreated in the studio without the need to go to an abandoned ghost town near the North Pole. That shouldn’t lessen or cheapen the experience of listening to Piramida because clearly the band was inspired by their trip in the right ways, but you are left wondering if they could have done something more or different with what they collected during their journey. For example, to make an atmospheric, post rock record like their earlier work using these sounds would be inventive and set them apart from their peers. Sadly, they didn’t do that. What they did do was create a smart and beautiful pop record that will impress you the more time you spend with it. The intricacies of opening track “Hollow Mountain” begin to reveal themselves once you realize it stacks upon itself by starting with a slow music box-like churn and not even launching into the first verse until two minutes have passed. From there, strings and horns all show up and eventually vanish amid icy synths, martial percussion and Casper Clausen’s relaxed vocal. The song makes for a decent single, but “Apples” which follows it is probably just a touch catchier and more upbeat.

There’s nothing on Piramida that’s intensely happy or toe-tappingly fun, but no matter what mood or shape the songs seem to take, they’re almost all compelling in one aspect or another. “The Ghost” starts innocently enough, but builds with unique percussion and harmonized vocals before entering a hornet’s nest of brass that eerily and enviously recalls Radiohead’s classic “The National Anthem” at its most frenetic point. Ballads like “Sedna” and closer “Monument” stand as particularly strong examples of how measured and carefully plotted arrangements can exude passion and elegance with lyrics that just as equally inspire. If this album has one unabashed highlight though, it comes from the 6.5 minute “Black Summer,” which transforms itself over its run time via intense build ups and releases aided along the way by stark piano work, the South Denmark Girls Choir and a jazzy little saxophone solo at the end. It’s exactly the sort of song you wish was the blueprint for the entire record, best blending the band’s earlier work with their more recent stuff. Alas, they don’t all operate at such a high level even if they’re all successful in one aspect or another.

It’s both a help and a hindrance to Piramida that despite their common elements each track could stand up well on its own. On the one hand, you want each individual track to be as strong as possible so you can drop in anywhere on the album and enjoy it. On the other hand, you also want that sense of wholeness in a record, where the entire thing goes down effortlessly in one 45 minute chunk. Efterklang aren’t quite able to strike the right balance here, which ultimately weakens the album’s overall impact just a touch. A bigger issue is the band’s indecisive nature when it comes to their sound. The atmospherics they’re creating are undoubtedly gorgeous, but they often feel taken down a notch when paired with more standard choruses. If they just surrendered to the melody instead of shoehorning differing structures in, the album would lose a lot of commercial viability but gain a greater sense of exploration and originality. Sometimes it’s more about the risks you don’t take than the ones you do, which is absolutely the case here. Still, what we do get from this record is largely quality, and a marked improvement over their last couple efforts. Let’s hope it’ll only get better from here, and that they won’t have to go to the other side of the world to make that happen.

Efterklang – Apples

Buy Piramida from Amazon

Album Review: DeVotchKa – 100 Lovers [Epitaph]

Remember the movie “Little Miss Sunshine”? It was that sweet indie comedy that worked its way into our hearts and wound up being quite successful at the box office. Hopefully being the astute music fans that you are, you took notice of the movie’s soundtrack, which heavily featured the music of DeVotchKa. Granted, much of the soundtrack was pulled from the band’s 2004 record “How It Ends”, but there were a couple of original pieces in there as well. It genuinely seemed like DeVotchKa’s music had the sweeping drama and epic beauty that works effortlessly and perfectly in movies. There would be advertising opportunities, video game soundtracks and a bunch of other things the band signed off on (as well as a bunch they turned down as well), and chances are even if you think you’ve never heard a DeVotchKa song before, you actually have in the background somewhere. All the commercial exposure really helped to build a following for this collection of troubadors, and it helped turn their last record, “A Mad & Faithful Telling” into a moderate hit. Nevermind that it was their weakest record to date. Their star still continues to rise, and their greatest accomplishment to date was an opening slot for Muse last summer when they played in front of over 80,000 people in France. Now DeVotchKa is back with “100 Lovers”, their first new record in three years, and yet again it falls right in line with the widescreen journey they’ve been on for quite awhile now.

Grand orchestral swells and piano introduce the record on “The Alley”, just before a martial snare drum beat picks up the pace and frontman Nick Urata belts out those first words in a croon that sounds like he’s trying to seduce an entire valley full of people from atop a mountain. It’s that sort of huge, and despite that, the band makes it seem almost effortless. The song itself pushes what eventually becomes a theme of the record and practically the norm for DeVotchKa these days, in that their focus is more on beauty and atmosphere than it is on creative, world accented pop. A song like “All the Sand in All the Seas” sounds positively lovely and moves at a brisk pace, but the closest it comes to a hook is some bouncy piano that acts more as a guide linking the verses than anything else. Similarly, “One Hundred Other Lovers” is remarkably reminiscent of the gorgeous balladry that the song “How It Ends” had going for it, which in turn also makes it one of the record’s strongest bits. Immense orchestration and an out of control violin are what form the basis for “The Common Good”, and what’s normally lovely sounds overly busy in this particular case. There’s simply too much going on in the song for it for the richness to sink in. The final minute of the song completely gives way to an even greater instrumental swell that takes things even farther off the rails into almost white noise territory. There’s certainly a passion there, not to mention ferocity, but it doesn’t feel earned.

After the first of two interludes, “The Man From San Sebastian” foregoes the orchestral majesty of the first half and breaks out the accordion and electric guitars. It’s a rock track with a touch of Spanish influence as the title suggests, along with a bit of Eastern European gypsy mojo. Acoustic guitars, tambourines and whistling helps bring the jingle-jangle to “Exhaustible”, a track that’s well put together but feels a lot like its title, which makes it just a little off from the band’s norm. After a second very brief instrumental interlude, Spanish influences take over the band, from the fiery horns and bongos of “Bad Luck Heels” and “Contrabanda” to the peppered accordion and multilingual lyrics of “Ruthless”, there are moments in the final third of the record that genuinely feel like DeVotchKa have gone mariachi. If you’re familiar with the band’s past records though, this is nothing particularly new. Of course they’re far more complicated and well developed than that, but it does give you the impression that the record has those couple interludes to neatly divide it into sections where different musical styles and influences are explored. Closing track “Sunshine” bucks the Spanish final third just a bit with its jack-of-all-trades instrumental. It’s a pretty beautiful song, but doesn’t feel like it has a distinct purpose. There’s not a whole lot to keep it interesting, though it still chugs along for close to 5 minutes seeking some semblance of structure.

Credit goes to DeVotchKa for at the very least providing some framework for “100 Lovers” by grouping similar songs together to create a solidified mood and atmosphere. That’s pretty much what they do best anyways, though the first half of the album places a lot more emphasis on that than the second half does. All the sweeping drama from those first few songs will surely bring to mind Arcade Fire at least a touch, especially since Nick Urata’s vocals have that emotive Win Butler-like wail that tends to be too charming to resist. Compared to past DeVotchKa records, this one’s just a bit easier on the ears stylistically, with the band restraining some of their more ethnic impulses in favor of more straightforward arrangements. That turns out to be both a help and a hindrance, partly because you get the impression that had they gone all the way either in a smooth orchestral pop direction or in an offbeat, world music sort of left turn, it would have made for a better record. Instead, most of the songs are lovely and have their own distinct charms, even if it may feel a little uneven between the various parts. It’s also just a little bit of an issue that for DeVotchKa, there’s not a whole lot of forward movement on “100 Lovers”. Everything they do here they’ve pretty much done before, sometimes with more vigor and inspiration. Still, the band has reached a comfortable spot in their career where maybe they don’t need to keep pushing the envelope and they can simply settle in to being labeled as world-weary travelers. It’d kinda be nice if that weren’t the case though, and they still had a few more tricks up their sleeves.

Buy “100 Lovers” from Amazon

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