Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Matt & Kim - Sidewalks: A-

Seeing any picture of Matt & Kim, one can get a pretty good idea of what the band’s all about. Ever since the duo released their self-titled debut in 2006, they have garnered a reputation for eagerness, virility and general smile-till-your-cheeks-hurt-itude. Going into the band’s newest album, Sidewalks, I had known of this reputation, but I had assumed that the group was a garage-rock bash-happy guitar-drum act on par with The White Stripes and The Black Keys. However, Matt & Kim are the logical musical extent of their reputation. The band has a madcap drummer in Kim Schifino, but a keyboardist in Matt Johnson is in the guitarist’s stead. The result is a sound that, to the band’s credit, fits their energetic dynamic like a glove. A knack for catchy songwriting that does justice to their aesthetic and an embrace of hip-hop-like arrangements, however, put Sidewalks over the edge from cheap escapism to one of the most fun records of the year.

Contrary to the group’s size, Sidewalks is by no means spare. Irrevocable hooks aside, many elements are added to the album that never sounds like a byproduct of the compulsive eclecticist. Logically enough, blaring horns add yet another layer of joyousness to the proceedings in album closer, “Ice Melts”, both giving the impression of a celebratory finale and a balls-out blast reminiscent of Sleigh Bells’s “Crown on the Ground”. “Wires” incorporates a child’s piano to gloriously jubilant effect (Strangely enough the only time I can remember this instrument used and to such good effect is in a System of a Down song).

The result of this interspersing of instruments gives Sidewalks an intriguing sound. A significant portion of the album’s percussion is drowned out by drum machines, and catchy synth lines are repeated so formulaically that it gives one, at times, the impression of a rap song. This trend reaches its climax in “Good For Great”. It’s throbbing strings would not sound out of place on the lighter part of a hip-hop album, but Johnson’s voice is so unabashedly joyous, it puts the listener in somewhat of an awkward place. However, Matt & Kim waste no time in making sure the score for these conflicting sounds is so catchy, they work together and prove to be some of Sidewalk’s biggest highlights.

Sidewalks may not immediately come to mind as a bastion for balance, but a great part of what make the album good is that there is a bounty of excellent arrangements that nullify some of the more annoying aspects of being on an everlasting positivity bender. A penchant for the varied and intricate lends heft to otherwise cringe-worthy lyrical and musical choices such as “I’ve got the northeast on my side”, “I know where you’re coming from” and, well, the melody of the chorus to “Replay”. I advise fans and skeptics alike to check out Sidewalks, because it is a celebratory record that evades the questionable label of “epic”. Matt & Kim do not look to change the musical landscape, but make it that much more fun to explore.


Kylesa - Spiral Shadow: B+

Kylesa is very much a band limited by its influences. In the case of their newest album, Spiral Shadow (cool fucking name by the way), this is not necessarily a bad thing. The band’s fifth album is one of the best metal releases of the year. It drives, it rocks and it sways with the kind of confidence that only a true group of assured professionals can pull off. Spiral Shadow is so indebted to the groups that have influenced Kylesa, because it’s hard not to notice when the band hangs them so prominantly on their sleeves.

The band’s general template for songwriting is similar to that of High on Fire (gruff production, lots of drum rolls), but the vocals of Phillip Cope, Corey Barhorst and Laura Pleasants lend a variety of tones to their songs, recalling Seasons of the Abyss-era Tom Araya on tracks like “Don’t Look Back” and Converge’s Jacob Bannon on tracks like “Cheating Synergy”. The guitarwork is brash and monolithic, but, when Cope rips into a harrowing solo, it has a striking resemblance to Mastodon’s Brent Hinds. The band also diverges from the strict sound of metal into a more poppy direction, but, even then, they cannot escape some sort of clear artistic reference point, Sunny Day Real Estate most notably on the riff to album highlight, “Don’t Look Back”.

The only aspect of Kylesa that stands out other than the fact that the group incorporates its influences so well into affecting metal broods is Laura’s voice. Taking the forefront of the mix for most of Spiral Shadow’s second half, it is both disturbed and bored, soaked in malaise as each note sung inevitably falls from grace into sonic muck. Laura’s voice gives the album a haunting quality, one that is not found very easily in modern metal. “To Forget” is an excellent example of this, Pleasants taking the reigns for the song’s chorus to plunge it into a dearth of cavernous riffage. Kylesa may not be the most original band out there, and I might think of an artist that sounds like each and every one of its musicians on Spiral Shadow by tomorrow, but the group makes such a tasty jambalaya from the ingredients it’s given it’s a more than forgivable offense.


Broken Social Scene - Rock Forgiveness Record: B+

What I found as a welcome change to Mastodon’s newest album, Crack the Skye and, to a lesser extent, Weezer’s The Red Album was the inclusion of the voices of the other band members, a technique that resulted in each member’s individual style and timbre being used to suit the subtle difference in sound from song to song that I find besets most great albums, to generally positive effect. After listening to Broken Social Scene’s newest album, Forgiveness Rock Record, and the band’s past albums, I have found that this tough but rewarding aesthetic has been a part of the band’s style since they began releasing music.

And so Forgiveness Rock Record benefits from placing a variety of singers at the forefront of their songs, if only so that they can explore a wider variety of musical styles. Brendan Canning’s cracked voice fits the country stylings of “Water in Hell”, wonderfully, even allowing for the light hoedown at the song’s end to be completely genuine. ­­­­The croon of Leslie Feist in harmony can either add a layer of immediacy in the mode of “Chase Scene” or can subvert the precocious boredom of “Sentimental X”. ­­­ The distortion on Kevin Drew’s voice adds a component of goofiness to the compelling “Art House Director”. These subtle aspects and how well they support the songs Broken Social Scene create is a testament to how excellent Forgiveness Rock Record is produced. Not only is the exchange of musicians calculated to get the best out of their songs, their performances and aural landscapes are shifted just enough to get their point across efficiently.

The reason Forgiveness Rock Record is rated so low relative to the praise it’s received from me is that, for a significant part of the album, John McEntire’s production gets too involved. Many of Forgiveness’s tracks are too long, and are only that way, because they have an unwanted level of atmosphere, a problem that affects some of Forgiveness’s best tracks, like “World Sick” and “Sweetest Kill”. The problem reaches its apex when the last third of “Ungrateful Father” is spent primping silence with unnecessary ambient textures. In addition to this filler rampant throughout the album, the one-two “meh”-fest of pseudo-instrumental “Highway Slippery Jam” and aforementioned “Ungrateful Father” is a huge chunk of wasted time out an album that has some serious highs to contend with.

What’s good is that nothing about Forgiveness Rock Record is outright insulting. If you think you can handle a couple moments of awkward thumb-twiddling, by all means, get the album. My criticism of it (which, ultimately, does not amount to much) stems from my idea of how this could have been a great instead of just a good album. Anyone familiar with Broken Social Scene knows that the band has and has displayed a penchant for fantastic long-players, but consider this one a letdown only if you hold them at that high esteem.


The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever: B

The most important thing to know about Heaven Is Whenever is that, for the album, The Hold Steady added a new guitarist. This one detail is the album’s greatest hindrance by far. Craig Finn and the gang do create some catchy melodies with their new album, but that extra density makes everything sound heavy and hulking. Songs like “Hurricane J” and “Rock Problems” are pretty good songwriting achievements, but they are dragged down by a baseness that roots them into sonic muck and certainly don’t do any favors for Finn’s erudite rambling vocal style. Heaven Is Whenever does display a good lot of the songwriting flair that has become expected from the band at this point in their career, which is probably why the album’s reception has been mixed rather than wholly negative. In the case of the album, some key element isn’t so much missing as one is too prevalent and is suffocating everything around it. For the first time The Hold Steady sound complacent and, at times, even bored, and anyone who knows punk can tell you where anyone can shove that kind of mindset.


Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma: A-

I’d hate to go all Jimmy McMillin on you guys, but, if you have chosen to get Flying Lotus’s new album (Good choice by the way!), then, before you pop it into your stereo or what have you, listen to it in iTunes, but make sure to press Ctrl + T before hitting that play button. This will open up the audio-manipulated screensaver. As of writing this review, this screensaver program consists largely of a black visual canvas that has orbs with vibrating receptors on them contorting into and away from each other. Turn off all the lights close to where you are, and just concentrate on that screen for Cosmogramma’s forty-minute or so life span… isn’t it cool?

Cosmogramma is the kind of restless album that breezes through a multitude of emotions without so much as looking back for a second. There are moments of depression (“... And the World Laughs with You”), beauty (“Auntie’s Harp”), chaos (“Computer Face/Pure Being”) and, most prevalently, cool (“Do the Astral Plane”, “German Haircut”, “Saaaatteliite”), unfolding into somewhat of a space odyssey in front of you on that black screen. I read a review of Cosmogramma in which it was portrayed as the chronicling of the man, himself, Steven Ellison, when he gets sucked into a video game and has to battle his way out, which I find an intriguing angle, but one that misrepresents Cosmogramma as a concept album, a label that is often associated with great density. In fact, Cosmogramma is quite light on its feet, despite the clearly elaborate compositions that have evolved in the two years since Flying Lotus has released an album.

Cosmogramma’s tracks are mainly filed under “electronic music”, but songs like “Auntie’s Harp” and “German Haircut” take cues from Ellison’s lineage in jazz (His aunt was Alice Coltrane) and are legitimate jazz tracks, and excellent ones at that. Cosmogramma does a worthy job of consolidating Flying Lotus’s hold on what is relevant and what can be transcendent in electronic music. Also, it will suspend your fear of the dark for almost an hour, so that’s pretty cool too.


Josh Ritter - So the World Runs Away: B+

Much is made of Josh Ritter by a vocal minority to make it appear as if the singer/songwriter is the most under-appreciated genius in indie rock. Aside from the zeitgeist-bating song titles that bring to mind notable visionaries like Bright Eyes and Elliot Smith, I see very little about Josh Ritter's So the World Runs Away that is deserving of more than a couple cursory glances. There's no doubt that this stuff is aesthetically pleasing, and there is not a single dud to name in the bunch, but so little stands out that it makes the argument that being consistently above average is almost as loathsome as being deliriously inconsistent. Josh Ritter fans will find nothing to fault about So the World Runs Away and neither do I. What can be taken away from this album is that some peoples' labeling of this artist as one of the most profound of this generation should be taken with a bit more skepticism.