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The Wax Trax! Experience [House of Vans; Chicago; 4/13/19]

All of us have two families in our lives: the ones we’re born into, and the ones we choose. The strength of each is determined largely by upbringing and instinct, though coming from a loving household doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll always have loving friends, and vice versa. What we’re all ultimately looking for in others is a shared connection, be it through blood, interests, or experiences.

Music often functions as one of life’s great connectors, because it’s easy to bond over a song based on the feelings it evokes when listening to it. Technology has made it easier than ever to not only find and share new music, but interact and make new friends with people from around the globe who share your passion. That wasn’t possible thirty years ago, yet music fans still found one another thanks in large part to places like concert venues and record stores.

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

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

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

Buy Bursts of the Million from Dymaxion Groove

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

Buy We Are the Dreamers from Graveface/Bandcamp

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

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Show Review: The War on Drugs + Mark McGuire [Metro; Chicago; 3/23/14]

More so than any other day of the week, concerts on Sunday nights have a tendency to be absolutely terrible. It’s not so much the artist that’s performing, rather the crowd itself as the start of a new work week and Monday looms over us like the Sword of Damocles. Nobody wants to drag themselves out to a show at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, knowing full well they’ll wind up back home well after midnight and likely sleep deprived the next day. Mondays are already bad enough. Yet like any other night of the week, shows still happen and people still go to them, however begrudgingly. And so it was that more than a thousand people packed into the legendary Metro on Sunday night for a sold out show with The War on Drugs and Mark McGuire. They may not have been the most excited or enthusiastic bunch walking in (it’s just an observation and not a criticism), but walking out was a completely different story. The entire evening was a revelation, in the greatest and most unexpected ways.

I’ve spent the better part of the last month and a half immersed in Mark McGuire’s latest album Along the Way, which is just one release of many that he’s been involved with these last few years. It is his first solo effort since officially splitting with his experimental rock band Emeralds last year, and displays an impressive leap in style and composition that he’s never attempted previously. His older stuff played around with various guitars and effects pedals without much else thrown in. Between the electronic samples, drum machines, synths, piano and mandolins, among others, McGuire suddenly sounds like he’s got an army backing him up. If you thought recreating all that in a live setting would require a few additional band members, you’d be wrong. He came out on stage by himself, and thanks to intricate looping techniques, pedals and other triggers, the whole thing wound up being a pretty impressive display of one man’s talents. It yielded a surprise or two along the way as well, in particular a fair number of songs I thought made use of synths and keyboards were actually done by piling effects onto his guitar. I can’t recall the last time my ears were fooled in such a way. And to some degree it makes his material even better than before, because there’s a greater complexity in how it all comes together. Watching it happen before your very eyes is a real selling point too. I’ve been to so many shows where a truly solo artist does simple recreations of songs that are part of his or her catalog and it’s so normal you could call it boring. With a little bit of flair and a high wire risk level though, it’s the exact opposite. You watch intently as new passages get added to old songs, and subconsciously wonder what might happen if something went wrong. Thankfully McGuire is that sort of risk-taking artist, and it made for a remarkably compelling set.

Buy Along the Way from Amazon

The War on Drugs set up and soundchecked all their own equipment. That says something about a band, particularly when they’ve reached a certain level of popularity where they can hire somebody to do that job for them. Perhaps it’s a DIY attitude or a high degree of perfectionism, but whatever the reason, they should keep it up because they really have never sounded better. All the levels were perfect and it was one of the best mixed shows I’ve heard in a long time. Beyond sonic perfection, the band is also filled with extremely talented musicians who know that performing live is about more than just faithfully recreating what you hear on record. The War on Drugs don’t have the most energetic catalog in the world, and translating that into a show that doesn’t put you to sleep could be considered quite the challenge. In fact, at one point a handful of songs into the set, someone in the crowd yelled at the band to “pick up the pace a little bit,” and they responded by launching into their biggest hit and highest energy songs to date, “Red Eyes.” Sure, things could feel a little slow and lackadaisical at times, but they were never boring or bland for a single second.

One of the ways I judge any live show is by an unofficial measuring index known as the “goose bump factor.” If I get goose bumps, or a little bit of tingling down my spine at any point during a set, that’s a very positive sign that a band is doing something right. If it happens multiple times, there’s something truly special and maybe even unforgettable about the performance. There were several goose bump moments during The War on Drugs’ set, particularly during most of the songs off their excellent new record Lost in the Dream. In some cases, as with “Under the Pressure” and “Eyes to the Wind,” the live versions actually somehow sounded even better than they do on the album. The band only skipped one track from that record, and mixed in a handful of tracks from 2011’s Slave Ambient, plus covers of songs from Bill Fay and John Lennon. The covers might have been the weakest moments in the set, partly because the original versions are considered classics on their own right, and partly because they didn’t fit in quite so seamlessly with everything else. Yet none of it was bad or even mediocre. This band is far too talented to let that happen.

As the show started to reach the 90 minute mark, frontman Adam Granduciel asked the crowd for permission to skip the traditional encore so they could just keep playing. “We could say good night, leave the stage for two minutes while everybody cheered, and then return to say we have a few more songs to play for you,” he said, “or we could just not do that and play those songs anyways.” So they played onward, finally wrapping things up after close to two hours. A small portion of the crowd left before then, likely because the show had stretched past midnight and work or school was coming early the next morning. Those who stayed for the full experience walked out in very good spirits (far better than going in, from what I could tell), and I heard nothing but praise about the show. Indeed, it was pretty incredible. Dare I say one of the best concert experiences I’ve had in quite awhile. And just like that, I can’t wait for The War on Drugs to come back so we can do it all over again.

Set List
In Reverse
Under the Pressure
I Was There
Eyes to the Wind
Red Eyes
I Hear You Calling (Bill Fay cover)
Baby Missiles
Lost In The Dream
Mind Games (John Lennon cover)
An Ocean In Between The Waves
Come to the City
Black Water Falls

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Album Review: Mas Ysa – Worth EP [Downtown]

The journey of Thomas Arsenault and his musical pseudonym Mas Ysa is a strange and interesting one. Without going into too much detail (you can find out more via your favorite search engine), he spent his youth in Canada and Brazil, before eventually making his way to the U.S. for college where he befriended some creative types and really began to play around with instruments and sounds. He’s used those connections and skills to become a legitimate recording artist, complete with a record deal and opening slots for bands like Deerhunter and Purity Ring, before 99% of the world had even heard a single note. It’s impressive, really. Is his status as part of the music world today a result of sheer talent, or simply thanks to who he knows? Well, Arsenault’s debut EP Worth provides a pretty definite answer to that question.

“Why” was the first Mas Ysa song uploaded to Soundcloud last fall for consumption by anyone willing to listen, and the nearly 6.5 minute epic drew quite a bit of the right kind of attention. Given its boundary pushing, devil may care mixture of techno, synth pop, folk and other sounds, it was a breath of fresh air and one hell of a first impression. On the EP itself it comes second, following the brief instrumental intro “Vanya.” Which brings up an important point about construction and sequencing. Worth has the nine song track listing of a full length, but clocks in at just under 30 minutes from start to finish. Five of those nine songs are instrumentals that fall between just under a minute to just over two minutes. It’s easy to think of moments like that as filler, however Arsenault does his best to give each one a unique individual identity that quietly draws your towards it, like a moth to a flame. These small sonic experiments also work as perfect segues between the longer vocal tracks, often mentally preparing you for particular tempos and feelings.

Beyond the complex narrative that is “Why,” the other three “main” songs do a fantastic job of painting a full picture of Arsenault’s skill set. “Years” closes out the EP, and is the polar opposite of the frantic energy found at the beginning. It is a sparse and haunting ballad that makes full use of Arsenault’s often quivering and wounded vocals. “Life Way Up From” does something very similar, but twists ever so slightly towards the instrumentally weird, a move made with such confidence and intention that by the time you really notice you’re already too emotionally invested to resist. By contrast, “Shame” has echoes of “Why,” particularly in its forceful vocals and brisk pace, but the overall approach is less about holding on for the ride and more about introspection.

Perhaps the best thing about the Worth EP is how it comes across as fully realized by its creator. That clarity of vision is something that most artists struggle with early on in their careers, so it’s a great sign that Arsenault has a such a steady hold on it from the get-go. Let’s hope he keeps it going for the next release.

Buy the Worth EP from Amazon

Album Review: Broken Bells – After the Disco [Columbia]

Think for a moment about a disco. Depending on your age, there’s probably a good likelihood that you’ve never actually been inside of one, given most of them have long since died out to be replaced by the common night club atmosphere of today. But thanks to photos and videos, maybe even a little Saturday Night Fever, everybody has at least some idea of what the experience of walking into a disco might have been like. The mirror ball hanging from the ceiling and the multicolored light up checkerboard floor were the two key components to any disco, outside of the music of course. It was a fun place to be, especially if you loved to dance. But disco the music style and disco the club type both died off, and we’re left with the considerably less technicolor post-disco era. While we as a society are arguably better off without it, there’s still a hint of sadness at the loss of some of those elements. Use that as a starting point for Broken Bells’ second full length, After the Disco. The duo’s 2010 self-titled debut album was a multicolored, eclectic and moderately fun affair that allowed James Mercer to play around with some different styles outside of his work under The Shins name. Meanwhile Danger Mouse got to add another dynamic collaboration to a resume already packed with them. That first record and the subsequent Meyrin Fields EP might not have been the best things associated with either one of the principal members, but they were satisfactory given the circumstances through which they were birthed.

Over the last few years, Mercer returned to The Shins reinvigorated and provided a great reminder that bouncy indie pop is what he does best, and Danger Mouse produced a few more records for different artists that all wound up sounding similarly retro to one another as a result. Broken Bells was starting to feel like an afterthought, to the point where the announcement of After the Disco seemed to be met with a collective shrug all across the web. To a degree that same mentality comes across in the music as well. Gone is the melting pot of styles and genres, replaced with a more subdued and unified spacey synth pop sound that only manages to truly work for them on a couple of tracks. Single “Holding on for Life” is one of those particularly strong moments, with an earworm of a chorus that feels inspired by the Bee Gees. The delicately crafted groove of “The Changing Lights” also marks a great showcase for Danger Mouse, and it’s just about the only time he shines on the entire record. If you’re looking for the weak link among the duo, he is clearly and unfortunately it. While Mercer does a fine job singing and certainly knows his way around a lyric, the cold, plain and emotionless compositions distract from a lot of the good that’s being done. It leads to moments like “Medicine” and the title track, which have solid dancefloor tempos to them but fail to connect or stay with you in any meaningful way. At least the first Broken Bells album had some variety and curveballs to keep you interested even as it made some wrong turns. With After the Disco, the neon lit floors have been shut off and the mirror ball has been cut down. Turns out a dance club can be a pretty depressing place once someone turns the house lights on.

Broken Bells – Holding on for Life

Broken Bells – Leave It Alone

Buy After the Disco from Amazon

Album Review: Dum Dum Girls – Too True [Sub Pop]

It’s been fascinating to hear the evolution of Dum Dum Girls over the handful of years that they’ve been around. They’ve gone from a lo-fi garage pop band to a slick, synth pop juggernaut, and it only took three albums and two EPs to make that transition. Basically Too True picks up where 2012’s End of Daze EP left off, which is a great thing since that was the best work they had done to date. The sound and spirit are there, particularly on tracks like “Cult of Love,” “Are You Okay” and “Too True to Be Good,” which are smartly structured and perfectly mixed to put Dee Dee’s powerful and rich vocals up front. Unfortunately, this album also falls prey to a lot of the same issues that former Dum Dum Girl Frankie Rose was met with on her latest (and similar sounding) record Herein Wild. You can hear greatness, and may have even witnessed it on a track like “Lord Knows” from the last EP, but for whatever reason on this album it feels like Dee Dee is holding herself back. Maybe it’s an artistic integrity thing or a desire to defy expectations, but it’s slightly frustrating to think that she’s wasting so much potential. For example, a song like “Rimbaud Eyes” takes the easiest and most expected structure, then trips up in its attempt to be lyrically unique thanks to difficult phrasing. In a sense the entire record is a small mess just like that, with nearly every track getting about 90% of the way to perfection, only to be undone by one aspect or another. One thing it doesn’t lack though is beauty, and thanks to some very clean production work it all sounds great on the surface. It’s when you start digging deeper that the issues present themselves. Here’s hoping Dee Dee can push past all of that mess to rediscover exactly what has made Dum Dum Girls such a compelling act these last few years.

Stream: “Rimbaud Eyes”

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Album Review: Phoenix – Bankrupt! [Glassnote]

The success of Phoenix is just a little bit perplexing. They’ve been plugging away and working hard as a band for close to 15 years now, but it wasn’t until their fourth album, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, that they finally saw any sort of measurable success. It’s equally strange that the popularity of that record and their introduction to the mainstream populous really offered nothing different or more attractive than their previous efforts. Indeed, this band has been writing incredibly addictive and danceable songs since at least 2000, it’s just not a lot of people bothered to pay attention for all those years. So what changed? Tastes, most likely. Phoenix have been ready and waiting this whole time, the general public was still trying to work up to their sound. Either that, or they had a piss poor team promoting their music until their last record. No matter how you look at it though, the band paid their dues. To those of us that have been listening to them for several years already it wasn’t so much a matter of if they’d ever be successful but when. Spurred solely on the singles of “1901” and “Lisztomania,” they rocketed to stardom, to the point of major music festival headliner status, which when you think about it is about the most confounding thing of thos entire crazy tale. Are two really great, really catchy songs all one needs these days to earn a place along side the likes of Pearl Jam or Green Day or Coldplay? Apparently so. As they cash in and prepare to headline virtually every major music festival in 2013, Phoenix are finally unleashing their Wolfgang follow-up, which is ironically titled Bankrupt!.

The album sounds like they spent a whole lot of money on it to make it sound as shiny and grandiose as possible, which is what you might expect as they’re trying to metaphorically top themselves and extend their shelf life another few years. Yet Phoenix has always been a big, anthemic band with a super clean sound, so you’re not going to notice much of a difference except that they really try to maximize what they can do with that sound. First single and opening track “Entertainment” is a great example of that, aiming for a grand slam sort of synth pop song with a dash of Asian-sounding keyboards to lend the French band a little more international appeal. The song itself is about the band’s experience with fame and singer Thomas Mars’ largely passive feeling about being viewed as this big rock star. Despite it’s aims and very “1901”-like feel, something about the track feels just a little bit off. The fluctuation in tempo knocks it back on its heels a little, and there seems to be some slight hesitation in the band’s approach that prevents them from really, truly, genuinely going for broke (album title pun intended). It may be largely satisfying the masses thanks to the strong and forceful hand of promotion and radio airplay, but that awkward distance makes it feel like the least effective of their major singles so far.

In fact, Bankrupt! as a whole is has less going for it in the way of singles than just about any of Phoenix’s previous records. It’d be nice to think that they weren’t concerned about such things, and maybe they aren’t, but on songs like “Drakkar Noir” and “The Real Thing” there’s a certain forcefulness built into their structure and hooks that feels more coldly calculated than genuine and organic. Despite this small issue on a couple of tracks, less effective single material leads to some interesting and perhaps better developments in terms of overall album cohesion. Whereas Wolfgang could often feel like a record built around its singles with not much else to inspire in between, the new album brings a consistency and pattern that flows far better despite being less memorable. The same can be said for the lyrics, which have continued to grow ever more obscure and random with each new record from the band. Mars often sings in what feels like half sentences, starting one thought but then finishing it with another that comes across as completely out of context. If you’re looking to connect with these songs on a deeper level, perhaps it’s best if you fill in your own blanks and interpret the lyrics in whatever fashion best suits your own life rather than trying to penetrate the impenetrable.

The best moments on Bankrupt! come when Phoenix sound most relaxed and in their comfort zone. “SOS in Bel Air” is the brightest spot on the album, a jittery would-be single that’s well on par with some of the best things they’ve ever done. Sliding from that into the toe-tapping “Trying to Be Cool” makes for the strongest pairing of tracks as well, right before the colossal mistake that is the seven minute title track shows up to add dead weight in the middle of the record just as it started to hit its stride. Still, “Don’t” and the upbeat closer “Oblique City” are great second half highlights that serve to add balance to the album and keep the listener properly engaged. For the legions of new fans that discovered this band via their last album in 2009, there’s enough going on with Bankrupt! to keep you happy. Like Mumford & Sons, who are arguably the biggest thing in music today, the formula hasn’t really changed and they certainly don’t stumble much in the face of what might be seen as overwhelming pressure to maintain their status among that same upper echelon. What’s truly lacking on this record is a sense of drive and experimentation. Then again, Phoenix have never been the sort of band to rock the boat much with each new album. You’d hope that success would afford them greater freedom and more leeway in their sound, but perhaps where they’re truly bankrupt is in the new ideas department. Oh well, after 15 years of hard work and paying their dues, they’re more than entitled to a victory lap.

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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

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Album Review: Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man [Parlophone]

The worst thing about the new Bat for Lashes record The Haunted Man is its cover art. That’s not to say the Ryan McGinley photo featuring a fully nude Natasha Khan wearing an equally nude man as a shawl that covers up her private parts is bad or even distasteful. It is the opposite in fact, a work of high-minded art that’s absolutely representative of the sort of music you will find within. Only the best cover art work will achieve such prominence. So what, in turn, makes it the worst thing about this album? Because the first thing that comes to mind when seeing it is, “ooh, provocative and sexy!” and that’s not what this music is. Meanwhile some 16-year-old boy with a parental locked internet connection is filing it away somewhere to fulfill his own dark desires. The point being, that while this is one of the smartest and most beautiful album covers to come along in a while, most won’t see it that way. In fact, the controversial nature of it sucks all the attention away from the actual music, which absolutely is smart and beautiful. It’s also hopelessly raw and sparse in spite of the multi-instrumental set pieces and full orchestration contained within. Khan’s bravura vocals handle most of the intense emotion, and the peeling back of echoes, reverb and other treatments that were thrown in on her last album Two Suns allows you to connect better with the true human underneath that window dressing.

Of course you listen to a track like the opener “Lilies” and the combination of synths and strings borders on overbearing until her voice cuts through the dissonance and soars when she sings the line, “Thank God I’m alive!” Where the true heart of The Haunted Man really lies is in the sobering piano and vocal pairing on “Laura.” At what might as well be called the center point of the record, the song sits on an island all its own as we’re told all about the amazing Laura, who’s “more than a superstar.” The better we come to know her through the lyrics and the way she’s described, the more we begin to believe in such a mythical creature. If you thought Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” was a perfect piano ballad single, “Laura” should satisfy in almost equal measure. And wouldn’t you know it, both songs were co-written by Justin Parker. For fans of Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know,” there’s more familiarity to be found via the single “All Your Gold.” The two tracks feature the same basic rhythm pattern and structure, along with the inevitable malaise that comes with the ending of a relationship. The chorus to “All Your Gold” even features the line, “There was someone that I knew before,” which to some will seem just a little too on the nose. The Bat for Lashes track is arguably the better one though, removing any theatricality and cutting straight to the bone in its words and composition. Really any comparisons you draw from this record, to the points where some of the synth-baiting electronic textures come across as remarkably M83-ish or the very Kate Bush-ian nature contained in most everything Khan does, are great reference points.

But in the end that’s ALL they are: windows into a world of music we might otherwise not fully understand or grasp. See, Bat for Lashes is so much more than a collection of things that sound like other things. Khan is a true original, and the words she writes, along with the intense emotion that echoes in her voice through every note, set her apart from any similarly-minded music peers. “Oh Yeah” is a great example of this. Many a person has tried to fill a void in their life via sex, but few artists have accurately echoed that tumultuous period as well as Khan does here. “I’m looking for a lover to climb inside / Waiting like a flower to open wide / I’m in bloom” makes for one of the most overtly sexual choruses since the tUnE-yArDs song “Powa” from 2011. Like that song, there’s a newfound sense of freedom and excitement in the vocals that pushes the listener into believing this remedy will finally create a sense of wholeness, however temporary. The point being that while the solution to 99% of life’s problems isn’t sex, for the five minutes of that song Khan earnestly wants to believe it is, and so do we.

As with any sexual encounter, there’s a certain amount of baggage that each person brings to the table that stems from past relationships and past experiences. It points to the more overarching theme of The Haunted Man, which is that we’re all living with ghosts whether we like it or not. Of course those ghosts are metaphorical, but we still allow them to weigh on our spirits. They go beyond the flesh of our bodies and can’t be covered up no matter how many layers of clothes we wear. This record is filled with those ghosts, “Laura” and “Marilyn” among them, but what’s most important is how Khan deals with it. Instead of letting their fates and legacies align with hers, she gets acquainted with her demons and finds the path to managing them without losing sight of her own identity. It makes for a great life lesson, and an even better record.

Bat for Lashes – Laura

Bat For Lashes – All Your Gold

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Show Review: New Order [Aragon Ballroom; Chicago; 10/21/12]

Let’s go over a brief history of New Order. In the wake of the tragedy that was Ian CUrtis’ suicide, the remaining members of Joy Division decided to become New Order, with guitarist Bernard Sumner taking over the role of frontman. While Joy Division was an influential band that will likely remain legendary because of what they accomplished in a very short duration, it’s New Order that really earned their keep, building critical acclaim with music that was essentially ahead of its time. Many have followed in the sonic footsteps of New Order, but none have had been able to replicate their success in quite the same way. As is natural though, they were also a band of a very specific time and place. They were around for the explosion of the Manchester music scene, signed to Factory Records thanks to the insane brilliance of Tony Wilson, and were pretty much given free range to do whatever the hell they wanted with such opportunities. You can’t get a deal that great these days no matter what band you’re in. But the ’90s weren’t as kind to New Order, and they broke up in 1993 to pursue side projects. They got back together in 1998, made a couple more albums and did a couple more tours before breaking up again in 2007. This time, the breakup was more the result of bassist Peter Hook refusing to work with Sumner any more. Sumner subsequently announced he no longer wanted to make music under the New Order name. While all the other guys in the band (including Sumner) went on to do more side projects, Hook chose to dig up the past and began playing old Joy Division albums in full with a backing band he called The Light. While some were excited by that prospect, many felt that Hook was doing damage to Joy Division’s legacy and was clearly only out to make money off the corpse of Ian Curtis. Perhaps in part to protect their own legacy, New Order officially reformed in late 2011 without Hook, but with keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, who had left the band more than 10 years earlier to become a wife and mother. They played a handful of shows in late 2011 and early 2012, but didn’t make it to North America until this fall, where a short tour rolled through Chicago this past Sunday night. Here is a recap of how things went.

It’s been seven years since New Order played a show in Chicago, and to my understanding that show was a little shaky. A friend told me the band was using lyrics sheets and teleprompters to get through most of the songs. When you’ve been around for a few decades, I guess your memory can get fuzzy. But lyrical crutches aside, I guess their energy was also a little down. One wonders if tensions between band members (or just Hook) caused problems back then. Whatever their issues might have been, they showed no signs of fatigue or bad memory during their show at the Aragon Sunday night. Every note was hit and every lyric was correct. Looking at reviews of the band’s show in New York a couple days earlier, that wasn’t entirely the case, as Sumner reportedly forgot some of the words to “Ceremony.” Better to have that happen though then to stand there reading off a sheet of paper. Even the best bands forget a verse or two now and then. But like all the other shows on this tour, New Order has been smart and stuck with a veritable greatest hits melange of career-spanning material. They spread it out generously over two hours, though it’s tough to top the first few songs that included “Crystal,” “Regret,” “Ceremony,” “Age of Consent” and “Love Vigilantes.” What’s just a little odd was the crowd reaction to those songs. While the band appeared to be in top form, in particular on “Ceremony,” it seemed exceptionally tough to get people motivated to dance. These were glossy ’80s hits that continue to provide inspiration to club DJs around the world, yet I saw very little movement outside of head bobbing in the early part of the set. Now once “Bizarre Love Triangle” landed about 10 songs in, it was like a switch flipped and everybody woke up. Suddenly even a deep cut off Power, Corruption & Lies like “5 8 6” was met with some sharp dance moves. Of course it was all building to something, and the final 1-2 punch of “Blue Monday” and “Temptation” sent everyone into a frenzy the likes of which I haven’t seen since LCD Soundsystem a couple years ago. For those final 15 minutes, the disco ball dropped and I think New Order shined as brightly as they did in their ’80s heyday.

For all the critical tongue lashing I give to Peter Hook for playing Joy Division albums in full these days, when New Order chose to play an encore of Joy Division songs it didn’t feel as cheap. After all, they’ve been throwing a couple Joy Divison songs into their sets for decades now. They’re always used as toppers on an already great show, and always in expressed tribute to Ian Curtis. They present the songs with reverence so it doesn’t come off as cheap exploitation. After all, most of them were as much a part of Joy Division as Curtis was, it’s only his trademark baritone that’s missing from the proceedings. But my what a baritone it was. Sumner can’t quite get there no matter how hard he tries. Their rendition of “Heart and Soul” was okay, but the crowd didn’t react well to it, probably because it was a deep cut on Closer. “Atmosphere” was triumphant in its own way, and the background video did draw some big cheers. Of course it was only fitting to close the night with “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and it gave everyone the opportunity to dance around one last time. With that, the band waved goodnight to their adoring fans. Everyone left with a smile on their face and sweat on their bodies, which is a testament that a good night was had by all. The absence of Hook may have given many the impression that this wasn’t a legitimate New Order show, but anybody that has seen the band since he left will likely tell you that Tom Chapman is a solid if not great replacement for him. New Order’s future is likely that of Pavement’s or At the Drive-In’s in recent years – they will tour for a set period of time to play the hits, and then once again vanish into the ether as everyone returns to their side projects. It’s probably better that way, to keep their legacy as strong as possible. Whatever they choose to do next, it’s just refreshing to know that a veteran band like this hasn’t really lost a step, and that their music still feels as relevant today as it did when it was first created.

Set List
Age of Consent
Love Vigilantes
Here to Stay
Your Silent Face
Close Range
Bizarre Love Triangle
5 8 6
True Faith
The Perfect Kiss
Blue Monday
Heart and Soul (Joy Division)
Atmosphere (Joy Division)
Love Will Tear Us Apart (Joy Division)

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Snapshot Review: Yeasayer – Fragrant World [Secretly Canadian]

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

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

Yeasayer – Henrietta

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Album Review: Passion Pit – Gossamer [Columbia]

Most of the world probably thinks that Passion Pit are a fun synth-pop band. Go to one of their shows, and you’ll dance, sing and jump around with a smile on your face. Hear one of their songs on the radio and there’s a good chance you’ll sing along mindlessly only to have a chorus stuck in your head for hours afterwards. But how much do you really know about Passion Pit? How closely have you listened to their songs and taken to heart what’s being said in the lyrics? We so often listen to music as an escape or a distraction from our own lives that we can forget somebody’s heart and soul might have been poured into a song or album. That’s particularly true of pop music, which is more often thought of as a disposable treat. It’s the equivalent of auditory candy, never actually substantial or healthy enough to constitute a musical meal. Not every pop song or pop record is as light and fancy free as it might appear on the surface however, and it’s only through seeing that depth that we can truly begin to understand music as an art form. As the frontman for Passion Pit, Michael Angelakos writes songs about his own life. The initial Passion Pit recordings that formed the Chunk of Change EP were written and pieced together in Angelakos’ bedroom by himself, in an attempt to win the affections of a girl. There’s both a sweetness and a sense of desperation coming out of it, and though it caught on like wildfire with music lovers via Myspace, the girl it was about didn’t feel the same way and things didn’t work out. With the loss of that girl came success, and all the pressures that came along with it. Over the course of a year, the band would secure a major label record deal and put out their debut album Manners to widespread critical acclaim. Singles like “Sleepyhead” and “Little Secrets” were radio hits as well, and the band toured in larger and larger venues.

Such popularity and praise are the dreams of many musicians, but Angelakos doesn’t quite feel that way. Fortune and fame can bring out the worst in some people, and the pressure it can put on the artists can only add to that. In the three years since Passion Pit released their last album, the band has not stopped working, which turned out to be to their detriment. Unknown to most except those very close to Angelakos, he’s been diagnosed as bipolar for a few years now. While he has taken plenty of medication to help manage the roller coaster highs and lows the disorder brings, he still has severe bouts of depression and has attempted or thought about committing suicide on several occasions. He’s spent the last few years in and out of mental health facilities, and much to the chagrin of his record label, spent months trying and failing to make progress on new music as he dealt with these issues. Most recently, the band has been forced to cancel many of their tour dates so Angelakos can work on some of his symptoms. He maintains the band will try and tour as much as possible for now, however it’s unlikely that will continue for a whole lot longer. There’s a distinct impermanence affixed to Passion Pit’s work now, and the hope is they make the most of it. From all this pain and strife and difficulty comes Gossamer, the band’s second album. If you failed to fully grasp or take seriously some of the darker moments on Manners, hopefully this new record pushes you to more closely examine and think critically about what these songs are about before blindly jumping around and memorizing the hook.

The first single and opening track on Gossamer is “Take A Walk,” a light and bouncy number about how Angelakos’ parents struggled financially when he was growing up. It’s a fun-sounding song about a not-so-fun topic, which is how most of the album goes. There’s something just a little off about that track though, and it has nothing to do with lyrics and everything to do with structure. The verses and chorus don’t mesh as well as they should, creating an imbalance that diminishes its overall effectiveness. It may bear the band’s signature sound but doesn’t ignite as intended. The following track “I’ll Be Alright” is a far better example of Passion Pit 2.0. Filled with skittering synths and a hyperactive melody, its hook may not have incredible staying power but it’s complex oddities can still give you a total sugar rush. Yet all that betrays what the song is actually about, which is about his battles with depression and how it’s affected his romantic relationships. “Well I’ve made so many messes/And this love has grown so restless/Your whole life’s been nothing but this/I won’t let you go loveless,” he sings in the chorus, trying to tell his girlfriend he’ll be fine without her. Of course when he talks about drinking and taking pills and manipulating people to selfishly get his way, you get the sense that might not actually be the case. He’s had a change of heart by the end of the song, instead of telling her to leave, he now says he won’t let her unless he knows he’ll be alright. That’s not a very nice thing to do to somebody – jerking them around like that – but that’s almost par for the course sometimes for people with emotional problems. Angelakos being able to acknowledge that is a great sign though, with the hope of learning from such lessons.

If Gossamer has one sure fire hit on it, “Carried Away” is it. The verses build perfectly to the gigantic jump around chorus that’s both airy and memorable. The topic du jour this time is a much more universal one too, playing up the disparity between rich and poor. At the end of the final verse, Angelakos leads what’s sure to be a live staple chant of “We all have problems,” suggesting that no matter if you’re rich or poor, mentally stable or instable, that nobody is in great shape all the time. The album’s first ballad, the R&B jam of “Constant Conversations,” finds his relationship in bad shape due to excessive alcoholism. “I’m just a mess with the name and the price/And now I’m drunker than before babe/Told me drinking doesn’t make me nice,” he bemoans knowingly. Those same issues surface again via “On My Way,” only this time they come off even more sad and desperate than before. While he proposes in the chorus that they get married to “consecrate this messy love,” he later makes the argument that, “We’re both so broken, long done hoping/Is that we’ll stumble upon our love again.” It comes across as a plea to spend your life with somebody because you’re both screwed up to the point where nobody else would want you. Lines like, “All these demons, I can beat them” and “Everyday’s another chance” shine glimmers of hope across the track, as do the various glockenspiels, bells and xylophones, which help make it sound like Sigur Ros turned pop. Yet one of the key things about this album is that despite the platitudes that strive to create positive vibes in bad situations, we’re never entirely sure that Angelakos truly believes in himself or what he’s saying.

The most positive and uplifting moment on Gossamer comes almost right at the end of the album with “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy.” It’s certainly not the poppiest moment on the record, but it’s one of those slower sort of anthem-ballads where people raise their lighters (or cell phones) to the sky and sing along like they truly believe in the lyrics. Instead of ending on that high note, the final track on the album is “Where We Belong,” which is about Angelakos’ suicide attempt a few years ago. With pulsating electronic beats and dramatic violins as the instrumental backing, his tone comes across as very reflective as he recounts the experience (“And then I’m lifted up/Out of the crimson tub/The bath begins to drain/And from the floor he prays away all my pain”). He has said in interviews that in his mind the archangel Gabriel was present with him at the time, hence the line, “Do you believe in me too, Gabriel?” The last line of the entire album is, “All I’ve ever wanted was to be happy and make you proud.” The “you” in that is likely his fiancee, but could also be anyone from his family, friends or it might even be directed right at the listener. Angelakos might never be able to be truly happy the way that he wants to be, but at the very least with Gossamer he’s created something that he can and should be proud of. Hopefully he keeps seeking proper treatment and is able to get the help he needs. Smart, challenging and emotionally stirring pop records like this don’t come along often, so the longer he’s around and able to make them, the luckier we are to hear them.

Please read more about Michael Angelakos’ mental issues and how they’ve influenced Passion Pit’s music

Passion Pit – Take a Walk

Passion Pit – I’ll Be Alright

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Album Review: POP ETC – POP ETC [Rough Trade]

When talking about the self-titled debut album from POP ETC, it’s almost essential to forget what you know and think you know about The Morning Benders. The storyline plays out as follows: upon learning that their band name was being used as a homophobic slur in the UK, The Morning Benders made the executive decision to change their name to POP ETC. With the name change came a lineup tweak and a move from San Francisco to Brooklyn. It’s close to the musical equivalent of gender reassignment or witness protection, and such radical adjustments also provide the opportunity to reinvent yourself however you like. The old Morning Benders liked guitars and indie pop. They wrote a super catchy song like “Excuses” that found placement in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial and on “Best of” lists back in 2010. They corralled their musician friends from San Francisco like John Vanderslice and members of Girls into a small studio to play a song or two for fun.

By contrast, POP ETC like synths and commercial pop music. They use AutoTune liberally and even apply it to a cover of Bjork’s “Unravel”. They release mixtapes titled “New Influences Weekend Mix” and “1986 Weekend Mix” full of artists like Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Tears for Fears and Boys II Men. The moving parts might be the same, but this is an entirely new model and should be regarded as such. Those still in denial need only listen to the appropriately titled opening track “New Life” on POP ETC’s new album to best understand the group’s aim. Synths warble next to drum machines, and singer Chris Chu mourns the death of a relationship through R&B flavored sentiments and AutoTune. Somewhere, the 808s & Heartbreak version of Kanye West can relate. Top 40 and Urban radio stations should be licking their chops over the sparkling Drake-like bounce of “Back to Your Heart,” if only the lyrics weren’t so cringe-worthy. “She said, ‘Why do we bother?’/and I said, ‘I’m not your father,'” is just one moment in the song that might make you wince. First single “Keep It For Your Own” is perhaps the best four minutes of pure pop on the entire album, where light bits of acoustic guitar, bass and piano actually support the verses, the hook in the chorus is strong, and all the vocals/harmonies haven’t been modulated. It’s the only track on the record produced by Danger Mouse, and considering how well it works, they might want to have him do the entire thing next time.

So much of the rest of the album feels like a blatant attempt at mainstream pop it can be almost disturbing at times. “R.Y.B.” stands for rock your body, and not only did Justin Timberlake do a song about that very topic that was a whole lot better, but it’s easy to get the impression that ‘NSYNC would probably pass on it too. That and closing track “Yoyo” are both obnoxiously loud too, as if the synths have been turned up to 11 to distract you from how utterly mediocre they are. The faux R&B seductions of “Live It Up” and “I Wanna Be Your Man” have decent melodies and even some impressive harmonies in them, but stumble and fall from downright painful lyrics. “I ain’t never disrespect no woman/never called a girl a ho,” Chu AutoTunes on “Live It Up,” a song about sleeping with groupies while on tour. The chorus of “I Wanna Be Your Man” is the song title repeated over and over and over again ad nauseum, to the point where if you play this song for a girl you’re trying to woo she’ll likely say yes by the halfway point so the begging doesn’t have to go on any longer. You could say POP ETC are trying as hard as they can to develop a relationship with as many people as possible on this album, beating you over the head with a sonic lead pipe until you finally come around to the idea that they’re a good band.

They’d fare far better with a touch of moderation, as songs like “Halfway to Heaven” and “Everything Is Gone” display. Unfortunately such moments are too few and far between to make much of a difference. One thing that does make a difference is how and where you listen to the album. Like a blockbuster action film, sometimes you need a good popcorn record to mindlessly enjoy for awhile. If you’re out on a deck with a cold beverage and a good book or are at a party with your friends, a little POP ETC can be quite nice. Don’t be too surprised if the band starts to pick up some mainstream success from this album either. I mean it IS better than Ke$ha. That last sentence probably tells you all you need to know. In an ideal world, the transition from The Morning Benders to POP ETC would have gone a lot smoother. Chris Chu has proven he can write smart and addictive pop songs with guitars, and it stands to reason he could do the same without them. Let’s hope that next time the band returns they learn from this misstep and come up with some music that’s truly worthy of their new name.

POP ETC – Everything Is Gone
POP ETC – Halfway to Heaven

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Snapshot Review: Bear In Heaven – I Love You, It’s Cool [Hometapes/Dead Oceans]

2012 is arguably the year of the excellent synth-pop record. Releases from Grimes, Chromatics, Chairlift and Tanlines all have made great use of synths and dance-heavy electro beats to suck you in and leave you addicted. Now Bear In Heaven look to continue that trend with their third record I Love You, It’s Cool. This follows their 2009 breakthrough album Beast Rest Forth Mouth, a record that defied easy description with its psychedelic twists and towering pop choruses. The singles “Lovesick Teenagers” and “Wholehearted Mess” were two of the most addictive songs of that year, and proved they could also work on multiple levels thanks to Beast Rest Forth Mouth Remixed that came out a year later. Bear In Heaven must have learned quite a bit from those experiences the last few years, because they seem to have a firmer grasp on where they’re headed with this new album. The overall format is locked down pretty firmly, that being huge, synth-infused pop melodies made even denser than ever before thanks to some heavy use of sequencers. “Lovesick Teenagers” seems to be their point of inspiration when composing these songs, and it’s a smart choice to have made, allowing the record to sink into a groove that positively shimmers as it keeps your toe tapping. “Idle Heart” is an icily beautiful way to start things off, the synths washing over you like waves, the peace only disturbed by a distorted beat that pushes its way as far to the forefront of the mix as possible. There’s so much going on in first single “The Reflection of You” it even threatens to overwhelm Jon Philpot’s vocals, but it’s balanced just precariously enough to prevent that from happening. That actually happens multiple times on the album, and it’s almost enough to turn great songs like “Sinful Nature” and “World of Freakout” into something less impressive and catchy. Perhaps it’s all in how you listen to I Love You, It’s Cool that determines what truly catches your ear. Headphones seem to invoke fears of claustrophobia, every single available space filled with one element or another. Listening in the car is a little better, but a large theatre or outdoor concert venue is probably ideal for the breadth of these intense melodies. Huge as these songs may be, not to mention remarkably danceable, Bear In Heaven somehow fail to fully capitalize on the things they do right. With all the electronica elements splattered across every inch of this record (again making it ripe for remixing), the band seems unable to fully flesh out their ideas in 3-4 minute spurts. On most tracks they seem poised to build tension and then have an explosive release, but almost every time they do it too early, too late or not at all. Sometimes they just settle into an ambient section that fails to add to a song, leaving it to stagnate instead on the thought it could go on forever without interruption. The pieces of the puzzle are there, just not necessarily put together in the right order every time. Tracks like “Cool Light” and “Warm Water” wind up more as boring filler than engaging moments that keep the record going. That’s unfortunate, because at 10 tracks and 44 minutes, I Love You, It’s Cool turns out to be only a little more than half of a great album. Then again, maybe when they perform it live at a packed venue with people that came to dance, it’s a great record from beginning to end.

Bear In Heaven – The Reflection of You

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Album Review: Chromatics – Kill for Love [Italians Do It Better]

The journey of Chromatics’ new record Kill for Love is a fascinating one. Upon gearing up for a follow-up to the group’s 2007 record Night Drive, main man Johnny Jewel began talks with director Nicolas Winding Refn about crafting an 80’s-style synth pop soundtrack for his next film. The finished product was a little movie from last year some might remember called Drive. You know, that one where Ryan Gosling plays the ultra-cool driver who falls in love with his neighbor and basically goes on a killing spree to keep her safe. Yeah, that one. Anyways, upon completing work on the soundtrack to the film, Refn decided it wasn’t quite what he was looking for, and wound up using a score primarily composed by Cliff Martinez. Still, a couple of Jewel tracks still wound up on the soundtrack under the names of his three projects Chromatics, Glass Candy and Desire. The rest of the music was left on the cutting room floor.

At the end of last year, Jewel released Symmetry – Themes For An Imaginary Film, a 2.5 hour, 37 track project developed over 3 years as a conceptual tangent between Chromatics, Glass Candy, Mirage and Desire. In spite of the cover showing off the dashboard and steering wheel of a car, Jewel asserted that record was not the rejected Drive soundtrack. He has not said the same thing about this new Chromatics album Kill for Love. Of course he just generally hasn’t mentioned the film at all in relation to this record. Yet the back cover art has the album’s title written in the same font used in Drive‘s opening credits, and that’s just one of a few eerie parallels. The whole thing runs 90 minutes and 17 tracks too, not much shorter than the film itself. It might be fun to try and sync the two up if you’ve got some time on your hands, but it’s probably better just to make it the soundtrack to your own life.

See, Kill for Love, like much of Chromatics’ music, is best experienced while driving at night (I wonder why their last album was titled Night Drive). Get in your car, find an open highway or a country road, and hit the gas with this album pumping through your speakers. It’s not the sort of album you need to pay close attention to over its duration, but rather functions best as a way to enhance whatever it is your doing. The street lights blur into a monochromatic streak, the engine purrs just a little more smoothly, and even the most beat up clunker of a car will somehow seem more badass than before. Something about this music just brings those dark qualities to life, and makes the listening experience that much more special.

Kill for Love starts off in a remarkably fascinating way: with a cover of a classic Neil Young song. “Into the Black” is a piano and electric guitar driven rendition of Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” with singer Ruth Radelet behind the microphone. It’s not an easy song to cover and walk away from unscathed, and the mere fact they attempted it is a bold move on their part. Their rather brash confidence actually winds up retaining strong ties to the pure emotion of the original, which is a way of saying they didn’t completely fuck it up. The gears shift almost immediately after that, and straight into the territory Chromatics and Johnny Jewel are best known for – synth pop. The title track, complete with bubbling synths and a 4/4 rhythm, shines like a beacon of pop beauty rivaling some of New Order’s finest moments. Radelet’s passionately wounded vocal sets the tone best, weaving a tale of pills, booze, love, murder and desperation into something devastatingly relatable. If this record has one true high point, though arguably there are several, it comes from that title track.

This album is quite front-loaded with the most pop-heavy material, and together they create an impressive streak of hit after hit. “Back from the Grave”, “The Page” and “Lady” all shine individually, and 2/3rds of that trio already have full music videos to their names, intended as early leaks to build excitement for the new album. The real meat and potatoes of Kill for Love arrives with the 8.5 minute Italo house jam “These Streets Will Never Look the Same”. The beats pulse and the piano pounds, the main source of support being an Autotuned male vocal with a hook to die for. Just as you start to think the track is running out of steam at the halfway point, it devolves down to the most basic beat before rebuilding itself with a twist of lime to add a little zest in all the right places. That serves as a transitional piece into a much slower, instrumental part of the record.

“Broken Mirrors” and “The Eleventh Hour” make for 10+ minutes of drifting beauty, with slowcore single “Candy” sandwiched in between as a buffer to keep you from completely zoning out. Piano and synth ballad “Running From the Sun” has all the drama of daybreak on the streets of the city. The sunlight may bring sadness as the signal telling you it’s time to go home after a night of driving, but there’s also an innate beauty that comes along with that small light on the horizon. “You are the black sky/always running from the sun,” Radelet sings on “Birds of Paradise”, the female counterweight to the male themes of “Running From the Sun”. The boy and girl are entangled in this tragic romance, wishing they could be free of the darkness permeating their lives. As the record drifts towards its melodramatic conclusion, the pace picks up again with potential future single “At Your Door”. Hard times have fallen on the boy and girl, dreams have been shattered and he seems hesitant to continue on. “You know love never turns out/the way we all plan/but the door is still open/so give me your hand,” Radelet urges, though her pleads appear to fall on deaf ears. “There Is A Light Out On the Horizon” features a sad voicemail from a girl hoping to hear back from her boyfriend, but he promptly deletes the message as if he wants nothing to do with her anymore. So the story leaves her waiting on “The River”, reflecting on what is, what was and what could still be if he’d just come back to her. As with so many things in life, a happy ending is not guaranteed.

Kill for Love ends not with a bang, but more with a whisper. It’s a long one though, as “No Escape” somberly drifts along for 14 minutes that seems to be a meditation on the tragic themes of the story told. As it washes over you, there’s an almost post-rock sort of serenity that can be achieved if you’re in the right frame of mind. There is no epic crescendo that feels like a glorious explosion of beauty, but the way the track shimmers and fades shows just enough signs of life to offer hope at the conclusion. The sun is rising on a new day, and though it may mean the end of this particular night drive, the warm, dim glow of the dashboard against a pitch black sky is never too far away. Chromatics have crafted themselves something of a masterpiece. It enhances and throws some variation into the style established on their last album without ever sounding boring or staid. There are pure pop moments and pieces to dance to, matched equally by ambient balladry frought with emotion. All of it is sequenced perfectly to maximize its impact. Ideally you should listen to Kill for Love from start to finish without interruption, while cruising around a city with no place in particular to go. Throw on your scorpion jacket and grab your toothpicks, because tonight we’re going for a Drive.

Chromatics – Into the Black (Neil Young cover)
Chromatics – Kill for Love

Buy Kill for Love on iTunes
Buy Kill for Love on CD from Italians Do It Better

Click past the jump to stream the entire album!

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