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Album Review: Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits [Merge]

Let’s get the introductions out of the way quickly. You know and love Britt Daniel from Spoon. That song they do “The Underdog” is pretty great. Dan Boeckner has been in a couple bands you may have heard of, including Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs. He’s no longer a member of either of those bands anymore, but really everything he’s been involved in has been wonderful. Sam Brown is from the band New Bomb Turks. You’ve probably never heard of New Bomb Turks or Sam Brown, but he’s a drummer and everyone always forgets about the drummer. With the powers of Daniel, Boeckner and Brown combined, they are Divine Fits. Their debut album is inventively titled A Thing Called Divine Fits. All reasonable logic says that given the players involved, the excellence of this record should be almost a sure thing. Welcome to a band where expectations are met.

The breakdown of A Thing Called Divine Fits is about as even-handed as the composition of it. Daniel and Boeckner bring their considerable talents to the table, and while they insist it was an extremely collaborative atmosphere, the liner notes show that only two songs out of eleven are credited to both of them. The rest are either written solely by one or the other, save for “Shivers,” which is a cover of a Boys Next Door song. The record is split right down the middle vocally too, and they accomodate for the uneven number of tracks by both singing “The Salton Sea.” What do these songs sound like? Well, the Boeckner tracks are a lot more synth heavy and Handsome Furs-esque, while the Daniel tracks feature more guitars and bounce like a good Spoon song should. In other words, if you like either or both of their other bands, you’ll like Divine Fits too. Their previously established sounds aren’t too far apart from one another, so the blending of both into one record sounds even better than you might anticipate.

The ways A Thing Called Divine Fits differs from the work of Spoon and Handsome Furs are somewhat subtle, but they are there. Opening track “My Love Is Real” gets by on little more than a synth and a rhythm track, which you could definitely say is more minimalist, while the hook of, “My love is real/Until it stops,” is very concise considering the typically wordy Boeckner wrote it. Boeckner also goes a little outside of his comfort zone on the sparse acoustic ballad “Civilian Stripes,” though he has done a couple of somewhat similar-sounding songs with Wolf Parade before. It’s his vocals that really sell the song, which are more heartfelt and emotional than he’s ever been. Ultimately Divine Fits does more for Boeckner than anyone else, especially since he has much more on the line with no other project to go back to. He shines in exactly the ways he needs to and takes the opportunity to grow, even if it’s only a little bit.

Daniel for the most part rides the wave this record provides for him, especially on “Flaggin a Ride” and “Would That Not Be Nice.” Both of those songs are individually great and super catchy but don’t push on any stylistic or lyrical boundaries. If you want to hear him go just a little off his playbook, “The Salton Sea” is the place to start. It’s not a pop song; it’s an atmospheric piece in which the synths create this pulsating ocean of noise that you just want to swim around in. Many will write it off as one of the album’s more minor moments, but there’s something almost indefinably cool about it if you pay close attention. The same can be said about closing track “Neopolitans,” which seems to signal from its own little world where synths lightly strobe before giving way to moments of sudden acoustic guitar clarity and echoed vocals. It’s the one track on the entire record that truly epitomizes what it would sound like if you mashed Handsome Furs and Spoon together for four minutes. There’s a bipolarity to it, but it works well anyways.

All the members of Divine Fits insist that they are taking this band seriously and this isn’t a one-off collaboration or side project. Yes, Daniel will return to Spoon, but he may do what Boeckner did for years with Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs and do a record and tour with one before skipping over to the other for more of the same. Of course Daniel has also started another band, so who knows how he’s going to manage everything. It’s also unlikely Boeckner will sit around waiting to make another Divine Fits record, so he’ll probably debut a new project in 2013. But yes, based upon the strong start that is A Thing Called Divine Fits, they’d be fools to stop now. If anything, hopefully this band turns into a space where these guys don’t feel bound by expectations or constraints and can truly let their crazier and uncommercial sides out of the cage. That would likely be either an unlistenable mess, or something brilliant and (r)evolutionary. Given their pedigree, you’re almost guaranteed the latter.

Divine Fits – Would That Not Be Nice

Divine Fits – My Love Is Real

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Album Review: Moonface – With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery [Jagjaguwar]

Spencer Krug is a genius. There’s not a whole lot of ways to disprove that statement, except in saying that one person’s gold is another person’s trash, and vice versa. We’re all entitled to our opinions. But one needs only to look at Krug’s track record to find evidence of his brilliance. He was a member of Frog Eyes during their most creative period. He went on to become one of two principal singers and songwriters in Wolf Parade, whose three full-length efforts range from very good to one of the best of the last decade. His solo work as Sunset Rubdown eventually became a full band as well, and everything from Shut Up I Am Dreaming onward has been one fascinating conceptual musical experiment after another. Krug also dipped his ink into the indie supergroup Swan Lake along with Destroyer’s Dan Bejar and Frog Eyes’ Carey Mercer, leading of course to more general acclaim. To think all this work, 8 albums and 3 EPs, was produced between 2005 and 2010. Suddenly, it was almost like a light switch flipped off.

Krug introduced yet another new project in early 2010 that he called Moonface. An initial EP called Dreamland: Marimba and Shit-Drums followed closely behind, a single 20-minute track in which he played around with the titular instruments. Late last summer came the first Moonface LP Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped, which was yet another effort informed by its title. The album was 5 tracks over 37 minutes, with the shortest song clocking in at just over 6.5 minutes. Much of it was droning, flat and uninspired. It was a true introduction to what Krug truly hopes Moonface will be – a name under which he can try anything and everything his heart desires without being bound to the conventions of traditional songwriting or structures. There is no easy way to define the sound of Moonface, because it keeps changing with each new release and that’s the way Krug likes it. On this new Moonface record, his second in a year, he’s made the choice to collaborate with the Finnish band Siinai, who sound a lot like Explosions in the Sky but with less guitar and more piano/synths.

The end product, With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery, is in some ways a return to form for Krug. With a full band behind him, he suddenly finds himself grounded once more. The songs get shorter, have verses, choruses and hooks, and burst forth with a refreshing urgency. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good though. This is certainly a far cry from the Shut Up I Am Dreaming days where the arrangements were much sparser and in some ways more virile. It seems difficult for Siinai to do anything halfway or minimal, but you’d think that’d lend itself perfectly to Krug’s lyrics, which tend to be flights of fancy involving kings and dragons and wars fought over a woman. Yet these complex and widescreen topics appear to be less important to Krug these days, and the more literal, to-the-point lyrics he tried out on the last Moonface record continue here. “I’ve got the blood/but not the bloodlust you need,” he moans on “Heartbreaking Bravery” amidst shimmering guitars and graceful piano. He’s bemoaning the loss of a relationship because of it, something that’s been a frequent theme in his past songs that gets a more plainspoken turn here. While that works just fine, and “Heartbreaking Bravery” is arguably one of the most beautiful songs Krug has ever put together, the more straightforward lyrics can sometimes be a double-edged sword. “Shitty City” is perhaps the best example of this, with the supremely bland chorus of, “It’s a shitty city now/It’s a shitty/city/now.’ That’s not exactly poetry.

There are a few moments on With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery that are truly excellent both lyrically and compositionally. “Quickfire, I Tried” swirls with carefully considered psychedelia, and “Teary Eyes and Bloody Lips” finds Krug trying to grasp onto shreds of hope amid the ruins of a relationship. In spite of the markedly darker overall mood of this record compared to just about anything else Krug has done with any of his many projects, what really helps make it special is the overall sense of maturity on display here. Not that his other, earlier work was childish and petty, but he’s never really sounded so adult and grounded before. The only unfortunate thing about it is that collaborating with Siinai on a record like this probably wasn’t the best decision to make. Both sides seem to be coming from different places at times, and the album suffers because of it. Still, it remains the best thing Krug has released under the Moonface name so far. Of course the bar was set pretty low there. As he continues to try new things and collaborate with new people, hopefully he’ll find others performing at his advanced and complicated level.

Moonface – Teary Eyes and Bloody Lips
Moonface – Headed for the Door

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Album Review: Moonface – Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped [Jagjaguwar]

Let’s take a brief overview of Spencer Krug’s musical history thus far. He first came to our attention courtesy of Wolf Parade, their debut album “Apologies to the Queen Mary” having gained enough hype and traction to earn coveted spots on plenty of year-end best of lists. Turns out he already had some irons in the musical fire though, working with Carey Mercer’s Frog Eyes for a bit, and also on some solo material under the name Sunset Rubdown. Krug would return to Frog Eyes for a brief period of time, but his more primary focus was to build Sunset Rubdown out into a full band in between Wolf Parade records. Once that task was completed, he then formed a supergroup with his friends Carey Mercer and Dan Bejar known as Swan Lake. So at this point it has reached 2006 and Spencer Krug is now officially a member of 4 different bands, not including the instrumental project called Fifths of Seven he put together back in 2005. Over the course of the last 6 years then, when you combine all those projects together, Krug has been a major part of 10 full length records and 3 EPs. If that doesn’t seem like a lot of music for one person to make, you’ve got a screw loose. The guy might as well be the new Robert Pollard. Anyways, Krug’s schedule has lightened up a bit these days, as he’s no longer working with Frog Eyes, Wolf Parade is on “indefinite hiatus” and Swan Lake is pretty much a big question mark.

Last year, Krug introduced a new, official solo project that he was calling Moonface. Unlike Sunset Rubdown, there are currently no plans to develop Moonface into something larger than just an outlet where Krug can mess around on his own terms. The debut Moonface released in 2010 was called “Dreamland EP: Marimba and Shit-Drums”, and it consisted of a single 20 minute track that was exactly as the title described. It marked an interesting experiment in utilizing relatively unfamiliar instruments and trying to compose something of substance with a clear beginning, middle and end. Krug’s truth-telling titles continue with the first Moonface full length record, “Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped”. His original plan for the album was to make something more percussion-based, like the EP was, but with some vibraphone and a bit of guitar. The problem was that his attempts were not going well. So the thought eventually evolved into picking up an old double-manual organ and crafting some beautiful-sounding drone tracks with it. Nice though that may be, when you’re drawn to pop music, sometimes the catchy melody bug infects you and there’s no getting around it. Such was the case here, which explains why this record is relatively easy to like in spite of only having 5 total tracks, each lasting somewhere close to 7.5 minutes.

Every song starts with a loop. Often it’s a combination of beats and a few organ notes, all of which set the pace and provide a generous background melody to build off of. Sometimes those initial loops will disappear a short ways into the song to make room for other meandering bits or a different loop, but typically those same loops will pop up again towards the end of the song to bookend it nicely. The loops are more often than not the sole source of a hook on any individual track, even if Krug takes certain phrases and repeats them over and over and over again. On “Fast Peter”, he takes the lines “she’s the one/the one that he thinks of when he thinks of love” and repeats them a total of 4 times in a row, but there’s about 60 seconds of pure instrumental noodling in between each time. Even a line like “as she laid down the mountain” on the track “Shit-Hawk in the Snow”, which winds up being repeated 4 times in rapid succession, never comes up again later in the track. Slightly better are the lyrical moments that pop up at a few different points in the song, functioning much closer to a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure even if the rest of the song is far from traditional. “Loose Heart = Loose Plan” exhibits that courtesy of lines like “Talking Heads make me miss my friends/I’d like to see that face again”, though multiple paragraphs pass by before Krug gets around to the repeat. There’s also not a whole lot of sense to be made from most of these songs, the ultimate points obscured heavily by what appear to be random musings on life and nature and philosophy. Krug has always been a very strong songwriter, but there’s very little in the way of impressive word combinations on this record. Given that the majority of each song is instrumental and that he’s aiming for a hybrid of drone and pop, maybe lyrics were the last thing on his mind. Still, a song like “Fast Peter”, which is the rather brilliant centerpiece of the album, is also the one that makes the most sense story-wise, detailing a tough long-distance relationship.

What “Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped” ultimately has going for it is a rich collection of experimental tracks with a wider appeal than expected. The organ, which is essentially the only instrument used on the entire record, gets stretched to its limits in a number of ways, particularly because after 37 minutes of it the songs start to blend together. Once “Whale Song (Instead of a Kiss)” ends, “Fast Peter” coems in and for a few moments you almost believe it’s just going to be a sped-up version of what came before it, the starting and ending notes being so similar to one another. That turns out to not be the case, but it absolutely brings forth the suggestion that coming up with a good variety of songs was a challenge in itself. Krug reportedly wrote more than twice as many songs for this album, enough for a double album, but decided to cut half of them because they weren’t up to his standard of quality. What’s left is supposed to be the cream of the crop, and while he certainly meant well, what this record fails to equal are the great moments from virtually all of his past efforts with all of his past bands. To be perfectly clear, Spencer Krug is very much a musical genius and he has yet to turn in a genuinely bad album – this Moonface full length is about as bad as he gets, and even then that’s still pretty damn good. Plus, you’ve got to give the guy some degree of credit for consistently trying to push himself in new directions whether it suits him or not. To think that we could have gotten an entire record of vibraphone is actually a little scary at this point. The good news is that what we have gotten with the organ is listenable, at times beautiful, and may send your head spinning (that’s the drone part of it). Krug has said he plans to record a bunch more music before year’s end, Moonface one-time collaborations with friends that will likely be more of a return to the percussion-based sounds of “Dreamland EP: Marimba and Shit-Drums”, but with a twist. Let’s hope whatever comes out of those sessions has more variety and intrigue than the slightly-above-average compositions that are “Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped”.

Moonface – Fast Peter

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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

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Album Review: Wolf Parade – Expo 86 [Sub Pop]

Wolf Parade should be the toast of the indie world right now. Not only did they arrive on the scene with 2005’s “Apologies to the Queen Mary” and introduce us all to two of music’s most formidable songwriting talents in Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner, but that singular album also brought forth their two main projects separate from one another – Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs. Given the way both of those bands subsequently broke out as a result, it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise if Wolf Parade never made another album. Still, 2008 brought Wolf Parade’s sophmore record “At Mount Zoomer”, and while it failed to reach the dizzying heights of its predecessor, the general praise for this band and the two main talents behind it remained largely intact. Now with one more Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs album apiece released last year, Krug and Boeckner apparently haven’t nearly run out of material as evidenced by the third Wolf Parade record “Expo 86” being released this week.

The most interesting thing about how Wolf Parade works is the way these two great artists work with one another. Both Krug and Boeckner have their own individual songwriting styles, and they tend to split the albums down the middle when it comes to who writes what. Boeckner was clearly the weaker link on “Apologies to the Queen Mary”, but of course he was also the one with less experience. Krug played the moody and wordy poet while Boeckner evoked the punk rock ethos and came up with quicker and sharper melodies as a smart contrast. There was a remarkable cohesion between the two guys anyways, and that’s what made the album so special. “At Mount Zoomer” lost a little bit of that intermingling perhaps mostly because everyone was keeping a close eye on exactly who was writing and singing what. The dynamic was still there, but it felt like both guys had retreated to their own corners and didn’t quite meet in the middle for their sophmore effort. Where “Expo 86” comes in is somewhere right in between those first two albums.

One of the biggest pluses “Expo 86” has to offer is the exceptionally improved songwriting by Dan Boeckner. He sounds as inspired as he did on “Face Control”, the Handsome Furs record released last year that showed remarkable progression from a guy who seemingly always favored energy over words. This new Wolf Parade album has him competing toe to toe with Krug, and that brings the cohesion back which made them such an exceptional band in the first place. Unless you’re looking at the songwriting credits, there are moments when it is challenging to determine exactly who wrote what, and with an increased reliance on vocal interplay between Krug and Boeckner, at times you can’t even fully be clear who’s got the lead vocal. And so for the first time it really sounds less like Wolf Parade are a collection of great talents and more like a fully formed and functional band. Also beneficial is the return of the nervous energy that dominated their first album in a really good way. The material here may be a little darker in general, but the synths play it off well to add warmth and avoid turning this into an all-out depressing affair.

The worst part about “Expo 86” is that many of its biggest strengths are also its biggest weaknesses. What with Boeckner’s much stronger presence on the album and the songs all coming off on equal footing more or less, there’s little to nothing that truly stands out. Everything sounds pretty great, and it is for the most part, but in terms of hard-hitters like “I’ll Believe In Anything” or “Shine A Light”, there’s a lack of distinction on the new album. “What Did My Lover Say (It Always Had to Go This Way)” is probably the closest thing to a legitimate hit on the record despite it being nearly 6 minutes long. But in this case Wolf Parade leave the absolute best for last, as “Cave-O-Sapien” is a slice of energetic and fun brilliance that’s one of their finest moments not only on this album but across the band’s entire catalogue. Once those 6+ minutes have finally expired along with the album itself, you come away with the feeling that everything was just left on the table and this band has nothing left to give. It’s just a shame that there aren’t more of those sorts of songs on “Expo 86”. Instead much of the record takes a middle of the road approach and satisfies in that regard. It partly begs the question of whether or not Krug and Boeckner are really delivering their best material on this album, or if they’re purposely saving most of it for their individual projects Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs. However things are working out, Wolf Parade remains a band to keep a very close eye on. “Expo 86” may lack the sharp step forwards this band needs to place them at the top of the indie cred pile again, but it does earn them back a bit of the mojo they lost on their last record.

Wolf Parade – Ghost Pressure
Wolf Parade – What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had to Go This Way)

Buy “Expo 86” from Sub Pop Records

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