Welcome to Check Your Mode

The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Strand of Oaks - Pope Killdragon: B+

Strand of Oaks is Timothy Showalter, who, on his second album, has written a series of mostly acoustic menageries with his frail and reedy voice being the only accompaniment. The occasional expansive percussion or amplified guitar appears and is almost wholly unexpected in every context of the album, but is, nevertheless, almost completely welcomed at its appearance.

The best of Pope Killdragon, ironically, is when Showalter's warm and intensely personal rambings are juxtaposed with a sound very mechanical and impersonal. Even if it's just a bleeding synth tone like in "Bonfire", the constant tension within Showalter's tunes is heightened to the point of transcendency from their minimalist cage. Pope Killdragon is still a great album filled with deep and memorable moments, but its use of disparate textures alludes to a style that would only aid Showalter if he utilized it more often.


Endless Boogie - Full House Head: B

Full House Head is the most convincing homage to late-sixties early-seventies meat-and-potatoes rock I have ever heard. With the only exception being the at times diffuse song lengths, someone listening to this album with no context might think it was a stopgap release from some inconsequential sixties or seventies band like Country Joe & The Fish or Three Dog Night. For however many points you are willing to afford Endless Boogie for their authenticity, the greatest detriment to Full House Head is that it imitates its indistinct predecessors so well, it's about as essential as anything in their discography. Nothing on Full House Head sounds particularly bad, but it is clear that the obvious gimmick of the group puts them on the definitively wrong side of nostalgia.


The White Stripes - Under Great White Northern Lights: A-

Under Great White Northern Lights, the film, is a fantastic visual representation of a relatively enigmatic band as they try to fulfill their goal of playing a show in every Canadian province. We all (or at least I) know that Jack White is one of the most consistently fantastic songwriters of this generation, but director Emmett Malloy shows off the man's adept sense of humor and passion for his art in a way that humanizes him in a fashion long overdue. The film also sheds some much-needed light on The Stripes' percussionist, Meg White, who we finally hear speak for an extended period of time, to find that... well she doesn't really have much to say.

Under Great White Northern Lights, the album, is a compilation of the band's performances that bridge the scenes of the film. It does not exhibit White's sense of humor. As the man explains in the film, he consciously moves instruments farther and farther away from each other so that he has to work harder and harder to play them and still maintain a cohesive performance. Even the keyboard introduced on the tour with the release of the band's latest, Icky Thump, is less an addition of texture but another weapon that White can assault his audience, and, more importantly, himself, with. The result of this setting finally committed to disc is the most ragged release The White Stripes career since their self-titled debut.

As a result, the best tracks performed on Under Great White Northern Lights are the ones that were made around that time in the band's career. The best on Under Great is the band's performance of the Citizen Kane-quoting "The Union Forever", from White Blood Cells, where White sounds somewhere between exasperated and malicious as he hollers "You can't be loved / For there is no true love". For the song's coda, White screams those words with only a devious keyboard supporting him, and it's the most convincingly insane White's ever been. Similar sonic compatriots "Black Math" from Elephant and "Jolene" from The White Stripes are exhilaratingly naked performances.

Conversely, Under Great White Northern Lights is weakest when the band plays tracks from the album they are supporting in that tour, 2007's Icky Thump. Icky Thump, in its own right, is a classic on par with the best The White Stripes have released, but, in this setting, the performances constantly sound like they're missing some form of depth. "Icky Thump" is relatively salvaged, but deep cuts like "300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpoor Blues" and "I'm Slowly Turning Into You" don't fare as well, as their inherently layered style is not represented well with just Jack and Meg trying their best to maintain their oxygen intake.

If you're more partial to the band's ragtag early career in the vein of their self-titled and White Blood Cells, you will inevitably love the bulk of Under Great White Northern Lights. White Stripes fans in general should also greatly enjoy this, but if you are interested in The Stripes and see this as a way of introducing yourself to them, I would avoid this. For however excellent Under Great White Northern Lights is, it is a starkly singular representation of a band that has gone through a lot more changes in its decade-long career than people give it credit for.


Peter Wolf - Midnight Souvenirs: B+

The most notable anecdotal example I have of my experience with this album is that I distinctly remember really enjoying this album when it first came out, but then completely forgetting most of the album's tracks within a few months. This is a little strange, because Midnight Souvenirs is not an inherently forgettable album in that all its tracks are uninteresting. The former J. Geils Band leader exhibits an admirable ear for hooks on his newest album, most notably in first track, "Trajedy". The album's Achilles tendon is simply that, once that last track fades out, I almost immediately forget what was notable about the album. If I listened to Midnight Souvenirs in the morning and you asked me about it that night I wouldn't be able to tell you much, even if you showed me the tracklist (except for "Trajedy", of course). I don't know why the album has this effect on me, especially because, when I remind myself of the album with multiple listens, I really do enjoy it. My recommendation is that, if you like The Rolling Stones and don't mind some Rolling Stone worship, get Midnight Souvenirs, especially "Trajedy". If you can't somehow relate to the album like me, no worry. There are plenty of other releases to appreciate.


Delorean - Subiza: B+

When you call your newest album Subiza, especially at the tail end of the sun-bleached electronica movement that started in the summer of 2009, you better have the goods to deliver a truly euphoric listening experience. Not only does Delorean succeed with their newest, they craft one of the best longplayers in the genre. From first single, "Real Love" to the literally orgasmic "Stay Close", the Spanish outfit make a pretty damn good case to dance your ass off, or, if you're ensconced in the dissipating chill of mid March, it will make you fantasize about how good things will get in a couple months. Subiza may be low on depth, but it is one of the few glo-fi albums of recent that could be heard a year from now. Besides, depth can be some serious baggage, sometimes.


Negură Bunget - Vîrstele pămîntului: C+

For about the first thirty seconds of Vîrstele pămîntului's first track, the album sounds promising. I could go into how those thirty seconds sound interesting, but I'm not going to, because all you need to know is that, from those thirty seconds on, Vîrstele pămîntului is just as frustrating as any rudderless throat-shredding metal album you're bound to encounter this or any other year. Vîrstele pămîntului should be wholly avoided. But those first thirty seconds sure sounded decent, didn't they?


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Blind Guardian - At the Edge of Time: A-

Well this came as a bit of a surprise. Have you ever encountered an album so good it makes you rethink your opinion of the band that made it, entirely? Up to hearing At the Edge of Time, I had thought that Blind Guardian were nothing more than a sickeningly bland power metal band. Admittedly, At the Edge of Time features the elements of power metal that make characteristics from band to band sound indecipherable: significant Celtic influence, superfluous orchestration, and a singer so characteristic of the genre, it sounds like the same guy fronting every band that plays it. However, Blind Guardian pull a hat trick in incorporating all those elements to make an album that all other power metal bands should aspire to.

It's probably a surprise to few that At the Edge of Time begins with a fanfare. But, as I will justify any familiar aspect of the album in its defense, "Sacred Words" utilizes expansive orchestration within the throes of double-bass onslaught to create less of a revision of the genre, but of how the genre should sound. "It's now or never / We shall stand together /One by one, this world is sacred" sounds like any eye-roll-inducing line that could take you out of any epic metal song. But I always thought such a brazenly unrepentant characteristic of power metal could be overcome with just some good songwriting craft, and, by doing just that, Blind Guardian doubles down on that line, which turns the first track's chorus into a bona fide battle cry. Amidst the militaristic chugging and conversational axioms, it feels like you're actually being engaged by a band who play a genre of music that arguably does it, best.

And this is how At the Edge of Time circumvents my biggest criticism of power metal. From my surveillance of the genre, it appears that most of its artists have gotten caught up in the distinctions that make them unique and forgotten to play anything resembling metal. In a way, it's become performance art, relying on a bloated complexity that can only truly be realized with some sort of visual component. Some people really enjoy epic metal, but my guess is that those who do see "epic" as more of a noun than an adjective. Blind Guardian never forget they're a metal band at heart on At the Edge of Time, and are wonderfully effective as a result. The oppressively operatic dynamic only brings more sophistication to the table, expanding a music pallet that only works in the band's favor.

At the Edge of Time does have its flaws, though, and they lie in its two songs that utilize that Celtic influence I mentioned, before. It's not so much that "Curse My Name" and "War of the Thrones" are particularly bad songs, but their relatively hushed tone majorly disrupt the flow of the album. If a little too far on the wrong side of camp, the two songs as individual tracks are still quite good, but their inclusion is nevertheless off-putting. Still, that my only complaint of At the Edge of Time is in some sequencing should be a testament to how highly I regard it as not only the biggest surprise of the year, but one of the year's general best.


Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 2: A

It's gotten to the point where you can't mention Robyn without at the very least alluding to your frustration with how little exposure she gets to the general music-listening population. Since the first Body Talk was released earlier this year, the only appearance of her I saw was a video for "Dancing on My Own" in a mall. That MTV used her for a lead-off to a commercial break in this year's VMA's just makes me think that they're in on the joke; that no matter how well this chick makes pop music palpable, she'll never get the recognition she deserves.

And, with her second installment in her three-part Body Talk series, she basically slaps conventional wisdom across the face and demands, "What the fuck is it already? Am I not pop enough? Because the first song on my new album tethers so dangerously to the "love-conquers-all" cliche of pop music, it took me twice as long to turn it into a classic than any other song on the album. Am I not sexy enough? Because, on this new one, I coo in a fucking courtroom, where my x-rated antics could get me in jail. Or am I not enough of a badass, because Snoop Dogg weeping in the corner after I schooled him in an all-out bragging match would beg to differ."

Needless to say, Robyn puts on quite a few hats on her newest, and it should be stressed that she wears them (or should I say they wear her) so seamlessly, they immediately transcend adequately convincing. She's a better Xtina, Brittney and Gaga than if their combined management created a pop music think tank. I can safely say I've never been more excited for a pop release than I have for Body Talk Pt. 3, and you should, too. That she's releasing her master stroke in three parts over the year should be a godsend, as you can still jump on the bandwagon and still say you saw her inevitable success coming (and for that, personally, I am grateful!). Am I overselling Robyn as the harbinger of quality pop music as we know it? Well, just as Robyn sees her craft as "really very simple," your response should be as well. Just buy yourself the two Body Talks before the third in November and save yourself a whole world of ridicule.


The Love Language - Libraries: B+

Arcade Fire. You know how you sometimes hear certain albums come out that the media and people immediately associate with an artist who have achieved far-reaching past glories, forever to be affiliated with a sound that one assumes they will never truly transcend or improve upon? Tallest Man on Earth and Bob Dylan? Oasis and Beatles? Well it seems that very rumor mill is revving up for Stuart McLamb's pseudo-solo group, The Love Language, to pin the group with the sound of that artist I named, above. On his newest album, Libraries, I hear that influence from that band once and only once. The piano stabs that later turn to orchestral stabs in the album's opener, "Pedals", are startlingly reminiscent of Arcade Fire's "Intervention", but that may just be because few other artists have utilized that type of technique in musicianship, and, regardless, it is one that works to great effect.

If anything, Libraries sounds like Paul Weller if he took some Vicodin before entering the studio. Never have I heard such playful melodies coupled with such a smarmy English brogue (and the guy's from North Carolina! Who would've guessed?). Libraries plays out like the perpetual slow dance of a senior prom this generation never really experienced; all swinging balladry and blissful chords that waft by you like a summer breeze. As anyone can guess, a full album of this kind of music can get on one's nerves, and, to a certain extend, it begins to wear; after all, one can only slow dance for so long before nausea sets in. However, thankfully, Libraries is just short enough to whet your pallet for the ethereal and long enough to leave you blissful, light-headed and satisfied for the rest of the day.


Titus Andronicus - The Monitor: A+

I really wish I had the leniency in time to write my full review for this album, and I've been conducting one since it was released, but I would feel like I was doing it a disservice by not giving it my full and undivided attention. I promise this will certainly not be the last you hear from this album, and, until, that time inevitably comes, I can only suggest you get acquainted with and study it, so that you can knowingly nod when my analysis of it is posted.


The Morning Benders - Big Echo: B+

Big Echo is, by no means, 2010's best album, but, as I listen to more music from this year, I'm starting to think that it is the year's most influential. Well, maybe it's not so much influential but more encompassing of the sound of what a significant portion of the newest indie rock has been creating.

The reverb that purveys the album is absolutely nothing revelatory, but, when coupled with the shambling percussion of Julian Harmon and the soaring vocals of Chris Chu, it creates a nice formula that is at the very least pleasant sounding. Chu is the clear focal point here, and his presence is welcome and uplifting. The way he stretches out his vowels on songs like "Excuses" and "Promises", sounds like he's smoothing them out as if his mouth was a sonic rolling pin. His tone is ethereal and spellbinding and his contribution is reason enough to give Big Echo your attention.

Musically, the band for the most part, is excellent. What keeps Big Echo from being a great album is that some tracks are regrettably just too forgettable. Songs like the sun-bleached "Excuses" and the R.E.M.-sounding "All Day All Light" are excellent uses of the band's aesthetic, but every now and then they get bogged down in adult-contemporary mediocrity. Regardless, Big Echo is a really good album and might be the only pioneering modern rock album your grandma will enjoy.


jj - jj n° 3: B

There's something about jj that I inherently distrust. Honestly, I can't describe it. Maybe it's the quoting of "Around the World" or the badly-concealed boredom apparent in Elin Kastlander's voice, but there's something about this band that makes me believe they are playing music less because they want to make quality stuff and more because they have bills to pay.

Taken away from my purely subjective observation (I have been a little vindictive lately), jj n° 3 is nothing if not adequate. The music on display here is mostly comprised of acoustic strumming ballads with the occasional appearance of sunny, reverb-drenched glo-fi. Nothing particularly astounds, but, then again, nothing particularly disgusts, so I guess, technically, it's a win. If you need something to listen to while you cook some brie or if you're having a little trouble sleeping, this might do the trick. And if I finish that analogy, I will be giving in to a music-review cliche so hackneyed it'll almost perfectly fit the album, itself.


Free Energy - Stuck on Nothing: B

There's something about Free Energy's uncompromisingly brazen attempt to make you giggle and jive that makes me loath them like nothing I've heard this year. The way Stuck on Nothing, the band's first album, has so little emotional depth is so frustrating, I often imagine myself fainting and sinking into a cavernous abyss where I'll keep trying to eat an infinite amount of nauseating icing to get to that coveted, warm, welcoming cupcake if I listen to it for too long.

Unfortunately, I would be lying to you if I said a significant portion of Stuck on Nothing wasn't quite catchy. The best example of this is "Bang Pop", whose rudimentary bass drum kick and snare combination may not turn heads, but whose streamlined guitars and rousing chorus put it on the good side of Candyland. The rest varies from the entertaining to the mundane, but all have that shit-eating grin that some may find refreshing but I find irrevocably repulsive.

Stuck on Nothing was originally recorded as a bare-bones demo, but, once it was give to James Murphey of LCD Soundsystem fame, it became the over-produced, nutrient-free Cheesy Crust Pizza of an album it is, now. I don't want people to think I hate this album, because it just wants you to, at the very least, dance. In most cases, I find that quality nice in albums, and, unlike something like Raditude, these affectless ditties are supported with some pretty good songwriting talent. There's just something about this album that resembles a sneeringly disingenuous politician, but, at the same time, a band who would be genuinely offended by my smearing of their debut album as such. It is this contradiction that lies at the heart of the quality of Stuck on Nothing, a veritable brick of cane sugar, but one that will surprise you in how much you can stand it before collapsing from exhaustion.


Gonjasufi - A Sufi and a Killer: B+ / Daughters - Daughters: A- / Immolation - Majesty and Decay: C+

"Majesty and Decay" "The Theater Goer"

What is the soundtrack to Hell? Well, I suppose it all depends on how you view it. If you view the inferno as its most conventional form, a place of plain and simple eternal damnation with Satan presiding comfortably over the assembly line of perdition he has kept efficient for so long, Majesty and Decay may be the record to suit such a vision. Immolation's newest finds the New York metal band playing their MO of death metal with very little variation from what they've been doing their entire career. The music, itself, is nothing extraordinary, but what I find interesting about the whole affair is how stale it all sounds. You've got your guitar solos, your screaming vocals and your blast beats, and, for however bad that kind of combination can get when performed slovenly, music like this has never left me so cold. It has such a low engagement value, whenever the music goes into a bout of grating double-time screaming, I find myself just rolling my eyes and taking myself out of the album, entirely, relegating it to apocalyptic background music, and I'm sure that's the last thing Immolation intended with their newest. If Hell sounds like Majesty and Decay, it'll still be a pretty bad place, but it might be a surprisingly boring one.

If you have a more romantic view of Hell, a Hades-helmed greek myth inhabited by terrifying but inexplicably adorable characters like Nosferatu and Beezlebub, then Gonjasufi's A Sufi and a Killer may be more appropriate. Those familiar with this album may argue that the album is more appropriate for soundtracking a hotboxed car ride or a subversive movie theater opening in the mid sixties, but the Hell I imagine being chronicled by A Sufi and a Killer is a lot more stylized and a lot more familiar. Gonjasufi's dilapidated voice and the album's lo-fi production that makes it only sound cruder sounds like it would be playing from the jukebox of a pool hall in that place of eternal damnation. If The Last Picture Show's maligned boredom is your idea of Hell, then I can completely imagine Gonjasufi's "She Gone" replacing the first scene's Hank Williams backing. The Hell accompanied by A Sufi and a Killer is an ideological one, where you never get that drink of water no matter how desperately thirsty you are, that boulder will always roll down that hill, and, to quote The Fairly Oddparents, there are over three hundred channels... with nothing to watch.

But if you have a revisionist's view of Hell, where faces and genitalia are mutilated eternally in only the most graphic ways possible, Daughters' newest and supposedly last album is a perfect fit. The band is a firm believer in the idea that the sound of you repeatedly smashing your face against a wall is a musical note, nonetheless, and go on to prove it by making eight tracks of insanely reckless noise rock. Singer Alexis Marshall sounds like Isaac Brock, singer of Modest Mouse, if he was being chased by a bear, frantically flailing his vocal chords while only the most blunt and unwieldy sounds are hurled at you from all directions. With the help of bassist Samuel Moorehouse Walker and drummer Jonathan Syverson, the album always retains some semblance of structure. As a result, Daughters is pure chaos, but very exacting chaos. In a way, it chronicles the scariest of the three Hells I mentioned, because it is the depiction of a place inhabited by demon vigilantes, where everyone has just as little a grasp of the situation as you do. If you let it, Daughters can give you some pretty vivid dreams. While plenty of albums inspire joy and optimism, few inspire genuine fear in the listener, and Daughters should be strangely commended for what they have accomplished.


Gorillaz - Plastic Beach: B

Considering how much I despised Demon Days, Plastic Beach far exceeded my expectations. Although it has many flaws over the span of its sixteen tracks, there is much to be enjoyed here, and the album's length can allow you to pick and choose what you like and still have a pretty decent-sized product to enjoy.

The best of Plastic Beach is varied and spans multiple styles. "Stylo", the album's first single, for example, is the album's best track, riding a deliriously catchy bass riff to just about its farthest boundary without being completely obnoxious. "Superfast Jellyfish" displays some hilariously conversational rhymes from De La Soul that give you the impression the group is feeling out the track's cartoonishly fun potential just as you do. And "White Flag" is just a playful jaunt, displaying some great call-and-response rapping between Kano and Bashy.

The worst of Plastic Beach, quite simply, is when David Albarn's vocals are front and center. With the exception of "Stylo" and "Melancholy Hill", Albarn's vocal contributions on Plastic Beach are universally inert. His distorted malaise is far out of place and can often derail a pretty good song with its presence. "Rhinestone Eyes" is a good example of this, but the most literal is "Empire Ants", which diverges from an extremely forgettable Albarn lament into a fantastically glitzy romp helmed by Little Dragon so delightful, you wonder why that beginning was included at all by the track's end.

And, because the good and bad are dispersed so evenly throughout Plastic Beach, the album, ultimately, defines hit-and-miss. Albarn isn't the only one to blame for bad tracks, though. Lou Reed's cracked monotone on "Some Kind of Nature" is amusing for about a minute, and gives the song absolutely no replay value, and, though I hate to say it, with the exception of "Stylo", anytime Mos Def appears is a near guaranteed disaster ("Sweepstakes" is a leading contender for worst song of the year). The album would definitely benefit from the trimming of fat, but, because some songs have such drastically redeeming and abhorrent qualities within themselves, I'm not so sure the taking out of songs would do all that much good. Plastic Beach shows Albarn still has some kinks to fix with his side project, but the ratio of good to bad on his albums is improving.


Broken Bells - Broken Bells: A-

Sometimes a record of exactly what you needed is exactly what you need. It sounds like a pretty innocuous thing to say, but I say it, because I am aware that I make a lot of noise on this platform about being different and constantly evolving a sound. I wholly submit myself to the constant search for the good, bad and ugly of progressive music, but I am also fully aware of the fact that there is always that basic human instinct in everyone where the familiar will be the ultimate satiator.

Broken Bells is the pairing of Shins singer, James Mercer, and Danger Mouse from Gnarls Barkley, Grey Album and miscellaneous production job fame. Together, they have written an album that does not extend the musical boundaries of either artist, but one that is extraordinarily satisfying. Shins fans will see this as a Shins album with a little more gospel influence and fans of Danger Mouse's work that have somehow never heard the Shins (I'm sure there are some) will see this as an adult-contemporary Gnarls Barkley. I'm fairly confident both parties will enjoy this album, though, because, for however easy it can be to draw upon the more-of-the-same quality of both acts on display, it's still quite good music, and it's hard to argue with melodies as potent as this.

The only remote curveball is "The Mall & Misery", which sounds like a coda to "Mongrel Heart", the song that preceeds it. It's a song that seems to start from the breakdown, something that you hardly hear in pop music, but, other than that, again, you're not going to hear sounds you've never heard before. Mercer's vocal presence is superb, especially on first single, "The High Road" and genuinely exuberant pop consistently oozes through every note. Off the cuff album collaborations have never sounded this much greater than the sum of its parts (I'm looking at you, Chickenfoot), and this pairing I would not mind hearing more music from. And, based on the news from both James Mercer and Danger Mouse's mainstays, it really looks like this is a case where everybody wins. Savor it.


Liars - Sisterworld: B-

When Liars get noisy and absonant, get the fuck out of the way, because there's nothing stopping them. Hearing them ranting and raving on Sisterworld's "Scarecrow on a Killer Slant", you get the aural image of someone punching a wall until they can see the bone of their knuckles. Based on their lyrical ambiguity ("Why you shoot the man with the gun / 'Cause he bother you!"), you get the impression these guys are rebels without causes, but punks angry at nothing is hardly new, and, in the case of the best of Sisterworld, it isn't any less exhilarating.

The problem with Sisterworld is that the moments of raw intensity the band exhibits are a glaring minority. The album is mostly comprised of meandering synth odysseys that contort and blaze but never go anywhere, and are, frankly, useless. The fact that they're juxtaposed with works of such unadulterated vitriol as "Scarecrows" make the lows only seem lower. I don't recommend Sisterworld, just a couple songs on it. The band's apparent compulsion to balance their releases is a clear hinderance to their greatest strengths, so it's tough to see if this is a rut they will ever get out of.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Eels - Tomorrow Morning: B+

Come on, really? That gravelly voice, that dry humor, those cheesy pseudo hip-hop beats? I mean sure it sounds like Peter Gabriel's recent output and Spoon at times, but are we absolutely sure this isn't a Beck album? I mean, I don't know much about either Beck or Eels, but are we absolutely sure the latter isn't a side project of the former acted through some elaborate disguise? There's a song called "Spectacular Girl" for crying out loud, and I'm pretty sure Beck has a song called "Girl", too. Come on, the evidence is obvious and I refuse to believe that an artist would cop someone else's style so brazenly without them being the actual person, themselves. Regardless, it's still pretty good stuff.


The Body - All The Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood: C+

There is a certain point where even I can't appreciate an album for being so ridiculously far off the radar. Not many albums have had this effect on me, but you are reading my review of one that has, and I can't really shove my head far enough up my ass or pretensify myself enough to pretend that I can find a single redeeming quality in this album worth noting.

But hey, maybe it's just me. Maybe you like being screamed at for long periods of time over nonsensical guitar nothingness. Then, hey, fuck me, right? I'm the fool.

But yeah, right around the final song, when you realize that this album is just the repetition of one maddeningly dense formula or perhaps the third track, when you realize that those random incantations are just a foil for more screaming and droning guitars, I don't know. Maybe it's just me, but this is just mush. And to think they tricked me into it with such a beautiful choral arrangement at its beginning.