Sunday, November 30, 2008

Stereo Sanctity's Year-End Schedule

I'm not sure what it is exactly, but I've turned the critical switch off in my mind somehow, and decided to shut down music reviews for the rest of the year. I had a few more on the docket, including one for the very good new Love Is All album (if you need my recommendation, there it is), but I have instead chose to bump up my year-end music lists a week. That means that tomorrow I will unveil my Top Ten Songs of 2008, followed by my Top Ten Albums of 2008 list the following week (12/8). Film content will remain the same, although I will be fixing it so these music lists will remain in the top position on the main blog page, so new content will be posted underneath those. I'll have a round-up of some recent films later in the week, so look for that. I figured that all people care about at this point in the year is lists anyway, so there you have it. Happy reading.

Top Ten List Round-Up: Music

We've reached the most exciting part of the year for us critics, as a wave of big music publications have unleashed their best of 2008 lists. Here is a quick round-up of some top tens, with links to the complete lists included.

Perusing these questionable lists reveals some deep love for certain albums. That Fleet Foxes record shows up on most of these, while Third was a great choice by Uncut. I have no clue why there is so much acclaim for Kings of Leon, a band that, quite frankly, I can't stand. I'm a little surprised that Dear Science isn't on every top ten as well, and I would seriously question any publication that ranks it at #50 (that would be Paste, normally the only one of these mags that I would put any stock in). Meanwhile, my favorite record of the year is nowhere to be found on any of these lists (not surprising), although I do foresee it be on a few indie website lists in the near future. And it's weird to see the great For Emma, Forever Ago on 2008 lists, when it really came out in '07. Although that's nothing compared to Robyn, which came out like 3 years ago. Anyway, have a look and see what they did wrong (Neil Diamond, Fall Out Boy, WTF?!?). And thanks to Stereogum for making this so easy.

10. Paul Weller - 22 Dreams
9. Kings Of Leon - Only By The Night
8. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!
7. Neon Neon - Stainless Style
6. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
5. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
4. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
3. TV On The Radio - Dear Science
2. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
1. Portishead - Third

10. Neil Diamond - Home Before Dark
9. The Bug - London Zoo
8. The Week That Was - The Week That Was
7. Glasvegas - Glasvegas
6. The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
4. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
3. Paul Weller - 22 Dreams
2. The Last Shadow Puppets - The Age Of The Understatement
1. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

10. Fall Out Boy - Folie A Deux
09. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
08. Randy Newman - Harps and Angels
07. Of Montreal - Skeletal Lamping
06. Robyn - Robyn
05. Hot Chip - Made In The Dark
04. Metallica - Death Magnetic
03. TV On The Radio - Dear Science
02. Girl Talk - Feed The Animals
01. Lil' Wayne - Tha Carter III

10. Deerhunter - Microcastle
09. Lucinda Williams - Little Honey
08. Sun Kil Moon - April
07. Girl Talk - Feed the Animals
06. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
05. Okkervil River - The Stand Ins
04. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
03. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
02. Sigur Rós - Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust
01. She & Him - Volume One

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Break Up Your Band" Launches/Signing Off....

UPDATE (11/25/08): A new periodic column I've begun writing for In Review Online has officially launched today. It's entitled "Break Up Your Band", and it's basically a series on the most essentials albums in music history. I explain it all in my introduction to the series, and beginning next week I will be highlighting specific albums and writing in-depth histories/analysis of each one. Here's the list of essentials I will be drawing from, to which I will adding to every so often. Also, check out the revamped In Review Online. Looking very sleek to these eyes. Lots of new movie and music reviews to peruse all over the site.
That is all...

Well it looks as if I'll be signing off for the week earlier than expected. Things have gotten all balled up on my end, what with my contributions to Pop Matters heating up, as well as a new feature set to be launched at In Review Online as early as tomorrow. So unfortunately, that Belle & Sebastian BBC Sessions review has to be pushed back until this weekend at the earliest. I will return to regular content next Monday though, with reviews of the new records from Love Is All and possibly the Lucksmiths, in addition to some capsule reviews of some new movies, including Australia, Slumdog Millionaire and (ouch) Quantum of Solace.

Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving

Sunday, November 23, 2008


It took til the 11th month of the year, but the best record of 2008 has finally revealed itself. I can't even properly articulate this album's crystalline beauty and mesmerizing pull, and as such I am not even going to offer a full review at this time. We are coming up quickly on Stereo Sanctity's year-end list features though, so I'm thinking I may just save my thoughts on this record as a special surprise for those of you willing to wait for my Top 20 Albums of 2008 list. It took four years of patient waiting on our part for this artist to finally follow-up their last masterwork, and the results here are frequently breathtaking, so I'm sure you guys can wait a few weeks to find out this record's identity. I haven't seen any major reviews of the album yet (it's official release date is this Tuesday the 24th; I just happened to get my copy via import from London a week prior), though I'm sure you can expect to see some widespread critical praise from some of the more eclectic publications out there. Ironically, the record that I was assigned to write about for Pop Matters' year-end best album list, El Guincho's Alegranza!, has now been unceremoniously bumped from my final top 10 in favor of this album.

On a side note, next week will be cut short as Thanksgiving approaches. I will be updating Monday and Tuesday like normal, highlighted by a review of Belle & Sebastian's BBC Sessions disc, and then will be signing off for the rest of the week.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"The Wrestler" Trailer

You could already cut the anticipation with a knife, and now we have the trailer for Darren Arofnosky's ridiculously-hyped new film, The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke is a sure-fire Oscar nominee, and Marissa Tomei looks to rebound after her snubbing last year for Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Let's just come and say it though, this looks flat-out fantastic.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Jeremy Jay - A Place Where We Could Go (***)

If only Jeremy Jay would croon just a little bit more when he decides to devolve into his patented sing-speak, then he could more properly fall into his preferred lineage of Morrissey, Jonathan Richman and Calvin Johnson. His music doesn't necessarily sound much like The Smiths, The Modern Lovers or Beat Happening mind you - although they are all clearly influences - it's too lounge-y and kept under glass for that, but on his debut album, A Place Where We Could Go, Jay weaves a nice little through-line to all those artists, adopting a distinctly French perspective (which he speaks fluidly) for his chilly late night tales of love, travel and comfort. The comparisons to Calvin Johnson run a little deeper than most others however, as Jay is signed to the legendary pop imprint K Records, which Johnson has ran for over two decades now. Overs the years, the label has been a haven for all things twee and lo-fi, and Jeremy Jay is just about the perfect artist to carry the label's torch well into the 21st century.

At this stage though, he's still a little underdeveloped. He doesn't have the biting wit of Morrissey at his disposal, nor quite the self-deprecating humor of Jens Lekman, who's probably Jay's closest conceptual cousin. Right now, he is more like Jonathan Richman in chrysalis, making casual observations about day-to-day life, occasionally stumbling upon a moving sentiment or catchy melody. However, the nice thing about A Place Where We Could Go as a stand alone entity is it's uniformity, with Jay's dedication to a single aesthetic stitching these 11 songs together, even if every last one of them aren't necessarily all that essential. Whereas Jay's earlier material leaned a little too heavily on the synth to pick up some melodic slack (check last year's promising Airwalker EP), A Place Where We Could Go finds Jay limiting himself to just guitar, piano and drums. The record features some loose but stately arrangements, with some occasionally aggresive guitar parts, yet with a little more finesse, Jay could have something really special on his hands.

The best of these songs can stand-up well enough on their own however. "Heavenly Creatures", "Beautiful Rebel" and "Oh, Bright Young Things" all paint the portrait of a young singer well beyond his years (Jay doesn't look too far out of his teens), his rich baritone providing surprising gravitas to a handful of these precious little songs, which seemingly mine 50s lounge singers and French New Wave cinema as much 80s indie-pop. He surely has his influences in the right place, and the appropriate friends to lend credence to his work, and the overriding feeling that his best work is yet to come should ensure a cult of listeners patiently waiting for new material.

Highlights: "Heavenly Creatures", "Beautiful Rebel" and "Oh, Bright Young Things"

The 10 Most Underrated Albums of 2008

I've expressed my discontent with the 2008 music landscape for months, although I have to say, as I put together my Top Ten Lists for Pop Matters last week, I was pleasantly surprised to find my lists quite strong in their entirety. Not '07 strong mind you, but not as disappointing as I had come to expect. What 2008 has had though is a constant influx of strong records that many folks paid little attention to. If nothing else, '08 was a deep year for music, and right now I'd like to highlight ten records that won't make my upcoming list of the Top 20 Albums of the year, but more than merit consideration, despite the cold shoulder some of them received.

In alphabetical order:

David Byrne & Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

Yes, this is an altogether different record from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne and Eno's first collaboration from 1981, but I was still surprised at the somewhat muted response to this wonderful electro-pop record. Byrne's pipes are in prime form, and Eno still creates some head-turning soundscapes. It was self-released and recorded on their own terms, and as a result, it works wonderfully as undiluted modern pop music.

Calexico - Carried to Dust

Almost every Calexico record could be considered underrated, but Carried to Dust, coming a couple years after the more straightforward Garden of Ruin, was a nice return to their Southwestern Mariachi music that we've come to most readily associate with the band. They've made a couple better records, but I'd say Carried to Dust is perhaps the best starting point for the curious among you.

Brendan Canning - Something for All of Us

Kevin Drew's solo album got tons of hype last year, and even cracked a few top ten lists, but I've listened to Something For All Us more consistently and grown to love it in ways that I never did with Spirit If... (although I admire that record a great deal). Canning is certainly the secret weapon in Broken Social Scene, and with Something for All of Us, he continues to prove it time and again.

Destroyer - Trouble in Dreams

Destroyer's Rubies was a huge critical darling, and Trouble in Dreams, while admittedly not as strong, still holds within it's disorienting world great rewards. Dan Bejar's labyrinth wordplay is on full display, and the tricky arrangements he has been leaning on lately are brought to their logical ends. Bejar may spread himself to thin between his many projects, but it's with Destroyer that he releases his most substantial work.

Jamie Lidell - Jim

Whenever a song comes on from Jim, I stop and wonder why the record wasn't fawned over the same way Multiply was in 2006. Perhaps familiarity with the Jamie Lidell sound, but still, there is still no one out there currently making soul music with this much, well, soul. Lidell is an outrageous personality, and as the title suggests, Jim is his most personal musical statement to date.

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks - Real Emotional Trash

Even I took this record for granted, and I'll be the first to admit it. I awarded Real Emotional Trash 2 1/2-stars upon my initial review, referring to it as wanky and unfocused. However, eight months and dozens of listens later, those very characteristics have slowly turned into attributes, as I have continually reached for this record when fed up with the current influx of buzz bands. It's not the best Malkmus solo joint, but it may very well be the most interesting.

Melvins - Nude With Boots

I originally gave Nude With Boots a perfectly content 3-star review, but I now take it back. This is a guns-blazing, kick-ass, 4-star record if there ever was one. Melvins are in a amazingly rewarding career renaissance right now, and you'd be foolish not to take notice. This is among the best heavy records of the year. I love it.

The Notwist - The Devil, You + Me

Neon Golden is an impossible record to exceed, and bearing that in mind, there is no reason to discount the Notwist's beautiful new record, The Devil, You + Me. It's front-loaded for sure, but the more methodical back half holds some equally worthwhile rewards. We waited six years for this record, there is no use in dismissing it so offhandedly.

Silver Jews - Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

I'll fully admit that this is the slightest and most casual Silver Jews record to date, but since when is a man getting his life together and celebrating his new found inspiration a bad thing? The lyrics are a little goofy for David Berman (who is deathly serious most of the time), but Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is adventurous, listenable and altogether enjoyable from start to finish. And although it may not show up on my list, "Suffering Jukebox" is among my favorite individual tracks of the entire year.

Stereolab - Chemical Chords

The Sea and Cake's Car Alarm got a lot of worthy accolades this year for exceeding the expectations of a group who had become overly consistent, at times almost to a tee. Stereolab fall into a similar line with the Sea and Cake, but Chemical Chords didn't receive a fraction of the goodwill Car Alarm did. After a couple a middling records, Stereolab re-embraced immediacy and pop structures, resulting in quite possibly the band's best record since their mid-90s heyday.

Were there any albums release in 2008 that you felt were particularly underrated/overlooked? Let us know in the comments.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms (***)

"Half Asleep" is all too appropriate a title for the music of School of Seven Bells. Whether they meant for that song to tip their hand in any way is certainly debatable, but there is an inherent calmness to their pulsating sonic drift, equally hypnotic and monotonous. Comprised of ex-Secret Machines guitarist Benjamin Curtis and former On!Air!Library! sirens Claudia and Alejandra Deheza, School of Sevens Bells sound little like either band, although the prog tendencies of the former and the ambient calm of the latter both have small roles to play on their debut LP, Alpinisms. The best comparison I can come up with is a more electronic-tinged, new age-inspired My Bloody Valentine, draped with a bit of the Cocteau Twins and their ethereal haze. In fact, it's the former band that may very well have been their jumping off point, as it almost sounds like School of Seven Bells took to heart My Bloody Valentine's drug-induced dance classic "Soon" and built their entire band around the concept. You'll find nothing quite that inspired on Alpinisms mind you, but there are a number of effectively swooning tracks present here.

The most memorable moments on Alpinisms come when Curtis finds an appropriate mix of beat construction and synth washes, as on opener "Iamundernodisguise", which is School of Seven Bells at their most minimal but also most trance inducing. When they lay on the new age sheen too thick, as on a few of the songs falling towards the album's center (particularly "For Kalaja Mari"and "White Elephant Coat"), Alpinisms can become rather tedious. As a result, a lot of the first half of the record could easily fade into the background, as the Deheza sisters don't do much to differentiate their voices from the sonic soup that bubbles up around them. This all culminates in the interminable, 11 minute centerpiece "Sempiternal/Amaranth", which halts any momentum the band as built up in favor of a prog-ish, bleeping, occasionally throbbing, yet barely graspable monstrosity.

Thankfully, "Sempiternal/Amaranth" represents the tipping point for Alpinisms, as the record's last quarter is it's strongest, and hopefully a sign of where Curtis plans on taking this project in the future. The closing trifecta of "Chain", "Prince of Peace" and "My Cabal" immediately stand out for their distinctive use of the two singers voices, as each features what is by far the most memorable vocal hooks of the album. The former's vocodor-enhanced hook is playfully human despite it's origin, while "Prince of Peace" is tribal and even uproarious, almost like a female revision of a Yeasayer song. And closer "My Cabal" is appropriately mantra-like for an album that is, if nothing else, pretty single minded. School of Seven Bells stumble most noticably when their reach exceeds their grasp, and the length of this whole ordeal (11 songs in just under an hour) is it's biggest obstacle. Still, taken in managable chunks, there is a lot to like here, and enough promise present in their sound to warrant attention from those who go in for this sort of trance-inducing bliss.

Highlights: "Iamundernodisguise", "Chain", "Prince of Peace"

"Face to Face in High Places"


Monday, November 17, 2008

Depp as The Mad Hatter

Depp + Burton + Alice in Wonderland = Creepily effective

[via Incontention]

Los Campesinos! - We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed (***1/2)

Stereo Sanctity Album of the Week
(November 16 - 22, 2008)

Those thick Welsh accents belie the fact that Cardiff-based Los Campesinos! are the most American of the current contingent of foreign-born pop groups. If not in sound, then certainly in approach, as this seven-piece band gleefully apes from a wide aesthetic swath of 80 & 90s American indie-rock and pop (check that spot-on album cover), particularly Pavement, Beat Happening, Heavenly and even Black Flag (all of which the band have covered on record). Despite all the frames of reference though, this is still determinedly peppy pop music, full of chiming guitars, clinking keyboards, cheeky glockenspiels and swooping strings. It's self-conscious and prone to fits of screaming, and at times can become overwhelming if not consumed in small doses, but with We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, the band's second album in less than year (following this Spring's slightly superior Hold On Now, Youngster), Los Campesinos! have solidified their spot at the forefront of the trans-continental indie-pop scene.

Releasing two records in a single year would be a tall task for any band, and seeing how We Are Beautiful doesn't in any way come across as Youngster left-overs, the highest compliment I can pay Los Campesinos! is that they are riding a wave of inspiration right now that is nearly second-to-none. Youngster being the stronger of the two records has more to do with the fact that it carried over a few of the best tracks from their wonderful 2007 EP Sticking Fingers into Sockets, more so than it has to do with any single song being sub-par here. In fact, We Are Beautiful feels like a more thoughtfully arranged record, as if more time were put into it's sequencing and flow than with Youngster, although this music is still as hyperactive and unpredictable as ever.

Still, in many ways, We Are Beautiful is a more experimental record than the band's previous work, as the spoken-word sections of the title track and the one-minute intrumental "Between an Erupting Sky and an Exploding Earth" bear witness to. Everything else is more or less what you've come to expect from these guys (and gals) however. Opener "Ways to Make it Through a Wall" is jumpy and giddy and as infectious a song as they've written, while "You'll Need Those Fingers for Crossing", Beautiful's answer to Youngster's "You! Me! Dancing!", is a meticulously built mini-epic with some of the Gareth Campesinos' most insightful lyrics. They even make room for a ballad, a first for the band, with the quietly soothing penultimate track "Heart Swells/Pacific Daylight Time".

The most rewarding aspect of the Los Campesinos! formula is the frequent feel as if they've stumbled upon a melody or an insight as if by accident. As all good bands do though, they make the most of these little discoveries and dive headlong into their influences like on-coming traffic. It's a beautiful wreck of a sound they have constructed over two full-lengths and an EP, and they don't seem to be slowing down for the listener to catch their breath anytime soon.

Highlights: "Ways to Make It Through a Wall", "Miserabilia", "It's Never That Easy Though, Is It? (Song for the Other Kurt)"

"Ways to Make It Through a Wall"

"We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed"

Friday, November 14, 2008

Looking ahead (it's all happening...)

I've kept mum of the subject in recent weeks, seeing as how I haven't officially contributed anything to the site yet, but I am now a music critic for Pop Matters. As of right now, my first work for the site will probably be for their year-end music lists (to which today I contributed my Top Tens for Albums, Songs and Reissues). I'll be sure to link to my reviews and/or contributions (I have a feeling my main work may be seen mostly on the Sound Affects blog), so go ahead and keep checking back.

On a related note, there is a lot of goings on the newly revamped In Review Online as well. A few new reviews of mine plus the newest Chasing Gold column, which turned out very well if I do say so myself.

And just as a heads up, here's what should be going down list-wise at Stereo Sanctity in coming weeks.

The Week of December 8th: The Top 10 Songs of 2008
The Week of December 15th: The Top 20 Albums of 2008
The Week of December 29th: The Top 10 Films of 2008

Happy reading....

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Passion Pit - Chuck of Change EP (***)

2008 has smiled kindly on the extended-play format. This year alone has seen wonderful EPs from Animal Collective, The Clientele, The Mountain Goats, Crystal Stilts, Antony & the Johnsons, Crystal Antlers and Air France (to name but a few), a number of which will no doubt be showing up on more than a few high profile critic's top ten lists. And then there's Michael Angelakos, the one-man band behind the Passion Pit moniker, who originally recorded this EP as a Valentine's Day gift for his girlfriend. Making the story even more unlikely is that the record was actually good enough (and universal enough) to pass around to friends of Angelakos, who in turn spread the word about some of the most purely enjoyable bedroom electro-pop to come around in quite a while, eventually being picked up by Frenchkiss Records for wide release. At just about 30 minutes in length, Chunk of Change is also a much more substantial release than that EP descriptor would imply.

For a record made by a guy with not much more than an audience-of-one in mind, Chunk of Change is (with the exception of a few specific lyrics) surprisingly broad in its scope and equally meticulous in it's construction. Opener "I've Got Your Number" is the undeniable standout, as its irresistible multi-part hook builds to near incomprehensible heights over an undulating electronic backing. Angelakos' vocals, high, feminine and occasionally verging on the shrill (and I mean that in the best way possible), actually end up sending the song over the top, as he seemingly moves way beyond of his vocal range to deliver one of the best pure pop hooks of the year. Beyond that, it's one of the flat-out best songs I've heard in '08, and easily the most convincing evidence that Angelakos is a talent worth watching. Following a song of such unequivocal brilliance would be a difficult task for even the most seasoned of veterans, so I can't really criticize Angelakos for not scaling similar heights again because, well, that would be near unthinkable.

The rest of the EP then, while not quite as impressive, still holds numerous moments of infectious melodies and, more importantly, inventive arrangements. With every song hovering around the 5 minute mark - save the wonderfully brief closing track "Sleepyhead" - you'd think that these songs wouldn't be able to sustain their momentum above and beyond the more accepted 2 1/2 minute pop song length. Not so though, as Angelakos drops enough twists and turns into the structures of his tracks to keep things more than interesting for their duration. Not surprisingly then, what holds back some of these songs are the lyrics. Obviously, not the whole of the underground pop community was meant to hear these songs, but one assumes that some of the in-jokes and references wouldn't have been included had a larger audience been in mind (I'm thinking specifically of the cheeky "Cuddle Fuddle"). Angelakos never settles for a simple "I love you" though, and even if only his girlfriend could possibly pick up on all the details, there is simply no way to discount Angelakos' way with a melody. With the help of this EP, and the word of a full-length to come in early 2009, Passion Pit have now pushed their way to the front of next year's most anticipated list.

Highlights: "I've Got Your Number", "Smile Upon Me", "Sleepyhead"

"I've Got Your Number"


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Unraveling "Synecdoche, New York"

I've only come across a couple of truly worthwhile explanations/deconstructions of Charlie Kaufman's bafflingly brilliant new film Synecdoche, New York. Personally, I didn't even try to properly review the film, as doing so would have devolved into pretentious, over-analyzed drivel. So I've left that heady task to two much superior writers who have taken on the challenge to varying degrees. Both are essential reads for champions (and maybe more importantly, for dissenters) of the film.

The first is by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times.

The second is Roger Ebert's 4-star review and, more substantially, his just published accompanying blog post, "O Synecdoche, my Synecdoche!", in which he compares the film to great literature, while taking the time to acknowledge and refute the haters. Here, he has some words for Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman (who gave the film a D+ rating):
"Yes, Owen, I think "Synecdoche, N.Y." is a masterpiece. But here I've written all this additional wordage about it, and I still haven't reviewed it. How could I? You've seen it. How could I, in less time than it takes to see the movie, summarize the plot? I must say that in your finite EW space, you do a heroic job of describing what happens. But what happens is not the whole point. The movie is about how and why the stuff that happens--happens. Might as well try to describe the plot of Ulysses in 800 words or less. All you can do is try to find a key. Just in writing that, I think I have in a blinding flash solved the impenetrable mystery of Joyce's next novel, Finnegans Wake. It is the stream of conscious of a man trying to write Ulysses and always running off to chase cats."
This is one film where I can truly say that you owe it to yourself to see it. No matter your opinion of the finished product, it is impossible not to come away thinking. And how many movies can make that claim nowadays?

Luomo - Convivial (***)

The title of Sasu Rippati's 2000 album Vocalcity wasn't just an enveloping concept for the record at hand, but a handy blueprint for everything Rippati has since attempted under the Luomo banner. Vocalcity was a landmark in the house community, and the following two records, while not as head-turning as Luomo's debut, still managed to streamline Rippati's approach while adding the human voice to nearly every square inch of his propulsive sound. The fourth Luomo album, Convivial, is Rippati's most pop-oriented work to date, featuring a nice roll call of guest vocalists and a comparatively compact structure, with each song hovering around the 6-8 minute mark, as opposed to the lengthier excursions of previous albums. It's still a dense and occasionally exhausting listen, but it is still probably the best inroad into Rippati's work for the unfamiliar or house adverse.

As has slowly become the case with nearly all the work Rippati has done under the Luomo moniker (you may also recognize his other work as Vladislav Delay or Uusitalo), the success of each individual track hinges on that of the vocal performance. As the music of Luomo has become somewhat ingrained in the spheres of house and minimal techno, your eventual acceptance of Convivial, and Loumo as a musical entity, will more often than not come down to your affinity for the man or woman behind the mic. If nothing else, Convivial features Ripatti's most wide-ranging guest vocalists to date, with both Apparat's Sascha Ring and Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears lending their distinctive pipes to the proceedings to compliment (among others) Luomo regular Johanna Iivanainen, who pops up in three different tracks. The former two standout immediately and help anchor the front-loaded first quarter of the record, as both "Love You All" and "If I Can't", with their falsetto vocals and flamboyant facade on full display, lend an androgynous sexiness to the proceedings.

Sadly, I can't give my whole-hearted praise to entirety of the record though, as Sue-C's guest rap on "Nothing Goes Away" makes me cringe in a way that I haven't since Justice's similarly cheesy "Ttthee Ppaarrttyy". And Johanna Iivanainen, while she's a perfectly fine vocalist, gets a little same-y as she shows up three times in the last four songs. Plus, as Luomo travels down this more electro-pop oriented terrain, I wish he would have scaled back his compositions even further than he has, as listening to Convivial as entire 70 minute record tends to be a more of a chore than a privilege. On a song by song basis though, Convivial may be Luomo's most welcoming and playlist-worthy work yet. It couldn't possibly top Vocalcity for sheer ingenuity, and to Rippati's credit he is not even attempting to, but as a reconciling of past experiments and as a venture down more accessible roads, Convivial is occasionally inspired.

Highlights: "Have You Ever", "Love You All", "If I Can't", "Slow Dying Places"

"If I Can't" (ft. Jake Shears)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Crystal Stilts - Alight of the Night (***)

Only one song was officially a demo on Crystal Stilts' self-titled debut EP (released earlier this year exclusively via Emusic), although you'd never realize that fact when listening to their full-length debut Alight of the Night, which carries over three of the EPs best tracks in infinitely fuller form. I'm not sure if I'd call it better form however, as these songs at a base level are pretty strong pop songs in their own right. On Alight of the Night though, the reverb is layered even thicker, the guitars are more twice as robust, and the blurred haze that drifted throughout their early work is stacked head-high from the album's opening notes. As a result, the garage rock vibe of the band is accentuated, while the kiwi-pop tendencies that critics have been so eager to point out are now buried beneath towers of slow-motion amp fuzz. There is something to be said for both approaches, although the EP may be more palatable and easily approachable for first time listeners (I'd say they're about equal in quality).

For what amounts to basic 2 or 3 chord pop songs, the music Crystal Stilts make is certainly in no hurry to get anywhere. A good majority of the tracks on these two records resemble morbid waltzes, as singer Brad Hargett growls in a low baritone not far off from his post-punk forebears (many will point toward Ian Curtis, perhaps rightfully), while his band lays down deceptively simple organ, guitar and bass riffs. It's spookily effective music, and while the homogeneous sound of the group, especially pronounced on Alight, can easily slip into the background, close listens reveal little instrumental flourishes that should make repeat listens mandatory. So it's a grower in the most basic sense, where full respect won't be rewarded until prolonged exposure helps the fog of sound dissipate into clear intentions.

This works as both an advantage and a disadvantage for Crystal Stilts, as the less than memorable songs scattered throughout Alight tend to blur into the whole rather than stand apart. The EP kept things interesting with varying sound quality and stripped down arrangements, whereas Alight applies the same wall-of-sound tactic across the majority of its 11 tracks (save the beautifully spare closer "City in the Sea"). So songs like "Crystal Stilts", "Prismatic Room" and "Shattered Shine" all stick out like sore thumbs, as they are easily the most developed and well executed (EP standout "Crippled Croon" unfortunately didn't make the full-length cut). On the other end of the spectrum though are tracks like "Graveyard Orbit" and "Departure" which can float by unnoticed if you've not fully given your attention over to the music. So the whole of Alight of the Night doesn't exactly add up to more than the sum of it's interesting parts, but as the handful of standout tracks here proves, the pieces are certainly there for a great album in the future. In the meantime though, there is plenty on Alight of the Night to get excited about.

Highlights: "Crystal Stilts", Prismatic Room", "Shattered Shine"

"Shattered Shine"

"Prismatic Room"

"The City in the Sea"

Monday, November 10, 2008

Max Tundra - Parallax Error Beheads You (****)

Stereo Sanctity Album of the Week
(November 9 - 15, 2008)

It's hard to believe it's been six whole years since Max Tundra dropped the dizzyingly brilliant Mastered by Guy at the Exchange. Even with all the goodwill afforded the electro-pop community in the record's wake, nothing yet has come close to matching Mastered by Guy for sheer pop ingenuity or intricacy. Listening back, it's still a stunning conflation of IDM, glitch, pop and indie-rock, and it all but pointed the way to the ongoing dance-rock renaissance, although the album glitched, twitched and sputtered more than it ever quote-unquote rocked. Those of you looking for Tundra's new record, Parallax Error Beheads You, to follow a similar structural identity to Mastered by Guy will probably leave a little disappointed, as Parallax takes the ADD-addled arrangements of that record and streamlines the approach into 10 fully-formed electro-pop gems.

Gone, for example, are sub one-minute transitional pieces such as the all-build-no-release of "61over", instead replaced with structurally sound, if still spastically arranged, 3 minute pop songs. So Parallax is the most instantly appealing of Tundra's records, as it comparatively takes less chances with sound than Mastered by Guy did (and I'd be lying if said I didn't miss the vocal contributions of Tundra's sister Becky), yet the whole of the record is helped considerably as each successive track builds toward the triumphant 11 minute finale "Until We Die". Parallax flexes it's muscles most during it's opening and closing 3 song stretches. Opener "Gun Chimes" immediately breaks out Tundra's trusty piano and rides a wave of chiming electronics, resulting in a charmingly effective table-setter. The wonderfully titled "Will Get Fooled Again" follows, and perhaps represents the closest Parallax gets to the infectious energy of Mastered by Guy, and I can't help but think of every astute listener and music critic grinning from ear-to-ear when he drops the Halfway to a Threeway reference mid-way through. "Which Song" completes the trifecta, and at 5+ minutes, it stands as Parallex's other successfully lengthy excursion, although you wouldn't know it by the possibly Michael Jackson inspired hook and propulsive bounce which powers the song to great success.

A few shorter tracks fall in the record's mid-section, and these find Tundra experimenting with vocal manipulation on both "Nord Lead Three" and "The Entertainment", the latter of which lends a worthy compliment of "I was born to entertain" to the entire Max Tundra project. Just as it began though, Parallax Error ends with three increasingly strong tracks, with "Number Our Days" and album standout "Glycaemic Index Blues" jolting the listener to attention in anticipation of "Until We Die", 11 propulsive minutes of countless hooks and triumphant build-and-fades. Parallax Error is barely over 40 minutes in length, yet the whole feels much more substantial than the brief run time would suggest.

Mastered by Guy was an unwittingly forward-looking album though, whereas a number of these Parallax songs, while instantly recognizable as the work of Max Tundra, sound like they were born of an attempt to channel the past. So the cheese ball synths and 80s sleek veneer of some of these songs, which could be misread as Tundra tipping his hand a bit too much, actually do a pretty good job of rewriting history. Parallax Error not only made me what to break out my copy of Master by Guy, but it also sends my mind racing equally to images of lost childhood and VH1 "I Love the 80s" specials. It's not quite as blatant and on the-nose as something like Saturdays=Youth though - and with it's never-stand-still approach, it's quite possible some listeners may not even pick up on it's influences - but the fact that the album can be approached from multiple angles speaks to the talents of Tundra. Parallex Error Beheads You doesn't carry with it the same out-of-left-field charm as Mastered By Guy, as Tundra's tricks have permeated the pop landscape to a surprising degree in the interceding years, but when listening to these 10 wonderful songs, there is no arguing who pioneered the sound and who remains the genre's gold standard.

Highlights: "Gum Chimes", "Will Get Fooled Again", "Number Our Days", "Glycaemic Index Blues"

"Gum Chimes"

"Will Get Fooled Again"

"Which Song"

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Deerhunter - Weird Era Cont.

Read Stereo Sanctity's Original Microcastle Review Here

Weird Era Cont., the bonus disc housed within the Microcastle CD case, will unfortunately be relegated to left-over/B-sides status for most listeners, when in fact it is of such a piece with the album proper that I'd go so far as to say that it is just as integral to the entirety of the album as the 1st disc is to setting the tone for the whole of the Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. project. Taken as a whole experience, this may very well end up the best single release of the year.

While the 13 tracks of Weird Era Cont. still fall in line with the more structured, indie-rock oriented sounds of Microcastle, bits of the old Deerhunter make a welcome return as well, employed in a slightly less confrontational but more strategic fashion than previously suggested, as to blur the line between the more formless work of Cryptograms and the direct power of Microcastle. So in a way, I may even prefer Weird Era since the ambient, drone-y, more experimental Deerhunter fascinates me to no end. Bradford Cox and crew pay an uncanny amount of attention to detail in everything they do, and Weird Era is predictably laid out as it's own fully formed album. There are ambient interludes, instrumentals and spoken-word pieces stitching the record together, yet it's all in service of this more confident and streamlined approach.

"Operation" is one of the best Deerhunter tracks period, positioned directly after pulsating opener "Backspace Century" and just before the brief segue instrumental "Ghost Outfit". Sister tracks "Vox Celeste" and "Vox Humana", which are separated by the beautiful ambient interlude "Cicadas", are both mid-album highlights, particularly the latter, which features a spoken word narrative by Cox, hiding behind a chiming intrumental backdrop. The swooning wordless harmonizing of "Focus Group" (another standout) sends the record into it's nearly all-instrumental back half, with the trifecta of "Slow Swords", "Weird Era" and "Moon Witch Cartridge" all incorporating new and interesting ideas into the established Deerhunter formula, thankfully without drawing attention to themselves. It's a hypnotic introduction to the 11 minute closer "Calvary Scars II/Aux Out", which takes the whispered lyrics of it's parent track and applies it to a cathedral sized epic, while surprisingly managing to distance itself from it's compact counterpoint, which was already one of Microcastle's most heartrending moments.

After finally hearing this bonus disc - which now stands as the only time I've ever consciously purchased a record twice - it would be impossible to separate Weird Era Cont. from Microcastle. These songs are so obviously cut from the same cloth, with themes overlapping and buoying Microcastle's already established context. There isn't a throwaway track between the two discs, and I can honestly see Weird Era Cont. getting more spins than even Microcastle has, which is easily the record I've listened to most this year. If they hadn't already proved it with their constantly updated blog, Deerhunter are among the most gracious of independent bands. If nothing else, Weird Era Cont. reaffirms this fact, establishing them as probably the most rewarding of modern rock groups.

Highlights: "Backspace Century", "Operation", "Vox Humana", "Focus Group"


"Vox Humana"

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

In Review Online Launches

The duel sites I contribute music and film criticism to, Film & Music In Review Online, have consolidated under the sole banner of In Review Online. Layout is looking good, and things are a little easier to navigate now, but keep in mind that the site is still in the building process. Continue to click around the site over the next few weeks in order to unearth all the treasures that no doubt lurk beneath the surface. While you're there, check out the latest "Chasing Gold" column (it's in the "Features" section), in which me and Film Editor Luke Gorham handicap the Oscar race months premature.

Congrats Sam.

Windy & Carl - Songs for the Broken Hearted (***1/2)

Windy Weber and Carl Hultgren have spent the last 15 years searching endlessly (and occasionally aimlessly) for the perfect drone. The ambient duo - who also happen to be a couple (more on that later) - came frighteningly close to achieving their goal a number of times in the late 90s, specifically on the centerpiece tracks of back-to-back minor classics Antarctica & Depths. That was Phase 1 of Windy & Carl, pre-2001 when they had a nice, one-album-per-year average. Following a three year hiatus which saw contemporaries (think Stars of the Lid specifically) usurp much of the glory and acclaim that the duo never fully received, Windy & Carl unassumingly reemerged with Dream House/Dedications to Flea, a welcome return that saw the group paying respects to their recently deceased dog. Not the most heart string-pulling of sentiments I realize, but Windy & Carl have a way with sound so unique and yearning that they could make even the titular Flea something of a universal pet. Two years later and we have Songs for the Broken Hearted, an epic, 70+ minute record that intertwines Windy & Carl's drifting guitar drones amongst comparatively shorter, pop based ambient tracks.

With regards to early Windy & Carl, there wasn't much in the way of vocals to latch onto between the oceanic walls of sound. Their later material did however tend to scatter a few vocal lines beneath the blankets of sound waves. Appropriately, Songs for the Broken Hearted, which documents the couple's declining relationship over the last couple years (they've been married 19), features the most substantial use of vocals yet. Five of the ten tracks here utilize the human voice, lending added weight to songs that can at times stretch achingly long. These aren't pop songs by any means, but the low frequency vocals provide guide posts between the more formless, predictably lush drone-based tracks.

These long form instrumental drone comprise the majority of the record (most run between 9 and 13 minutes in length), yet it's these pieces which provide a much needed breather between the more intimate tracks. "La Doluer", the longest single piece here, segues unconsciously from opener "Btwn You + Me", flicking waves of static and feedback around bright guitar tones. Along with the ambiguous yet beautiful closing track, "The Same Moon and Stars", it stands as one of Windy & Carl Mk. II's most distinctive ambient works. Despite it's lengthy run time and almost subconsciously subtle vocal tracks, Songs for the Broken Hearted stands apart from much of Windy & Carl's prior work, if only because of it's unified theme and increased reliance on vocals. It's not easiest or most hopeful of albums to listen to, but think what it must have been like to record.

Highlights: "Btwn You + Me", "La Doluer", "My Love", "The Same Moon and Stars"

"My Love"

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna (****)

Stereo Sanctity Album of the Week
(November 2 - 8, 2008)

Well, it was inevitable is suppose, but they've finally gone and put the dance in Gang Gang Dance. In all actuality though, the elements were always there, although they've always hewed more toward the noisily abstract end of the spectrum. Not so on Saint Dymphna however, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to 2005s cult classic God's Money. So Gang Gang Dance have streamlined their approach, increased their focus and embraced a strain of house music and 80s electro that is entirely outdated but reconfigured on record to sound entirely fresh and free of pretense. Their ambition occasionally outruns good taste, but there is no denying that Saint Dymphna is reaching for something grand and unknowable. It feels entirely foreign yet altogether comfortable inside Saint Dymphna's field of sound, despite the tribal tangents, guest rappers and coke-fueled synths anchoring the majority of these perfectly sequenced tracks. This is an entirely different but not completely unexpected record for these former noise-niks, and Saint Dymphna plays like the bands most unwavering and carefully constructed record to date. And you can dance to it.

The first quarter of the album is especially strong, as the slowly unraveling abstractness of "Bebey" bleeds unimpeded into the uproarious "First Communion", a stomping tribal dance featuring the wordless chants, yelps and screams of singer Lizzi Bougatsos, whose striking vocals make infrequent yet highly memorable appearances throughout the album. Saint Dymphna is split roughly down the middle between instrumentals and vocal tracks, and wordless numbers such as the early M83-like "Vacuum", the fragmented "Inners Pace", and the perfectly titled comedown "Dust, all provide welcome breathers between the exhausting vocal numbers. The most head-turning track on Saint Dymphna is most assuredly "Princes", featuring Grime MC Tinchy Stryder, who half-raps/half-talks over a classic Gang Gang Dance framework, highlighting the range and adaptability of a very idiosyncratic sound for singers of all stripes, not just the un-tethered whoops of Bougatsos.

"House Jam" is where you see all the objectives and intentions of Saint Dymphna on full display however. The title itself is the first tip-off, as the Madonna-slick synths and smooth electronics glide beautifully across the channels, cresting to complete not just the most unashamedly dance track in their repertoire, but one of the great electronic pieces of the year. As has become their M.O., Gang Gang Dance keep you on your toes though, as they follow the sleek, groove oriented "House Jam" with the maniacally uncompromising "Desert Storm", the records noisiest and most primal moment. It's penultimate placement on Saint Dymphna reiterates the band's adherence to the album format, as the track's intensity yields to the patiently swirling drones of "Dust" (see what they did with the titles there). Few bands have proven as restlessly creative as Gang Gang Dance over the last 3 years, as they've experimented with new sounds on small-run EPs, only to hone their new found passion into a full-length that is beautifully disorienting yet frequently thrilling, and often all at once.

Highlights: "First Communion", "Vacuum", "Afoot", "House Jam", "Desert Storm"

Monday, November 3, 2008

Man, what a disappointing year....

I realize that we were ridiculously spoiled last year, but I can't shake the feeling that we are heading towards one of the worst years for cinema and music in quite awhile. 2007 was monumental for both mediums, yet I would have gladly sacrificed some of last year's gold for a little more variety this year. Film has been especially disappointing in my view. Nothing outside of probably The Dark Knight has really bowled me over, and that is a kind of film that normally wouldn't have even cracked my top ten, let alone occupy the #1 slot, where it would sit if the year ended today. Granted, there is a lot still coming down the pike to look forward to, particularly The Wrestler and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but most of this year has been defined by a lot of good, not great, films. I've seen quite a slew of films in the last couple weeks, which I will round up with some quick reviews in the coming days, and while I've enjoyed a few of them, there still was nothing truly eye-opening.

Music has fared slightly better, if only because the last few weeks have been unexpectedly strong. Despite this, I fully expect there to be a lot of left field choices on critic's top ten lists this year. There really isn't that one record, outside of maybe Dear Science, that is a consensus pick. I don't expect a Person Pitch every year, but the dearth of greatness is disheartening. It is interesting to note that a number of my favorite records this year, from Street Horsssing to Laulu Laakson Kukista to Guitar Trio Is My Life, are quite challenging, and hence a great deal more rewarding than something like Devotion, which I still feel quite strongly about, but in just a few short months hasn't aged or demanded much repeat listening. I think my year-end list will bear out some of these feelings, as most of the major releases are behind us. All that remains on my radar for the most part is Max Tundra's Parallax Error Beheads You and Fennesz's Black Sea. Although this year I'd more than happy to welcome an out-of-nowhere triumph to take my headphones by storm.

Blitzen Trapper - Furr (***)

Blitzen Trapper refuse to sit still. They're like an ornery bunch of grade-schoolers let loose in a music class, left alone to recreate from memory any and all genres of music they may have encountered during their lifetimes. The breakthrough third album, Wild Mountain Nation, scattered a dizzying amount of genres, from C&W to lo-fi folk to Pavement-aping indie, across a record that never stayed in one place for more than a single song (if even that). The record earned the band a spot on the prestigious Sub Pop label, and they're debut for the Pacific Northwest powerhouse, Furr, is surprisingly tame and, for the most part, uniform in sound, at least compared to the try-anything-once Wild Mountain Nation. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the more southern rock & country inflected Furr still carries with it a great deal of melodic ingenuity and genre pilfering to satiate fans of its predecessor.

At the center of each and every one of the 13 songs on Furr is Eric Earley and that malleable voice, which can take on characteristics of an impressively wide array of famous singer-songwriters. There's Eric Earley as Neil Young on "Not Your Lover", as Bob Dylan on "Sleepytime in the Western World", as John Lennon on "Love U", and even Michael Stipe on "God & Suicide", but despite all the vocal signposts, Earley still manages to enthrall through his sheer enthusiasm. This is a band and a musician that clearly loves to make music, but no matter how derivative they occasionally sound on Furr, they succeed because everything they do is so instantly familiar and inviting.

Despite the more consistent overtones, Furr still features a number of tracks that would have fit nicely on Wild Mountain Nation, particularly "Gold & Bread" and the wonderful "War on Machines". There isn't anything quite as single-worthy as Wild Mountain Nation's title track or "Sci-fi Kid", but the Angels of Light-worthy "Black River Killer" can stand up to either, as it may be the most chillingly direct song they've recorded thus far. It is easily the highlight of Furr, and a good representation of the more subdued sonics of the record as a whole. Overall, this isn't quite as strong a record as Wild Mountain Nation, although your preference will probably come down to your tolerance for some unfortunate AOR moments that crop up towards the end of the record.

Personally, I enjoyed the scatter-shot nature of Wild Mountain Nation, and in the end I feel like Furr could have used a few more of those type curveballs to keep the listener off balance. Furr is a perfectly listenable album on all counts however, with a few stellar tracks that are easily hummable and a joy to listen to, though I doubt the record shifts half the units that the self-released Wild Mountain Nation did, despite the band's increased promotional push. This probably isn't quite the record fans expected from Blitzen Trapper at this point, but what in the band's past would have you think they could be so easily pegged?

Highlights: "Sleepytime in the Western World", "Black River Killer", "War on Machines"

"Gold for Bread"

"Black River Killer"