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

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.