The hottest music from Chicago & beyond

Tag: soft rock

Album Review: Haim – Days Are Gone [Columbia/Polydor]

They were bred for this. Well, maybe they were. Somebody ask their parents about that. One thing is for sure though – the three sisters that make up the band Haim have been making music from the very first moment they were able to. It’s certainly no coincidence that each of them plays a different instrument too: Danielle is lead guitar, Este is on bass, and Alana does keyboards/synths. Danielle and Este spent their late teens as part of a cut-and-paste major label band called Valli Girls, where they performed a bunch of songs written by a team of professionals intent on marketing to tweens and teens. Generally disappointed with playing a bunch of songs they didn’t write or necessarily like, the two Haim sisters left the band and went Partridge, complete with mom on lead vocals and dad behind the drum kit. Covers were their specialty, diving into the songbooks of everyone from Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac to Shania Twain and R&B legend Wilson Pickett. Of course it’s tough to make a living as a cover band, let alone a family cover band, and there comes a time in every parent’s life when they need to shove their babies out of the nest and let them try to fly on their own. And so we have Haim in their current incarnation, complete with long-time session drummer Dash Hutton to add percussion into the mix.

The buzz began in early 2012 when the single “Forever” was released as part of a three song EP, which along with some heavily hyped performances at SXSW got them a record deal. Their sound is best classified as a mixture of their influences, largely stemming from their upbringing and cover songs played with their parents. Fleetwood Mac is the name that gets referenced most often, however it’s most apt to say that they’ve got the late 80’s/early 90’s soft pop sound on lock, with dashes of R&B thrown in for good measure. Think Phil Collins and Richard Marx mixed with En Vogue and Kate Bush, and that should give you a decent impression of where they’re coming from. Those names might raise a lot of red flags or conjure bad memories, and there’s the inclination to suspect that they’re really just exploring those genres out of complete irony, however there’s extreme sincerity in every single thing they do. That’s really what sells the listener on the idea and earns the band the right sort of attention and respect in spite of all other factors. The new twists on old familiar sounds are also what make their songs seem very “of the moment.” For example, you could easily say that their latest single “The Wire” is a natural blend of the most classic periods of Shania Twain and The Eagles. Beyond that sonic comparison, the addition of each sister taking their own verse plus those dynamic harmonies really helps to elevate it to a “song of the year”-type status. Make previously strong singles “Falling” and “Forever” your lead-ins, and the start of their debut album Days Are Gone turns into a 1-2-3 knockout punch combo.

Of course it definitely doesn’t end there, in spite of the record’s apparent front-loading. Time and time again, Haim prove that they know their way around a chorus, and that they are happy to exploit or break away from genre conventions whenever it suits their needs. The album’s title track, kicking off the second half of the record, appears to mine a bit from the more urban pop era of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and works out better than you might expect. It’s no wonder the song was co-written by Jessie Ware, who has largely taken over where Jackson and Abdul once reigned. While press materials will tell you that there’s a bit of an R&B influence in Haim’s sound, it doesn’t really show up too often. When it does though, as on “Let Me Go” and “My Song 5,” it adds a deeper layer to what the band is capable of, and makes for some of the most impressive moments on the album. Both songs could be considered an homage to En Vogue, though only “My Song 5” and it’s heavy bass drum/tuba blare truly sets itself apart from the rest of the album. And that’s perfectly fine – most records could use such a great standout. Yet one of the most fascinating things about Days Are Gone is how it manages to unite all of the disparate elements and influences into one cohesive whole of an album. Credit goes to producer du jour Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Usher) for finding a way to make it work, and to Haim for never sounding anything less than original in spite of obvious nods to the past.

If Days Are Gone has a real weakness, it’s found in the lyrics, which often attempt to turn a breezy melody into something dark and “important.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to write about serious issues against a lighthearted pop melody – artists do that all the time. Plus, it’s not like half of their songs are about depression, even though a few are about breakups and the fallout afterwards. Then again, “The Wire” is just about the most upbeat and kind song about the ending of a relationship that you’ll find these days. Where the issues emerge are in the words themselves, and not the topics. While the record has its fair share of creative wordplay, a close look at the lyrical content of most songs unveils a pattern of generalizations and bland phrasing that doesn’t hold up so well under scrutiny. All things considered, calling attention to such an issue given what Haim is out to accomplish can be viewed as petty and nitpicky, which is why it might be best to simply sit back, relax and let the melodies and hooks take you away. That is, essentially, what the sisters are doing on their album cover anyways.

Those in search of something different or innovative in a band probably won’t find Haim and Days Are Gone to their liking. What you do get from this record is a collection of strongly composed and confident songs that grab your attention and refuse to let go. Coming straight out of the gate with such excellence and precision is rather impressive, even if these sisters have been playing music since they became old enough to hold instruments in their hands. This is definitely something they’ve been building towards, and for all practical purposes they knock it out of the park.

Haim – The Wire

Haim – Falling

Buy Days Are Gone from Amazon

Album Review: La Big Vic – Cold War [Underwater Peoples]

Let’s start by throwing out the book on La Big Vic. That is to say, forget what you know or think you know about this band. If you already know little or nothing about them, so much the better. Their debut album, 2011’s Actually, didn’t receive that much attention, and perhaps that’s part of the reason why they chose to release a remixed version of it later that same year. You could say it speaks to their indecisiveness, that they’d act so quickly as if to say, “If you didn’t like that first version, here’s a different one we hope you’ll like better.” They are George Lucas, endlessly tweaking the Star Wars films until they’re nearly unrecognizable from their first form. It’ll be interesting to see if the band takes that same remix tactic with their sophomore album Cold War. It’s an interesting and different record from their first one to be sure, and it speaks better to their individual backgrounds while also bringing more focus and better pop structures to the forefront. Their first record and its remixed companion weren’t bad by any means, but they feel starkly different compared to how La Big Vic sounds today. You could say they’re looking for and are getting a fresh start.

La Big Vic is a trio made up of producer and multi-instrumentalist Toshio Masuda, synth guru and composer Peter Pearson and violinist and singer Emilie Friedlander. Before coming to America, Masuda was a member of a boy band and produced hip hop records and commercials. Pearson had some training as an apprentice to one of Pink Floyd’s live producers, and Friedlander was a music blogger and editor of the former Pitchfork offshoot Altered Zones. Their very disparate backgrounds ultimately wind up being a huge asset to their overall sound, as they pull from such a grand chasm of influences that range from electronica to jazz to psychedelia to synth-pop. Such a conglomeration doesn’t work on paper, which is why actually hearing it makes it seem that much more impressive of a feat. On Cold War nothing sounds too bizarre either, and you might actually say the final product is one part Zero 7 and one part Kaputt from Destroyer.

There’s a strong beat that flows like an undercurrent through many of the songs, lending them an almost trip-hop sort of vibe with a few unique twists along the way. Moments like the opening title track or Avalanches-esque vocal sampling in “Save the Ocean” reach a great head-bopping, toe-tapping groove, but also place themselves underneath a grey cloud that is threatening rain the entire time. That sense of unease and dread permeates most of these instrumentals only adds to their strange charm. Friedlander’s vocals aren’t any help either, jumping from a throaty moan to some sky-high falsetto cries of ecstasy that make you question whether or not such reactions are earned given how they bounce all over the place like a rubber ball in a small space. On “Emilie Say’s” she goes from an almost inhuman vocal high-pitched effect at the beginning to cascading through multiple octaves and eventually creating harmonies via multiple overdubs. In one sense it’s remarkably impressive, while on the other it lacks a certain degree of emotional investment. It’s easy to argue that inability to connect emotionally hurts your enjoyment of the final product, but it can just as easily be argued that such abstract ambiguity is purposeful to go along with the lyrics.

If there’s one real takeaway that Cold War offers up, it’s the remarkable clarity of intention that shines through almost every song. For a band that was built on flights of fancy and strange avenues of experimentation, this new album is strikingly straightforward, with big melodies and addictive hooks. The ease at which “All That Heaven Allows” or “Ave B” become stuck-in-your-head staples is impressive and would have been utterly unthinkable from La Big Vic two years ago. And while both of those tracks have a rather relaxed vibe to them, you’re also treated to ’80s synth pop dance tracks like “Nuclear Bomb” and “Cave Man” to twist things up in a fun and different way. In other words, this album has enough variety and experimentation on it to satisfy those in search of such elements while also placating anyone who wants something bigger, bolder and more commercially accessible. The band wants to have their cake and eat it too, and while the album might not quite be that first true masterpiece of 2013, it comes pretty damn close. The record also goes a long way to make sure that once you’ve heard it, you won’t ever forget this band again.

La Big Vic – All That Heaven Allows
La Big Vic – Ave B

Buy Cold War from Amazon

Album Review: Bon Iver – Bon Iver [Jagjaguwar]

By every indication, Justin Vernon is not the same man he was 3 years ago. It has been that long since his debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago” was recorded all alone under the moniker of Bon Iver out in a wintry Wisconsin cabin. The story about the creation of the album was about as perfect as the album itself, bringing with it the thought that maybe if we all just retreated from civilization perhaps we too might emerge with a similar bit of brilliance. Many have surely tried since then, but I haven’t heard any incredible “cabin in the woods” stories recently, and I’m guessing you haven’t either. But Vernon has done nothing but grow since breaking free of that self-imposed cocoon, moving forwards with a number of extra projects that includes the slow R&B collective Gayngs and the uber-experimental Volcano Choir. That’s not even making mention of his guest work on the latest Kanye West album along with the slight sonic leap forwards that was Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” EP. While supporting that first Bon Iver record on tour, Vernon recruited an actual band to play with, and they’ve been by his side ever since, working to carefully enhance the sparse and singular acoustic guitar arrangements. He very well could have raced back to that Wisconsin cabin to record the second Bon Iver full length, but given all that’s happened to him, one gets the impression that he’s moved so far beyond that classic tale both mentally and sonically that there would be no point looking back. So instead Vernon built a recording studio out of an old veterinary clinic in Wisconsin, where he and the rest of the band crafted the new album in bits and pieces during their free time over these last 3 years. This record is self-titled, and that’s most likely because it marks a second rebirth for Vernon, signalling that Bon Iver is no longer just a singular man with a guitar but instead a full-fledged band with a vast array of tools at their disposal.

A big part of what made “For Emma, Forever Ago” so charming was the simplicity of it. The thought that a voice and an acoustic guitar were just about all the tools you needed to craft amazing songs meant that production values, studio magic and a full band were unnecessary extravagances when push came to shove. In certain cases though, such as with tUnE-yArDs, stepping up from crappy bedroom laptop recording to legitimate studio and backing band has proven not only necessary, but essential towards unleashing the full potential of an artist. Those concerned that Vernon’s upward movement towards bigger and better has spoiled his ability to write and compose smart music needn’t have worried after all, for “Bon Iver” seems to fully recognize all of the best things about that last album and worked simply to expound upon them in new and interesting ways. The anchor, as it has always been, is Vernon’s voice. That stark falsetto is truly unique in today’s musical landscape, and he once again makes the most out of it. Doubled and tripled over harmonies, Auto-Tune and a host of other effects make the singing a weapon of its own, often rising above the main course of melody to create added depth and beauty. He never quite goes to the length of the a capella acrobatics that was “Woods” off the “Blood Bank” EP, but he doesn’t need to here, particularly because there’s so much else for your ears to pick up on. The subtle uses of horns, orchestral sections and saxophones mix with digital and electro effects to make a mix that’s purposely muddy and understated. There are no sweepingly epic or overtly dramatic moments on the album, even if there are songs that build to noisy and satisfying crescendos. Intimacy is maintained primarily though Vernon’s words and his delivery of them, but for the most part there’s a natural calm that flows through the entire record from an instrumental perspective, to the point where it’s not too difficult to catch a nap during a few songs should the conditions be right. That’s not to say this album is boring, just that like any good lullaby, when you mix quiet and beautiful sometimes you’ll just close your eyes for a minute and wake up hours later.

Starting with a few seconds of pure silence, “Bon Iver”‘s opening track “Perth” works the term “slow burn” in the best way possible. The carefully picked and slightly fuzzy electric guitar initially maps out the melody, and shortly thereafter a very martial drum line kicks in to help propel that even more. After running through a couple of verses with not much of a legitimate chorus, nearly the entire final half of the song is pure instrumental build to an explosion. Chords are hit, the drums get louder, a horn section comes into play, and the best “hook” we can ask for is based purely on the guitar notes and nothing else. This is an introduction to the evolution of Bon Iver, and it’s heartening to see the band loosed from the chains of a more conventional song structure. Soft rock and a more nature-infused alt-country intersect on “Minnesota, WI”. The first half of the song moves from spacey guitar and deep drums into an almost slowed down reggae groove where flutes and saxophones all gently work with one another next to Vernon breaking out his lowest register R&B vocal that comes across as more Tunde Adebimpe than it does Bon Iver. But there’s a smooth development that enters with a subtle but fast moving acoustic guitar that’s about the auditory equivalent of a babbling forest brook. Suddenly all the other instruments begin to fade away, and in their place comes a banjo and a slide guitar. There’s also a heavy synth that pulsates through the main melody as it grinds towards a conclusion in which all the sounds collide in a melting pot that only works because of its modesty and restraint. Not everything is pure innovation or extensive with what it contains. “Holocene” is much more a vocal showcase than anything else, though the acoustic guitar and xylophone are nearly as warm and welcoming. Still, the light touch of a bicycle bell on “Michicant” or the bird chirping on “Hinnom, TX” make those songs just a touch more charming past what they’re already doing.

If there’s a point of contention on this self-titled album though, it’s going to be with closing track “Beth/Rest”. Whereas everything leading up to that point had only hinted towards something more 80s soft rock/adult contemporary, Bon Iver goes for the jugular in the end with something that would register as pure homage were it also not infused with a couple of small modern-day flourishes. Still, trying not to think about Bruce Hornsby and his kinfolk whilst listening to the song is tough, unless you’re young enough to have never been exposed to such cheese. This fucking with the idea of what’s “cool” by creating a song that is patently uncool seems to have carried over with a number of artists this year. Destroyer’s “Kaputt” worked on a lot of the same principles and managed to succeed in spite of itself. A worse example would be Heidecker & Wood’s debut album, which left you wondering if there was a joke or extreme sincerity behind it. For Bon Iver, the thinking appears to be one of acceptance. What’s cool is relative, and while we all make mistakes from time to time, we shouldn’t have to defend things or music that we truly love no matter how bad it might be to others. Even then, were we to search hard enough, perhaps we can find something great about an otherwise terrible thing or song. For me, “Beth/Rest” is worthwhile and a solid album closer less because it’s a decent song and more because of what it represents and tries to do. Certainly it will have its critics, but where some will see fault others will see perfection. 80s adult conteporary may be a crap genre, but at least Bon Iver has taken the risk and wound up making that crap sound almost listenable.

To say that expectations were high for the second Bon Iver album would be an understatement. “For Emma, Forever Ago” touched so many people who identified with its sparse and somber message. It is a record about heartbreak and attempting to move past it. As a contrast, “Bon Iver” isn’t about a woman but instead more about a place or places. You look at the song titles, from “Minnesota, WI” to “Wash.” to “Calgary” and “Lisbon, OH”, and whether they’re real or not, they all dictate a location. There’s controversy about whether or not this new album is titled “Bon Iver” or if it’s “Bon Iver, Bon Iver”, as if dictating that the band were a city and state unto themselves. Whatever the reality might be, this is an album that is searching for a home. We all get a little lost sometimes and become unsure of where to go or who to turn to. Consider this your travelling companion as you seek that refuge from whatever it is that is causing you distress. It is your port in a storm, your warm blanket when you are cold, or your moment of clarity amidst a sea of confusion. These are incredible songs composed with the utmost care and skill so as to hold consistent and thematically strong. If JUstin Vernon had just turned in another record filled with acoustic guitar ballads it would likely be very nice, but ultimately a little disappointing. Consistent development of your own sound is important, and Bon Iver have grown in big ways here. The influence of Vernon’s other projects is stamped on this album, but never to the point of open distraction or in such a way where we’d consider it anything else than something Bon Iver would do. The quietly graceful tone and how most of the songs blend into one another also helps to see this as a singular piece rather than a collection of individual songs. Standout first single “Calgary” may give you a good idea of how this record sounds, but to fully understand it requires at least one time through without any breaks or pauses or skipping. Allow yourself to be enveloped in the natural serenity it offers. Try to forget what you know, or think you know about this band and the sort of music they make, just to see if it resonates with you. If it does, maybe you can build a little home for it inside your heart.

Bon Iver – Calgary

Buy “Bon Iver” from Amazon

Album Review: Heidecker & Wood – Starting from Nowhere [Little Record Company]

“Surely you’re not serious.”
“I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”
Those two classic lines from the movie “Airplane!” best describe the debut album from the duo known as Heidecker & Wood. The Heidecker part of that is Tim Heidecker, best known for doing super oddball comedy on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”. The Wood is for Davin Wood, who is the music supervisor on that exact same show. Given the comedy pedigree of these two gentlemen, it’s easy to think that their teaming up for a music project should be really funny. At the very least, you’d expect it to be that odd sort of funny the TV show is best known for. The title is “Starting from Nowhere”, and the worst thing about it is the impossibility of telling how serious or non-serious it’s trying to be. The music they make is essentially soft rock, but these days is better known as yacht rock, a genre that is notable because it tends to be earnestly cheesy. Artists like Steely Dan, Christopher Cross, The Doobie Brothers, Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins wrote and released record after record of this sort of music, which found a home amongst certain kinds of adults in the 70s and 80s that believed it to be really good stuff. Looking back on it now, the camp factor is through the roof – the look tends to involve bushy moustaches, Flock of Seagulls-type hair, bright pastel t-shirt and sport coat combinations, and every now and then a perm. In other words, this stuff is ripe for mockery – to the point where a rather funny web series called Yacht Rock got away with 12 episodes of parodying the lives of these artists. Now Heidecker & Wood are attempting to get away with 12 songs poking that same bear, but there’s just a little bit of mystery remaining as to whether this is legitimate comedy or respectful homage.

Heidecker & Wood whip out their best Simon & Garfunkel right at the start of the record courtesy of “Cross Country Skiing”, complete with the audience applause at the beginning and end of the song. A sprightly plucked acoustic guitar and the dual harmonies on every word strives for legitimacy, while the lyrics don’t really hint at any humor outside of some playful lines. The track concludes by finishing up a a cross country skiing adventure when the main character diverts from the main path and accidentally winds up in some hilly landscape. “Sliding down the hillside/these skis weren’t made for this”, they sing in perfect harmony. It’s worth about as much of a laugh as that time the dog stole the steak off the plate when that guy wasn’t looking. “Right or Wrong” is at its heart the theme song to an 80s TV show that never got made, complete with the smiling family members breaking out their best smiles while fuchsia-colored graphics insert their real names at the bottom of the screen. Take one part “Full House” and another part “Family Ties” and you’ll get the idea. “The crimson light of the morning light shining tall, as if in a dream”, is just one of the many descriptive nature images on “Grandest Canyon”, a tribute to the glorious beauty of the countryside. “Maybe a canyon’s just a canyon/and a man is just a man/and a canyon and a man can live in peace and share this beautiful land” is funny only in its sheer absurdity and nothing more. The horn section and carefree piano are just the beginning of where “Wedding Song” gets its gusto, as the sincerity and romance with which the line, “Well I hope there’s a preacher, cause I know there’s a groom” is delivered should tell you everything you need to know about the song.

Other tracks on “Starting From Nowhere” are more obvious straight artist tributes. “Life on the Road” naturally is about the weariness of touring, and one can’t help but think of Bob Seeger’s “Turn the Page” when listening to it. “Name a town/name a face/chances are I’ve played the place/get on the stage/put on your hat and do the same old friggin act”, Heidecker sings depressed even though the song itself has picked up in tempo. You may hear a little Jackson Browne on the album centerpiece “Weatherman”, which is ultimately what inspired the entire record. It’s a smooth 70s keyboard slow jam, complete with flute solo where the subject matter is a pretty bad car crash even though Heidecker seems more concerned about whether or not there will be a full moon that night (one of the more offbeat “funny” moments on the album). The acoustic “A Song for My Father” practically invites parallels to Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle”, though told from the perspective of a son carrying a love-hate relationship with his somewhat absentee dad. There’s a fair touch of The Eagles on “Right to the Minute”, and a blistering jazz sax solo that stands on a very even playing field with the most classic of soft rock saxophone solos. Then “She Left You” is one part Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone” and another part Joe Cocker’s re-imagining of “With A Little Help from My Friends”, the result being a reasonably solid facsimile that at moments can seem just a little too overblown. The same could be said for the 7.5 minute closing track “Christmas Suite”, which contains a whole host of cliches and relatively botched attempts at humor. “Children are the makers of our destiny/Children are our future too/Children are the key to the universe/Children come from me and you” is just one sample of a number of goofy platitudes that break down the walls between parody and sincerity and ultimately leave you thinking this whole thing was probably for comedic effect.

When Ween makes a song like “Joppa Road”, you’re fully aware given their history that they’re just messing around with soft rock tropes. That is a legitimately funny but also wholly legit soft rock jam. Then there’s a collective like Gayngs, making non-winking soft rock music, but very purposely ensuring that each one of their songs is at a tempo of 69 bpm. See them live in their white suits and sunglasses and once again there’s humor even though the songs are pretty damn good. As for Heidecker & Wood, if you can stand nearly 60 minutes of soft rock and don’t particularly care if it’s funny or not, “Starting from Nowhere” might be a good record for you. The absurdist humor that often permeates Tim & Eric on TV generates a lot of laughs from simply being awkward, and there’s definitely moments you can feel those same sorts of weird emotions on this album, just be aware it lasts for much longer and you may not be able to take it for the duration. And while there is that silliness and intentional absurdity, you can also hear very clearly that Heidecker & Wood have respect and a strong liking of the soft rock genre. It’s so easy to parody and pile on the layers of cheese/camp, but at one point in time all these yacht rock artists took the material at face value, as did their fans. Just because it’s largely bullshit now doesn’t mean it’s any less compelling or catchy than much of the new stuff you hear on radio everyday anyways. You’re not required to be a fan of Tim & Eric shtick to like “Starting from Nowhere”, and even if you are this record can just as easily pass you by. No matter if you’re listening for the throwback sound or the humor or both, the ultimate goal of a record like this is to generate a smile. Hopefully even the most heartless person can muster up something more than a frown.

Heidecker & Wood – Right or Wrong
Heidecker & Wood – Wedding Song

Buy “Starting from Nowhere” from Amazon

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén