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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]

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

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

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

Buy Bursts of the Million from Dymaxion Groove

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

Buy We Are the Dreamers from Graveface/Bandcamp

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

Buy Ultima II Massage from the Rad Cult Store

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

Song of the Week: Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks – Little Fang

Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare, has made plenty of fascinating music as a member of Animal Collective, not to mention outside of that band as a solo artist. Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks is his third project, but if you’ve heard anything he’s done previously then what he’s bringing to the table here isn’t a whole lot different. The good news though is that it is diverse and different enough to justify creating a whole new band to put it together. At the same time, whitewashed, fun house psychedelia seems to be a specialty of Portner’s, and it’s almost always a great idea to play to your strengths. So with this track “Little Fang,” the first audio we’ve heard from this new band and from the forthcoming record Enter the Slasher House, we get that tricky blend of strange and trippy composition complete with modulated vocals and stray sound effects. Yet unlike anything else, there’s an extreme clarity and straightforward approach to the song that makes it remarkably easy to digest. For my money, it’s one of the most commercially accessible and catchy things that Portner has ever done, and he’s managed to pull it off without diminishing expectations or sacrificing key elements of his work. If you didn’t know any better, it’d be remarkably easy to confuse it with something by Of Montreal or Ariel Pink. There’s no guarantee the entire record will sound this way, but at the very least it’s a strong introduction to this brand new band.

Preorder Enter the Slasher House (out April 7th)

Album Review: Tame Impala – Lonerism [Modular]

There’s something incomprehensively magnetic about Tame Impala. Identifying exactly what makes the Australian band’s music so compelling is a challenge in itself, primarily because common sense says that psych-pop songs without much in the way of song structure and choruses shouldn’t go down so easily and smoothly. We’ve been trained on verse-chorus-verse, and anything else almost always falls into the “experimental” category. Then again, bands like The Flaming Lips and MGMT have achieved massive popularity while doing things their own way and going completely off the reservation more than a few times. If they can do it, why not Tame Impala too? They’ve even been working with legendary psych-pop producer Dave Fridmann, the man behind The Soft Bulletin and Oracular Spectacular, for their 2010 debut full length Innerspeaker as well as this new one Lonerism. The way in which he shapes Tame Impala’s sound into something more commercially viable can’t be ignored, though his magic is nothing compared to frontman Kevin Parker’s influence, which is so immense you might consider this band a solo project with a bunch of hired hands to recreate the songs in a live setting. Of course some of the other guys in the band might take offense to such a statement, but on any given song Parker is responsible for vocals, guitar, bass, drums and keys, which is essentially everything. He even reduces Fridmann’s normal job of in-studio producing to that of giving him the unmastered studio recordings and asking for judicial editing and a little bit of polish. It becomes an effortless blend of DIY home recorded aesthetic and present day glossy production, which is one of Lonerism‘s biggest charms.

While there is a certain modern aspect to the record, so much of it sounds like vintage ’60s psychedelia that under the right circumstances you might be able to fool a bunch of people into thinking it’s directly from that era. That task becomes even easier because Parker’s voice has enough John Lennon in it to convincingly present songs as some of the former Beatle’s long lost solo recordings. The day-glo vocal harmonies and quirky bounce of “Mind Mischief” for example feels cut from the same hangdog cloth Lennon often adopted, and the swirling shift it takes towards the end is gloriously “A Day in the Life”-like in nature. But Parker’s talents go beyond simple and unavoidable mimicry because he’s able to consistently find ways to challenge our expectations while still hanging onto a very real pop sensibility. Listen to the six minute swirl of “Apocalypse Dreams” to get a real taste of how he’ll change things up just as you’re starting to get comfortable. Instead of being disappointed by his yanking of the rug from underneath our feet, where things head next are almost always equal to or greater than whatever preceeded it. In other words, you’ve got to trust Parker has your best interests at heart and follow him into the darkness. There’s even a song near the end of the record that explains quite perfectly how you should approach these tracks: “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control.” That sentiment makes “Music to Walk Home By” music you can walk home by, and “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The two songs on the album that really break free from any influences and previous work are the trunk-swinging stomp of “Elephant” and the gloriously strange drift of “Sun’s Coming Up.” Both stand out for completely different reasons as they represent Tame Impala at their most focused and unfocused. The former engineers an energetic, bass-heavy groove that’s jarring compared to everything else on the album, but it hits harder and is more addictive than anything else that comes before and after it. The latter track closes the record and might as well be two songs in one – a waltzy, dramatic piano ballad at the start and a shimmering, psychedelic guitar instrumental at the end. That imbalance doesn’t really do it any favors, but it does make for an excellent way to close out the record. All the other songs fly by on a breeze, so this gentle application of the brakes prepares us for the end. We’ve had all night to play, and now it’s a race against the impending day. “Sun’s coming up now / I guess it’s over,” Parker sings wistfully as the last lines of the album. For all the disappointment and heartbreak that’s chronicled throughout Lonerism, somehow this one cuts the deepest. Perhaps that’s because we too don’t want it to be over. Buried beneath the sadness is also triumph – the realization that the record you just heard was a masterful display of what modern psych-pop can and should be. Tame Impala have expanded and refined the core sound of their debut into a confident work of art worthy of being named one of 2012’s finest.

Tame Impala – Elephant (Canyons Wooly Mammoth Remix)

Buy Lonerism from Amazon

Snapshot Review: Yeasayer – Fragrant World [Secretly Canadian]

As a general rule, you could well say that whenever the lead singer of a band starts picking fights with random people and things in interviews, it’s a sign of trouble. That doesn’t always mean an epic war of words between two or more parties. More often than not it’s a cry for attention, the idea of saying something inflammatory to get your name in the press because it might not be there otherwise. Billy Corgan has been pulling this trick for decades, and it’s kept the Smashing Pumpkins on people’s minds even during the last decade when they were churning out loads of crap. Which brings us to Yeasayer’s Chris Keating. Chatting with Rolling Stone about the band’s new album Fragrant World, he openly insulted R. Kelly and the current state of EDM (electronic dance music). And while he complimented Frank Ocean’s excellent work in the R&B genre, he capped it off by saying the genre should “gay it up a little,” referencing Ocean’s bisexuality. Of course he’s still better off than Surfer Blood frontman John Paul Pitts, who is dealing with a much more serious situation right now. But Keating’s comments are helpful because they give the band headlines while distracting from reviews of their new record. If your album is good, the attention will find you even if you don’t open your mouth. So yes, pulling a quote stunt like he did feels like an act of pre-release desperation. Hearing the first two Yeasayer albums All Hour Cymbals and Odd Blood, you might imagine that such a talented band with a great ability to avoid being confined to a particular label or genre would continue to flourish. Unfortunately their unique mixture of freak folk and psych-pop has been brushed off in favor of something decidedly more minimalist and dark. Arrangements are no longer packed with an array of colorful instruments, instead synths and electronic beats seem to be the two driving forces on their songs. Sometimes, as in the chorus of “Fingers Never Bleed,” it brings out a very ’80s R&B vibe that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Janet Jackson record. Other times it can sound like Chromatics filtered through the lens of The xx, as on “Damaged Goods.” That might make it seem like there’s a reasonable amount of variety across the album, as with the previous two Yeasayer long players. Actually, Fragrant World is the most cohesive and sonically solid record the band has ever made.

It’s a shame then that these are also the most uninteresting and unremarkable songs they’ve ever created as well. Even if you have the patience to listen through the whole thing a half dozen times, it’s unlikely you’ll come across many tracks that distinguish themselves from the pack and actually stay with you. The album’s midsection of “Devil and the Deed,” “No Bones” and “Reagan’s Skeleton” do the best jobs of being reasonably catchy and memorable. As much as they do right, they also just sort of drop off without trying anything truly new or different. There aren’t any twists in spots where there should be, and it feels like something’s missing as a result. The shift away from fuller and more complex arrangements also brings the band’s lyrics into a greater spotlight than ever before. Anyone that’s paid close attention to their last two albums knows Yeasayer aren’t the most prolific songwriters. Their skillfully crafted songs have gone a long way towards covering that problem up. Now pushed to the surface, the words are just another way the band stumbles and falls. It might be a little more forgivable if they had kept some of the uplifting and inspiring themes of their last couple records. Unfortunately much of the new album is about death and darkness, so if the bass-heavy melodies don’t bring you down then the lyrics probably will. “My girl says that all the rain promises is to give life to the seeds/Live in the moment/Never count on longevity,” Keating sings on “Longevity.” While it’s probably not intended that way, you could imagine those lines being mirrored back at the band and their career so far. While it’s admirable that they’re not content to sit still and fully commit to a certain style or genre of music for very long, it could also spell trouble for them if they make one too many wrong moves. Fragrant World may be the start of that inevitable downfall, or it could be a small misstep in an otherwise strong career in music. For the sakes of everyone, let’s hope it’s the latter.

Yeasayer – Henrietta

Buy Fragrant World from Amazon

Snapshot Review: Here We Go Magic – A Different Ship [Secretly Canadian]

The progression of Here We Go Magic over the course of their now three albums has been nothing short of fascinating. Luke Temple started the project like many others, with some recording equipment in his bedroom. The band’s 2009 self-titled album resulted directly from those sessions, a supremely lo-fi yet strikingly catchy examination of the freak folk and psychedelic genres. If songs like “Fangela” and “Tunnelvision” didn’t get stuck in your head after a couple spins, there was something wrong with you. Things progressed as you might expect – attracting all sorts of attention, Temple expanded the band out into a full-fledged five piece, though the second HWGM record Pigeons was recorded in a house with only slightly better equipment. The fidelity remained relatively the same as the first album, even as the arrangements were a lot more complicated and busy. The band’s sound changed somewhat too, abandoning the white noise instrumentals and most of the African polyrhythms in favor of something more synth-based and dream pop in nature. Good as that record was, it also made the band seem just a little indecisive about what musical direction they hoped to take for the future. They lacked conviction and a truly unified sound. When you hear the wild mixture of echoing drums that begin HWGM’s third album A Different Ship, there’s a remarkable familiarity to it that raises your spirits for just a minute in the hopes that this might finally be the moment when everything comes together perfectly as part of Temple’s master plan. The initial shock arrives on the second track, once the instrumental intro finishes off. “Hard to Be Close” glides out of its gates with clarity and whimsy that tells you they used an actual studio with an actual producer this time. The dirt and grime of the past two records are gone, and Temple’s vocal sits at the front of the mix. It also feels a lot like puberty arrived since that last full length, as Temple’s voice has dropped a couple octaves from the falsetto he typically uses. Once again this band has gone through more sonic growing pains, still unsettled as to what they want to sound like. They jump genres on a whim and while it’s impressive to hear them reasonably balance everything with some degree of uniformity, you come away with no better idea of where this band is headed than you did at the start of the album. The icy drift of “Alone But Moving” feels like a direct tribute to Radiohead, with Temple breaking out his Thom Yorke-ian falsetto and Nigel Godrich producing it. After delving into some serious yet unremarkable psychedelia for a few tracks, “How Do I Know” suddenly roars to life like it belongs on an entirely different record. The song itself is great and catchy, but it really serves as a red flag by pointing out the flaws with much of the rest of the album. By cleaning up their sound and getting Godrich behind the boards, the curtain behind Here We Go Magic is lifted, and we’re left not with the great and powerful Oz but instead a regular man with a special effects budget. It’d help if there was some semblance of deep emotion or heft to fill in the gaps the lack of instrumentation leave behind, but alas Temple prefers to keep his distance from those things. That leads to something like the sprawling finale “A Different Ship”, which spends most of its 8+ minute running time in some adult contemporary haze that devolves into a largely do-nothing drone. Like so much of the entire record, it feels lost at sea with no real idea where it’s headed. Occasionally land will be spotted and you get a nice spark of fun and inspiration, but it vanishes almost as quickly as it arrives. If this is what it’s like on A Different Ship, perhaps the better idea would be to return to your original one.

Here We Go Magic – How Do I Know

Here We Go Magic – Make Up Your Mind

Buy A Different Ship from Amazon

Album Review: Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light [Fat Possum]

Jason Pierce has Lived. He’s earned that capital “L” because of the multitude of things he’s experienced over the course of his 46 years. When he formed Spacemen 3 30 years ago, the band’s motto was: “Take drugs to make music to take drugs to.” He was true to his word there, and that mentality largely carried over when he started Spiritualized some years later. Things went well for awhile, and Spiritualized hit their high point in 1997 with the release of Ladies and Gentlemen…We Are Floating in Space. It was somewhere around 2005 when life began to turn upside down for Pierce. Not feeling well, he checked into the hospital where doctors diagnosed him with double pneumonia. He was in the Accident & Emergency ward for quite awhile getting better, hooked up to all sorts of machines and even reportedly died a couple times. After such a harrowing experience, he fleshed out the partly recorded Songs in A&E, with quite a few allusions to death and sickness. Things were fine for awhile, that is until last year, when Pierce went to the doctor for a routine check-up and found out his liver was quickly failing. Years of drug abuse had taken its toll, and he was rushed into treatment almost immediately. Instead of going the more traditional route towards healing, he chose an experimental drug treatment that would be far less harsh on his body. Confined to his house during that time, he chose to write and record the next Spiritualized album. The result is Sweet Heart Sweet Light, and it’s quite possibly the best thing Pierce has put together in a decade and a half. It would seem that any sort of drugs, legal or illegal, are the Perfect Prescription to making a great Spiritualized record.

If you’ve ever taken the time to give a close listen to any Spiritualized album, you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the project. The album titles Ladies and Gentlemen…We Are Floating in Space and Amazing Grace are equally great descriptors of the band’s sound, which is a mixture of psychedelia, gospel and blues. Seven albums in, you’d think the sounds and thematics might change. In some ways they have, with certain records emphasizing certain aspects more than others. For example, Songs in A&E had a fragility and precarious emotional core to it that wasn’t present on any of the band’s other albums. Pierce also used that record to focus more on religion and death than usual, and his other favorite topics of drugs, girls and redemption took on a less prominent role. Sweet Heart Sweet Light could well be considered a return to normalcy, but Spiritualized have never been a truly normal band. The reason they’ve been able to get away with maintaining a modestly even sonic keel is because there’s not really anybody else that sounds similar. Yet like all of the band’s past efforts, this new one has small qualities that help it to stand out from the rest of the catalogue. Most specifically, Spiritualized has never sounded more pop-friendly. First single “Hey Jane” is one of the catchiest things Pierce has ever come up with, even as it’s about three times longer than your average pop song. Around halfway through it reaches a breaking point, devolving into nearly nothing before coming back faster and more powerful than ever. That’s another distinctive quality of this album: it’s nearly the antithesis of Songs in A&E by exuding a confidence and strength that feels refreshing. It’s almost as if living through double pneumonia and fighting for his liver pushed him into treating every day like it could be his last. One gets the impression that Pierce would rather go out with a bang rather than a whimper.

A close lyrical analysis of Sweet Heart Sweet Light somewhat tempers the idea that this record is indeed life-affirming. “Sometimes I wish that I was dead/cause only the living can feel the pain,” he sings at the start of the soulful “Little Girl”. That sentiment is tempered by the song’s chorus though, which advises the titular girl to make the most of the time she’s given. On the epic and orchestral “Too Late” amid warnings about how love can break your heart, Pierce confesses in a moment of pure clarity that he, “Won’t love you more than I love you today/and I won’t love you less but I’ve made my mistakes.” The tenderness and devotion are touching, even when faced with the reality that we’re relentlessly flawed human beings. Shades of Neil Young circa “Heart of Gold” or The Rolling Stones circa “Wild Horses” are all over the ballad “Freedom”, with the plodding piano and acoustic guitar pairing providing a beautiful base for a chorus that begins with the relatable, “Freedom is yours if you want it,” but ends with the somber, “Made up my mind/to leave you behind/cause you just don’t know what to feel.” Where this record truly rings triumphant though is in the nearly 8-minute finale of “So Long You Pretty Thing”. Not only does it have the makings of an exhilarating torch song, but like “Hey Jane” it has one of the most memorable refrains of a Spiritualized track to date. As it begins its slow fade out, the glorious chorus still going, you kind of get the impression that it could have gone on for another five minutes like that and wouldn’t be any worse for the wear.

Given Pierce’s temprament and health battles the last several years, it’s worth mentioning that Sweet Heart Sweet Light might just be the last Spiritualized record. His liver is apparently fine now, or at least functional enough with the aid of drugs that he won’t die for a long time. Still, it’s been a rough decade so far, and maybe the next big bodily problem will be the one that finally does Pierce in. Let’s try not to be pessimistic and hope he finds a way to live another 46 years. But besides the physical problems though, Pierce has really started to appreciate the brilliance of his back catalogue. In the wake of touring around Songs in A&E, he was asked in 2009 to perform the Spiritualized classic Ladies and Gentlemen…We Are Floating in Space in its entirety at London’s Royal Festival Hall for an ATP event. Later that year, and months before that performance, a 3-disc Legacy edition of the record was released containing a wealth of demos and other odds and ends. Between compiling all that and performing what would ultimately become a handful of shows featuring that record, Pierce better understood what made it so special, beloved and praised. It pushed his own standards for making music higher as a result, and Sweet Heart Sweet Light is what he felt finally met those new expectations. Funny then that for most of the recording and mixing he was in a prescription drug-fueled haze that often left him mentally confused to the point where he kept calling the album Huh? because it was easier. If he’s this great while tripping on substances, you’ve almost got to wonder if health and clarity would help or hurt the final product. Either way, it’s also very possible Pierce will stop making music once he feels like he cannot top himself and contribute something truly great to the music world. With this new album being nearly a personal best and certainly one of 2012’s finest, one can only hope there’s so much more where this came from.

Spiritualized – Hey Jane

Buy Sweet Heart Sweet Light from Amazon

Album Review: of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks [Polyvinyl]

Another year, another of Montreal record. Technically speaking Kevin Barnes puts out a new full length album every two or so years, but there’s usually an EP or a collection of remixes or something that gets releaed in between. For example the last of Montreal album was 2010’s False Priest, but in 2011 it was thecontrollersphere EP. In total there have been 11 long players released under the of Montreal name since 1997, including this year’s Paralytic Stalks. There’s been a steady evolution in the sound of each record too, even if it hasn’t always been for the better. 2008’s Skeletal Lamping largely ruined the momentum built up by the critically praised Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer, as it was a mess of an unfocused record filled with ADHD-type songs. Just as a song would be reaching its stride and burrowing its way into your memory banks, it’d take a sharp left turn and send you someplace entirely different. More often than not you’d get about 3 separate thoughts spread across a singular 4 minute track, making it a rather difficult listen on the whole. That’s not even mentioning the fact that Barnes invented an alter-ego called Georgie Fruit who was a sex fiend and a disco queen with a falsetto voice. At least False Priest was built on the rock solid foundations of wanting to craft an R&B record with funk/psych-pop vibes. Packed with guest stars like Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles, the concept was interesting but the execution was much less so. You can’t really fault the guy for wanting to experiment, but most recently he seems to have reached some creative stumbling blocks.

Now we’re faced with the monumental task that is Paralytic Stalks, a record that foregoes any guest stars and alter-egos in favor of a return to some of the more core odd pop elements that earned of Montreal praise in the first place. Kevin Barnes would object to the idea that he’s backpedaling at all, even as he claims that his songwriting style has become far more personal again, akin to what it was on Hissing Fauna…. Believe what you will about the guy’s lyrics, but it’s a small challenge to pinpoint a time when he wasn’t being coy and metaphorical about things, his colorful palette of words functioning closer to a locked door than an open window. If anyone wants to explain what the lines, “You speak to me/like the anguish of a child doused in flames” are hinting at on opening track “Gelid Ascent”, it might go a long way towards proving those personal ideas. Still, there are a few moments where Barnes mentions his wife Nina by name, as when he pointedly asks, “Oh Nina, how can I defend myself against the world that batters me like a retarded cartoon” on “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff”. That at least tells you he’s speaking from the heart. Most of the time though we’re left with a puzzle, and a line from “We Will Commit Wolf Murder” probably says it best: “I’ve tried to understand his logic, but there’s just no pattern there/no sympathetic voices anywhere”. As confusing as many of the lyrics can be, their actual themes make solid sense. This is a violent and dark record, filled with thoughts of revenge, emotional breakdowns and infidelity. Not the most pleasant of subjects, but at least these are things that mean something to the man writing about them. If you can relate to his sentiments, so much the better. It should be obvious, but you’re not going to walk away from this record with a smile on your face.

From a purely sonic perspective, you could say that Paralytic Stalks is one of the more fascinating of Montreal albums to date. Spanning 9 tracks and a runtime of almost an hour, there’s an easily recognizable divide after the midpoint “Malefic Dowery” where 3-4 minute songs suddenly become 7-8 minute ones before the grand 13 minute finale hits. Ironically that’s also the point where the record starts to go awry, even though most of the nearly 9 minutes of “Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” aren’t bad by any means. The front half of the album is positively delightful on the ears in spite of its lyrical unpleasantness and unfocused tendencies. Single “Dour Percentage” is absolutely the best moment, channeling his most soulful pop side complete with some horns and flutes for accompaniment. What it lacks is a truly dynamic hook. The chorus is good but not quite good enough to stick with you. Almost equally compelling but far less pop-driven is “Malefic Dowery”, which has the distinct honor of being one of the most un-of Montreal songs in of Montreal’s catalogue. It’s beautiful, lush, straightforward and gets by on mostly acoustic guitar, piano and flute – all instruments you don’t really think of when talking about of Montreal. If Barnes had chosen to craft an entire record based around the elements of that song, it might have been exactly what he needed to make that next leap creatively. Instead, the album slowly descends into madness. Key to this collapse is the penultimate track “Exorcismic Breeding Knife”, an atonal psychedelic bad trip that entirely lacks any sort of shape. Its nearly 8 minutes amount to a series of noises, drones and sound effects, all atmospherically akin to a truly bad drug trip. The walls are quickly closing in, the floor is melting, and there’s a clown in the corner with a knife and a menacing look on his face. Those visuals are pretty much the auditory equivalent of what goes on in that track, and thinking about it further, there’s also a remarkable similarity to The Beatles track “Revolution 9”. The equally lengthy “Wintered Debts” and the doubly long closer “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” both at least have some looser, more pop-driven moments to offset the stranger and more detached moments. That doesn’t make them much easier to sit through, but at least they feel more upbeat and logically constructed.

A careful listen to Paralytic Stalks would seem to indicate that Kevin Barnes has very much lost his mind. That may very well be the case, or at least he’s allowed his eccentricities to take control for a bit. Those peculiar flights of fancy are almost certain to alienate a fair amount of the of Montreal fan base currently in place, undoubtedly hoping for something brighter and poppier more akin to the Satanic Panic in the Attic era. A few might find it inspiring though, a very forward-thinking take on 20th century orchestral movements. That seems to be what Barnes was going for, the actual success of it dependent at least in part on your own peculiar musical tastes. You’ve got to admire the guy, at least for a moment, for the sheer audacity it took to put together a record like this. Very few artists with of Montreal’s level of popularity would even dream of doing something so obtuse and uncommercial. Barnes’s dignity may be entirely intact, though his mental facilities may not be. Let’s hope this is a phase he’s working through, or a stepping stone towards a record that will define his legacy. It’d be such a shame if it were anything else.

of Montreal – Dour Percentage
of Montreal – Wintered Debts

Buy Paralytic Stalks from Polyvinyl Records

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

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

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

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

MP3: Caveman – Old Friend

Caveman – Decide

Caveman – December 28th

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Album Review: Atlas Sound – Parallax [4AD]

And so the trend continues. Between his main band Deerhunter and his solo side project under the moniker Atlas Sound, Bradford Cox has released at least one album per year since 2007. That’s not even counting various EPs or the 4 collections of Atlas Sound bedroom demos he released for free last year. The guy’s brain must be a songwriting factory, churning out lyrics and new ideas for songs every few hours. He also appears to know quite well what works and what doesn’t, as evidenced by how increasingly impeccable both projects have gotten over time. Each Deerhunter and Atlas Sound record has been an improvement on the one before it, even though neither project has been around quite long enough to earn “veteran” status. Not only has Cox become a better songwriter through it all, but sonically the arrangements have gotten more complex while largely playing with minimalism and ambient noises. In other words, he proves there’s a way to do more with less. That’s the case more than ever with Atlas Sound’s third record “Parallax”, a lonely and adrift record that carefully treads the line between psychedelia and somber pop.

The cover of “Parallax” tells you so much about what the record itself is like, both sonically as well as emotionally. Cox’s face is halfway hidden in shadow as his hand gently caresses a vintage microphone nearby. First and foremost, this is the first time Cox has appeared unobscured on an album cover. The last Atlas Sound record “Logos” featured a shirtless Cox with a blinding white light in place of his head on the cover. That he’s in clear focus here says volumes, even if it that wasn’t the point. See, the earliest days of both Deerhunter and Atlas Sound featured a far more timid and introverted Cox. Guitars and vocal effects often buried Cox’s singing which was pretty restrained in the first place. Listen to Deerhunter’s “Cryptograms” from 2007 and then last year’s “Halcyon Digest” and you’ll notice a world of difference in the vocals. As Cox’s confidence in his voice has grown, so has his presence in the mix. He’s clearer than ever on “Parallax”, keeping the vocal effects to a minimum and putting more of a range on display. Placing your face on your album cover also is a strong display of confidence, as more than ever people know the exact person responsible for the music they’re hearing. He’s no longer a frail body with a glowing head. It also indicates that perhaps this is the most personal of all the records he’s done, the one he feels best represents his own headspace or personality.

In recent interviews, Cox has admitted that lasting happiness continues to elude him, and that dark cloud that constantly hangs over him partly manifests itself in the shadowy cover, but also in the music itself. Quiet acoustic numbers like “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs” and “Terra Incognita” drift along with a certain listlessness, but it’s songs like “Doldrums” and “Flagstaff” that truly revel in ambient and downtrodden textures. It may not be the happiest stuff in the world, but it is exceptionally beautiful and maintains a consistency that “Logos” never fully achieved. Balancing that darkness out are a few brighter moments, such as opening track “The Shakes”, which is a gorgeous pop song about the ugly topic of being bored with fame and fortune. Album centerpiece “Mona Lisa” is a work of super catchy art and in many ways an opposing emotional force to that of “The Shakes”. It is in many ways the best moment on the entire album, certainly the one that will stick with you in the end, but lyrically speaking it leaves something to be desired. While most of the other songs are remarkably descriptive and specific in nature, “Mona Lisa” skates by on vagaries and gets away with it, largely thanks to how exceptional everything else about it is. Other louder and in many ways brighter moments on the record come via “Angel Is Broken” and the closing “Lightworks”, both of which feel like sonic slaps in the face following much quieter cuts. Those jarring transitions would typically take away from an otherwise coherent mood or feeling established by most records, but in this particular case the elements are similar enough that the impact is softened even as the energy and noise might suggest otherwise.

If we’re keeping Bradford Cox’s two bands separate from one another in the idea that they each hold their own distinct identities and sonic palettes, it’s relatively easy to say “Parallax” is the best Atlas Sound record so far. It is also in many ways the best thing that Cox has ever released on the whole, at least from a songwriting and vocal standpoint. His ever-increasing confidence as an artist has only led to growth in every aspect of his music-making, though viewing things from a wide perspective might yield fewer noticeable changes. The moves he’s made have largely been subtle and small ones, but progress is still being made the way it needs to for any artist. Compared to his last Atlas Sound record “Logos”, “Parallax” is not only a more solid listen from front to back, but Cox is also far less reliant on guests than he used to be. Panda Bear brought a lot of his style to the song “Walkabout” on the last album, and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier collaboration with Cox on “Quick Canal” yielded Stereolab-like results. The only noteworthy guest on “Parallax” is MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden, and he just played piano on “Mona Lisa”. It doesn’t REALLY sound like a MGMT song, in spite of its psych-pop greatness. To put it another way, this is the first Atlas Sound album that genuinely feels like an Atlas Sound album. Now we’re left wondering – if he can pull off something this great on his own, what can we expect from the next Deerhunter record, especially if you think “Halcyon Digest” was one of the best records of 2010? If the pattern of Cox unleashing at least one new record a year continues, we’ll probably find out in 2012.

Atlas Sound – Terra Incognita

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Album Review: Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost [True Panther]

We’ve learned so much about the band Girls in the past two years since their debut “Album” was released. The headlines almost always started by noting that frontman Christopher Owens grew up in a cult. The next attention grabber was the extremely NSFW music video for the song “Lust for Life”, featuring persons of various genders and sexual orientations lip syncing to the song while naked. And yes, one guy did use another guy’s penis as a “microphone”. In spite of these apparent distractions, the music itself was the ultimate selling point, a retro-fitted pastiche of 60s and 70s pop that was extremely earnest and often heartbreaking, equal parts familiar and catchy. It’d be easy to level criticism at the band for staying so firmly rooted in the past, but Girls have done great work trying to make the sound their own while also mixing it up just a bit to avoid getting too trapped in a certain style. One moment they’re channeling 3 minutes of Beach Boys pop, and the next they’re on a 7 minute psychedelic journey that’s a closer cousin to Pink Floyd. Somehow they’ve managed to make it all work, with Owens’ nasally voice playing the anchor and even proving that they can progress to bigger and better things with last year’s “Broken Dreams Club” EP. The hope with their new record “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” was to continue that forward march. By all accounts, they very much appear to have succeeded.

The record opens with the galloping “Honey Bunny”, taking a few cues from surf rock in the way the drums roll along and the guitar riffs tumble over one another like waves washing up on the shore. There are moments where it sounds like a team-up between Dick Dale and the Beach Boys, and the best part is it’s nearly as great. Pop culture aficionados should hopefully also associate the song title with the classic film “Pulp Fiction” and may note the sonic similarities to the first track of that movie’s soundtrack, the Dick Dale-riffed “Pumpkin and Honey Bunny/Misirlou”. In the case of Girls though, this is just a delightful pop song with cool origins. As a matter of contrast, “Alex” feels born straight out of the 90s, taking a much more shoegaze-like approach with some fuzz-inflected chords and some noodling electric guitar solos. The band does it without blinking an eye, and for whatever reason it works beautifully. The fuzzy guitars get a hefty burst of energy and a touch of prog rock ethos on “Die”, a track that rages for 3 minutes that are reminiscent of classic Badfinger or Deep Purple. Things get a bit more spaced out and trippy towards the end though, as a gently strummed acoustic guitar and a flute show up for the final two minutes of subdued instrumental that brings an unexpected grace to something that was so sharp at the start.

If you’re looking for the truly psychedelic though, look no further than the middle of “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”. Starting with “My Ma” and progressing through the two epic 6+ minute cuts “Vomit” and “Just A Song”, let’s just say that it would appear the band has been taking crib notes from some of Pink Floyd’s finest moments. The canyon-splitting guitar work and organ ring out very nicely on “My Ma”, though that’s relatively standard compared to what follows it. Everything hits harder and feels even bigger on “Vomit”, with the organ slamming in the chorus and the gospel choir backing up Owens’ intensely mellow vocals. There’s every chance that things could have gone completely overblown in the 6.5 minutes the song goes on for, but it’s Owens that keeps it grounded and within reason by being more Elliott Smith than Roger Waters. A nice solo acoustic guitar instrumental break for the first 90 seconds of “Just A Song” provides a welcome, intimate respite and introduction to the ballad. By the halfway point, Owens is chanting, “Love, love, love/it’s just a song” as violins, flutes and harps are woven between the acoustic guitar and drums. The song itself is gorgeous and drifting, very much akin to what you’d hear on a Spiritualized record.

Waking you up from the proverbial nap the middle of the record provides is “Magic”, a jangly guitar, AM pop number that operates with a certain Elvis Costello-ish aire about it. It feels very specifically placed in that position on the album so as to serve as a buffer between the nearly 7 minutes of “Just A Song” and the 8 minutes that make up “Forgiveness”. You don’t want two ballads of such length (let alone 3 if you count “Vomit”) piled on top of one another. Unlike some of the other massive songs on “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”, “Forgiveness” doesn’t pull any punches or play around with a whole lot of sonic textures. It is first and foremost a relatively sparse acoustic ballad, pushing us to pay close attention to exactly what Owens is singing about, something most succinctly summed up in the song’s title. For the final 2.5 minutes though, Owens takes a vocal break and thrashes out an electric guitar solo that sounds like pure catharsis. Here he is, begging to be forgiven, and that guitar ringing out into the somber melody is like the burden of all his problems being lifted from his shoulders. It is the album’s true highlight, to the point where it makes the final two songs left feel nearly unnecessary additions. Still, the organ and choir on “Love Like A River” makes it very much classically inspired by gospel/soul music, bringing yet another fascinating twist to what’s already a highly engaging record. Things close out with the somber “Jamie Marie”, in which Owens spends almost the entire track on his own, just a gently picked electric guitar and his voice. In the final minute of the song, an organ and the drums break through, but Owens has said his piece already, and they’ve simply shown up to play him off the stage. It’s an underwhelming way to close, but in light of all that came before it, it feels almost fitting.

There’s so much about “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” that you deserve to find out about yourself. Spending time with the lyrics, which are more often than not musings about relationships be they romantic or familial, only enhance the depth and character of the record. There are small, transitional moments too that you’ll uncover and hopefully find delightful the more times you listen to this album. It rewards your time and commitment to it, a quality that only the best of the best seem to have about them. For a band that apes a lot of classic sounds, Girls sure do an awfully great job with them – to the point where you almost think these guys would be huge were they around in the 60s and 70s. Imitating your idols is one thing, but to cut out your own piece of land among them, that’s impressive. Impressive to the point where “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” appears ready to be annointed as one of the finest records of 2011.

Girls – Vomit

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Album Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Unknown Mortal Orchestra [Fat Possum/True Panther]

If you ask me, the name Unknown Mortal Orchestra sounds like something a heavy metal band would come up with. It falls somewhere along the lines of a whole mythological path that involves demons and gods and fighting outside of the realms of humanity. And yet the word “mortal” is in there, signifying purely human, even if it is preceeded by an “unknown”. In fact, that’s exactly one of the more interesting aspects about the band. A former member of the New Zealand band The Mint Chicks, Ruban Nielson moved out to Portland when they broke up and decided to quit the music business. As he searched for a legitimate job though, in his spare time he wound up creating some new music that was more messing around than it was something intended for people to hear. Still, he created the most barebones and non-descriptive Bandcamp profile that he could, and posted a couple tracks to it. Lo and behold, people listened and came inquiring about who this band was where the only information listed was that they were Portland-based. The hype built, and suddenly a normal job became less of a priority. Still, if you’re going to do music full time, live shows are a must, and Nielson couldn’t do it alone. He’s brought on a couple people to make it an actual band, and it wasn’t until recently that we discovered just who those people are. So the band name sticks to its principles for the most part. As for the orchestra, well, that’s something they can work on bringing to their next album. For their self-titled debut, the settled upon sound is that of lo-fi psychedelia with a sharp emphasis on polyblended rhythm. As you might expect, it fits them like a well-worn shirt.

The song that first got Unknown Mortal Orchestra known is the bouncy, spacey “Ffunny Ffriends”, and it appropriately opens the full length effort. It also establishes just how lo-fi this album is going to be. The percussion sounds like a live hip hop beat from the 80s looped over and over again, the guitars sound rustic with a psychedelic edge, and the vocals sound like they were recorded using a $5 microphone from Walgreens. Unlike some acts that purposely scuff up their clear sound to conform with what’s hot, this is one set of songs you know were recorded poorly in a home studio because that’s the best they could do with the money they had. The melody and the hooks still manage to seep through that shoestring budget though, which is a big reason why ears perk up when their songs are playing. Equally compelling is the second single and mid-album surprise “How Can U Luv Me”, which with its energy and funk-driven edge is awfully reminiscent of a 70s club hit. It’s one evolution past disco, but you can totally envision John Travolta getting down to it in some bell bottoms.

One of the most fascinating things about Unknown Mortal Orchestra is how the rhythms work on each song. There’s a very basic nature to every song that doesn’t waver much, if at all from the start to the end of a song. They may perform with a full or nearly full size drum kit, but not a whole lot beyond the snare is used across the record. The drums often rise above all the other elements on this self-titled album, but that’s because they serve an important function in the overall scheme of a song. Also, the arrangements are so bare-bones that it’s relatively easy to single out one part. Examine a track like “Bicycle”, in which the beat holds firmly as a mixture of kick drum, snare and shakers. It’s something that works well enough that perhaps somewhere down the road you might see an unauthorized mash-up record pairing the band with a hip hop artist a la James Blake and Drake or Jay-Z and Radiohead. Almost as compelling are Nielson’s vocals, which have an almost falsetto-like quality to them that borders on androgynous. With the goofy 60s vibe and doubled over, echo-filled harmonies of “Thought Ballune”, Of Montreal might be your easiest modern reference point, and the similarity of Nielson’s voice to Kevin Barnes’s only adds to that. Yet with the overall sonic quality and the way this record was mixed, sometimes the vocals get buried beneath a guitar riff as on “Nerve Damage!” or take on odd proportions as evidenced by “Boy Witch”. Still, the way that the singing often merges with or transforms a melody is one of the reasons why “Unknown Mortal Orchestra” works as a whole.

It’ll be interesting to see where Unknown Mortal Orchestra goes from here. With some label money now behind them and if their debut does well enough, some actual sonic quality might begin to slip into their songs. If we’ve learned anything from bands like tUnE-yArDs and Wavves in the last couple years, it’s that a higher fidelity of recording doesn’t have to harm your overall product and if the songs themselves are strong enough can even enhance it. The very old school analog way of recording this self-titled record does bring it a little extra charm in this case and is much more reminiscent of the styles at the time and era these songs are trying to evoke. Spanning only 9 tracks and clocking in around 30 minutes, the brevity of the record turns out to be one of its benefits. By no means is it perfect, but there’s definitely a quality vs. quantity thing going on that leaves little room for error and there’s very little of it as a result. A couple tracks go a little too far with an experimental bent, but primarily what you get is a rather catchy and minimalist psych-pop album from a trio of guys that appear to know exactly what they’re doing. That’s really all you need to win over plenty of hearts, minds and ears these days.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – How Can U Luv Me

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Little Blu House

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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: Black Lips – Arabia Mountain [Vice]

Two years ago, Black Lips reached an impasse. The fickle world of music lovers spat them out in a violent fashion akin to how the band members themselves often do with their own saliva on stage. If their 2007 album “Good Bad Not Evil” won them legions of new fans, the follow-up two years later with “200 Million Thousand” had close to the opposite effect. It seemed as if they were destined to become victims of the dreaded hype cycle, once beloved but soon after abandoned. Part of the problem with that last album (their fifth) was how content it seemed to be staying the course. The lack of ambition and conscious choice to maintain the same fuzz-riddled lo-fi sound from their last few records reeked of uninspired madness. Essentially it was a “fuck you” to those that thought Black Lips would change their sound now that they’d found success. With that plan having backfired, the band’s next move would need to be smart not only if they wanted to reclaim what they’d lost, but save what they were in danger of losing, which was their record deal. That explains why their new album “Arabia Mountain”, coldly calculated though it may be, is exactly the thing that Black Lips needed to revive everything they’d worked so hard to gain up until that point in time.

If you want to call anybody a hero in working to give Black Lips the kick in the teeth needed to make the necessary sonic adjustments for “Arabia Mountain”, Mark Ronson is the guy to point the finger at. The guy has worked with tons of people, most notably plenty of pop stars, to which he’s added a certain sheen to their sound that more often than not comes off as over polished. Still, he knows how to pull back on those reins when it’s warranted, and in the case of Black Lips, it absolutely was. You can’t go from super lo-fi to super clean without doing some serious damage to your long-time fans that love that no frills aesthetic. Yet the pairing of the two entities wasn’t nearly as earth-shattering as one might believe. Dust off some of that poorly recorded fuzz and buried underneath you’ll find a bunch of guitar pop songs. That and a mutual respect for the classic sounds of the 60s ultimately proved to be the bond necessary to bring out the best in Black Lips. Cleaner but not overly polished, lighter with more of a smirk than a frown, supercharged, addictive and more wide-ranging than ever, this is the band upgrading to version 2.0. Ronson may have had a fair share to do with it, but this record is still distinctly Black Lips through and through. These dynamic songs didn’t write and compose themselves, though somebody did throw a nice coat of wax on top to reveal the diamonds hiding underneath.

Saxophones really spice up opening track “Family Tree”, bringing a little madcap retro spice to a track that’s not only energetic, but downright danceable. One can envision girls in go-go boots on multi-colored dance floors doing what might otherwise be lovingly referred to as “The Pulp Fiction” (peace signs across the eyes). The buzzy guitar on “Modern Art” is eerily reminiscent of The Beatles or The Yardbirds, but the light touches of xylophone help bring a more contemporary feel to what’s ultimately a song about taking the wrong kind of drugs and wandering around an art gallery. If only all bad trips were this good (and addictive). The acoustic guitars providing the assist on “Spidey’s Curse” are a great addition to the track, and something that would likely have gotten lost in the mud of poor production quality in the past. If you’ve seen enough episodes of the old cartoon version of “Scooby Doo”, you’ll feel a special kinship to “Mad Dog”, primarily because it feels like one of those songs they’d play during a lengthy chase sequence where the mystery solving team keeps running and hiding from the monster that’s after them. That association isn’t brought up by the title of the song either, it’s mere coincidence, and matching that 60s-era sound doesn’t hurt either. Continuing to pull from that direction, “Raw Meat” sounds like a long-lost Ramones gem and the opening to “The Lie” comes weirdly close to copying Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” before taking a decidedly more psychedelic direction. And you’d be hard pressed to not think of The Rolling Stones when “Dumpster Dive” arrives, it apes that style oh so well. Even when their songs don’t recall specific and classic bands from the past, there’s plenty to get hooked on. “Go Out and Get It” and “New Direction” are hyper-catchy songs that will stay with you despite having so many other memorable highlights. It’s relatively easy to imagine massive crowds hearing songs like these when walking past the stage at a music festival and stopping in their tracks to keep listening.

Very legitimately, “Arabia Mountain” has suddenly become the piece de resistance for Black Lips. The winds have changed direction and now more than ever they’re on track to take over the world. They sound completely reinvigorated and more vital than ever. It’s amazing the creative spaces some artists will reach when the right sort of pressure is applied. Alternatively, “200 Million Thousand” is where an artist might go when the wrong sort of pressure is applied. When truly fighting for their livelihoods, these guys have stepped up and knocked one out in the best sort of way. Even completely ignoring the circumstances behind how they got to this point and judging this record as if it were some unknown band from Anywhere, USA, this is an album that is such a joy to listen to. Above all else, that’s the point: to have some fun, bounce around a bit, and go home tired but with melodies still running through your head. The only real issue “Arabia Mountain” has is with the sheer amount of music that’s on it. Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, it’s definitely not too long of an album, but there are probably a few too many tracks. A couple of the album’s 16 songs sound pretty similar and could have been cut without much of a problem. 12-14 songs would have been ideal, even if a 30 minute run time might have felt a little short. Quality over quantity, as the phrase goes. Other than that though, this is Black Lips operating at a level that nobody thought they could effectively reach, which is why “Arabia Mountain” is one of the most pleasant and best surprises of 2011 so far.

Black Lips – Modern Art

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