The hottest music from Chicago & beyond

Tag: shoegaze

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

Show Review: A Sunny Day in Glasgow + Lightfoils [Empty Bottle; Chicago; 7/8/14]

Outside of all the festivals, the live music scene can be a little dead during the hottest months of the year. Things get rough in Chicago especially, thanks to things like Lollapalooza, Pitchfork Music Festival and Riot Fest, all of which have radius clauses that prevent artists from playing other shows in town within a certain time period. Yet there’s so much music out there that not every band is on a festival lineup and not every venue is forced to starve for 3-4 months in between spring and fall. You can still find great shows if you look for them, and if some of the venues have air conditioning to keep you out of the heat, so much the better. Thankfully the Empty Bottle had both on Tuesday night, when A Sunny Day in Glasgow came through town.

Opening up the show was Chicago’s own Lightfoils, who were also celebrating the release of their debut album Hierarchy that same day. Prior to their set I had only heard one song of theirs, a gorgeous slice of shoegaze/dream pop called “Diastolic.” That provided a good baseline for their live show, which turned out to be pretty impressive overall. I had failed to realize that three guys from the five piece were part of the great Chicago shoegaze band Airiel, so it makes perfect sense as to why they would be so formidable both live and on record. They sound quite a bit like their old band as well, though singer Jane Zabeth’s strong presence adds a little something extra. She does a fantastic job on vocals, belting out melodies with force, but also toning it down to let the guitars envelop her as needed. When watching any local band perform whose material I’m not familiar with, I always consider two main factors:
1) Are they good enough to tour (inter)nationally, aka would non-Chicagoans love and appreciate them?
2) How passionate is the local fan base?
When applied to Lightfoils, the answers I came up with were 1) Yes, absolutely and 2) The locals like them quite a bit. So it would seem that they’ve got a lot going for them, and with any luck, their new album will only solidify that further.

Buy Hierarchy from Saint Marie Records or on Bandcamp.

The day before attending this show, I read a lengthy comment on another site where the author complained about A Sunny Day in Glasgow performance (s)he had attended recently. For whatever reason, the comment didn’t really relate to the post topic and came from out of nowhere. But this person basically said that the band sounded nowhere near as good as they did on record, and complained about the vocals specifically as sounding “very off-key.” Now I’m not one to take an anonymous internet commenter at his or her word, but it did make me slightly wary about what I might be walking into at the Empty Bottle. To start off their set, A Sunny Day in Glasgow immediately launched into “In Love With Useless (The Timeless Geometry in the Tradition of Passing),” which is my favorite song of theirs from the new album Sea When Absent. And you know what? They sounded great. Not only on that song, but for the entire show. A fair amount of their recorded output so far has hinged on some very complex shoegaze and dream pop arrangements, which you would think might be difficult to perform live. Thanks to vocal modulators, triggered sound effects and other equipment, it all sounded quite accurate, even if some of the band members had to pull double duty at times to make it happen. Lead vocalist Jen Gorma was particularly energetic and on-key the whole time, and her harmonies with Annie Fredrickson were gorgeous. Most of the set list was generously spread across their entire catalogue dating all the way back to 2006, though understandably the greatest focus was on material from the new album and the couple immediately preceeding it. Highlights included “Nitetime Rainbows,” “Crushin'” and “Golden Waves,” though really the whole thing was a delight.

One of the most fascinating things to me about A Sunny Day in Glasgow in general is how they take a genre of music that specializes in darker and more depressing themes, and flip it completely on its head by infusing it with brightness and positivity. They have the word “sunny” in their name for a reason. The band played with that same sort of attitude, and the crowd soaked it in and directed it right back at them. At times it almost seemed like they were surprised by how much applause and cheering there was after each song. Perhaps some of the other shows so far this tour haven’t gone so well (see above), or maybe they’re starting to reach new heights of popularity and simply aren’t used to it yet. Whatever it is, their reaction was charming and endearing. When they wrapped up their set and said goodnight, the crowd went nuts and spent a couple of strong minutes cheering for an encore. Sadly, the house lights went up and music began playing on the overhead speakers, aka the signal that the band was done. As many entertainers will tell you, it’s always best to go out on a high note, leaving the crowd wanting more. On this particular Tuesday night in Chicago, A Sunny Day in Glasgow did just that.

Buy Sea When Absent from Lefse Records

Snapshot Review: DIIV – Oshin [Captured Tracks]

Let’s just get a couple need-to-know bits of information taken care of right away. DIIV is the band formed by Beach Fossils touring guitarist Zachary Cole Smith. They used to be called Dive, but decided a few months ago to change it because a Belgian band has been using the moniker for more than a decade. Now when you write DIIV, you’ll know exactly what band is being talked about. After signing to Captured Tracks last fall, they released a few 7″ singles to quite a bit of buzz. Their full length debut Oshin is hot off the presses, pulling together most of those singles along with a bunch of new material. As to DIIV’s sound, it fits well under the label of dream pop, but plays with the conventions of that genre just a bit to make you question whether it’s properly applied here. Many of the songs on the album are instrumental, or at least instrumental adjacent. The ones that do have lyrics are often buried, processed or echoed to the point where you can’t make out what’s being said anyways. The times you can are typically when the song title is repeated over and over again. You’re not intended to gain understanding or purpose from the words; it’s the melodies and the way they’re presented that affect your enjoyment of this record. In that sense the listening experience is like that of a post-rock album, only with each journey packed into three minutes instead of eight. Surrender yourself to the waves of guitar washing over you and get transported to another time and place. There’s plenty of beauty to be found in these tracks, but it’s often the muscular kind of Explosions in the Sky rather than the more subtle crest and fall of Sigur Ros. It’s best on display via “Doused,” which brings forth an intensity and tension the rest of the album lacks. Placed at almost the very end of the record though, it’s off-the-map thrill ride vibe feels like a reward rather than a way to show up everything that came before it. Oshin actually thrives because of the way the whole thing is arranged. Individual highlights like “Human,” “How Long Have You Known?” and “Sometime” are parsed out generously from start to finish, and though the moments in between can sometimes sound like unimportant interludes, everything is essential if you listen to the record in its entirety in order. While the shimmering guitars are probably the most stand-out thing about the album, DIIV’s secret weapon is the rhythm section. It gives the record heft and propels things forward rather than simply allowing it to float in the ether. That’s an essential component giving the band more gravitas and separating them from similar-sounding peers. Oshin might not be the home run the band was hoping to hit in their first time at bat, but it’s a very strong triple that shows serious promise for the future. You couldn’t ask for much more.

DIIV – How Long Have You Known?

DIIV – Doused

Buy Oshin from Amazon

Album Review: Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods [Dangerbird]

The alternative rock genre is in a painful state these days. Radio stations around the globe that play the genre are dying or already dead, even as bands like Linkin Park and AFI press onwards like there’s nothing wrong. So long as they’re still doing well and playing to huge crowds, they don’t see any problem. That, or they’re aching to grab whatever semblance of popularity they have left. When persons of a certain age get tired of the angst-ridden, guitar-heavy rock, there’s always another generation of pubescent teenagers to take their place. Your teens are a very emotional time, and sometimes you need that angry, scream-riddled music to connect and help you through. And some people never get past that phase. Not to generalize, but the construction worker population of America seems to really like rock music, possibly because it’s the only thing that can cut above the noise of power drills and buzzsaws. Others still prefer it to hear songs from the genre’s heyday, as 90’s songs from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Bush, Deftones and Korn all continue to get the bulk of airplay on the remaining radio stations committed to the format. The good news is that not all is lost, and a number of more independently-minded rock bands have been working hard to keep people listening. The rise of The Black Keys, Cage the Elephant and Silversun Pickups have all breathed new life into old sounds, while Mumford & Sons, Foster the People and Death Cab for Cutie have created more sonic diversity. While these groups may be sharply lacking in truly experimental sounds, they’re proving that like some mainstream pop artists, you don’t need to sacrifice tried and true elements to make good music.

Silversun Pickups have had a remarkably easy time reaching mainstream popularity. Their 2005 EP Pikul was quickly adopted by a number of music blogs and independently-minded radio stations, where comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins were evident from the get-go. Brian Aubert’s singing voice is strikingly androgynous, though it has a nasal quality reminiscent of Billy Corgan. The swirling, heavy guitars and power chords bring to mind mid-90’s records like Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The band has confessed that the Pumpkins are an inspiration, though their second full-length record Swoon attempted to break free from that familiar mold just a little bit. Mostly that meant incorporating a more pristine production structure complete with a string section, and extending the lengths of most of their songs to somewhere near the five minute mark. What it lacked was real conviction, and genuine movement or shifts in tempo to justify the song lengths. The band was smart in choosing singles for that record though, as both “Panic Switch” and “Substitution” were probably the best two tracks on the entire record.

For their new one Neck of the Woods, Silversun Pickups pretty much pick up exactly where they left off. Clocking in at almost 60 minutes, over half of the album’s 11 tracks make it to at least five minutes and two more cross the six minute mark. They can’t get a single idea across in under 4.5 minutes. If your material is good and interesting enough to sustain those sorts of lengths though, it’s not a problem. For this record they brought famed producer Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M., Bloc Party) on board, and it appears he holds the key to making Silversun Pickups a better band. A very cursory and inattentive listen to the album might not reveal its unique charms or make the changes from the band’s first two long players evident. Indeed, they still pummel you with a wall of sound, and Aubert’s voice isn’t about to lose its Billy Corgan-ness. However the closer you examine these songs the more you notice the creative and interesting choices made when putting them together. The band has tried out plenty of shoegaze sounds before, but they’ve never come so close to the excellence of My Bloody Valentine as they do on first single “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)”. Opening number “Skin Graph” has a very familiar flair to it as well, yet does an excellent job managing tempo changes, electronic experimentation, and a memorable hook. Even a very cut-and-dry track like “Mean Spirited” fares better than you might expect because it foregoes a hard-edged and clinical approach in favor of something warmer and more organic. Credit to Lee for softening the production and taking off the excess of polish that was all over Swoon. The band sounds much better when they’re bathed in a choppy fog.

Aubert’s vocals gain a different perspective on Neck of the Woods as well. The past couple Silversun Pickups records he was always at the very top of the mix and leading the way without hesitation. On this album his voice slides where it’s needed and gives other instruments center stage at times. He’s also apparently taken some notes to heart and succeded in taking a bit of the androgyny out of his vocals. The deeper register suits him better than you’d think. So too does incorporation of synths in the band’s overall sound. Listening to “The Pit”, it becomes easy to recognize that for their next record they might explore the possibility of using later period New Order as a source of inspiration. The balladry of “Here We Are (Chancer)” is impressive as well, taking electric guitars somewhat out of the equation in favor of skittering electronic beats, piano and even a touch of piano. All these sonic adjustments across the record don’t amount to a world of difference when all is said and done, but they are very important in how they push Silversun Pickups beyond the flaccid label of being an alternative rock band forever indebted to the Smashing Pumpkins. On Neck of the Woods they’re finally starting to truly separate themselves from the formless pack and earn their place among the remaining and true devotees to the genre. They’re not yet ready to save mainstream rock, but for once they appear to be moving in the right direction.

Buy Neck of the Woods from Amazon

Click past the jump to stream the entire album!

Album Review: Neon Indian – Era Extra├▒a [Mom & Pop/Static Tongues]

Of the many chillwave/glo-fi acts to emerge out of that hype cycle a couple years ago, Neon Indian was easily one of the most unique. Sure, the Alan Palomo-fronted project had that distinctive 80s washed out bedroom electronica feel to it, but there haven’t been a lot of artists that incorporate 8-bit video game noises and distorted guitar lines. Throw Palomo’s overly soft-on-the-ears vocals in as well, and Neon Indian’s debut “Psychic Chasms” turned him into a proverbial indie star. Last year he did a one-off single for Green Label Sound called “Sleep Paralysist”, and a couple months back he recorded a psychedelic freak-out EP with The Flaming Lips. Both of those things marked shifts in direction for Palomo and Neon Indian, yet none of those things quite encapsulate what is going on with his second long player, “Era Extra├▒a”. Then again, if you’ve been paying attention to how things are going with other chillwave artists these days, you’re surely aware that like any hype cycle, it’s lifespan is running short. Changes are all but required to survive, and it’s fascinating to hear how the artists within the genre are reacting individually. If you’re Palomo, you go to Finland by yourself and see what sorts of batshit ideas fly out of your head. Rather than putting him in a straightjacket though, “Era Extra├▒a” actually winds up bringing a greater focus to his unique sound.

As it has played out with a number of other chillwave artists, “Era Extra├▒a” boasts a marked step forwards in production style. “Psychic Chasms” was crafted and recorded primarily in Alan Palomo’s bedroom, and you could pretty much tell that from the way it sounded. Now utilizing an actual studio and with actual producer Dave Fridmann, the new album sounds cleaner and bigger than ever before. There are still a handful of woozy, fully retro-fied moments, in particular the 3 instrumental “Heart” interludes, but while the era remains firmly entrenched in the 80s, we’re now dealing in technicolor rather than something paler and more faded. If this were the last record, a track like “Hex Girlfriend” might otherwise have vocals buried in the mix and filled with so much lo-fi reverb that the lyrics border on indecipherable. Now better produced and devoid of any vocal effects, the vocals come across as clear and dominant, a positive when placed among shoegazey guitars and woozy synths. In almost direct opposition to that, the album’s title track features highly polished synths and strongly driven bass, a combo that feels markedly M83/New Order-ish, but then the vocals wind up lowest on the totem pole and oozing with so much reverb that they’re nearly pointless. A huge positive is that the song is paired next to “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)”, a track that is a spiritual and sonic cousin but does a far more interesting job blending textures and pulling off the M83 style. In fact, the sequencing on the entirety of “Era Extra├▒a” is rather inspired, as the grungy, guitar-heavy shoegaze numbers “The Blindside Kiss” and “Hex Girlfriend” wind up neighbors, while there’s an almost LCD Soundsystem-like quality to “Future Sick” and “Suns Irrupt” even if neither track ever quite gets to that level of brilliance. Palomo even has “Arcade Blues” tacked onto the very end of the record with the word “single” in parentheses because he wanted to include it as a bonus track even though it didn’t fit in stylistically with the rest of the record. He’s right about that, and it makes for a great little addendum to everything that came before it.

Palomo also shows off his expanding skills as a composer, building more creatively stimulating and intricate melodies than ever before and utilizing an army of sound effects to accent increasingly complex choruses. First single “Polish Girl” experiments a little with verse structure, namely by placing a bit of instrumental space between the chorus and verses that serves as its own hook. It’s not noticeable unless you’re really looking for it though, which is one of the reasons why the song works so well. In other spots, it’s little moments that make you sit up and take notice. The static-filled, bubbling synth open to “Hex Girlfriend” and the twinkling synths that bring the title track to its conclusion are just two of the more soberingly beautiful bits that bring an extra dose of charm to songs that are far more expansive and party-oriented than most of Neon Indian’s earlier stuff. Yet it never wanders from the singular path it appears to be on, streamlined and to the point more than ever before. And while some of the textures and approaches to most of the songs have changed on “Era Extra├▒a”, the lyrical topics stay within the ballpark. Yes, there’s the inevitable topic du jour of relationships, primarily failed ones, that Palomo gets down about from time to time. That comprises much of the first half of the album, while the second half is more about distancing yourself from the world at large primarily through disconnection. “Future Sick” is all about falling behind the times technologically, while “Halogen (I Could Be A Shadow)” is about the need to carve your own path in life or risk being left in the dark. The melodies themselves may be uplifting and danceable, but by no means do all of them project positive messages.

If there’s one thing “Era Extra├▒a” lacks, it’s a more lighthearted approach. It’s a big part of why “Arcade Blues” doesn’t fit within the solid structure of the rest of the record. Not that “Arcade Blues” is a single overjoyed moment on this album – from the title alone you can tell it’s not a happy song. What it does right though is through the smart and liberal use of video game samples, remind us of those afternoons after school or weekends in which we’d go to the arcade with friends and have a blast pumping those machines full of quarters. Palomo may have preferred another method of distraction, but there was a certain satisfaction to be gained from everything as classic as Pac Man to putting the pedal to the floor in a driving game or knowing that your parents didn’t want you playing Mortal Kombat. That he only finds sadness in an arcade while simultaneously exploiting video game sound effects is almost counterintuitive. This, coming from a guy that used to perform in his early pre-Neon Indian days while wearing a Nintendo Powerglove. It’s that uncertainty, that push towards something darker as the music itself sounds lighter than ever, that makes “Era Extra├▒a” weaker than its predecessor. For all the advances Neon Indian has made sonically, verbally and psychologically Palomo has run the other way. He’s retreated into this more pessimistic and serious place but can’t even be bothered to try a little sarcasm on for size. The record is still a success, but not nearly what it could have been had the outlook been a little brighter. With big, fun-sounding music, you want to have the artist reflect that back at you with their words. LCD Soundsystem had their fair share of sadder songs (“All My Friends”, “Someone Great”), but those were often balanced out with silly numbers (“North American Scum”, “Drunk Girls”). Once Alan Palomo is able to find that same dichotomy, Neon Indian will truly hit the big time.

Neon Indian – Polish Girl

Neon Indian – Hex Girlfriend

Neon Indian – Fallout

Buy “Era Extra├▒a” from Amazon

Album Review: The Raveonettes – Raven in the Grave [Vice]

It’s amazing to think that The Raveonettes have been around for 10 years now. It seems like just yesterday they were strutting around, clad in all black, dishing out throwback guitar rock songs while purposely challenging themselves in new and interesting ways. Their debut EP “Whip It On” was a study in minimalism and restraint, with every song being recorded using only three chords and only in the key of B-flat minor. As one cannot survive very long by holding onto those restrictions, for their first full length they broke out of that mold and into a vast mixture of darker elements out of the 50s thru 80s. They became oft-compared to The Jesus and Mary Chain, though the earlier their material the less that becomes true. Their most recent two records, 2008’s “Lust Lust Lust” and 2009’s “In and Out of Control”, were supercharged with fuzzed out shoegaze guitars and sheer walls of noise that still tended to breed hooks and plenty of intrinsic darkness. The real question is whether you can actively remember those records. The duo of Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo have been releasing music so often and under a consistently similar style that it’s been drawing ever-closer to auditory wallpaper. The main reason why is because those records weren’t exactly pinnacles of brilliance, nor did they bend to the wills of more popular styles at the time. Like clockwork though, because it’s been a year and a half since we had any new Raveonettes material, they’re back again with their fifth album “Raven in the Grave”.

The first track on “Raven in the Grave” is titled “Recharge & Revolt”, and it does almost exactly that. It’s still plenty dark – nobody was expecting The Raveonettes to lighten up – but it also has an energy and an unconventional way about it that feels just a little more refreshing than usual. Yes, it utilizes their classic shoegaze sound, but shortly after the guitars begin to build, synths enter the picture and form a surprising curveball. The Raveonettes have been known to use a synth or two on occasion, but never as heavily or predominantly as they’re used here. It gives the song a much more 80s vibe that permeates a number of other parts of the record too, diversifying the band’s sound just barely enough to make it more thrilling than it has been in years. For tracks one through four, Wagner and Foo make it seem like they’re crafting themselves a masterpiece. In particular, “Forget That You’re Young” makes for one of the best Raveonettes songs ever, with its ample hook and overall sweetness that sends streams of light through the general blackness surrounding it.

Speaking of blackness, after building up a healthy dose of momentum and positive buzz, the middle of the record is like a huge black hole of suck. “Summer Moon” and “Let Me on Out” are two songs that appear to wonder aimlessly without any real purpose other than to slow things down to a proverbial crawl across the desert without any food or water. It’s not the tempo of the track that’s the real problem, though it doesn’t help, but rather the near total disregard for anything resembling a fascinating melody. The Raveonettes have done slower songs without such a struggle before, and while you can keep your fingers crossed that maybe the lyrics will be a saving grace, words have never been the band’s strong suit. What’s interesting is how after getting dragged through the mud for a couple tracks, “Ignite” relights the fire underneath the duo and does a fairly successful job of wiping away the damage that was just done. Either that, or it just feels like a huge relief after such a morbid punishment. From that point forwards though, the rest of the album isn’t immensely great but not nearly bad either. “Evil Seeds” feels like vintage Raveonettes, a track they could do in their sleep but also equal parts comfort and ferocity. Closing ballad “My Time’s Up” actually does hold the proof that this band can do good stuff even in slower motion. It’s a satisfying end to the record, and leaves you wondering exactly where the plot went wrong for that handful of minutes in the midsection.

As if the album title, cover and past efforts by The Raveonettes hadn’t told you already, “Raven in the Grave” is not upbeat or happy in really any way. It holds a strong fascination with death and loss, but when you envelop the listener with that much noise then happiness and sunshine are really off the table. Despite some strong moments and a couple of sonic innovations, this record isn’t the one to quite put this band back on the right track to critical esteem and an extended fan base. The good news for Wagner and Foo is that those aren’t necessarily the requirements to get noticed at the moment. See, they’re lucky because upbeat pop and rock are on their way out at the moment and darkness is making a big comeback. That means all purveyors of said darkness are ripe for attention once more. By sticking to a same or similar sound for such a long period of time, the trends have swung back in their direction. If they’re going to take hold, now’s as good of a time as any to do so. It just would have been nice had “Raven in the Grave” turned out just a little better. Still, it provides a healthy blueprint the duo can work on fully evolving to that next level, and assuming they keep churning out material at a pace of a new record every 1-2 years, any lofty goals they might be hanging onto will hopefully still be easily obtainable.

The Raveonettes – Forget That You’re Young

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

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

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

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

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

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – Belong

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Album Review: Yuck – Yuck [Fat Possum]

Considering the reverence with which everyone speaks about the 90s, it should come as little surprise that they’re experiencing a bit of a revival right now. Of course these various decade genre revivals are coming quicker than ever these days as more acts are paying close homage to their influences rather than adventuring out of the box a bit more and attempting something new. The 80s sprung back to life courtesy of The Killers and the host of other bands that rode the same wave to success. There hasn’t really been a singular trigger for this “return to the 90s” movement, but a whole bunch of reunions probably has something to do with it, as much if not more than 90s-leaning bands like Japandroids, Surfer Blood, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and No Age have these last couple years. At the very least, those of us that lived through the 90s and loved the music from it are now given a chance to in some senses re-live a lot of those things once again from an older and wiser viewpoint. Also, those significantly younger kids born in the 90s now have a good introduction to an era that they probably never knew in infancy. So long as we’re giving the 90s a second time over though, let’s try to be just a little more critical and careful about what bands thrive and which ones can go ignored. By now most of us should know better, right? It is with that mindset you’re invited to have a glance at the world of Yuck. Here’s a group of young guys from the UK that have clearly obsessed over guitar squalor and art-pop of the 90s and their self-titled debut album not only proves this but on that same token smartly elevates them to nearly the level of the greats they’ve learned so much from.

From the very first notes of energetic album opener “Get Away”, Yuck have instantly transported you back to a time when the fuzzed-out electric guitar was king. There’s a heavy crunch of a melody that envelops you as singer/guitarist Daniel Blumberg’s vocals come filtered through a layer of grittiness and crackle that has an almost Malkmus-esque Pavement feel. Additionally, there’s a squiggly, high-pitched guitar solo that emerges above the fray a number of times on the track that’s eerily reminiscent of J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. Not a lot of bands can pull that off convincingly, but Yuck do it not only on “Get Away”, but also on “Holing Out” and “Operation” as well without even blinking. Distortion pedals take over in full on “The Wall”, a pretty jangly number that’s quite catchy with a Guided By Voices/Pavement vibe to it. The vocals are so buried and undercut that at times the guitars just completely overtake everything standing in their way, much like the proverbial “wall” in the song’s title and lyrics. Acoustic guitars, crisp vocals and harmonies on “Shook Down” do a lot to change the vibe of the record and display some sonic diversity from Yuck in the early goings. It’s one of those sad-sack teenage ballads with just a hint of pep in its step despite the yearning aspects. It’s also a nice change of pace between the loud (but fun) guitar sandwich of “The Wall” and “Holing Out”. Teenage Fanclub meets Elliott Smith courtesy of the acoustic “Suicide Policeman”, just as an almost sunny melody complete with harmonies, xylophones and horns meets some not entirely upbeat lyrics. Still, the track is one of a handful of exceptional standouts that also includes the song that follows it, the classic Yo La Tengo-baiting “Georgia”. The male-female harmonies are used exceptionally well next to the energetic, distorted electric guitars and a stronger-than-usual rhythm section that really carries the track. For a song like “Stutter”, you get the impression you’ve heard a number of ballads just like it before from a number of different bands in a number of different places, but can’t ever quite put your finger on just when or where. That’s actually a big part of Yuck’s charm, in that they’re able to bring a whole lot of fond memories to mind but never so explicitly that you feel like they’re ripping somebody off. It’s just original and dynamic enough to work in their favor. There’s something R.E.M.-ish about “SUnday”, and most likely it’s the way the guitars function in the song because it’s definitely not the vocals. Either way, the song is just another one of the many late album delights hiding out where you least expect them. Just before closing things out, Yuck throws an instrumental our way courtesy of “Rose Gives A Lilly”. It does what any lovely post-rock inspired instrumental should do, which is hold our attention for the duration. Things move organically then into the 7+ minute post-rock/shoegaze finale of “Rubber”. The song trudges along in slow-burn fashion, like watching a house engulfed in flames via slow motion. There’s a dark and sinister quality to the sheer squalls of noise that wash over you time and time again, but it’s immensely beautiful too. If you’ve not yet seen the music video for “Rubber”, which is “dog-gone” interesting, it brings a new-found appreciation to oddities that you can’t erase from your head but kind of don’t want to.

A big part of what makes Yuck so interesting and impressive is the variety of sounds that they explore on their debut. Sure, every song is 90s-centric in one way or another, but other than that it’s a small challenge to box them in a sonic corner. One minute they’re doing a high energy fuzzed out rock song, the next an acoustic-driven ballad and the next a gob smacking post-rock jam. None of it is particularly upbeat or happy, but when you really think about it, the 90s weren’t either. The grunge movement, among other things, was born out of frustration with growing up. Hell yes it’s tough to be a teenager today, because until they can create a pill that gets all those crazy mood swings and relationship difficulties under control, it’s going to remain tough. Yuck may not have the grunge sound, but a lot of their songs do focus on breakups and other adulthood struggles. Just barely out of their teens themselves, a lot of what’s on this self-titled album may be drawn from autobiographical experiences. The only real problem with the lyrics are that there’s the occasional clunker in there that just doesn’t quite work despite their best efforts. Those moments are few and far between though, and instrumentally things are so strong and sharp that the words matter just a little bit less. Of the many artists reaching back to the 90s for inspiration, Yuck turn out to be among the strongest thanks to those seriously great musical chops. At the end of last year, a number of publications named Yuck among the crop of fresh new artists to watch for in 2011. The good news is that they were right, and the band’s debut record is one of the stronger things released in these first couple months of the new year. Whether it can sustain such momentum and stick with people all the way through the best of’s in December, we’ll just have to play a game of wait and see on that.

Yuck – Georgia
Yuck – Rubber

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Click past the jump to see the music video for “Rubber” (NSFW)

Album Review: Esben and the Witch – Violet Cries [Matador]

When you name your band Esben and the Witch, bright and sunny pop music would appear to be the antithesis of the message you’re trying to communicate. Nobody in the band is named Esben, and as far as seemingly factual biographies go, nobody in the band practices witchcraft either. Instead, they took their name after the title of a Danish fairy tale, and unlike the cleaned up Disney versions of stuff, the tale of “Esben and the Witch” doesn’t have a happy ending. Watch the band’s video for “Marching Song”, and you’ll notice that one doesn’t exactly end on a positive note either (band members get increasingly bloody and beaten as things progress). Naming their debut full length “Violet Cries”, which is impressive and surprisingly original in and of itself, is yet another grand indicator of what you’ll be getting yourself into long before you even hear a single note of music. That the band largely succeeds at creating this gothic mood of darkness and dread is a strong testament to their talent and makes for an interesting auditory journey.

“Violet Cries”‘s first track “Argyria” stands as a pretty great introduction to Esben and the Witch on the whole. It creeps along slowly at first, all atmosphere and carefully picked electric guitar, then builds louder and louder with fuzz, distortion, heavy drumming and singer Rachel Davies breaking out her finest miserable wail. The louder things get, the more propulsive and menacing it is. In efforts to both show a high degree of restraint as well as sustain the song for nearly 6 minutes, things do calm down again so Davies can deliver some verses and trade all of that bloodlust for mere dread. And so it goes for the album’s duration, alternating between all the darkest of the dark textures underneath the rainbow, the guitars consistently buzzing like a man standing behind you with a chainsaw, the drums pounding with sledgehammer-like force, and all the while Davies writhes and moans like a woman possessed. Really it’s Davies’ strong and immense vocal range that gives Esben and the Witch most of their power. She’s able to go from porcelain doll to tortured soul at almost the drop of a hat, and it adds spice to moody pieces like “Marching Song” and “Warpath”.

Unfortunately, a sustained mood and a great voice only get you so far. Proper hooks are by no means essential for an album such as “Violet Cries”, but at the very least you’d like for the majority of songs to be distinctive and somewhat memorable. As it stands, about half the record achieves that, while the other half just sort of blends together with the same ominous atmosphere. Cohesiveness is key for a band such as Esben and the Witch, but when taken too far or on the fumes of an idea that’s not 100% fully developed, problems can arise as they do here. Ultimately it results in an album that’s smart and exciting and not so much innovative but done quite well, which is why Esben and the Witch have been earning a fair amount of buzz so far in 2011. That, and a few of their early tracks showed real promise. Most of those tracks once again make an appearance on “Violet Cries”, and they’re the ones that still stand the test of time as being among the band’s strongest. Hopefully this debut record acts more as a learning experience for the band, pointing them in a direction that will yield better, more revelatory results. For now though, we’re left with a solid soundtrack to a horror film, but one that occasionally has gaps where not much happens and the lead characters seem to forget there’s a killer on the loose. Perhaps the body count will be higher next time.

Esben and the Witch – Warpath

Esben and the Witch – Marching Song (Snorkel Mix)

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Album Review: Film School – Fission [Hi-Speed Soul]

The Californian band known as Film School has been through a number of changes these past few years. As the brainchild of Greg Bertens, the band started in the late 90s as largely a solo effort with contributions from various friends and musicians. A full lineup was officially solidified after Film School’s 2001 debut album came out, though it’d take them until 2006 to craft a follow-up. That self-titled second album showed how significantly things had changed in the 5 years between records as Film School’s sound went in a much darker and heavier direction. They began to pull in comparisons to Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen while also bringing out a more shoegazey My Bloody Valentine-infused vibe. The sound would dive even further into the hazy and progressive on 2007’s “Hideout”, and by that time the band members had all changed once again, save for Bertens. Now three years later, that 2007 lineup continues to hold strong and Film School are returning with a new record titled “Fission”. Would it surprise you to learn that though the faces may not have changed in the last 3 years, the music has? That’s true not only for trends across indie rock in general, but of course for Film School as well.

Film School have, by all accounts, softened up just a little bit on “Fission”. The heavy and distorted guitars are much less dominant, replaced instead by a lighter, more traditional and “commercially friendly” set of arrangements. Things aren’t necessarily brighter, but the shoegaze element of their sound has been pulled back significantly in an attempt to expand their range. That’s evident from the very first song “Heart Full of Pentagons”, which brings in some synths and has strongly assisted backing vocals from bassist Lorelei Plotczyk. The synths are actually pretty dominant across the entire record, giving the band’s sound a bit more of an 80s influence but never to the point where it overwhelms the very present era this music was made in. Plotczyk also takes on a significantly increased role on “Fission”, finally being allowed to stretch a bit and take lead vocals on a handful of tracks. She’s got a sweetly powerful voice and is a killer bass player, so that move makes a mountain’s worth of sense. Every song she has a large stake in is automatically better for it, and there’s a certain bit of sunshine that peers through the tones of grey on those tracks as well. Looks like she’s no longer the undervalued member of Film School.

The biggest problem with “Fission” is its inability to maintain a consistent sound for the duration. Unlike the band’s last two records, which were all fuzzed out and thematically sound, there’s a lot more going on with this new record and little rhyme or reason as to how it all makes sense collectively. Take each track individually and you’re bound to discover that almost every one is a potential single of some caliber, be it the National-esque “Bones” or “Meet Around 10” which has an almost Yo La Tengo feel to it. “Sunny Day”, has jangly guitars and Plotczyk’s vocals which make for a delightfully hazy track that practically screams Asobi Seksu. It’s accessible, yes, but also all over the place. If the songs actually felt related to one another rather than distant strangers, “Fission” would be a far stronger record overall.

With weakness also comes strength as well, because when Film School aren’t working to mimic one of their myriad of influences, they can actually produce something that sounds completely fresh and original. The song “Direct” is the biggest example of this, blending some shoegaze guitars with a mixture of live and programmed drums and electro that may not be immensely addictive but carries a certain power that stops you dead in your tracks. Dropping in right at the center of the album, it serves as one of the few pieces that unites Film School’s past, present and future sounds. They could have built the entire record based off that song and it might have worked in mindblowing fashion.

The good news for Film School devotees is that nothing on “Fission” feels altogether unfamiliar. The same band is underneath the various sounds you’re hearing and though they do their damndest to put their old tendencies to rest, you can still pick up on them should you listen carefully enough. What this album really provides for the band is a set of options. The word “fission” is defined as the splitting of an object into two parts, and that’s a relatively accurate description of what’s going on with this record sonically. Film School have created a crossroads for themselves where the songs on the album point at a few different ways they could go. As evidenced by the strength of many of the songs, chances are they’ll be fine no matter what direction they choose, assuming they do so for their next record. Their biggest mistake could be to make yet another sonically mixed collection of songs whose only commonality would be that they showed up together. It’s like “The Breakfast Club” of music in that a wide array of people are forced to sit in detention together. In the end they all come away with a better appreciation for one another, but expecting them to all become lifelong friends is far too unrealistic a concept. The fantasy of making “Fission” work from beginning to end is just that, but you’ll learn plenty along the way and will hopefully be more accepting the next time Film School decides to pull a 180 on us and move in yet another random direction.

Film School – Heart Full of Pentagons

Buy “Fission” on CD from Hi-Speed Soul Records
Buy “Fission” on limited edition clear vinyl

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