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Album Review: Korallreven – An Album by Korallreven [Hybris/Acephale]

The Swedes really know what they’re doing when it comes to nostalgic pop. Point to anyone from Peter, Bjorn and John to the Shout Out Louds and The Radio Dept. and there’s plenty of evidence to support such a statement. One of the latest Swedish imports to hit the worldwide music market is Korallreven, an electro-pop duo that’s also coincidentally a side project of Daniel Tjäder from The Radio Dept. Given that band’s increased success and critical acclaim over these last few years, crafting tighter and better songs than ever before, there’s the hope that Korallreven might take on some of those same qualities. Like any good side project however, it seeks to form its own distinct identity. Tjäder and his Korallreven cohort Marcus Joons took their time in crafting their first full length, partly due to wanting to make the highest quality songs possible and partly because The Radio Dept. were doing quite a bit of touring, something they hadn’t done much previously. With the end of 2011 looming close and nearly 2 years of sporadic work put into it, “An Album by Korallreven” crept into the marketplace in the hopes of soundtracking your holiday season.

Okay, so “An Album by Korallreven” doesn’t have any holiday affiliation to it, outside of being released the week before Thanksgiving. If you wanted to forego the traditional Christmas songs and put it on instead, it might make for a nice respite, and the general warmth of the record certainly provides comfort with the outside temperatures plummeting. Sonically Korallreven falls into the same category as a number of bedroom electro-pop acts that have already released albums in 2011. Using Air France or jj (or The Tough Alliance and Tanlines if you like) as strong examples, the songs on “An Album by Korallreven” play in the quieter electronica pool, taking a relaxed approach to beats while still playing around with pop-infused hooks that won’t let you go. It’s not quite fast enough to dance to much of the time, but it’s gorgeous and remarkably addictive instead. Such feelings make sense, given the entire project was first conceived while Joons was taking a holiday in Samoa. A quick Google image search for the South Pacific island for those unfamiliar with it will yield thoughts of pure paradise filled with crystal clear waters, pure white sandy beaches, waterfalls and palm trees as far as the eye can see. Weather-wise, it’s about the exact opposite of Sweden, and it most assuredly has inspired many a creative mind. But the island permeates so much of this record, from the Samoan-like backing choirs to the song title “Sa Sa Samoa” to the consistent use of the word Samoa in the lyrics to a number of songs. Between that and the chanting of, “A dream within a dream” on “Keep Your Eyes Shut”, you’re stuck in a gauzy haze for the album’s entire 45 minutes.

The idea of spacing out or falling into an altered state while listening to “An Album by Korallreven” is very nice and very tempting, but not always simple to accomplish. Most of us are busy people with things to do, and if you turn on this record as backing music it’ll function as purely pleasant and unmemorable. Such is the flaw of an album such as this. There’s nothing outright bad about it, things just kind of stagnate after a short bit and never fully wake up again. Even if you do sit down and focus on these very lush songs individually, what this record is really missing is heart. It’s all glossy postcard beauty without actually feeling the sun on your skin or the sand between your toes. The equivalent of visiting Hawaii but only on a layover where you never get to leave the airport. The most redemptive and enticing moments on the album come courtesy of guest vocalists. Victoria Bergsman has a great resume that includes being a former member of The Concretes, a current member of Taken by Trees and taking a most memorable guest vocal turn on Peter, Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks”, and she very much makes her presence felt on this record via the opening song “As Young As Yesterday” along with a reggae/Balearic turn on “Honey Mine”. Both are two of the record’s best moments, along with Julianna Barwick’s looped vocal turn on “Sa Sa Samoa”. But Korallreven also prove they know how to write a strong song without a guest vocal, as previous singles “The Truest Faith” and “Loved-Up” prove.

What “An Album by Korallreven” lacks more than anything else though is progression. Yes, these 10 songs are diverse enough to make them individually stand out, but stylistically there’s not a ton of variation. For a duo that have been working on this debut full length for over two years, they’re still at that same spot where they first grabbed everyone’s attention all that time ago. They’re offering no new twist or appear to be truly challenging themselves in any way whatsoever. Granted, much of their sound involves heavily drawing upon the past, but they don’t sound like they’re having a whole lot of fun doing it. Instead they feel coldly committed to establishing mood and hooks rather than offering the listener a more engaging and spontaneous experience. They do a great job with it, but in this day and age we’re going to need just a little more from them to make it truly stand out from their similar counterparts. For a dead of winter warm-up record though, you could definitely do worse.

Korallreven – As Young As Yesterday (ft. Victoria Bergsman)
Korallreven – Sa Sa Samoa (ft. Julianna Barwick)

Buy “An Album by Korallreven” from Amazon

Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day 2 Recap

As the weekend wears onward, I only wind up more and more tired at the end of each respective day. In other words, if I was super tired when doing last night’s Day 1 recap, today is a whole other level of pain. Still, I shall push past the sleep demons to provide you with a play-by-play of all the action I absorbed on Day 2 of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival.

Normally I’m a full set kind of person, as I am also a full album kind of person. It’s the sort of feeling like once you start something you need to see it through to a full conclusion. Well today I went a little schizophrenic and watched a lot of half sets. Too many great bands to see and too little time will do that to you. But to start the day, I strolled in past the gates and caught Julianna Barwick in the earliest stages of her set. Yes, Chrissy Murderbot was across the park on the smaller stage, but you could hear his beats pumping all the way where Barwick was playing. Not her fault, though the fact that her songs aren’t the loudest, most upbeat things in the world didn’t help matters. I immediately started to sweat in the 80+ degree temperatures, and a few times during Barwick’s set I felt like the sun had purposely increased in intensity. But in spite of the sweltering heat and noise interruptions, Barwick put on a great set. It likely would have been much better off in a small, dark venue than at this festival, but such is life. The songs were absolutely gorgeous as she worked at looping her vocals over and over and over again until there were these haunting harmonies that just spoke to you.

Woods was next up on the list of bands to see, but I didn’t plan on sticking around for long. That was partly because word on the street was that they were very boring live, and also Sun Airway seemed like they could be good. The first thing I noticed about Woods was that prior to starting their set they spread incense everywhere on stage. Then one of the guys in the band used a pair of headphones as a microphone, with one earpiece on his mouth and the other wrapping around to the back of his neck. Keep in mind this was NOT the singer Jeremy Earl, but rather “tape effects technician” G. Lucas Crane. The best part is that in the title “tape effects” they mean cassette tapes. With all this going on, it’d seem maybe Woods wasn’t a boring band live after all. But once the novelty and strangeness wore off, everything else about the band seemed old hat. Five tracks into their set, I skipped out.

Sun Airway was a band I had high hopes for. They’ve only got one record out, but it’s a good one and there was something about it that felt like they were hungry to succeed on every possible level. Unfortunately, that did not turn out to be the case, as the first part of their set was beleaguered with bouts of normalcy. They were bringing a little more energy to the stage than their cross-park time slot rivals Woods were, but not a whole lot more. At least they seemed like they wanted to be there. Being such a young band, maybe a couple years’ worth of touring experience will help turn their somewhat pedestrian set into something that grabs your attention and refuses to let go.

One of the more amusing moments of the festival came when Cold Cave began their set and emerged on stage wearing thick black leather jackets, among other things. They must have been hotter than hell in those outfits, given the extreme temperatures outside at that hour. The interesting thing is, Cold Cave absolutely went all-out to put on a lively and entertaining show. The trio danced, shimmied, shook, and every other crazy move while their synth-pop melodies soared through the air as if they were so big no room could fully contain them. The bass shooting out of the speakers was nothing less than intense to the point where it put all of your internal organs on vibrate mode. It was heartening to see a band truly give 110%, in particular as a pseudo-response to the general malaise of the sets that came before it on Saturday.

Not willing to be outdone, the crowd was clearly primed for No Age. After a few minutes of technical issues, the mosh pit started almost immediately when they started to play. Things got super intense super fast, and security was just a tiny bit overwhelmed trying to keep it all contained. Water started to get passed around at a fast and furious rate, and people started to open the bottles and whip that water over the crowd to try and keep everything cool. Meanwhile, Randy Randall was and Dean Spunt were laying it all out there, giving back to the crowd what the crowd was giving it. After chatting with a security guard later in the day, he told me that while things got wild during that No Age set, injuries were minimal and everyone took care of one another. That is what this festival is all about, having a good time while showing some love for your neighbor. I left No Age’s set mid-way through to go see Wild Nothing, but came back before the end. Spunt had abandoned his drum set and was climbing the barricade in front of the stage. Best set of the day? Quite possibly.

In terms of going to see Wild Nothing, my hopes were not that high. Their album “Gemini” is great, and most assuredly it’d translate well to a live show, but after two bands in a row that were seriously kicking ass, I didn’t think they could muster up that same sort of energy. Turns out I was right, though Wild Nothing’s set was in no way poor in quality. Their vibe was just totally different, in a more laid back and relaxed sense. If you were hanging out in the shade over there with a light breeze blowing through, I’m sure it made for a nice time. Personally, I was still on an energy high and after a handful of songs had the strong urge to go back over to No Age, which I eventually did. Still, Wild Nothing, if the situation were different, I’d absolutely recommend their live show.

Then came Gang Gang Dance, a band that I like but am still struggling to fully comprehend. Much like Woods earlier in the day, GGD had a guy come out and spread incense all over the stage. Unlike Woods though, that guy was not a member of the band, outside of the fact that he stayed on stage the entire time, dancing around with a flag and more incense. If the band feels like they need a full time incense guy, well, then that’s their preference. When budget constraints hit you though, I’d think the incense guy is the first one to get fired. Anyways, outside of the crazy incense, the band put on a very interesting set. It was less energetic than I anticipated, but more technically sound. Lizzi Bougatsos played her frontwoman role to a T, and surrounded herself with percussion instruments of every sort. Whenever she wasn’t wailing into a microphone, which was often, she was banging on something or teasing some chimes. Percussion is an essential part of Gang Gang Dance’s live show, and I’m pretty sure every band member had drum sticks and was beating on something at one point or another. Not that I expected them to be bad, but I’d call the set surprisingly good. I was initially disappointed at what it appeared to be, and then once I had accepted what it was, learned to love it.

After really wanting to check out OFF! but finding myself unable to break away from Gang Gang Dance, I held up and just went straight to Destroyer. Dan Bejar has got plenty of albums to his name under that moniker, and most of them, while great, are not what’d best be described as “energetic”. I was expecting with the heat and late afternoon sun to just be bored out of my mind with his set. OFF! was likely giving a scathing, old school punk rock set, and here was Bejar and his band of saxophone and horn players ready to break out most of the soft rock stylings on his most recent effort “Kaputt”. Upon opening with the single “Chinatown” though, things seemed perfectly okay. There was something infinitely engaging about the performance, an almost indefinable quality to it that charmed in spite of its relatively subdued nature. Maybe it was the passion with which the band played. Maybe it was Bejar’s odd performance style of wandering and singing with his eyes closed. Whatever it was, there was magic involved. It only would have been better had I found a shady spot to sit down and just listen.

As it stood though, I was overly excited to check out The Radio Dept., so yet again I abandoned another artist mid-set. Having never seen The Radio Dept. live before but desperately wanting to, this was my big chance and I was not prepared to waste it. Imagine my shock then at finding out the trio was not very good live. Maybe it was the outdoor festival setting, or maybe they’re just plain inexperienced (prior to the last year or so, they had barely played any shows despite releasing 3 full lengths). The way I saw it was that their set lacked the showbiz word known only as pizzazz. It’s the indefinable quality that makes somebody engaging. Those three guys looked awkward on stage, like putting the spotlight on the shyest guys in a room. The keyboards didn’t bounce with any sort of vigor, the guitars lacked ferocity. The song “Keen On Boys”, perhaps my favorite Radio Dept. song ever, limped along, lacking any real muscle. The volume sounded like it was turned down to its lowest level too, and I almost wanted to stand at the back of the stage area to see if I could still hear the band. All this translates to The Radio Dept. sucking. My most anticipated set of the day, and it turned out to be one of the worst of the entire weekend thus far. Too bad, because I still really like the band. Maybe next time in a small, dark club it’ll be much better.

The Dismemberment Plan was next up, and having seen them already once earlier this year, I was intrigued to see what they’d do in front of a festival crowd. Turns out they’re just as, if not more exciting than ever before. They pumped through their classics like a band fresh off their first album and eager to please. They also looked like they were having a blast doing it. The huge smile on Travis Morrison’s face said it all. Naturally, the stage banter was overly witty as well, even at one point having Morrison attempt to do a verse of “You Are Invited” in the same heavy Cuban accent as Al Pacino in “Scarface”. Hilarious? You’d best believe it, even if much of the crowd had puzzled looks on their faces. Reports say that The D Plan also covered Robyn’s “Dancehall Queen”, but I skipped out for a short bit to go see some Twin Shadow. Still, I loved and continue to love The Dismemberment Plan. Their set was one of the top highlights of Saturday for me.

Early on in Twin Shadow‘s set, frontman George Lewis told the crowd that he was amused by his band’s placement in the day, playing opposite “my favorite band from when I was 18 years old”. The D Plan were still playing one hell of a show, but Twin Shadow seemed to both know that and want to equal or best it. The crowd was dancing up a storm, Lewis was pulling all sorts of rock star moves with his guitar in hand, and fun naturally came along with that. The high degree of energy served the whole band well, and the songs from “Forget”, along with a couple new ones sounded nothing short of great. It was technically unfair to put Twin Shadow up against the Dismemberment Plan, because that made it impossible to see two super great full sets. I feel privileged to have caught a majority of both bands.

I hung out at the smaller Blue stage for a bit to wait on Zola Jesus because DJ Shadow is NOT my thing. I wasn’t anticipating sticking around longer than a few songs for Zola Jesus though, lest I waste too much time and wind up in a super bad spot for the evening’s headliner Fleet Foxes. So the few songs I saw Zola and her band perform were solid. Great doesn’t quite define it, but very good and interesting probably do it justice. Zola’s a strong live performer, wearing a lovely ruffled dress sans shoes and dancing around from end to end of the stage. She played a couple new tunes in the time I was there, and they sound like a good continuation of what she’s accomplished on her last two efforts. I’m genuinely excited to hear her upcoming album now. The only fault I really found with her live set was that I’m not a huge fan of her music. As I’ve already stated, seeing her live made me have a greater appreciation for her records, but I didn’t have much of an appreciation in the first place. I was there because I had nothing better to do, and it turned into something more worthwhile. I’m quite happy it worked out that way, and if you saw her set, I hope you walked away liking Zola Jesus more too.

Finally it was Fleet Foxes time. The first thing I noticed when they came out on stage was how the entire band (save for the drummer) was lined up in a straight line across the stage. Yet instead of setting up on the front of the stage like every single other band, they only occupied the back half of the stage. It was like they were trying to distance themselves from the crowd. Don’t ask me why they chose to do it that way. As you may or may not be aware, I’ve said some not-so-nice things about the fact that Fleet Foxes were headlining a night of this festival, in particular because I felt like they were not yet worthy of headliner status. Two albums and 3 years shouldn’t earn you such privileges, even if those two albums were both completely amazing. What still consistently amazes is how they’re able to pull off all those dense harmonies in a live setting. It’s incredible to watch and to hear, even as the guys do nothing but stand in the same place the entire set. They rolled through their requisite great songs, from “Mykonos” to “Grown Ocean” and “White Winter Hymnal”, all the way past the “Blue Ridge Mountains” before finally ending with “Helplessness Blues”. I’d call the set triumphant if only it were just a little more engaging. As it stood, everything was very nice and pleasant, but the band could use just a little more spark in their performance in order to fully justify their headliner status. After a very long day in the hot sun, it was extremely nice to kind of relax and let Fleet Foxes take you away. THAT was the real benefit of their night closing set.

Okay, that wraps up a lengthy Day 2. Day 3 kicks off in another few hours, so if you’re headed out there, best of luck to you. Hot temperatures await, but so does fun. Stay hydrated. I’ll have my recap of Day 3, and one final full festival wrap-up for you once this whole thing draws to a close.

EP Review: The Radio Dept. – Never Follow Suit [Labrador]

No matter how well they do for themselves, The Radio Dept. never seem to get enough press in America. It may be different in other countries, but the U.S. seems relatively content to ignore the Swedish band. Of course they haven’t made it difficult to do so, only putting out a full length every 3-4 years and playing an extremely small number of shows not just in North America but around the world in general. Clearly they have their reasons, you’ve just got to wonder how well they might be doing were they to put up a little more effort. In terms of releases, The Radio Dept. aren’t necessarily slacking off between their albums. They tend to release a handful of singles from each record and turn a couple into EPs as well with handfuls of b-sides and other unreleased material. Case in point, the band put out their third album “Clinging to a Scheme” early this year, and put out the 4-track “David” EP a couple months before it as a preview. Then they did the “Heaven’s On Fire” single shortly after the record’s release. They were going to do another EP for the third single “Never Follow Suit” this past June, but it was pushed back and will finally see release this week. The track listing has changed to feature three new songs in addition to the single and an extended remix by Pistol Disco. The two tracks originally slated to appear on the EP have now disappeared under the assumption that they will pop up again on another future release.

First and foremost, for the casual Radio Dept. fan, or at least the ones that don’t give them that much attention, the “Never Follow Suit” EP isn’t essential by any means. You’re much better off putting a laser beam focus on “Clinging to a Scheme”, what with its multitude of singles and long form style. Without a doubt though, “Never Follow Suit” is one of the best songs on the album, and worthy at the very least of its own standalone single no doubt being pushed to American radio stations that will never play it. Tragic, given how catchy it is. The origins of the song are fascinating in themselves, with the band writing it in response to the minor success they achieved in the wake of having multiple songs on the soundtrack to the Sofia Coppola film “Marie Antoinette”. Apparently they received a number of offers and solicitations for new material, many of them trying to push for certain sounds. Not happy with being forced into a corner, The Radio Dept. chose instead to go their own direction, and “Never Follow Suit” is their response to that.

Before the EPs title track though, things kick off with new song “The One”, which has a similar bounce and piano line to “Never Follow Suit”. The two tracks naturally compliment one another, and not a single beat is missed in transition if you listen to both in a row. It may not have quite the hook that the title track does, but that was probably the point. The other two EP-exclusive songs add up to just a little less, but are remarkable enough to elevate them to a level above your average b-side. “Stay Off Route” is a pretty dancey instrumental with almost Balearic keyboards that shuts down at just under the 2 minute mark. The song could have been so much more, but as a brief lead-in to “On Your Side” it serves its purpose. Needing something more of a ballad, “On Your Side” fills that role nicely while simultaneously providing an almost play-by-play of everything that comes before it. The lyrics make references back to the title track and some lush acoustic guitar strums provide gentle accents to the computer-crafted beats and light keyboards. It’s not the most memorable thing The Radio Dept. have done, but it apparently was good enough to wind up on the band’s collection “Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010” that will be out next year. The EP closes with an 8-minute Pistol Disco “dub” remix of the title track cleverly retitled “Never Swallow Fruit”. If you’ve heard the original “Never Follow Suit” either earlier in the EP or simply prior to now, there’s a pretty good layout for how the track can be remixed, and Pistol Dub follows it like a road map. On the one hand it’s somewhat nice to get an extended mix of the song for clubs, but on the other Pistol Dub fails to do much beyond what’s already there. Simply put, the remix lacks a little spice or unexpected excitement. The best remixes take odd but workable left turns, and this one stays on the straight and narrow.

With an EP such as this one, it’s relatively tough to slap a recommendation on it. This one’s mostly for the purest of the purists, those that need to have every piece of music that The Radio Dept. releases. If you really like the band but aren’t too keen on spending the money for the couple new tracks that make up this EP, take some solace that their label Labrador is offering up most of it as a free download, and a missing piece or two will show up in a few months as part of the band’s double disc singles collection. In other words, the “Never Follow Suit” EP is little more than a collector’s item that might be nice to own on vinyl (they’re only pressing 1,000 copies, and they’ll probably go quickly). The songs are all pretty good in their own way (even if the remix is a little shaky), and if you have any interest in the band you should check them out. If you go digital you’ll probably pay little to nothing for the privilege, and that’s about as good of a price as you can get these days.

The Radio Dept. – Never Follow Suit
The Radio Dept. – The One
The Radio Dept. – Never Swallow Fruit (Dub by Pistol Disco) (via Pitchfork)

Buy the “Never Follow Suit” EP on vinyl from Labrador
Buy the EP digitally from Amazon

Album Review: The Radio Dept. – Clinging To A Scheme [Labrador]

As far as I’m aware, and I’m most basically talking about Americans here, there are extremely few people who have heard a song by The Radio Dept. before. The simple reason why is that their album releases are few and far between, and they don’t do a ton of touring. And I suppose the fact that they’re from Sweden, home to about 10 doxen other great bands with pop sensibilities doesn’t do much to distinguish them from everyone else. At the same time, I’ll readily say that while The Radio Dept.’s music definitely sounds like I’ve heard it somewhere before from another band, I can never quite place exactly what band that might be. Okay, that’s not entirely true. They may not have the same sort of overall pastiche, but often when listening to The Radio Dept. I think of how this music might have been written and released by The Cocteau Twins or New Order in their early days. I suppose it’s the dream pop nature of the band and that they’re given to use a fair amount of synths (often distorted in a completely good way). And while I don’t quite feel like The Radio Dept. are cut from the same quality cloth that both those bands were, I do consider their first two albums, “Lesser Matters” and “Pet Grief” to be something of modern-day classics. Both are albums that feel largely crafted out of time, with blissful pop songs that are both obscure and heartwarming at the same time. I think that largely has to do with how they mix their records, unafraid to put crackling synths or guitars forward as the dominant elements in most every song, while Johan Duncanson’s vocals get treated with an echo effect that tends to bury his singing and make the lyrics sometimes hard to decipher. You simply let the sound wash over you and bask in the soothing voice that seems to draw you in from afar. Simply put, it’s wonderful. That being said, The Radio Dept. are finally ready to release their first album since 2006’s “Pet Grief”. The new one is called “Clinging To A Scheme” and you can buy it in the U.S. on Tuesday.

So, what has changed in The Radio Dept.’s camp since 4 years ago? Well, in a similar vein to “Pet Grief” and perhaps taken to even the next level, the band has gotten a bit lighter. You listen to the noise-heavy recordings of 2003’s “Lesser Matters” and then “Clinging To A Scheme” back to back and there’s a world of difference. What stays the same though is the band’s knack for crafting memorable and addictive melodies, and the placement of instruments at the forefront with Duncanson’s vocals again slightly back in the mix. There’s also, as per usual, a fair number of samples used across the record, from snippets of people talking about graffiti art and the music industry, to birds and insect noises. These effects continue to add to the already compelling songs and give many of them a more unique twist. As is typical for this band, they continue to forego live drumming, instead relying on pre-programmed drum machine bits, and while that provides the additional challenge when it comes to deviating from an already established melody, somehow that doesn’t become painfully obvious unless you’re really looking for it. Basically just enjoy the ride and have some fun, because as dreamy and fuzzy as this thing gets sometimes, much of it remains danceable.

Do I have any problems with this record? Aside from the band’s basic formula remaining intact and without a ton of variation (which doesn’t really bother me), “Clinging To A Scheme” represents another solid notch in The Radio Dept.’s already great catalogue. Flanked by great pop singles like “Heaven’s On Fire” and “David,” you get a pretty good idea of what to expect across the rest of the album. If you’re asking me though, the cleverly named song “The Video Dept.” is perhaps the band’s strongest song in quite awhile, and one that essentially tells you exactly what The Radio Dept. are all about. That’s the undeniable highlight in a record full of delights. Yes, I absolutely recommend that you get a copy of this album should you be so inspired. I wouldn’t classify it as the best The Radio Dept. have to offer, but it comes quite close to it. You may not hear me talk about this record when it comes to listmaking time in December, but rest assured that if it doesn’t make it onto that “Top 50”, rest assured it’s probably number 51 or something like that.

The Radio Dept. – Never Follow Suit
The Radio Dept. – Heaven’s On Fire
The Radio Dept. – David

Buy “Clinging To A Scheme” from Amazon

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