Sonically speaking, Grizzly Bear shouldn’t be the sort of band described as “difficult.” Close listens to their early work like 2006’s Yellow House prove they have a knack for writing slower but very complex and beautiful melodies replete with vocal harmonies. It’s not nearly post-rock, as there is far too much verse-chorus-verse structure contained within the songs and not nearly enough explosive crescendos and waves of sound. A better comparison would be to call them a less poppy version of that other animal band Fleet Foxes, because while their songs more often than not lack dynamic hooks, they make up for it in pure pastoral folk atmosphere. Of course there are moments on 2009’s Veckatimest such as “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others” that felt like they should have been massive hits but failed to fully connect for one reason or another. On their new album Shields, Grizzly Bear seem to have fallen off the map once again, pushing aside the small gains they made in the mainstream music world in favor of staying true to themselves and the purest of songcraft. They still sound rather effectively like themselves, as in you’re not going to mistake them for another band, but the ease and charm by which they worked their magic last time has been scaled back in favor of a much more cerebral and measured approach. The melodies reach a new level of complexity and detail, positively oozing with glorious ambience and texture. Opening track “Sleeping Ute” bounces, weaves and rolls like waves on a choppy but positively electric sea as the band stuffs a truckload of sounds into it. You absolutely need to devote time and effort to allow yourself to be absorbed in the world this record inhabits, and such precise attention winds up well rewarded with each successive listen. Much like Beach House’s latest album Bloom, this is a record less concerned with breaking new ground and more insistent on condensing the band’s strengths into something more potent and captivating than they’ve ever done before. The person who excels at this the most on this particular record is Daniel Rossen. He’s never quite been the shining star of Grizzly Bear (that honor goes to Ed Droste), and occasionally he’ll have a clunky song (see “Dory” on Veckatimest) or a quieter one (see “Deep Blue Sea” on Yellow House) amidst a gem like “While You Wait for the Others.” In the time since the band’s last record, he’s kept busy by recording and releasing a solo EP, which didn’t venture very far from anything he’d done previously. It made him a better songwriter and composer though, as his tracks “Speak in Rounds” and “A Simple Answer” are two of the album’s best moments. Of course there are quite a few of those when your record functions as a proverbial highlight reel of original music. Droste’s times to shine happen on the single “Yet Again” along with “Gun Shy” towards the end of the record. Of course it is those final two tracks “Half Gate” and “Sun in Your Eyes” that truly raise the bar for Grizzly Bear and any band that sounds like them. They swell with the sort of brightness and beauty you expect them to explode at any moment out of sheer intensity. So much of Shields is a dark and lonely journey punctuated by remarkable arrangements, but the last 12 or so minutes break free from that depression and that feeling is simply euphoric. Just when you think there’s no way Grizzly Bear can top themselves, here’s a record that proves they can. May there be many more as fundamentally challenging as this one in their future.
Tag: snapshot review Page 1 of 3
To all the Muse fans concerned that the band was set to take their sound in a new, dubstep-inspired direction: feel free to breathe a sigh of relief because that’s not happening. Well, at least not yet. Yes, the first track to leak from Muse’s new one The 2nd Law was the track “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable,” and it absolutely falls under the dubstep genre. Interviews with band members about the change in sound yielded quotes about how inspired they were to see dubstep artists sending crowds into a frenzy with wires, drum pads and turntables. It turns out you can rock a crowd without the need for a guitar or drums or piano. If they truly took that message to heart though, they’d have made an entire album’s worth of crazy drops and frenzied dial-up internet noises. Instead, it’s just the one song. For most of The 2nd Law, it’s business as usual for Muse. Here is a band that has become more and more bombastic and arena-forged with each new release, apparently seeking to claim the crown that Queen left behind with fist-pumping anthems and tracks with titles like “Exogenesis: Symphony, Parts 1-3.” On the new record, songs like “Survival” and the opening number “Supremacy” are layered with huge orchestral swells that create a grandeur and excess the likes of which deserve to be the soundtrack to some big summer blockbuster popcorn flick. In fact, “Survival” was the official theme of the 2012 Summer Olympics, and it sounds every bit like it belongs as such. This is the Muse we met on the last album, 2009’s The Resistance. On the band’s 2006 record Black Holes and Revelations, they dabbled in synths and electronic textures more than they ever had before, and those sounds once again make themselves evident on this new full length thanks to the pulsations of first single “Madness” and “Follow Me,” the latter of which truly feels like a slowed down, less guitar-heavy remix of “Map of the Problematique” with nods towards U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Whether or not that’s a good thing is your decision, but it’s somewhat nice to hear a few stylistic nods back to their earlier material. It’s a real shame then that The 2nd Law suffers from such a saggy midsection. “Animals,” “Explorers” and “Big Freeze” all strip away the excess to remind you that this is still a relatively simple rock band that made great records like Showbiz and Origin of Symmetry not too long ago. The problem is that they fail to capitalize on the opportunity to do something interesting with these songs. They don’t need to go big to be great, they just need to remember that the smaller moments are of equal importance to everything else. Things do take a decidedly random turn towards the end of the record, when bassist Chris Wostenholme takes over lead vocals for the first time on “Save Me” and “Liquid State.” The former track comes across as a little jarring at first for two reasons: the switch in vocals and the very measured and delicate instrumental work. It’s the only song on the entire album that would function well as an Explosions in the Sky-esque post-rock adventure, if only those pesky vocals didn’t get in the way. Wostenholme doesn’t have a bad voice, it’s just for that particular track his singing hurts more than helps. Bellamy’s falsetto would have done a bit better with it, but really what that song needs is room to breathe. The crunchy metal-lite feel of “Liquid State” suits Wostenholme a lot more, though with the “Hysteria” or “Plug In Baby”-like aggression almost deserves an equally visceral vocal that’s not fully landing in this case. You could say he’s off to a decent start, but could use a bit more practice to equal the many fine other things Muse has done over the last decade. The 2nd Law closes with “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” and “The 2nd Law: Isolated System,” the first of which is the aforementioned dubstep attack, which really comes out of the blue when you consider everything that’s happened leading up to it. The other track is a calmer and lightly pulsating piano and strings instrumental mixed with more sound clips of announcers and news reporters all talking over one another about problems around the world. Working in tandem with “Unsustainable,” the two peas in a pod make a great statement about what this entire record could have sounded like. It’s progressive and interesting and completely unlike anything Muse have ever done before. For a band that likes to continually push the envelope and keep their fans guessing, this record is strikingly safe and overly sincere. The Resistance at least sounded like a band having fun by going completely over-the-top with excess. Interesting as it might be at times, The 2nd Law sounds like it was made by a band trying to find focus while going more and more blind each day. There are moments of clarity amidst their fumbling, but mostly you just hope they get some glasses and keep making engaging music for years to come.
How to Dress Well, aka Tom Krell, doesn’t make music that’s easy to listen to or enjoy by any stretch of the imagination. That can also be considered part of his charm though, that he doesn’t bow to anyone’s standards. There are influences, that’s to be sure, and you could hear flashes of Bobby Brown or Michael Jackson in some of the tracks on HTDW’s 2010 debut album Love Remains. Those influences were filtered through Krell’s unique lens, and there was such a lo-fi, effect-laden treatment to everything that it often felt like you were listening to an R&B record underwater. Krell’s falsetto vocals also tended to sound like they were recorded from the opposite side of a room, the distance providing a chasm of disconnection against the intimacy of the lyrics. It was a symbolic gesture more than anything else, as we’d later come to find out that his struggles with depression have often kept his family and friends at arm’s length. That more or less informs how the new HTDW record Total Loss functions, although this time the production work has become more polished and easier to listen to. Krell is also much more up-front and personal this time too, and it makes for an open wound of a record that’s an emotional wrecking ball with a heavy dose of beautiful composition. The R&B flavor is still present on this album, but it’s a little more scaled back and minimalist in terms of composition. There are plenty more icy textures that glide and drift past instead of big beats and vocal posturing. If you’re expecting a bunch of “Ready for the World” clones to create clear highlights across this album, you will probably end up sorely disappointed. There are tracks like “Cold Nites” and “& It Was You” that are some of the most fascinating and complex pieces Krell has ever put together, and while their melodies affixed with accoutrements like finger snaps and intense vocal harmonies may have a lighthearted air to them, the lyrics are anything but. Where this record truly excels though are in the moments when atmosphere truly takes over and beauty shines through. There are post rock symphonic bits like “World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You (Proem)” and “Talking to You” that cut so deeply while saying so little that you halfway expect Krell to turn into Sigur Ros at times. That’s a very good thing, and it shows plenty of promise for his future records. Then again, those same sorts of elements were all over last year’s Just Once EP, and they’re only minimally represented on Total Loss. In a sense, the mixture of different styles on this record can make it seem less than cohesive at times, and the lack of important benchmarks across the whole thing can leave it feeling a little front-loaded. This isn’t a perfect album, nor does it quite accomplish the great things Love Remains was able to do. What truly holds this record together in spite of everything are the lyrics, which tend to devastate at every turn. But while this record weaves its way through darkness, the end starts to shine some light through in a powerful and meaningful way. “Set It Right,” in which Krell names the many friends and family members both living and dead that he’s loved and cared for in spite of everything, is probably the most important track on the entire record. “As far as love goes, it’s one step at a time,” he sings like somebody hoping to rebuild a long dead or dormant connection. With any luck, this album marks yet another step in the right direction for How to Dress Well.
How to Dress Well – Ocean Floor for Everything
How to Dress Well – Cold Nites (Pete Swanson Remix)
How to Dress Well – & It Was U
Here is a simple question: Did you fall madly in love with xx, the 2009 debut album from The xx? If your answer is somewhere in the range of, “Yes! OH GOD YES,” then clearly the prospect of a sequel to that album gets you salivating with anticipation. If you’re one of the arguable few that simply “didn’t get it” the first time around, but are hoping that maybe something new and different from them will push all the right buttons, let me break this down for you. The new xx record Coexist is for this band what Antics was for Interpol or Room on Fire was for The Strokes: an attempt to repeat success by not messing with what’s already been done perfectly the first time. This is minimalism taken to the extreme; a record that absolutely sounds like it was recorded by a couple people alone in a room. You get the lone guitar carefully plucked note by note, the casually light splashes of piano and occasionally skittering beats that seem like they don’t want to be there. Atop it all are the voices of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims, always relaxed to the ultimate degree and providing the impression they’re speaking to one another in the quietest, most intimate moments life has to offer. That’s the way it was on xx, and that’s the way it is now. Is it just as affecting as it was before? Well, that one’s up for debate. The lack of innovation in their sound, amounting to what’s really more of a scaling back than moving forward, isn’t exactly a bad thing considering they were a very unique band from note one. “Reunion” certainly makes its own mark thanks to some carefully placed steel drum that would otherwise be unexpected. The pulsating and rather sly energy of “Swept Away” feels like a step in the right direction too, the gorgeous piano adding a little Balearic flavor to what will ultimately be the song that lends itself best to future remixes. Everything else is largely business as usual, which you can take as good or bad depending on your own expectations. The opening track and first single “Angels” pushes forth the impression that The xx could well be a slowcore version of Beach House, but that’s a little deceptive the more you listen to the other tracks. The intimacy of a record like this gets pushed to the extreme on “Tides,” a song that starts with Croft and Sims’ vocals entangled and absolutely nothing else. It’s impressive in just the right ways. The tragedy of this album is it doesn’t try to do more. It mostly finds its comfort zone and stays there, which eventually winds up being to its detriment. There’s nothing outright bad on Coexist, and it’s a rather easy record to listen to and get lost in, but it feels like they could have done something more or at least taken a risk or two. The lyrics don’t help at all either, closing off some of the more detailed confessions from the first album with greater mystery and generalizations. When they sing, “We used to get closer than this/ Is it something you miss?” on “Chained,” the answer is a resounding yes on the listener’s end, a response to their lack of open-hearted candor through most of the songs. If you’re not going to expand your sound, you’d do well to at least try and improve your songwriting. So while Coexist is largely a nice and enjoyable sophomore effort from The xx, it isn’t quite the landmark album their debut was. As their current sound begins to wear ever thinner, hopefully they find some new and interesting ways to keep fans invested for years to come.
Let’s take a quick history lesson for the artsy Chicago band California Wives. They formed in 2009, self-released an EP in 2010 to a fair amount of buzz, and started touring nationally. One of their biggest career highlights so far came last fall when Peter Hook, formerly of Joy Division/New Order, invited the band to open for him on the Chicago date of his tour demoralizing performing Joy Division’s Closer. Considering California Wives sound a lot like classic New Order, the selection made a lot of sense. After fully solidifying their lineup earlier this year, the band signed to Vagrant Records in the spring and began to prepare their debut full length album. The result is Art History, and like so many bands it features a collection of the best songs they’ve written since their earliest days. That means 4/5ths of the Affair EP is here, plus a bunch of stuff they’ve been performing for awhile now but have never officially recorded before. Producer Claudius Mittendorfer (Interpol, Neon Indian) helped the band reinvent their sound a bit though, and as a result even the stuff you might otherwise have been familiar with is tweaked in such a way that it feels like you’re hearing it for the first time all over again. Songs like “Blood Red Youth” and “Purple” get 30-60 seconds chopped off their runtimes in the interest of being more concise. Some of the more jangly guitar parts and heavy bass lines get whitewashed over or placed further back in the mix to streamline the songs just a bit more too. The New Order comparisons aren’t quite so apt anymore, though they retain that ’80s sheen thanks to the heavy use of synths. Now they’re probably best classified as The Cure filtered through the more modern lens of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. That works well enough for them, as Art History winds up being a day-glo pop journey that satisfies at every turn with melodies and hooks that will get stuck in your head for days. The highlights are mostly carryovers from the Affair EP, and they’re spread out generously across the album, making minor moments like “Los Angeles” and “Better Home” seem like better songs because they’re sandwiched in between two great ones. A couple brand new songs like “Marianne” and “The Fisher King” do well on their own too, with the former perhaps making the band’s strongest single to date. So yes, there are plenty of things to love about this album. There are also some not-so-great things too. Creatively speaing, Art History doesn’t break any new ground, nor does it even try to. It is by all accounts a very “safe” record, and that lack of exploration can make you feel like you’ve heard some of these songs before and done better. While many of these songs have memorable hooks, you’re sometimes left wondering if they stick with you because they’re genuinely good or simply because they repeat them so many times. How many times, you ask? Well, in the nearly four minutes that are “Tokyo,” the hook hits you 10 times. On “Twenty Three” that grand total is 8. Both are quite a bit higher than average, and that’s just two examples of many on the album. And while they don’t have to abide by traditional song structures to make an impact, the lack of a bridge in pretty much every song is just a little confounding too. What Art History amounts to in the end is a promising debut from a band that needs more time to develop and find their own niche. These songs are superficially pleasing enough to build a strong worldwide audience for California Wives, and if popularity is what they want it’s within their reach. As for critical acclaim, that one’s going to take some work.
California Wives – Purple
California Wives – Marianne
If you took Jello Biafra from his Dead Kennedys heyday and put him into a band that plays distorted and weird renditions of AM Gold sounds of the ’60s, you’d come reasonably close to what Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti are all about. While Ariel Pink never goes for the throaty yelp and ferocity that Biafra often had during those times, his strange perception of the world around him often pushes his vocals to take on different personalities and affectations. Simultaneously you’re also stuck with the challenge of trying to determine if Pink is actually being sincere or not. He cracks a lot of jokes and sings a lot of nonsense, many times in voices that sound dismissive or idiotic, yet there are also love songs that often have tenderness and genuine emotion attached to them. The many flights of fancy that suit his variety of whims at any given moment can make listening to Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti records a very difficult task, if not a chore. It’s almost always fascinating if you can stand it, and on occasion he’ll hit on something truly brilliant, such as the song “Round and Round” off of 2010’s Before Today. There was little funny about that song, but its hooks cut so deep they could leave scars on your ears if you weren’t careful. Such is the dichotomy of the man and the band behind him. Nothing on their new album Mature Themes ever hits the way you might want or expect it to, but if it did then it wouldn’t be a proper APHG record. If you’re looking for the most oddly engaging record of 2012, congratulations you’ve found it.
One of the smartest things you can do when listening to Mature Themes is to surrender your will and control and simply let it take you where it wants to go. Questioning a shift in direction or a lyric will leave you frustrated time and time again, because so much of it fails to make sense. Pink is operating on his own level here, and whether you think that’s above or below your own is irrelevant. Lines like, “The bad breath of a cross-eyed goat/ Eating children for a Monday morning,” on “Driftwood” aren’t supposed to make sense (to us at least), just like how “Schnitzel Boogie” stops mid-song so Pink can place an order at a drive-thru. “Is This the Best Spot?” is like some mad science experiment gone awry, bouncing between G-spots, H-bombs and a Rocky Horror-esque reference to time warps in under two minutes. And as you sit there scratching your head about what planet the guy is living on, songs like first single “Only in My Dreams” and the title track come in with some earnest folk-pop you might have gotten from Simon & Garfunkel or The Beach Boys. Of course the bipolar and challenging nature of this album isn’t anything really new for Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. They’ve been releasing records steadily over the last 10 or so years that carry a whole lot of similarities to what they’re putting out now, only the quality, fidelity and exposure has improved over time. Before Today was the band’s first album on 4AD and their first to feature clear studio recording. They also simplified and blended their various eccentricities more than ever before to create something more easily digestible than ever before. Mature Themes is by contrast both a step forward and a step backward. The band sounds more polished than ever, but the strangeness is back in its fullest effect. In some respects it’s serving to weed out the new set of fans that have discovered the band in recent years, trying to scare them away from a good thing. But if you find Pink’s oddball sensibilities gripping, there’s more than a fair share of reasons to keep paying attention. On the song “Early Birds of Babylon,” Pink keeps asking, “Hey, how does he do that?” Listening through this record, you’ll likely find yourself asking that same question of Pink over and over again.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Only in My Dreams
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.
According to the dictionary, a purity ring is a “type of promise ring that pledges abstinence.” In more plainspoken terms, by wearing a purity ring you promise to not have sex until you get married. As many who wear purity rings will claim, the wait is worth it. How fitting then for a band calling themselves Purity Ring to make us wait a long time before releasing their first full length album. First appearing in early 2011, they began releasing single after single, like a trail of breadcrumbs to keep us interested and engaged. It helped that they were really good songs, too. Describing their sound can be a little difficult, but it’s fair to say they’re like a more pop-driven version of The Knife or Crystal Castles, pairing skittering hip hop-esque electronic beats with often masked female vocals. The duo of Corin Roddick and Megan James are responsible for the project. Roddick handles the instrumental side, and James does vocals and lyrics. Their first single “Ungirthed” did just about everything right, fusing together little electro plinks with surges of bass, and James’ vocals playfully floating above it all. It was fun and surprisingly addictive, which was a trend that continued with additional singles like “Belispeak” and “Fineshrine.” A grand total of five out of eleven songs off their new album Shrines were released leading up to it, and there wasn’t a weak track among them. Now with the whole thing available for your consumption, the great news is that their previous success wasn’t a fluke. Even the non-singles carry hints of being potential future singles, and this record is so jam packed with them it can be a challenge to pick out the highlights. On any given day you might fall in love with “Crawlersout,” only to have “Lofticries” dig its claws into you the next time around. That’s a good sort of problem to have, though for fans that have been keeping up with the band since 2011, some of those earliest tracks will always be considered noteworthy moments. Newcomers to the Purity Ring bandwagon may initially find inspiration in certain songs, though the entire record might start sounding like an amorphous blob after awhile. Such a reaction is completely natural given that the template tools used to make this album don’t really change from track to track. Even the lyrics are thematically similar, filled with vibrant body imagery. “Sea water is flowing from the middle of my thighs,” James sings at the start of “Crawlersout.” The very next song is “Fineshrine,” where she encourages somebody to “cut open my sternum and poke my little ribs around you.” From the ringing ears and clicking teeth of “Ungirthed” to the sweating lips and starving hips of “Saltkin,” and even to the album cover featuring disembodied hands and lungs, Purity Ring are very easy to figure out, even if their distinct sound and lyrics can be challenging. It’s the angle they approach each melody and hook that makes the difference, rewarding close listening. If Shrines has a failure, it comes via the mid-album oddity of “Grandloves.” Isaac Emmanuel of Young Magic shares vocal duties with James in what feels like an ill-advised duet where he tries on his best computer-glitchy Beck impersonation. The song’s not bad by any means, but really more pedestrian and uninspired than everything that surrounds it. Otherwise it’s a very impressive debut from a band that continues to change and evolve with time. It might take them a few years to finally generate a follow-up LP, but if history is any indication, we’ll be hearing a new song or two or five before then. If it’s anywhere near as good as what we’ve been given on Shrines, it truly will have been worth the wait.
If you’re going to pick a band name as emotionally evocative as Eternal Summers, you’d best have the material to back it up. People get excited about summer, because it means time off from school or work, warm weather, and lazy days by the pool or lake with family and friends. It’s a special season to say the least, and one we often wish would go on forever. The road hasn’t always been paved with sunshine and blissful happiness for Eternal Summers though. They’ve spent the last few years in relative obscurity, part of a somewhat secret music community in their hometown of Roanoke, VA called Magic Twig. It’s a loose collective of musicians that work with one another without much regard for official band membership. They have their own recording studio and embrace the DIY/lo-fi aesthetic. Guitarist/singer Nicole Yun and drummer Daniel Cundiff met that way, and with their minimal pop powers combined they became established enough to earn a record deal. After a couple of EPs, 2010 saw the release of their first full length Silver. While it certainly achieved some degree of measurable success, reviews weren’t exactly glowing with affection for the duo. Then further tragedy struck: while on tour, their gear was stolen. Yun’s special Parker Nitefly guitar was among the losses, and she didn’t have the money to pay for a new one. Other guitars didn’t quite have the sonic range to pull off some of their songs, so to compensate for the low end they brought in bassist Jonathan Woods. Becoming a three-piece has fleshed out Eternal Summers’ sound more than ever, as has their decision to outsource the mixing of their new album Correct Behavior to New York, where The Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner and producer Alonzo Vargas took care of it. They may have been concerned about letting other people have some degree of control over their sound, but the end product really shines positively on the growth of the band and provides the leg up needed to get the attention they deserve. Helpful as these changes might be, in the end they don’t amount to much if the songs themselves aren’t good. Thankfully Eternal Summers don’t have that problem, as this album features stronger lyrics, more confident vocals and more candy-coated hooks than anything they’ve ever done before. First single “Millions” kicks things off in a very bright and bouncy fashion, really hammering home the fuller sound and putting Yun’s vocals at the front of the mix. “I’ve got to shake this shell and break it into millions,” she sings, and while it’s supposed to represent a new found freedom in your life, in many ways it also feels like the band is starting fresh and embracing the same ideals. That same intense energy and playfulness continues to carry on through super addictive songs like “Wonder,” “You Kill” and “I Love You.” All together those first four songs make for one of the best starts of any record so far this year. Cundiff’s drumming is propulsive in exactly the ways it needs to be, especially on more punk rock numbers like “You Kill” and “Girls in the City.” Yun also gets in some intelligent guitar solos on “Wonder” and “Heaven and Hell,” likely the result of not having to worry about being the only guitar in the band anymore. There are a few moments where Correct Behavior slows down, which help balance out the record nicely and give you a chance to catch your breath. “It’s Easy” and “Good As You” are dreamy and beautiful in all the ways they need to be, holding your attention when they very well could have killed the mojo established by the quicker, more upbeat tracks. Perhaps the biggest standout on the entire album comes right in the middle with “Girls in the City.” It’s the only track where Cundiff handles the vocals, and the post-punk melody blended with his very cut-and-dry baritone makes it comparable with something you’d hear from Joy Division or Crystal Stilts. Eternal Summers showed hints of such influences on their previous releases, however it’s never come across as clearly as it does here. The only real problem is that it doesn’t mesh as well with the breezier pop stuff that’s all over the rest of the record. Finding a better way to incorporate new and different styles is one of the things they can work on for their next long player. In the meantime, Correct Behavior goes a very long way towards making Eternal Summers the sort of band you want soundtracking those times of fun in the sun.
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?
One of the most fascinating things about Kristian Matsson is how he’s able to take very familiar folk sounds and turn them into something that seems fresh and exciting. His first two albums as The Tallest Man on Earth were built solely on his raspy vocal and either an acoustic guitar or a piano. The songs are also almost entirely home recorded outside of a traditional studio, giving them an additional ramshackle quality that speaks well to Bob Dylan’s earliest material. Matsson is from Sweden, but he uses and reveres classic American folk as his template. His last full length The Wild Hunt was very propulsive and catchy, with an emotional core that often made you feel like the man was playing as if his life depended on it. Just listening to him wail on “You’re Going Back” or “King of Spain” either sucked you in completely or left you out in the cold, as his abrasive yet heartfelt vocal isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. On his third long player There’s No Leaving Now, the gears have slightly changed (or evolved, if you will) for The Tallest Man on Earth. The music still retains that slightly gritty, home recorded quality, however Matsson plays around with multi-tracking a little, creating fuller arrangements with more instruments. “Revelation Blues” is where the extra bits are most evident – a lightly brushed snare drum along with small flourishes of piano and woodwinds compliment the main melody strung together by a carefully picked guitar. Other than that, only the occasional slide guitar on top of an acoustic is an indicator there’s more instrumentation than usual. The alt-country quiet of “Bright Lanterns” is probably where that’s implemented best. Outside of the guitar-driven tracks, the title track differentiates itself simply by being a piano-centered ballad in the same vein of “Kids on the Run” from the last record. Matsson does an excellent job wrenching the sadness out of the song. Such powerful displays of emotion were some of The Wild Hunt‘s strongest points. There’s No Leaving Now loses some of that primarily due to more languid and relaxed melodies where the vocals don’t require so many acrobatics. The album’s two most energized songs “1904” and “Wind and Walls” are also two of its best, even though their lyrics don’t entirely make sense. It’s the way he sings lines like, “But the lesson is vague and the lightning shows a deer with her mind on the moor/and now something with the sun is just different/since they shook the earth in 1904,” that somehow makes them seem far more coherent than they appear when written down. Still, not everything on the record is so convincing or vibrant, as songs like “Leading Me Now” and “Little Brother” breeze past pleasantly but forgettably too. Matsson can and has done better work than this, and three albums in it might be time to start asking if his particular troubadour brand of folk is wearing a bit thin. It’s nice to hear him spreading his wings just a little and fleshing out some of the tracks a bit more, but it means very little in the end if the songs aren’t worthy of that expansion. Ironically, There’s No Leaving Now often comes off like Matsson has gone away on vacation, perhaps to the beach depicted on the album cover. Wonderful as it can be to take some time for yourself and forget about your troubles, it’s no way to live. Sooner or later the world will come find you. Let’s hope for the next album that The Tallest Man on Earth pulls his head out of the clouds and reconnects with the emotions and excitement that made his earlier records so vital and fascinating.
The Tallest Man on Earth – 1904
Liars are undoubtedly a talented band. They’re also impressively weird, to the point where even some of their most hardcore fans have probably felt a little alienated at times. In effect, they are the onion of bands: multi-layered, not for everybody, and sometimes they’ll draw tears from your eyes. If you’re listening to “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack”, those tears might be the result of sheer beauty, whereas “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant” could easily bring forth tears of terror. So yeah, it’s not easy to pigeonhole Liars, and they seem to like it that way. Not knowing what to expect from them on each new album is an exciting proposition, even if it doesn’t always work out. For the most part they’ve been smart with career twists and turns, jumping from a concept record about witches (They Were Wrong, So We Drowned) to one that places a huge emphasis on percussion (Drum’s Not Dead) and then attempting to grind out something more straightforwad with heavy post-punk leanings (Sisterworld). On their new album WIXIW, the band once again explores new territory, this time peeling away most of the guitars and focusing on programmed beats and electronica elements. Many are calling it a “Kid A-like shift”, in reference to Radiohead’s steep change in sonic direction after the immense success of OK Computer. Liars frontman Angus Andrew even sounds a little like Thom Yorke on a couple tracks, perhaps most notably on “Ill Valley Prodigies” and “His and Mine Sensations”. Apt as those comparisons might be, the last thing you want to do is try and imitate a record that many believe was the finest thing released in the last dozen or so years. The band hasn’t said that was their intention, so maybe the similarities are wholly accidental. Really the whole “abandon instruments and go electronica” thing has become a plague among artists in recent years, with most citing the apparent limits that guitar and drum combinations have versus the wider realm of programmed sounds. That’s the main reason why Liars did it too, as they’ve said in recent interviews. Hell, that’s probably Radiohead’s excuse as well, only they did it before it was cool. Parts of WIXIW feel like a cop-out because of it though. It’s as if the band has lost confidence in their own ability to generate something original, so they’re creating new music based on sounds and influences they know are cool at the moment. That doesn’t mean the record is terrible or devoid of original ideas though. Opening track “The Exact Colour of Doubt” features calming waves of synths and handclap percussion that is downright beautiful. Single “No. 1 Against the Rush” glides, pulses and tinkers in a very Brian Eno-like fashion, even evolving the final minute of the song into a touch of instrumental madness. Those moments when Liars can condense some of their best elements from earlier records into the more electro-based structures are what work best. The rhythmically complex and bassline-driven madness of “Brats” is the band’s classic rave-up with a synth-etic twist, and “A Ring On Every Finger” puts a Depeche Mode spin on some of their favorite tribal rhythms. Most of these songs are interesting at least in concept, and the closer attention you lend them the more carefully composed they seem. That your perception of this record can change over time definitely makes it worth repeat examinations, even if those changes cause you to like it less. When you’re Liars, that comes with the territory. WIXIW may not be the shining moment for this band, and their own bout of self-doubt spawning its creation isn’t helping, but nobody else could have made this album. Sometimes that’s enough.
Japandroids are a band with an expiration date. The Vancouver duo crafted their last album Post-Nothing with the thought they’d be breaking up soon thereafter, having not found success in the relatively unsupportive music scene of their hometown. That record was in essence a mission statement from two guys that had nothing left to lose and wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. Well, it seems that glory found them, because their song “Young Hearts Spark Fire” did as its title described and ignited the passions of rock fans across the globe. The entire album actually did wonders for the band, and two years of touring with large crowds suddenly made returning to a much more normal, non-music life a far less appealing option. As much as they dislike recording, it remains an essential part of any artist’s shelf life to keep generating new material. So with the exact same collection of people, instruments and rules they had on their last album, Japandroids set out to see if lightning could strike twice. Celebration Rock is the result. While the artwork, 8 song track list and running time might well have been photocopied from Post-Nothing, the songs themselves represent a very important progression for the band. First and foremost, the very internal and personal nature of the songs has been excised to focus on bigger emotions and an outward projection. The tortured thoughts of two guys on the verge of imploding their band have been replaced by songs about other people, possibly you, that want to live and party and lust and take revenge – sometimes all at the same time. The music plays along with that vibe too; there’s a distinct hunger and energy present in Brian King’s guitar riffs and Dave Prowse’s drumming that’s designed for bigger and better things. Whereas before they were making music for themselves, now they’re making it for their fans. Opening track “The Nights of Wine and Roses” sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the record, saying we’re all drinking and smoking and spending time with friends while waiting for the big and important moments in our lives to finally arrive. The lesson learned in the end is that those big and important moments are the ones where you’re waiting. The supercharged kick in the teeth that starts the album holds up in all its headbanging, devil horns and mosh pit glory through “Fire’s Highway”, “Evil’s Sway” and an effervescent cover of Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy”. They truly epitomize what the album’s title is all about. At the halfway point however, a shift takes place that changes the dynamic of the record. Rather than racing for the finish line in blistering fashion, they temper the energy only slightly and go for more of an emotional and nostalgic approach. “Adrenaline Nightshift” evokes some of the best moments The Replacements ever had sonically while tapping into abstract imagery like “a blitzkrieg love and a Roman candle kiss” and espousing that “there’s no high like this.” A similar mentality is tackled in “Younger Us”, reflecting back on youthful indiscretions with a bunch of “remember when”‘s and “thinking that this feeling was never gonna end.” But those two tracks really wind up as stepping stones for “The House That Heaven Built”, a crossroads at which the band’s intense instrumentals and recent lyrical prowess collide at their peaks. As the song chugs along with sheer purpose, King sings like he’s just achieved a newfound clarity and confidence in his life and wants to pass such wisdom onto us. “If they try to slow you down/tell ’em all to go to hell,” he professes like a man that has broken through all of his boundaries and is utterly ecstatic at the possibilities that lie before him. If that doesn’t suck you in, the hook most assuredly will. Celebration Rock ends on a ballad, or at least something that turns the speed and noise down from 11 to maybe a 9.5. “Continuous Thunder” is about the electricity between two people and the question of whether they can salvage their tenuous relationship. It might not be the happiest song on the record, but it does strive to keep the same sense of boldness and conviction as everything else. As the guitars finally drift off gently into that good night, the album’s final seconds are the same as its first: the sound of fireworks. We use those pyrotechnics only in the most joyous and exclamatory circumstances, such as weddings or after a home run in baseball. On Celebration Rock, Japandroids knock one out of the park.
Japandroids – The House That Heaven Built
There is a small group of artists making music today that simply cannot sit still. Their need to create is so overwhelming that it cannot be confined to simply one band or project. Take a look at Robert Pollard, who operates under no less than 10 different names as part of collaborations with different people. He’s been averaging about 2-3 full lengths a year for quite awhile now, with at least two Guided By Voices records due this year. Or examine Spencer Krug, who has been part of Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake and currently Moonface – all within the last three years. Bradford Cox, too, hasn’t gone a full year since 2007 without releasing a record under either the Deerhunter or Atlas Sound name. Soon to be added to this elite collective might well be Kyle Thomas. In the last few years, he’s played important roles in the J. Mascis stoner metal side project Witch, odd folk band Feathers, and indie pop trio Happy Birthday. He’s also struck out on his own, releasing music under the name King Tuff. He put out his first solo record Was Dead in 2008, and finally found the time to make a follow-up this year. King Tuff appropriately made the new album self-titled, because it marks the first time most will hear his work. His debut came out on Teepee Records and was manufactured in such a limited quantity that you have to pay a pretty penny on eBay for a copy. Now signed to Sub Pop, his platform has expanded significantly, as has his sound. Where he blasted through tracks before with a ramshackle lo-fi punk style, he’s tempered that now by exploring elements of ’50s, ’60s and ’70s rock and pop. The guitars are still as fuzz-laden as ever, but the record doesn’t race to the finish line like it’s got somewhere to be. A song like “Unusual World” coasts along at a relaxed mid-tempo pace and incorporates synths and xylophone for added flavor. “Evergreen” rides on the wings of a summer breeze, drifting so lightly it almost feels like it belongs on another album. And piano ballad “Swamp of Love” comes off like an Elton John torch song filtered through Bob Dylan glasses. Outside of those softer or quieter moments, King Tuff is a whole lot of fun to listen to. “Anthem” carves out a grand place for itself as described. One of the best singles so far this year might just be “Bad Thing”, which blasts along with the speed of a powerboat and has a candy-coated chorus that will stick in your head for weeks. Meanwhile “Stranger” plays around with sounds previously reserved for T. Rex or Lynyrd Skynyrd. These record might not have a whole lot of weird experiments going for it, but what it lacks in sheer oddity it more than makes up for in strong composition. This is a collection of dynamic songs you’re supposed to enjoy and not think too much about. In other words, it’s a great record for summer. Sometimes you don’t need anything more than that.
King Tuff – Bad Thing
King Tuff – Keep On Movin’
Earlier this year, The Walkmen celebrated their 10th anniversary of being a band by playing a handful of special shows in cities that have special significance to them. It’s a little odd to have a band celebrate an anniversary like that unless you’re, say, the Beach Boys, who are in the middle of a 50th anniversary tour at the moment. With the current hype cycle that chews bands up and spits them out over what often feels like 6 months or less, lasting even a handful of years can be considered an accomplishment. It also takes a fair number of quality records that logically evolve and grow off one another to remain vital and keep an expanding audience from becoming bored. The Walkmen have certainly accomplished that feat, and one listen through their 2002 debut Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone along with one of their more recent records like 2010’s Lisbon will immediately hear a difference. They’re not the same scuzzy and fiery rock stars their early work suggested. Age, experience and now marriage and kids have all tempered those wilder ways, and in their place is a group of guys settled and content with their lives. For most bands that means death, as families can distract and happiness can breed boredom or laziness. It’s sort of like how many couples gain weight after getting married, in part because they’re no longer trying to sell themselves to another person. And we wonder why the divorce rate is so high. But conflict and anger are two key elements of rock music, and while they’re not essential to a great song or record, they certainly make both more interesting. What’s unsettling about The Walkmen’s new album Heaven then is just how much it lives up to the title. These guys are loving life right now, and they made a record about it. For some, that idea can come off as a little smug – as if the band is saying they have everything figured out while the rest of us continue to search for answers. The truth is they’re celebrating the things that have brought them such joy, and are encouraging us to join in on their happiness with the hope of learning and gaining it ourselves. Somehow they’re able to pull it off without sacrificing many of the qualities that made them great in the first place. Perhaps the person that has most changed on this record, even compared to the band’s previous one, is frontman Hamilton Leithauser. In the past his vocal style has best been described as whiskey-soaked and strained, but as the songs have become more tempered so has his singing. The album’s opening acoustic-strewn jaunt “We Can’t Be Beat” turns Leithauser into a crooner from the 1950’s, all smooth and dapper with effortless and lovely backing harmonies. Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold does backup vocal on that song along with “No One Ever Sleeps” and “Jerry Jr.’s Tune”, the latter of which is an instrumental with humming that’s more meditative than essential. Still, his contributions enhance Leithauser’s in the sort of beautiful way you’d suspect they might. Fans of the last two Walkmen albums will certainly find their fair share of solace as well in tracks like “Love Is Luck”, “Heartbreaker” and the title track, even if none of them quite match the manic energy of classics like “The Rat” and “Little House of Savages”. Doing something that dark and rushed wouldn’t make sense with the overall feel of this record though, which tries to play up the positive and does so with more retro flair than ever. Long time fans of the band may miss some of those ragers and heavy-handed moments, but songs like “Line By Line” and “Dreamboat” bring touches of despair to an otherwise upbeat album. They’re enough to show that The Walkmen haven’t completely given up on some of the feelings they were founded upon 10 years ago. With a catalogue of such high quality records though, it seems feelings don’t matter when it comes to making great music. As Leithauser sings on “Heartbreaker”, “It’s not the singer/it’s the song.” So long as The Walkmen keep making good ones, happy or sad, we’ll keep listening.
The Walkmen – We Can’t Be Beat
The Walkmen – The House You Made