Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New Music Review: My Morning Jacket – “Circuital”

Some three star reviews reflect a surprise enjoyment. Or maybe a solid effort from a decent band. Others, like in this case, represent disappointment from bands that otherwise seem to be able to make fantastic music without trying.

Depressing intro, right? I am—and will remain—an avid and unabashed My Morning Jacket fan. From “One Big Holiday” on It Still Moves to “Off the Record” from Z to “Thank You Too!” on Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket is an exciting, genre-bending force to be reckoned with. Those brilliant moments are flashed multiple time on the new record, Circuital, but are not sustained, unfortunate as that is. Circuital is an album with no true missteps, but all too many shrugs of averageness. This is made even more unfortunate by the strong start of the album, with the slow burning “Victory Dance” building and building before giving way to the 7 minute “Circuital”. We are then blessed with the enormously strong “The Day is Coming”, one of the year’s best tracks, sung over humming strings. Well then mid-tempo “The Day is Coming” settles onto the soft, sweet “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”, the album seems set to build upon the stellar body of work My Morning Jacket has built to this point.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing really amazing left. Tracks like the growing-up tale “Outta My System” and the fuzzy “Holdin’ Onto Black Metal” attempt to be the kind of forays into weirdness that fans are used to, but they come up restrained and un-special (my wife tells me I’m wrong about the latter track). Even the much-hated and much-loved “Highly Suspicious” from Evil Urges had an exciting, odd feel to them that these tracks, and frankly no tracks here have.

The pleasantness that are “You Wanna Freak Out” and “Movin Away” don’t redeem the middle either, and the album ends simply as a shruggable, non-cohesive collection of tracks that’s true strength is all spent up front. Here is an album I waited years for, only to have it quickly dismissed by new albums from Bon Iver and Death Cab for Cutie. Here’s hoping the years will be kind to this one, because repeat album play does not seem to be in its future, especially compared with the other great albums from My Morning Jacket sitting just inches away on my iTunes screen.

My Morning Jacket – “The Day is Coming”

Saturday, June 25, 2011

New Music Review: Bon Iver – “Bon Iver, Bon Iver”

In the past I’ve been too timid with heaping the highest honor on an album, fearful I’ll regret it or be tied to calling it a classic for all of eternity. In retrospect I’d love to redo a couple album reviews, because I know that I didn’t give five stars to either of my favorite two albums of all time. In fact, I haven’t handed out a five star rating in nearly four years. So, without further ado, congratulations, Bon Iver, the honor of the five star rating is yours.

Bon Iver’s backstory for album #1 is now famous because it’s almost too good to be true in the indie world: bearded indie man retreats to Wisconsin cabin alone for four months and emerges with a heartbreaking album. The sound there was stripped down and solemn, and I heaped praise on that one too for tracks like “Lump Sum”, “Skinny Love”, and “re: Stacks”. Now Bon Iver, the latest project of the well-traveled Justin Vernon, reemerges with an album lusher in sound, but no less meticulously crafted.

Songs like album opener “Perth” start slow and grow, with Vernon’s falsetto emerging over a distant snare. The song builds and builds, following horns and cymbal crashes into a swarming musical territory that Bon Iver has never seen before. It’s a genuine stunner of an opening track. “Minnesota, WI” also shows a break from the norm, with Vernon’s voice taking a turn for the lower register and over softly plucked guitar and some jazz-like horns and sax. The wonderful thing about these changes and additions is that they don’t stand out as existing simply to be different or weird, but instead only add to the sound of the tracks.

My only criticism of Vernon’s work, whether with Bon Iver or elsewhere, is that the lyrical content of his songs don’t make much sense as a whole. This is intentional, I know, but it leaves the listener to relate to individual lines or the feeling of the music overall. Fortunately Bon Iver masters both those things, and nowhere do they do it better than on “Holocene”, which borrows a guitar portion from an early Justin Vernon solo track as the base. When Vernon emotes “and I can see for miles, miles, miles, miles” or discovers that “at once I knew that I was not magnificent”, there is a special feeling that emerges. As the song builds over the percussion and swells, the album—only on the third track at this point—appears to be headed for greatness.

A track by track breakdown would be the only way to do every great song justice, because Bon Iver doesn’t miss a single beat here, whether it’s the harmonies on “Towers”, the atmospheric “Hinnom, TX”, the gentle piano and strings throughout “Wash.”, or the soft ear candy of “Calgary”.

No review would be fit, however, without dealing with the so-called controversial closing song, “Beth/Rest” (are things controversial only because we call them such?). It takes mere seconds into “Beth/Rest” to recognize the style, with a keyboard patch, the guitar sound, and brass stylings straight out of 1980’s adult contemporary. We’re talking Bryan Adams, Richard Marx, Phil Collins, and company here. I admit that it could have been disaster, but Vernon’s voice soars and aches with sincerity, and so does the track. I would never in a million years use this as the track to define Bon Iver, but is it possible it’s the albums best track? It’s the most memorable, for certain, although “best” is a title that would have to be wrested from “Perth”, “Minnesota, WI, “Holocene”, or “Calgary”.

Before hitting publish on this review I stepped back, pondering the five star label that hasn’t been used in years, wondering if I’d regret it. Then I pushed play on “Perth” again. I realized that, if I were to make another top 10 songs of the year list, an accurate list might have five Bon Iver songs on it. The label has been earned, and with this album Bon Iver has added 39 minutes of music that I’ll be listening to, happily, for the rest of my life.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

New Music Review: Death Cab for Cutie – “Codes and Keys”

★1/2

I’ve always been a been of a bit of anti-purist when it comes to Death Cab for Cutie, preferring the albums that others perceived as average and shrugging off what the so-called true fans may regard as Death Cab perfection. Case in point, my favorite Death Cab album is “Plans”…so yeah, there it is, I said it. You wouldn’t want to read my reviews if all I did was parrot the other reviewers though, would you? To that end I think that “Transatlanticism” is fantastic, but I usually cherry pick single tracks, and I thought that “Narrow Stairs” was good as well, but time hasn’t been kind to that album’s play count. Of course my true favorite Ben Gibbard work is Postal Service, which is why I was excited to hear that this new album would be less guitar-centric. Aside from marrying the heavenly Zooey Deschanel, nothing Gibbard has ever done is quite as impressive as “Such Great Heights”, an aptly named song for how amazing it is.

On “Codes and Keys” we see an album fairly similar to “Narrow Stairs” in terms of overall consistency, but it’s high are higher, and that makes for a better album. The other major turn here is towards optimism, a term seldom applied to the nostalgic Death Cab. But on the two best tracks, “Codes and Keys” and “You are a Tourist” Gibbard’s voice soars as he sings “we are alive” and “if there’s a burning in your heart, let it grow”. I, for one, think it’s a refreshing turn for a band so late in their career. It only makes sense to sing happy songs after marring Zooey, I imagine. The songs soar for more reasons than just optimism, though. "You are a Tourist”, drenched in reverb-soaked echo, Death Cab’s best guitar hook yet, and Gibbard’s lyrics, challenges some of their best work ever. It’s infectious, inspirational, and sonically wonderful all at once, and represents a truly complete package. They also transition well between the sonically pleasing (“Doors Unlocked and Open”, “Unobstructed Views”) where the sounds are best captured with headphones and closed eyes, and the sunny, windows-rolled-down vibe of “Some Boys” or “Underneath of Sycamore”. This comes together best on “St. Peter’s Cathedral”, a simple starter that grows into a fully developed electronic orchestra, complete with the perfect concert-ready baddum-tada-bums over heavy string synth.

It’s not perfect, however much I wish it was. “Monday Morning” and “Portable Television” are flat out forgettable, and however much I want to like the toe-tapping folk-flavored “Stay Young, Go Dancing”, to me it sounds too much like an average Decemberists song helped only by some interesting string and piano insertions. It' doesn’t kill the overall product, but the weak spots hold it back somewhat. It is a thoroughly enjoyable product that is certain not to disappoint any fan. Oh, and fan or not, downloading “You are a Tourist” is the best 99 cents you can spend right now.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Ten Best Songs of 2011 So Far

Is it mid-June already? Why yes it is. And since I know that you don’t have time to listen to all the great music that’s out there unless it’s your primary hobby (it’s mine!), here are the ten songs that 2011 has blessed us with so far.

#1 Fleet Foxes – “Grown Ocean

It’s like suddenly all the amazing things Fleet Foxes has ever done came together in one track.

#2 The Strokes – “Machu Picchu

Years after they were their biggest, and years after their most famous songs, they release their best song.

#3 Death Cab for Cutie – “You are a Tourist

Death Cab gets uplifting, and show they can write a guitar hook too.

#4 Frank Ocean – “Strawberry Swing

Would like to go back in time to tell myself “you will someday fall in love with a Coldplay ripoff song redone by a R&B crooner from a shock rap group”.

#5 The Antlers – “I Don’t Want Love

It only takes one track into The Antlers new album to realize they are so much more than a lightning-in-a-bottle indie group.

#6 My Morning Jacket – “The Day is Coming

Do you also fall in love with song right about the time he sings “Bang bang, at the door”?

#7 Chief – “Night & Day

If only the rest of the album sounded nearly as good as this perfectly moody track.

#8 The National – “Think You Can Wait

What do The National do when they aren’t busy making my favorite albums of the year? They release all-star tracks for low-budget Paul Giamatti films.

#9 Radiohead – “Codex

Why do I love Radiohead? Just listen to Thom Yorke when he simply sings “dragonfly”.

#10 Bon Iver – “Calgary

Three days until the release of his new album Justin Vernon and Bon Iver’s first single is already one of the year’s best.

Honorable Mentions (Because, hey, why hold out?):

Civil Wars – “Poison & Wine”, Augustana – “Just Stay Here Tonight” and “Wrong Side of Love”, Death Cab for Cutie – “Codes and Keys”, Fleet Foxes –“Montezuma”, “Loralei”, ”Sim Sala Bim”, “The Shrine/An Argument”, Iron & Wine – “Godless Brother in Love” and “Walking Far From Home”, Radio Dept – “David”, “Domestic Scene”, and “Never Follow Suit”, Radiohead – “Lotus Flower”, The Strokes – “Under Cover of Darkness”, Cass McCombs – “County Line”, Cold War Kids – “Skip the Charades”, Delphic – “Doubt”, Florence and the Machine – “Hurricane Drunk” and “Cosmic Love”, James Blake – “Limit to Your Love”, Kendal Johansonn – “Blue Moon”, Lost in the Trees – “Walk Around the Lake”, The Ruby Sun – “Closet Astrologer”, Mates of State – “My Only Offer”, Jars of Clay – “Shelter”, Wild Beats – “Albatross”, Panda Bear – “Last Night at the Jetty” and “Slow Motion”, William Fitzsimmons – “Beautiful Girl”, Sufjan Stevens – “I Walked”, “Futile Devices”, and “Age of Adz”, Other Lives – “Black Tables”, School of Seven Bells – “Bye Bye Bye”, and My Morning Jacket – “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

New Music Review: Panic at the Disco – “Vices and Virtues”

Darn you, bad advice. I was suckered into buying this album for two reasons: 1) Because, deep down inside, I really have always kinda liked a lot of Panic at the Disco songs. And 2) A reviewer I trust told me that the album was overlooked and underrated and that it was worth it. Hmm. Wonder what mood he was in. It’s not that it’s all bad here…it most certainly is not ALLbad. But I had to listen multiple times just to try and remember what I’d just heard, as the songs’ energy and sound blended together so much across the whole album.

For the most part I found myself two-starring songs. I two-star songs that are not bad, but are not really that good. In a sense, two-star means average since five-star just barely ever happens. That sums up most of the album. Not a single terrible track here, but nothing better than a three-star. What are the three-stars? Let’s start with the infectious melody in the chorus of “Calendar” for one, Like it or not, it’s hard not to sing along. Then there’s the pulsating electro romper “Let’s Kill Tonight”, which I’m surprised hasn’t seen a little radio play yet. The chorus utilizes layered vocals for a crowd effect and Killers-esque synth rock edge. In fact, this song probably belongs on The Killers first album. “Memories” brings together some good musicality and deft handle on melody. Finally, despite the odd sample at the beginning and the unnecessary junior high school sounding choir at the beginning, “Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Wait…) is a throwback to the creative burlesque rock sound that Panic brought in their first album. It gets points simply for being a different sounding gem in an album that all too often seems to just be rushing synth rocker after rushing synth rocker, complete with string samples on top of just about everything.

The final verdict is simply a shrug. If you are a Panic at the Disco fan through and through, I won’t give you any reason not to give the album a chance. If your experience was merely liking that “one song” a few years ago, then you probably won’t be the biggest fan. I don’t think Panic at the Disco is dead or done or anything that dramatic, but I can’t imagine myself listening to too many of these tracks two years from now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New Music Review: Florence + The Machine – “Lungs”

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t resist Florence + The Machine for a while. It wasn’t like I had a problem with her, but what I had heard was simply okay and I couldn’t quite grasp how simply “Dog Days are Over” and that pretty good song on the Twlight soundtrack had suddenly made her so huge. Didn’t make much sense to me, but, hey, more power to her I said, since it was nice to have someone not named Lady Gaga or Katy Perry finding pop chart success in the solo female pop arena (Adele also gets props).

That said, I was happy to finally get a chance to give “Lungs” the proper amount of listens, and I must say that I’m impressed, especially as far as expectations go. I found Florence’s unreleased songs to be impressively interesting and full of power and detail. Yes, detail, something I absolutely didn’t see coming. For example, is that harp on “Cosmic Love”. Why yes, it is. “Cosmic Love” is probably the best song to sum up Florence’s work, actually. Here is a woman singing passionately and interesting over top of pulsating drums and plucking harp strings before it before it bursts forth with even more energy. It was during this song that I came to realize that I liked Florence for what she was, not just for how she compared to others. Other standouts here are “Drumming Song” and the soaring “Howl”, but my second favorite track has to be the completely different “Hurricane Drunk”, which features an electronic whirl and a hushed vocal from Florence over the verses.

Solid album here (despite “Kiss with a Fist”….skip that one), and I’m glad to see her getting some commercial success. I often balk at critics who criticize something for getting famous. In the perfect world, truly good music is what dominates the charts, and  a chart that features Florence + The Machine is a welcome change.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

New Music Review: Civil Wars – “Barton Hollow”

First, I’d like to say that if it wasn’t for my wife, I’d never be reviewing this album. We first saw “Barton Hollow”’s video on VH1 together, but, although I liked it, it was her who went to the computer, bought it, and then proceeded to pay me back for all the thousands of times I’ve done it to her by shoving it down my ears for the next couple weeks. It was an obsession I could not avoid, but fortunately for me I have a wife who got obsessed with a pretty darn good product.

Civil Wars lie somewhere between folk, bluegrass, and country, but have the emotional and creative sensitivity of an indie band. I’ve thought many times that I wish there were more interesting and experimental bands in genres like country or even Christian music, but both those genres stay fairly constant. In that sense Civil Wars provide a bit of relief.

Regarding the album itself, I find it curiously backloaded, which is a little different from usual. It starts mildly blasé , but once it hits “Poison & Wine” a rush of energy and consistency takes hold. “Poison & Wine” is the best track of the album, a him-and-her tradeoff of soft intensity. Stacked up against the first four tracks on the album, it comes out of nowhere and pulls you in. Fortunately, they don’t let go from there. “My Father’s Father” is a simple, bare-bones country song that will leave you humming. The afformentioned “Barton Hollow” then comes springing at you with energy and harmony alike. It’s a burst of energy so perfectly timed in an album that otherwise could have started to go down the unfortunate path of blending into background music much like the first few tracks did. After standout instrumental “The Violet Hour” comes the female vocal centered “Girl With the Red Balloon”.

There’s other good tracks here as well, but I have one more recommendation. If you take my advice (and I hope you do!) and check out the album, then I hope you buy a version with bonus track “Dance Me to the End of Love”. It' features barely more than a soft country vibe and a repetitive acoustic guitar, but it’s the kind of song that really shows why at time Civil Wars can be special.

The album is not draw-dropping, but in my permanent state of missing Nickel Creek’s presence in the music world, it was refreshing to hear a little experimental country. It’s worth a try.

Monday, June 13, 2011

New Music Review: The Antlers – “Burst Apart”

★1/2

The Antlers’ “Hospice” was just about the most surprising, moving, out of nowhere crushing mass of emotional intensity ever, and the trap here is to review “Burst Apart” by simply recapping “Hospice” and how “Burst Apart” doesn’t come close. But that wouldn’t be fair, because “Hospice” was not a conventional debut album and “Burst Apart” was doomed to come up short—at least lyrically and emotionally--the second The Antlers stopped recording “Hospice”.

(The three best songs off of “Hospice” can be found here, firmly tied at #6 in my best songs of 2010.)

Rather than even attempt to copycat the bruising deathbed saga that “Hospice” was, The Antlers have moved in a different direction, taking advantage of their considerable sonic abilities, songwriting chops, and wounded vocals. The result is a perfectly great album in “Burst Apart”, bolstered by one of the best songs yet this year in “I Don’t Want Love”, which capitalizes on all of their strengths while also introducing an accessible melody. The good tracks don’t stop there, as “French Exits” pitters along with a slow, pulsing beat and lovely synths that are guaranteed to induce the slow head bob that I’m doing as I type this.

“Parantheses” is probably the closest song we get to sounding like it could have been on “Hospice”, where electronics serve the purpose of creating clamor, and the vocals sound pained even in falsetto. And is there a song more anti-hospice than the almost ballad-ish “Putting the Dog to Sleep”, which will have you singing “put your arm round my collarbone” for hours? In the in-between songs like “No Windows” expand The Antlers’ electronic sensibilities, turning vocals into a backdrop.

A comparison to “Hospice” is not only not fair, but is practically impossible. Usually I default to deciding which album I’d recommend to my friends, and in this case I’m torn. “Hospice” was the complicated, initially off-putting, in-your-face album. It’s like the Oscar nominee that, despite everyone saying is good, leaves you feeling like you were just punched in the face. Is it better? Certainly, but it isn’t an album for the casual listen. “Burst Apart”, however, is a heckuva lot easier to digest, put on for a car drive, or show your friends. “I Don’t Want Love” is probably a guaranteed track that you will like, but the “you weigh 87 pounds because you’re so ill and about to die and your dad really messed you up as a kid” emotional masterpiece that was “Two” on the previous album does not share the same guarantee.

So, my recommendation: Listen to “I Don’t Want Love” below. You’ll like it. If you do--and you will--listen to “Parentheses”. And, if you’re still liking how this is going, go back and grab “Hospice”. Both albums are completely worth having.