Monday, February 28, 2011

New Music Review: Radiohead – “The King of Limbs”

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I have a long-standing rule with Radiohead: form minimal first impressions and don’t begin to judge until at least the fifth listen. It’s a necessary approach when dealing with a band that shape shifts as often as they do or when listening to music that is so heavy on the details that each and every listen elicits a new discovery.

“The King of Limbs” welcomes you back to the Radiohead that’s best played with headphones on in a dimly lit room. The quick-playing eight track album goes easy on the pulsating rockers, instead focusing on the sort of backroom electro-experimentation that Radiohead has dealt with before, but, as always, never in quite the same way. From the first sweeping of piano on album opener “Bloom” to the gentle guitar that makes closing track “Separator” so great, Radiohead once again manages to make an album devoid of any bad songs. I  suppose that’s good news when you release an album with eight tracks.

The strength of this album lies directly in the center, where “Lotus Flower” and “Codex” make up a back-to-back song pair that are ready for immediate entry into a Greatest Hits mix. “Lotus Flower” is sweet relief to the ears as you listen to Thom Yorke’s falsetto echo over the sonic symphony. Once again, as often is the case, there’s more here every time I hear it. My personal favorite, though, is “Codex”, which makes an immediate jump into the Best of 2011 potential crowd as we close February. The piano. That voice. The hint of strings. Two months into the year it’s the best song so far.

Do I even begin to make comparisons to other albums? I think I still prefer In Rainbows, but will I in six months? I have no idea. What I will say is this: if for some reason you are not a Radiohead fan yet, you might want to work your way up to this one. If, however, you are a Radiohead fan, you should have no hesitations adding this to your collection. After four or five listens, you won’t regret it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

New Music Review: Iron & Wine – “Kiss Each Other Clean”

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Talk about setting the bar high. Iron & Wine have released their new album, following a release of a bonus track album so good that “God Made the Automobile” topped my Best of 2009 list, and a release of their last LP “The Shepherd’s Dog”, which I called the #5 album of the entire decade. Suffice it to say I love all things Iron & Wine.

“Kiss Each Other Clean” brings some stylistic changes, which can be both good and bad. Early Iron & Wine fans are probably used to nothing more than a hushed whisper for vocals, a la “Such Great Heights”, which introduced the band to fans of the movie Garden State. More recent Iron & Wine fans probably are more familiar with the placement of their most emotive song to date, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”, during a pivotal moment in the first Twilight movie. Indeed this small indie outfit has nearly 7 million views of this song when you put Edward and Bella’s face on it on Youtube. Oh the irony and backlash potential when one of indie music’s darlings has such a prominent place is one of the most popular and mainstream movies in years.

One thing that is certain about their new album is that if all you know of Iron & Wine is that you loved that “one song in Twilight”, you probably won’t find much to like here, since save for one song the sound is quite different here. It is by far their noisiest, haziest, and most experimental work to date, from the fuzzed out building emotion of “Walking Far From Home”, the hushed horns on “Me and Lazarus”, to the pepped-up “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me”. But the songs are still, once again, outstanding nearly all the way through. “Rabbit Will Run” takes the underwater-ish vocals that were so prominent on personal favorite “Carousel”, and attaches it with a rush of energy. “Godless Brother in Love” tones it down a notch, removes the haze, and shows that when Sam Beam wants to sing a piano ballad, there’s no one out their with better chops to pull it off. For fans of the old Iron & Wine, there are a couple throwbacks here, notably “Half Moon” and “Tree by the River”, which keeps the focus more on minimalist folk. And have no doubt that lyrically, nothing has changed here. Beam is a master of imagery and vague religious references, and can move you at times (“I was walking far from home/Where the names were not burned along the wall/Saw a wet road form a circle/And it came like a call, came like a call from the Lord”)

It’s clear Iron & Wine have continuously “progressed” towards a more lush sound, but the question amongst fans will be whether they like the direction they’ve gone. On this album they are neither the folk outfit they started out to be or the pop outfit some may have wanted them to be, but it’s hard to argue after to listening to these songs that no matter who you say they are, they are pretty dang good at it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

New Music Review: Jars of Clay – “The Shelter”

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One of the main privileges of writing your own music blog is that I get to decide what music I review. Since my style caters to reviewing the convergence zone between pop and independent, this usually just means that you’ll see both Jimmy Eat World and Deerhunter on here. But this also means that you’ll get the occasional Christian music review since 1) I am a Christian, 2) I like music, and 3) there are a few exceptions where there’s some truly good Christian music. Surely most of the talented Christian artists have abandoned the classification partially due the unfortunate pressure that some Christians put on Christian artists (see: Derek Webb getting kicked out of Christian stores for using the word “whore” in a Biblical context and Jars of Clay getting pressured to boycott Disney). In the end we’re left having to “discover” that members of Switchfoot, Lifehouse, The Fray, Anberlin, and Mute Math are indeed Christians, that their music is full of moral messages, and that they, like me, believe that it’s perfectly okay to be a “Christian who makes music” rather than someone who makes specifically “Christian music”. Actually, in many ways discipleship is easier and more far reaching with that perspective, since bands like Lifehouse find themselves opening for the likes of Nickelback.

Lest this turn into more of an essay than a Jars of Clay review, let me state that Jars of Clay are a Christian band and, as far as I know, that includes title and all. They are also my longest running “favorite band”. That’s right. Times have changed, I’ve grown older, my music tastes have changed, and only one band has remained truly constant. Many may have forgotten by now that in 1995 they had a song reach #37 on the Billboard charts. I was 10 then, and that’s about when they first entered my top lists. And to this day “Boy on a String” is and always has been a five-star song.

How does studio album #9 stack up? Not bad actually. Boosted by two outstanding tracks, the upbeat “Small Rebellions” and the pensive “Shelter”, the album tracks along about as well as any of their recent work. “Shelter” keeps alive a trend of at least one four-star song per album across their entire career. By now I’ve stopped expecting/hoping that they’ll match their first two albums, but if you like the rest of their stuff you’ll find plenty here to enjoy. Other standouts include “Call My Name”, “We Will Follow”, “Out of My Hands”, and “Run in the Night (Psalm 27)”.

Jars of Clay are, in my mind, the best Christian band of all-time. They are band of such considerable talent and consistency that I have no doubt that they could have had a mainstream career if they wanted it. Thankfully, for me selfishly, they did not. Jars of Clay has been there for me spritually so very many times when I needed it and their place upon my list of favorite bands of any type is very secure. Can’t wait to see them live for the first time next week.