Archive for the 'Album Reviews' Category

Listen Up!: 2012 So Far

The weather is just starting to warm back up again, but much of what I’ve been listening to so far this year has been a bit on the glum side. I’ll start with those and work my way to sunnier territory.

Perfume GeniusPut Your Back N 2 It [Matador]
Mike Hadreas continues to wow me with his sophomore album, which proves to be just as harrowing as his debut. Though Hadreas often covers dark emotional terrain (suicide, identity issues, addiction, homophobia), he does so with amazing grace. When he sings, Hadreas seems to somehow cleanse both himself and anyone within earshot.

“Dark Part” by Perfume Genius, live at the Mercury Lounge 4/2/12:

Orcas, s/t [Morr Music]

Given the backgrounds of its two members – hazy ambient dream popper Thomas Meluch (Benoît Pioulard) and post-minimalist composer Rafael Anton Irisarri, Orcas sounds a lot like you might expect, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. Good ruminating music. Someone get this for me on vinyl.

“Pallor Cedes” by Orcas:

Grimes – Visions [4AD]

Grimes was one of the only artists to literally make me stop in my tracks at SXSW last year… or as one friend put it, “I want to stop listening, but I can’t!” Thanks largely to her Muppet-like voice, Claire Boucher’s strange, experimental music feels both cringe-worthy and addictive. But whether you take it or leave, Grimes’ sound is as uplifting as it is infectious.

“Oblivion” by Grimes:

Fenster, Bones [Morr Music]

Fenster, meaning “window” in German, is a whimsical pop trio from Berlin with a dark side and a pension for Schadenfreude. For weeks I didn’t listen to any other album. They have the sparse lo-fi quality and male/female vox that made me fall in love with The xx a few years back… but they also have a warmth that the latter seemed to lack. I just interviewed founding members JJ and Jonathan. Look for that in the coming weeks.

“Oh Canyon” by Fenster:

Where my girls at?

I have an oddly ambivalent relationship with female singer-songwriters.

Of course, there are a handful that I absolutely adore: Moon Pix era Cat Power, Laura Marling, Scout Niblett, Julie Doiron, Hope Sandoval, and Sea of Bees come to mind. And there are some that I have passing flings with – the Charlotte Gainsbourgs and Lykke Lis of the world. But more times than not, I just can’t muster any excitement.

Is it my gender that leaves me largely indifferent or downright turned off when it comes to artists like Wye Oak, My Brightest Diamond, or Joanna Newsom? Does some part of me feel threatened by a pretty girl with a guitar?

Heck, I’m not even really into Sharon Van Etten, the indie rock darling of Brooklyn.  Or at least, I didn’t think I was until this week when a couple of her songs popped into my head unexpectedly, prompting me to go back and give Epic another shot.

Then there are still other female artists that I simply never gave a shot. So when I saw that NPR Music was streaming the new St. Vincent album, Strange Mercy, I knew I had to give it a shot. I confess to being embarrassingly ignorant when it comes to Annie Clark’s discography. Sure, I’ve seen her collaborate with other musicians a few times, but somehow, I had never listened to either of her albums.


Strange Mercy opens with a warped organ, some Bjðrk-esque vocals, some potent guitar riffs, and a hip beat. Not what I was expecting. I confess that in my mind, Annie Clark and Miranda July had converged into one person due to their quirky personas, similar hair styles, doe eyes, and ability to steal my male friends’ hearts. But far from being an awkward, twee parody, Annie Clark delivers cool precision.

Here’s “Cruel,” the first video from the new album:

Following a surprisingly upbeat couple of songs, “Cheerleader” sees Clark dipping into a darker, more vulnerable side that more closely matches the tone of her lyrics. (I can’t help but think back to Grizzly Bear’s song by the same title – also excellent.)

Pretty in pink Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent (photo Annabel Mehran)

The album is polished in a way that will surely cause some to balk, but a gritty rawness still permeates the songs and prevents them from turning into eerie exercises in perfection. “Come cut me open,” Clark sings in “Surgeon.”

“[A]n unsparing examination of personal catharsis cloaked in some of the most sublime music of Annie Clark’s career,” boasts 4AD. A pretty piece of copy, indeed. Take a listen for yourself, and let me know if you agree.

Spotlight on Son Lux

The Wire‘s RPM Challenge isn’t for the faint of heart. Most musicians take 2-3 years to write, record, and produce an album. The RPM Challenge shortens that time to just one month – and the shortest month of the year at that. It’s a lot to take on.

When Ryan Lott (aka Son Lux) first heard about the challenge from NPR Music’s Robin Hilton, he wasn’t convinced it was for him.

Well, my initial reaction was I absolutely cannot do this. This is just not in the cards for me. It was just like, ah that’s too bad because that would have been a super cool opportunity, what a cool thing for them to think of me, blah, blah, blah. So I slept on it and I told a couple of people about it, one of whom is my manager, Michael. He was like, “Oh dude you have to do this.” (Laughs)

Ryan Lott (photo courtesy of artist)

So he embarked on the challenge. Over the course of February, NPR checked in with Lott regularly to note his progress. (Very cool stuff.) For a time in the middle of the process, he didn’t think he was going to make it, but somehow he managed to not only pull it off, but produce an absolutely gorgeous album that features some of my favorite artists, including the likes of: DM Stith, Antony Hegarty, Sufjan Stevens, The National, Shara Worden, and more.

Fortunately for me, it’s so ridiculously fun to make music that working really hard, as hard as I can exhausts me but also energizes me in a really important way.

I fell in love with the finished product a few weeks ago, when NPR streamed it as part of their First Listen Series. Now you can download it for yourself, and you totally should. It’s already a serious contender for my annual top ten list.

We Are Rising is full of magical moments. It held me at attention from the very first song, “Flickers.” Take a listen yourself:

You can also download “Rising,” the first single from the album, here.

Though the album has a nice, clean feel, it also somehow manages to project a  majestic quality, and this is a dichotomy I can certainly get behind.

Check out this intriguing interview (which I’ve been quoting from) with Ryan Lott and NPR’s Robin Hilton about how it all went down.

Passé, you say? Not so fast.

It’s hard to believe that nearly 9 years have passed since The Decemberists released Castaways and Cutouts. The Portland band’s last two albums have taken strange turns and become increasingly theatrical and prone to prog rock, so I was a bit apprehensive to hear the new material, but I couldn’t resist at least checking them out. I was lucky enough to catch them for night two at New York’s Beacon Theatre. (See my full write-up here on Brooklyn Vegan.) What better way to experience their new material than through a live show?

The Decemberists at the Beacon Theatre (photo Mike)

Of course, I was absolutely delighted to hear songs like “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” (which they opened the show with), “Red Right Ankle,” “The Chimbley Sweep,” and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” But perhaps more surprisingly, I even found myself enjoying the handful of songs I had never heard. (They played a whopping 8/10 from their new album.)

With The King is Dead, The Decemberists seem to have exchanged the slowly unfolding and meandering prog rock featured on their recent few albums and turned back to tight songwriting in the more conventional 3-5 minute format. The new material is less frenzied and overblown than say, nearly anything on Hazards of Love. Absent are long-winded instrumental interludes and evidence of roll playing, strange characters, and period pieces. The King is Dead is far more immediate. Much of the material may have been new, but it also felt somehow familiar – like a throwback to some of the band’s earlier work. You can snag the new album on the cheap via Amazon ($7.99).

Here are a couple of new songs from Tuesday night’s show.

“Down by the Water:”

“Rox in the Box:”

Throughout the evening, the band succeeded in engaging the audience with their dramatic antics and candid banter. At one point, Meloy turned the mic on the audience and pitted the orchestra against the balcony for what turned into an impressively compliant and enthusiastic sing-a-long for the ‘la-di-da’s’ of “16 Military Wives:”

I still feel rather ambivalent about smug front man Colin Meloy (you should have heard some of that banter), but you’d be a fool to let your disdain for Meloy prevent you from checking out this band live.

End of the year best, the final round: Albums

Oy vey! This should not have taken so long to put together. I apologize for the tardiness of this list. The truth is I really struggled to put it together. 2010 was consumed by rampant concert-going and reviewing to such an extent that I didn’t have much time for experiencing music in its more packaged and produced form: the album. Thus, every time I started working on compiling this list, I found myself thinking of more albums I hadn’t ever gotten around to. As a result, much of the past month was spent playing catch-up. Without further ado, here are the results.

1. The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty)

The Age of Adz opens with the deceptively calming and methodical “Futile Devices” – almost as if nothing had changed since the gentle days of Greetings from Michigan. Of course, it isn’t long before things start to get a little… strange. In an interview with WNYC’s John Schaefer back in the fall of 2009, Sufjan talked about his new project, saying, “Well I’m not interested really in a collection of songs in an album, but what if the song itself is the album.” The Age of Adz is a fascinating, experimental adventure – far more experimental than much of the music that typically falls under that tired tag. Yes, it is bombastic and wildly ambitious. Yes, it was met by much flak when it was suddenly released – especially on the heals of the mild and beautiful EP All Delighted People. But sometimes, it’s the art that takes the most risks and is the most divisive that is most worth a look. Take it or leave it, love it or hate it. Gather ’round. This is the age of Adz. Let the flutes flutter, the guitar sound out triumphantly, and the back-up singers belt it out and dance with glee.

Sufjan Stevens, “Age of Adz” clip:

As you will no doubt notice, observant reader, there is a significant gap in my list here. What happened to albums 2-3? You may be thinking to yourself. Well for me, the year’s number one album was obvious… so obvious that the next few had me stumped. Nothing seemed to make enough of an impression to warrant a position so close to The Age of Adz, simple as that. Please don’t interpret the gap as a cop-out. Instead, it is a powerful statement about my feelings of the year in music and my love of my top album. It’s true, I didn’t think it was the most impressive year as far as the album goes, but in this gap, it’s important to note that there is also hope. Every year, I struggle with my limitations. I’m simply not able to hear and synthesize enough albums. In 2010, some of my favorite albums of the year (DM Stith’s Heavy Ghost, Silje Nes’ Ames Room, and Holy Sons’ Decline of the West) are from previous years. I like to think that perhaps I just haven’t yet discovered my other favorites of the year.

4. Go – Jónsi (XL)

Thanks to my early love for Sigur Rós, I have long been captivated by Jón Þór Birgisson’s heavenly voice. But with many of his band members taking a musical hiatus to have kids, Birgisson had a little extra time on his hands and Jónsi was born. From the moment I saw the strange but gorgeous video for “Go Do,” I eagerly awaited more. Go is positively radiant – a celestial kaleidoscope of sound. One of my biggest regrets of the year was missing him in concert. Apparently, it was a sight to behold. (Luckily, you can at least listen to his show at the 9:30 Club, thanks to the folks at NPR Music.)

Jónsi, “Go Do” clip:

5. Halcyon Digest – Deerhunter (4AD)

I was tempted to throw Atlas Sound’s Bedroom Databank on the list, but though the impromptu collection contains an intimate collection of hushed and deeply confessional lo-fi songs, Halcyon Digest is clearly the more cohesive and consistent release. Bradford Cox’s songs may often be grim, but somehow, Halcyon Digest seems – dare I say it? – upbeat… even when the lyrics cover things like perpetual darkness and abandonment. Halycon, indeed.

Deerhunter, “Don’t Cry” clip:

6. High Violet – The National (4AD)

Yes, sometimes Matt Berninger whines on this album. Yes, it may have taken me longer than it should have to get into it. But despite these caveats, High Violet remains one of the most impressive outputs of the year. The instrumentation is full-bodied and complex and the lyrics are brimming with highly evocative one-liners. (I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees sounds almost mythological, and a game of nuns versus priests sounds both comical and terrifying.) Absent of any obvious stand-out tracks, High Violet is also truly an album to be digested in its entirety.

The National, “Anyone’s Ghost” clip:

7. Cloak and Cipher – Land of Talk (Saddle Creek)

At casual listen, Lizzie Powell has the kind of smooth, innocuous vocals characteristic of an artist found on the adult easy-listening channel, but don’t let that fool you. From seeing Land of Talk perform twice this past year, I know the woman to be a powerful force, and her lyrics are some of the most powerful I’ve heard all year.
Land of Talk, “Color Me Badd” clip:

8. I Speak Because I Can – Laura Marling (Astralwerks)

Interestingly, this album was not initially on my list. Besides “Hope in the Air,” there just weren’t any tracks as good as “Ghosts,” “My Manic and I,” or “Crawled Out of the Sea.” But then I got to thinking… Alas I Cannot Swim is perhaps one of my favorite albums in the last five years. So what if I Speak Because I Can didn’t top it. The truth of the matter is that any Laura Marling album is going to be better than average. Everything from the title of this album to the tone reveals a more confident and mature Marling. Maybe there aren’t (m)any tracks I would listen to on repeat as I did with her previous material, but it remains a solid album. I eagerly await what comes next.

Laura Marling, “Hope in the Air” clip:

9. All Alone In An Empty House – Lost in the Trees (Anti)

When I first saw Lost in the Trees open for Efterklang in the spring of 2008, my friend and I were so impressed and moved by the haunting melodies that we each bought an album – a rarity for us spoiled college radio kids. For front man Ari Picker, making and playing music is a deeply moving and cathartic experience. At a recent show at the Mercury Lounge, he said, “I started listening to classical music in 2005. It was an interesting experience. I started getting a feeling like I was in church or something. It was a mind-opening experience.” Like the band’s older catalog, All Alone in an Empty House is delightfully gothic and brimming with intensity.


Lost in the Trees, “All Alone in an Empty” clip:

10. Love Remains – How To Dress Well (Lefse)

Reminiscent a bit of Bon Iver, How To Dress Well is a hazy, melodic collection of songs that seem to be made for the cold, dark days of winter. Love Remains is a complex and intriguing synthesis of bedroom music, 90s R & B, and fuzzed out, heavily distorted electronica – all accompanied by Tom Krell’s piercing falsetto. The songs flow from one to the next with ease and create a haunting and hazy tableau of sound.

How To Dress Well, “Can’t See My Own Face” clip:

11. Made in the Harbor – Mountain Man (Partisan)

For the first few times I saw the name Mountain Man floating around, I was quick to dismiss the band. Haven’t I heard this before? I thought to myself. But this isn’t Man Man, Young Man, Black Mountain, or the Pink Mountaintops. There isn’t even a man on the album. Instead, three lovely ladies team up to create Appalachian folk-inspired ditties, full of three-part harmonies, sparse instrumentation, and a lot of heart, and the result is captivating.

Mountain Man, “Animal Tracks” clip:

12. The Calcination of Scout Niblett – Scout Niblett (Drag City)

Simultaneously abrasive and demure – Scout Niblett is an enigmatic figure and a compelling songwriter. Her music is marked by furious highs and delicate lows, and she navigates between the two like a restless, overenthusiastic child choosing between new toys on Christmas. Fitting for its heavy sound, The Calcination of Scout Niblett dropped back in January, and as the colder days set in once again, I find myself listening to it with increased frequency and fervor.

Scout Niblett, “The Calcination of Scout Niblett” clip:


13. Magic Central – Breathe Owl Breathe (Hometapes)

I had this album for a couple of months before I finally got around to listening to it. Big mistake. I adored the group’s earlier material for its warmth and down-to-earth simplicity like a little kid loves his blanket. Now, with Magic Central, the sound is more expansive, but the content remains charming familiar. In his characteristic rich and relaxed tenor, front man Micah Middaugh sings of everything from the benign, everyday (an errant mustache) to bigger, heavier topics (like how to forget a former love). As the story goes, the Michigan-based group retreated to a cabin in the woods cabin to soak up the sun and play some music. The formula may be a bit hackneyed now, but the end result is no less worthy.

Breathe Owl Breathe, “Dragon” clip:

14. Write About Love – Belle & Sebastian (Matador)

After some five years of waiting, I anxiously awaited the release of Write About Love. I spent a lot of time with Belle & Sebastian over the years. A lot. After such a long hiatus, would they be able to retain the glow of previous releases like The Boy with the Arab Strap, If You’re Feeling Sinister, or Fold Your Hands, Child You Walk Like a Peasant? Sure, Write About Love may not glisten, but it certainly still has its moments.

Belle & Sebastian, “Come On Sister” clip:

15. I See the Sign – Sam Amidon (Bedroom Community)

Sam Amidon may seem like something of an odd choice for the list. After all, the man doesn’t even write his own songs… well not exactly. Instead, he adopts and adapts old folk and gospel songs (and even the occasional cover) and makes them his own. Amidon’s fast finger-plucking skills and rich, well-weathered voice combine delightfully in I See the Sign. Though the lyrics may not be his own, each song readily evokes a story. Everything from stubborn damsels to matricide, and a wayward son populate the album.

Sam Amidon, “You Better Mind” clip:

Honorable Mentions go to:

Allo Darlin’ – s/t (Fortuna POP)
The sunny, upbeat stylings of this Australian pop group are likely to get stuck in your head for hours on end.

Allo Darlin’, “Dreaming” clip:


Broken Bells – s/t (Columbia)
‘Super’ precedes ‘group’ for a reason. Take exhibit A, Broken Bells – the work of James Mercer (The Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse).

Broken Bells, “Vaporize” clip:

 

Efterklang – Magic Chairs (4 AD)
Efterklang is a great live act, and I like the first few songs of Magic Chairs, but for whatever reason, I never seem to get beyond the first 3 or 4 tracks before giving up.

Efterklang, “Alike” clip:

 

Phantogram – Eyelid Movies (Barsuk)
Mesmerizing and quixotic songs couple well with Sarah Barthel’s equally intoxicating vocals.

Phantogram, “When I’m Small” clip:


Perfume Genius – Learning (Matador)
In all honesty, I have yet to obtain Learning in its entirety, but I’m digging what I have heard of Mike Hadreas’ docile, heartfelt songs.

Perfume Genius, “Learning” clip:

Glaringly and intentionally absent:

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Merge)
When Funeral came out in 2004, I remember thinking that it was a big moment in indie music history, but for whatever reason, I have still never been able to get into this band. I’m sorry.

Beach House – Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
I loved Devotion as much as the next guy, but despite my fierce desire to get behind this album, I simply can’t handle how raspy Victoria Legrand’s voice has become.

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More (Glass Note)
In my book, Fanfarlo, Noah and the Whale, and Laura Marling all deserve more praise than their British folk contemporaries, Mumford & Sons. For what it is, the presentation is just too gruff for me, and the intensity seems artificially heightened.

In the Bedroom (with Bradford Cox)

I’m not sure why I’m only just getting wind of this (and this, this, and this). Apparently, Bradford Cox has had some time on his hands this fall.

At last night’s show at the Bell House, he said:

I got off tour with Deerhunter, I got home, and I didn’t have anything to do.  I started feeling wild – like Cabin Fever, you know? I watched two seasons of Law and Order: Criminal Intent… in like 52 hours. I wasn’t returning phone calls, and it was dark. So I get out my little recording machine and I made some recordings.

Except, well he was underselling himself a bit by his choice of words. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, he posted four – yes four – Atlas Sound albums on his site – available to download for free! That’s 49 songs, if you’re counting.

Cover art for Bedroom Databank, Vol. 4

Initially, the release of his Bedroom Databank was met with some controversy from Sony.

The day after he had finished posting all four volumes, Cox apparently received several copyright-infringement e-mails from Sony Music, ordering him to delete the download links to volumes 2, 3 and 4 due to:

Unauthorized reproduction and distribution of copyrighted sound recordings owned or exclusively distributed by Sony Music

This is of course odd given the fact that neither Deerhunter (4AD) nor Atlas Sound (Kranky) are signed to Sony. The only possible infringement was the small handful of cover songs (Bob Dylan/The Band, Kurt Vile, and Royal Trux).

Cox responded to the email by voicing his frustrations on his site:

Apparently Sony Music owns my bedroom. Feel free to call or email and let them know what you think. I can understand them requesting for me to remove a cover but the only one I can imagine that happening with is Dylan. Which was on Vol. 1. Which was not deleted.

Sony has since claimed that the whole thing was some kind of weird misunderstanding.

So get to it, kids. After hearing a number of the new songs previewed last night and sampling some of the recordings, I am eager to hear more. With its brief instrumental interludes, warm lo-fi recording quality, and intimately revealing lyrics, Cox’s Bedroom Databank collection has much in common with (dare I say it?) what is perhaps my favorite album – The Microphone’s The Glow, pt. 2. Good stuff indeed for the cold, dark, wet, and windy days to come.

[A full review of last night’s show will soon be available on Brooklyn Vegan. I just have to write it…]

The National: High Violet

The National – High Violet [4AD]
Release date: May 11

In a 2007 interview with The Nerve, singer Matt Berninger commented:

The National, in my mind, has always been a New York thing. As far as New York being a place where there’s more pressure, I think the opposite is true. The city is incredibly nurturing to bands.

The National may New York to thank for much of their success as musicians, but something seems to have happened to them – or at least to songwriter Matt Berninger – that changed his opinion of the city, for the worse. Gone is any semblance of urban satisfaction on High Violet. And I’m not talking about just a passing disparaging comment. No, the disdain seems to be palpable.

Lyrics range from “Lemonworld”:
So happy I was invited. It gave me a reason to get out of the city. See you inside watching swarms on TV. Livin’ or dyin’ in New York it means nothing to me.

to being stuck in New York and the rain’s coming down in “Little Faith.” There’s even a post-apocalyptic reference to the Manhattan valleys of the dead in “Anybody’s Ghost.” (1)

I can get beyond the whining for the most part. I mean who doesn’t long to get out of the city every now and then. Berninger’s pleasant deep baritone also masks most of the complaining. But it’s another story entirely on songs like “Runaway” and “Vanderlye Cry Baby Geeks” when he leaves behind his smooth voice and stretches his range to sing higher notes. Some people complain that Berninger’s voice is too monotone and lacks diversity (2), but High Violet suggests that maybe Berninger should stick to what he does best.

Take “Runaway,” for example:

Of course, you could also argue that the strain in his voice is more raw and really expresses a sense of longing, and there’s something to that. I still maintain that it’s a dangerous territory to enter due to the risk of sounding pained – and dare I say it – a little bit… emo.

In addition to the New-York-sucks motif, preoccupations with water and weather also factor prominently into High Violet. It’s really astounding. Tracks 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 all contain references to water be it through oceans, rivers, rain, or floods.

But let’s move beyond all that. I’ll try not to take the whole New York thing as an affront.

Over the course of their career, The National has showcased increasingly excellent instrumentation, and High Violet is no exception. In addition to the usual fare, brass and string instruments factor prominently into the lush mix. They may officially be a five-piece, but in a live setting the sheer volume of textures on the album becomes apparent via the extra help the band invokes to help complete their sound.

Take a listen to one of my favorite cuts from the new album, “Anyone’s Ghost,” which the band recently performed for WNYC’s Soundcheck:

Gone are the raucous songs of the past like “Mr. November.” But that doesn’t mean that High Violet is without feeling.

Waves of paranoia and frustrations invade the lyrics. At one point, Berninger basically admits to being a zombie. I was afraid I’d eat your brains, he sings in “Conversation 16.”

But what I love about The National is that they don’t just create an art form for the ears. The lyrics of High Violet are highly evocative. Intriguing one-liners fill the songs with images.

I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees sounds almost mythological, and a game of nuns versus priests sounds both comical and terrifying.

The bottom line: Is it good? Yes. Do I like it more than Boxer? No… at least not yet.

The dapperly dressed quintet is playing a (rather impromptu, and almost definitely sold-out) show at BAM this Saturday. Check it out if you can. The sound quality promises to be fantastic. Also – let me know if you have an extra ticket! (My computer at work was so slow that the show sold out before I could even pull up the page to get a ticket).

(1) I also could have sworn that the lyrics to “Anybody’s Ghost” were:
The city is not inside my heart. It was. The city should tear a kid apart. It does.

But it turns out they’re: “you said it was not inside my heart”

(2) I, on the other hand, have always been drawn to his soul-satisfying voice.