Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Tube Amp: May

Once again, in just under the gun! In case you haven't noticed, I generally get my posts a rollin' towards the end of the month. So plan accordingly. Anyway, on to the video!



:01 -- Here we have famously reclusive Jeff Mangum, brains behind Neutral Milk Hotel, who's actually come out of hiding a few times over the past year or two. This clip seems to be from the late 90s, although there's no date attached.

:20 -- Any of you gearheads know what kind of guitar he's got there? My first thought is an old Guild. This video goes to show, you don't need anything more than simple chords on a lone guitar when you have a voice and songwriting chops like that.

:44 -- Was that a grin? I don't think I've ever seen Mangum smile before...

1:12 -- I love this extended note he sings here, showing his ability to utilize his voice as a complementary instrument, not just a vehicle for his lyrics.

1:21 -- And that is only underscored by his humming the brass section's part over this small interlude. I was worried it'd come off as a little corny, but Mangum came through. The way he sings "Dee-dee-dee" with a tremble in his voice is so foreboding...

1:56 -- That little paper star in the upper right corner reminds me of the school dance in Napoleon Dynamite...

2:15 -- "And now how I remember you, how I would push my fingers through your mouth to make those muscles move" is one of the creepier lyrical images I've heard.

2:48 -- I love how he holds notes like this, creating that creepy drone. Many of the instruments we hear on NMH songs play long, stretched notes like this (saw, horns)--it's a notable musical theme. He does this sort of vocal suspension in "Oh Comely" as well.

2:59 -- More "Dee"s for good measure.

3:28 -- Mangum always seems a unsteadily calm, just on the edge of cracking. Perhaps that has something to do with his seclusion.

3:49 -- How cool would it have been to be at that performance? Sounds like about thirty people in the house. If only.

For further HSW-penned reading on the band and its Mangum Opus (get it?), click here for a write-up of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from a few years back.

Have a nice Memorial Day!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Pitchfork: No comments



In the late 90s, as the world began to realize how great a factor the Internet would be in virtually all walks of life, it was sort of difficult to achieve a web presence. If you weren't a geek with know-how, you had to rely on hosts like Geocities and Angelfire to stake a claim to digital real estate. And even then the barriers of entry were great, and so folks who didn't have programming skills or the cash to hire a programmer had to live without a web presence.

But along came Web 2.0, a hypothetical era that opened the doors of content creation to just about everyone and put a premium on interactivity. All of a sudden, laypeople were starting blogs, creating Facebook profiles, and commenting on virtually every item published on the web. And that's the one that fascinates me the most.

The ability for users to comment on postings opened up a dialog between writer and reader, one that only half-heartedly existed via letters to the editor. But now, anyone with the willingness to create a user-name can sound off on content of almost any kind. It's difficult to find a site that doesn't open up it's content to comments. This is especially the case for culturally specific blogs and media-centric sites. Many have fostered a user environment that quite brilliantly feeds itself, creating a discussion that transcends the article that can be almost as fascinating as the piece itself. Don't tell me you haven't spent twenty minutes reading through a particularly heated/entertaining comment thread.

It's a democratic yet bold move on the part of the media. While a commenter doesn't exactly demand the same respect as a published writer, there is still the opportunity to be undermined or checked by a hawk-eyed commenter. But the benefits surely outweigh the drawbacks. Again, commenters contribute to a greater community and essentially create content/activity for an outlet without it having to lift a finger.

It's a smart move, and everybody does it. Well, pretty much everyone. There's (at least) one egregious offender, a site that pulls a ton of weight in the musical arena, a so-called "tastemaker". That's right, snob-central: Pitchfork.com.

Does this strike anyone else as kind of strange? I mean, perhaps the most powerful entity in indie music, one who quotes Twitter feeds and takes news tips from readers, hasn't tried to architect a user environment the way virtually all other similar media outlets have? Even traditional print outlets like Time and Newsweek have opened their sites to user commentary.

I honestly feel that this is a protective move. Pitchfork is well aware of its pull in the music community, the implied majesty of its editorials and so on. So if one of their oh-so-elegantly-composed reviews is followed by a "Whatever, this album blows goats" comment, it might dilute its impact. And I think Pitchfork is well aware of this. Besides, why even open the floor to debate if their reviews are already considered gospel?

It should also be noted that Pitchfork has employed censorship, of a sort, to protect its image. When they revamped their site last year, they removed the famed, much-ridiculed Live at the Village Vanguard review from their backlog. Thankfully, some heroic blogger saved and posted it here for the world to remember. But the removal does seem kind of fishy, doesn't it? It smacks of self-awareness.

In a shocking display of actual journalism, I e-mailed Pitchfork's business development department, cordially asking why users were not able to comment on content. I sent the e-mail more than a week ago and as yet no response. I'm not reading anything into that--I'm sure they're very busy--but if I do get a response, I'll be sure to do a follow-up.

I'm not trying to wage a smear campaign on Pitchfork or anything. I still read it multiple times a day, and I actually find myself agreeing with a good many of their reviews. But c'mon...they seem to be feeding their own reputation as a snobbish, self-deifying entity by not giving a voice to their loyal following. It'd be a humbling move, sure. But I think a bit of humility would be flattering.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

HSW Newsflash: New Jay Bennett album on the way

A year ago today, I blogged about the inimitable Jay Bennett's tragic death. Jay overdosed on prescription painkillers, dying in his sleep on May 24, 2009. For those who need a reminder, Jay Bennett was Jeff Tweedy's right-hand man during most of Wilco's glory run (1994-2001, culminating with his work on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Jay kept on with a solo career, releasing several albums throughout the last decade.

Here's the good news: One more is on the way. Kicking the Perfumed Air will be available for free download from The Jay Bennett Foundation, a music and education foundation set up by Jay's mother and brother. You can also buy a hard copy of the CD. If you snag the free version, I recommend donating a few bucks to the foundation in Jay's memory.

There are a few songs available over at Pitchfork, and I gotta say, they're comforting to hear. Jay wasn't really a master lyricist, but his sense of arrangement and production was second to none. The songs are cut from the same production cloth as those from Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Even the layperson could hear the similarities.

Call me a sentimental fool, but I still miss Jay everytime I hear he and Tweedy singing together on the verses of "She's a Jar":

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

But the real winner is...



Prior to the second week of May, I had exactly one Phospherescent track, part of a mix a friend gave me a year or two ago. I'd heard 2009's To Willie at a party, but I was about 9 beers in (it was after the drubbing SC gave Clemson this year--surely you understand...) so I can't say I recall much. It wasn't until I noticed some message board chatter touting Here's to Taking it Easy that I realized Matthew Houck's project had a new release on the way.

It's funny how these things happen. You get pinged by information and marketing messages all the time, so sometimes it takes the proper confluence of channels to get you going. A few positive reviews, some trusted peer opinion, an appealing snippet from the album, and voila. Incentive is born! Such was the case with Phosphorescent's new one.

The band's sound is breezy Americana, with slide licks and shimmering Telecasters swaddled in reverb. Houck's vocal style resembles a less grizzled Will Oldham, and there's a charming vulnerability about the way his pitch-perfect notes fall quiet, ducking into the music as soon as they draw attention.

The album's centerpiece is the crushing ballad "The Mermaid Parade", the reflection of a crumbled marriage that disintegrated in two weeks' time. Between the stereo guitar battle, the pained lyrics, and the eye-misting delivery, it's one of those all-consuming anthems that'll cause you to drop what you're doing and step into the music for the next five minutes of your life.



"Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)" and "I Don't Care If There's Cursing" are a couple excellent up-tempo highway songs that cut through the wind, serving as a nice contrast to slower, more pensive jams like "We'll Be Here Soon" and "Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)". Most curious is "Hej, Me I'm a Light", which sounds vaguely menacing like an Indian spiritual chant or something of that ilk. It's a marked deviation from the desert Americana aesthetic that virtually all other songs take. But it's strangely attractive, like staring into a fire or something.

The Will Oldham comparison comes full circle with the barroom romp "Heaven, I'm Sittin' Down", which sounds lifted from a Bonnie "Prince" Billy album, but not in a way that'll make you scoff. Nine-minute closer "Los Angeles" is a slow-burning dirge that sounds equal parts Red House Painters and Willie Nelson, and serves as a suitable coda to this fine album.

Aside from the quality of the music itself, the strongest trait of the nine-track LP is that it's concise and humble. Phosphorescent doesn't reach any farther than it should. In that way it reminds me of Cass McCombs' Catacombs, my #1 album from last year. It's an artist playing to his strengths, and generally this creates both a likeable and a versatile album. And by that I mean it can be appreciated in any number of situations, unlike, say, The National, whose music needs to be consumed with liberal amounts of gloom and/or darkness. I think the highest praise I can dole is that Here's to Taking It Easy is not an album you have to try to enjoy.

So congrats Phosphorescent, up against largely insurmountable odds, you created my favorite music of May 2010. Good on ya!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Indie Music Mayhem: Results


I hate the "everybody wins!" mentality that the current generation is growing up with. Trophies for last place, no competitive sports in gym class, etc. etc. Man up, pansies: Competition is the oil on which our nation rocks and rolls, right? Such was the genesis of our friendly little month of mayhem.

So I've reviewed all the albums and now, as promised, I've ranked them. But really, this means nothing. It's only a snapshot. Next week, album #6 could draft on #5 and slingshot to #2 and album #1 could blow a tire and be forced to pit, allowing then #2 to go forth, blah blah blah. What I'm saying is, when you come back in December for HSW's Best 'o 2010, don't expect to see these six albums roll out in this order. Again, it's a snapshot. For funsies. No big deal. Now on to the carnage:


6. Band of Horses -- Infinite Arms

As I mentioned in the review, it might surpass all the rest by year's end. At least in play count. But at first glance it's the album I was least impressed with, relative to the artist. The system is flawed, really.


5. Josh Ritter -- So Runs the World Away

A handful of stellar songs do not an album make, but it's enough for me to at least listen to those six or seven ad nauseam.


4. The National -- High Violet

Brilliant effort and well-deserved of all its praise; I'm just having trouble getting in the mood to listen, what with all these sunny days and hot weather and such. I expect this one to reemerge with gusto when the summer passes.


3. The New Pornographers -- Together

Carl Newman, Neko Case, et al have put together an exciting, immediately digestable power-pop record.


2. The Hold Steady -- Heaven is Whenever

While it might be a little less positively raging than past efforts, it's a reining in I can appreciate. And one that's a lot less noticeable than a lot of folks are making out. It's a catchy record that's thematically and musically rich. It's the Hold Steady, doing what they do best.

And your winner:


1. Broken Social Scene -- Forgiveness Rock Record

It's the most well-crafted album of the bunch, with the proper blend of songwriting, attention to detail, studio tinkering, and sequencing. This is one rock record needs no forgiveness.

Ladies and gentlemen, Broken Social Scene.



***

So there it is. Two months' worth of build-up, culminating here and now.

HOWEVER!

There is a truer winner than even Forgiveness Rock Record. Yes, an album that I overlooked completely when developing the Indie Music Mayhem feature. And it's not Brothers by The Black Keys, which I am enjoying the everliving balls out of too (I just forgot to include them, if you must know). No, the May release I'm most enamored by was one, to be honest, that wasn't even on my radar until I stumbled across a review a few days before its release. What is this mystery album, you ask?

Check back tomorrow for the answer.

Indie Music MAYhem Review 6: "Infinite Arms"



Infinite Arms
Band of Horses


No record defines my college years like Everything All the Time, the debut from Ben Bridwell-lead Band of Horses. Since then, BOH has been a band I hold in high regard. A bit of local bias, sure--Bridwell lives in the Charleston area--but truly, the group has received far more spins from me than, say, My Morning Jacket, to whom they're often compared. Their second album, Cease to Begin, was an excellent sophomore effort even it was a tad ballad-heavy. But it saved them from one-album-wonder purgatory, and earned them steady coverage from this blog. I'm sure they're flattered. Furthermore, it had to be fate that their third album would drop on my 25th birthday--May 18th, 2010. There was no question that they'd feature prominently in our ongoing Indie Music Mayhem series.

Opener "Factory" starts promisingly, with some synth string rushes draped over the main progression that leads into the tightly harmonized verses (think "Marry Song" from Cease to Begin). We get a heaping dose of Ben Bridwell's tradmark enunciation--not "temporary", but "tee-YEMP-or-AIR-ee". The song's chorus builds nicely before it's washed over by the same opening string sequence. It's then that we get an excruciating lyrical run that might prompt one to wonder if placeholder lyrics were included by accident:
"Now and later, I was thinking it over by the snack machine,
I thought about you and a candy bar,
The Now-N-Laters, mowin on gobs stuck between my teeth,
I fell asleep to the greatest movie of the year."
Bridwell has never shied away from including some kind of minutia in his lyrics, but this verse wouldn't sound out of place in a Train song*. C'mon, Ben!

Before I continue, I need to mention that this album is absolutely crippled by the band's insistence on rigidly harmonizing just about every vocal track on the album. Sure, bands like the Flying Burrito Brothers did this, but their harmonies bristled with life! These sound downright mechanical at times. It's effective in small doses (again, "Marry Song"), but it totally wears out its welcome within a few tracks. I imagine this decision is due in part to keyboardist Ryan Monroe's band membership. He's been touring with BOH since at least 2007, and deserves credit for aiding the successful expansion of the band's live sound. He harmonizes with Bridwell extremely well on a fundamental level. But perhaps too many of these songs capitalize on that blessing, and the market is oversaturated so-to-speak. BOH utilized harmony brilliantly on Everything All the Time, especially on songs like "I Go to the Barn..." and "St. Augustine", with those delicate, whispered backing vocals that textured the songs so well. I suppose I just wish there was more of that on Infinite Arms.

As for the songs: "Compliments" and "Laredo" are both galloping country rockers that are inoffensive but lack the character of, say, "Weed Party" from EATT. "Blue Beard" is a nice summer groove, even if it features some wanky "la-la-la ooohs" and a slightly annoying crash cymbal ride throughout. "Way Back Home", a song that ostensibly deals with Bridwell's return to the East coast after toiling in Seattle, is one of the few songs without the overbearing harmony treatment, so it's no wonder it lands so well.

If I had to pin a blue ribbon on Infinite Arms track, it'd probably be the title track itself. A steady ballad that evokes a firefly-dotted summer evening, it flashes a little studio sensibility with its droning bed of synth strings creating a nice sonic environment. It also features a restrained, complementary harmony track (hooray!). The sweeping rise of the lyric, "When my thoughts drift to you" creates a gorgeous moment, especially when it's repeated at the song's end, and the music falls silent, leaving the listener with only the distant chatter of some unmistakably-Carolinian night birds.

After the fine-but-forgettable "Dilly", we get to "Evening Kitchen", which I first heard on December 28th, 2009, at the last BOH show I caught. It was presented as a scant and lovely 3 part harmony between Bridwell, Monroe and guitarist Tyler Ramsay. Unfortunately, the harmony breaks down on the chorus a bit, and the song suffers for it.

The Monroe-penned "Older" has been a concert staple for years, but I think they totally squandered a chance to put an excellent song to record. Monroe's vocals are simply robotic, the instruments are overly restrained, and the sleepy tempo neuters a song that could have been an upbeat hand-clapper reminscent of "The General Specific" from Cease to Begin.

The ensuing "Trudy" is another of my favorites from the album, a slow-burner that's a bit more faithful to the minimalistic approach of Everything All the Time, featuring some well-placed minor chords and a brooding cello throughout. A big part of me wishes the album had ended here; not that "NW Apt." doesn't have its place on the album. I would have lost "Laredo" and slotted this one there. The album closes with "Neighbor", a song that tries for stoic punctuation, but with its references to both chipmunks and Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, it comes off as a little goofy.

A few things I'll say in closing: I'm being unduly harsh to Band Of Horses because, of all the IMM contenders, they are by far my preferred act. While I may be putting the screws to just about every move they made on Infinite Arms, I'll almost certainly have racked up more listens to this than any other album on my list come year's end. I'll probably soften to the flaws I'm so quick to gripe over today. Nonetheless, my summation is that this is a passable album by a band I truly appreciate. I may not call upon it as frequently as I do Everything All the Time or Cease to Begin, but it'll remain in my greater rotation. And that's more than I could say about a lot of albums.

*Thanks to Chris G. for this apt description.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Indie Music MAYhem Review 5: "So Runs the World Away"



So Runs the World Away
Josh Ritter


I've long had a love/meh relationship with Josh Ritter, the grinning Idahoan renown for his ability to interweave ancient history and folk music in a rather unique way. Josh is both severely overrated and severely underrated. His fan-base trumps the guy up to Cohen/Dylan levels, and yet no one seems to notice him otherwise. He's apparently a joyful live performer, and therein lies much of his appeal, but since he never tours the South I can't attest to that. But at any rate, I don't love the guy's music, but he can write a fine song now and again. And The Animal Years is one of the better singer-songwriter albums from the last decade, I must begrudgingly admit. It was enough to warrant checking out his subsequent efforts, including his new one, So Runs the World Away.

I must admit to being pleasantly surprised with the album. I can tell that special emphasis was put on instrumental texturing, as we hear distant guitar swells, lonely trumpet wails, arpeggiated piano chords washed in swirling tremolo. "Another New World", the near-eight minute epic about an explorer's passion for his ship, vis-a-vis a doomed Arctic expedition. The song perfectly illustrates the barren ice-scape on which we imagine the narrator is stranded; the instruments rise in and out of audibility like sinuous winds and waves, the fingerpicked guitar fluttering like a small, dim fire. Ritter's vocals are bold but timid, in the vein of Leonard Cohen...Christ, now I'm doing it!

Ritter can certainly spin a yarn, and has the gift of injecting a humanizing element into a plot that might seem trite on its face. "The Curse", for instance, is the tale of an archaelogist who exhumes a mummy, who reanimates and falls in love with her while being taken to New York for display in a museum. He eventually enters society as a sort of celebrity. His aging rescuer travels with him until she dies. Sure, it sounds cheesy, but it's Ritter's ability to demand a willing suspension of disbelief through musical and lyrical grace that make the song work.

I think Josh Ritter falls short when he's either trying to sound too intimidating or too cute. Take "Rattling Locks", an uncomfortably paced rocker for which Ritter's vocal delivery is serious and edgy. But he sounds less like a jaded sailor, and more like a high school sophomore playing a jaded sailor in the school play. On the other end of that spectrum lies "Lark", a blatant Paul Simon rip that'll dry up your testosterone, it's so gagworthy. Girls will like it, though.

He's at his upbeat best when he's delivering grand and soaring anthems, like the excellent "Good Man" from The Animal Years. "Light in My Lantern" is a fine example of the former, a song I dare say sounds a bit like latter day Wilco, in both the arrangement and vocal delivery. I also dare to say that I prefer this approach from Ritter. (What can I say -- I like my Wilco contemplative and fractured.) Penultimate track "Orbital" is a bit of a whiff for me; it seems a little to restrained and polished for its own good, lacking the explosiveness it was trying for. "Long Shadows" takes that time-tested route of upbeat-acoustic-ditty-as-closer. We've seen it before from The Decemberists, Cass McCombs, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Bob Dylan to name a few. Hey, if it works it works.

As an album, So Runs the World Away isn't quite as cohesively brilliant as The Animal Years, but song for song it could be Ritter's best effort. "Southern Pacifica", "Another New World", "The Curse", et al--these are well-written songs, both lyrically and musically. All to often for Ritter, it's one or the other. But with SRTWA, it's pretty satisfying to get the best of both worlds.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Indie Music MAYhem Review 4: "Heaven Is Whenever"



Heaven Is Whenever

The Hold Steady

The first thing you'll notice about Heaven Is Whenever, the Hold Steady's fifth studio album, is that Craig Finn is--are you sitting down?--singing. As any THS fan knows, Craig's trademark is a sort of quasi-melodic oration that focus a lot more on inflection and attitude than melody. But on Heaven, Finn is unmistakably singing. The only way I can describe it is kind of confusing at first.

But soon, like a boiling jacuzzi, you settle into the new style and start paying attention to the music. Despite the loss of beloved keyboardist Franz Nicolay, the band sounds great. Look no further than "Sweet Part of the City", the loping slide-guitar anthem that kicks off the album. It's not nearly as explosive as "Constructive Summer" or "Stuck Between The Stations" as an opener, but it's a tonesetter nonetheless and provides what's sure to be a nice concert moment with the lyric "We want to play for you".

We saw a flurry of early tracks in the months leading up to release, including "Hurricane J" and "Barely Breathing". The former starts as a sprightly bop with a pleasing "ooooh" chorus, slowing down a few BPM for the lyrics, which aren't exactly some of Finn's finest. The chorus reads like inspirational pop-punk hooey ("I don't want this to stop/I want you to know/I don't want you to settle/I want you to grow"). I'd just as soon switch over to "You Can Make Him Like You" from Boys and Girls in America which has a (vaguely) similar message, yet boasts a far more clever lyrical approach. "Barely Breathing" is vintage THS, a jagged bruiser recalling "Cattle and the Creeping Things" from Separation Sunday. Similarly reminding us that the band hasn't lost its edge is "The Smidge", the kind of song that puts their classic rock sensibilities on full display.

"A Slight Discomfort" is seven minutes of the Hold Steady spreading its wings a bit, taking a chamber pop turn complete with pizzicato strings, piano runs, and spacious drum production. It's perfect as a closer, unfolding into a triumphal finale of guitar scrapes, soaring strings, and booming drum rolls. It's grander than anything THS have tried before, and I think they pulled it off nicely. Actually, you could apply that description to the entire album.

Pros: While it isn't the purest example of a Hold Steady album, I think there's the right amount of experimentation mixed into the wheelhouse stuff that reeled us in in the first place.

Cons: I don't hate the song, but I feel like "Hurricane J" is one of Craig Finn's weaker lyrical efforts.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Indie Music MAYhem Review 3: "High Violet"



High Violet
The National


In 2007, I distinctly recall plucking Boxer from the new release bin at Papa Jazz Records in Columbia, SC. My knowledge of the National at that point could barely fill a Dixie Cup, and yet even I was swept up in the mass anticipation of the band's new release. And so Boxer completely delivered (was in our top 5 of the year) and three more years have passed. That means the anticipation for High Violet is like Boxer's on steroids. Can it possibly deliver?

Well, sure. It's the National, a band that's on a decade-long creative hot streak and showing no signs of fizzling out. While generally considered one of (good) music's powerhouses, some folks are put off by Matt Berninger's bassy mumble. As someone who spent car trips listening to his dad's Dire Straits albums, it agrees with me in a comforting way. After an album of dwelling in the shadowy depths vocally--forward in the mix, but always low low low--Berninger lets his voice stretch to its higher limits a bit. On "Afraid of Everyone" he sings in a higher register than we hear at any point on Boxer.

From the zero hour, it's evident that High Violet is going to be a more bombastic affair than its gloomy predecessor, with opener "Terrible Love" burbling anxiously before finally geysering into a hyper-emotional tsunami. This sort of upfront approach is a steady theme throughout the record. Think of it as Boxer without such a conservative approach to mixing. Where scant arrangements and minimalism prevailed on Boxer, broad atmospheres and live-conscious mixes win the day. Compare High Violet's "Little Faith" to Boxer's "Brainy"--two similar sounding songs--and you'll hear the difference.

Props to drummer Bryan Devendorf for his expressive drumwork--I always love a drummer who assumes a role beyond that of human metronome. It's those songs that he scales back his playing--"Anyone's Ghost", for example--where I find my interest flickering a bit. But for the most part, his abilities are allowed to shine, never more than on the instant classic "Bloodbuzz Ohio", already being anointed Song of the Year by many. The song is pretty incredible, a perfect alignment of all the National's greatest features: The aforementioned drumwork, Berninger's direct and relateable lyricism, creative counter-rhythmic melodies. It's the crown-jewel of High Violet, an album that not only underscores the National's time-tested aesthetic approach, but could establish them as bona fide influencers of tomorrow's young bands. I wouldn't deem it out of the question to see a movement borne out of their creative approach.

Pros: The songs, the drums, the lyrics, the overall aesthetic--the National has it down pat, yet they continue to both subtly expand and refine their music.

Cons: A few tracks that cheat towards the middle-of-the-road, although without fully reaching it. If nothing else, they serve to highlight High Violet's many strong tracks.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Indie Music MAYhem Review 2: "Together"



Together
The New Pornographers

While it's easy to lump The New Pornographers in with fellow Canadian ensemble Broken Social Scene, they are by no means clones. TNPs aren't the studio rats BSS are, relying heavily on full-band synergy and quirky vocal turns. They also boast the best singer of either group, that being the inimitable Neko Case. Argue if you must, but I won't hear you over Ms. Case's sonic-caramel vocals.

I know it's lazy comparing them with BSS ad nauseam, but it seems to me like an adequate barometer, since the band's differences are only highlighted by their similarities. For instance, where BSS will often exhibit hushed vocals settled nicely in the mix, TNPs generally favor an upfront vocals attack. This is immediately evident on Together, in opener "Moves". It's followed in similar fashion by the fiercely addictive "Crash Years", its Case-lead vocal attack rising and falling with lush melodic grace. This archetype is reprised later in "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk", "Up In the Dark" and "My Shepard", the latter sounding more like a Neko Case solo track than any other on the album.

"Your Hands (Together)" begs for a hockey team's enlistment as pump-up music, with its Sportscenter build and full-on choral attack. I'm not particularly enamored with it, however, and was sort of surprised it was chosen as a lead single. Regardless, the rest of the album manages to play up the bands quirks without giving into hokey indulgences. For instance, the foppish "Silver Jenny Dollar" which campily nods to late-60s London mod, and fuzz-poppy "If You Can't See My Mirrors", both featuring Dan Bejar on vocals.

In a final parallel to BSS, both bands went with comfort-food for their album's penultimate track. I recently wrote about the 70s-rock throwdown "Water In Hell" on Forgiveness Rock Record. TNP's took the soulful pop-rock route with "Daughter Of Sorrow", a rousing waltz with the kind of uplifting melodies and instrumentation that might inspire lighters to ignite and beermugs to sway in a celebratory toast. I'm actually surprised it wasn't the record's closing track. If I was in charge of sequencing, I might have swapped the album-closing "We End Up Together" with its predecessor, but it's not a dealbreaker.

Pros: Rich songwriting throughout and, of course, Neko Case. All three primary singles have distinct vocal styles, yet it never seems like three separate bands.

Cons: A tad musically repetitious at times, and "Your Hands (Together)" seems incongruent with the rest of the album.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Indie Music MAYhem Review 1: "Forgiveness Rock Record"

Here begins the month of reviews that will determine an outright winner. We begin with...



Forgiveness Rock Record
Broken Social Scene


Broken Social Scene's sound is the dovetailing appreciation of classic rock grandeur and indie-pop detail. They don't stray from this approach on Forgiveness Rock Record. A microcosmic example of this style is the jaunty "Texaco Bitches", its straightforward rock core all garnished with chunky bass and digital rushes. Indeed, smashy cymbals, soaring vocals, and flittering guitars (and chimey guitars, and booming guitars--lots of guitars, you see) populate the 14-song album, which sports as dynamic a sound as you'd expect from such a sizeable ensemble.

Opener "World Sick" is the kind of six-minute epic we're accustomed to hearing from BSS. After it rolls to a stop, "Chase Scene" launches ahead. It's as a song no more subtle than its title suggests, nor is it particularly groundbreaking. The album's middle section takes a refreshing summery turn, befitting of a May release. The vaguely tropicalia "Art House Director" would sound right blaring from beach-cruising convertibles, while the ensuing "Highway Slipper Jam" is as breezy as fading Caribbean sunset. The minutes-long instrumental outro of "Ungrateful Little Father"--serving as a midpoint for the album--reminds me of the coda of Wilco's "Reservations" viewed through a chillwave lens. Not yet ready to vocalize, the energetic instrumental "Meet Me in the Basement" throbs to a crescendo over three minutes before giving way to digitally washed "Sentimental X's". "Sweetest Kill" is a pulsing electroballad with a nice ambient haze about it.

My pick for most compelling track might be the least so for many core fans who aren't as enamored with straightlaced Americana as I. "Water In Hell" would have made for a classic Big Star track, with it's anthemic 70s-rock chorus, replete with falsettoed "Ooh-ooh-oohs", a meaty I-IV progression, and a double-time breakdown. Although with the inclusion of the lyric "It's the year 2010", it risks becoming laughably anachronistic for the next ten years or so, at which point it reaches an acceptable vintage. The album closes with the scant, dreamy ballad "Me and My Hand" which one can only assume is about punching the clown. But it's a nice aesthetic anyway, and the Forgiveness Rock Record glows out with it.

Pros: Strong songwriting through and through, with tunes like "World Sick", "Art House Director", and "Water In Hell" lending the album consistent strength front to back. Should be a nice summer album.

Cons: There is a yawner or two, and again I'd underscore my distaste for "Chase Scene", which I feel is sort of a lazy effort for a band who generally distances itself from such a label.

***

As I reminder, I won't be giving objective ratings for these reviews, just providing a final order at the end of the month.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Indie Music MAYhem: It has arrived



This past Tuesday was the first record release day of the month, and with it brought four of the six contenders: Broken Social Scene's Forgiveness Rock Record, The New Pornographers' Together, Josh Ritter's So Runs the World Away, and The Hold Steady's Heaven Is Whenever. High Violet by the National drops next week, followed by Band of Horses' Infinite Arms on the 18th.

I'm going to review each record individually without issuing any sort of quantitative ranking. And then at the month's end, I'll dub one of these albums IMM champion (which sounds like some sort of martial arts league). But of course, that's just one opinion. Thankfully, the poll at the right, which 23 folks have already jumped on, will give us the people's choice award.

So prepare yourself for the MAYhem. Look for reviews over the next couple of weeks. Yes I've heard all six albums, and yes I have opinions!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On the merits of Iron & Wine

A few years ago a friend and I were talking music, bouncing bands off each other and discovering we had tastes that were aligned quite well. We both took an interest in snob-approved indie rock, while especially gravitating towards Americana. So I was a bit surprised when he scoffed at my mention of Iron & Wine.

"I dunno, it's kind of bitch folk," was his exact statement. I was a bit surprised, but shrugged it off and moved on to someone else. Still, that label always stuck with me. "Bitch folk". Admittedly, it's pretty funny and I've actually borrowed it in describing music. But does it apply to Iron & Wine?

Surely I can't fault this guy for thinking so--this was still pre-Shepherd's Dog era, by the way, so most available I&W was strictly guitar/vocals. All we knew about Sam Beam is that he had a beard, a silken voice, and lyrics like "I want your flowers like babies need God's love." Understandable if that registers on one's Bitch-Folkometer.

But dig deeper and you'll find some pretty deranged stuff in Sam's work; subject matter that your garden variety bitch-folk artist would find unsettling if not repulsive. I mean, let's not forget his first album is called Creek Drank the Cradle. Consider that eerie imagery for a minute. The line "creek drank the cradle" appears in "Upwards Over the Mountain", which is about a prodigal son attempting to console the resentful mother he's abandoned by justifying his departure. "Mother don't worry, I killed the last snake that lived in the creekbed." No reason to worry; she's not in danger. And back to the "creek drank the cradle" line: "Mother forget me now that the creek drank the cradle you sang to." A spiteful mother literally discards her child's old cradle, symbolically drowning the baby she once adored.

This kind of Southern Gothic imagery appears frequently throughout Beam's work. With that in mind, would one be remiss to assume the "I want your flowers" lyric could have some sort of sinister undertone? Suffice to say, it's not all daisies and sunshine with Sam, despite his surface-level placidity. Bitch-folk? Not even close.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Whathaveyou

  • E-music carrier LaLa is shutting down. LaLa was notable for allowing its users to stream songs fully without purchase, and was the embedding agent of choice for The AV Club and Pitchfork, among others. The writing was on the wall, however, when the company was purchased by Apple a few months back.
  • A track from the new Sun Kil Moon record is out there, thanks to Stereogum. It's called "Australian Winter", a classical guitar ballad that's a bare hybrid of "Heron Blue" and "Blue Orchid" from April. From what I can tell, it's just Mark Kozelek and his guitar, expertly plucked.
  • May concert schedule is thin (aside from my own on May 20th), but June and July bring the Avett Brothers and Modest Mouse respectively. The Avetts play Savannah's Johnny Mercer Theater, and I have second row tickets! Meanwhile, Isaac Brock and crew will do a set at Charleston's own Music Farm.
  • Colin Meloy (and his wife) will write three kids books for Harper Collins. Let's hope he brings Decemberist creations Leslie Ann Levine, The Shankill Butchers, and a Chimbley Sweep in as characters.
  • Spin released its list of 125 greatest albums of the past 25 years (their lifespan thus far). The top 5? OK Computer (nice), Nevermind (sure), The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead (ugh), Prince's Sign O' the Times (fine), and...eyeroll please!...U2's Achtung Baby (this). Ladies and gentleman, Spin Magazine.
  • A couple milestones: We're up to 20 followers, and this is our 60th post of the year, only four full months in! Thanks for your support everyone.
  • I revisited the Silver Jews brilliant American Water last week. I think it's an essential album for the midyear warmth. There's something summery about those shimmery strums and the juxtaposition of David Berman low grumbles with Stephen Malkmus' boyish strains. Here's the albums closing track and my personal favorite, "The Wild Kindess":