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Tag: sonic youth

Album Review: Scout Niblett – It’s Up to Emma [Drag City]

There are more breakup albums out there than can probably be counted at this point, yet the pain and loss of love remains one of the most fascinating topics to explore through music. Artists wouldn’t keep making albums about it if that weren’t the case. Of course writing a breakup album is in itself therapy, a means of dissecting the good and the bad and figuring out just where things went wrong. Scout Niblett appears to know this on her new album It’s Up to Emma, her seventh full length which also turns out to be one of her strongest. Through it’s nine tracks, it traverses the five stages of grief only to come out the other side resilient and empowered once more. Of course it doesn’t necessarily go through those stages in order, which is why the opening track “Gun” is a slow, angry build to a violent end. In a sense it’s about somebody losing their mind over another person’s betrayal, and it’s only emphasized further by distorted, grunge-filtered solo guitar strums and punishing drums. Once we’re dragged into this pit of despair, and essentially following a character that’s difficult to relate to unless you’re a crazy, emotionally unstable person whenever one of your romantic endeavors peters out, there’s the question raised as to why we’d want to take this journey at all. What’s surprising is how this messy relatonship post-mortem slowly changes our perceptions and draws us in despite our reservations. The vulnerability on display via “My Man” sells you this heartbreak by appealing to your empathetic side. This female narrator that Niblett embodies sacrificed everything for this love, and it didn’t work out in the end. We almost want to root for her hopes of rebuilding the failed relationship on “Second Chance Dreams,” but they end up being exactly as the third word of the title suggests. The depression at work in “All Night Long” is harrowing, with pleads to find a way to move past the mental torture of the breakup. The way the guitar and drums interact with one another mirrors those lyrical and vocal cues in such a way that they become the other end of an imaginary conversation.

As It’s Up to Emma spirals towards its inevitable conclusion, “Could This Possibly Be?” comes in like a reality check, pulling us out of this downward spiral to take a step back to better examine exactly why the narrator keeps torturing herself about this guy. It is when she realizes some painful truths about herself that she also finds acceptance on “What Can I Do?”, leading to not necessarily a happy ending to this tumultuous record, but one where there’s a visible light at the end of the tunnel. Beyond the plotline and themes explored on this album, it’s fascinating from an overall instrumental perspective as well. If you’re familiar with previous Niblett records then there’s definitely some familiarity in the sparse blues-style approach she uses here, though this being her first record in 10 years without Steve Albini behind the board there’s a little more polish in the arrangements. The guitars don’t always sound completely scuzzed up, but do retain a certain early ’90s flavor that makes them comparable to that of Cat Power, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Nirvana (Unplugged) and Sonic Youth. This is a record that uses silence as a weapon too. Because the narrator is a woman left all alone with her own thoughts and memories of this past relationship, most songs primarily feature a single strummed guitar and vocals, almost definitely performed by Niblett live inside an empty studio. There’s greater power and emotional depth in such an approach, which is practically a requirement here, and the occasional aggressive drums or string section serve only as accoutrements to try and heighten what’s already there. The combination of all these various factors and elements really help make It’s Up to Emma one of Niblett’s most powerful and accessible records to date. Go ahead and put another great breakup album on the big board.

Buy It’s Up to Emma from Amazon

Album Review: Givers – In Light [Glassnote]

When properly structured, there are some records that automatically put you in a good mood. You could be having a seriously bad day, but find some time, throw on some headphones and a great album can transport you to a place of solace and comfort, both warming you with its embrace while also providing you with plenty of reason to smile. Matt & Kim are indie rock’s “first couple” when it comes to overzealous, super happy music, to the point where you’re often left doubting that any single person, let alone two people, could ever be THAT happy THAT much. Similarly, the early days of Los Campesinos! featured the English collective with their high energy pop songs and excessive use of the glockenspiel, and so many fell in love with that side of their personality, even if they’ve since branched out and gone a bit darker/heavier/slower recently. Among the many ways of describing such a feeling that this sort of music gives you, joyous and celebratory are two great adjectives to use. When it comes to 2011, particularly summer 2011, the band that should be on everyone’s smiling lips is Givers. Their debut album “In Light” is very much as the title describes, not to mention their cover art shows – a massive bright spot shines amidst a collection of stars and other space elements. Yes my friends, if you’re in need of a serious pick-me-up, here it is.

In the first 4.5 minutes of “In Light”, which amounts to the opening track and first single “Up Up Up”, there’s a whole host of instruments that show up and almost as quickly disappear in the mix to the point where if you blink you’ll miss them. The standard guitars and drums are just the beginning, and everything from handclaps to shakers to xylophones, keyboards and flutes all make an appearance at one point or another. The ultimate result shares a lot of qualities with Afropop, in that the moments the song settles into a groove you can easily imagine Vampire Weekend or Paul Simon trying the same thing. But the great part about the track is how it transcends that easier definition by throwing curveballs at you. Call it a hybrid between a number of different pop styles and then throw some seriously great vocal harmonies between Taylor Guarisco and Tiffany Lamson for an increased sense of beauty. So it’s complicated, beautiful AND fun? It’s one of the big reasons why Givers are a band to keep a close eye on. What makes this record even better is how the band continues to play with sounds and genres without firmly ascribing to any of them. They never stay in one place for too long, and it’s that inability to figure out exactly where they’ll go next that makes them so damn fascinating. That and their constant energy matched with some heavily catchy choruses makes for some stellar party music. One could argue that the sheer exuberance of this record and how Givers doesn’t really ever slow down until the second-to-last track is a problem, but since when is having too much enthusiasm detrimental? If anything, it’s impressive they’re able to keep it up for so long. You’ll likely get tired before they will, which is probably why some will take the band to task for that.

The way that Givers first began to get notice was when they opened a 2009 show in their home state of Louisiana for heroes of theirs, Dirty Projectors. If you find the obtuse charm of Dirty Projectors to be a little too strange for your taste, “In Light” is like an easier on the ears version of much of that band’s catalogue. You can especially hear it in the finger-picked electric guitar work on a track like “Noche Nada”, which in spots mimics Dave Longstreth’s best moments. The Dirty Projectors crew liked Givers so much based on that one show, they would eventually ask the band to join them for an east coast tour a few months later. They haven’t really stopped since then, and it’s almost a wonder that there was time to actually record “In Light”, for which they recruited producer Ben Allen, who is notable for working with Animal Collective and Deerhunter, among others. A big part of why Givers rarely take a break from touring is how easily they win over crowds. They’ve been raved about at SXSW and a whole host of other places, based primarily at the time on only having released a self-titled EP. Now that their full length is out, expect not just a lot more dates but for the crowds to continue to grow larger and larger. So much about “In Light” suggests that Givers are destined for not just big but HUGE things, which is why it would behoove you to start paying attention now, if you haven’t been already. The weather’s warm, the beaches are open, and this album wants to be your soundtrack. Between this and the self-titled debut from Cults, you’re not going to find two bands better equipped to entertain you for the season, if not the rest of 2011.

Buy “In Light” from Amazon

Album Review: Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts [Merge]

Feel free to call Thurston Moore an old man. He may only be in his early 50s, but in rock star years, he’s closer to 70. Sure, you’ve still got your classics out and about still making music, your Paul Simons, your Bob Dylans and your Paul McCartneys, but they come so few and far between these days. It’s better to think of aging rock stars when they’re in a band, because the collective whole provides you with a stark legacy and a lack of focus on a particular individual. The last Sonic Youth record, for example, 2009’s “The Eternal”, did not seem like it came from a band that’s now officially 30 years old in and of itself without taking into account how old everyone was by the time they started. And while you have to essentially weigh any new stuff based on what came before it, we really only think of career highlights rather than the entire catalogue, particularly when dealing with 10+ records. In the case of Thurston Moore it’s even more, thinking about his already numerous solo efforts along with the Sonic Youth stuff. Perhaps the biggest and most pertinent question to be asking is how somebody like Moore can keep creating new music without surrendering to complacency or repeating the same old tricks. His new record “Demolished Thoughts” seeks to provide something close to an answer to that question.

One of the more interesting tidbits about “Demolished Thoughts” is that it was produced by Beck Hansen, otherwise known as simply Beck. He and Moore have never worked together before, and it’s a strange wonder as to why that is. It’s clear from this record that the combination of the two is an inspired pairing, and you can hear both of their influences present even if it is Moore doing all of the heavy lifting. The easiest and most favorable comparison you can make given the circumstances is to Beck’s “Sea Change”, a largely acoustic effort with small flourishes of orchestral beauty. There are even brief brushes of harp mixed in, and it is surprisingly graceful and oddly cohesive. And while most of the songs bear a quiet, almost folk-driven psychedelia (track lengths range from 4 minutes to nearly 7), there are moments of vigorous energy and sharp electric guitar. “Circulation” is naturally one of those tracks that gets your blood flowing, and it calls to mind a handful of old Sonic Youth cuts in the process. The same could be said for “Orchard Street”, though that’s more like a subdued acoustic rendition of an unreleased Sonic Youth song. Of course both those make perfect sense, as Moore also tends to save up tracks that are either rejected by or simply won’t quite work in his main band’s canon.

Just because a track isn’t moving along at a moderate pace doesn’t mean it lacks energy though. A song like “Blood Never Lies” glistens in the sunlight akin to a dew-covered flower at the start of a new day. The harps and strings on “Illuminine” create glowing pinpricks of light in an otherwise pitch black night. It’s the lush warmth that pulls that and many other songs on “Demolished Thoughts” out from the proverbial gutter of depression. An Elliott Smith album this is not, even if the topics of growing older and struggling to find happiness seem to permeate the highly poetic lyrics. What separates it out from your otherwise standard folk-indebted fare are the intelligent ways each song comes together to both acknowledge and destroy what we might otherwise expect from these genre tropes. Like how “Orchard Street” takes an extended instrumental detour for the entire last half of the song. Or maybe the way a light echo is applied to Moore’s voice on “In Silver Rain With A Paper Key” to better illustrate the loneliness and isolation the lyrics speak of. You’ve got to hand it to Beck, who most assuredly had something to do with these little extra touches that help turn very good songs into excellent ones.

It’s worth noting that most of Thurston Moore’s solo career has been of mixed to poor quality. He seems to use the time away from Sonic Youth as a testing ground or an idea dump, which has had a tendency to leave him seeming scatterbrained or incoherent. 2007’s “Trees Outside the Academy” was a lot like that, with a few solid songs smashed between a horde of attempts. There was no real theme or connection between the tracks, just sketch after sketch appearing to resemble something whole. That’s not to say it was a terrible record – in fact it was far from it. Compared with “Demolished Thoughts” though, it’s night and day. These new songs feel well thought out and purposeful, and though they may not be the most upbeat things, they never dwell too long in one darkened corner. It is actually one of the rare times a Moore solo record works on all pistons, giving a clear legitimacy to the venture and providing another outlet through which die hard Sonic Youth fans can get something of a fix. He may be getting up there in rock star years, but from the sound of it this “old guy” clearly has plenty of fight left in him.

Thurston Moore – Circulation
Thurston Moore – Benediction

Buy “Demolished Thoughts” from Amazon

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