Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cold War Kids - Mine Is Yours: B+

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Wanda Jackson - The Party Ain't Over: B

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

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

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

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

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


Braids - Native Speaker: B+

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

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

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


Lia Ices - Grown Unknown: B-

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


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

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

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

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

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


Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean: B+

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

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

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


Destroyer - Kaputt: A-

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

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

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

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