Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Poll Results 13: Who will release the best album of May 2011?

With my results made public a few days ago, it's now time to take a look at the public mandate. First, a note: a few weeks ago, Blogger freaked out and shut down for a few days. When the dust settled, I noticed that the internet had gobbled up about 16 votes. Damn! Try as I might, I couldn't retrieve the votes. So unfortunately, our count was diminished a bit.

But enough wallowing. On to the results:
9 (39%) - Fleet Foxes
0 (0%) - Man Man
1 (4%) - Okkervil River
7 (30%) - Felice Brothers
0 (0%) - Death Cab For Cutie
6 (26%) - My Morning Jacket

Robin and his Foxes take the poll. This actually marks the third time they've taken an HSW poll (almost the fourth.) You guys sure do love your Fleet Foxes (and who can blame you?) The poll results vaguely synched up with mine, the largest disparity being Man Man. I'm sure they suffered for their relative lack of popularity, but I assure you Life Fantastic is a worthy disc!

By the way, this concludes Indie Music MAYhem 2.0. Thanks to everyone for reading, voting, and following along. Next month, look for us to pick back up with Weekly Whathaveyou, a new poll, a fully realized 11 Best feature, and our fifth (!!!!) Midway Through the Year Awards.

Monday, May 30, 2011

11 Best Month Music

We've spent the last month or two lavishing praise upon the month of May. Sure, May is usually a hotbed for quality summer releases, but that doesn't mean the rest of the year should be ignored. So for this (once again abbreviated) 11 Best, we'll be highlighting songs and albums that put the other eleven months in the musical spotlight.
  1. "January Wedding" - One of the standouts from I & Love & You, the Seth-penned tune gives Avetts fans everywhere a reason to start the year off with a wedding.
  2. "Feb 14" - It's not the best DBT's song. Hell, it's actually one of my least favorite Truckers songs. But there just aren't that many written about this month, and so here we are.
  3. March 16-20, 1992 - Not a song, but an entire album named after the month of its conception. As I've written before, it's one of Uncle Tupelo's best and it's essential listening for any fan of Americana.
  4. April - Another album nod, Sun Kil Moon had the unenviable task of following up a masterpiece. But April made good on expectations and has aged into another Mark Kozelek standout.
  5. "June's Foreign Spell" - This and the other tracks on A Series of Sneaks reminds us the Spoon was a rowdy alt-rock band before they were a rhythmic indie-mainstays.
  6. "July, July!" - The Decemberists offer a wealth of songs with months as names (not to mention the band's name itself), but none get you going quite like "July, July!"
  7. "St. Augustine" - Cut me some slack here, but at least August is somewhere in the title, plus it's the pretty little number that closes out one of my favorite albums in Everything All the Time.
  8. "September Gurls" - Big Star's Alex Chilton passed away last year, he left behind one of the more celebrated catalogs among musicians. He also provided the perfect entry to this list.
  9. "Waiting For October" - Mark Mulcahy's pseudo-group "Polaris" is best known for writing the memorable theme and a few other songs for "The Adventures of Pete and Pete" on Nickelodeon. This might be the best of the bunch.
  10. "November" - Of course Tom Waits would write a creepy song about the month when everything starts dying.
  11. "December" - Let's round it out with some 90's comfort food, the driving Collective Soul number that still brings me back to a time when...well, when Collective Soul was popular.

Lest this blog be labeled "monthist", there you have it. Hopefully in June I'll get back to the standard five-post format of this feature, now that the MAYhem has subsided. Thanks for following along, in this and all months.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Indie Music MAYhem 2.0: Results

Fifty-three days after the introduction post, the results are in. I give you my laughably subjective rankings of the six may releases:

Death Cab For Cutie
Codes and Keys
Death Cab outperforms expectations, a victory in and of itself. Ben Gibbard's band isn't my cup of tea, but I'll tip my cap to their efforts here.

Okkervil River
I Am Very Far
This album's final seven songs are top shelf, but it sputters out of the gates. A little resequencing could have propelled it to the front three.

My Morning Jacket
Their astronomical standards worked against them here, but Circuital dials back the eccentricities and offers a slate of space-rock gems.

Man Man
Life Fantastic
The Philly oddballs take a major step forward, aided by the production and arrangements of Mike Mogis.

Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues 
Fleet Foxes' star continues to rise as the follow up a near-perfect debut with a long-gestating LP that was easily worth the wait.

The Felice Brothers
Celebration, Florida 
In the span of one album, The Felices went from a nuts-and-bolts barnband to multifaceted musical commentators. And they've never sounded better.


Congrats to the Felice Brothers. Like Broken Social Scene last year, the the end of May finds them atop the heap. I imagine I'll get some eye-rolls for placing the Felices ahead of Fleet Foxes. I've always awarded points for risks and originality, and on Celebration, Florida the Felice Brothers immersed themselves in both. Plus, as a huge fan of both organic Americana and studio-affected indie rock, Celebration, Florida (like Summerteeth or even Iron and Wine's The Shepherd's Dog) scratches both itches in a big way. I will say the overall quality of this year's IMM releases was an improvement on last year's. There wasn't a true whiff in the bunch (sorry Infinite Arms) and I'd look for most to chart on our year end list. Check back in December to see if that holds true.

Upcoming: We'll wrap up IMM 2.0 with a look at the poll. Vote fast, it closes in two days!

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Look Back at IMM 2010 Results: What Do They Mean?

How concrete are rankings and ratings? Not very. For example, remember when Pitchfork called Beck's Sea Change "self-absorbed murk" and slapped a forgettable 6.9 on it? Yeah, when they saw every other critic on the face of the earth calling it a masterpiece, they went ahead and threw it in their top 50 of the year and even put it at #82 in their best of the decade list. This wasn't necessarily damage control. Albums grow, tastes evolve, reputations are established--it happens.

(Seriously though, what kind of critic could give Sea Change a middling review in the first place?)

Anyway, I prefaced last year's results post with the following caveat as well, but let it be known that my rankings are but a snapshot. They'll probably reorder a bit before the year is out. So I thought that it'd be a fun exercise to look back at last year's IMM and compare the album rankings to my End of 10 list.

Here's how things shook out last May:

6. Band of Horses - Infinite Arms
5. Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away
4. The National - High Violet
3. The New Pornographers - Together
2. The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever
1. Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record

Now let's have a look at the reordered list, based on their year end rankings.

N/A - Band of Horses - Infinite Arms
22. Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away
20. The New Pornographers - Together
18. The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever
7. The National - High Violet
6. Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record

As far as the order is concerned, I wasn't too far off. The National, as expected, leapfrogged two albums during the late autumn months, which tend to be more conducive to the National's brooding style. Interesting that none of these cracked the top 5, although it should be noted that Phosphorescent's Here's to Taking It Easy (the unofficial winner) was fourth overall. Did these May albums suffer at the expense of their release date? There were plenty of newer albums to yank my attention away and consequently marginalize earlier releases. However, this was not the case. Only two of the top five (Arcade Fire's The Suburbs and Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest) were post-May releases.

My conclusion: last year's May tilted towards quantity and not quality, albeit ever so slightly. On the year-end list, the average rank for May albums was 12.83. And that's including Phosphorescent and excluding Band of Horses (which didn't even place.)

So what about this year? I fully anticipate a stronger showing, largely due to the fact that my favorites performed about as expected. Quality releases by bands I love are going to take priority over situations where one of those factors is missing. But hey, it'll be another seven months before I can make good on that prediction. First thing's first: the 2011 MAYhem results...

Right after this break!


Indie Music MAYhem 2.0 Review 6: Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie
Codes and Keys

Ben Gibbard churns out stirring one-liners at a staggering rate. His lyrics inspire the world's arty 19-year-old females to go ahead and get that shoulder tattoo or file to study abroad in Osaka. Hell, one might have even inspired Zooey Daschanel to unconditionally dedicate herself to him forever. If that's not a success metric, I don't know what is.

But what does Ben Gibbard offer the "mid-20s dude" demographic? Not a lot, in my experience. I don't mind Death Cab, but something about their presentation has never drawn me in. This is something I've harbored for a long time, even back when I was a member of that doe-eyed indie kid subculture.

My principle gripe? It's Ben's voice. As I've written before, I hate this as an excuse. Besides, Gibbard's pipes aren't repellant, they just don't pack any punch. They're like fat-free Colin Meloy or Jeff Mangum. There exists a certain mechanical quality about his singing that, to his credit, complements the band's sound. But his words seem to dissipate before I ever absorb what he's saying.

But alas, they're a respected act, and fit nicely in our little feature. And truth be told, Codes and Keys isn't a bad album. In fact, it's downright engaging at times. The band sounds tight and confident, as they should be. The band's core, after all, has been in tact for nearly 15 years. Still, there exists a glass ceiling over my ability to get excited about Death Cab. It's not them, it's me.

The lead single, "You Are a Tourist" is the archetypal Gibbard-as-cheerleader lyric set ("Sometimes the best intentions/are in need of redemptions/would you agree/if so please show me.") It's sure to find its way on a few mix-CDs and probably a FOX teen drama, but it falls short of, say, Modest Mouse's "Float On" as an indie-pop single. Also, what's with the panting on "Some Boys"?

The album has its flaws, but there are winning moments throughout. The pulsing opener "Home Is a Fire" skitters along at an anxious pace, and proves a capable tone setter. The chase-scene-worthy "Doors Unlocked and Open", the album's best track, pulls Gibbard's vocals back into the mix, allowing the bassline to bore a path through both the frenetic verses and the vivacious chorus. The snappy drums and guitar nod towards Phoenix (the band, that is) and that's a comparison worth striving for. Throwing the "underneath a tree" gauntlet at the feet of Toro y Moi, "Underneath the Sycamore" is unspectacular but amiably upbeat.

Is this an album I'll get excited over each time I see it on my iPod scroll? Unlikely. Will I call upon it when I've burned out on all my A material and be summarily satisfied? Absolutely. Such could describe my appreciation for Death Cab as a whole, I suppose.


This marks our final review of the feature. Look for a post today, this weekend, or early next week that wraps up this two-month shindig.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Indie Music MAYhem 2.0 Review 5: My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket

In 2008, My Morning Jacket administered one of the sharpest about-faces in recent memory. They released an R&B-infused spacerock LP, replete with brow-raising noise textures and vocal turns. There were three or four tracks resembling MMJ songs of old, but the bulk of the album left listeners reeling. What happened to the classic rock standard-bearers who released the anthemic Z only a few years before? Why is Jim James--owner of world-class southern rock pipes--singing like Prince? Why does "Highly Suspicious" soundtrack my nightmares?

I tend to think Evil Urges was a far more successful experiment than most give it credit for, but I also hoped that it was just that: an experiment. My hope was that the itch was scratched and they were ready to get back to the soaring verbed-out onslaught on which they'd built their empire.

The first single, "Holding On To Black Metal", wasn't going to give us much indication one way or the other. It doesn't not rock, but isn't exactly a purist effort. We hear staggered horn/wah hits  behind a funky mid-tempo progression that, as we'd soon learn, was credibly lifted from a 60's Thai pop song. More confusion was the result--was the rest of the Circuital going to be a classic rock zig or an oddball zag?

It was the next single--the album's title track--that whipped up some excitement in the masses. It's a seven minute, guitar-driven train ride that finds Jim James belting out Z-era vocal lines. Sure to become a live staple, it built up a sense of hungry optimism among their fanbase.

On first listen, I considered Circuital a return to form. "Black Metal" is about as weird as it gets. Everything else is palatable, uncluttered, largely organic; essentially the opposite of much of Evil Urges. All right, MMJ got the message--back to the basics! Ostensibly, this is a good thing. But is it?

Album opener "Victory Dance" is a tribal tension-builder, tightly-wound electric piano and drum cracks slowly circling the drain till its escalated finale. Then comes the immense "Circuital",  which as I mentioned is the true highlight of the album. What we here thereafter is a peppering of good-but-not-great tracks. Will any of these contend for a spot on the inevitable "Best Of"? Hard to imagine "The Day Is Coming" or "First Light" landing as favorites for anyone. I do like "Outta My System", which features one of James' better vocal showings on the record, and the fuzzy waltz "You Wanna Freak Out". Last year I heard an early performance of "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)", a honey-sweet acoustic ditty. It's a warm song, but one I feel like any semi-capable band could have written. It's like "Golden" from It Still Moves without the wide-eyed charm.

The album ends with two slow-as-molasses tunes that hover around five minutes. I really like the album closer "Movin' Away", a spacious three-quarter time ballad that has a similar calm-of-night feel as does the first half of "Dondante" from Z. Its predecessor--the unfortunately titled "Slow Slow Tune"--lopes along at the pace of summer gridlock, and might have been a better follow-up to "Circuital" than "The Day Is Coming", from a sequencing perspective.

The more I listen, the more I feel like the album is a little too safe. It's the unfair result of a band that's raised the bar to such an inconceivably high level that a safe album just won't do. It's kind of like a crack addiction (from what I understand.) It's like MMJ is my dealer, and each album was a stronger hit of crack. Then one day he shows up and says, "Hey I know you like crack, but how about some meth?" So I take the meth [codename: Evil Urges]. "It's different, that's for sure," I'd say to my the dealer from the porch of my double-wide. "I enjoyed the change, but it's just not crack--let's get back to that!" So finally my dealer brings me some crack. Only it's not much crack. "Yeah, it's crack," I'd say, "but I feel a little unfulfilled." If it was my first hit of crack, I'd probably be bouncing off the walls. But I'm dependent, dammit! I need something more!

Anyway, I'm being viscously unfair to this album, I admit. It's not a whiff, although I can't stand by and say its as satisfying to me as I'd hoped. In some ways, this is the exact opposite scenario of the Felice Brothers. With them, I was almost hoping for a safe record--which is about all I expect from them--and they knocked it out of the park by taking a few risks. Which is what I expect from My Morning Jacket, who went the other direction. Alas, Circuital is an inoffensive, low-risk effort that will earn its fair share of spins by year's end.

A handful of stand-out tracks that put the band's best qualities on display.
Cons: While it occasionally flirts with taking off, it never quite breaks through.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Indie Music MAYhem 2.0 Review 4: Man Man

Man Man
Life Fantastic

I discovered Man Man in 2009 while browsing a vintage clothing store in Columbia. All the while I noticed a delightful record playing on the store PA. It was like a high-energy cartoon score featuring a briar-throated singer. Is this some lost Tom Waits record I missed along the way? I asked the girl behind the counter who it was, and she told me it was Man Man. I'd heard of the Philly-based hipster troupe, but my knowledge of their sound was virtually nonexistent.

But based on this serendipitous sampling, I picked up Rabbit Habbits and fast took a liking to it, for reasons including but not limited to its Waitsesque qualities. It's a fun record, clearly the fruit of a talented crop of loopy minstrels. But my attention soon wandered, and admittedly I hadn't paid the band much attention until they announced their new album back in March. But the May release date and the involvement of Mike Mogis boosted my anticipation--and he we are.

Lead single "Knuckle Down" was released around the time Life Fantastic was announced. In the album preview, I called it a "sinister...stomp that will get your juices flowing."  Employing many of the idiosyncratic elements for which the band has become known, we hear marimba runs, choral shouts, and quirky lyricism ("We'll burst like birds full of aspirin").

If you're looking for an ass-shaking summer single, look no further "Piranhas Club". Sure, it's catchy as all get-out, but take notice of the slick arrangement. We hear steady instrumental countermelodies dancing among the vocals--a Mogis trademark that's tailor-made for a band with as much spastic energy as Man Man. Indeed, there's no shortage of bombast on Life Fantastic. "Dark Arts", for example, is a moshy throwdown, with a fiery Lifted-era Bright Eyes chorus and the top-shelf lyric, "These days I feel like a pariah, an albatross with my feathers on fire." It's followed by a positively addictive swath of loungy tropicalia in "Haute Tropique", which has all the markings of a Franks Wild Years relic. "Bangkok Necktie" bounds along with vaguely far-eastern melodies and a fist-pumping "oh-oh-oh-oh" chorus that, together, evoke the sort of Asian metropolis its namesake suggests.

But the album is hardly a free-for-all; you'll find no paucity of restraint and thoughtful moments. "Steak Knives" is a moonlit creeper with a magnetic bridge that glimmers with the aid of a female harmony. The title track is a groovy ode to maintaining in the face of gruesome tragedy. The album closes out with a snappy dedication to tar-pits, but the last two minutes of "La Brea" are comprised of a sighing instrumental coda, soft strings lacing behind delicate acoustic plucks and xylophone dings.

It was my hope that Mike Mogis would leave his mark on Life Fantastic, and this was unmistakably the case.  His propensity for balancing dense arrangements and clear production naturally coalesced with Man Man's vivacity, and yielded one of the surprises of not only May, but 2011 in totality.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Indie Music MAYhem 2.0 Review 3: The Felice Brothers

The Felice Brothers
Celebration, Florida

Most every musician has a signature stage behavior. For example, Tom Waits bends his arms and legs in crooked angles to form fractured silhouettes. Each Avett Brother has a style: Scott pops up and down on his knees and Seth shifts between his front foot and back. Thom Yorke's dramatic gyrations were put on full display in the music video for "Lotus Flower".

Ian Felice runs in place. Raking his aged arch-top with fingerpicks, he high-kicks his skinny legs like a cartoon character about to burst off in a cloud of smoke. Up to now, this behavior was an apt metaphor for the Felice Brothers: energetically running in place. There hasn't been a Felice LP that displays wholesale progress or evolution, despite brief flourishes of both on 2009's Yonder Is the Clock. Not that anyone was griping about it. Does any fan of slipshod folk-rock and bemoan a lack of evolution?

Fans may be content with the status quo, but it quickly became evident that the band wasn't. Crowd footage of new songs began circulating last year, songs with electronics and drum machines. I witnessed it myself back in November. Then in February of 2011, the band announced they'd landed on a different label (Fat Possum) and were readying their fourth LP proper, Celebration, Florida. The bizarre description of the record was as initially repugnant as a peanut-butter and spaghetti sauce sandwich:

"...an exhilarating amalgamation of frightening horn sections, unexpected 808s, ambient synth lines, schoolyard taunts, booming, primitive drum beats, heavy bass lines, piano, violin, accordion, ringing guitars, rave beats, and sinister acid jazz that captivates and mystifies."

My reaction was this: Celebration, Florida would either be a disaster or a masterpiece. Admittedly, my money was on the former. I couldn't fathom the Felice Brothers--a band whose charm lies in their ramshackle approach--successfully reaching across genre lines and introducing a bevy of studio-centric elements to the mix. A bit of concern evaporated when I heard the knock-out lead single "Ponzi", but I certainly noticed the punched-up bass-line and dancerock aesthetic. Were the Felice Brothers playing with fire here?

If they were, opening track "Fire In The Pageant" is suitably titled. The track doesn't throw down the gauntlet, however. Instead, it's a deftly arranged creeper, a bona fide opening track that's both mood-setting and relentless. Eerie percussion textures play off a spidery guitar line that, laid over a bed of keys and schoolyard chatter, form a rising-tension intro, an establishing run that gives way to the first verse. The verses spill into a siren-backed chorus of rowdy schoolchildren and James Felice trading lines with lead brother Ian. A few "new-era" moments burble up throughout--a brief drum machine interlude here, a record scratch there. But the takeaway from "Fire In the Pageant" is the impressive arrangement, especially the vocal weaves throughout the chorus. With this opening track, the Felice Brothers made a statement: love this album or hate it, this is our best shot.

"Container Ship" is slow-moving and shadowy, not unlike the titular vehicle. It has the makings of a classic piano-based Felice Brothers tune, but we hear more of the adornments that the prophecies foretold: gauzy synths, chunky drum samples, twinkling keys. But never to they seem alien to the song, and such is the true triumph of this album.

As if to toy with their fans' established sensibilities, the band starts the Christmas Clapton-led "Honda Civic" as a drunken waltz, before escalating into horn-laden chase music, its sudden tempo jumps like a cop show cutting between scenes. It's another track that thrives on its arrangement, and while it isn't overly reliant on digital elements, yes those are autotuned vocals on the chorus, and yes, they totally work.

After the piano ballad "Oliver Stone"--set amidst garden of electronic swirls--we hear a radio-snippet of some Ian Felice number, overtaken by a film-noir soundbyte that serves as a portentous lead-in to the hypertopical "Ponzi". As mentioned earlier, it's a top-notch effort, a benchmark of the band's musical maturation. James Felice, the unsung hero of the album who scales back his vocal contributions in favor of his general musicianship, provides an infectious piano run around which Ian Felice spins his sinister tale of high-brow corruption. Never has the band sounded so tight, like a singular unit all working towards the same end. Much of this is owed to the notable uptick in the quality of the band's drumwork. Never a priority or necessity on past albums, they saw the need for a refined drummer who could provide denser beats, resulting in more expressive songs across the board.

The album's wild card? "Back In the Dancehalls", which is about as close as a track can get to straight hip-hop without any actual rapping. Making a none-to-subtle reference to the Geto Boys "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta" (both lyrically and musically), it might be the last straw for purists. However, I see it as light-hearted relief, a come-down from the pounding coda of "Ponzi", and a legitimate reflection of the influence nineties hip-hop had on the band as individuals.

"Dallas" is one of two legitimate Felice Brothers throwbacks, a sad-cowboy ballad with only the subtlest of accompaniment. "Cuss Catskill Gym" is next, a two-part grinder that finds the band examining politics of boxing in the late 80s. But it's the raucous second half that catches your attention. Ian Felice sings with an energized passion we've rarely if ever heard, to date. In my review for Yonder Is the Clock back in 2009, I praised the Felice Brothers for distancing themselves from the "Dylanesque" label. While it's still bandied about, we're seeing it less and less, and it may be the function of Ian Felice coming into his own as a singer.

"Refrain" is the only song where the synths seem like someone got hold of a MIDI controller and laid them down as an afterthought. Furthermore, the drumwork regresses and offers little to the track. I wish they'd spent a bit more time on this one in particular--but all that said, I'd sooner keep the song than strike it from the record. Penultimate track "Best I Ever Had" is the other wheelhouse Felice Brothers tune, featuring Ian on an open-tuned acoustic and crooning out a midnight ballad that sounds like a Yonder-era relic.

It's the album's closing track that mints Celebration as the band's best record to date. "River Jordan" begins with a few cavernous drum measures before simple guitar strums start the gears moving on this stunning finale. What begins as a slow-burning track turns a corner after a stirring instrumental section. We hear Ian lyrically scoff at success--"Fuck the news, fuck the House of Blues, fuck my whole career, you don't want me here." Perhaps a message to the media? Those not on board with the band's new direction? Whatever the case may be, the song's remaining minutes are as powerful as anything I've heard in a long time. Drums rumble beneath a steady march of noise, as Ian's vocals gather more volatility with each passing second. Finally, Ian unleashes the most hair-raising of notes--you'll know it when you hear it--and at the end of the verse, the music slows and submits to the same drum measures that began the song, now serving as the album's dying breaths.

The resounding message of Celebration, Florida is that the Felice Brothers aren't interested in pandering. Keep the straw hats and overalls--this is the record they wanted to make. It will isolate some, confuse others. No band that takes risks will please everyone--ask Radiohead. But ultimately, a brilliant album will win every time.

Pros: A huge risk yields a huge reward; the Felice Brothers had a vision, saw it through, and the result is near perfection.
Cons: "Refrain" could have benefited from a more restrained mix.

Monday, May 16, 2011

May 14, 2011: Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes
w/The Cave Singers
Tabernacle (Atlanta, GA)
May 14, 2011

Waiting in a queue that wrapped around a city block, I caught wind of an exchange between a couple of passing women. "What is this for," asked one. "Um, the Fleet...Foxes or something?" "Who the hell is that?" And off into the night they went, none the wiser. Those of us who heard the women laughed, but of course it's a valid question for the layperson. Why is this band causing such a kerfuffle? Sure, I could preach to her about their unimpeachable debut, or the sterling follow-up still hot off the presses, the storied live prowess that beckoned us from five hours away. But she'd probably just ask if they were on the radio, shrug, and remain unimpressed.

It is sort of remarkable that the Fleet Foxes are already on the shortlist of indie music elites. Yes, they've crammed an astounding volume of quality material into only two LPs and an EP (even their self-titled and -released first EP, though crude by comparison, has some jaw-dropping moments.) But they aren't not a niche act, which is why their relentless assent is at least a minor surprise. Who'd have thought medieval woodland folk was what the world was pining for? Whatever the case, the Fleets were out on their first tour in over a year, and those of us who know who the hell they are couldn't be happier.

This wouldn't mark my first Fleet Foxes experience. In fact, the other time I saw them was also in Atlanta. Back in 2008, I enjoyed Tom Waits and the Fleet Foxes on the same night (this will probably be in my obituary.) Unfortunately, bad directions caused me to miss half the Fleet Foxes gig. But it was a treat to see the band in a venue the size of a shoebox, especially with the assumption that they'd be filling significantly larger venues in no time.

Indeed, the show at the Tabernacle was sold out. I'd been to the venue twice before: once for Ryan Adams in 2004 (back with the then-newly minted Cardinals) and again to see the Decemberists in 2006. We entered the venue and I staked a spot in the merch line. Ten minutes of waiting was not rewarded, however, as the shirts were underwhelming. Take note: this would mark the end of the night's disappointments.

We claimed a patch of floor a tad right of center-stage, six or seven heads back. The venue is a cavernous space, a former church (obviously) with an immense pipe organ that spans the high wall behind the stage. Two tiers of balconies wrap around the other three walls. Tall windows are obscured by heavy black drapes. The floor tilts downward towards the stage in an effort to diminish obstructions (it wasn't foolproof, but it helped.) There wasn't much elbow room by the time openers The Cave Singers took the stage.

A trio that rose from the ashes of Pretty Girls Make Graves, the band ran through a set comprised of charged blues stomps. The mix wasn't great on frontman Pete Quirk's vocals, but his voice and stage presence was powerful and expressive enough to keep you interested. If nothing else they piqued my interest, and I'll explore them when I get the chance. But, my priorities laid elsewhere, and I found myself eager for the trio to make way for the Foxes.

The Fleet Foxes' team of beardo-roadies wandered the stage, tweaking this and tightening that. The audience went up in a singular roar when lead singer Robin Pecknold emerged from backstage. He smiled and sheepishly waved, at one point motioning for calm, which we eventually did. For five minutes he stood among the bustling crew, playing guitar and singing along with the house music. The mic was muted, but I assume the sound guy had the signal in his headphones. Had Robin missed soundcheck? Was he just getting comfortable out on stage? Who knows, but it was a telling situation. Robin Pecknold is clearly not concerned with developing a mystique. More on that later.

Robin during soundcheck.

When all was kosher, the stage party retreated. A few excruciating minutes later, the houselights fell. The crowd exploded, and topped that when the band stepped out. Never in my days of attending live music have I seen a standing ovation occur before the first song. Robin tried to greet us, but it was no use. The roar overtook his mic, so the band stepped back and gazed around the place, grinning while the reception lingered on for the better part of two minutes. Finally, Robin thanked us, thanked the openers, and the band played.

When I go to shows, I'm always looking for "The Song of the Night." Generally speaking, I'm decisive in this endeavor, but it was a legitimate challenge on Saturday. I'd wager about 75% of songs were contenders. Hell, I still don't know what was best. Was it the sequence of "White Winter Hymnal" into "Ragged Wood"? Was it the main-set closing "Blue Ridge Mountains"? Surely the opener can't be the best song, can it? But instrumental "Cascades" into "Grown Ocean" out of the gates certainly challenges that theory. The crowd bellowed the words of the mighty "Mykonos", doing their best to keep up with the band's complex harmonic interplay. You could have heard a mouse sneeze during "Blue Spotted Tail"--any rowdy gabbers were brought to a hush by Robin's delicate recitation of the Helplessness Blues standout.

Speaking of young squire Robin, what a charming performer. I was struck by his lack of self-imposed stoicism while onstage. During the songs, he was a consummate professional, never missed a note, and the passion he pours into his singing and playing steams out of his every pore. But between songs? Just a dude. No better way to put it. His smiley demeanor was more reminiscent of a college sophomore playing a house-show than a globally celebrated songwriting tour-de-force. Put yourself in his situation: You're 25 years old, and well into your gestation period as an icon. You could play the rockstar, act mysterious, dress in an eccentric manner. But Pecknold seems uninterested in all that. He had an "aw, shucks" casual air about him. He dressed in plainclothes--unpressed khakis and a button-down. His demeanor was one of shy appreciation, even amusement. He was never awkward, but a bit of a shrinking lily at times. And all the while, he was never without a boyish grin.

Drummer J. Tillman (who is an established solo artist and released a favorite of mine last year) afforded us a bit of comic relief, making light of the crowd frenzy by suggesting the band introduce a laser show and T-shirt cannon to the act. And in a moment of regional appreciation, Tillman led us all (via a thumping floor tom) in the Atlanta Braves' Tomahawk Chop chorus. I may or may not have waved my Braves cap like a maniac. (Note: Earlier in the day, we were at Turner Field witnessing the Braves knock off the hated Phillies. Go Braves!)

The band encored with two songs--Robin came out solo to do "Oliver James", and the band joined him for a rousing finale in "Helplessness Blues". Speaking to the latter, it was impressive how big a response new material received. Never mind that the record only officially dropped a few days earlier; I never once sensed that the audience was clamoring for the "old stuff". Whatever they offered was greeted with untempered celebration.

The band was done before 11:00, which was nice for those of us with a two-hour drive ahead. The night was nothing short of a triumph. I've never been part of an audience with such a feverish mania for the artist--it's an exaggeration to compare it to the Beatles at Shea, but given the context of time, scope and genre, it was a similarly passionate atmosphere. It's clear that the Fleet Foxes are destined for greater things, but will the boundaries of their loosely-defined niche prevent them from achieving a greater appeal? I highly doubt it. Again, the niche is loosely defined in the first place, and it's all but become a genre unto itself--a trend that will only perpetuate as the band continues to mature. As I said in the Helplessness Blues review, this will be one fun band to have on the scene for as long as they keep at it.

Setlist and phone-quality pics:

The Cascades
Grown Ocean
Drops In The River
Battery Kinzie
Bedouin Dress
Sim Sala Bim
Your Protector
Tiger Mountain Peasant Song
White Winter Hymnal
Ragged Wood
He Doesn't Know Why
The Shrine / An Argument
Blue Spotted Tail
Blue Ridge Mountains

Oliver James
Atlanta Braves Tomahawk Chant (J. Tillman)
Helplessness Blues

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Indie Music MAYhem 2.0 Review 2: Okkervil River

Okkervil River
I Am Very Far

My relationship with Okkervil River could be described thusly: they're a reliable friend that I don't see often. Then one boring night, I'll go on Facebook and post "Anyone up for hanging out?" Next thing I know, Okkervil River calls me up and says "Hey man, let's get that beer!" So I'll run out and meet them, and have a genuinely great time, and on the drive home I'll think, "You know I should really hang out with Okkervil River more often." But I get busy, and maybe a little lazy--not to mention they have plenty of folks who call them more often than I, so it's not like they're waiting for the phone to ring. So we fall out of touch for a few months, maybe even a year. But we'll never hesitate to get back up when we can, and it's always a pleasure.

Consider that a long way of saying they aren't one of my favorite bands, but I appreciate having them around. Such was what warranted their inclusion in IMM2.0. I Am Very Far was announced back in January, not long after I revisited the terrific Stage Names. I still maintain "A Girl in Port" is one of the best songs written in the aughts--certainly one of the top ballads. Their first new LP proper since (2008's The Stand Ins was borne out of the Stage Names sessions), can I Am Very Far continue their knack for sprawling chamber pop melodrama?

Sort of. The problem with the album is that it struggles early. Opening track "The Valley" will get your head bobbing, but it's a curious choice as opener. It isn't very dynamic, nor tone-setting, and there's something vaguely hokey about the line "He has fallen in the valley of the rock and roll dead." The next three tracks fail to inspire--second track "Piratess" lolls along drably, doing its best to taper off any momentum its predecessor stirred up. If only they'd read our feature on second songs! "Rider" and "Lay of the Last Survivor" aren't offensive, but they come off as "Okkervil River by Numbers." When the latter concludes, you wonder if I Am Very Far will, in fact, go any farther.

Thankfully, things pick with "White Shadow Waltz", which really should have been the opening track. It's bubbling with energy, it's exciting, and it revives the album. From then on, the band is on point. "Hanging From a Hit", the album's strongest track, begins as a delicate waltz with Sheff's vocals dialed back--this allows the band's harmonies are to bloom a bit, which proves to be a strength. It's a tactic I wish they'd embrace more often. "Show Yourself" begins with brooding Elliott Smith repetition, but eventually picks up into a chilly gallop. It's arranged with an effective sparsity that might owe something to Radiohead's In Rainbows.

If there's one inevitable live staple on this album, it's "Your Past Life as a Blast", due in large part to the repeated line, "No one, no one, is gonna stop me from lovin' my brother." Fitting for a song with the feel of a seventies groove anthem (think "Good Morning Starshine"). "Wake and Be Fine" is a fractured waltz, and one of the album's best moments. Uniquely arranged, Sheff spits his lyrics over and around the jerky drum beat, as the band stitches piano plinks and string swells around the song's edges. The song fades into "The Rise", the cathartic closing track with an overlapping call-and-response lyrical structure that begs to be bellowed from a Broadway stage. It's a truly stunning closer, the largely instrumental outro sways along as electric guitar textures, crashes and piano rolls fire off like dying strains--it's exit music, pure and simple.

I don't know if I've ever heard an album with such a stark jump in quality. I'm not sure if I should celebrate the strong mid-to-latter portion, or lament the fact that the album as a whole is sullied by the slow start. Either way, if the early portion was up to the standard of the rest, I Am Very Far would be right up there with the best albums we've seen this year. As it stands, it might have been better off trimmed down to an EP.

Pros: A nearly impenetrable stretch from "White Shadow Waltz" to immaculate closer "The Rise".
Cons: The album takes about twenty minutes to get its wings.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Indie Music Mayhem 2.0 Review 1: The Fleet Foxes

Sorry for the lack of posting. Will have reviews up over the next few weeks!

The Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues

The Fleet Foxes 2008 self-titled release topped scores of "Best Of" lists that year (guilty) and since then, they've teased the bejesus out of us. After a year or so of touring, the band laid relatively low but didn't hesitate to post pictures and updates from studio sessions dating back to last summer. Robin Pecknold played scattered solo dates, his setlists populated by stunning new songs as opposed to relying on the Foxes catalog. Finally, back in January, we all began salivating into our beards when the band formally announced the May release of Helplessness Blues.

So the new album had to be a sure thing, right? Three years in the making, coming off one of the most celebrated debuts in the past decade--all the hype is justified, that's for sure. But I couldn't help but look at the Arcade Fire, who released a similarly triumphant debut and waited three years to release a follow-up in Neon Bible. No matter your opinion on the album, it wasn't unanimously lauded like Funeral. And by now it has the misfortune of existing in the midst of Funeral and The Suburbs.

I sported a huge smile on my face about forty seconds into "Montezuma", just as the band unfurls that first sheet of beaming harmonies. From the word "go", Helplessness Blues dashes concerns and fulfills the years of aching anticipation. Robin Pecknold is developing (or, perhaps, has developed) into one of the most versatile singers on the scene, as evidenced on--well, take your pick. The understated Nick Drake-whisper of "Blue Spotted Tail"? The warm, angular delivery on "Bedouin Dress"?  All of the above and more.

The band sounds clean and strong. No note seems out of place, nor formulaic. "Battery Kinzie" is a bright, pounding romp, like the Who vis-a-vis CSNY. There are inevitable parallels one can draw between the band's two LPs: both feature a mix of rousing, full-band tracks with a few sparse acoustic numbers. There are multi-part songs, there's an instrumental. Still, Helplessness Blues is anything but a rehash of its predecessor. There's an overriding theme of introspection here, perhaps Pecknold reflecting on his new-found success--there are plenty of "Ifs" to found on Helplessness Blues.

This theme is most palpable on the title track, where Pecknold questions his role as a "snowflake distinct among snowflakes", suggesting he'd rather be "a cog in some great machinery." The song's coda is particularly resonant with me. See, I'm locked into the digital world. It seems to be this generation's path to success. But I wonder about the merits of manual outdoor labor, adopting farm life, working hard for myself. "If I had an orchard, I'd work til I'm sore." I don't know the first thing about growing, but to see the literal fruits of your labor from start to finish, that fulfill your base needs of survival, seems unequivocally fulfilling. Plus, I can't imagine a sweeter-tasting beer than one at the end of a day of field work. But I digress.

My lone beef with the album (aside from the brow-raising resemblance of "Lorelai" to Dylan's "4th Time Around") lies in the execution of the album's could-have-been best moment. Nevermind the album--it could have been one of the epicss of our era. "The Shrine/An Argument" begins witha frenetically picked acoustic and vocals. Twice, Pecknold roars in a way we've yet to hear: "Sunlight over me no matter what I do"--perhaps a comment on obsequious fans/critics. The ghostly intro soon gives way to the song's B-section, a stretch so strong that it could (and perhaps should) have stood as its own full track. Its churning sincerity reminds me of "Your Protector" from the debut, and its hard not recoil at the dark image of "In the ocean washing off my name from your throat." Unfortunately, the section only lasts for a measly minute and a half.

The song's final four minutes are slow, dark and abstract, featuring some rather mechanical harmonies that sound more like chipmunks than Foxes. But that's not the issue. At about the 6:25 mark, a completely unnecessary free-jazz section enters for a full minute. I like weird shit (re: Tom Waits appreciation.) I like free-jazz. But in this instance, it comes off as arbitrary and bitter to the taste, and the result is a blemish on the album.

But a sour minute only takes down the overall quality a tick or two; make no mistake, this is one bruiser of an LP. Not only did the Fleet Foxes stave off the sophomore blues, they stepped over it without a flinch. It's an exciting time to be a fan: Helplessness Blues is only a week old, and I'm already excited for the next LP.

Pros: The songs? The singer? The band? Take your pick.
Cons: Near-perfection falls short in one puzzling, frustrating minute of "The Shrine/An Argument".