Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Monday, February 28, 2011

Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Pt. 1: B+ / Minks - By the Hedge: B-

"Father Midnight"                                                                       "Indian Ocean"

Sometimes, originality can be really pesky. Sometimes, you’d just rather listen to an album and not have to worry about whether the artist playing it is going to influence generations of musicians or even whether you’re going to remember it a month from now. Sometimes, there’s just music that you want to indulge in for a singular mood and Hell to all else if you just want to hear background music for forty or so minutes. The music by New York duo, Minks, can be safely considered indie pop and the music by Washington quartet, Earth, can be safely considered drone. Both groups have released these types of “mood” records; pieces of music that are not meant to be enjoyed for individual songs, but for the stringently monolithic moods they represent.

Earth have been playing music since 1990. Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Pt. 1 is somewhere around their eleventh album. It is composed of five tracks, the shortest of which is over seven minutes and the longest of which is over twenty. For over an hour, the group, with a new cellist added to their basic guitar/bass/drums ensemble, finds one melody and repeats it with military-like precision and ungodly stamina. To give you some perspective on how much Earth is adverse to change on Angels of Darkness, the addition of a cellist has been regaled by some critics as being a radical change for the group, but it is barely heard on the album, playing long, desolate notes just off in the distance as Dylan Carlson’s guitars take center stage. Angels of Darkness evolves in texture from minute to minute much like a glacier melts, but there’s something fascinating about listening to it occur. The album is mixed beautifully, accentuating Karl Blau’s bass, which gives each song a valued richness, especially on the closing title track. The group sounds like they’re soundtracking a nonexistent Western and can be rightly compared to Mastodon’s work for the film, Jonah Hex. Angels of Darkness may run about twenty minutes too long, but it’s an excellent album to just brood over, in a masochistic sort of way.

The debut album from Minks, By the Hedge, actually has some semblance of distinction between its songs. “Kusmi”, the record’s opening track, has a nice hook and sets a good tone for the rest of the album. “Indian Ocean” is a delicate instrumental composed of layers and layers of jangling guitars. By the Hedge, overall, however, plays with the fluid anonymity of countless other groups dabbling in shoegaze, indie pop and the like. Singer, Shaun Kilfoyle’s, voice reaches comical levels of inscrutability, repeating nonsense in “Funeral Song” and mumbling into his sleeve for just about everything else. To give you a sense of how very average By the Hedge is, my notes on the album pretty much end here, and the rest say things like “Decent”, “Again, decent”, “Shoegaze-y”, “Quite shoegaze-y”, “Again a decent song”, and, in a startling change of form, “Again, blah”. By the Hedge is very similar in sound to Wild Nothing’s painfully boring Gemini, but sounds much more like a group that cares somewhat about what they’re writing. It’s consistent, and, if you’re into that sort of thing, who would I be to deter you from it?


Thomas Giles - Pulse: C+

Thomas Giles, for those who do not know, is the frontman of Between the Buried and Me. Whether you enjoy Giles’s mainstay or not, there is no denying that the band he’s in is one of the more formative metal bands recording music today. They’re schizophrenic, progressive and consistently fascinating. A song like “Prequel to the Sequel”, from the group’s Colors, is a song to be studied for its sharp turns from tunefulness to din to bravado to insanity, even if, in my opinion, it’s not that great of a song. I don’t particularly like Between the Buried and Me, but I cannot deny that they are a group that is never satisfied with not pushing the envelope with every new album they release.

Thomas Giles’s first official solo album (he released an album under the name Giles in 2005) pushes something, and that thing is my patience. As much as Pulse is a surprise coming from a guy who makes most of his money playing in one of America’s most popular metalcore bands, the album comes off exactly like Thomas Giles trying to make a statement about how much of a surprise it is. On Pulse, we hear Giles experiment with electronic, acoustic, metal, and (I kid you not) dubstep. However, the execution of all these songs comes off as exceedingly half-assed and pretentious, as if Giles only made the effort to sound different and then rushed through the rest of the songwriting process.

The worst of Pulse comes right at its beginning, with “Sleep Shake”. Here, among flowing guitar chords and a monotonous drum beat, Giles opens up his album with this line: “It started like a normal day/I jumped and explored the yard/My senses seem tense/Like a bond between two friends/They’ve never really been my friends/Just a common sense of self/But today I feel so strange/Like I’m someone else”. If you didn’t notice, Giles is trying to put himself in the mind of an emotionless robot, but the awkward wording and meaningless similes sound embarrassingly clunky. That, and most of the lyrics of Pulse, circumvent cleverness and go straight for the ostentatious. In “Scared”, when he sings “I’m here for you/I’m here for all of you”, it doesn’t sound like Giles is being benevolent, but, instead, expecting you to be really fucking impressed with how goddamn benevolent he is. But, really, these hollow signifiers are just cover-ups for the fact that Giles can’t write lyrics for shit. At the chorus of “Sleep Shake”, one would assume that he would have to pull out a trump lyrical card to consolidate what I’m sure he thought was genius in those previous verses, but the best he can come up with is “I’ve become different now”. Is it too obvious to say that he isn’t fooling anyone in this regard?

It doesn’t help that Pulse also sounds surprisingly cheap. I say that Giles takes cracks at many genres on the album, but its songs that feature more than just a piano or an acoustic guitar sound downright amateurish. The aforementioned “Sleep Shake” and many of the electronic songs on Pulse have some regard for texture, but their choruses routinely devolve into shooting-for-the-rafters chord-strummers with electronic blips floating around, sounding like a Muse caricature or Dream Theater at their most shamelessly poppy. “Catch & Release” tries to split the difference between the thrash of Between the Buried and Me and Giles’s electronic aspirations and ends up sounding like an irresponsible Shining, and not even Shining is particularly good at that kind of sound. “Hamilton Anxiety Scale” actually sounds promising with its hand percussion and off-kilter bass lines reminiscent of The Mars Volta, but it too cannot help but, like most of Pulse, resign its fate to a stale crash cymbal-laden chordgasm. Few albums exemplify the feeling of displaying free-floating ideas and little else from an artist than Pulse.

However, there is one legitimately good song on Pulse, and, it’s the one that, by far, resembles Between the Buried and Me. “Medic”, placed arbitrarily in the middle of the album between two ambient electronic tracks, is a sleeper cell that reveals itself wonderfully with a quick drum intro and takes off from there into a magnificent landscape of fractured riffing and growling vocals. It’s unexpectedly rousing in the best ways, and, at less than three minutes, ransacks every other song on the album. For all the ambition acrobatics Giles attempts on Pulse, “Medic” makes it abundantly clear where the man’s skills lie. And, ultimately and ironically, I don’t think I’ve heard a song as out of place on an album as “Medic” is on the otherwise inert Pulse.

A part of me does have some respect for Giles for diverging so much from the sound of his main group, especially one that’s ensconced in a genre as rigid as metal is in comparison to other musical genres, but, here, his imagination is stretched far too thin. Pulse is probably the most radically eclectic album I’ve ever heard, but it’s nearly impossible to reward it when it is so consistently awful. Those who haven’t a passing interest in Between the Buried and Me should avoid all of Pulse but “Medic”, and BtBaM fans should just wait for the band’s new album in April and breathe a sigh of relief that Pulse isn’t a sign of Giles permanently striking out on his own (yet…). The moral of Pulse is to get “Medic”, and we should be thankful that the album yielded an ending as happy as that.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Over the Rhine - The Long Surrender: A

Well, this looks familiar. An artist that tends to play in the genre somewhere between folk and jazz releases an album in the new decade. They’ve been around for upwards of a decade, and their newest album seems to be just another notch in their belt in their long but consistent career. The artist is a traveling group of musicians, but the frontperson of the group is a woman. Her voice is front and center, but, on their newest, the deep voices of men can be heard throughout, backing her up. The album comes and goes with little recognition from both critics and the public. Entertainment Weekly gives it an A- and, in doing so, gets the attention of one music critic. He listens to the artist’s newest album and falls in love with it, calling it his favorite album of the year and featuring it as a little-known addition near the top of his year-end top ten list.

At the risk of creating a pattern for the albums I review positively, The Long Surrender really is the best album I’ve heard yet this year. After more than twenty years of soldiering through radically changing sonic landscapes, Over the Rhine have released a nearly perfect album, one that, like Laura Veirs’s July Flame, forces you to keep quiet so that you can take in all of its subdued brilliance. The chemistry between the members of the group is apparent with every calculated pause and wink. The songs of The Long Surrender manage to sound both professional and loose, asking nothing more than your ear to take you to the group’s emotional epicenter, where it’s surprising how little you have to do to find some kind of resonance.

The clear center The Long Surrender is lead vocalist Karin Bergquist, who has been the core of Over the Rhine along with her husband, Linford Detweiler, since the group formed in 1990. She wears many hats on The Long Surrender, all of which are equally captivating. Whether it is sexy or lonely, Bergquist’s rasp holds a tone that embodies the mature and the assured. Her voice makes Over the Rhine sound like a folk-influenced lounge band, slinking throughout The Long Surrender’s arrangements with alacrity, whether she intents to play bold or meek. She pronounces her “s”’s like “sh”’s, giving her voice the slight vulnerability that keeps you from writing it off as saccharine or overproduced. She cannot help but come off as genial.

But Bergquist is more than just a pretty voice. The Long Surrender is a lyrical achievement for her, simply because she knows what phrases fit the mis en scene of the arrangements she’s given. A prime example of this is in “The Sharpest Blade”, where she silently slays her verses by ending each by musing, “I still dreamed of a love to outlive us / And I still prayed that this life will redeem us”, indicating the hope Bergquist’s character has for the relationship she fights to maintain. However, the descending melody that accompanies that phrase makes it clear to the listener that that goal will be a far from easy fight. This conflict between the love of the concept of love and the crushing sorrow of prolonged loneliness is thematic throughout The Long Surrender, as the album’s title would suggest. Bergquist sings the title of “There’s a Bluebird in My Window” with the same wonder for life that has befit generations of singers before her, but she repeats to her lover, “Why do you always make me drink alone”, making the insistence on the title seem more like a distraction from the problems of the protagonist rather than a coincidental delight.

The Long Surrender peaks when this pattern is broken, though. For six and a half minutes, Bergquist goes off on a rant as clever as anything I have ever heard on “Infamous Love Song”. She describes the relationship between herself and her partner with a candor that is, at times, hilarious, but consistently vivid. Her voice bears so much theatricality, I imagine her rolling on pianos in a dive bar in Cincinnati as she climbs Jacob’s ladder and high fives Cupid in her lyrics. And, as she keeps her head above the fray of realism in the verses, she always makes sure to dive down to where us mortals bear flaws to plead to her lover, “Baby, our love song must survive.”

There is a reason, though, that The Long Surrender is an A and not an A+, and that problem too lies with Bergquist’s delivery at times in the album. Although, for The Long Surrender’s majority, Bergquist is fun and insightful, her eyes are occasionally bigger than her stomach in terms of what she believes she can get away with singing. It’s slightly wince-inducing in the couple of times Bergquist references the “beebop apocalypse” in “Infamous Love Song”, and, in “Rave On”, she tries to make the phrase “Rock on” sound poignant, for which she barely succeeds. But, in “Only God Can Save Us Now”, she goes way off the edge when she tries to make the phrase “Fuzzy wuzzy wuzzy wuzzy wuzzy was a bear” sound like a slice of genius when sung in a rootsy country tune. It doesn’t. It’s the consequence of giving Bergquist so much face time on an album as long as The Long Surrender: she’s bound to come across a few clumsy phrases. In “Only God”, that line can make you go “What?” and take you out of the song for a couple seconds, but, for the most part, when Bergquist slips up, it’s easily forgiven in the context of an album as sonically rich as The Long Surrender.

Over the Rhine have never received the popularity that a group that has been around for as long as they have and has been so prolific deserves. However, they are the kind of band that, when introduced to others, conjure rave recognition (You’d be surprised how many 5 star reviews Over the Rhine have received by various publications over their twenty-year career). By definition, they’re a cult group, but that’s so strange to think about in reference to a group that made The Long Surrender, quite an accessible record whose themes any listener could relate to. So I’m doing my part to make the fantastic group, Over the Rhine, that much less esoteric; The Long Surrender cannot be underestimated as a masterpiece of soul-bearing Americana, and is destined to be one of the first hidden classics of this decade.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Yuck - Yuck: A-

If you’ve heard anything about Yuck and their self-titled debut album, it’s that these guys sound a lot like ‘90’s indie rock. With this and Male Bonding’s excellent 2010 debut Nothing Hurts, I’m starting to detect a trend of our friends on the other side of the pond trying their hand at the lo-fi that’s so prevalent in modern American indie rock. And, based on that and this, they’re giving us a run for our money for Clinton-era bluster. Yuck is a group in a long line of bands that wears what are now modern childhood influences on their sleeves. They’ve been welcomed relatively well here, but many have been turned off by the group, dismissing them as “Yuck La Tengo”, which insinuates that their sound is unoriginal and heavily referential.

The heavily referential bit I cannot deny. Listening to Yuck, you can’t help but think of at least two immediate influences on the group that are made quite obvious. Countless bands have been named, from Sonic Youth to Smashing Pumpkins. For me, Yuck alternates in style between Dinosaur Jr. and Static Prevails-era Jimmy Eat World. There is an argument to be made that the album’s best songs are largely enjoyed for their nostalgia factor. “Suicide Policeman” is an excellent acoustic ballad with a heartwarming concept and execution, but it smacks of Elliot Smith before the rest of the band takes it into the territory of Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy”. “Rubber”, the album’s closing track, devolves into a guitar fuzz jam, of which I love every minute, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t immediately find a direct correlation between it and ten other groups I couldn’t quite name. I’m sure that every song on Yuck can be linked to some group of the 90’s, but, and maybe this is because I don’t know enough about that decade’s music, Yuck sounds more like the sound of an era rather than just the work of one specific band of the past.

Regardless, there’s something to be said for good songwriting. Yuck may be heavily indebted to the groups that more than built the house they’re working in, but their debut album is nothing if not genuine, and, for what it’s worth, stands up pretty well next to the material of those aforementioned bands. Yuck is a display of excellent songwriting, tempered production and supple bass (which I’m convinced is a make or break aspect to any lo-fi album). It definitely has an alluring immediacy, but you will be surprised how long its songs stick with you long after you think the nostalgia’s worn off.


Monday, February 21, 2011

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake: A

Let England Shake is an album designed to grow on you. Well that’s not quite right. Let England Shake is an album designed to, like that tired old onion metaphor, peel off layer after layer of nuance to you the more times you listen to it. The album’s lyrics in the liner notes are of a Cliff Notes-level abbreviation, entire lines stripped out, leaving just the essential phrases of each song. The sound of Let England Shake completely betrays its lyrical content, and every instrument, from the various frequent collaborator John Parish plays to Harvey’s own voice, have some deeper meaning hidden in them that can be found in multiple listens. It’s as if PJ Harvey purposely leaves out essential information within her presentation of Let England Shake to make it an experience that can only be fully appreciated when observed on several levels.

The first strange thing that is made apparent while listening to Let England Shake is the intrusion of discordant melodies within the seemingly beautiful pallet Harvey lays out for the listener. Someone might mistakenly hum out of place on the title track’s xylophone melody, as it is played in a 7/4 time signature (like Pink Floyd’s “Money”). Others will think they left YouTube open when the trumpet march comes in out of nowhere on “The Glorious Land” or when Harvey duets with a sample of a throat singer in the acoustic “England”. It’s the first layer of the proverbial onion, hinting at a din that lies just underneath the shakers and light guitars.

A simple second look into Let England Shake reveals that the album’s lyrical content is tenaciously gruesome. “The Glorious Land”’s last thirty seconds consist of a call-and-response chant whose call is Harvey imploring, “What is the glorious fruit of our land?” and whose response is a little hard to hear. It turns out that response is “The fruit is deformed children”, creating an image that could make even the most imagination-deprived shudder for a second. At first, Harvey’s quoting of “Summertime Blues”’s “What if I take my problem to the United Nations” sounds playful, but, with closer inspection, is representative of a caustic realism for the effectiveness of worldwide peacekeeping instead of the naïve innocence invoked in the original song. And this layer is by no means revealed all at once. Much has been written about the “Soldiers fall like lumps of meat” line in “The Words That Maketh Murder”, but I never actually heard that line until I listened to the album a sixth or seventh time. Let England Shake is literally opening up new nuggets of depth to me as I write this review, and no doubt it will continue to for quite some time.

Even the themes of Let England Shake are not as they seem. Anyone who has read the track list or just read the title has an excellent idea of what the album’s subject is. However, although the titular country is name-checked countless times, Harvey’s lyrics seem more concerned with tackling the topic of armed conflict, and not necessarily that of England. Harvey has cited the violence in Gallipoli, Iraq and Afghanistan as reference points, but Let England Shake’s lyrics mostly describe vast, universal landscapes of carnage, either expressing her beliefs on war as a third party or by putting herself in the boots of a soldier as on the aforementioned “The Words That Maketh Murder”. The end of “In the Dark Places” builds a wave of emotion around the repetition of the phrase “Our young man / Hit with guns / In the dust / And in the dark places”, and, as it crests, you can’t help but feel something intense, whether it be patriotism, disgust or outrage, and, at that and many points in Let England Shake, geographical context becomes meaningless.

Harvey’s characterization of England is similarly deceptive. The beginning lines of “Last Living Rose” are easy to make out. “Goddamn Europeans / Take me back to beautiful England”, she sings sweetly. One would not be faulted if they interpreted that as her mission statement and stopped paying attention there, but, alas, Harvey has much more to say. “And the great and filthiness of ages and battered books / And fog rolling down behind the mountains / On the graveyards and Dixie captains / Let me walk through the stinking alleys”, she sings and goes on throughout the song in a light rant that’s the lyrical high point of the album. You see, as much as Harvey iterates that she is nothing without England, she inveighs it constantly on Let England Shake, calling its glorious fruit deformed children and so forth.

Ultimately, Harvey depicts England in much the same way Arcade Fire depicted the suburbs in their album of the same name; impartial and unrelenting, but with an often conflicting romanticism that we all have to some extent for our hometown for the simple fact that it was where we came from, no matter how much we hated that place. Harvey may live and die through England, as she says on Let England Shake, but her tales of ambivalence and violence towards the land for which she is so faithful are more transcendent than you, I or PJ Harvey could ever fathom.


The Twilight Singers - Dynamite Steps: A

For as much as I hate the gripes from people about how modern music is missing something that made the classics of yore so fantastic, I will admit that there is something that modern music lacks that was relatively abundant in the past. The slow burn is a term used by many a critic, myself included, describing innumerable albums, but, in my opinion, the art of the traditional slow burn has all but been abandoned for decades. The slow burn I refer to is incredibly difficult to describe, but everyone has heard it, because it’s a very classic sound. It’s slow, piano-laden, orchestrated, cinematic and, most importantly, old. Artists like Elton John and Peter Gabriel trotted its sound in its heyday. Menomena are pretty good at it, The Walkmen are always on the verge of it, Goo Goo Dolls fail miserably at it and Oasis hit the nail right on the head with it on their 2008 song, “Falling Down”, but its graces are just not a heavy priority with groups that have no reverence for the purveyors of 70’s cheese. Well, I’m pleased to announce that, for those who like to walk around town when it’s foggy out and pretend they’re in London, for those who want to get a tan fedora and matching overcoat at some point in their lives, for those who thought Phil Collin’s soundtrack to Disney’s Tarzan was pretty fucking amazing, for those who know exactly what the fuck I’m talking about (Of which I don’t think there are many), The Twilight Singers have something that will Blow. You. Away.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much more to say about Dynamite Steps, because any reason I could give about why I enjoy it will end with me grasping for abstract metaphors and concepts for a sound I cannot, for the life of me, describe. So let’s start with the mechanical. Greg Dulli has been playing music since the late 80’s when he was a part of The Afghan Wings. In 1997, he started The Twilight Singers, and he has been releasing albums by them as well as many solo projects ever since. Dynamite Steps is The Twilight Singer’s fifth album.

Greg Dulli’s voice is rough and craggy, whether he sings high or low. He slurs his words and elongates his syllables, giving his lyrics the air of being sung from the mouth of an honest drunkard. When he raises his voice above the fray in the chorus of “Waves”, it’s clear who was a great influence to The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser. Although the band hails from New Orleans, there’s something about Greg’s voice that sounds vaguely British. He often speaks of the Devil and refers to the seedy streets of Vaguesville, USA, and its various miscreants. Love is warm and Dulli can’t help but feel thankful for ever having experienced it. He’s a luckless romantic hardened by the streets that built him, and isn’t afraid to tell his story to anyone at the barstool that asks him about it. He’s benevolent, now, but, at one point, he was the most dangerous motherfucker you’d ever meet.

My only criticism of Dynamite Steps is that “Gunshots” tries too hard to go for the slow burn jugular, implementing the hackneyed bap boop boop bap boop boop bap drum beat that worked for The Yeah Yeah Yeahs on “Maps”, but is now an aughts cliché. It’s still a damn good song, but a bit of a cheap move for Dulli, when the man clearly knows how to make a song affecting in other ways.

The only time Dynamite Steps doesn’t sound like (refer to above clusterfuck) is “Waves”, exempting the song’s chorus. Its loping bass line, wily keyboard textures and skittering drums are the stuff of dirty old man fantasy. Grinderman wish they’d written something this devious. The rest? Well, it’s… that. If it sounds like Dynamite Steps is some musical enigma, it’s not. Its themes are so universal, words can’t describe it; that feeling in your stomach you get when you know you’re going to cherish an album for the rest of your life. Like slow burns? Don’t know what they are? Neither do I! Get Dynamite Steps anyway.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cut Copy - Zonoscope: B

I was getting pretty frustrated listening to Zonoscope for about the third time, trying to figure out what indistinguishable 80’s band Cut Copy were taking most of their musical cues from. It was clear that Depeche Mode was an enormous influence on the group and that the maladroit white-boy disco of Hot Chip were an easy reference point, but, with each time I listened to a song like “Take Me Over” and “Blink And You’ll Miss A Revolution”, I knew there was one specific band from the eighties these guys could not help but ape in the most conspicuous ways.

Now, it should be enough of an insult to Zonoscope that I ended up spending the time listening to it playing “guess who” with the influences, but what should be an outright slap in the face is that the group I ultimately deduced Cut Copy were carbon copies of was not actually a band from the 80’s at all. It was Yeasayer. If you listen to a song like “Take Me Over” and then hear a song like “O.N.E.” from Yeasayer’s excellent Odd Blood from last year, it literally sounds like the same band is performing both songs. The only clear difference between Zonoscope and Odd Blood-era Yeasayer is that Yeasayer did a much better job of making the nostalgia of the 80’s something quite vibrant. Zonoscope just sounds like the rehash of a rehash, Dan Whitford’s noncommittal deadpan not even trying to compete with Yeasayer’s Chris Keating’s glorious yelp.

Zonoscope, is a decent synth pop homage, but, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the short time I’ve run this blog, it’s that there’s quite a bit of decent synth pop homage out there. The first half is slightly promising with the chorus of “Need You Now” being pretty good and “Take Me Over” sounding like a modest party-starter (probably because its synth line is almost exactly that of “You Can Call Me Al”) but, even then, the album sags to instantly forgettable new-wave exercises in its second half. Then the whole painfully mediocre mission statement is summarized in the closer, “Sun God”, which manages, with ease, to take all the things that make Zonoscope banal and pointless; aimless synth throbs and half-assed lyrics (“You got to live / You got to die / So what’s the purpose of you and I”) and space it out over 15 minutes, which gives it absolutely no playback value, but, on the bright side, is a shorter length than the rest of Zonoscope, so it could be a pretty good substitute for the same listening experience. If you want a good Cut Copy album, get Odd Blood and let this one fade into what I would call (but never again) THE BOREVOID.

James Blake - James Blake: A-

James Blake is a game-changing album, and a game-changing album does not deserve to be written about at 4:32 in the morning by a lazy fuck who can't get his shit together for his fucking blog. James Blake won't be my favorite album of the year, but it deserves a unique presentation, so just keep it as a little nugget in your mind for a little bit until I can get around to expanding upon it in a way that I find most appropriate.


Stateless - Matilda: B+

I’ve never understood the comparisons between Muse and Radiohead. I concede that both bands started with a similar schtick of raging/quiet British alt-rock with soaring vocals, but, as both bands’ careers have expanded over the years, they have become quite divergent. Where Radiohead, in my opinion, have become more insular and spare, Muse are getting very close to eclipsing U2 as the most bombastic band that’s still making music. If you look at the two bands now, the most recent Radiohead output being 2007’s In Rainbows and Muse’s being their contribution to the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack, “Neutron Star Collision (Love Is Forever)”, it’s hard to imagine the connection as little more than cosmetic, as Radiohead and Muse are British bands that have frontmen who like to sing in a higher register.

You know who does sound like Radiohead? Stateless. Yeah, the influences are in and Stateless, a British band, have absolutely no qualms with copping the desolate, sheepish, and vaguely electronic sound that I was surprised to find I could track to its source material within the first track’s first ten seconds. On their second album, Matilda, the band also sounds like Massive Attack. Boil it down to Matilda’s basic elements and you won’t need more than that description before listening to the album. Songs like “Curtain Call” and “Miles to Go” sound like the work of countless bands out there right now, a good portion of which have flushed out their material to significantly better effect.

Another band immediately linkable to Stateless is the British band These New Puritans, which basically denotes that, at times, the band sounds like Radiohead and Massive Attack with a more pronounced Eastern influence. “Visions” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Gnarls Barkley album. All these influences combine to make something that doesn’t ever sound contrived, but, rather, the work of a band with absolutely no defining qualities. Matilda is a pretty good record, but it ranks in my mind as one of the clearest stylistic rip-offs of a single group I’ve ever heard, and when that group is Radiohead, your outfit is not long of this Earth.

So Matilda is worth your time if you like Radiohead or Massive Attack, and if you’re OK with that (and if you are, that rating up there would indicate you’re in good company), then the album will be a rewarding experience. The glaring lack of originality shouldn’t outright offend you, because the songs are actually pretty good. The only thing truly offensive about Matilda is that it took four years to make.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cold War Kids - Mine Is Yours: B+

Cold War Kids have the distinct honor of being the only group whose album has given me nightmares. Yep, not Black Sabbath, not Skullflower, not even Deathspell fucking Omega (French black metal, natch. Def check it out). The band’s debut album, 2006’s Robber’s and Cowards kept me deprived of sleep for at least a week after I bought it in anticipation of seeing them open for Muse at MSG in 2007. The reason this occurred could be boiled down to lead singer Jonnie Russell, whose temperate shriek on songs like “Hang Me Up To Dry” could not get the hell out of my head, and in only the worst way possible. To this day, I cannot approach that god-awful album without cringing that I should suffer another sleepless night because this asshole wants to sound like Arethra Franklin.

Well the good news is that, on Mine Is Yours, the band’s third album, Jonnie Russell does not sound like a strangled dolphin. In fact, ever since their second album, Loyalty to Loyalty, he has been tempering his voice to what now sounds most similar to The Black Keys’s Dan Auerbach. This taming of Russell’s eccentricities is no coincidence, as Mine Is Yours is a clear attempt by the band to hit mainstream success. With Kings of Leon producer Jacquire King in tow, the band has sufficiently rubbed off their rough edges to create something that does not attempt to hide the fact that it is trying to reach for a KOL-type crossover.

Fortunately, Cold War Kids do a better Come Around Sundown Kings of Leon than Come Around Sundown Kings of Leon. If you haven’t already deduced, Mine Is Yours is, in this critic’s opinion, Cold War Kids’s best album, which is hilarious considering the critical beating the album has received from publications that had once hailed their inception. I’m not going to pretend that Mine Is Yours isn’t a shallow attempt to get played on Hot 97, but the safe and unassuming version of these guys is a shit ton better than what they sounded like when they first came onto the scene. “Skip the Charades” features a guitar line that subtly rips off Silversun Pickups’s “Lazy Eye”, and four of the album’s songs end in reverb-heavy cymbal-crashing, which I’m sure will go over well at Bonnaroo, but I can’t say that it ever sounds particularly cheap or even ham-fisted in its approach. Finally, the album’s production gives the group some space instead of being so aggravatingly bone dry. I know people are going to HATE the electronic experiment, “Sensitive Kid”, but I quite like it, especially during Russull’s gentle falsetto in the song’s chorus.

Many Cold War Kids fans are going to despise Mine Is Yours for being the shameless cash-grab that it is, but it’s not half the atrocity it has been labeled as. You can leave it on when your mom subtly slips it into your car stereo in an attempt to prove to you that she knows what the kids are listening to these days. It’s still bland and it’s still adult contemporary, but come on. It’s adult contemporary. You could do a lot worse.


Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show #11: Low Budget High Fi Music: A-

I got into Madlib through the producer’s excellent collaboration with Detroit rapper, Guilty Simpson, last year, a record entitled OJ Simpson. Being a neophyte to the man’s music, the album struck me as something groundbreaking, the guy’s incessant use of samples from a bygone era spliced between beats that seemed to span the musical palette as efficiently as the samples seem to encapsulate a set time period and yet no time period at all. Sure, Guilty Simpson did a pretty good job, but it was clear that Madlib was the centerpiece of the show, weaving grooves into places whose creators never had any intention of being manipulated in such a way; the most subversive thing I’ve probably ever heard.

Come to find out, in the year 2010, Madlib embarked on project to release twelve albums in as many months. The fact that I’m writing about this right now should be indication enough that he was not quite successful in reaching his deadline, but that slacking in the man’s promise should not in any way take away from the fact that, on Madlib’s eleventh installment of his Madlib Medicine Show series, he still has a mind to create some fantastic music in such a short span of time.

Anyone who has heard OJ Simpson will see some major similarities between that record and Low Budget Hi Fi Music. For one, those samples that served as indirect characters on OJ Simpson are extremely present here. I even recognized one of them in Guilty Simpson’s contribution to the record “Thoughts of an Old Flame” (It’s the famous SNL sketch in which Chevy Chase and Richard Pryon rattle off racial slurs at each other, but, in this context, I can understand someone hearing it and thinking it was recorded at a much earlier time). The samples on Low Budget serve as mostly interludes that catch the ear for about a minute before throttling you back into a new Madlib-certified bag of tricks, and it’s just as effective this go around as it was on OJ Simpson.

What is different between this and OJ, though, is that the rappers on Low Budget are a lot more memorable. As I mentioned before, Guilty Simpson did a decent job on OJ Simpson, but his voice was featured on less than half of the album’s tracks. Here, between the Madlib-helmed instrumentals and samples, other weirdo rappers Oh No and Strong Arm Steady perform excellently on the three minutes or so that they are given. It’s really an astonishing thing to think about how nearly every performer on Low Budget Hi Fi Music manages to get at least one memorable line in before the listener is thrust into a completely different soundscape. The Professionals probably come out of it with the best performance, “And I am not here for your enjoyment/And I am not here for your girl’s employment” coming readily to mind as a personal favorite line. All of this happens while Madlib pumps out outstanding beat after beat that flushes your eardrums with disparate sounds from jazz to hardcore, making beats that I can imagine distinct luminaries Busta Rhymes, Jay Electronica and Cee-Lo Green performing on at different times.

If I have one major critique of Low Budget Hi Fi Music, it is that there is too much creativity on display here. Where OJ Simpson was an “experience” record whose product was much greater than the sum of its parts, this has far too many good things going for it interchanging between themselves at frustratingly spare intervals, it’s not a wonder to ask why many of the beats and performances on the album couldn’t be further expanded upon. Of course, this is how Madlib operates; like OJ Simpson, Low Budget Hi Fi Music is made up of about ten complete songs and the twenty other tracks ranging from two minutes to eight seconds. Asking Madlib to slow things down betrays the whole aesthetic in which the man works, and also sounds trite when talking about an album a month project. So Madlib’s problem is the best problem to have, and, if nothing else, this eleventh installment of the Medicine Show Series is proof that fans of his will not starve for new ideas any time soon.


Wanda Jackson - The Party Ain't Over: B

It is quite a surprise to see how an artist so generation defining and deliriously consistent could make such a decent album bogged down by such poor musical choices. Jack White’s production on marginally well known soul songstress Wanda Jackson’s newest album is the worst product White has put his name on since the White Stripes 2005 misstep, Get Behind Me Satan. But where that record’s fault came from White’s overreaching need to bring in new sounds, The Party Ain’t Over, Jackson’s first album in six years, is impeded by a handful of frustrating production flourishes.

However, before I delve into that aspect of The Party Ain’t Over, I must address an issue I have with the record that is apparent right from the album’s onset, and that is that Jackson’s voice is just not particularly good. Whether it’s draped in reverb for most of the record, or placed in front of a fan like in first track “Shakin All Over”, Jackson’s voice is too reedy and timid to carry the record to any noticeable heights. Which would be fine if White didn’t choose songs for her that required her to feature some sort of sneer. Her performances on that song and the Amy Winehouse cover “You Know I Ain’t No Good” sound forced. The only time her voice truly feels comfortable amidst the material being played is the album’s final track, “Blue Yodel #6”, but, even then, it sounds like an acoustic rip-off of White Blood Cells track, “Now Mary”.

The rest of White’s influence apparent The Party Ain’t Over amounts to bursts of skuzzy bass, occasional frenetic solos and a distinct production on the drums in which it clear that it is White behind the kit. “Busted” and “Rum and Coca-Cola” sound like permutations of tossed-off Dead Weather B-Sides, but that sound that proved to be so successful on that band’s two records cannot save them from both being ill-conceived song choices. “Busted”’s circus-like bounce comes off as clumsy and the calypso of “Rum and Coca-Cola” is yet another case in which Jackson’s voice just doesn’t sound comfortable.

But the most galling aspect of The Party Ain’t Over is the record’s omnipresent horn section. Whether it be in “You Know I’m No Good” or “Nervous Breakdown”, its interjections instantly turn the respectable tracks into cheesy romps that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack to The Jungle Book. The worst case is in “Thunder on the Mountain”. I don’t particularly like Bob Dylan all that much, but even I can see that White and Jackson’s treatment of his Modern Times track does the song very little justice. The horn section strips the track of any earnestness and Jackson’s straightforward performance strips out all the personality that justified the song’s long length. A song like “Thunder on the Moutain” is tough to cover, because its enjoyment lies in the rhythm of Dylan’s performance, and to hear Jackson plow through it is a missed opportunity and the album’s biggest folly.

The rest of Party ranges from decent to pretty good, keeping the album from being decidedly crappy. “Rip It Up” and “Dust on the Bible” are probably the album’s highlights, but that isn’t saying much, because I have qualms with them simply for the fact that Jackson sings on them. People expecting to hear another Van Lear Rose, will be sorely disappointed, and White Stripes fans can justifiably point out that it’s been four years since that group’s come out with a proper album (Update: :'( ). The Party Ain’t Over is a very decent record, but anyone buying it will, I’m sure, come to expect something of far better quality.


Braids - Native Speaker: B+

If there is any reason to listen to Native Speaker, the debut album from this Montreal group, it is for the performance of lead vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston. Aside from her ethereal tone and soaring notes, her appeal will become immediately apparent in the first track, “Lemonade”, a song of jitters that coalesces around a chorus that goes, “And what I found is that we/We’re all just sleeping around.” The chorus comes amidst a wash of lightly picked guitars and rolling percussion, an accompaniment that can best be described as dream pop, but hearing Preston sing so candidly about sex, and in the album’s first track no less, and then continue on in later verses (“Well I was joking with my lemonade/I told him to get fucked then get laid.”) is refreshing in contrast to the considerably tame music that surrounds her.

Second and third tracks “Plath Heart” and “Glass Dears” are similarly vocally flippant. Standell-Preston has great fun annunciating the ridiculous line in the second verse of the former, “Didn’t do exactly what you told me/When you scold me/Leads me to implore thee/Golden hole that was surely given/To make beautiful children and push and push and push and push,” and strains her voice to great heights on the latter, making her sound like Arcade Fire’s Regine Chassagne, but outdoing her sass tenfold. In moments, Standell-Preston hurls herself from a delicate coo to a screech. And with the music surrounding her so spacious I can’t help but picture Preston maniacally grabbing at mist as she sings through each song.

The downfall of Native Speaker is that, as the album progresses, the atmosphere that looms over each track increasingly engulfs Standell-Preston. In every song on Native Speaker, some element of her quirkiness shines through, but from “Glass Dears” on, Standell-Preston’s voice is mixed more as just another instrument. The songs of Native Speaker’s second half are by no means bad, but, frankly, they don’t play to the band’s strengths. The final track, “Little Hands” features no vocals at all, and is, as a result, a whimper of a track buoyed by the jangly guitars that I don’t need to tell how many times you’ve heard. It’s the antithesis of the band that burst out the gate on “Lemonade” and is somewhat of a play-it-safe disappointment from a group that I believe is more than capable of maintaining that bombast for a full album.


Lia Ices - Grown Unknown: B-

The only thing interesting about Grown Unknown is the album cover. The rest is the most generic thing I’ve heard yet this year. The last thirty seconds of the title track, where clapping patterns mix with swooping orchestration, is the only time I actually give a damn, and, even then, it sounds like something Laura Marling could do in her sleep. Other than that, Grown Unknown is just a half-assed attempt to make a record by Laura’s Marling and Veirs, Joanna Newsom and Scout Niblett. And when that attempt comes closer to Norah Jones than anything else, you need to really reconsider what your aspirations are with your musical career.


Ulcerate - Destroyers of All: C / Mitochondrion - Parasignosis: C

I keep going back and forth on which of these I dislike more. Both Mitochondrion and Ulcerate dole out the kind of vomit-metal nonsense that always seems to get shat out in the beginning of the New Year. I don’t recommend either, but let’s size each of one up so you can decide which you’d rather not listen to.

Ulcerate are from New Zealand. The only thing about them that makes them at all notable is that they clearly try to copy the plinking-guitar-melody/unrelenting-blastbeats combination that Deathspell Omega have been known for and implemented to much greater effect on their 2010 album, Paracletus. So not only are they awful, but they are unoriginal. And they’re a metal band from New Zealand. That is all.

Mitochondrion’s the better known of the two groups here, and the fact that The Destroyers of Us All is so painfully uninspired should make their newest album the winner by default. But, if you ever wanted to even your odds with an outright shitty album with an album that at least doesn’t show a completely horrendous style of songwriting, peppering your album with bouts of ambient machine work, one in which happens to be your nine and a half minute closing track, is a pretty damn good way of doing it.

So let’s call it even. CNN style. Neither album overtakes the other, and neither of these albums is worth your time. Tune in the next couple months when the actual meaningful metal albums start coming in.


Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean: B+

I, like many people, did not expect half of Kiss Each Other Clean. Being new to Iron & Wine, I perceived the sound of the outfit by looking at its auteur, Sam Beam, and anyone who has seen the guy cannot blame me for thinking that his newest album would be loaded to the brim with folk-tastic audio intimacy. To my credit, like I mentioned, half of Kiss Each Other Clean, Beam’s first album in four years, is just that; finger-picked rambles sung by a surprisingly spry bearded man. The second half of Kiss Each Other Clean, however, is quite different, and is a clear sign of an artist desperate to branch out into different styles than the one he has been confined to for nearly a decade.

So, do the experiments work? Yes. There isn’t a track on Kiss Each Other Clean that I outright dislike. The new sounds range from the playfully indulgent (“Big Burned Hand”) to the keyboard-led ominous (“Rabbit Will Run”). Both new styles have their advantages, and I do not have a clear preference toward either. I will say, however, that I, overall, enjoyed the more traditional songs more than the experimental ones. I was surprised to discover this upon listening to Kiss Each Other Clean, because I tend to gravitate towards the risky, but there is a clear flaw in all the experimental songs of Kiss Each Other Clean that prohibits them from reaching a much higher enjoyment level than, “Oh that sounds kinda cool.” That flaw is that, for however much that initial melody hooks you in on a song like “Monkeys Uptown”, it’s hard to ignore upon closer inspection that the song’s just the repetition of a single melody over and over. Once you see that crucial flaw in half the songs on Kiss Each Other Clean, it’s hard to give the album the love that its ambition may deserve. And once the final track, “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough”, stops abruptly to repeat a coda that builds with barely enough payoffs for seven minutes, you might just have had enough of it.

Without getting too deep into the details of the music, itself, Kiss Each Other Clean is still a very good album. The folkier songs are remarkably consistent, and the songs that manage to find a balance between the new production flourishes and that older sound are the album’s highlights (“Glad Man Singing”, “Godless Brother In Love”, “Me and Lazarus”). Hell, even when Beam goes balls out on “Big Burned Hand”, it’s good fun (and features a great profanity slip as a punch line at the song’s end). Kiss Each Other Clean has so much potential to be a game-changing album, but its clear kinks may have to relegate it to the title of “transitional record”. It’s a little overhyped, but may be worth your time.


Destroyer - Kaputt: A-

Dan Bejar, ringmaster of Destroyer, has expressed in recent interviews his distaste for the present and future of music, presenting a very thick “fuck it all” demeanor towards the process of writing and recording his own albums and the listening of recent ones he’s heard. As much as I enjoy Kaputt, Bejar’s tenth album under the Destroyer moniker, I find it nearly impossible to extricate the impression Behar gives off in interviews from the music he has chosen to release. “I write poetry for myself,” Bejar sings within the first couple seconds of second track, “Blue Eyes”, as if he wants the listener to know right off the bat that he could give a shit if you liked this album or not. It’s a characterization that does not change as Kaputt progresses.

To be fair, though, Bejar does show a sort of character arc in Kaputt in that he transitions from a bored curmudgeon to a pessimistic savant. “New York City just wants to see you naked / And they will,” Behar sings in the eight and a half minute “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker”, as if he’s seen dozens of girls resign to the same fate as the one he describes in the song. The first thing Bejar says on the album’s title track is “Wasting your days / Chasing some girls alright / Chasing cocaine to the back rooms of the world all night,” as if he’s talking down some big-headed indie rocker who has the gall to think he can make it in this business. His voice keeps a melody throughout the album, but is barely ever raised slightly above the intonation of sarcasm. And yet I find some way to enjoy it. I can understand if people were to find fault with it, but the reason why I don’t mind it so much is that, when Bejar raises that voice, it is to great effect, most notably on the dive into a synth breakdown in “Downtown” once Bejar sings “Red rover on his way over to your place!” in one of the few enthusiastic moments his voice observes.

Musically, Kaputt mines the territory of 70’s soft rock, the type of malaise that you would expect someone like Behar to make, and the music does fit his nasally monotone, wonderfully. Set aside Bejar’s vocals, though, and Kaputt is an excellently produced album, featuring a revolving door of instruments, effects and voices that I’m sure will leave no one starving for content. My personal favorite sound on Kaputt is the guitar chug in “Downtown”, but I’m sure many will find completely different parts of the album to claim as their favorites. It’s a testament to how varied Behar’s creativity on Kaputt is, although, ostensibly, you might think otherwise. The album is so overflowing with so many interesting sounds, many spill out in songs where they have little business being. At the end of “Savage Night at the Opera”, there is a barely audible synth throb that, whenever I listen to it, I think the song is going to start up again in an “I Wonder” by Kanye West kind of situation, but the song just simply ends. The single guitar note played at the end of “Poor in Love” is the same way. Something like that would frustrate me to no end and would take me completely out of an album, but Kaputt is unique in that it’s hard to complain about the flood of ideas given such a bountiful feast Behar presents that would satisfy any audiophile.

This aesthetic reaches its peak in Kaputt’s closer, “Bay of Pigs (Detail)”, a multi-part suite that clocks in at more than eleven minutes. The song’s first four are spent pensively building ambience, while Bejar admits that he’s been drinking and goes on two separate stream-of-consciousness asides before synths penetrate the atmospherics, only to disappear as quickly as they arrived. Then, bass drum is added to the mix, along with more intrusive synths until eventually guitars overtake the track and bring it into an actual song for its last three and half minutes. Needless to say, it’s a journey of a song, but its disparate sections summarize Behar’s restlessness quite well. I may not agree with the guy’s worldview, but if Behar’s inclination is to drop what he feels is a pointless album like Kaputt every so often on us undeserving masses, I can afford to hear a dissenting opinion from time to time.