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Tag: synth-pop

Album Review: School of Seven Bells – Ghostory [Vagrant/Ghostly]

One of the first things you’ll hear mentioned in any press about School of Seven Bells surrounding their new album Ghostory is that they’re down a member. After two albums as a trio of Benjamin Curtis (ex-Secret Machines), Alejandra Deheza and Claudia Deheza (ex-On!Air!Library!), Claudia abruptly left the band in the middle of a 2010 tour suporting their last full length Disconnect From Desire. There was no official explanation given for her exit, but it’s very possible that the romantic relationship between Benjamin and Alejandra left Claudia feeling like a third wheel both personally and professionally. Soldiering on without her certainly leaves a twin-sized hole in the band’s sound, as the intertwining vocal harmonies of the two sisters were one of SVIIB’s defining characteristics. As a means of offsetting such changes, the duo uses vocal overdubs and multitracking to keep things stable, even as the overall style of their music continues to evolve as well.

Ghostory is at its core a concept album, though you might be wise to simply take it at face value rather than closely analyze plot and characters. As the album’s title suggests, there are plenty of ghosts floating around in these songs, and they haunt the main character of Lafaye in both a positive and negative way. They aren’t literal ghosts but figurative ones, as our memories of people and places and strong emotional events can stay with us and haunt us for much of our lives. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many of the songs are thematically dark, about predators and toxic people that we’ve all mistakenly become friends or lovers with at times. Our judgments are not always perfect. “Low Times” feels fitting as the album’s 6.5 minute centerpiece, an insistent and rather bitter track that pushes back against a particularly bad break-up. Similar themes permeate much of the record, though none perhaps moreso than “Scavenger”, where Deheza angrily criticizes her ex with lines like, “I made you feel something because you could feel nothing.” And though it is never officially spelled out for you, a couple tracks are informed or at least partly influenced by Claudia’s departure from the band. Listening to opening track and first single “The Night”, lyrics such as “The light of day gives me no relief/because I see you in everything” and “You have my arms, you have my legs” seem to reference the physical and mental connections that twins share. Press materials for the album mention that Ghostory is as much about Lafaye’s journey as it is the band’s, so of course making such connections are about as obvious as they can get without somebody spelling it out for you.

As much as SVIIB’s journey the last couple years has been about loss, listening to Ghostory you understand it has also been about growth and strengthening perceived weaknesses. Somehow they seem to have gotten better in spite of everything, as the new album is their most cohesive and exploratory to date. Their first two records Alpinisms and Disconnect From Desire took on gothic synth-pop with the sort of vigor reserved for a band like Depeche Mode in their heyday while also drawing accurate references to shoegaze and My Bloody Valentine. There’s still a lot of that on the new album, but they’re also bringing in a heavier electronica influence to make their songs more beat-heavy and dancefloor ready. The choruses and hooks are better than ever too. If you thought SVIIB’s music was ripe for clubs before, don’t be surprised if they recruit some friends and unleash a remix record several months or a year down the road. Tracks like “White Wind” and “Lafaye” are just two standout moments of a handful best experienced in a dark room with a pulsating light show and bodies writhing up against one another. But in case all of that wasn’t enough, Ghostory wraps up with “When You Sing”, an 8.5 minute thrill ride that stands right next to the even longer “Sempiternal-Amaranth” from Alpinisms as a band-defining moment. Whether their songs are 3 minutes or 10, School of Seven Bells are always careful to not let a melody go beyond its expiration date.

2008 was the year School of Seven Bells toured with M83. The two bands shared something of a sonic bond then, and now a few years later they have even more in common. There are moments on Ghostory that would be right at home on M83’s highly acclaimed 2011 double album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and vice versa. That says something about the evolution of both bands. Heavy reliance on shoegaze textures and hazy vocal performances/lyrics have given way to extremely clean production, up-front and clear vocals, along with a greater openness and warmth to the lyrics than ever before. The fog is gone and we’re now left with the realization there was an even greater band being obscured by it. In spite of all they’ve been through the last couple years, SVIIB are blossoming rather than retreating. They’ve always been meticulous in crafting their songs, but Ghostory is the first time that Benjamin and Alejandra have truly collaborated in the writing and composition of a record – something they used to do separately. The results are right there across 9 beautiful and darkly fun tracks that function best as a defining statement of what this band is all about. Hopefully working their magic and putting out this excellent third record won’t come back to haunt them when they try to settle in and make a fourth.

School of Seven Bells – The Night
School of Seven Bells – Lafaye

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Snapshot Review: Frankie Rose – Interstellar [Slumberland]

You may know Frankie Rose from any number of bands she’s been in the last few years. She’s been the drummer for Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts and Dum Dum Girls, which if you know all those bands you know they’ve got a lot in common sonically. They were all part of the lo-fi garage rock revival that took place not so long ago, and her leaving those bands also pretty much coincided with the hype dying down on that sort of music. In 2010 she took matters into her own hands and started Frankie Rose and the Outs, an all female band that had a very retro 60s girl group vibe to it. Once again restless and discontent with what she was doing musically, the Outs became out of a job late last year. Rose is now continuing on her own, under her own name, though with a couple supporting players to fill out the sound. She’s also changed her sound again, and her new album Interstellar takes a cue from 80s new wave. Listen carefully and you’ll hear shades of New Order, The Cure, and The Human League in their finer moments. The synths sparkle, the drums burst open and echo, and Rose’s light, airy vocal keeps it all afloat. There are great retro pop moments all over this thing, from the beat-heavy “Know Me” to the ridiculously catchy “Night Swim”. She’s overdubbing her own vocal harmonies now too, and it adds a precious beauty to ballads like “Pair of Wings” and “Apples for the Sun”. The focus and strength on display across the record is remarkable, and it’s a real pleasure to hear her embrace that and excel despite the continued tweaks to her style and band personnel. Interstellar isn’t the sort of album you deeply analyze, but the more time you spend with it the more the little moments make their presence felt. In some ways, those are the most rewarding kinds of albums.

Frankie Rose – Know Me

Frankie Rose – Night Swim

Frankie Rose – Interstellar

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Album Review: Grimes – Visions [4AD/Arbutus]

Claire Boucher is nothing if not productive. As the singular force behind the musical pseudonym Grimes, she has released four full length records in the last 2 years. That started with 2010’s Geidi Primes, blossomed into Halfaxa later that year, and then continued building with Darkbloom last year. If you’ve heard approximately zero of those first three records, don’t beat yourself up too much; they sit and taunt from the deepest of deep levels in Canada’s underground electro scene. That is to say they were impressive and influential enough to earn Grimes some attention, but difficult and unfocused enough to keep her out of the spotlight for all practical purposes. Each of those first three albums was intended to play up a different side of her influences, and none of them were really all-encompassing efforts. Boucher herself has basically called them practice records for the real thing, which has finally resulted in her brand new album Visions complete with a brand new home on indie stalwart label 4AD. The end product is a remarkable and rather breathtaking skew on traditional pop music and electronica, complete with a supremely psychedelic edge that slices deep into your emotional reservoir even as it prods the pleasure centers of your brain with seductive beats and hooks.

The first thing you should know about Grimes is that she’s a producer before she’s a musician. Those two things are not mutually exclusive, but the whole point of mentioning it is because it affects the way she puts together songs. In fact, Boucher is doing what so many other forward-thinking artists are doing these days, which is attempting to break the rules of traditional songwriting and composing through the use of technology. At its core, Visions is a record created by a voice and a keyboard. Listening to it, there’s almost no way you’d realize that given all that’s going on. Virtually everything is run through some sort of filter or effect, and portions of songs are dubbed and overdubbed and smashed atop one another like some sort of sonic sandwich. Credit goes to Boucher for knowing when to stop adding more, because in more than a few cases it feels like the depths of some of the songs could be infinite. Her restraint is admirable and a great sign that she knows what she wants and tweaks it ever so slightly until she gets there. The ultimate result is a record that’s equal parts pop music and ambiance, pleasure and pain, not to mention human and computer.

The first track on Visions is “Infinite Love Without Fulfillment”, and it immediately lays out what to expect for the rest of the record. Lasting a mere 96 seconds, it confounds traditional song structure while maintaining a very danceable rhythm and sugar-sweet vocals. Boucher’s voice takes on 3 distinct personalities on the track, and they intermingle with one another with no regard for decency or clarity, to the point where it becomes like trying to listen to a single conversation in a room full of talking people. In spite of the perceived vocal confusion and the challenge of distinguishing lyrics, there’s a symbiosis and elegance to how all the moving pieces of the song work together. Indeed for most of Visions you’ll struggle to understand what Boucher is singing about, and that’s not always because of overdubbing. On the song “Genesis” for example, her singular voice is so drenched in echo it becomes the auditory effect of trying to see the car in front of you while driving through a dense fog. “Eight” turns one of her vocals into a deep-voiced robot and another into a woman that’s clearly been breathing in way too much helium. Despite all the different ways Boucher throws her vocals around, there are a few moments of genuine clarity, and those brief snapshots tend to be about relationships going through some sort of turmoil. “Oh baby I can’t say/that everything will be okay,” Boucher sings on “Circumambient”, signaling right from the start that there’s problems. Towards the end of “Skin”, she’s also in a sad place, espousing, “You touch me again and somehow it stings/because I know it is the end.”

Lyrical content is really the last thing you should be looking for on Visions though, because it’s far more about how these songs come together than it is any message they’re trying to get across. Boucher herself has said in interviews that she often feels the need to cover up her lyrics out of self-criticism over her skills as a writer but also because the melodies themselves should be telling you how to feel and not the words. With so much emphasis placed on what’s being said and not the way it’s being said, that’s a very refreshing take on pop music. Think of this record like a synth-pop inspired version of Sigur Ros, where the vocals are first and foremost another instrument in the mix rather than something intended to sit front and center as a path to deeper understanding. Or, even better, there are portions of the album that are very K-pop and J-pop influenced, and whether you’re a fan of Dance Dance Revolution or simply like those sorts of songs without speaking the language, there’s plenty of moments such as “Nightmusic” that you’ll be able to wholly enjoy. In fact, there’s a whole host of influences on Visions that may tickle your fancy depending on your tastes. Obviously if you’re into electronica and its many subgenres like IDM and Balearic you’ll be impressed with the strong beats that populate much of the record. The same goes for devotees of 80s pop, wherein the strains of a track like “Vowels = space and time” calls to mind Stacy Q or “Oblivion” has something distinctly Cyndi Lauper about it. And while 2011 was the year of the R&B revival, songs like “Be A Body” and “Skin” break out those influences as well, the former even impressing with some sky-high Mariah Carey falsettos. In spite of the various swaths of genres across the album, it all holds together quite nicely thanks to Boucher’s dynamic production style and ability to put together a very strong melody.

It goes without saying that Grimes is one of the most exciting new talents to emerge out of an ever-evolving music scene. Her previous records all hinted at what Visions would be in one way or another, and it’s extremely pleasing to hear her finally fulfill much of that early potential. For all of its oddities, this record is extremely listenable from start to finish, and cuts like “Genesis”, “Oblivion”, “Circumambient” and “Nightmusic” make it supremely catchy as well. In many ways these songs feel like the next step towards a genuine breakthrough in music, one in which a multitude of styles gives birth to a beautiful new hybrid that’s more aesthetically pleasing than any single one of them on their own. The best part is there’s continued room for improvement and growth, even as this record hovers near the precipice of perfection. Grimes has been an artist to watch from the day she first started releasing music 2 years ago, but only now, thanks to Visions will she begin to earn the attention she truly deserves.

Grimes – Genesis
Grimes – Oblivion

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Album Review: Chairlift – Something [Columbia/Young Turks]

Surely you remember the band Chairlift from those countless times you heard their song “Bruises” a couple years ago in an iPod commercial. Don’t remember “Bruises” exactly? Does the line “I tried to do handstands for you” jog your memory? If not, don’t worry yourself too much. The band was in many ways a one-hit wonder, and their 2008 debut album Does You Inspire You didn’t really inspire on the whole. Outside of touring, they haven’t really done much the last couple years, though there have been some changes. Band co-founder Aaron Pfenning is gone, choosing to focus exclusively on his other musical project Rewards after his romantic relationship with bandmate Caroline Polachek dissolved. Polachek now only has multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wimberly to back her up, and that’s impacted Charlift’s sound somewhat. Pfenning’s occasional vocal presence has vanished, as has his guitar work, leaving the band’s sophmore album Something in a very synth-based 80s pop space. And you know what? The results turn out much better for them.

First thing’s first, Polachek spends much of Something in the role of a woman scorned. That is to say breakups are on her mind, and that’s not surprising given she experienced one with her former bandmate Pfenning. You’d be smart to be wary of reading too much into any of the lyrics though, as many of them are clearly fictitious or fantasy-oriented rather than literal. She’s not REALLY trying to kill or seriously maim another person, though we can’t really rule out emotional hatchet jobs. There are a few moments of pure passion and love though, as on “I Belong in Your Arms”, which with its tenderness, brevity and addictive chorus makes for one of the album’s strongest moments. It is the “Bruises” of this album, though not quite as catchy or marketable. Mostly what’s stronger on this record outside of the subject matter is the way it gets dealt with. Polachek backs off on some of the more vexing metaphors from the band’s debut and instead tries something more emotionally direct, to excellent effect. She seems genuinely saddened singing the line, “The look in your eye says you don’t love me anymore” on “Cool As A Fire”. The soaring chorus only provides more aid to her excitement as she sings, “Have we met before/amongst the buzzing of billions/clear like yesterday when you look at me and smiled” on “Met Before”. Also impressive is the chorus to “Guilty As Charged”, which rightly claims, “If I gave you what you’re asking for, you know you wouldn’t want it anymore”. Smart, plainspoken and with hints of humor, it appears Polachek has a much better idea of what she wants to say and how she wants to say it – a sharp difference from the debut in which many of the moments felt forced or uninspired.

Equally intriguing about Something outside of the great lyrics are how all the songs are put together. Save for “Met Before” and “Frigid Spring”, there’s very little use of guitar on this record. Synths are the instrument of choice, and that combined with some excessive polish on the production end takes you straight to the 80s. If you were to play this album for someone without telling them anything about it, most would probably guess it was either made in the 80s or is new coming from an artist that was popular in the 80s. Polachek’s voice earns more gravitas on this record versus the last, and she takes those reins and runs with them. She channels everyone from Kate Bush to Laetitia Sadler to Christine McVie and maybe even a touch of Cyndi Lauper at times, and not once does she sound uncomfortable or out of her element. Wimberly is far quieter than Pfenning was behind the microphone, in that his vocal presence is barely felt. His true star turn comes with backing vocals on the occasional track and a pseudo-duet with Polachek on addictive single “Amanaemonesia”. The rest of the time he’s simply that guy crafting the beats or sending a melody soaring just to keep up with Polachek’s strong singing. They are the yin and yang of Chairlift, perfectly complimenting and pushing one another to excel in different ways.

It’s a shame that Something is a record that will probably be just as, if not more ignored than its predecessor. Despite the strong collection of healthy and marketable pop songs, it’s unlikely you’ll be hearing much from the band on the radio or in TV commercials. There’s just a slight element of offbeat weirdness to many of these tracks that can turn off more mainstream audiences, to start. While there’s not a massive difference between Does You Inspire You and Something sonically, that first album at least had several moments that felt rooted in the present, likely caused by more guitars and less synths. Given that The Killers aren’t still rocking their 80s pop-rock sound established on Hot Fuss, it’s relatively safe to say not everything old becomes new again and stays that way. Still, as glo-fi/chillwave continues to survive and mine much of their material from the 80s, so Chairlift can do so in a much bigger and blatant way. Besides, a great pop song is a great pop song, no matter what decade it’s rooted in. This is the record that may not give the band the additional popularity they were hoping for, but it does earn them one crucial piece of success pie – critical acceptance. There’s no sophmore slump for Chairlift, maybe because they were already in a slump with their first album. Something is the record where they rise to the occasion, learn from their mistakes, and hit back at the hearts of the coldhearted. They’re alive and well and will run you over in their car to prove it.

Click past the jump to stream the entire album (for a limited time only)!

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Album Review: The Big Pink – Future This [4AD]

Ah, the dreaded sophomore slump. It is a curse that is inflicted upon many a band, most typically those that are desperate to repeat the success of their debut. If you look at bands like The Strokes and Interpol, both essentially took the blueprint of their first record and followed it to a T with startlingly solid results. Sometimes your sound works well enough to keep it going for a bit without people getting tired of it. Still others fear for their safety, knowing fans want and expect constant innovation and evolution, so there will be a radical sonic shift in a different direction that will either be massively successful or smell of failure. Then you have a band like The Big Pink. Success came rather easy to them, with their 2009 debut album A Brief History of Love earning accolades even while a single like “Dominos” was smartly and deceptively stupid. If that record taught them anything, it was that having a huge, easy to remember chorus brings in people from all walks of life in search of something they can sing along to. As such, their follow-up Future This sees The Big Pink putting aside some of the more artistic adventures of their first album in the hopes of becoming a stadium-sized pop band. If you were hoping to be beaten over the head with a large musical stick, welcome to your new favorite record.

In crafting Future This, the duo of Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell decided to go with a “beats first” approach. That is, they would come up with a beat they liked and would subsequently craft an entire song around it. They started to push forward with the idea that this might very well be a more “hip hop” record than anything else, but the end product certainly doesn’t reflect that, though certainly most of the tracks could be re-worked and remixed with that sort of edge to it. Guitars are hard to come by on this album as well, with the electronic elements and synths handling almost the entirety of the compositional bits. Only “Lose Your Mind” features some heavy riffage courtesy of the only guitar solo on the entire record. The lack of guitars isn’t exactly a bad thing as most everything sounds fine without them, but there are times when you’re left wondering if the blandness of some of the tracks could have benefited from a little extra instrumental spice.

Given that the band is shooting for the stars and appears to be actively seeking greater mainstream acceptance, much of Future This is dedicated to songs in the key of “Dominos”. Opening cut “Stay Gold” is perhaps the closest they come to copying that, so much so that you can pretty much insert the chorus fo “Dominos” in as a replacement and barely have a difference. Of course it’s catchy and moderately enjoyable as well, so it’s not all bad. Following that up is “Hit the Ground (Superman)”, which is most notable for its sampling of the relatively obscure avant-garde 1981 song “O Superman” from Laurie Anderson. Repurposed into a power ballad, it makes for a potential hit, though clocking in at nearly 5 minutes long it outstays its welcome by about 90 seconds. There are a few genuinely creative moments on the album, such as “The Palace (So Cool)”, which has a slow build and doesn’t take the easiest available sonic avenue. Furze is also provided with a chance to stretch a little more vocally, which he takes full advantage of to good effect. The mournful album closer “77” also does very well for itself, cutting away the loose party vibe of the rest of the record for a shot of genuine emotion. There’s piano and strings to accent the slow pulse beat and synths as well, bringing the right air of sentimentality in without being too overbearing. Credit goes to Paul Epworth and his production work for putting the right spin on not only that track, but the entire record, which could very well have come off as overly polished and bombastic.

One of the biggest pluses that A Brief History of Love had going for it was in spite of the many huge melodies spread out across that vast plain of an album, it still had some nuance and character to it. You could strap on some headphones and enjoy it nearly as much as you would were it blasting out of huge speakers at a stadium or beach party. That is, in essence, what Future This lacks. The Big Pink don’t sound completely whitewashed on their sophmore record, just less interested in personality and charisma this time. They’re seemingly aiming for bigger and better, but only got the first part right. And as well-fitting as this album might be for remixing thanks to the beats that permeate each and every song, it’d be far more helpful if the duo would put a little effort into actually writing some halfway decent lyrics. Coming up with an easily singable hook simply will not satisfy when it comes down to brass tax. Not only that, but even the most mindless moments on Future This, the ones clearly intended to bring the band greater popularity, don’t appear to be working their charms thus far. Sure, it’s far too early to write off this band and this record as a failure, but maybe if it is they’ll actually learn from the experience and come back stronger than ever.

The Big Pink – Hit the Ground (Superman) (Forest Swords Remix)

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Album Review: M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming [Mute]

90% of double albums are failures. In more recent years, everyone from Foo Fighters to the Red Hot Chili Peppers have attempted to show off creatively by unleashing multi-disc efforts. Some claim the music is all thematically sound, tied to a concept or something else, and therefore entirely necessary to extend beyond your traditional single album length. Others say they went into the studio and got far more recorded than anticipated, and because everything was so great, instead of cutting tracks they just left it as-is, bleeding it out into dual records. You’ve also got a band like Radiohead, who made “Kid A” and released that, then followed up 8 months later on with “Amnesiac”, essentially more new songs from those same sessions but contextually different. A staggered release schedule forming two separate albums tends to be the smarter move, particularly in this day and age when albums are largely down for the count and singles reign, the attention span of music fans growing increasingly shorter by the day. Still, there is the occasional double album that works, generating enough positive response to go down with the status of “legendary”. We’re talking Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”. It was reportedly that Pumpkins record which served as the main inspiration for M83’s main man Anthony Gonzalez to craft his own double album “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”. This may be one of the worst times in music trends to unleash 73 minutes of music intended to be heard in one sitting, but let’s just be thankful somebody has the balls to keep trying anyways.

The first thing you look for in any double album is filler. Instrumental tracks? That’s typically the first sign of filler, but if you know M83 then you also know they do a fair share of instrumentals on their single disc records. Their electro-synth sound is built to where instrumentals can be not only welcome, but sometimes encouraged. One listen to “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts” will teach you all you need to know about M83 and instrumentals. There’s somewhere around a half dozen instrumentals spread across the 22 total tracks here, and almost all of them are wholly engaging or serve a particular purpose other than apparent filler. This isn’t a record with an overarching theme or concept holding it all together, outside of just a generalized dream state it otherwise seeks to achieve. Yet there are so many big pop songs and dramatic ballads that transitional pieces and more minor moments are almost required as balance. “Train to Pluton” or “Fountains” may not be the most exciting or brilliant pieces of music, but they are fully functional set-up pieces and never really hurt the overall pacing that gets established. You can also look at moments like “Where the Boats Go” and “When Will You Come Home?”, the former which aids the adjustment from the red hot “Reunion” into the massive drift that is “Wait” and the latter which serves as the start of a trio of songs that effortlessly blends the first disc with the second.

Long time fans of M83 should automatically feel comfortable with “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”, as the 80s synth-pop motifs continue to permeate everything Gonzalez touches. That’s his thing, crafting a soundtrack to an imagined version of his teenage years. The last record “Saturdays=Youth” felt like musical accompaniment to a long-lost John Hughes film, and while there’s still some resemblance to that on the new double album, it comes across as far less cinematic in nature. That doesn’t mean it’s any less expansive or epic though, as it’s tough to call 74 minutes of music minimal or small. But those bigger, arena-style melodies were explored in a similar fashion on “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts”. To bring out the full M83 past album retrospective, fans of “Before the Dawn Heals Us” will find the darker, more urban pop of that record bearing an influence here as well. Darkness would be a theme on this record, as any record with the word “dreaming” in its title hopefully implies sleeping and night time. Despite all this looking back providing a “complete picture” of what M83 has been all about, there’s still the future to be concerned with. In response to that, Gonzalez has taken to expanding the number of instruments on this record to include the occasional saxophone (“Midnight City”) or flute (“New Map”) while pushing his own vocals into entirely new territory.

Past singles like “Kim & Jessie” or “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” provide great reference samples featuring Gonzalez keeping his vocals restrained at an almost whisper-like level. It becomes apparent from the very first track on the new album, the aptly titled “Intro”, that those days of calmly reserved, passive singing are over. Gonzalez’s voice may not be the most impressive thing when he’s belting out songs at full volume as his newfound range and key reveal some limitations, but you’ve got to give him credit for laying it all out there. He sounds a full octave higher than he used to, now fully up-front and brimming with confidence, taking the reins like he’s ready to conquer the world. For once his singing matches the scope of his arrangements, which is probably why cuts like “Midnight City” and “Steve McQueen” also make for some of M83’s best songs to date in a catalogue dense with highlights already.

If you’re not prepared for it, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” might seem like a chore to listen to from start to finish. There’s so much material to digest that it can be a little overwhelming at times, making it that much harder to become enraptured with important moments because there are quite a few. To Gonzalez’s credit he spreads them out fairly evenly to continually engage the listener for the duration, though the first five tracks of each disc can feel like a pileup of pure sonic delight. There may not be a storyline or abstract concept linking these tracks together, but like the two halves of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, each separate disc has a sonic counterpart on the other. Consider them then like fraternal twins – different, but inextricably linked to one another. The more carefully you listen, the more obvious it becomes. It would seem then that going the double album route has worked out remarkably well for M83. Count this was one of those rare cases where a multi-disc effort is worth the time and money you invest in it. There are not really any bad songs in this bunch either, and even the child’s spoken word moments of “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” can’t derail the momentum this beast generates for itself. Will it go down in history as one of those rare double albums that still gets talked about 5, 10 or 50 years down the line? Probably not, if only due to technology. Up until the early 00s, album releases were regarded as events, and people’s options were confined to physical mediums such as vinyl, cassette tapes and CDs. You couldn’t really skip any tracks on The Beatles’ “White Album” because at the time that luxury didn’t exist. With the advent of the digital era, not only are people skipping or cherry picking, but access to music itself has become so fluid there’s far more music to take in than any one person can even begin to digest. Hence the rise of the single, so we can listen to that song and get on to the next artist. But here’s a piece of work that while created today is distinctly 80s in sound and scope. If you’re a child of the 80s or earlier decades, that’s something you can understand, even as you may have a hard drive filled to the brim with other music. Calm yourself down and set aside 74 minutes to take in “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” at least once in full. Hopefully it will speak to you and maybe even reinstill a faith in the long player. The death of the album (single or double) has been greatly exaggerated, and M83 makes for some great evidence in support of that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try and find the exact time when this album and the film “The NeverEnding Story” sync up perfectly.

M83 – Intro (ft Zola Jesus)

M83 – Midnight City

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Album Review: Zola Jesus – Conatus [Sacred Bones]

In some respects, it’s helpful to have a dictionary on hand when listening to Zola Jesus. Essentially the moniker under which Nika Roza Danilova operates, Zola Jesus has a tendency to use big or scientific words for song and record titles. Last year, she released the “Stridulum” EP and an expanded version of that which was lovingly called “Stridulum II”. The title is remarkably obscure to find a meaning to, but reportedly it’s a Latin word that means the sound a bird or an insect makes when rubbing its wings together. The vocabulary fun continues on the new Zola Jesus record “Conatus”, the title of which is another Latin term referring to the inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself. More on that later. Other fun track titles on the new record include “Hikikomori”, a Japanese word meaning a reclusive person, and “Ixode”, which is a genus of hard-bodied ticks. Let it be known that Zola Jesus is doing more than just schooling you in dark pop melodies. Do you need to know the deeper meanings behind these titles in order to fully understand what they’re trying to accomplish? Nah. It’s likely that Danilova simply chose those words because they look and/or sound cool, not because they had an influence on a particular sound or lyric. Don’t write the record off as somebody trying to sound smart to mask glaring idiocy either – “Conatus” excels no matter if you’re using 10 dollar or 10 cent vocabulary.

If you’re familiar with past Zola Jesus efforts, “Conatus” comes across like a slight upgrade in a number of ways. Her sound is often described as gothic, with strong pop sensibilities and heavy synth/industrial tones. If Lykke Li and Natasha Khan (aka Bat for Lashes) were to have a blonde-haired musical baby, Zola Jesus would be the result. You could say the same thing about Siouxie Sioux and Kate Bush. It’s also a little surprising what with her similarities to these other pretty popular acts that she isn’t achieving that same level of success. Perhaps the new record will change that. The arrangements are bigger and more dramatic than ever, and Danilova’s voice is much clearer and up-front compared to past recordings. She belts it out to the rafters with some tour-de-force singing that is highly emotional and passionate. That sort of power comes from being a trained opera singer, even if the style of music she makes is pretty far removed from your traditional opera.

After the echo-laden, electro-glitch minute-long “Swords” provides a lovely intro to the record, “Avalanche” pairs heavy drum machine beats with ominous synths. It is by no means a thrilling, club-ready hit, and its eventual descent into a capella vocals during the final minute very much keeps to that mentality. Not every album needs to start in a fun and or even commercially viable fashion, and the first two tracks are more darkly beautiful than they are easy to like. That’s only a problem if you choose to make it one. Things go industrial on first single “Vessel”, and amid the electro-squelches and heavy piano, you can’t help but feel that Trent Reznor would greatly appreciate the track. The verse-chorus-verse structure of the track also goes a long way towards making it more likable and catchy in the face of abject oddity, particularly as the track dissolves into chaotic static in the final 45 seconds. The pulsating synths of “Hikikomori” are paced briskly enough to make the track a potential club hit, even as it wallows in despair the entire time. It’s just the beginning of a remarkably energetic midsection of the album, one that slowly moves out of its depressing funk and into something a little warmer and a little brighter, though Danilova’s intensity and focus never really lets up. “In Your Nature” is fascinating in particular for Danilova’s wounded and vulnerable vocals, along with its liberal use of strings, which aren’t as widely used across the rest of the record. The saddest moment on “Conatus” strikes right near the end, where the piano ballad “Skin” sounds a whole lot like somebody hitting rock bottom. When Danilova sings, “I’ve had enough”, she emotes it with such pain that it’s not hard to believe she’s truly given up. That pain finally overwhelms her completely on closing track “Collapse”, with a trance-like synth dominating the melody, she keeps coming back to the line, “It hurts to let you in”. Yet in spite of the agony it causes, she still surrenders herself over to it because it provides relief. Call it self-abuse if you like, but sometimes we all need to let our dark sides have free reign to keep us sane.

Where “Conatus” ultimately winds up in trouble is in commercial viability. No, easily likable music is not a requirement for success nor does it make a record better or worse. The moody vibes that dominate this album are largely offset by strong beats and interesting melodies. It’s the structure of the songs themselves that feel formless at times that bring a very wandering nature to the record. That’s funny because this is the first Zola Jesus album that exudes confidence and power, and the first where Danilova seems to fully know what she’s going for. There’s a glue that makes “Conatus” feel like a whole thematic journey from darkness to light to murky resolution, but there are missing chorus detours and unbalanced verse dark alleys on that path providing the occasional mixed signal. For the most part though, this record shows growth for Zola Jesus. It is, as the Latin word title of the record means, something that has the inclination to continue to exist and enhance itself. This might not be the work that finally graduates Danilova to the big leagues of the darkwave subgenre, but she’s certainly on her way.

Zola Jesus – Vessel

Zola Jesus – Seekir

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Album Review: The Drums – Portamento [Frenchkiss/Moshi Moshi/Island]

It’s been just over a year since The Drums released their self-titled debut album, and for all the touring they did to promote it, for whatever reason the band had enough time on their hands to write and record a follow-up. This in spite of undergoing a lineup change last fall as well. There are a number of potential reasons for a band to crank out another record so quickly. If you’re like Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox or The Fiery Furnaces’ Matthew Friedberger or Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard, songwriting comes so naturally that it becomes problematic if you aren’t consistently making new music. Other bands and artists will keep creating new music in order to keep the hype cycle going, keeping your name on the tip of everybody’s tongues. Then you’ve got those that did relatively well with their last album, but are being pressured by their label to hurry up and record something new in the hopes of generating more cash while the iron is still hot. Of course some artists have also been operating with a low profile for a lengthy period of time and have built a large catalogue of songs and demos that are just waiting to get that studio polish on them. Where do The Drums fall in amongst these possible options? Well, with their new record “Portamento”, it’s a little tough to say. Based purely on conjecture and the songs on this new album, it would seem that the band probably should have given some more time and consideration when putting together their sophmore record.

What brought The Drums moderate success in the first place was their whistle-happy song “Let’s Go Surfing” off that debut album, a track that was super catchy and embodied the spirit of its title. In fact, “surf rock” is one of the descriptive labels you could affix to the band’s sound, though they go far beyond that. They earned early comparisons to New Order and Joy Division, along with The Cure and The Smiths, essentially amounting to their sound being well within the realm of 80s synth-pop, but again with that sunnier, surf edge to it. The funny part is that in spite of their lighter and brighter pop side, the band is more interested in poking fun at those elements and recent surge in popularity than they are succumbing to their charms. Plus, though the melodies themselves might be charmingly upbeat, close examination of the lyrics reveal a much darker and more depressed side of the band. That’s a big part of where the 80s new wave influence comes in, along with a bunch of bass-dominant songs. There’s a certain script that The Drums followed on their debut that felt wholly unoriginal while still sucking us in and winning us over. Here appeared to be a band on the verge of either making it or breaking it based solely on whether or not they played their cards right.

“Portamento” does very little to change what we’re already familiar with about The Drums. They’re still all about those super catchy 80s-inspired melodies with just a hint of lighthearted surf, but they do throw in a twist or two to project at least some evolution. The songs go a touch darker in mood this time around, whether it’s discussing the absence of an afterlife in “Book of Revelation” and “Searching for Heaven” or emotional unavailability in relationships in “Hard to Love” and “I Don’t Know How to Love”. Yet there’s still a very toe-tapping and easygoing feel to many of the melodies. Instrumentally speaking, the band has broadened their sonic palette just a little, adding in things like vocal looping and a greater reliance on synths which means pulling away from guitars just a touch. Yet it doesn’t work out too well, especially on “Searching for Heaven” where synths and vocals are the only two elements in play. Pinned to start the second half of the record, the track just limps along with little to nothing going for it outside of Johnathan Pierce’s vocals, which come across as oddly off-key and disaffected. It becomes one of the album’s standout moments for all the wrong reasons. While nothing else ever gets quite so poor in quality, “Portamento” is absolutely front-loaded with all the best moments. Either that, or after the first half the second half starts to sound like virtually the same songs over and over again. The tempo stays relatively quick and the choruses keep pushing hook after hook like they’re going out of style, but they’re rendered as blunt and moderately ineffective on tracks like “If He Likes It Let Him Do It” and “In the Cold”.

The good news is that The Drums still have at least a handful of super addictive songs on “Portamento” to keep us on the leash for a little while longer. “Days” is by no means their most creative effort, but it’s tough to not find yourself humming it to yourself a few hours after hearing it. There’s a saxophone that pops up on “What You Were” that is a nice little treat when paired with the brisk pace and dreamy atmosphere. First single “Money” is super fun and super danceable, even if the chorus strikes far too many times over 4 minutes that it begins to feel uncomfortable. Amidst the lowlights the second half of the record brings, “I Need A Doctor” is either a good song or feels a lot like one because it’s sandwiched between two bad ones. “How It Ended” closes the record on a strong note though, practically rediscovering the energy and playfulness of the first half of the album and leaving you wondering why the entire record couldn’t have maintained that same quality.

In a nutshell, if you liked the first Drums record, you’ll likely feel the same way about the second. There are no tracks on “Portamento” that are as strong as “Let’s Go Surfing” was, but there are still plenty of successes on it in spite of that. Even then, it’s easy to call this new record a disappointment, largely because the band appears entirely reliant on big choruses and brisk tempos to get by. They seem to figure that the more times you hear a hook, the greater chance it has of getting stuck in your head. As the old saying goes though, quantity does not always equal quality. Even when you are faced with a quality chorus that doesn’t necessarily mean the more times you hear it the better. If you were to eat your absolutely favorite meal every single day, eventually you’d grow tired of it and desire a little more variety. The small sonic experiments with synths and looping and horns don’t nearly provide the sort of variety you might hope for. None of the songs on this album make it past the 4.5 minute mark, but with how quickly they bounce from verse to chorus to verse, there are times where you just want to check and see how much time is left because it starts to feel like it’s been going on forever. The same can be said about the entire record, which may only be 45 minutes but feels closer to 60. Time flies when you’re having fun, and it moves like a snail when you’re not. The Drums may have approached “Portamento” with good intentions and the hope of sustainability/increased popularity, but the reality of the situation is that they’re trying too hard. Perhaps if they ease back on that throttle just a little, take their time and write more carefully layered melodies, success will find them instead of the opposite.

The Drums – Money

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Album Review: CSS – La Liberaci贸n [V2/Cooperative/Downtown]

There used to be a time when CSS referred to themselves as Cansei de Ser Sexy. Because it’s a mouthful to say in any language, shortening it to just CSS makes it easier on everyone. Their self-titled debut record earned them plenty of hype early on, as the song “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death From Above” spread across the internet and blogs like wildfire. Throw in some charming and unique live performances with a wild frontwoman calling herself Lovefoxxx and it was a recipe for success. That was 2005. Unless you can keep eyes and ears on you for an extended period of time, the hype is going to die down and you’ll wind up forgotten. In the case of CSS, it was less waiting 3 years between records and more turning in a sophmore effort that was of inferior quality to your debut. To pull a pun out of it, CSS made asses out of themselves with their second album “Donkey”. The issue was primarily that after their joyously off-kilter first record, they sharply toned down the rhetoric and energy for their second in an attempt to be taken more seriously. No doubt they had a serious discussion after the relative failure of that last record, calculating what they needed to do to reclaim much of their earlier praise. Enter “La Liberaci贸n”, and like its title, the band celebrates freeing themselves from lofty expectations, from their former label, and from the idea that they’re anything but a group of Brazilians that love to dance, party and have fun. To put it more in their terms, CSS are back, bitches.

Starting with what would otherwise seem like the very normal title of “I Love You”, the band takes that sentiment and next to pulsating synths delivers ever-classy lines such as, “The rain is falling on my head/bringing thoughts it never had/like love and shit”. This from the same band that once preached, “Lick, lick, lick my art tit”. So not only does the music bring back that celebratory vibe, but clearly their English vocabulary is smartly intact too. Of course if you really want to hear Lovefoxx let loose, the album’s closing track is aptly titled “Fuck Everything” and pretty much accomplishes what it set out to do. Does it ever get too excessive? Yeah, after awhile it kind of feels like they’re just swearing for swearing’s sake. At least they’re not looking to generate controversy for controversy’s sake. Sex is a somewhat controversial topic, depending on how you look at it, and CSS certainly don’t shy away from that. “Red Alert” is pretty much an ode to sleeping around, “Partners in Crime” chronicles one of the easiest seductions in the world, and “Ruby Eyes” tackles issues of jealousy when somebody tries to steal your boyfriend or girlfriend. Matched against the more crass moments are tender bits like “Hits Me Like A Rock”, which boasts a winning cameo from Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie. “Echo of Love” does well for itself too, though I may be misreading it and the whole thing could be innuendo about orgasms. Meanwhile “City Grrl” is a club track in both sound and scope, boasting about how you’re free to be and do whatever you want in the big city. It also happens to be the one track on the album that sounds like it was written by a genuine pop star for chart-topping success. It likely won’t fulfill that same prophecy for CSS.

In addition to their more trademarked synth-pop sound, CSS try a few different things on “La Liberaci贸n” to help mix it up. The reggae bounce of “Hits Me Like A Rock” is a nice little change of pace. The guitar-heavy, punk-strewn title track is unlike anything else on the record either, and that’s not just because it’s the only song where the lyrics are in the band’s native Portuguese. Bits of piano add some nice flavor to “You Could Have It All” and “Red Alert” as well, and don’t count out Spanish horns for an extra dose of culture tossed into the club atmosphere of “City Grrl”. The good news about these added elements is that it shows some growth on CSS’ part. Had those pieces not been there, in spite of how insignificant they might seem, there’d be little to no difference between CSS circa 2005 and 2011. They would have simply backtracked from “Donkey” and resumed on the path they were already headed down. One thing the band doesn’t quite realize or fully take into account is how music and trends have changed in the last few years. Yeah, there’s still plenty of room for a synth-pop band in today’s musical universe, but the more evolved you allow yourself to get the better off you’ll be. Synth-pop is largely a genre built on the 80s, and we’re on a return trip through the 90s this year. Even glo-fi is starting to wear thin. CSS don’t sound desperate, but there are moments where it feels like they’re pandering. If “Donkey” was their attempt to be different and it failed miserably, they’re now seeking to give the people what they want. In this case it’s more a past tense what they want(ed). That said, the first few tracks on “La Liberaci贸n” are blends of solid, fun, engaging and mercilessly catchy. If out in the open hooks and body-moving beats are the things you care about most in your music, this record has both in spades and you’ll likely fall in love with CSS, either for the first time or all over again. There’s still a huge market for this band and it’s now a matter of either the band finding that market or that market finding the band. Hopefully it works out for all parties involved. CSS deserve better careers than what they’ve been given thus far. Only the most cold-hearted of bastards would outright reject a band that tries to espouse the simplest of joys in life – dancing, partying and having fun.

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Album Review: Active Child – You Are All I See [Vagrant]

Last summer, Active Child released the “Curtis Lane” EP. It was a collection of 6 songs that made for a fascinating introduction to Pat Grossi’s pet project, unique in the way that harp, synths and vocals were all blended, chopped and screwed into an electronic filter with dizzying results. The crossroads that EP presented were directional, with Grossi taking a shot at the slow moving and shimmery synth melodies on one side and more beat-driven 80s dance numbers on the other. Everything worked together relatively well, but the dichotomy suggested that he’d need to make a clearer and bolder choice of direction for whatever he chose to record next. It’s been over a year, one mostly filled with extensive touring around the world, but Active Child finally got around to making a debut full length, titled “You Are All I See”. With his harp and a powerful falsetto voice that even angels are jealous of, Grossi has taken a sharper turn towards ethereal beauty and away from the dance floor, and it’s doubtful anybody will disagree with that decision.

Just because Grossi has made the right decision when it comes to Active Child’s overall sound doesn’t mean that “You Are All I See” is automatically a great record. The title track that starts the record begins with waterfalls of harp eventually leading to touches of synth and that heavenly vocal rising above it all, often overdubbed to create soaring harmonies. Those first four minutes are so gorgeous that you get the sense nothing else on the album will be able to top it from a beauty perspective. That’s pretty much true, but beauty isn’t everything, and a number of other tracks come close to that same level of musical splendor anyways. Electronic textures and synths take over on first single “Hanging On”, and the results sound a bit like something that Justin Vernon’s side project Volcano Choir might put out, but with a little more mainstream R&B influence. The R&B aspect goes into full gear courtesy of “Playing House”, Grossi’s team-up with How to Dress Well aka Tom Krell. If you’re looking for an indie version of a sexy jam to “get it on” to, here’s your track. The slow clap looped beat matched against high-pitched synths and Krell’s expressive vocal (with Auto-Tune harmonies) not to mention seductive lyrics create the perfect environment for taking off your clothes and making some sweet love. Go ahead and give it a try. Let me know how it went afterwards.

As “You Are All I See” fully develops, in spite of a few stylistic shifts the majority of it maintains a delicate 80s electro-synth-pop vibe, its closest cousin actually being the last M83 album “Saturdays=Youth”. The main issue is that it’s not nearly as energetic or engrossing as M83, often adopting a more meditative tone that becomes formless and drags after awhile. Even Grossi’s consistent and dynamite voice can’t quite save much of the middle of the record. “See Thru Eyes” and “High Priestess” in particular fail to inspire in the wake of the first third of the album. When “Way Too Fast” shows up, the minimalist electro atmospherics blended with Grossi’s vocals pitch-shifted through multiple filters makes it sound like an outtake from the James Blake record. It actually makes for one of the most fascinating moments on the entire album even if it doesn’t quite equal the high watermark Blake established earlier this year. Almost like a cast off from the “Curtis Lane” EP, “Shield and Sword” brings the tempo to dance club level but stops short of becoming fully fleshed out and engaging. It also feels just a slight bit out of place.

If there’s hope for “You Are All I See”, it comes in the form of closing track “Johnny Belinda”. There are many ways to describe the track, whether it be operatic, cinematic or even symphonic, but primarily it’s just plain epic. The army of violins and cellos create a massive and ominous rumble while harp gets sprinkled in as a bit of extra spice and beauty. Grossi’s voice, backed by some operatic moans, tells the sad tale of lost love. It is the sonic equivalent of a man adrift at sea in a small lifeboat as a storm rages and waves crash on top of him. And it works. To think that one man (with obvious help) could put together an immense track like that proves that this is a project worth keeping an eye on. If every track on “You Are All I See” was this well written and composed, Active Child would have a game-changing album on his hands. Unfortunately a couple clunkers pushes it off the mark and leaves us to wonder what might have been. The record’s primary issue though is virtually the same problem that has plagued Active Child from the beginning – an inability to commit to one particular style or another. Grossi has broadened his horizons rather than reduced them, going from R&B one moment to synth-pop the next, with shades of soul, classical, gospel and a number of other styles in between. Simply having your record sound beautiful doesn’t mean you’re stylistically dialed in. Hopefully from touring around this record Grossi will learn what works best and streamline that approach for the next record.

Active Child – Playing House (Ft. How To Dress Well)

Active Child – Hanging On (White Sea Remix)

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Album Review: Pictureplane – Thee Physical [Lovepump United]

Did you listen to electronica back in the early 90s? This was the time when artists like Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers were making big waves around the world both for their beats as well as their unique music videos. What made these artists so popular was their ability to not simply rely on synths and other typical electronic textures, but to innovate and incorporate more elements of rock music into the mix. It’s a big reason why you heard “Smack My Bitch Up” or “Busy Child” on alternative rock radio. Unfortunately like so many trends, that sound eventually died out, and that’s part of the reason why Prodigy haven’t put out much worth mentioning in the last several years and why The Chemical Brothers are at the point where the soundtrack to a movie seems like a good idea (to be fair, they did a nice job with the “Hanna” soundtrack). There are still plenty of people nostalgic for that “90s electronica” sound, even whilst chillwave or glo-fi tries to adjust to survive. Considering that 90s garage rock has been having its own resurgence in the last couple years via bands like Yuck and Japandroids, electronica might as well have its turn. Thanks to Pictureplane, that’s more of a reality than ever. The project of Travis Egedy, Pictureplane burst onto the music scene in 2009 via the album “Dark Rift”. Songs like “Goth Star” provided some darker, more interesting twists and turns to the traditional mode of electronic music and pretty much signalled the creation of the subgenre of music known as “witch house”. The new Pictureplane record “Thee Physical” is cut from a similar but by no means the same cloth – commercial accessibility and smarter song structures take precedence, helping to make this one of the more fascinating electro albums so far this year.

The relationship between Pictureplane and the band HEALTH has been one of mutual admiration and friendship it seems, and the result of that has ultimately bettered both acts. For HEALTH’s sake, Pictureplane has served as helper and remixer on their last “DISCO” album, work that actually went a long way towards making the band’s somewhat difficult record a bit easier on the ears. In turn, HEALTH’s Jupiter Keyes played a large role by co-producing to help shape “Thee Physical”‘s sound into something more pop-friendly compared to the last album. There are far more active hooks, melodies that generally flow and loop better, and a stronger balance between the use of samples and live vocals. Egedy handles the vocals on close to every track, though often he’s not alone thanks to a number of quick one-word samples peppered in amongst the beats. With the melodies and beats carefully concocted, Egedy makes better and smarter use of his energetic but ultimately shaky vocals by placing them a touch farther into the background compared to his last album. They’re still remarkably functional and discernible, but without the potential hazard of having them appear weak or generally lacking. Yet in some cases the vocals are essential to make the track work. Opening cut “Body Mod” nearly stalls out until Egedy’s voice kicks in and propels the song in a very forward direction. Elsewhere the samples take free reign while Egedy’s singing plays second fiddle on a track like “Post Physical”, yet it does nothing to harm the song’s commercial appeal.

Not everything on “Thee Physical” works though, and those couple small issues do some remarkable damage to an otherwise solid effort. “Trancegender” contains what’s one of the strongest and most engaging hooks on the entire album, but gets bogged down in an excess of synths and beats all pushing for darkness and atmosphere. A similar darkness prevails on “Black Nails”, but while the track’s mixture of Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode-esque styles is compelling, the multiple layers of beats throw the main melody just a slight bit off-kilter to the point where you feel like it could have been so much more. At least the album is thematically sound, even if the subject matter tends towards the highly sexualized. One glance at the album cover’s leather-clad hand, along with song titles like “Sex Mechanism” and “Techno Fetish” should provide you with all the information you need as to what the overarching theme of the album is. Such subjects undoubtedly work well with the bump and grind of the dance floor, but not every track is built with that in mind. A couple of the songs featuring guitars, in particular a track like “Thee Power Hand” which closes the record, play closer to the rock and roll side of things, again with the 90s electronica references in place. Those minor detours create friction in the overall flow, thereby decreasing the impact an album like this could have. Taken individual track by track, there’s rarely an issue, but as a full piece there are noticeable missteps. Still, that doesn’t prevent “Thee Physical” from being a stronger and more exciting effort than Pictureplane’s debut, and the more commercially accessible pop-friendly melodies should bring a lot of new fans on board. Without a doubt, the next Pictureplane record could be the one that takes Egedy to the front doorstep of electronica’s greats.

Pictureplane – Post Physical
Pictureplane – Real Is A Feeling

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Click past the jump to stream the entire album!

Album Review: Washed Out – Within and Without [Sub Pop/Weird World]

Do you recall when people were trying to suggest that the chillwave/glo-fi sound was the future of music? The thought was that this wasn’t just another hyped subgenre but instead something that would become an evolutionary sea change. Personally, I chalked it up to more blowhards talking out of their asses, and assumed the chatter would die down like it always does, when the “next big sound” arrives. That hasn’t necessarily hit just yet, but the electronic sound with the lo-fi production is dying a slow death. Some artists, such as Memory Tapes, appear either slow or entirely unreactive to this evolution, using their most recent full lengths or EPs to hold steadfast in the same sounds they first arrived on scene with. Others, such as Toro Y Moi, have played it much smarter by upgrading to a far more clean-cut and “normal” approach. It’s a survival tactic, but it’s also a great way of showing that underneath the poorly produced exterior lies an album’s worth of highly catchy and easy to love synth-pop songs. This is where Washed Out comes in. The project under which Ernest Greene operates, Washed Out’s sound has been very much a direct indicator of what the name suggests. As such, you might expect Greene to stick with that same path for the new record “Within and Without”. The good news is that music is about so much more than just a name.

Freshly signed to Sub Pop Records thanks to two strong EPs worth of chillwave, Washed Out was given access to a professional studio and other such monetary advantages to help create “Within and Without”. The results are as you might expect – glossy and vibrant, with the synths riding up front and the vocals not much farther behind. It’s dance music, but not nearly in the traditional sense of the word. Subtlety is the name of the game, and the melodies will often slyly sneak up on you and snatch your attention when you least expect them to. There are no immediate hooks or blatant singles like “Feel It All Around” was on the “Life of Leisure” EP. Instead, a track like “Soft” may pass you by on the first go-around as being nice to listen to, but ultimately unmemorable. Then you’ll give it two more close listens, perhaps once with headphones, and suddenly that melody just won’t leave you alone. That’s just one example out of several across the album that reward multiple listens, drawing you in the more attention you devote to it. The relaxed pace is a big part of what makes “Within and Without” work as well, and there’s a certain truth contained within the album cover that features two people lying naked together in the heat of passion. Making love to things like the title track or “You and I” is perfectly sensible and nearly encouraged. But even if you don’t have somebody to get it on with while listening to this album, the sheer ambiance and warmth of it is great to put on at a party or in the background while you’re working or even after a long day where you need to relax. Despite the adjustment in fidelity, this is still CHILLwave after all, and the point is sort of missed if you don’t “chill out” while listening to it.

One of the issues this record runs into is that it might be heard as overly smooth by some, the better production values actually reducing the effectiveness of the material. There is the potential for the entire 40 minute album to slide right past without much notice, but that’s more the result of a poor attention span than it is poor content. From the small bit of cello on “Far Away” through much of the live percussion that unveils itself via a song like “Echoes”, it’s the little things that make “Within and Without” the best set of recordings from Washed Out yet. And even in spite of the better sound quality, that doesn’t make Greene’s vocals a whole lot clearer or more discernable. Between some attached reverb and the placement of the synths and other elements higher in the mix, you’ll likely still be left wanting if the hope was to comb over each and every word and the potential meanings behind them. Greene isn’t a bad singer by any means, but it’s clear that he’d like the focus to be squarely on melody. Besides, you can pretty much already discern from themes and song titles that these songs are about love and longing and summertime and the general sadness of time passing. Sometimes words don’t do those emotions justice anyways. To me, this record is the sonic equivalent of swimming underwater in a crystal clear pool on a sunny day. If that doesn’t seem like an amazing idea to you, then maybe this album or Washed Out in general just won’t click in the proper way. For everyone else, be warned that there’s only a couple months left of summer during which this album will be at its peak enjoyment level.

Washed Out – Eyes Be Closed
Washed Out – Amor Fati

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Album Review: Eleanor Friedberger – Last Summer [Merge]

For years now, we’ve stood by and simply watched (or listened) as Matthew Friedberger unleashed solo record after solo record during brief breaks from his main band The Fiery Furnaces, of which he is a main part of along with his sister Eleanor. Well, technically speaking, Matthew has only released a couple solo albums, the double discer that was “Winter Women and Holy Ghost Language School” back in 2006. This year though he’s freaking out and unleashing 8 albums of original material as part of a project called “Solos”, where he spends an entire record with just a single instrument and his own voice. If you separate out all of those various LPs in addition to the ones still forthcoming in 2011, he’ll have put out more solo full lengths than he has with The Fiery Furnaces. All the while, Eleanor Friedberger has done nothing on her own, leaving many curious as to what she might come up with were she to pursue such a path. Well, wonder no more, because last summer she recorded her first solo album. Now here we are, one year later, and that record is finally out, and very naturally titled “Last Summer”.

Anyone that’s ever heard a Fiery Furnaces album before knows what Eleanor is like behind the microphone. Her vocals are done in an almost sing-speak fashion, and that’s primarily due to the extensive amount of lyrics she’s got to spit out within the confines of a typical song. She writes the stuff too, and tells stories both real and fictional concerning her own life or the lives of others. On “Last Summer”, those hallmarks remain, though the stories she tells across this album are 100% true things that have happened to her. Not that it makes much of a difference in the end, except in making close analysis of the lyrics that much more poignant. She talks about a failed attempt to rekindle an old relationship on opening track and first single “My Mistakes”, even though the song itself is such a delightful slice of synth pop pie that you’d imagine it’d have to be about something more upbeat and fun. On the funky “Roosevelt Island” she details a trip she made to the New York neighborhood, leading off with an anecdote about encountering a doppelganger. “We saw a picture of a girl with the same hair and I posed next to her/Made a great photo but I never thought I’d see her again/Didn’t really ever want to see her again,” she sings with the most rapid-fire delivery possible. Dealing with the specific time frame of when the album was recorded, “Glitter Gold Year” mentions 2010 many a time, to the point where Eleanor begins to play around with just HOW she sings it. But she’s also apparently not happy with said “glitter gold year”, beacuse she also often repeats, “you said it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s worse”. Seeing as how “Last Summer” is a recording of tales from 2010, there most definitely is no way that’s getting erased anymore, not that we’d want it to anyways. Even the most experienced New Yorker can sometimes get lost in such a large city, and “Owl’s Head Park” is an amusing tale about how going to pick up a custom-made bicycle left her at the titular park and unsure of how to get home. “The boys on the F train said that frame was fresh/it was the color blue/but I didn’t know my way/so I couldn’t get home to you,” are a few lines that emphasize just how Friedberger is able to keep a plot moving along while also providing miniscule details that enhance what’s already there. It’s a big part of what makes The Fiery Furnaces so unique and exciting, and it plays the same role on her solo effort, though with slightly different sonic results.

The two separate Friedberger halves of The Fiery Furnaces work so well together because of how their individual dynamics come into play. Matthew is the guy who puts together all the weird sonic experiments, while Eleanor writes and sings behind those avant-pop sounds. Rare is the Fiery Furnaces track that is straightforward and simply structured. The closest moments you’ll get to pure pop from the band comes through in tracks like “Single Again,” “Here Comes the Summer”, “Benton Harbor Blues” and “Tropical Iceland”. If you loved those moments, or if they’re some of the only songs you actually like from the band because the rest is too strange, then “Last Summer” is the record you’ve been waiting for. The songs almost always hold a typical verse-chorus-verse structure, and the oddest instrument used is either the saxophone or harmonica. Actually, the saxophone solo that closes out “Owl’s Head Park” is one of the most fascinating moments on an album that’s by no means lacking in them. The vibe is very much 70s pop throughout, and various aspects of it show up on certain tracks. “Roosevelt Island” mines the territory of past greats like Stevie Wonder or The Commodores. There’s a nice bit of psychedelia on “Inn of the Seventh Ray”, particularly when Eleanor’s vocals are hit with the echo effect and the synths are bleeping about like they’re floating within that same ether. “I Won’t Fall Apart On You Tonight” has some more fun with the vocals, creating some splendid backing harmonies that essentially make it a girl group song. And a pair of beautiful acoustic guitar-based folk ballads turn up as well courtesy of “Scenes from Bensonhurst” and “One-Month Marathon”. Though there are obviously some personal instrumental touches in there, at their core they recall some of the amazing folk records from artists like Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez. There may be a mixture of diverse styles across these 10 tracks, but Eleanor’s own quirks along with a serious knack for crafting memorable hooks makes everything work, even if she never pushes too far in one direction or the other.

Weighing “Last Summer” against all the other music with a Friedberger name stamped on it is a tough thing to do. Matthew’s influence has undoubtedly been a good on for the sake of originality and experimentation, but there’s something to be said for exceptionally strong writing and powerfully addictive pop songs. “My Mistakes” factors in pretty well to be one of the best, catchiest things you’ll hear this calendar year, and there’s a secret sort of delight to be had from condensing the weirdness of The Fiery Furnaces into something wholly pure and easily digestible. The mood of the album too, given its summer release date, makes for a perfect soundtrack to one of those lazy days hanging out at home with the sunshine streaming in through the windows. Yeah it works best in summer, but even in the winter it can probably be used to warm you up a little bit and bring out that innate longing to travel to the Inn of the Seventh Ray or ride the Cyclone on Coney Island. These may be Eleanor’s memories of things that have happened to her, but the way that she spins those tales tend to put us there with her. Honestly, there are far worse ways to spend your money and 40 minutes of your life. While the album likely lacks the staying power of a “Blueberry Boat”, the immediacy and lack of a learning curve make it special in its own way. Matthew may be releasing 8 albums this year, but it’s doubtful that any one of them will be as lovely and wonderful as “Last Summer” is.

Eleanor Friedberger – My Mistakes

Eleanor Friedberger – Scenes from Bensonhurst

Buy “Last Summer” from Amazon

Album Review: Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital [Sub Pop]

When we last left our Handsome Furs heroes, they were riding high on their second record, “Face Control”. After the moderate mess that was their debut album “Plague Park”, husband and wife team Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry could very well have been considered a second fiddle side project to Boeckner’s main band, Wolf Parade. At the same time, his Wolf Parade bandmate Spencer Krug was snatching all kinds of praise for his other projects Sunset Rubdown and Swan Lake. In other words, Handsome Furs had some work to do, and with “Face Control” they rose to the challenge and made a record that officially deemed them worthy of “main band” rather than “side project” status. It should come as little surprise then that after putting out one more album Wolf Parade has now gone on indefinite hiatus so everybody can do their own things. Handsome Furs are first out of the gate in 2011 with their third album “Sound Kapital”, and once again they’ve worked hard towards making the next leap on the evolutionary scale, this time inspired by their travels around the world.

One of the most admirable things that can be said about Boeckner and Perry is that they are not only consistently challenging themselves but also the ways of our society. Though their own personal political views certainly play something of a role in their lyrics, much of “Sound Kapital” reflects a worldview that is lacking in many aspects of freedom that we take for granted each and every day. Having played shows in countries where leaders or governments dictate everything from the clothes you wear to what type of music you can listen to, Handsome Furs have been inspired by those oppressed who take risks all the time to gain access to the many good things being kept from them. In that same mentality, Boeckner wanted to approach this new record from a different angle than he’d ever tried before, so he put down his guitar and picked up a keyboard. Handsome Furs have always been a guitar and keyboard duo, but with this dual keyboard attack new sounds and influences quickly revealed themselves. Electronica and 80s industrial music form the basis of the new album, which is naturally enveloped in darker moods and themes than before. Things never get quite as bleak or guitar heavy as say Nine Inch Nails circa “Pretty Hate Machine”, but they’re still in the ballpark of a Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, or even a Suicide while still maintaining their own sense of identity. Perhaps what’s most surprising though is just how danceable the whole thing is, with the creative beat structures ripe enough to draw envy from a number of current chart-topping pop artists and fun enough to push for a multitude of remixes. The paradox is fascinating given how these songs push you hard with their energy while bringing you down with their words. What unites these polarizing elements is the overarching themes of humanity and hope, that we’re all in this very real and very present struggle for personal freedom together, and the comfort that can be taken from that.

The pulsating “When I Get Back” kicks “Sound Kapital” into high gear right from the start. The synths sound off like trumpets heralding the arrival of a new age for Handsome Furs, one that’s got nothing but hooks and energy to spare. As blissful of an opener though it may be, at close to 5 minutes it nearly overstays its welcome. Cutting a verse likely wouldn’t have hurt anything. Incorporating actual radio broadcasts from foreign countries into “Damage” is a kitschy touch, but then later having Boeckner’s vocals filtered in the same sort of manner is actually quite intelligent. The frenetic pace at which it clips along blended with an easy to remember chorus only helps as well. Unlike some bands that clearly play their sound for nostalgia purposes, “Memories of the Future” not only sounds like science fiction but its lyrics are nothing but forward thinking. The past is strewn with plenty of conflict, to the point where most of our history classes simply teach about the major wars rather than all the good that gets done. The Handsome Furs vision of the future is a far more peaceful one, where we throw out all notions of the past in an effort to create peace and love in the present. Following that up is a song that plays to the total opposite crowd. “Serve the People” is a scathing indictment of oppressive leadership and how much suffering is caused by dictators and corrupt governments. It’s the singular track that really stands out among a record that tends to flow much smoother than it has any right to be. The reason it stands out, aside from its lyrics, is the slower pace and piano-reverb combination that starts it. The second half of the album is actually where things REALLY take off. The 1-2 punch of “What About Us” and “Repatriated” makes for a knockout in terms of extremely catchy dance tracks. “Repatriated” particularly strikes gold in the way it holds onto a New Order-like groove before carefully building and exploding to a higher level, like so many classic electronica songs have done. The lyrics as well, when paired with “Cheap Music” that follows are about fighting against the strict rules imposed upon people against their will.

Closing out the album is “No Feelings”, a 7-minute sonic mish-mash that seems perfectly normal until 4 minutes in when the guitars finally show up (for virtually the first time on the entire record) and wash away everything in a huge build up of white noise. Of course it all comes back around and balances out before the end, but the point is to be a palate cleanser. It echoes the lyrical theme, which is not about being devoid of emotion but rather viewing the world from a different perspective. You can’t have any feelings about something if you haven’t experienced it before or don’t know anything about it, and in so many ways that also describes Handsome Furs. They’ve once again changed their stripes to help make their most cohesive and easiest to digest record to date. It’s fun and functional and political all at the same time without being too heavy-handed in one direction or the other. Forget what you know about this band, or what you think you know about this band, and turn on “Sound Kapital” with fresh ears ready to experience anything. It’s wonderful to hear Boeckner and Perry finally making some serious strides and continuing to help us forget that Wolf Parade might never return. At this point it might be best for everyone involved. If there’s a gripe to be had about this record it’s how overly smooth and easy on the ears it is. You come away feeling so much better vs. their debut “Plague Park”, but that odd fish of a record was at least an attempt to push into some newer territory. For all their anti-nostalgia/look to the future rhetoric, it’s tough to listen to “Sound Kapital” and not think about classic bands and classic albums. This record may hang in good company with them, but wholly innovative it is not. Hopefully with their next one they can bring back some of the chutzpah. Then again, with three records that are markedly different from one another, who knows what they’ll have in store for their fourth.

Handsome Furs – What About Us
Handsome Furs – Repatriated

Buy “Sound Kapital” from Amazon

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