Monday, June 30, 2008

Sigur Rós - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (***)

If there was ever a band that desperately needed to change up their style, it was Sigur Rós. The Icelandic dream-weavers are living proof that even the most original bands eventually need to grow in order to offset stagnation. The band's 2005 album Takk, while undeniably beautiful, felt repetitive, as if the band's wellspring of ideas had been sucked dry. Revisionist history will probably shine a better light on Takk, as the record is home to a number of fantastic songs, yet it will also probably always carry with it an air of over-familiarity. Growing restless of their constant pigeonholing in black hole of post-rock, or perhaps just recognizing the less enthusiastic reactions garnered by Takk, Sigur Rós have taken a welcome dive into uncharted waters with Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, certainly not a record of unadulterated success throughout, but a refreshing offshoot from their core sound nonetheless.

Right out of the gate things become fantastically disorienting, as opener "Gobbledigook" drops tribal percussion and volleying vocal whoops in-and-out of unison, sounding more like Animal Collective than anything this band has previously attached their name to. The remaining ten songs aren't quite so adventurous, yet from the opening notes it becomes apparent that the band is pursuing a very specific muse.

For such a stone-faced serious band, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust is extremely loose and at times almost playful. Following "Gobbledigook", the strong three song run of "Inní mér syngur vitleysingur", "Gódan daginn" and "Vid spilum endalaust" come across as near pop songs, each with wonderful melodies carried by Jónsi Birgisson still breathtaking falsetto. The song lengths in particular help add to the success and immediacy, with just one of these crossing the 5 minute mark. This concision unfortunately is abandon on occasion though, as the band gives into hold habits with the plodding "Festival" and the near-numbing "Ára bátur", both of which top out at 9 minutes. Apart from those two momentum killers though, everything else presented here ranges from great to, at the very least, interesting, culminating with "All Alright", the band's first English-language song and perhaps the strongest standalone song here.

Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, while not the earth-shattering statement Ágætis Byrjun was in 2000, and not as stop-dead gorgeous as ( ) a couple of years later, is still everything you could possibly want from a band in transition mode. Considering this band could have coasted by crafting side-long aural wallpaper for the rest of their careers - a sound they perfected almost a half decade ago - it is with utmost respect that I endorse Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust.

Highlights: "Gobbledigook", "Inní mér syngur vitleysingur", "Med sud í eyrum"

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ponytail - Ice Cream Spiritual (***1/2)

Stereo Sanctity Album of the Week
(June 22 - 28, 2008)

Ice Cream Spiritual, the unrelenting sophomore set from spazzy Baltimore art-rockers Ponytail, continues with their city's aural fascination with whimsicality and childlike glee. Except here, attached to the high-wire prog of Ponytail, this innocence is transformed into noisy, hyper-precise fret runs and dizzying displays of technique. However, Ponytail's most talked about attribute are the vocals of front woman Molly Sigel, who doesn't sing so much as caw, chirp, yelp, coo and gurgle out unidentifiable syllables to combat the band's stop-on-a-dime instrumental turns. Despite being able to only pick out maybe 4 words across the entirety of Ice Cream Spiritual's 8 tracks, Sigel still manages one of the most impressive vocal performances I've heard in recent years, at turns recalling Karen O, Yoshimi P-We (Boredoms), Satomi Matsuzaki (Deerhoof), and most obviously, Pylon's Vanessa Briscoe Hay, especially in the way she can turn non-words into left-of-center pop hooks. Many listeners probably won't be able to stomach her squeaky wildlife ululations, yet taken in stride with band's brave and sometimes baffling musicality, they speak volumes.

The music is what ultimately elevates Ice Cream Spiritual beyond a mere vocal showcase though. In case song titles like "Die Allman Bruder" weren't evidence enough, there aren't many classic rock touchstones on display here. Instead, Ponytail's influences hew toward Deerhoof, Pixies, Hella, Ruins, Lightning Bolt, at times sounding like each, but always drawing just enough outside the lines to forgo mimicry. And with Jawbox's J. Robbins producing, you'd be hard pressed to find a better sounding art-rock record released this year. The band's two-guitar-and-drums setup is given ample space to maneuver within the mix, never sounding cluttered despite the sometimes overwhelming amount of ideas presented in a single movement. Ice Cream Spiritual is impressive music no doubt, but with subsequent listens reveals itself as one of the most oddly enticing pop records of the year.

Highlights: "Beg Waves", "7 Souls", "Celebrate the Body Electric", "Die Allman Bruder"

RIYL: Deerhoof, Hella, Marnie Stern

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Notwist - The Devil, You + Me (***1/2)

The enigmatic German folk-tronica group behind 2002s landmark Neon Golden return six years later with The Devil, You + Me, an aesthetic continuation of the ideas that first got these guys pegged as visionaries at the turn of the millennium. Markus Archer can still melt hearts with his languid sing-speak, while the band continues to blur all lines of distinction between organic and synthesized instrumentation. These are 11 individual little worlds of glitches, tears, cuts and pastes, girded by their ultra smooth grooves and sent skyward on the back of soaring string swells, all held together by the group's uncanny ability to conjure chilling atmospheres, as if they've tapped into some distant undiscovered (gloomy?) planet's audio transmissions.

There aren't many moments here that sag despite the record's languid pace and front-loaded structure, yet if something is holding The Devil, You + Me back from being the revelation that Neon Golden was six years ago, it's the influx of artists that have picked up the band's sonic thread in the fallout of that record's considerable wake. These imitators haven't yet been able to replicate what The Notwist so easily seem capable of constructing though - that being miniature epics encapsulating conflicting emotions through the seamless blending of computer technology and pop-based guitar fragments (some people call this electro-pop, see?). The Devil, You + Me is the reinstatement of The Notwist as the genre's godfathers.

Highlights: "Good Lies", "Gloomy Planets", "Alphabet", "On Planet Off"

RIYL: Dntel, 13 & God, M83, Ms. John Soda

Video: The Notwist - "Where In This World"

"Good Lies"

"On Planet Off"

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Crystal Antlers - EP (***1/2)

The self-released debut EP from the insanely talented psych-rock combo Crystal Antlers is a blaring, dissonant, fire-breathing six song, 25 minute kick-in-the-crotch. Lifting off straight outta the gate on it's foundation of thundering drums and organ - and in what appears to be an attempt at a full sonic eclipse with the addition of cacophonous psych guitar and heavily processed vocal effects - EP shoots first and asks questions not at all. If this all sounds eerily like a Comets on Fire description, then you are getting close, although with Crystal Antlers' greater focus on structure and melody, this is more Avatar than Field Recordings from the Sun. There are also equal cues taken from Japanoise bands such as Acid Mothers Temple (thankfully in much smaller doses) and American stoner rock vis-à-vis Dead Meadow or Earthless. EP doesn't stick around long enough for it's riffs to stagnate or it's ferocity to overwhelm though, and I'd say that out of the six songs here, only one ("Owl") is really expendable. Regardless of length or familiarity though, you'll still probably have EP on endless repeat throughout the coming months anyway. So grab your bong, it's gonna be a long summer.

Highlights: "Until the Sun Dies (Part 2)", "A Thousand Eyes", "Vexation"

RIYL: Comets on Fire, Earthless, Acid Mothers Temple

"Until the Sun Dies (Part 2)"


Monday, June 23, 2008

Silver Jews - Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (***)

When we last left David Berman and his Silver Jews on 2005s Tanglewood Numbers they had taken on more of a "rock" edge then what long time fans were used to hearing from a group who all but perfected countrified indie-rock. This of course following Berman's well-documented drug addiction and suicide attempt following 2001s underrated Bright Flight. And although the end product wasn't a new classic on par with high-water mark American Water (1998), it was still a welcome reinstatement of one of the great writers in modern music.

With his newest record Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, Berman seems to have settled comfortably into his status as a cult icon. The resulting record is quite easily the breeziest and most playful album he's ever produced; it's also the probably laziest, most free-wheeling and slightest record he's attached his name to. Yet therein lies a good deal of Lookout Mountain's charm. Any new music from Berman is like receiving a phone call from an old friend: nostalgic, a little awkward, but also heart warming and in it's own unique way, life-affirming. Berman's lyrics aren't as labyrinth or poetic as they once where, but he still has a way with words that are uniquely his. His band is locked in after a number of years on the road (sadly, Stephen Malkmus doesn't make a return appearance), and as a result, the band sounds confident navigating some pretty odd musical avenues. Both "Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer" and "San Francisco B.C." are like nothing the Jews have ever attempted, and I'm still not convinced either succeeds, yet I find myself humming their quirky melodies despite my reservations.

There is still plenty of classic sounding Silver Jews here however, from "What Is Not But Could Be If" to the wonderful "Suffering Jukebox" and "We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing", it is apparent that Berman can still entice on the back of a simple laid-back melody. And this is the first time that I can say that Cassie Berman's vocal counterpoint actually adds to the finished product. In fact, she carries a number of these songs into essential listening territory. Based on Tanglewood Numbers and now Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, it would be rather difficult to predict where Berman goes from here (or if he goes anywhere), but he has done just enough with both these records to keep expectations considerably high. There is no reason to believe he can't produce another full-length on par with his classic late 90s material. In the meantime though, I'll take the warm satisfaction knowing he's still got gas in the tank.

Highlights: "Suffering Jukebox", "Strange Victory, Strange Defeat", "My Pillow Is The Threshold"

What Is Not But Could Be If"

"Suffering Jukebox"

Strange Victory, Strange Deafeat"

Thursday, June 19, 2008

James Blackshaw - Litany of Echoes (****)

Stereo Sanctity Album of the Week
(June 15-21, 2008)

The first sound you hear on Litany of Echoes, James Blackshaw's sixth LP, is not discordant string swells or triumphant guitar fanfare. Rather, Blackshaw begins with a simple, repeated 4-note piano phrase, the first appearance of ivory in any Blackshaw piece to date. The 12-string guitar prodigy, who cemented his status as the 21st century's most talented composer with the release of last year's impossibly gorgeous The Cloud of Unknowing, had previously built each of his records solely around his intricate, minimalist guitar virtuosity. Litany of Echoes sees Blackshaw refining this gift as composer and guitarist, yet the combination of these alternately sustained and flowing piano notes with his already distinct symphonic drones and string patterns, goes a long way towards expanding his seemingly endless field of sound.

Litany of Echoes is bookended by "Gate of Ivory" and "Gate of Horn", two pieces structured around minimal piano phrases, and they provided a nice context for the synthesis that occurs during the four lengthy tracks that make up the bulk of this record. The shortest of these pieces, the celestial 6-minute "Infinite Circle", is Litany's most blatant union of piano and 12-string. As Blackshaw's two instrumental patterns intertwine, they combine to form a single rotating strand of held-and-released notes, resulting in one of Blackshaw's most effective and uplifting short-form works to date. The three 12-minute tracks that anchor the record are the most representative of Blackshaw's prior work though, as each is a note-perfect purification of his voice as a composer and a wonderful end result of the work he presented on The Cloud of Unknowing.

Litany of Echoes is James Blackshaw's most dynamic, diverse and far-reaching album yet, the sonic approximation of an eternity spent in paradise. These are rich and rewarding pieces of modern experimental acoustic guitar music, each an individual symphony of near-heavenly proportions. This is music to lose yourself to.

Highlights: "Past Has Not Passed", "Infinite Circle", "Shroud"

RIYL: Terry Riley, John Fahey, Robbie Basho

"Infinite Circle"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer (***1/2)

In the three years since the release of Wolf Parade's near-seminal debut album Apologies to the Queen Mary, co-songwriters Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug have seen their individual profiles rise to such heights that at times their work with other bands and side projects (Handsome Furs, Sunset Rubdown, Frog Eyes and Swan Lake among them) can overshadow the fact that this a band that has released just that one single album. On their very good sophomore album At Mount Zoomer, Boeckner and Krug ignore expectations and stretch out their songwriting to embrace their inner Genesis with a record bursting at the seams with zinging keyboard phrases, micro-guitar solos, furious drums fills and enough prog flourishes to take your knee-jerk guilt and twist it into utter giddiness at the outlandishness of it all.

Let's get right to the point though: there is nothing on At Mount Zoomer with the immediate infectiousness of Apologies standouts like "Shine a Light" or "Modern World" (although "The Grey Estates" comes close). The songwriting is both rangier and more convoluted (in a very good way mind you), and once again split down the middle, with Boeckner taking the reigns on most of the lengthier tracks, while Krug handles a good deal of the compact, more pop oriented nuggets. This is also a murkier, darker and more restless record than Apologies, and actually more in line musically with the two Sunset Rubdown records than anything the band attempted on their debut. Once you dive headfirst into the record though and let your mind absorb the myriad details hiding behind every off-hand noise these guys can conjure, that's when At Mount Zoomer finally reveals itself as a logical successor to a breakout debut album.

At Mount Zoomer, while lacking the direct dynamics and urgent overdrive of Apologies, is still meticulously arranged and tracklisted for maximum initial impact, with the back end of the record holding the more formless, less structured pieces that may test the patience of those looking for Apologies Part II. But with 9 songs at just over 45 minutes, each piece is given time to build it's own unique world amidst the record, resulting in an album that feels of a whole more so than the song oriented Apologies. In 2005 it would have been near impossible to predict the success that Boeckner and Krug would experience apart from their main gig, yet as At Mount Zoomer attests, there is an indefinable magic that arises when these two minds coalesce. These guys aren't playing to the masses, but to a very specific set of common goals, and on those terms, At Mount Zoomer is a rousing success.

Highlights: "Soldier's Grin", "Language City", "Bang Your Drum", The Grey Estates"

RIYL: Sunset Rubdown, Frog Eyes, Swan Lake

"Soldier's Grin"

"Language City"

"The Grey Estates"

AFI's 10 Greatest Films In 10 Classic Genres

In what's becoming a yearly tradition, the American Film Institute has once again released a new top ten list, the twist being that this time there is actually 10 top tens, one for each of the films industries more well known genres (sorry, no cult list. sigh.). Arguing these lists is kind of pointless, as each of these films represent a key piece of American film making - each are obviously well worth seeing.

A couple of my personal nitpicks/pleasant surprises: The Sword in the Stone is still my favorite animated film, yet it's nowhere to be found here; a number of the films on their gangster list should have taken a back seat to Sergio Leone's haunting Once Upon a Time In America; McCabe & Mrs. Miller is the only western that I religiously re-watch, so it's nice to see it recognized; no one in their right mind could possibly think Raging Bull is a sports movie, right?; Harold & Maude!!!!!; and if Kramer vs Kramer is a courtroom drama, then The People vs. Larry Flynt should have been at least #11.

Check 'em out (via Awards Daily):

1. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” 1937.
2. “Pinocchio,” 1940.
3. “Bambi,” 1942.
4. “The Lion King,” 1994.
5. “Fantasia,” 1940.
6. “Toy Story,” 1995.
7. “Beauty and the Beast,” 1991.
8. “Shrek,” 2001.
9. “Cinderella,” 1950.
10. “Finding Nemo,” 2003.

1. “The Wizard of Oz,” 1939.
2. “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” 2001.
3. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” 1946.
4. “King Kong,” 1933.
5. “Miracle on 34th Street, 1947.
6. “Field of Dreams,” 1989.
7. “Harvey,” 1950.
8. “Groundhog Day,” 1993.
9. “The Thief of Bagdad,” 1924.
10. “Big,” 1988.

1. “The Godfather,” 1972.
2. “Goodfellas,” 1990.
3. “The Godfather Part II,” 1974.
4. “White Heat,” 1949.
5. “Bonnie and Clyde,” 1967.
6. “Scarface: The Shame of a Nation,” 1932.
7. “Pulp Fiction,” 1994.
8. “The Public Enemy,” 1931.
9. “Little Caesar,” 1930.
10. “Scarface,” 1983.

1. “2001: A Space Odyssey,” 1968.
2. “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,” 1977.
3. “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” 1982.
4. “A Clockwork Orange,” 1971.
5. “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” 1951.
6. “Blade Runner,” 1982.
7. “Alien,” 1979.
8. “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” 1991.
9. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” 1956.
10. “Back to the Future,” 1985.

1. “The Searchers,” 1956.
2. “High Noon,” 1952.
3. “Shane,” 1953.
4. “Unforgiven,” 1992.
5. “Red River,” 1948.
6. “The Wild Bunch,” 1969.
7. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” 1969.
8. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” 1971.
9. “Stagecoach,” 1939.
10. “Cat Ballou,” 1965.

1. “Raging Bull,” 1980.
2. “Rocky,” 1976.
3. “The Pride of the Yankees,” 1942.
4. “Hoosiers,” 1986.
5. “Bull Durham,” 1988.
6. “The Hustler,” 1961.
7. “Caddyshack,” 1980.
8. “Breaking Away,” 1979.
9. “National Velvet,” 1944.
10. “Jerry Maguire,” 1996.

1. “Vertigo,” 1958.
2. “Chinatown,” 1974.
3. “Rear Window,” 1954.
4. “Laura,” 1944.
5. “The Third Man,” 1949.
6. “The Maltese Falcon,” 1941.
7. “North By Northwest,” 1959.
8. “Blue Velvet,” 1986.
9. “Dial M for Murder,” 1954.
10. “The Usual Suspects,” 1995.

1. “City Lights,” 1931.
2. “Annie Hall,” 1977.
3. “It Happened One Night,” 1934.
4. “Roman Holiday,” 1953.
5. “The Philadelphia Story,” 1940.
6. “When Harry Met Sally …,” 1989.
7. “Adam’s Rib,” 1949.
8. “Moonstruck,” 1987.
9. “Harold and Maude,” 1971.
10. “Sleepless in Seattle,” 1993.

1. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” 1962.
2. “12 Angry Men,” 1957.
3. “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” 1979.
4. “The Verdict,” 1982.
5. “A Few Good Men,” 1992.
6. “Witness for the Prosecution,” 1957.
7. “Anatomy of a Murder,” 1959.
8. “In Cold Blood,” 1967.
9. “A Cry in the Dark,” 1988.
10. “Judgment at Nuremberg,” 1961.

1. “Lawrence of Arabia,” 1962.
2. “Ben-Hur,” 1959.
3. “Schindler’s List,” 1993.
4. “Gone With the Wind,” 1939.
5. “Spartacus,” 1960.
6. “Titanic,” 1997.
7. “All Quiet on the Western Front,” 1930.
8. “Saving Private Ryan,” 1998.
9. “Reds,” 1981.
10. “The Ten Commandments,” 1956.

Dan Friel - Ghost Town (***1/2)

On his newest, best, and most widely available album yet, Parts & Labor guitarist/electronic manipulator Dan Friel forefronts quick, repeating electro-pop melodies, only to tear each fragment mercilessly through the noise keyhole, blurring the lines between both genres just about as well as anything I've heard in a good long while. Ghost Town's secret weapon is in it's brevity, a characteristic that many long-winded noise records fail to utilize: in just 29 minutes, Friel manages to leave you with countless ear-worms, numerous foot-tapping ditties and to top it all off, the good possibility of migraine headache. There's not much to complain about here, yet the one immediate flaw is that the record is terribly front loaded, with penultimate track "Singing Sand" devolving into pure noise, effectively stunting the momentum, while closing track "Horse Heaven" is so calm & ethereal that it can float by without notice. The opening 5 track onslaught is an unrelenting highlight reel though. It's 15 minutes of the most exhilarating music you'll hear all year.

Highlights: "Ghost Town (Part 1)", "Appliances of Bremen", "Buzzards"

RIYL: Dan Deacon, Parts & Labor, Fuck Buttons, Love and Circuits

"Ghost Town (Part 1)"

"One Legged Cowboy"


Monday, June 16, 2008

Paavoharju - Laulu Laakson Kukista (***1/2)

Laulu Laakson Kukista, the newest release from the mysterious Finnish troupe Paavoharju, follows 2005s criminally underrated Yhä hämärää with another compact, earthy and indefinable smear of folk, cheap electronics and rustic samples. Paavoharju play so liberally with genre that their restlessness threatens to become their defining characteristic at times, yet any one moment on Laulu Laakson Kukista - whether it be a swirling mess of electronic squiggles, bubbling water noises or a clean, undistorted guitar tone - is instantly recognizable as the work of the same band. It's really a matter of preference as to which of their two full-lengths you'll favor, since both are cut from essentially the same cloth, but with Laulu Laakson Kukista, Paavoharju have staked their claim as one of the world's most singular listening experiences.

Highlights: "Kevätrumpu", "Italialaisella laivalla", "Uskallan", "Tyttö tanssii"

RIYL: Kemialliset Ystävät, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Jackie-O Motherfucker, Islaja



"Tuoksu tarttuu meihin"

Friday, June 13, 2008

My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges (*)

That album cover seems rather apt now that I look at it: after just a single spin through Evil Urges - and what with that Frank Black-sized man blocking out half the frame - I had to ask myself, "Where was My Morning Jacket in that 55 minute monstrosity that they've passed off as an album." Since then I've done my best to re-listen as many times as possible, so I could maybe (just maybe) give it the benefit of the doubt, but it takes a great band to fail this badly, and Evil Urges is downright embarrassing.

Now, I'm all for well known bands changing up their sound, but let's make something perfectly clear, Evil Urges is no Kid A. Granted, this has been a gradual change. My Morning Jacket's first three albums all sounded relatively the same, and each one got progressively better, culminating in their strongest work, 2003s It Still Moves. In 2005 though, their restlessness became apparent, and the resulting album, Z, was a very good change of direction, as it saw the band incorporating subtle electronics into loose, dub-inspired workouts in place of a good deal of their patented, reverb-heavy Southern Rock anthems.

And now with Evil Urges, they've apparently decided to take all the beautiful restraint of Z, disregard it, shoot for some kind of southern-funk/Prince hybrid, and have gone ahead and fell flat on their face in the process. Outside of lead single "I'm Amazed", there isn't a single track that completely succeeds here. I really wish some were just bad or at the very least forgettable, but most are just flat-out horrible. "Highly Suspicious" (*wince*) is easily the worst song I've heard this year and the absolute nadir of this great band's catalog - it boggles my mind that they would find it worthy of even attaching their name to it. Jim James' fantastic falsetto is criminally muzzled here as well, to the point where it took me until the aforementioned "I'm Amazed" (the fourth song!) to be completely convinced that this was, in fact, the same band that had recorded such modern classics as "Wordless Chorus" and "Master Plan". The two part "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream" holds the most potential to be something interesting, yet not even that feels completely whole, even at a total of 12 minutes. It pains me to despise this record as much as I do, yet it would pain me even more to listen to it again. Seriously, W...T...F...????

Video: My Morning Jacket - "I'm Amazed"

"Evil Urges"

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Shearwater - Rook (***1/2)

Given the incremental leaps toward grandiosity made between their four previous records, Rook should be the record that catapults Johnathan Meiburg's Shearwater to stardom, or at least indie stardom. Alas, judging by the results, that isn't likely to happen. Rook is a subdued, moody song-cycle more reliant on atmosphere, pacing and it's own drifting ambiance than anything this band has ever previously attempted - it's almost aggressive in it's passivity. This is a record that waits for you to make the first move, for you to come to it, and it's all the better for it.

Rook is the band's fifth record, first for Matador, and first without founding member (and Okkervil River frontman) Will Sheff. Shearwater version 2.0 is finally and completely a vehicle for Johnathan Meiburg (who himself officially quit Okkervil River earlier this year). The sound of the two bands has never really been very similar, although past records still had traces of Sheff's bombast, not to mention his contrasting vocals. Rook on the other hand sounds like the work of a new and totally separate entity. This simple fact may be what ultimately disappoints curious onlookers most.

When I saw Shearwater perform last year, they closed the set with a cover of Brian Eno's "Baby on Fire", and recent shows have seen the band covering the Talk Talk classic "The Rainbow". Their influences are obviously in the right place, and while Meiburg has always had a passing vocal resemblance to Mark Hollis, Rook sees the influence of Talk Talk fully flower, both in Meiburg's otherworldly voice and in the band's eloquent restraint. There are moments on Rook - specifically on the dreamy 2nd side - that are barely there, with sparsely arranged piano phrases pillowing hushed brass arrangements (or in one case an Eno-esque ambient interlude). For all it's vast expanses of quietude though, there isn't a wasted note contained within the record's slim 39 minute runtime. "Century Eyes" is the only song here that seems like it could have possibly been a product of the old Shearwater, and it's over in barely two minutes. And I'll tell you what, if Shearwater is on it's way to a Spirit of Eden or Laughing Stock in the next few years, then it wouldn't surprise me at all if Rook came to be seen as their Colour of Spring.

RIYL: Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters, Talk Talk, Antony & the Johnsons

Highlights: "Rooks", "Leviathan, Bound", "The Snow Leopard", The Hunter's Star"


"Leviathan, Bound"

"The Snow Leopard"

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (****1/2)

Coming less than a month after the official release of their stunning Sun Giant EP, Seattle's Fleet Foxes return with a debut full-length of immense breadth, expanding upon in their staunchly antiquated song craft with 40 minutes of heavenly 5-part harmonies, gospel-inspired arrangements and breezy 70s-style California folk-pop.

Amazingly, not a single song is carried over from Sun Giant to Fleet Foxes, a problem that plagues way too many bands debuting after a beloved EP, and from the hushed opening of "Sun It Rises", it becomes apparent that these are two very distinct statements cut from the exact same cloth. Whereas Sun Giant had dynamic and instantly accessible songs such as "Drops in the River" and "Mykonos", Fleet Foxes is a much more subtle and intricate album, prone to wide-eyed slow revelations as opposed to immediate head-turns. These 10 songs are no worse for their elusiveness however, and ultimately Fleet Foxes proves to be an even more rewarding listening experience than even the EP.

This is a record (and a band) built completely on the human voice. Every song is built from the timbre, tones and nuances of the 5 band members' elaborate harmonies. It's like the folk inverse of Bjork's Medulla, a record which was literally crafted solely from the mouths of it's creators. A number of songs on Fleet Foxes - "Heard Them Stirring" being the most blatant example - use nothing more than light acoustic guitar interplay and wordless harmonizing. To drag out an old cliche, less is certainly more when it comes to Fleet Foxes, and their unstated charm is most evident when a piece slowly entices the listener towards amazement. "White Winter Hymnal" is the most immediate standout here and a perfect distillation of the Fleet Foxes aesthetic: a capella gospel vocals, laid-back country twang, and at just over two minutes, leaves you wanting more.

And thankfully, there is much more on Fleet Foxes. "Ragged Wood" channels come of the classic rock influences that colored a majority of Sun Giant, while "He Doesn't Know Why" and "Oliver James" take wonderful choruses to their least logical yet most stunning conclusions. The longer format allows the band to stretch their compositional legs as well, and Fleet Foxes has much darker undertones than the EP could have ever predicted. "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" and "Meadowlarks" in particular both utilize hypnotic and ominous repeating guitar figures to underpin lead singer Robin Pecknold's ghostly vocals and seemingly endless well of nature/wildlife ruminations.

Fleet Foxes are so beautifully out-of-step with any modern trends or styles that it becomes impossible not to feel refreshed, if not just flat-out impressed by what they've accomplished in such a short time. Sure, there are touchstones and even a few loose contemporaries (early My Morning Jacket, the more Americana-ish moments of Band of Horses), yet no one is utilizing (or even attempting to utilize) these influences to these kind of ends. Fleet Foxes sound is not of this time, yet they are distinctly modern and altogether original. This is a band that could have defined 1968 or 1972, but in 2008, they're just the best discovery in recent memory.

Highlights: "White Winter Hymnal", "Ragged Wood", "He Doesn't Know Why", "Your Protector", "Oliver James"

RIYL: My Morning Jacket, Band of Horses, Cowboy Junkies, Califone

"White Winter Hymnal"

"Tiger Mountain Peasant Song"

"Heard Them Stirring"

"Your Protector"

The Futureheads - This Is Not the World (***)

As the smoke has cleared surrounding the post-punk revival boom of the early-to-mid aughts, it's become pretty easy to see what has aged the best in regards to this dubious sub-sub-genre. The debut records from the likes of Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand and Maximo Park reek of a specific time and place (not necessarily a bad thing), when aping the slash-and-burn dance grooves of post-punk's first wave could rocket your band to radio play faster than you could say Gang of Four. Sunderland's the Futureheads dropped their self-titled debut in 2004, right at the height of this revival, yet it wasn't their XTC-by-way-of-Wire sound that brought the buzz, it was their rousing cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love". But the band's liberal use of a capella vocals and barber shop harmonies positioned them as the outsiders in a field that favored more traditional sign posts.

Since then the Futureheads have charted their own path, coincidentally becoming more palatable as they've continue to sell less and less records. After solid sophomore statement News & Tributes failed to catch on with listeners, the band was dropped by 679 Records and set about building their own label with which to personally handle future releases. What they've emerged with two years later is their most accessible and least surprising record yet, the album which would have put the band on the tongues of teens around the world had it been released in '04 as opposed to their idiosyncratic self-titled. But even unsurprising Futureheads is good Futureheads, and the resulting album, This Is Not the World, despite holding nothing of particular revelation, is still a solid source of anthemic pop-punk.

I suppose the most disappointing aspect of the record is the band's decision not to capitalize on their newfound freedom. Oddly, the band has charted a kind of reverse trajectory over the last four years, debuting with a great left-of-center post-punk record, gradually dropping the quirks that made them so distinct, and ultimately arriving at a sound that has become so ingrained in the indie-rock consciousness that almost by default it has nothing new to offer. With all that being said though, the Futureheads still do right by this sound, and there are enough clever hooks and interesting touches scattered throughout This Is Not the World to favorably recommend it.

Highlights: "The Beginning of the Twist", "Radio Heart", "See What You Want to See"

RIYL: Maximo Park, Gang of Four, Franz Ferdinand, XTC

Video: The Futureheads - "The Beginning of the Twist"

Video: The Futureheads - "Radio Heart"

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Top 10 Live Performances I've Found On Youtube

Youtube is a veritable treasure trove of rare, obscure and fan-made videos of live band performances. Let's be realistic though, a lot of them suck - bad audio, sketchy video quality, or just generic bands playing bad songs. In an attempt to weed out the chaff, I've selected my personal favorite music clips I've found while cruising around Youtube. With the exception of just one, everyone of the these videos are unavailable elsewhere. I'm just one man, and these selections obviously skew towards my favorite bands, so feel free to link to some of your favorite clips if compelled.

- The Jesus Lizard's David Yow takes a beer bottle off the head (Orbit Room, Texas; 1994)

David Yow is the best frontman ever as far as I'm concerned, and this clip of his band The Jesus Lizard performing "Seasick" is at once one of the most funny and most intense things I've ever seen. 50 seconds into this frothing take of the Goat classic, Yow emerges from the crowd only to take a beer bottle to the back of his head. He goes down; the band stops; security makes sure he is still breathing; he gets up, says "nice shot dick" and the band relaunches into "Seasick" with more firepower than ever before.

- Sonic Youth: "Silver Rocket" (Live on Saturday Night Live)

This is hands down the craziest performance ever given for a national audience on network television. No band has the balls to do this nowadays.

- Big Black: "Jordan Minnesota" (Live)

Mesmerizing version of the song I stole my internet name from. If nothing else, this is the best song ever written about child molestation. "This is Jordan, we do what we like.....come here and do as your told..."

- Boredoms (Live in New York)

Prime early-90s Boredoms, just before Yamataka Eye & company dropped the noise and started worshiping the sun.

- Animal Collective: "Winter's Love" (acoustic w/ masks)

This is a relatively new video of AC stripping down Sung Tongs' great "Winter's Love", complete with creepy masks. All that's missing is a campfire.

- Nirvana: "Negative Creep" (live @ Rhino Records, 1989)

Early clip of pre-Dave Grohl Nirvana (that's Chad Channing on drums and Jason Everman on guitar) performing "Negative Creep" in a record store. Watching this video, it's amazing that this band got as big as they did. Credit Kurt Cobain's sense of pop dynamics to cut through the din and into the hearts of millions.

- Fugazi: "Shut the Door" (live)

I had to cheat here, seeing as how this is a clip originally from the Instrument documentary, but the tension-and-release of this performance of Ian MacKaye's "Shut the Door" ranks it amongst the finest the band has ever given.

- Brian Wilson: "Surf's Up" (solo piano version; 1966)

The most heartbreaking version of Beach Boy's mastermind Brian Wilson's beautiful "Surf's Up". This is one of my favorite songs of the entire 1960s.

- The Stooges: "T.V. Eye" & "1970" (live in Cincinnati, 1971)

Sure, the video and audio quality leave a lot to be desired, yet this prime performance of Iggy and the Stooges tearing through two of Funhouse's best tracks is classic for two reasons: 1) the chance to see Iggy Pop writhe and contort himself for the pleasure of thousands, and 2) the television announcer who has no idea how to react to what he is witnessing.

- Radiohead: "True Love Waits" (live)

It's not often that a song that has never seen official release on any of a band's studio albums gets as famous as "True Love Waits", my personal favorite Radiohead song.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Ladytron - Velocifero (***)

Coming a full three years after the Witching Hour and it's wonderful semi-smash single "Destroy Everything You Touch", London-based synth-gazers Ladytron's newest effort, Velocifero, arrives in '08 with an air of expectedness. Nothing in the band's past could have prepared audiences for the sensory overload of the Witching Hour, and yet, despite being a much darker album on the whole, Velocifero is being greeted with an unfair amount of shrugged-shoulder indifference. It's true, nothing here can match the heights of "Destroy", but Velocifero is a solid refinement of the ideas explored on the Witching Hour and a record sure to please anyone with even a passing interest in this brand of 80s-bred synth-rock. My only peeve with Ladytron is their lack of concision. This is a 13 track, 55 minute album with little-to-no dynamic range to speak of, making it a hard record to sit through in one sitting. It's pretty darn consistent throughout though, so I haven't a clue exactly what I'd excise. Velocifero is a record that will flirt with you at random throughout the year in hopes that it's sinister allure will entice further examination. And hey, more often than not, it does just that.

Highlights: "Ghosts", "Runaway", "Tomorrow"

RIYL: Depeche Mode, Goldfrapp, Le Tigre

Video: Ladytron - "Ghosts"


"I'm Not Scared"

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Cool Kids - The Bake Sale EP (***1/2)

For being quite possibly the first Myspace-bred hip-hop group, Chicago's the Cool Kids sure do act retro: they dress like Erik B. & Rakim with an EPMD fetish and they rhyme like "the new black version of the Beastie Boys". Yet their production - while certainly indebted to spare, Public Enemy-heavy, late 80s bangers - still manages to look past modern rap's booty bounce aesthetic with their refreshing use of live drums and compact, trunk-rattling beats. The duo's lyrics are playful and engaging, full of head-spinningly humorous asides that sidestep extraneous misogynist wordplay, while kicking out the f-bomb crutch that so much contemporary hip-hop leans on. Instead, the Cool Kids rap about Sega, breakfast cereal and bicycles, making it all sound oddly prescient and far more exciting than whatever gun charge your favorite rapper is trying to live down. I don't fancy myself a rap expert by any means - so take this for what it's worth - but The Bake Sale is the best hip-hop record I've heard since Hell Hath No Fury.

Highlights: "What Up Man", "Black Mags", "Mikey Rocks", "A Little Bit Cooler", "Jingling"

Video: The Cool Kids - "Black Mags"

"One Two"

"What Up Man"

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Spiritualized - Songs in A&E (****)

Jason Spaceman (née Pierce) returns from a five year drug binge - a period of time which included an extended stay in the hospital as he battled a life threatening bout with double-pneumonia - with his best album since his landmark 1997 album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, the record with which he cemented his legacy apart from his former band, the legendary Spacemen 3.

Songs in A&E (as in Accident & Emergency ward) sees Pierce once again blurring the lines between the only three subjects he's ever plumbed: love, god and drugs, or some combination or variation of all three at once. With lyrics such as "morphine, codeine, whiskey, they won't alter the way I feel now that death is not around", it's not hard to see that Pierce's misfortunes are at the forefront of his mind. But on anthemic first single "Soul on Fire", a chorus hook of "I gotta hurricane inside my veins and I wanna stay forever", render his intentions slightly less clear, if no less beautiful.

After twenty-plus years of abuse and less-than-recommended leisure activities, Pierce's voice isn't quite the same as the angelic falsetto he perfected with Spacemen 3. While much of the music on Songs in A&E sounds revitalized, at least in comparison to the lazy garage rock of his last couple records, Pierce more often than not adopts a deeper, gruffer moan here, most chillingly utilized on "Death Take Your Fiddle", in which he sounds on the brink of collapse, accompanied only by the heaving sighs of a respirator. It's one of many spine tingling moments scattered throughout Songs in A&E.

Pierce's most inspired decision here though is his move back to the orchestrated-pysch of his Ladies and Gentleman phase. The amped-up Stooges swagger of 2003s Amazing Grace is curbed, as well as the at times overbearing gospel choir vocals of 2001s Let It Come Down. That's not to say that Songs in A&E is tempered in any way however - there are still tracks such as "You Lie You Cheat" and "I Gotta Fire" that show off Pierce's instantly recognizable, ear-scraping guitar tone. Songs in A&E is a much more concise and focused statement than either of those two records though, with only one song passing the 7 minute mark (quite the accomplishment for Pierce). It's also a brilliantly sequenced album, slowly emerging from a comatose opening and on through it's vicious mid-section, until finally seeing it's eyes slowly drift shut with closing hymn "Goodnight Goodnight", which reverently cops the refrain from Daniel Johnston's "Funeral Home".

Adding to the ebb and flow of the album are six short, carefully sequenced instrument-specific pillow songs, identified as "Harmony 1-6" after film director Harmony Korine, who is at least partially responsible for Pierce's reemergence here. Beyond on the back story and hype though, this is just another great Spiritualized album. This, coming after many years of less-than-impressive efforts, is more than I ever expected to say about any Pierce project. Yeah, he's still mining the same topics he built his career on, yet the determination and prowess on display here is truly something to behold. This is the return to form the Brian Jonestown Massacre have been aiming for for almost a decade; the record that The Black Angels and The Secret Machines continually come up short trying to re-create; as well as the ten years in the making follow-up to Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Or to put it more succinctly, Songs in A&E is the most inspiring music I've heard all year.

Highlights: "Death Take Your Fiddle", "Soul on Fire", "Baby I'm Just a Fool", "Borrowed Your Gun"

Video: Spiritualized - "Soul on Fire"

"Sweet Talk"

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Lie Down in the Light (***1/2)

Will Oldham and his various monikers are perpetual entries on my year-end lists: his last album, 2006s beautiful The Letting Go, made my Top 50; Superwolf, his 2005 collaboration with Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney, made my Top 10 that year; and two of his records - 1995s Viva Last Blues & 1999s terrifyingly perfect I See a Darkness - both made my Top 50 Albums of the 90s list. Which is all to say that this dude is consistent. Yes, he has scattered his discography among multiple names and projects, yet nearly everything released under his Bonnie "Prince" Billy guise is essential listening. His newest record Lie Down in the Light is no different, as it arrives with little-to-no pre-release hype, belying the fact that this may be his strongest non-collaborative LP of the decade.

Aesthetically, Lie Down in the Light initially comes across as a return to a rootsier, more Americana-ish sound than his last couple records. You can thank Lambchop's Mark Nevers I suppose, who has lightened the mood significantly from the bleaker tones achieved by The Letting Go producer Valgier Sigurdsson, helping to lend this record it's laid back, spontaneous vibe. If you've been following Oldham for any extended period of time though, nothing here is very far outside of his comfort zone, at least musically. What sets Lie Down in the Light apart from Oldham's recent recordings though is it's comparatively hopeful outlook on life. Whereas Superwolf and particularly I See a Darkness reveled in a death-rattle imprisonment, here Oldham celebrates the simple and heart warming things in life, whether that be family, love or even something as simple as a good tune.

Just as he did with Dawn McCarthy on The Letting Go, once again Oldham has brought in a female muse to play counterpoint to his high rasp. This time it's Amy Webber, and they compliment each other wonderfully, even going so far as to duet their way through the physical aspects of a male-female relationship on "So Everyone". It's only natural to grow complacent when an artist such as Oldham releases so much quality material so consistently and over such an extended period of time, yet as Lie Down in the Light proves, only those who take Oldham's considerable talents for granted will remained unmoved by his most current triumph.

Highlights: "Easy Does It", "(Keep Eye On) Other's Gain", "You Want That Picture", "Where is the Puzzle?", "Lie Down in the Light"

"Easy Does It"

"You Want That Picture"

"Where is the Puzzle?"

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Instruments - Dark Småland (***)

Third and quite possibly most engaging album yet from Heather McIntosh's Instruments project, again featuring a bevy of Elephant 6 alumni, including Olivia Tremor Control's Will Cullen Hart and Neutral Milk Hotel's reclusive Jeff Mangum. Dark Småland is a meditative and eerily moody record full of lush arrangements, hypnotic lyrical phrases and rich production touches. It's also a patient and in some cases a distancing listening experience - cursory listens will reveal very little of what McIntosh is trying to accomplish here, which seems to be to wrench emotion from the simplest of ideas and repetitions. Dark Småland probably won't satisfy those looking for a classic E6 psych-pop record, yet as the inverse of what this roster of musicians brings to mind, it works surprisingly well on it's own terms.

Highlights: "Ode to the Sea", "Mountain Song", "First Signs"

"Ode to the Sea" (featuring Jeff Mangum)