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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Vaccines - What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?: B+

It’s funny talking about What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? now, as the group that NME had crowned “The Return of the Great British Guitar Band” has all but fizzled out in the six months or so since their debut album was released. Listening to the London group’s newest, one will note that all the hype that was hoisted upon them was probably not warranted. This is not because the group’s debut is particularly bad, but because it is very much a “little” album.

You know, a “little” album. One whose creators intended to lay down a long player’s worth of songs for the joy of making music and perhaps some naïve ideas of rock and roll stardom. With it, you got some clever lyricism, a charismatic but introverted leader, maybe some nifty guitar solos. It’s by no means distinct, but, then again, it never aspires to be. What Did You Expect features all these elements to some extent, giving more credence to the album’s sarcastic title, and yet The Vaccines were still forced into the stratosphere before they had gotten remotely close to honing their craft. It’s no wonder American audiences have yet to be turned on to them.

It should be noted that What Did You Expect is still quite good, despite its modesty. It’s loaded with solid melodies and that aforementioned clever wordplay from frontman Justin Young. The group sounds like prime Futureheads as they spell out the name of the titular model in “Norgaard” and the bluntness in the chorus of “Post Break-Up Sex” (“Post break-up sex / That helps you forget your ex / What did you expect / From post break-up sex?”) is refreshing, even if it sets the depth bar pretty damn low. Young’s ruminations on “Family Friend”, (“Do people really feel as high as a kite? / I don’t know if they do but they might”) ain’t exactly Nietzsche, but the track has a precocious theatricality to it that still makes it an enjoyable listen. Call it froth, but sometimes froth tastes really, really good.

On paper, The Vaccines sound like a group that should be dismissed, immediately. However, six months in, What Did You Expect is still worth the time. It may not have the bombast of Oasis or the pseudo-wryness of Arctic Monkeys, but The Vaccines’ newest bests both Suck It and See and the new Beady Eye album by sounding more like a British Yuck (I’m aware Yuck are from the UK, but they play a style of indie rock that is distinctly American), which is still quite satisfying. I feel bad that The Vaccines were subject to that big ‘ol hype machine, of which admittedly fewer and fewer bands seem to be falling victim to, but What Did You Expect is still one of the best of its kind released this year. The great thing about “little” albums like it that set such low goals is that sometimes it’s fun to see them hit the mark every time.


Devin Townsend - Deconstruction: B+

For nearly twenty years now, Devin Townsend has been one of the most confounding artists that metal, or any genre, has had to offer. The man’s newest solo album, Deconstruction, does not sully his reputation in this regard. Many of the album’s tracks feature an unctuous blend of humor and instrumental proficiency. Townsend’s theatrical singing over the double bass drum triplets of “Juular” gives the track a circus-like feel, the man relishing his creepy timbre with every word he speaks. The beginning of “Praise Be Lowered” sounds almost Radiohead-like before it descends into the distorted screams of chaotic black metal. “Stand” and “Planet of the Apes” are crunch-metal odysseys, Townsend recruiting screamers from Emperor’s Ihasahn to Between the Buried and Me’s Thomas Giles to give each track a grainy edge. It’s no surprise that Deconstruction feels like a massive stage production, a fitting end to Townsend’s madcap Devin Townsend Project series.

But I’m telling you right now that you’re not going to remember Deconstruction for those tracks I just mentioned. The seven songs on this nine-track album? Nonsense. In fact, in retrospect, the hushed acoustics that conclude “Sumeria” sound like a primer for where the real album begins.

The true Deconstruction begins with the slow guitar picking of “The Might Masturbator”. The track builds to standard but complicated prog metal, but completely dismantles itself five minutes in to reveal a country tootin’ Townsend, tongue firmly in cheek, as he brags, “Oh yeah, you don’t even know / I’m real good at that savin’ the world thing / I’m ready, I got my savin’ the world boots on.” And then the track just goes bonkers. First it’s Dream Theater-like time signature perversion, then Broadway “sha la la’s”, then an electronic siege of insanity as Townsend blusters on about addressing “the intergalactic community” which all leads to a chant of “Give it up / The world”… THEN the track goes back to prog metal before Townsend literally fancies himself a ringmaster, talking about men with sixteen testicles and vagina-faced women before the fucker just crowns himself The Mighty Masturbator to a rapturous AMEN. Next track “Pandemic” never stands a chance.

Now would be a good time to note that there is also a concept behind Deconstruction. As if the album couldn’t sound more convoluted, its accompanying storyline may be even more ridiculous than all the sounds Townsend throws at you combined. Deconstruction is about a boy who goes to the Underworld in search of the answers to the mysteries of the Universe and is offered them in the form of a cheeseburger, only for the protagonist to reveal that he is a vegetarian (or as Townsend pronounces it, “vegemetarian”), rendering his entire journey utterly worthless. With that in mind, it sounds like Townsend is just fucking with us at this point, dickslapping our conventions of how seriously we take any kind of art.

And if you think that this concept is difficult to understand, don’t worry, because Townsend lays it out for you by literally interrupting a track to reveal the story’s punch line, and you will hear full choirs singing about cheeseburgers like it’s all a fucking coronation. The title track, where the crux of the story is told, bests the batshit crazy factor of “The Mighty Masturbator” not only because it’s more blatant in its display of lunacy, but because Townsend and his band perform the thing with surgically precision. As Townsend rants about what the main character could do with his knowledge, the drums punctuate his fantasies of SEX and MONEY with snare hits that seem to come out of nowhere. But if you’re getting the impression that, other than the storyline, “Deconstruction” is all poise and finesse, the song literally starts with Townsend laying a massive fart, and the last thing heard on the song is a man repeating, “Bullshit, it’s bullshit.” Again, a song succeeds this track, but would you really care if I told you about it?

So, clearly, Deconstruction is a lot to take in. It intends to probe listeners relentlessly on how far they will go to appreciate music that refuses to back down from even the basest forms of humor. I came very close to not rating Deconstruction, because its incessant need to make disjointed and patently ludicrous statements almost defies critical inspection.

Realistically, however, the actual hooks and songwriting chops of Deconstruction do not quite impress as much as they shock. “The Mighty Masturbator” and “Deconstruction” are both fantastic songs, and, while they do make up twenty-six minutes of the album, its other tracks look insignificant in comparison. However, I will say this: If you think Lady Gaga is challenging ideas of what is and is not music, a few listens to Deconstruction will inform you that’s all a hulking pile of horseshit. Townsend had some massive balls to make an album like Deconstruction, and, based on its meticulous production, its message-without-a-message actually sounds thought through and it sounds like Townsend had great fun making it. Despite the fact that there is a good chance you will despise Deconstruction, I would recommend it, because it is a legitimate challenge to our conventions on music. You may not enjoy it, but you cannot deny that you’ve never heard anything quite like it before.


Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver: A-

The success of For Emma, Forever Ago has always baffled me. The album was released in mid-2007 to minimal acclaim, but, sometime in early 2008, Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, was beginning to get namedropped by friends and family that I had never figured knew all that much about music. Perhaps it took the winter of 2008 to be the catalyst for For Emma’s frigid tales of isolation to realize their potential to people, but, by 2008’s end, Bon Iver had become as much of a household name as Vampire Weekend, whose debut was released about six months after Vernon’s.

And then Justin Vernon was on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Yeah, Bon Iver came out with the Blood Bank EP and Vernon released two side projects under the names Volcano Choir and Gayngs in that time, but what really matters is that the man who had created a mythos of holing himself up in a cabin with a crippling physical/mental ailment to release tortured acoustic tales was singing “Pussy and religion is all I need” alongside some of the most recognizable pop figures of all time in all but a few years. The albums that were released between For Emma and Fantasy gave hints of the deeper breadth to which Vernon could perform, but I would still argue that Vernon’s creative shift between 2007 and 2010 was one of the most radical of all time.

And this radical shift has a subtle effect on Bon Iver’s highly awaited, pseudo-self titled follow-up to For Emma. Vernon has mentioned in interviews that the main thing he took away from working with Kanye was that the man was incredibly willing to take strange, seemingly unworkable sounds and tirelessly mold them into affecting showstoppers. This principle is heard throughout Bon Iver, Bon Iver, particularly on the album’s first and last tracks. “Perth” begins with a strategically caustic guitar line and undulates with snare hits and harmonized falsettos. At first, the track sounds like expected Bon Iver, but, at its midpoint, it slumps sonically, only to be revived with concise cymbal hits before gliding into a breakdown of syncopated double bass drum. Taken out of context, this new movement sounds like some downtempo heavy metal, something that wouldn’t sound out of place on Alcest’s most recent record. However, coupled with Vernon’s immaculate guitar tone, this new presence adds serious emotional heft. The sound carries “Perth” to its end, introducing Bon Iver, Bon Iver with a jarring contradiction that proves to be the album’s best.

Where “Perth” borrows from the hipster-reviled reaches of metal, “Beth/Rest” takes its sound from the maligned cheese of ‘80’s analog schmaltz. It’s a ballad, featuring a keyboard line that’s connotation is nearly impossible to ignore. Nevertheless, Vernon achieves the impossible by reversing entire decades of Bonnie Tyler and Foreigner ballads to give the characteristically synthetic sound an undeniable soul. Vernon understands the style very well and almost seems to taunt the listener as he embellishes the track with reverbed guitar high tones, but it’s still an unbridled success. It too proves itself to be one of Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s best songs, because it ruthlessly doubles down on polarizing styles and normalizes them so that you couldn’t imagine them being performed any other way.

The rest of Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Promotions are calling it Bon Iver but Vernon himself calls it Bon Iver, Bon Iver) is less divisive. Vernon has characterized his newest as a spring to For Emma’s winter, but the album gives little indication of weather or even temperature. Instead, the season Vernon evokes on Bon Iver, Bon Iver lies within the mind; constantly, the man recalls cryptic moments in his childhood amidst arrangements that have a blue, polished sheen of nostalgia. A bike bell rings throughout “Michicant” as Vernon recalls when “I was unafraid, I was a boy, I was a tender age.” “Halocene” delves into tender specifics that I’m sure only Vernon truly understands. A line like “3rd and Lake it burnt away, the hallway / Was where we learned to celebrate,” has little relevance to me, but Vernon’s vulnerable delivery aside the naked acoustic guitar creates a recognizable mood that I can easily ascribe my own meaning to. In this way, it often feels as if Vernon is translating his own memories to yours.

“Calgary” even begins as if from the middle of a thought. Vernon’s verse enters a line late, causing the track to stumble slightly before its familiar vocal progression gets into a groove. As the last track before the controversial tones of “Beth/Rest”, the song feels as if it is wrestling itself from a dream. Its bridge bounces with distorted guitar and distant vocals, as if to signal reality intruding upon Vernon’s fantasies that flew with such abandon up to that point. What is incredible is that you feel intruded upon as well, drawing attention to how effectively Bon Iver, Bon Iver introduces you to the recesses of Vernon’s psyche. With repeated listens, “Beth/Rest” even wears less and less to make the entire album feel like an immense, uninterrupted dream sequence.

But, yeah. Naked. That’s an excellent way to describe the appeal of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Vernon’s voice is similar to TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, especially in the few times he lowers his voice. It’s delicate and rarely unadorned, ornate harmonies surrounding it constantly as to sound synthetic at times. New instruments such as a horn section and the stylings of bass saxophonist Colin Stetson can be heard throughout the album, but these developments never distract Bon Iver, Bon Iver from that central vision of one guy with an acoustic guitar, except maybe now it’s a guy with an acoustic guitar and a Macbook Pro. Thankfully, Kanye hasn’t spoiled an artist that is proving to be one of the most formative of this decade. His versatility has allowed him to take disparate influences and create a product that still feels wholly his, beautifully marred by the travails that are only garnered from an artist that is honest with both himself and his eager (and appreciative) audience.


Friday, June 24, 2011

E-40 - Revenue Retrivein': Overtime Shift: A / E-40 - Revenue Retrievin': Graveyard Shift: B+

Much like Robyn’s Body Talk was a perfect encapsulation of every facet of an artist’s personality, Revenue Retrievin: Overtime Shift explores every aspect of Bay Area rapper E-40, the man painting himself as a thoughtful and clever savant, no matter what situation in which he finds himself. Fans of his know that the guy has a slippery flow that bounces between syllables and relishes consonants like the candy centers of words. He has a conversational drawl, but raps quickly, combining rapid lyrical runs with accessible wordplay that’s surprisingly easy to follow. With this voice, E-40 brings a varied sensibility to all the subjects of Overtime Shift, and slapdashes his way to rap superiority on them all.

There are a lot of E-40’s on the twenty tracks of Overtime Shift, so allow me to brief you on the most affecting. Many of the album’s tracks have subjects of typical gun and drug talk, but E-40 has the lyrical acumen to make them all sound fresh. E-40’s been on the drug circuit for so damn long, he says he, “probably sold your family member drugs,” on the amusingly blunt “Drugs”. On Overtime Shift, you’ll find E-40 “punkin’ ‘em out”, “hustlin’ all summer, grindin’ all winter”, “hotter than the left sink handle” and “making records before some of ya’ll was in your daddy’s nutsac.” All lively insults using inventive vernacular, all direct quotes from songs on Overtime Shift.

However, E-40 also observes significant depth on the album. The hilarious “Me and My Bitch” depicts the man’s love/hate relationship with his girl, but ultimately maintains his love for her and even her family in one of the final verses. “But for the most part we cool and I respects they gangsta / I got a baby by they sista we family I ain’t no stranger.” Later, E-40 honors his momma in “Love My Momma”, and the song’s presence doesn’t sound tacked on or superfluous. When he responds to insults about her, he doesn’t rattle off curses, but vindicates his guardian like the sweet momma’s boy that he is. “Talk about my momma / They probably shouldn’t do that / My momma good people / Give you the shirt off her back.” It’s a loving tribute amidst the drug talk and cursing, but it still feels appropriate. In it, E-40’s bouncy cadence sounds endearing where elsewhere it would be menacing.

This results in an intriguing contrast throughout Overtime Shift. On one hand, E-40 makes a great case for himself as the most dangerous man this side of Vallejo. On the other, he’s a caring father, born in the struggle, looking out for himself and others while still keeping his humor and wits about him.

Admittedly, though, Overtime Shift wouldn’t be nearly as fantastic if it weren’t for the inventive beats. “Beastin”, one of the best tracks on the album, begins with a horn fanfare before descending into a trunk-rattling dance number. “I Am Your” features a faint robotic voice singing the title just audible enough to give the track a post-modern crunch. Last track “Click About It” features rousing group vocals reminiscent of “Night Night” off Big Boi’s 2010 classic, Sir Lucious Left Foot: Son of Chico Dusty. The tracks of Overtime Shift may vary in subject and ingenuity, but what is always consistent on the album is the deafening bass. It shakes my chair as I listen to it at home and dismantles my speaker system as I take it on the road. Overtime Shift is fine for academic inspection, but you’ll never appreciate its true power until you’ve rolled up onto something with it blasting from your dashboard.

With all this mentioned, you’d think that Overtime Shift was its own record, but it is actually one of a four-part series of Revenue Retrievin’ albums, two of which were released last year and one of which was released the same day as Overtime Shift. Graveyard Shift has its own twenty tracks of blistering West Coast hip hop, but, listening to it in the context of its companion, the album can’t help but sound like an Overtime Shift redux. There are songs about hard times like “Trapped” and “Tuff Times” and more boasts that feature E-40’s rubbery lines rebounding off samples, synths and blustery bass. “E Forty” uses a frayed vocal line to propel the track and “My Shit Bang”, a similar sampled hook rager, may be the best track of the entire Revenue Retrievin’ series. The album gains momentum as it goes along, but it’s less of a dark contrast to Overtime Shift than the same story told not quite as well.

Graveyard Shift is still very listenable and features some fantastic songs, but its purpose seems to be evidence of how good of an artist E-40 is that he can release forty songs in a single day and have not one of them be duds more than anything else. It’s not so much where Graveyard Shift fails as where Overtime Shift exceeds in almost every way. As a result, these two albums may seem at odds in terms of quality, but they are still great albums. Moreover, their quality shows that, nearly twenty years into the rap game, E-40’s best years may still be upon him.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Primordial - Redemption at the Puritan's Hand: B+

Despite the fact that it is a very good album, Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand will probably be seen as a disappointment within the Primordial discography. After coming off the Irish metal band’s arguable magnum opus, To the Nameless Dead in 2007, many have met the group’s newest album with significant criticism, something that was probably inevitable considering how very rapturous the acclaim for To the Nameless Dead was.

While I maintain that Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand is a great, borderline excellent, album, I can understand the criticism it has garnered, most of which lies in the album’s flow. Lead singer Naihmass Nemtheanga sings lines like pronouncements. He rarely intones actual notes, instead giving tempo-driven speeches over the arrangements the rest of the group creates. He rarely rhymes, so his proclamations often sound like narration of the epic battles the rest of the group are fighting. While this has been a very effective formula for most of Primordial’s work, on Redemption, it can get tiresome, as some songs feel like they could go on forever. And when some tracks are eight minutes long with little musical variation or guitar solos to break up the insistent strumming, things can get tedious.

However, this is a minor qualm about the album. While it is awkward when Nemtheanga seems to run out of rousing diction on “Bloodied Yet Unbowed” (“To those who did not dare to sing / Out of tune / Or sing… a different song!”) the guy gets in some galvanizing lines as the band relentlessly drives on, particularly on “The Mouth of Judas”. It’s not astounding, but Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand would be a great addition to any metal band’s discography, even one as stacked as Primordial’s. I’m just hoping that with this album, the group can learn from their few shortcomings so that they can fine-tune their style to release another album as great as To the Nameless Dead.


Sondre Lerche - Sondre Lerche: B+

Singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche is from Norway, but, musically, he could be from anywhere. He could be a serenading troubadour at a swanky Paris villa. He could be a Brooklyn vagabond strumming an acoustic for the bills people toss his way. He could be a Spanish folk fan who just likes to bring a guitar to the Barcenoleta Beach. He is good looking with a gentle voice and has the songwriting chops to make every song on his self-titled sixth album sound like it just barely missed the cut for the soundtrack to that cute indie flick you’ve just been dying to see. Whether mocking his own erudition in the polite shuffle of “Go Right Ahead” or depicting affectionate puppy love on “Private Caller”, Lerche knows his style and plays it effectively. His newest is certainly nothing groundbreaking, but it hits the right spot if you’re in the mood for some quaint and unassuming fluff. Fault me for not hating Sondre Lerche because of that, but sometimes that’s all you want from an album.


DJ Quik - The Book of David: B-

For the most part, Compton rapper DJ Quik has been known for his production work and, accordingly, the beats on his eighth album range from decent to excellent. Many of the album’s tracks feature a refined, laid-back style like first and second track “Fire and Brimstone” and “Do Today”, but there are also moments of quirky genius like the euphoric singing that makes up the beat of “Hydromatic” and Gary Shider’s frenzied choir of tortured soul singing on last track “The End?”. The beats on The Book of David are largely consistent. Many are indications of the enjoyably off-kilter work the man can cook up.

However, most academic analyses into the beats of The Book of David are pretty much cut off at the waist when DJ Quik steps onto the mic. The man’s voice has a perpetual cocky swagger to it; with every line he spits, you can almost taste his satisfaction with himself. A wide range of topics is covered on The Book of David, but Quik attacks them all with the same tone, mercilessly taunting his sister as much as he does haters and naysayers. This flaw in Quik’s style becomes apparent as the flow of insults to his maligned family members with a childish glee on “Ghetto Rendevous” (“Put some honey on your dick and put it in a blender” goes one slam) quickly changes from humorous to very, very uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s telling that Quik feels so comfortable swatting at marginalized family members, but seeing that he comes off as such an insensitive sadist, it’s clear that he goes about it all wrong.

From that point on, something just doesn’t sit right with DJ Quik’s personality, which remains unwavering as he moves from track to track. In “Luv of My Life”, Quik disregards women and favors money and cars as the best forms of companionship. He invites Ice T to guest on “Boogie Till You Conk Out”, and the track ends with the two congratulating each other for almost a minute after the track should’ve ended. “This one goes out to me,” Quik says at the end of “Killer Dope”. “I love me, DJ Quik. Fuck it.”

What I’m trying to say is that, on The Book of David, DJ Quik comes off as a massive asshole. He’s unscrupulous and self-absorbed, but doesn’t carry his bad boy demeanor with a convincing voice like many other rappers with similar reputations. Instead, DJ Quik opts for condescension, as if he’s just another playground rant away from yelling “Nanny nanny poo poo!” at all dissention. At just over forty, this guy shouldn’t sound like an immature douche bag. It’s strange to say that he sounds more like Soulja Boy than Raekwon.

Even when The Book of David stops for a sentimental slow jam, Quik can’t help but be unlikable. In penultimate track, “Time Stands Still”, he talks about meeting up with a girl with whom he was once intimate. Once he picks her up at the airport, he takes her to the Cheesecake Factory (a detail too awkward not to be true). He describes their candor at the dinner table, until one of his verses is interrupted by a kiss, presumably planted on by the woman he’s with. It’s a narcissistic sound effect, and Quik plays it off unconvincingly with a suave, low voice. Then the song just ends, as if Quik assumes you’ll be proud of him that, in the story, he’s probably getting laid that night.

The song just doesn’t nearly come off as nobly as Quik intends. He far too effectively characterizes himself as a caustic jokester throughout The Book of David for a song like “Time Stands Still” to work, so it sits awkwardly like most of the tracks on the album. As hard as he tries, Quik is not portrayed as the hero on his newest, and it’s hardly a compliment to an album when all you’re rooting for are the beats. If you want to hear a well-executed portrayal of an engaging character, get E-40’s Revenue Retrievin’: Overtime Shift. If you want to see how a similar technique can be screwed up to be totally counterintuitive, The Book of David may be your best bet.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Týr - The Lay of Thrym: B+

The Faroe Islands are an island group about halfway between Iceland and Norway. Settled by the Nords, the eighteen islands are about a third the size of Rhode Island and contain less than fifty thousand people. They speak Faroese, the closest spoken descendent of the original, now dead Nord language. The Faroe Islands have been owned by Denmark since the early 1800’s and much debate has been going on as to whether the islands should declare independence. Basically, the Faroe Islands are Denmark’s Puerto Rico, and they are the most metal nation on Earth.

The only reason I can think of that more metal bands don’t come from The Faroe Islands is that the nation is so far removed from the rest of their world that they have barely discovered the telephone, let alone recording equipment. Týr, the only metal band signed to the only record label of The Faroe Islands, interchange between the English and Faroese language in their songs. They have been known to play metal versions of Faroese folk songs during their live shows. Their sixth album, The Lay of Thrym, is prime, epic folk metal. The group has a knack for catchy melodies and guitarists Heri Joensen and Terji Skibenæs are fantastic, peppering their songs with versatile solos that often lean toward the progressive. The Lay of Thrym is a great representation of a genre, and is recommended if only for the excellent musicianship and great passion the group observes.

I want to live in The Faroe Islands for a year. I want to eat skerpikjøt from a Faroese hjallur, I want to dance the føroyskur dansur and I want to march in the Ólavsøka on the twenty-ninth of July. But most of all I want to scour those eighteen islands for the most brutal Viking metal bands that the nation has to offer. The Lay of Thrym is good, but I think The Faroe Islands have better. But wait, do they have airports? Do they even have electricity? My God, how metal can one nation be?!


Catching Up With... Tim Cohen

Hey everyone, we’re starting yet another article for Check Your Mode, and this one’s called Catching Up With… where we review the past 2010’s albums that were missed by certain artists whose works were reviewed recently. For the first Catching Up With… we’re going to talk about the albums released in 2010 by San Francisco solo artist and frontman of The Fresh & Only’s, Tim Cohen. We’ll be reviewing his second solo album, Laugh Tracks, and The Fresh & Only’s 2010 album, Play It Strange. For the review of Tim Cohen’s excellent 2011 solo album, Tim Cohen’s Magic Trick, click here. Otherwise, let’s catch up!

Tim Cohen – Laugh Tracks

Released: June 8th 2010:

If there’s anything I’ve learned about listening to Tim Cohen’s music before Magic Trick, it’ that the man’s wry sense of humor is a very new development. On Laugh Tracks, Cohen plays a shyer character, allowing reverb to envelop his voice like many other singers of the lo-fi genre. Never fear, though, because there is a boisterous personality on Laugh Tracks, and it’s a trumpet. Its inclusion is unexpected and enlivens songs like “Deep Blue Sea” and “A Mind of Their Own”. Other than that, though, Cohen gets around on modest hooks that mostly land. “Send No Sign” is a complex track for Cohen’s standards that incorporates an ominous organ line that lays dormant in the verses and seethes in the choruses. Cohen dons a schmaltzy tone for closer, “Small Things Matter”, but Laugh Tracks by that point has made its mark, and it’s unfortunate that it’s not more pronounced. My suggestion would be to get “Send No Sign”, “Deep Blue Sea” and “A Mind of Their Own”. They are affecting tracks that were indications of the personality Cohen would hone in on later releases. B+

The Fresh & Onlys – Play It Strange

Released: October 12th 2010:

That is before Cohen’s personality regressed further into the background for the fifth Fresh & Onlys album. Now here, Cohen’s working with a group of other musicians, so his placement farther from the foreground makes sense. Regardless, Play It Strange is an improvement on Laugh Tracks, because the group focuses more on songwriting and makes more complete musical statements than even Magic Trick. Cohen’s records are always good for at least one impressive song and “Who Needs a Man” is it, featuring a rousing introduction into an Eastern guitar line that shows the group transcending their own style. The seven-minute “Tropical Island Suite” moves seamlessly through multiple musical movements, a welcome distance from the two-minute lo-fi crunch one would expect from a group like this. Although Cohen doesn’t come off with a single memorable line on Play It Strange, his diminished presence is somewhat regained through the songwriting talent of the rest of The Fresh & Onlys. With Cohen’s newfound wit, I can only imagine better things will come from the group in the future. B+


Jamie Woon - Mirrorwriting: B / Katy B - On a Mission: B+

If you want a near guarantee that a song will be terrible, all you need to do is look for this two word suffix: “dubstep remix”. It’s become a trend now to take any sound, whether it be Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” or Justin Bieber being shot on CSI, and turn it into a cacophony of skrees and wonky bass. And it’s become a pretty popular trend. Over the past year, it would appear that the harsh stylings of dubstep have finally found their calling in the mainstream through jokey caricatures of the genre’s worst qualities.

Which is why some people missed the mark when they said that Jamie Woon’s Mirrorwriting and Katy B’s On a Mission were harbingers of the streamlining of dubstep for public consumption. These two albums, both released on the same day, have been compared to James Blake’s self-titled album as releases that are signs of the emergence of dubstep from the underground to the mainstream. However, it seems that the dubstep that has become popular now is dubstep itself, albeit an obnoxiously derivative version of it. People enjoy the genre without needing to water it down as occurs on Mirrorwriting, On a Mission, and James Blake (although they are still enjoyable to varying degrees). Now, it seems such heated debates that took place in the beginning of the year have been rendered a little bit moot.

Also, I would argue that Mirrorwriting and On A Mission don’t borrow much from dubstep. Jamie Woon sings strictly R&B, and his style is more akin to New Jack Swing or Timbaland’s work with Justin Timberlake than anything else. He slinks along on tactile beats with a seductive English swagger, smoothly moving from track to track like a boogie down vagabond. The man shows himself to be a distinct and alluring personality on Mirrorwriting, so it’s a shame that he relies so much on it that the album runs out of steam by its second half. With minimally catchy hooks to grasp onto, Woon begins to stall, and, when the album ends, you may rightfully only remember the singles. Some dubstep-y bass would probably aid Mirrorwriting, as Woon only gets away with so much on character alone.

If Jamie Woon’s the guy swooning in the streets, then Katy B’s flirtations aren’t occurring anywhere but the club. On A Mission never once stops to take a breath as Katy B shimmies on pulsating beats with great aplomb. But even here, her dubstep influences are a bit of a stretch. The slow lurch of “Go Away” and single “Easy Please Me” opens both songs up for such comparisons, but they pretty much end there. Realistically, Katy B has a little bit of Rihanna in her and perhaps a lesser Beyonce. But playing influences becomes boring in comparison to just dancing your ass off, because On A Mission does a great job of throwing down. B may be a bit of an awkward lyricist at times, and her voice may be a tad too ordinary, but On A Mission is a well-made dance album that deserves to top the UK charts.

Although it would be nice to imagine Jamie Woon and Katy B being the Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi sitting on opposite sides of James Blake’s Barack Obama, these three artists are not so cut and dry as to be the Holy Trinity of the dilution of dubstep. If you want to talk about the cheapening of the genre, take it up with the people who are characterizing it as an orgy of mindless skonks. Although they do share some sounds to dubstep, I wouldn’t be ready to characterize the three artists as genre piggybackers. They have all made good albums, and they make for an excellent soundtrack to my trip from the bedroom (James Blake), to the streets (Jamie Woon), to the club (Katy B) and back.


Frank Turner - England Keep My Bones: A+

Can an album be a classic if it only references the past? We like to think of the classics – the A+’s, the five stars, the two thumbs ups – as groundbreaking releases that change how we think about music and become highly influential for generations to come. But what if an artist stops trying to be ahead of the curve and instead enjoys the curve wash over them like a sonic wave? If an album takes the influences that have amassed over the past fifty years and turns them into songs that make you laugh and cry as hard those very same influences, does it still deserve to be called a “classic album”?

I wonder this, because the two greatest albums of the decade thus far, Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor and Frank Turner’s England Keep My Bones, do just that. They keep their influences so prominently on their sleeves that they could wear t-shirts and be warm all year round, referring to their heroes explicitly in songs about personal triumph and crippling defeat. In “I Am Disappeared”, Turner wrestles with dreams of “pioneers, pirate ships and Bob Dylan.” He contemplates running away from the responsibilities of his life, and, when he does, none other than Bob himself arrives to whisk him away. The heart wrenching guilt in abandoning a lover in “Redemption” is triggered by a Springsteen song coming on in Turner, the scorner’s, head phones. These influences are fused with the very roots of the stories told on England Keep My Bones. It’s hard to say whether the album would exist, let alone be as affecting, without them.

Many not so explicitly stated influences arise while listening to England Keep My Bones. In a higher register, Turner’s voice sounds like The Decemberists’ Colin Melloy. Coupled with England’s folk influences, valid comparisons can be drawn to the group’s most recent album, The King Is Dead. Turner’s tumbling cadence in “Redemption” immediately brings to mind the stream-of-consciousness poetry of The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. “Penny Sang the Blues”, at its poppiest moments, even sounds like standard Third Eye Blind. And yet none of these references have made A+ records. What occurs on England Keep My Bones is Turner takes these relatively generic sounds and distills them into the greatest product they can be. Turns out that product approaches perfection.

England Keep My Bones is divided thematically in pairs. You have the sadness of “I Am Disappeared” and “Redemption” and the uplift of “Penny Sang the Blues” and “I Still Believe”. You have loyal hometown pride (“Wessex Boy”, “Rivers”) and middle fingers of defiance (“Eulogy”, “One Foot Before The Other”). The album seems to be at odds with the transition from skuzz punk to respectable adult, and these pairs underscore the radical division within Turner’s current lifestyle. If it sounds like I’m describing a transitionary record, then England Keep My Bones may be the best of its kind, because it perfectly encapsulates the insecurity that can come with entering a new chapter of life, and the shifts in Turner’s lyrics and tone is indicative of this.

Thankfully, England Take My Bones flows despite this. From track to track, Turner assumes different personas, but his wry sense of humor and passion for performance shine through with no exceptions. The cathartic introduction of “Eulogy” (“I haven’t always been a perfect person / I hadn’t done what mom and dad had dreamed / But on the day I die I’ll say ‘At least I fuckin’ tried’/ That’s the only eulogy I need”) is followed by “Peggy Sang the Blues”, an ode to Turner’s late grandmother, whose ghost visits him at night to play poker and impart elderly wisdom. It’s a drastic transition, especially looked at through the lens of familial piety, but Turner’s personality remains a constant throughout, even as the music changes from jagged distortion to pop rock polish. Then come the raucous revivalism of “I Still Believe” (“I still believe/ In the saints / Yeah Jerry Lee and Johnny and all the greats”), the acoustic homeliness of “Rivers”, and so on and so forth. All these songs have vastly different mission statements, but Turner brings his all to each subject, making each track its own fluid dialogue.

“I Am Disappeared” and “Redemption” particularly distinguish England Take My Bones, though. The lyrical resonance of the former has already been noted, but its musical accompaniment is just as devastating. A snare is hit at the word “gone” in “She can get up shower in half an hour she’d be gone,” and more instrumentation comes in as Turner shifts narration from a distressed mother to himself. “I keep having dreams of needing things to do / And then waking up and not following through,” he sings, relaying a self-critique that makes Turner’s escape all the more futile as he finds that he cannot escape himself.

“Redemption” hits even harder, because we observe Turner’s self-loathing for abandoning a lover due to his fear of commitment. Solemnly, Turner admits, “The sad truth is that the grass it will always seem greener / So I left you alone in a restaurant in London in winter / You deserved better.” Later, as that Springsteen song triggers a shame spiral, Turner hollers on the bridge with an emotional intensity unmatched on the rest of the album. The sympathy becomes unbearable when we hear him rummage through his diary to find that the day he crumbled would have been the date of their anniversary. Then the track climaxes and Turner tries to redeem himself with another verse, but ultimately fails as he concludes, “I don’t think I can do this” before the song abruptly ends.

And so begins “Glory Hallelujah”, the last song on the album. The track will probably come to define England Keep My Bones for its lyrical content, of which I’ll let Turner explain: “Hey everybody have you heard the news? / The storm has lifted and there’s nothing to lose / So swap your confirmation for your dancing shoes / Because there never was no God.” The song turns an admission of Godlessness into a celebration of mortality. Even if you disagree with Turner’s message (you’re in the majority if you do), you have to hand it to the guy for pumping so much melody into such a controversial song, saving all his best hooks so he can best drive that point home. It’s the best song on England Take My Bones, so I’m content that it will be the most noticed. Its communal catharsis is brilliantly executed and fits perfectly as you turn the album back to “Eulogy” to listen to the album once again. However, considering England Keep My Bones perfectly encapsulates that daunting midpoint between adult and ruffian, it’s not like you needed another excuse.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Liturgy - Aesthethica: B

Listening to Aesthethica, the second album from Brooklyn black metal group Liturgy, one wonders what the proverbial shit storm is all about. The album, like The Body’s All the Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood and Shining’s Blackjazz, attempts to stretch the boundaries of black metal by incorporating more streamlined influences and generally polishing their style. Aesthethica still very much sounds like a black metal album, but its vague optimism in both instrumentation and lyrics has garnered much criticism from people who believe that black metal should not be taken to such impure places. Call it the gentrification of black metal and suddenly the oft-used “hipster metal” epithet makes a lot more sense.

Honestly, though, fans of black metal won’t have anything to worry about in terms of Aesthethica encroaching upon their beloved subgenre, or even All the Waters or Deathjazz for that matter. Although these albums try their damndest to contort black metal into disfigured shapes, they are not particularly worth the time spent mulling over their genre implications, because they’re not particularly good albums. While it featured some of the greatest instrumental performances of 2010, Blackjazz was fractious and uncomfortable with itself, showing in songs that frequently felt incomplete. All the Waters was just tuneless buffoonery that’s refusal to tether to any remote song structure made it borderline unlistenable and its influence inert. Musically, Aesthethica sounds like an improvement on All the Waters, but it still lacks cohesion, the group’s distortionless power chords and singer Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s disemboweled shrieks providing a shaky base through which the group can test the rigid limits of their genre.

What is interesting about Aesthethica, though, is its use of repetition. Many of the album’s tracks boil down to the stubborn replication of a few guitar chords with bass and drums following in lock step. It’s a very interesting way of making music, but a full album of it gets tiresome quickly, and, eventually, it becomes so numbing, it straddles boredom. The repetition in “Generation” and “Sun of Light” is invigorating in doses and an excellent display of Liturgy’s musical skill, as the group maneuvers through sharp turns with great ease. However, it’s just too much. At a certain point in the album, you start to treasure the rare moments that flow instead of shove like the keyboard line in “Helix Skull”, the linear riffing in “Veins of God” and even the obnoxious, layered hums of “Glass Earth”.

All in all, the purpose of Aesthethica feels like stale provocation, and provocation without substance is pretty meaningless. While I do not dislike the sentiment of what Liturgy is trying to do, it is clear that, through their and other groups’ recent albums, the all-out expansion of black metal is still in the embryonic stage. Critics have been hailing this album particularly as a groundbreaking metal release, but I’m starting to think in this case innovation is being confused with aimlessness. This movement to confound the boundaries of metal, black and otherwise, will probably gain a better footing as more albums are released that improve upon Aesthethica, but, if this album is any indication, that movement will take a lot longer than expected.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cults - Cults: B+

If you were paying attention to the “blogosphere” (demeaning term, hate using it) during 2010, you probably heard Cults’s “Go Outside” at some point. It was a pleasant, catchy song built upon reverbed drums and guitar with female vocals that immediately brought to mind 60’s girl group pop, an influence not unfamiliar to many emerging artists this decade. However, the track gained so much notoriety, that Cults were signed to a major label by the end of the year, and their debut has now been released under Columbia. You will find that track that has become so ubiquitous with the group nestled into the second slot on this release.

Bordering “Go Outside”, you will find the two lead singles for Cults. “Abducted” starts the album off nicely with some excellent, catchy vocal melodies from both singer Madeline Follin and guitarist Brian Oblivion. The track equates heartbreak to abduction, Follin playing the abducted with a vocal line that floats over the arrangements and Oblivion playing the abductor with a deep, slacker croon. It’s a great track and the highlight of Cults right off the bat. After “Go Outside” is “You Know What I Mean”, a standard ballad with vocals reminiscent of Tennis singer Alaine Moore but with more shrill menace. These three songs that begin Cults are fine singles that can be enjoyed for both their froth and artistic integrity.

However, as Cults moves farther and farther from those first three tracks, one gets the feeling that the group is stranding themselves into open waters. Unfortunately, it becomes exceedingly clear that the album is woefully frontloaded, as the tracks that follow “You Know What I Mean” are not particularly memorable; at best, they are concurrent pastiche of that girl group sound so well established in the album’s first third. “Never Saw the Point” has the bells and percussion of a minor Gnarls Barkley track and “Bumper” is refreshing for Oblivion again assuming vocal duties, but, as it goes on, Cults starts to sound less like a distinct group and more like a Best Coast with chimes. Once those singles end, Cults have trouble maintaining many memorable hooks, so their songs end up being enjoyable for their transient beauty, and little is remembered of them once the album ends.

Closer, “Rave On”, epitomizes this aesthetic. While still a modestly enjoyable, the track use the same chord progression as “Abducted”, and that lack of creativity is not lost on the listener. While Cults has some great songs on it, it shows that Cults need to refine their sound more in the mode of hooks rather than just slight variations on a sound. Follin likes to sing about running away and escape, and even that thematic repetition gets tiresome by the album’s end. My suggestion would be to get “Abducted” and the singles if you haven’t already heard them. Otherwise, I might skip Cults, as it is a flawed attempt for the group to form a solid sound.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Black Country Communion - 2: B+

If you’re like me, you were probably surprised that the debut album from Black Country Communion, the supergroup of solo guitarist Joe Bonamassa, bassist/singer Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath fame, Foreigner drummer Jason Bonham, and former Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian, wasn’t a hulking piece of shit. Also, if you’re like me, you were probably surprised that this seeming one-off was actually going to come up with a follow-up to their debut less than a year after its release. And, also, if you’re like me, you’re going to be surprised that the appropriately titled 2 is just as robust and reliable as their debut.

Basically, if you enjoyed Black Country or if you are a big fan of the affiliates of these group members, you will enjoy 2. It has reliable riffs, excellent instrumentation and displays some solid hard rock songwriting. The group has a clear chemistry (otherwise this album wouldn’t exist), so it is great fun just to hear them play off each other, even if that doesn’t necessarily translate into the most memorable of songs.

2 is nearly identical to Black Country in virtually every way – musically, thematically, lyrically. What only distances 2 from its predecessor is that Joe Bonamassa does not feature as prominently with show stopping guitar solos like Black Country’s “Too Late for the Sun”, and that does work against the group, overall. Still, Black Country Communion has proven with 2 that they are a force to be reckoned with. Hard rock’s a bit of a dead art these days, so it seems apt that the people resurrecting it are the people who helped create it.


Little Scream - The Golden Record: B+

Musically, you won’t find anything on Montreal singer/songwriter Little Scream’s debut album that you wouldn’t find on the work of other quiet acoustic folk artists that are quickly becoming a ‘10’s cliché. Instrumentally, The Golden Record falls somewhere below the lush darkness of Laura Marling and above the barely-there unobtrusiveness of Lia Ices. I would probably equate the arrangements of The Golden Record to something like The Mynabirds, the Oklahoma group that’s modest debut last year made hardly an indent on the indie folk scene, let alone the musical landscape as a whole. A cursory listen to The Golden Record’s acoustic guitars and frail voices may warrant an immediate dismissal to an uncaring musical purgatory.

While this is true throughout most of The Golden Record, the album has several redeemable moments that contradict the timidity of the arrangements. “The Heron and Fox”, musically, would not turn many heads, but, lyrically, Little Scream exhibits a knack for making unconventional subjects profound with clever wordplay. “I told the stripper at the bar that the shots we got were magic / Make a wish and it’ll come true / As she smiled her golden tooth / Glinted in the light / I wonder what she wished for / I just wished for you.” It ‘s a very roundabout way of making a point, but all that poetic talk of strippers and gold only increases the momentum as Little Scream gets to the punchline. Elsewhere, she exerts lyrical dominance over the titular character in “Guyegaros”, telling him to “put down your guitar and meet me in the choir” in the choruses. These moments hint at the strong character Little Scream can be, and, when she assumes that central roll, she sets herself apart from her peers.

This is why “Red Hunting Jacket” comes at such a surprise so late in The Golden Record and also why it’s the album’s most rewarding track. With joyous handclaps and distorted guitar, the track is active but also has a better pop sense than all the other tracks on The Golden Record. Little Scream’s breathy voice doesn’t completely fit the track’s changed mood, but it’s still a highlight because not only does it make Little Scream a prominent figure as opposed to the rest of The Golden Record, but it also shows that she sounds excellent when she is.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

About Group - Start and Complete: B

Well it certainly sounds like it was improvised. About Group is an indie rock supergroup of Hot Chip lead singer Alex Taylor, This Heat drummer Charles Hayward and a couple studio musicians, and their debut album, Start and Complete, is essentially a recorded jam session that’s been cut up into individual songs. The album is certainly a meeting of excellent musical minds in terms of Hayward’s excellent percussion work on songs like single “You’re No Good” and the group’s general ability to make distinct movements sound like legitimately planned songs, but, like a regular jam session would entail, the album has a lot of lulls in which very little goes on, and one can tell in those moments that the group is struggling to find a direction. That’s the risk with albums like Start and Complete, and, for the most part, About Group overcomes it. Still, I would be more likely to suggest “You’re No Good” as a testament to the group’s talent as opposed to the album, itself.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Julian Lynch - Terra: B+

Oh, Julian Lynch, you are just a treasure. You make music that is so pleasant and nice with that lush bass and that modest everything else. You make me think of mornings, you know. Stretching out on the grass and smelling the air, the sky, the clouds, the flowers, the bugs and the ground. Is that why you called your new album Terra? It’s a pretty name. And the music on it is so very nice! I can put it on and do other things and those other things will feel better as a result! You should be proud of that. Yeah, Terra’s good stuff. You should make more of it before I start to miss you again.


Grouper - A I A: B+

When you’ve been listening to and evaluating music nonstop for a full month -- your ears are constantly ringing, massive headaches are starting to set in and you’re seriously considering your life choices -- an album like A I A can make you want to throw your laptop out a window. It’s two. whole. discs. worth of ambient music. Throughout those two discs you will find:

1. 1. 1. Tracks that get close to and often exceed the eight minute mark

2. 2. 2. Grouper frontwoman Liz Harris strumming a guitar and singing just far enough away that her words cannot be comprehended

3. 3. 3. The standard bleep-bloop instrumentation from the ambient/drone tool kit

4. 4.4. Lots and lots of S P A C E

But damnit if it doesn’t sound beautiful most of the time. Despite A I A's length and lack of activity for long periods of time, many of its anonymous songs will strangely touch your heart. The album does this best on “Vapor Trails”, a nine-minute track that’s melancholic organ could make a Tyler Perry movie sound like an emotional masterstroke. You could make the argument that A I A is just a collection of “Vapor Trails”, but I would say that Harris does what she does so well that, in her case, I can accept a lack of deviation in favor of consistency. Luckily, she hardly disappoints.


Septic Flesh - The Great Mass: A-

It’s times like these I wonder if music ever had the power to scare people. When we listen to music, a whole plethora of emotions like happiness, sadness, anger and depression can come us and override any mood that we were feeling beforehand. We know that, when accompanied with visual images, music often defines the scariest moments in film. But as a singular medium, I have yet to find a piece of music that has disturbed me so much that I had difficulty listening to it.
This has come as a surprise to me over and over because I knew in overtaking this project I was going to have to listen to some terrifying, satanic and, ultimately, critically acclaimed metal albums. But again and again I found these albums all quite listenable, a sentiment typified by my reaction to Deathspell Omega’s newest album released in November of last year. Based on my knowledge of the band (of which there is very little as they are very mysterious), I thought Paracletus was going to scare the living shit out of me. Turns out I found it strangely charming, and liked it so much I put it on my list of best albums of 2010.
I wonder this now, because I thought for sure Septic Flesh’s newest album was going to scare me. Aside from the fact that the group’s name is Septic Flesh for crying out loud, I found the cover of the Greek metal outfit’s newest album, The Great Mass, quite upsetting. It’s a depiction of a pale bald man’s face ripped of his jaw fetal pig style while various miniaturized Greek artifacts lay at his feet, one of which holds up what is presumably his heart, blackened by who knows what kind of sickening darkness overtook his soul. At least Deathspell Omega had the decency to obscure their beast in shadows. Septic Flesh would seem to have put all their horrifying cards on the table.
Even though I have to look away when songs from The Great Mass come up on my iPod, Septic Flesh’s eighth album is not particularly scary. It has many fantastic head bang-worthy moments like first track “The Vampire from Nazareth”, but, more often than not, it’s actually quite beautiful. The group recruited the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to play on it and it’s a valued addition, the orchestra’s involvement ranging from the decorative to the pivotal. If you wanted to gauge how relatively innocuous The Great Mass is, though, you could equate its use of an orchestra to Owen Pallett’s use of The Czech Republic Philharmonic Orchestra for his 2010 album Heartland and it would be a pretty valid comparison. The only difference is that Pallett’s frail coo is replaced here with blast beats and rancid screams. You know, little things.
The songs of The Great Mass, all of which feature The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, practice a wide range of styles within the death metal genre, from the anthemic to the downright vaudevillian. The lead guitar line in “Rising” almost resembles power metal in its epic optimism, but “Oceans of Grey” and “Pyramid God” undercut their traditional foundations in favor of odd dalliances that only add more tension to their respective songs. In the case of the former, a standard buildup is interrupted by a plodding shuffle of remote guitar and vocal chants, working in the song’s favor by actually embodying the terror approaching just off in the distance. In the latter, a bouncy rhythm of militaristic snares and throbbing French horns disrupts the track’s similarly conventional arrangement, but is later incorporated into the mix in a way that allows the song to hit even harder.
Songs like “Oceans of Grey” and “Pyramid God” exhibit abrupt injections of gothic influence, but there are many great moments on The Great Mass that are so avant garde, they’d make Igor Stravinsky smirk. If put in the right context, the piano line that begins “The Mad Architect” could soundtrack a Charlie Chaplin film. Its presence is rinky-dink and genuinely surprising, but it’s not just used as a gimmick to grab your attention; with double bass drum and chugging riffs going off at full speed, you can still hear that piano line playing in the background. In fact, the group makes it sound so comfortable, you can almost feel the boundaries of death metal stretching around you as the song plays. Whenever the voice of bassist Seth Siro Anton appears on The Great Mass, the album instantly heightens in melodrama. His tone is nasally and frail and would be quite irritating if put as the centerpiece of The Great Mass. But, as the occasional hook or background accompaniment, Anton’s voice gives the album its own bitter ghost. Some days it’s even more unsettling than Sotiris Anunnaki V.’s snarls.
However, there are certain obstacles that non-mental fans will have trouble overcoming with The Great Mass. Anunnaki V.’s vocals are quite guttural, but, for what it’s worth, they are also often decipherable. His first line in “The Undead Keep Dreaming” sets an excellent tone for the song’s troubling subject matter. “In 1981,” he growls. “When I was but a child / I had the strangest dream / Something that still is haunting me.” The contradiction in the line between the lyrics’ vulnerability and the brash way in which they are performed makes the track all the more off-putting. In this and many cases, Anunaki V.’s vocals serve a structural as well as textural purpose. There are also female voices throughout The Great Mass that add appreciated depth to the album’s arrangements, but, to be honest, if you patently dislike metal, this album won’t convince you otherwise. Nevertheless, I’d suggest listening to it to potentially broaden your horizons. Pentagrams and lack of scariness aside, The Great Mass is another excellent release from one of the best metal bands making music today.


Eddie Vedder - Ukulele Songs: B+

It feels strange reviewing Ukulele Songs, because it is so clearly a one-off that its presence almost defies critical inspection. The album is full of flubs and curses and flaws and impurities that one would expect from an album that is essentially a collection of songs performed exclusively on that titular instrument. A track is spent hearing Vedder mess up a ukulele line and yelling, “fuck” in frustration. His phone goes off at the end of “Satellite” and he answers it as the recording fades out. Vedder even lights something up at the beginning of “Goodbye”, Lil Wayne style. If Ukulele Songs isn’t a compliment to Pearl Jam or Eddie Vedder as musician, it certainly is a compliment to Vedder as an engaging personality.

But this is why people love Pearl Jam. They have a rare connection with their fanbase that allows the group to release albums like Ukulele Songs that may never have seen the light of day in other hands, and these songs are all valued additions to the Vedder/PJ catalogue. Between fuck-ups and jokes, there are some brilliant products on Ukulele Songs. Vedder conveys longing brilliantly on album highlight, “Sleepless Nights” and, with Cat Power singer Chan Marshall in tow, the vocal frills of “Tonight You Belong to Me” are intimate and precious. Tracks like “You’re True” and “Can’t Keep” could be worthy additions to the tracklists of Backspacer and Vitalogy, respectively, if they were fleshed out. The album’s short and quaint, but it accomplishes all the goals it sets out for itself and often exceeds them.

So if you’re a fan of Pearl Jam and/or Eddie Vedder, Ukulele Songs is a must, because it is good enough to be comparable with Pearl Jam’s 2005 self-titled LP. And if “Just Breathe” was your favorite track off Backspacer, then you may want to listen to the album sitting down, because it is so delicate and authentic you may need to change your pants afterwards. As Ukulele Songs enters its second half, though, the songs start to sound more formulaic than Vedder’s more official work, but, as a side project of one of the greatest bands still making music today, it’s pretty hard to talk about expectations.


Fucked Up - David Comes to Life: A-

Crazy world we live in, ain’t it? When the most ambitious work of the year comes from a hardcore group with an unprintable name fleshing out the components of a concept album through the growls of a 300-pound bald guy named Pink Eyes. A tale of a light bulb factory worker put on trial for the possible killing of his girlfriend, with all the twists and turns of any crime novel sitting on the shelves of the Walgreens stationary section nearest you. And it’s not even a hardcore record, really; Fucked Up have progressed thus far as to have adopted a sound of robust indie rock guitars juxtaposed with harsh scowls, which results in an arguably more unsettling listening experience.

But it slays, through and through. You could take yourself out of the storyline entirely and find every track of David Comes to Life invigorating. You’ll scream back at Pink Eyes as he introduces the main character with a rousing, “Hello my name is David!” in “Queen of Hearts” and marvel at the talk of shoe droppings and trust dilemmas. Your contempt will build with Pink Eyes’s in “Turn of the Season” as he screams, “Dying on the inside!” over the callous monotony of two stubborn guitar chords. You’ll be moved by the finale, “Lights Go Up”. Storyline notwithstanding, the track will feel like an all-encompassing closer to an excellent record. When the instrumentation fades, leaving only Pink Eyes to holler into the abyss, at least something will have felt completed.

If you want to hear music that is intelligent as well as gripping, the concept of David Comes to Life will always be there, and it is as genuinely interesting of an execution as you’re bound to find. You’ve got different characters voiced by different people and a theatrical flow that will engross to the very end. As for me, I’m just astounded at how David Comes to Life just keeps going, pummeling relentlessly and somehow always managing to sound fresh and intuitive. The album is brilliant and great fun. It will keep you guessing, whether you’re following along with a lyrics sheet or not.