Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo: A-

It’s coming to the close of the little music festival you and your friends had been organizing for a couple of months, and the final band that was supposed to play folk-influenced marimba (or at least that’s what it said they played on their website) still hasn’t shown up. The first three bands that played were good, and the crowd of a little less than a hundred people is pleasantly surprised how well these couple of college kids managed to get their shit together enough to put on a pretty good show. But, without that show-ender, all that you’ve worked for is going to end in a flat and awkward failure. There are about five minutes left of the last group before the folk marimba band’s supposed to play and you get a call from their manager saying that the band’s stuck in Pittsburg traffic and won’t be able to make it. You panic. It says on the program that the show goes until ten, and there’s no way you’re going to go up there and embarrass yourself in front of all those people. You confer with your colleagues to think of any last-minute plans, and Bill, ever the optimist, suggests something.

“That guy, Kurt. Hasn’t he written like a bunch of songs?”

“Yeah, I guess, but does he have enough to play a forty minute set?”

“Probably. I see him playing a guitar on the quad all the time and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play the same song twice. I mean, do we have any other options?”

“I guess not… Is Kurt around?”

“Yeah. He goes to all these open mic-type things.”

Kurt arrives as if in a blissful daze. His wavy brown hair rests on his shoulders and his eyes are always half-closed, even when speaking to you. He seems nice enough and assures you that he has enough material to finish the set; he just needs an electric, an acoustic and maybe a drummer if you can spare one. You have all three, so you oblige and thrust him onstage a couple minutes after the last band has played. The audience is quiet as Kurt methodically sits at the stool center stage, grabs the acoustic laid out for him and starts fingerpicking the first notes of “Baby’s Arms.”

Smoke For My Halo is so personable, it sounds as if it were performed by a friend you never knew was a musical genius. His sluggish drawl conjures the image of an intense slacker, but he focuses that mentality into gorgeous songs that are relatable and often hilarious. There’s a song about Jesus, one about being on tour, one about selling out, and a shit ton about girls, apathy and some combination of the two. Smoke For My Halo is richly produced with extra percussion and clever guitar effects that contradict the laziness Vile emits so well in his performance. It’s an endearing effort that might convince you to turn up the bass a little and rest that extra hour before starting that really important paper you’ve been meaning to get to. I know a guy that reminds me of the Kurt Vile on Smoke Ring For My Halo, and you do, too. And you’re not alone if you count Vile’s success here as a win for that guy, as well.


Monday, March 21, 2011

The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar: A-

Alas, in the time that I’ve had to listen to The Joy Formidable’s first proper album, The Big Roar, I haven’t found much to write about. I’ve been far too busy enjoying the album and taking in the great amounts of fun, joy, distress and catharsis this trio can conjure for a fifty-minute product that has the potential to mean the world to countless amounts of listeners.

In many ways, The Big Roar can be compared to Los Campesinos! Romance Is Boring, another album by a British group that seethes with erudite bravado; its UK release was almost an exact year before that of The Big Roar. However, The Joy Formidable are a lot more raw than Los Campesinos! in a lot of ways. Rather than clever wordplay, The Joy Formidable hinge their appeal on the performance of guitarist and lead singer, Ritzy Bryan. Whether strumming elastic chords or jading riffs with distortion, Ritzy’s guitar parts sound just on the verge of implosion, and The Joy Formidable’s bassist and drummer accommodate this attitude, excellently. Ritzy’s lyrics don’t riff on angst-y subjects in a stream-of-consciousness whimper like that of Los Campesinos! Instead they opt for poignant adages that are often just as affecting. “Love is the everchanging spectrum of a lie!” Ritzy hollers in a jarring falsetto on The Big Roar’s epic opener. “I don’t want to see you like this,” she pleads on a later track. These vague statements can seem to many like pompous posturing, but the massive heft of the band’s musicianship, coupled with Ritzy’s confident swoon, make these overarching declarations far from platitudes.

The Big Roar is the first indie rock album I’ve ever heard that prominently features double bass drum. Not surprisingly, many of The Big Roar’s tracks crumble under the weight of their own entropy, collapsing into bouts of chaotic fuzz and crash cymbal. To heighten this state of pandemonium, drummer Matt Thomas will begin wailing on his set to elevate the heaviness of the band’s tracks more than I’ve ever heard a group like them do. On the album’s centerpiece, the raucous “Whirring,” Thomas even weaves double bass triplets into the din that overtakes its second half. It’s unexpected at first, but becomes exceedingly appropriate as it is the highest musical addition the band could have incorporated at that point. When the song sputters close to the seven-minute mark, one wonders why other bands haven’t tried it before.

The Big Roar, by its end, feels like the culmination of multiple albums, because it’s packed with so many peaks that are overtaken by silence, there are a handful of cases when one thinks that there is no way that the group could continue after such a prompt aural beating (This effect even occurs midway through a song, as on the two-part “Llaw = Wall”). And yet The Joy Formidable carry on, hurling life-affirming climaxes at you like you were the last picked for a dodgeball game. The Big Roar is such a ridiculously promising debut for this London group, I’m surprised other critics haven’t received it as rapturously. It’s the perfect mission statement, because it establishes The Joy Formidable’s sound, but still leaves some aspects of it to be explored and improved upon, and I have the utmost confidence that they will continue to make great music as they get a more confident footing as a band. Welcome aboard, The Joy Formidable. Glad to have you with us.


R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now: C+

It’s one thing for a band to cop the performance style of R.E.M. and make something half-assed as a result. It’s something else, entirely, when the band whose style people are copping to make crappy albums are copping the copping of those bands to make something supremely shitty. R.E.M. are supposed to be this influential band that was a bastion of pre-indie rock (and they are), but on their newest album, Collapse Into Now, they sound downright amateurish, stripping the elements that made them unique of all pretense. Not a ballast can be found on Collapse Into Now to keep it from preening into a big dumb STATEMENT of an album.

So where to start? Music: Collapse Into Now suffers from the same ailment that struck The Hold Steady’s most recent album, Heaven Is Whenever, in that the lack of variety in the guitars makes it sound far too dense and monolithic. The guitar and bass work of Peter Buck and Mike Millis, respectively, is decent, but the production on their instruments is nauseating in its lack of dynamics.

Lyrics: Oh boy, here we go. Never have I ever heard such a decent album bogged down by such awful lyrics. Michael Stipe has written some fantastic songs in the past, but, on Collapse Into Now, he seems to take himself so seriously, he not only believes he can get away with reciting inane poetry like, “I cannot tell a lie / It’s not all cherry pie” and “This is not a parable / This is a terrible,” but believes that it is high-end art to be analyzed and admired. Over a pseudo-shanty built upon accordion and acoustic guitar, Stipe breathes solemnly, “The kids have a new take / A new take on faith,” with the utmost intention of having you hang on his every word, but that heavy-handedness is laughable to even consider taking seriously. “Mine Smell Like Honey” pairs inane lyrics with an even more inane song title, “Walk It Back” tries and fails miserably to form a chorus around a clumsy phrase and “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” is just as bad as its title would suggest.

Collapse Into Now even has somewhat of an arc of shitty lyrics, climaxing on final track, “Blue,” by far the worst song on the album. In it, Stipe lets loose in a five-minute, distorted, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy, slinging the type of non sequitur vomit that could only come from someone who doesn’t think anyone would be smart enough to read into a single line or phrase. “Yellow circus left the stakes a broken ropes world’s useless mug / The ties that bind, ha ha / I can be a bad poet / Street poet / Shit poet / Kind poet too,” and he goes on like this for a few more stanzas before Peter Buck coos a soft refuge, but not for long, as we’re thrust back into the fray of Stipe’s pretentious psyche. That’s right, pretentious. “Blue” is so awful, it could make you lose faith in what R.E.M. has become over the past decade. It confronts you, directly, with the possibility that the band may believe significantly more than just their own hype.

It is in this regard that Collapse Into Now sounds like the work of an R.E.M. cover band, because it masterfully takes the notable aspects of the group and exaggerates them into agonizing caricatures. When Stipe sings in a lower register, he has a habit of trailing off his notes, making them sound, intentionally or not, much more poignant than any logic garnered from his lyrics could justify. He sounds like what my Michael Stipe impression would sound like if I wanted him to sound conceited and provincial. It’s surprising to hear such labored drivel from a group as respected as R.E.M. I’ve heard some heinous ‘90’s rehashing in my time, but it is a genuine disappointment to hear such a stalwart so spectacularly spin out as badly as the band does on Collapse Into Now.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sidi Tourè - Sahel Folk: B+

If for nothing else, Sidi Tourè’s newest album should be listened to for the man’s furious fretwork. Whether he leads off with some atonal rhythm or is playing with pull-offs while he sings, the man excellently abuses his acoustic guitar on Sahel Folk and still manages to sound melodic and tempered throughout. The only percussion on the album is in “Taray Kongo,” which is provided by Tourè, himself, as he beats his guitar on the downswing of manic strums. As if his guitar wasn’t emotive enough, the Mali native does an admirable singing job that peaks at Sahel Folk’s end, as he sounds deferential when singing his country’s name in “Artiatanat.” Listening to Sahel Folk, it is easy to see why many call this kind of music the origin of the blues of the American south. Although I understand not a word of Sahel Folk, Tourè’s passion is apparent in the album in spades, and it is just as enjoyable and relatable as anything else I’ll hear all year.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place: A

A part of me wants to hate The Magic Place, because it’s clear that it’s an album that did not take much thought to make. All its songs are ambient textures of female voices, drenched in reverb, repeating, interrupting and falling over each other. It’s an album that I would consider quite lazy, because anyone with a decent singing voice could have made it and perhaps with just as much success. However, Barwick’s arrangements on The Magic Place are vast, spacious and beautiful, no matter how generic they might ostensibly sound.

The Magic Place does not change from song to song. The countless forms of Barwick’s voice, winsome and whispery, drift formlessly through the album with very little variation aside from an occasional change in octave or key. The songs rarely heighten or have any sense of dynamics, and, when they do, they don’t build so much as add. Many songs begin with a piano, but, in the times when it, or any other instrument, is introduced, it is not from an accommodating context or crescendo. The loud chorus in “White Flag,” the standup bass in “Vow” and the hand percussion in “Prizewinning” simply appear in their respective songs. I would say that they serve no purpose, but, and this is one of the many great aspects of The Magic Place, they all work towards an end in that they all make the arrangements sound even more luxurious than they already were. The presence of these parts may have been an afterthought while Barwick was making The Magic Place, but, when they’re there, it is clear that what they are and what they do were slyly calculated for optimal effect.

Barwick’s debut is unique in the genre of ambient, because, where artists like Emeralds and Ohneotrix Point Never use computerized instruments, The Magic Place is almost entirely comprised of organic human voices, and, as a result, it’s the most intimate ambient album I’ve ever heard. The Magic Place’s lyrics are unintelligible and no single voice stays for long, but the album, as a whole, is nothing if not welcoming. As the wisely titled first track would indicate, The Magic Place envelops you from the very first note. It’s homogonous, but in a way that makes it sound like a forty five minute trip through your own subconscious.

In a way, The Magic Place is indulgent, because it makes a job out of pressing that one heart-melting pleasure center we all have to mawkish proportions. Still, it is fantastic at doing what I’ve deduced is the purpose of ambient music, which is to be the lubricant for your mind’s eye, giving you a soundtrack for expanding your thoughts and exploring your memories. The Magic Place is emotionally ambiguous, which means you can listen to it happy, sad, angry, horny, drunk, high or with a hangover and take away a completely different experience (Although I don’t know why you would listen to ambient music drunk or horny… sicko). It can be meaningful or pointless, but The Magic Place is special in that your reaction to it, to a certain extent, is a reflection of yourself.


Wye Oak - Civilian: B+

Some bands find their niche by making modern interpretations of the sounds of artists that influenced them (Oasis, LCD Soundsystem, Kylesa). Others just flat out write songs that sound like their influences, with little to no subtext to defend them from accusations of unoriginality. Wye Oak is one of the latter. Although Civilian is a thoroughly consistent album, not once does it attempt to forge a path for the group to differentiate themselves from other hard-nosed shoegaze bands with female singers. The melodic dissonance that often envelops Civilian is very similar to that of Land of Talk, Jenn Wasner’s casual voice the spitting image of Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powel. When Wye Oak go into reverb-heavy space jams, they sound exactly like the emotionless boogie of School of Seven Bells, with similar vocal tendencies to boot. Even when the group tries to close Civilian with a spare, guitar-led lament, they sound like a cover band for their Baltimore colleagues, Beach House, Wasner’s voice hardly as affecting as Victoria Legrand’s smoky croon. And, yes, I know all four of these bands formed around the same time, but the three besides Wye Oak do what Wye Oak do better than Wye Oak, so who’s really counting years at this point, anyway? Civilian is not a bad album, but, considering that there are so many identical bands out there that do its job better, it’s not something that you’ll particularly miss if you don’t hear it.


Live Album Roundup: March 15th 2011

Pearl Jam - Live on Ten Legs
Released: January 18th, 2011

After every live show, Pearl Jam give audience members a code to download a bootleg of the concert they saw online as a souvenir. They are produced respectably and are excellent time capsules for those few hours. Live on Ten Legs, the live album that has been released in conjunction with the twentieth anniversary of the release of the band’s debut album, Ten, sounds like one of these bootlegs. Which is fine, because the album is a decent recording of the group at their high consistency, playing a set that they could have played anywhere, split evenly between deep cuts and reworkings of old hits and closing with the one-two punch of “Alive” and “Yellow Ledbetter.” However, Live on Ten Legs does not sound like the live commemoration of my favorite album of the 90’s. The instrumentation, the audience and Vedder’s voice, which, after twenty years of torture, can still scream the “RHINESTONES” line in “Unthought Known” with particular vigor, are great. But I don’t see the point of Live on Ten Legs if it’s mixed with the purpose of being just another live album to be listened to by people who probably already own something very similar to it (not to mention the fact that only two song in the set are from the album it’s honoring). The only significant value in Live on Ten Legs is that the band plays a few songs from Backspacer amiably, but, with a career as consistent and lively as Pearl Jam’s, the group can afford to be less modest. B

Matisyahu - Live at Stubbs Vol. II
Released: February 1st, 2011

Matisyahu is probably the only modern artist that got started through a live album. Released in 2006, Live at Stubbs took the assured music of the Hasidic rapper’s debut and put it in a setting where it sounded distinct and better, and reached widespread attention from many, myself included, as a result. Four years later, and with two more albums under his belt (the abysmal Youth and the underrated Light), Matisyahu returns to Texas to bookend this chapter of his career, and it sounds pretty good. The set is evenly distributed between his three albums and the guy and his dub trio perform it energetically. He references the first Live at Stubbs by taking some of its most notable rhymes like that of “King Without a Crown” and “Aish Tamid” and injects them into newer songs, to good effect. My only complaint is that, although the Youth songs sound better in this context, they are still ham-fisted and overwrought. Their presence drags Live at Stubbs Vol. 2 down from excellent to still very good. Fans will like it for the performances of new songs like “Youth” and “One Day”, but I would still suggest the first Live at Stubbs for an excellent introduction to the man’s work. B+

Jònsi - Live at the Wiltern

Released: February 1st, 2011

Your enjoyment of Live at the Wiltern is under the assumption that you have not heard Jònsi's other live album, Go Live, which was released less than three months before Live at the Wiltern. If you have, Live at the Wiltern is useless, because both live albums feature the exact same setlist and feature extremely similar performances. The only reason I’m talking about this and not Go Live is because I dropped the ball on listening to Go Live and Jònsi was kind enough to give me another chance to rate a Jònsi live album. Those looking for new interpretations of Jonsi’s material from his debut, Go, will be disappointed, as Jònsi partakes in almost no stage banter or experimentation throughout his hour and a half long set. Those looking for a rousing field test of Go will also be disappointed, as Jònsi makes its songs even more pensive, “Animal Arithmetic,” the second half of “Around Us” and the bass drum at the end of “Icicle Sleeves” being the only exceptions. More than anything else, Live at the Wiltern stands as proof to naysayers that Jònsi's performance on Go was not all auto-tune and studio finickry. I don’t know if it convinces me to see the guy live anytime soon, but Live at the Wiltern is a pretty good representation of an excellent album, which should more than satiate the live album’s intended audience. B

Bob Marley - Live Forever: The Stanley Theater, Pittsburgh, PA, September 23rd, 1980

Released: February 1st, 2011
For many music fans from my generation (I don’t know what it’s called, but I’m 19, so figure it out), Bob Marley has become more of a symbol than an artist; we have heard and been taught to love his hits and humanitarian work, but, as a result, we have been conditioned to view him as an intangible myth rather than a musician. Live Forever, a recording of Bob Marley’s last concert before his death from cancer in May of 1981, does an excellent job of humanizing the reggae superstar and consolidating his legacy for a new generation of music listeners. The first hit on Live Forever comes ten tracks into the album, and all the deep cuts Marley leads off with are fantastic and exhibit him as energetic, charming, funny and committed to his craft. Live Forever’s first half of lesser-known songs is invigorating and eye-opening and its second half of hits is fluid and poised. The Wailers rip up “The Heathen” with a guitar solo and turn “Could You Be Loved” into an intense percussion jam and Marley sounds like he’s having the time of his life throughout. Live Forever may best 1984’s Legend as the best introduction to Marley’s music, because it portrays him as an artist with incredible range. As his final product, it shows that the man left us at the peak of his talents. A


Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes: B+

Much has been written about the sonic change Lykke Li has made since her 2008 debut, Youth Novels. Where her first album was a set of quiet, unobtrusive love songs, Wounded Rhymes, her newest, is mostly raucous and rousing. Its backdrops are filled with romping shakers and toms, creating a sound that is primal, slinky and sexy, adjectives that few would have used to describe her work on Youth Novels. The interim between albums has yielded some significant image changes for Lykke as well. Her performances in support of Wounded Rhymes feature her in a black leather poncho with matching shorts and boots, her dark hair pulled back behind her head to look like a masculine crew cut. It would appear that Lykke’s transformation from shy songstress to boisterous vixen has been drastic, but organic. However, although Lykke may have made all the right moves in tweaking her appearance and her songs, something just doesn’t seem right to complete either picture. For however Lykke may try to extricate herself from the image of her first album, her vocal presence on Wounded Rhymes is still suited for the soft and calm, and, more often than not, her attempts to betray that are off-putting and awkward.

It’s unfortunate to say, because, basically, I am accusing Lykke Li of evolving as an artist. But, time and time again, when she moves out of her comfort zone, Wounded Rhymes comes off as just that: uncomfortable. The danceable toms and circus organ riff in first track, “Youth Knows No Pain,” provide excellent scenery for the image Li attempts to convey on the album. And it works right up until she takes the mic for the verses and chorus. When that occurs, though, her innocuous croon drags the song down more than if it were performed by a singer with a more dynamic voice. “I Follow Rivers” is a great song, Lykke notwithstanding, but it suffers from the same problems. Lykke’s accompaniment is convincing, but her voice doesn’t sell it past that vital last stretch. Much ink has been used up on the “I’m your prostitute / You gon’ get some” line in “Get Some,” but, when Lykke sings it, it sounds just about as evil as if the ETrade baby sang it.

The good news is that Wounded Rhymes is split evenly between the new and old Lykke. Where her sexuality may be forced in songs like “Rich Kids Blues,” her turns in quieter contexts are minimalist and sincere. In a song like “I Know Places,” she sounds more confident with just an acoustic guitar supporting her than all the maladroit posturing on Wounded Rhymes combined. When she evokes sadness as a lover in “Sadness in a Blessing,” it comes off as mature and heartbreaking, especially at the ending of the chorus, when Lykke concludes, “Sadness, I’m your girl.” These songs all deal with crushing amounts of disappointment and loneliness (“All my love is unrequited” goes one song’s chorus) and their brilliance in silence make the bloated songs of Wounded Rhymes sound more like overcompensation than fun.

In her song for the Twilight soundtrack, “Possibility,” Lykke Li embodied vulnerability with little more than a piano and some brooms, and, two years later, Wounded Rhymes proves that she can still pull off moments of such beauty. All the album’s quiet songs are excellent and the ones that strike a middle ground between that and the brashness of “Get Some” are good as well. Wounded Rhymes isn’t so much a misstep as a great album with a few songs that jump the gun. Lykke Li is one of those artists whose moderation suits them best, and, although I can respect the polarizing tracks of Wounded Rhymes, none of them appear without some unfortunate consequence.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Delicate Steve - Wondervisions: A-

Rarely do I hear an instrumentalist with an excellent knack for the nuances of so many instruments like Steve Marion, the man behind Delicate Steve. His talent is exceedingly rare with most bands. Often, a member of a group will write songs from the perspective of the instrument they play, and, as a result, make music that exaggerates theirs and diminishes others, which causes a significant loss of depth and subtlety. One can imagine how compounded this effect can be on a group in which one man plays all the instruments. However, Marion does not just pull a decent Dave Grohl job in making sure every element of Wondervisions is distinctive and supportive (because, to be honest, I’ve always felt that their self-titled was the bad egg in Foo Fighters’s discography), but a Stevie Wonder level of instrumental acuity, and if the liner notes and the title of Wondervisions are any indication, that is a pretty big fucking compliment to Mr. Marion.

Most of the accolades for Wondervisions will go to Marion’s guitar playing, which is absolutely appropriate. The guy wields his axe like the best guitarists do, which isn’t so much to show off with flashy solos, but to craft phrases that are so memorable in and of themselves, that they almost resemble the human voice in their hummability. In songs like “Welcome- Begin” and “Don’t Get Stuck (Proud Elephants),” the guitar melody progresses so beautifully, you could care less that neither features any vocal presence. In “Sugar Splash,” the man goes as far as to wring his high-register guitar lines to a squeal, making them resemble the emotive screams of a singer with an improbably high range belting their heart out. Despite its near complete lack of singing, Wondervisions is one of the most expressive albums you’ll hear all year.

However, the precision Marion exhibits on other instruments is just as impressive. Whether he’s playing a bass, manning a drum kit, or futzing with an effect pedal, Marion flaunts his restraint and confidence in a way that only performers who have exclusively played their respective instrument through years of practice have learned. The title track does not even feature a lead guitar line, Marion instead opting for a synth that is just as affecting as anything else on the album. Ambient exercises are interspersed throughout Wondervisions that are similarly excellent despite their lack of guitar presence. The album features no traditional percussion; only a few toms, some shakers and an 808 are used to propel each song. The result is a record that exudes wild-eyed innocence, the type of wonder that comes with an artist lovingly experimenting with the talents they possess. Delicate Steve resembles indie-rock optimists like Fang Island and Sun City Girls in this way, but Marion bests them both by crafting songs that boast the ambition of ten bands combined and not once sounding stretched thin of ideas.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Radiohead - The King of Limbs: A-

My enjoyment of The King of Limbs is still very much a surprise to me, considering how much I have made a point of putting on the record that I think Radiohead is a ridiculously overrated band, and considering how divisive this album has turned out to be. For a band that has made such an effort in their career to challenge how we view music, the initial response by many publications towards Radiohead’s newest album was astoundingly complicit, some releasing rapturous reviews for it mere hours after it was released. However, as the excitement over the surprising release has subsided, in addition to the requisite backlash that emerged a few weeks later, The King of Limbs seems to sit with overall derision from fans as an album that is not anything close to the quality of past favorites like OK Computer, Kid A and In Rainbows.

The reason why I believe The King of Limbs has not been viewed in such high regard as those albums, is because, in all its thirty-seven and a half minutes, it does not break any new ground or show any indication of where music will be going in the future, electronic, guitar-based or otherwise. The King of Limbs does nothing to conflate the zeitgeist or fellate the IQ of the music-listening community. It is, simply, a collection of good songs that doesn’t so much as make a dent in the paradigm of musical thought, like many Radiohead fans believe occurred with the other album that the band released in the first year of a decade. And that lack of creative overload that fans have come to expect from the band has seriously pissed some people off.

If anything, The King of Limbs is a rough summary of where electronic music is at this moment, or, more accurately, where Thom Yorke believes electronic music is at this moment. Ever since the man’s 2006 solo effort, The Eraser, Yorke has been concentrating more on the songwriting components of legitimate electronic music as opposed to the bleeps, bloops and screeches that I thought distracted from the sound of Kid A. As represented in the man’s various remixes of electronic artists and his guest vocal on “…And the World Laughs With You” from Flying Lotus’s excellent Cosmogramma, it is easy to see from whom The King of Limbs gets its inspiration. The skittering percussion that serves as the backbone for most of the album’s songs is reminiscent of Flying Lotus’s recent work and the vocal manipulation that occurs in “Feral” and other tracks is in line with the trend that has been prevalent in electronic music since Burial’s 2007 album, Untrue. Even the distant harmonies singing, “Don’t mind me” in “Giving Up the Ghost” sound like something Baths would write, and his debut album was released less than a year ago. The King of Limbs comes off less as a distinct Radiohead product than Yorke writing songs that sound like the music he’s been enjoying, lately.

Another reason Radiohead fans might not have enjoyed The King of Limbs is that it does not have much value in individual songs. Its tracks do not invoke melodies so much as moods; if you’ve heard the first few elements of a song, chances are you’ve heard what the rest is going to sound like. I can see people getting very frustrated with a song like “Separator,” in which a drum measure is stubbornly looped for five and a half minutes, and I would dislike it too if I didn’t enjoy the arrangement the band crafts around it. On The King of Limbs, Radiohead may rely on one or two elements to thrust a song, but never does that guitar part or vocal melody to fall back on fall flat. Yorke does his dejected moan bit very well, layering songs like “Codex” and “Giving Up the Ghost” with harmonies that gracefully weave in and out of the arrangements, Johnny Greenwood’s guitar only adds more depth to the backbeats of songs and… well there are so few distinct drum parts on the album, I can’t imagine Philip Selway spent more than an hour in the studio recording them. The MVP of The King of Limbs, though, is Colin Greenwood, whose supple bass lines keep all the songs fresh and lively when the album’s repetition gets deleterious.

For me, The King of Limbs is Radiohead’s most solid product yet, but scores of fans will end up throwing the album into the poison-tipped iron maiden where their copy of Pablo Honey has been toiling for nearly twenty years. My only advice if you’re considering getting The King of Limbs would be to take the unfounded amount of criticism it has received with a grain of salt, because, if you hold any album to the comical esteem this band’s material’s garnered over the years, it will fail, spectacularly. And, if it sounds like I’m giving the album too much shit for such a high rating, know that it’s because I’m still grappling with the fact that a Radiohead album might make it on my top fifty list at the end of the year, something I never would have imagined. Chances are you’re going to enjoy The King of Limbs, despite its intense exaggerations from both sides of the spectrum. The good news is the that the absent pressure to declare it the greatest piece of music ever recorded might give you some strange comfort.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Toro Y Moi - Underneath the Pine: B+

Toro Y Moi’s debut album, Causers of This, came out on the tide of haze that was late-2009 chillwave, and made no bones about what sound it was going for. It was dance-obsessed, sample heavy, and, all in all, above average. What turned Causers of This into an album worth listening to, though, were main man Chaz Bundick’s production skills. His technique of phasing out the music on each downbeat of a song is exhilarating to me, now, as it was when I reviewed the album, last year. It was also excellent foresight on Bundick’s part for where electronic music was going in the ensuing year, as albums like Flying Lotus’s Cosmogramma and Baths’s Cerulean would utilize the technique to similarly great effect.

Cut to a year later, and Bundick has released his second album under the Toro Y Moi moniker. Whatever you may think of Underneath the Pine, it’s tough to deny that Bundick’s songwriting has matured significantly in the scant year he’s had to make new music. Where Causers of This had a more homogenous, just-for-kicks attitude towards its fluid interchange of electronics and live instruments, Underneath the Pine seems to be more comfortable in its own skin, relying much less on samples and more on Bundick’s voice. Bundick appears to have a better footing on what the Toro Y Moi sound is extricated from the chillwave movement that has long since passed. With Underneath the Pine, Toro Y Moi appears to be pressing all the right buttons in transitioning from a precocious beat-slider to an indie rock mellow machine.

That being said, Underneath the Pine, from a quality point of view, is not very different from Causers of This. In fact, despite a clearer focus in performance, I favor Causers of This slightly more. This is due to a few things, but what is most notable is that Underneath the Pine lacks that “pull the rug out from under you” style of production that, as I said before, improved Causers of This from decent to above average. The production of Underneath the Pine is straightforward, creating a live feel that treats Bundick’s voice as a focal point rather than just another instrument. The only time this is not the case is in “Good Hold”, when the song’s melody is smooshed into one of the speakers. It’s a surprising moment, and, consistent to form, the song's the most thrilling track on Underneath the Pine. The rest of the album lacks such surprises, and is less interesting as a result.

Also, as I mentioned before, Underneath the Pine concentrates more on Bundick’s voice. Despite adorning it with many interweaving harmonies, the album does little to distract from the fact that Bundick’s vocal presence just isn’t very strong. As he did on Causers of This, Bundick sounds squeamish and noncommittal, fitting the music decently well, but giving each track a blasé quality that I’m sorry to inform is present to some extent on all of Underneath the Pine’s tracks. While nothing on the album is especially damning, with no strong vocal hooks for the listener to latch onto, much of Underneath the Pine cannot help but sink into anonymity.

That isn’t to say, though, that Underneath the Pine is an especially bad album. In a way, its songs are better than those of Causers of This, because the Toro Y Moi of that album relied on those aforementioned production flourishes to buoy songs that otherwise would have been boring. The chorus of voices on “How I Know” and “Elise” and the bassline to “Still Sound” are inventive and indicative of a heightening in songwriting prowess for Bundick. There’s more to be valued in individual songs on Underneath the Pine than for Causers of This, and Bundick’s improvement in that regard indicates creativity to spare for future releases. However, I don’t see Underneath the Pine turning more heads than Toro Y Moi’s debut, and, to be honest, Toro Y Moi’s debut didn’t turn many heads to begin with. Underneath the Pine may lean too heavily on mood instead of hooks, but its rewards far outnumber its flaws, so, at its very base, it’s consistent.


Bayside - Killing Time: B-

If I told you that Bayside were an emo-leaning pop punk band that’s been touring off the MTV2-watching, misplaced-angst crowd for about seven years now, you might think that a rating such as the one up there would be appropriate. The truth is, I reluctantly regard Killing Time as “meh,” because I actually love the genre of music that bands like Bayside play. There’s something about those compressed guitar chords and feminine singing that gets me more enjoyment than I should when I come across a band that can perform it without succumbing to the immaturity that is incumbent upon that genre of music. Songs like The Starting Line’s “Best of Me” and Paramore’s “Misery Business” can seem to some like empty calories, but they are some of my favorite songs of the past decade. On their fifth album, Bayside do not get close to achieving this feat. Despite having most of the musicianship and looks of an MTV Spring Break act that I could respect, their flaws are the very same ones that have befallen countless bands before them.

On Killing Time, Bayside sound like a harder edge Motion City Soundtrack in more ways than one. Both groups write music nowadays with production that shines them of imperfections like marble and Anthony Raneri has a very Justin Pierre-like boyish shrill. However, what puts Killing Time into more of the ballpark of Motion City Soundtrack’s unconscionable dud, My Dinosaur Life, rather than that same group’s saving grace, “Everything Is Alright,” is that Raneri cannot resist attempting to be lyrically clever, a decision that often bears the brunt of my criticism of Killing Time. Raneri sounds overbearing when he boasts about writing a song about apathy in “Sinking and Swimming in Long Island” and snidely (at least to him) chastising a former lover with the comment, “I gave you all / You gave me less” in “Sick Sick Sick.” In Killing Time, Raneri calls girls “cyanide perfume” and “the black ice on my way home” and makes a chorus out of the line “Mona Lisa you’ve really done something / Done a number on all of my organs.” While these phrases could be worse (after all, they could be Motion City Soundtrack lyrics), they’re still terribly awkward, and damnit if they don’t take me out of the album every time I try to give it a chance.

If Killing Time will serve any purpose for me in the future, it will be as background music for a time when I get sick of replaying my copy of Bleed American for my emo-punk fix. Guitarist Jack O’Shea should be proud of his work on the album, because his riffs and arrangements are catchy and original, even brandishing some serious soloing chops on songs like “Already Gone” and “The Wrong Way,” but Bayside, as a group, cannot seem to overcome the lyrical pettiness that inevitably makes them sound unprofessional, no matter how much they compress those guitars. If you don’t take much stake in lyrics, I would recommend Killing Time. However, I’m more content to continue to wait for another group that can write hooks like Bayside and still cover most of their bases at the same time.


The Dears - Degeneration Street: B+

Degeneration Street hits the mark for an above-average rock album so fucking well, there is barely a thing I could say about it that wouldn’t sound inane or contrived.

(Metaphor, adjective, metaphor, analogy, adjective)

The Dears sometimes sound like an Arcade Fire cover band fronted by Kele Okereke of Bloc Party.

(Influences romanticismofthepast influences romanticismofthepast influences)

It works quite well most of the time; “5 Chords” is the best track and its arrangements would not sound out of place on Neon Bible.

(Don’tmakeitseemlikeyou’verunoutofideas Don’tmakeitseemlikeyou’verunoutofideas)

But, sometimes, the emulations become too overt as Degeneration Street gets through its second half.

(CONVERSATIONAL. Do it then smile, do it then smile)

Geez, those lyrics are bleak, amirite?!

(HoW tHe FuCk Is AnYoNe SuPpOsEd To KnOw iF YoU LiKeD iT oR nOt If YoU dOn’T ExPlIcItElY sTaTe WhEtHeR yOu WoUlD rEcOmMeNd It?)

I recommend Degeneration Street, even if the fact that reviewing 35 albums in three weeks has stretched my writing ability disconsolately thin within an inch of its lifeEe!

* * *

Bear with me, folks. They can’t all be winners.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sic Alps - Napa Asylum: B+

The concept of a lo-fi double album fascinates me. The idea of making a sprawling LP of scrappy garage rock tunes that only barely clock in at two minutes seems to me like the biggest musical oxymoron since The Ramones started singing about Nazis over major chords and “hey ho”’s. Napa Asylum, the third album from San Francisco group Sic Alps, has often been analogized as the garage rock Exile on Main St., and those comparisons are warranted. Napa Asylum is a surprisingly consistent collection of ramshackle love songs, and the first lo-fi album that can be safely called an “experience record.”

One might also be reminded of London Calling when I describe Napa Asylum as a sprawling record, but Sic Alps’s work on their album is far from it, in form. Where The Clash used their record space to experiment with different genres, Sic Alps strictly play simple rock songs that are most similar in style and fidelity to The Velvet Underground. Never on Napa Asylum does the group stray from that line. In fact, due to the brevity of most of the songs on the album, Sic Alps usually keep you engaged by implementing one indelible hook per track. Sometimes, it’s the annoying repetition of “eat” in “Eat Happy” or the playful guitar pull-offs in “Zeppo Epp.” It’s a risky strategy, as it would be nearly impossible to defend against arguments that claim the album’s songs are one-dimensional, but, more often than not, Napa Asylum is entertaining as it progresses in sound from acoustic to distorted to ambient to acoustic, again.

Less than a handful of Napa Asylum’s songs run over three minutes long, the first of which arrives ten tracks into the album. One would assume these few songs would be the album’s highlights, as the group would have more time to develop more than just a hook, but they are no more affecting than the rest of Napa Asylum. “The First White Man To Touch California Soil” is probably the most realized track of the bunch, even featuring a guitar solo within its ragged bluster, but “Ball of Fame,” a cute ditty in which singer, Mike Donovan, warns a girl she “better play the game,” is just as memorable, and, at just over a minute, is little more than a third of “First Man”’s track length.

Ultimately, I may enjoy the concept of Napa Asylum better than the actual music. All the album’s tunes are great, but its source material can seem overwrought at times, and the short track lengths occasionally turn promising gems into transitional missed opportunities. Still, it’s hard to complain about an album as reliable as Napa Asylum. It’s far from revolutionary, but it’s one of the most replayable lo-fi albums I’ve ever heard. I may have my qualms, but I would not mind if Sic Alps kept releasing workhorses like Napa Asylum that can keep you satisfied at a low production cost.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise: B+

On his debut album, New York electronic artist, Nicolas Jaar, finds himself in a stylistic bind. No matter how effectively he tries to split the difference between slinking dance music and minimalist techno, he cannot end up drawing comparisons to either Matthew Dear for the former or James Blake for the latter. On songs like “Keep Me There” and “Problems With the Sun,” Jaar employs a deep and bubbly vibrato that has significant interest value, but one that reminds me far too much of Matthew Dear’s work on his 2010 album, Black City. Similarly, the slower songs of Space Is Only Noise, like opener, “Colomb,” are spare with dabblings of handclaps and light bass, but I cannot listen to them and not think of the shy dubstep of James Blake’s newest self-titled release. It also doesn’t help that Jaar heavily auto-tunes his voice on “Colomb,” which only draws more attention to Blake’s use of it on his album, which was employed to significantly greater effect.

Space Is Only Noise is a very good album, but what holds it back from being excellent, aside from that originality issue, is that Jaar utilizes a certain restraint that tempers the album’s material to the point where the most rambunctious numbers are seriously lacking in the exploitation of their inherent creepiness. “Space Is Only Noise If You Can See” is the album’s focal point, and rightfully so, as it is the only song in which we see Jaar let loose, railing off non sequiturs in that Dear-like intonation like “Replace the word ‘space’ with ‘drink’ and forget it/Space is only noise if you can see.” “Grab a calculator and fix yourself” is such a gloriously random line in the song, and Jaar does not waste it by diluting the listener’s singular mood with calming falling-sea-shells-on-a-window-sill percussion that was characteristic of Pantha du Prince’s Black Noise, as he does on much of Space Is Only Noise. Jaar clearly knows what he’s doing here, but he needs to figure out how that “what” is going to be different from that of the formative electronic artists making music these days. Space Is Only Noise is a good start, but one that indicates some clear space for improvement. And if that space is only noise, then Jaar can just tune my critiques out… but that’s only if he can see them, and I’m not sure that he can. God I hate when I get punny.


East River Pipe - We Live in Rented Rooms: B-

So, apparently, the guy who is East River Pipe, Fred Cornog, has been building a music career by making one-off albums in the basement studio of his New Jersey home and giving them to a label, whereupon they are released to the public and the man has no obligation to leave his family or his actual occupation to tour or do any promotional work, whatsoever. With that knowledge in mind, We Live in Rented Rooms, Cornog’s first album in five years, pretty much sounds like it came from a guy who makes one-off albums in a basement in New Jersey between stints at an actual work place; his newest is passive, mundane, and painfully boring.

We Live in Rented Rooms is a near spitting image of the vaguely electronic hipster pop that Eels has been making for more than a decade, except Cornog has an even more voracious penchant for awkward lyrics. In fact, the only thing that makes the album stand out at all is the fact that Cornog feels the need to accompany his bland folk songs with lyrical concepts that do not fit the material at all. Album opener, “Backroom Deals” attempts to simplify the government’s reaction to the financial crisis through the repetition of the title in only the most vaporous way. Not only does it come off as shallow (which I can’t necessarily blame him for, as nothing really rhymes with “no-credit default swaps”), but it doesn’t even sound like Cornog believes what he’s saying, as if he’d just walked into a studio and figured he’d make something up while he strummed his gui-tar for a couple minutes.

“Conman” has similar political aspirations. It’s difficult to tell what the point Cornog’s trying to make when he sings, “The priest’s making love on his knees,” but it’s just as well, as I come out of the song not giving a rat’s ass as to what it could possibly mean, anyway.

Such is the plight of We Live in Rented Rooms. If it weren’t for Cornog’s numerous lyrical gaffes, the album would be a pointless listen. At least it’s a little interesting to see how the guy screws up the revenge ballad concept of “Payback Time” (He’s cacophonous right out the gate when he leads off with the line “Yeah, I saw you with the commandant”) and the resemblance of “Tommy Made a Movie” to a minor-key “Tommy Can You Here Me?” has a fleeting entertainment value, but most of We Live in Rented Rooms sounds half-assed and complacent. I would say that Cornog shouldn’t quit his day job, but he seems to have a much better grasp of his artistic longevity than I do.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Omnium Gatherum - New World Shadows: B+ / MyGrain - MyGrain: B+

"Everfields"                                                                            "Shadow People"

Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not so negligent of metal that I just slap the same grade on pairs of metal albums and put them out in double reviews. The reason why I grouped the new albums by Ulcerate and Mitochondrion was because the two albums were quite similar, in both general sound and my disdain for them. I cannot help but notice clear similarities between the new albums by Omnium Gatherum and MyGrain, as well. Both are solid albums by groups hailing from Finland, the melodic death metal capital of the world. They are worthy additions to both groups’ respective discographies, even though they don’t necessarily progress the genre further.

Of the two, Omnium Gatherum is more indebted to the style of traditional melodic death metal. Produced by Dan Swanö, the man who helmed the boards for Barren Earth’s classic Curse of The Red River, New World Shadows displays many of the signifiers that have characterized the efforts of various melodic death metal acts in at least the past year. Growling vocals laced with harmonious guitar lines and atmospheric synthesizers are all over New World Shadows, but Omnium Gatherum make some attempt to diverge themselves from the genre that has experienced an explosion in productivity over the past couple years. ­­­­­­Markus Vanhalla's guitar parts are particularly euphoric, whether as songs’ aural decoration or main riff. However, as New World Shadows progresses, the similarities between it and Curse of The Red River become more apparent. On both albums, the first and last songs are the longest, and, like Red River’s title track, New World Shadows’s opener, “Everfields”, diverges into a Nordic folk jamboree before continuing with the metal that dominates their album. Both albums frequently delve into the balladic, but Omnium Gatherum shoehorn slow parts into places where they don’t comfortably fit, as if they see the melodic aspect of their sound as a necessity rather than a logical musical progression. Also, New World Shadows might be the first metal album of which I prefer the growled vocals to the clean ones. The actual singing that takes place in “Deep Cold” and the title track sounds laughably forced, reaching Trans Siberian Orchestra levels of cheese. New World Shadows is a good album, but its trivialities may be a bore to those who are already familiar with their genre of music.

MyGrain’s third album does not reach the highs or lows of New World Shadows. The band has an unfortunate knack for choosing awful song titles (“A Clockwork Apocalypse”? “Shadow People”? Really, guys?), but they perform their brand of melodic death metal at a consistently enjoyable pace. MyGrain is interesting in that its sound both strives for something more aggressive, but, through the band’s choruses and vocal techniques, sound like an attempt to reach the mainstream. For this reason, I see MyGrain as an album that takes much of its influence from modern American metal. The band’s clean vocals sound like Atreyu’s Brandon Saller and the faint drum machine blips that begin “Eye of the Void” sound like Disturbed’s “Indestructible”. Still, there is one band that I cannot help but link MyGrain to, and that is Trivium. Most of the clean vocals on MyGrain sound like the adolescent gruff of Matt Heafy. The screaming often sounds like the band circa Shogun and the “this mortal coil” line in “Shadow People” could have been written by the band for The Crusade. Now, I’m aware that “Atreyu”, “Disturbed” and “The Crusade-era Trivium” are all loaded words, but MyGrain has the clout to make these influences push their music in more mainstream directions without sacrificing their authenticity. With their self-titled album, MyGrain have made a good iteration of the Trivium sound, which is something that not even Trivium can wholly lay claim to.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Motörhead - The Wörld Is Yours: A-

The people who claim to have figured out the “Motörhead formula” by saying that they simply release the same song over and over are naïve and ignorant. There is a very definite formula for why and how Motörhead manages to come up with albums every couple of years that sound starkly similar, but it’s not because they fucking thought “Hey mates! Let’s just rewrite the same song for each album we release!” No, you fools! It’s not that simple! The truth is Motörhead albums have all sounded extremely similar since the early nineties, because each new album up to and including this point has been a random collection of songs that were recorded in a massive studio session in 1991.

Exhausted and frustrated with the process of going to a studio between tours to record a new album, of which sometimes there were two released in two consecutive years, frontman Lemmy Kilmister came up with the ingenious plan to, for a full month, record as many songs as possible and to release ten to eleven of them every two to three years. In December of 1991, Lemmy, guitarist Phil “Zoomer” Campbell and Drummer Mickey Dee walked into Music Grinder Studios in Los Angeles and emerged on January 1st 1992 with 3,129 new songs. With the exception of the independently recorded Inferno, each new Motörhead album sounds similar to the last, because all of them have been produced by the same producer with the same equipment at around the same time so that Lemmy’s mind could be eased in between tours.

So essentially, what we have with The Wörld Is Yours and every other Motörhead album that has been released since 1991, is the very definition of a grab bag. As you can infer, the quality of a Motörhead album has not depended on the band’s lyrics, instrumentation or mood for decades. Now that you know the ultimate Motörhead secret, you can see that what makes a Motörhead album good at this point is the track sequencing; does this collection of songs sound good in this particular order?

For 2008’s Motörizer, this was, for the most part, not the case, for 2002’s Hammered, this was most assuredly not the case and, for 1996’s Snake Bite Love, this was hell-to-the-no not the case. But, for 2011’s The Wörld Is Yours, this is the case. Now, I could go into detail about why I think The Wörld Is Yours is good and why I believe that it’s the best Motörhead album since 2004’s Inferno. I could say that I like the stabs of guitar chords in “Outlaw”, that I like some of the lyrics in “Get Back in Line” like “Good things come to those who wait/But these days most things suck” or “If you think Jesus saves/Get back in line”, but come on. This is a motherfucking Motörhead album we’re talking about, here. Do you know when the last Motörhead album is going to come out? 2324! I’m doing you a favor by not giving you more details! I’ll leave that to the historian in 2350 that has to create the archive of the entire musical career of Motörhead in a fifty two-volume book series. Just know that The Wörld Is Yours is excellent, listen to it if you wish, and hold tight for another couple years when, like the Disney Vault, ten more songs will be released from the “Music Grinder” sessions.

You must guard The Secret of Motörhead with your life. It seems easy now, but things are going to get really heated in a couple decades, when people begin to wonder how Lemmy can release ten, twenty, then hundreds of posthumous albums. Motörhead albums are, essentially, compilations, now, and that’s a dangerous prospect with a scope of which I don’t think even Lemmy, understands. Many have called him the cockroach of rock and roll; a man who, no matter what, will still be coming out with new material. I’m here to tell you that, in three hundred years, Lemmy’s going to wish that he had the brief longevity of a cockroach. In the case of The Wörld Is Yours, the Motörhead formula has served the group and humanity well, but its repercussions are farther-reaching than you or I will ever see come to fruition in our lifetimes. I pray that civilization will find a way to outmaneuver the Pandora’s box that Motörhead opened that fateful December in 1991. And, now that you know, you have just as much responsibility as I do to surreptitiously warn others of the catastrophe that is to befall us all.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Go! Team- Rolling Blackouts: A-

It should be no surprise to those familiar with the sound of UK indie electronicists, The Go! Team, that their third album, Rolling Blackouts, does little to diverge from the sound they established with their debut, 2004’s Thunder, Lightning Strike. The group still sounds like the best high school pep band you could ever hope for, with the zeal of the group’s many singers ceaseless across the album’s forty minutes. It’s almost redundant to say that they sound like blacksploitation-era funk and giddy pop punk, because of how consistent that sound’s been with them over the years, but I want do so to make sure that it’s taken note of that that sound can be applied to every song on Rolling Blackouts. But consistency does not an excellent album make. What makes Rolling Blackouts exceedingly enjoyable is that The Go! Team manage to dig into the elements that have made them distinct and enrich them to create an album that seems like a subtle but logical next step in their musical career.

With Rolling Blackouts, The Go! Team makes the right decision to give their sound depth and variance. All of Rolling Blackouts is energetic and vibrant, but each of its tracks conveys a different mood. Songs like “T.O.R.N.A.D.O.” and “Back Like 8 Track” are very much indebted to their seven-year-old style, but tracks like “The Running Range” and “Secretary Song” add a slightly slower dynamic while still maintaining that glassy-eyed aesthetic. “Apollo Throwdown” is also a traditional Go! Team gem, but its beat is buoyed by harps and a swooning orchestra, tempering the song and giving it a more mature sensibility. The ready-for-the-marching-band instrumental, “Bust-Out Brigade”, builds with the ardor of RJD2’s “Let There Be Horns” and the chorus of “Ready To Go Steady” recalls the emotional succinctness of Shonen Knife’s Japanese pop.

The two best songs of Rolling Blackouts are the Bethany Cosentino (of Best Coast fame) collaboration, “Buy Nothing Day”, and the mostly instrumental “Yosemite Theme”. While the former aligns itself with that Go! Team sound, the latter is the most radical distillation of the group’s newfound richness. Beginning with a saintly horn line and lightly picked guitar, the track weaves in instruments new to the Go! Team pallet like banjo and harmonica into something that actually sounds like the soundtrack to a kickass Yosemite Park documentary. With the mixture of these elements and the blasting percussion characteristic of every track on Rolling Blackouts, I am reminded of Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown, a film that, for me, turned the wilderness into something not just pretty, but cool and fun.

“Buy Nothing Day” should not be underestimated, though, because it features Rolling Blackouts’s best melodies. Cosentino’s voice, which has already proven itself formidable on her own debut, fits in well with The Go! Team’s vastly detailed production flourishes. It’s Rolling Blackout’s most spare track, with only orchestration added to the standard guitar/drums/bass combination of most rock bands, and is all the better for it.

The success of “Buy Nothing Day” is representative of the success of all of Rolling Blackouts. Some may see the group’s choice to tone down their bombast as a watering down of what makes them good, but I see it as a conscious realization by the group that they cannot keep releasing the same album year after year. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see people who enjoyed Thunder, Lightning Strike abhorring Rolling Blackouts, as its changes are not drastic or immediately apparent. What Rolling Blackouts proves is that a group that simply digs deeper into what they’re good at can be just as rewarding as a radical change or a stubborn repetition.