Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Monday, July 12, 2010

Freedy Johnston - Rain on the City: D

You know that douschebag that walks around your town with an acoustic guitar and plays songs chemically engineered to be liked despite hackneyed lyrics and a penchant for cliched musicality? Bring him into your house, and he'll play on your piano some shitty ballad that's basically his acoustic work but (OMG) slower and (OMFG) even more vulnerable and cheesy? Yeah, well if that douschebag released an album, it would be Freedy Johnston's Rain on the City, one with almost as much uninspired, chick-baiting gobbledygook as that of a Jason Mraz concert. What might make Johnston worse than Mraz, though, is that Mraz knows that his music has little depth. It would appear that Johnston really believes this shit is inspiring people. And if you're somehow encapsulated by Rain on the City's depressing blandness, you have no one to blame but yourself.


Owen Pallett - Heartland: A-

Owen Pallet can be an acquired taste, mostly due to his voice. Frail and often trembling, it can at times sound as if Owen is trying to converse with the melodies he creates rather than complimenting them. And when he harmonizes with himself, forget about it. The avalanche of avant garde is enough to take you out of the album, entirely. At least that's what happened to me upon first listen to certain parts of Heartland.

But look a little deeper, allow Pallett's voice to become familiar, and you will find Heartland to be quite an enriching experience. Not only is it an extremely well made album, it may be the best orchestrated album of all time. You see, Owen Pallett's MO is making music with little more in mind than a full orchestra and himself. This dynamic is reinforced by his live shows, which consist of himself, a violin, and a loop pedal recreating his albums' orchestral pieces one layer at a time. For Heartland, Pallett has the Czech Republic Philharmonic at his disposal, and he uses its musicians to their full potential. Songs like "Flare Gun" feature some breathtaking musicianship; songs where the orchestra is pushed to the forefront of the material rather than used as aural garnish.

Synthesizers, traditional pop percussion, and even bass can also be heard at various points of Heartland, all of which add another dimension to an otherwise wholly unique album. It also has a concept behind it (one I'm sure you're dying to know about) which, in context, clarifies some of Pallett's more bizarre lyrics. Heartland isn't to be missed as well made music for any modern music neophyte.


Laura Veirs - July Flame: A+

July Flame is the kind of album that, once finished, will make you not want to breathe for fear of giving your musical experience a definite ending. In this fashion, few albums have endangered my life as beautifully as this one.

July Flame is the crowning achievement of Laura Veirs's career, and a near guarantee to be placed in my top five greatest albums of the year. Its songs are all steeped in whispery reverb and few are without an acoustic guitar. But make no mistake; July Flame is far from predictable. In fact, most of what makes the album so beautiful is the way Laura manipulates her craft in ways both reassuring and unsettling, but universally sublime. When Laura interrupts herself out of tempo to deliver the chorus of "Little Deschutes", it is undoubtedly awkward, but its repetition gives the song a memorable identity, one that will still be troublesome to get used to in even fifth or sixth listens. The tempo change in the middle of "Summer is Champion" was the moment that convinced me that July Flame was a classic.

Conversely, July Flame is not just music theory gymnastics. In fact, the greatest moments on the album are when Laura writes straightforward pop songs like the saccharine positivity-bender "Life Is Good" or the title track, where ominous percussion propels Veirs's verses of adoration for the titular month to a climax of voices all asking "Can I call you mine?".

July Flame has proven to be a stellar album for smoldering summer nights despite its January release, but the album's seasonal versatility should not come as a surprise to anyone. The songs of July Flame are perfect for nearly every mood, whether climatic or emotional. They can be soothing in fury or comforting in calm. The themes of July Flame are so universal yet so resonant, I have no problem imagining its songs being relevant to music listeners for generations to come. As long as mankind exists, there will always be self-doubt, there will always be yearning, and, always at some point, life will just feel good. Every mindset is a more than perfect excuse to listen to July Flame. Just make sure to remember to breathe when you're done with it.


Vampire Weekend - Contra: A-

So what do you want me to say? That Contra is excellent? That, despite little musical deviation from their debut album, Vampire Weekend's newest is yet another keeper that will continue the band's domination of both Billboard charts and critical top ten lists?

Well it is. There isn't really much I could say about Contra that wouldn't be reiterating what critics have written about it since its release seven months ago. Songs like "Giving up the Gun" and, especially, "Run" are glorious pop romps that are both angelic and erudite, while songs like "Cousins" and "Holiday" own a certain spontaneity that hearkens back to the highlights of Vampire Weekend, such as that of "A-Punk".

But Contra isn't without its flaws, however slight they may be. Although an increased production value is welcomed to the overall album experience, some of Contra's songs suffer from far too meticulous planning, most notably on the otherwise exquisite "Horchata". And, although it may serve a narrative purpose, the Auto-Tune on "California English" is so distracting, it sounds more like a novelty jest rather than an analysis of what connotes identity.

Blah blah blah sophomore slump. Blah blah blah boat shoes. If you haven't listened to this album by now, it's a pretty good time to make it your album of the summer.