New video from one of 2011’s very best songs. The louder the better.
Saturday, October 27, 2012
The only reason I’ve delayed on this review is because I wanted to make sure that it’s as good as I initially thought it was. My conclusion? It’s better.
Grizzly Bear is the biggest music regret of my life. I hadn’t yet discovered Veckatimest a few of years ago. While attending a festival the heat caused my wife and I to head to the shaded comedy tent instead of trying out Grizzly Bear. Later that year Veckatimest was one of my favorite albums of the year, and I didn’t attend a concert that was happening a thousand feet away. Shameful. It hurt because Veckatimest was so good. And Shields? Shields might be even better. As the days go by I find myself enjoying this album more with every listen. In what I call a good problem, it’s given me another serious candidate for album of the year.
Grizzly Bear benefits from an important great decision. Their sound is a little more lush, a little different, but largely the same in all the important ways. In other words, just different enough to not be a copy cat, and just the same enough to maintain everything that made Veckatimest one of the decade’s best albums. It’s the perfect amount of differentiation. The amazing chorus of “A Simple Answer” is the perfect example. A simple beginning followed by a swarming chorus, bolstered by a subtle whistle of electronics and guitar. Instead of ending the song, “A Simple Answer” enters an impassioned echo over piano. It’s six minutes of bliss, deeper and lusher than anything Grizzly Bear has written. Moreover, it’s not even a shoe-in for the best track. There’s also “Yet Again”, one of the most accessible tracks of their career, emotionally moving and sincere, containing a perfect mix of listenability and fantastically interesting music. “Gun-Shy” introduces something fairly simple—a dreamy, psychadelic guitar touch straight out of The Verve or War on Drugs—and it serves as the underpinning for the night-driving song of the year. “Sleeping Ute” and “Speak in Rounds” are in the mold of classic Grizzly Bear, but spare no punches themselves. “Half Gate” is sweeping. Album closer “Sun in Your Eyes”, the seven minute long, is the perfect concluding crescendo to a nearly perfect album, devoid of anything sub-par tracks.
To quote Pitchfork’s positive review, Centipede Hz “feels like someone throwing a burrito on your windshield” and Animal Collective “delivered a cluttered, abrasive album”. And these are compliments, apparently. Sorry folks, but as your resident music filter and recommender, take caution.
Now I understand how divided people are over Animal Collective. They seem to take a little thrill over being divisive. Their career trajectory let to some additional melodic elements on their breakthrough album Merriweather Post Pavilion. So yes, I’m one of those fans who adored “My Girls”, who thinks that “Summertime Clothes” is great, and “In the Flowers” was one of the best album openers he’s heard. I see the value in Animal Collective’s artistry and unique elements, but I do not see the value in noise and chaos for noise and chaos’ sake. On Merriweather Post Pavilion the industrial, glitchy elements served as a backdrop to the forefront melody on the best tracks. On Centipede Hz, the melody can’t escape from underneath the noise.
Only a couple of times is the album redeemed. The ever-present noise shifts to playing second fiddle to the songs on tracks like “Applesauce”, “Pulleys”, and “New Town Burnout”, but even the crescendo of noise almost takes over the latter by the end. For the most part the clutter that overwhelms the beginning of the album—the okay “Moonjock” and disaster “Today’s Supernatural”—persists in only slightly less obtrusive ways throughout. “Wide Eyed”? “Monkey Riches”? Painful. The unfortunate part is that interesting, developed, possibly good melodies exist like giant teases beneath the clanks.
There are two, yes, two, good songs on this album worth hearing. “Pulleys” grows out of its industrial base and develops into an actual song. “Applesauce” is by far the best song, using noise to contribute to the unique quality of the song without self-destructing.
I’m pretty tolerant of experimentalism and bands that want to try different approaches. Unfortunately Animal Collective seems determined to be so different that they turn their backs on what brought them new fans. And if that’s the case, then as one of those new fans who actually enjoys a touch of sonic pleasure instead of having chaos blasted into my earholes in the name of experimentalism, then their approach worked. And thus the rating.
I can’t think of more different band to follow Muse and The Killers in these reviews. First Aid Kit are a sister duo from Sweden playing their own brand of indie folk and grasping the feeling of Americana better than many Americans can dream of. They made it big on the internet a few years back for their outstanding cover of Fleet Foxes, the Northwest’s premiere woodsy folk band. Now they have the distinction of being a recent surprise addition to my year’s favorite album list.
The album starts strong with the driving “The Lion’s Roar”, showcasing harmonies and a knack for instrumentation beyond simple folk. Then comes the album’s darling, and my personal reason for digging into the album as a whole: “Emmylou”. I’d say don’t ask me to explain it, but this is a blog, so I’m obligated to attempt. Featuring steel guitar, an irresistible melody, perfect harmonies, and the most sentimental pack of lyrics you’ve ever heard, “Emmylou” strikes at the core. Here’s a song that takes all the best elements of country and Americana and wraps it in a perfect package, and it comes from a pair of girls from Scandinavia. It’s amazing really. Two songs into the album, and it’s two of the year’s best.
The rest of the album stands well on its own as well. “In the Hearts of Men” has a throwback 70’s style and verges on syrupy sweet, but the girls keep it from going to far. Songs like “To a Poet” are especially moving and display the girls’ vocal ranges. Influences from bands like Fleet Foxes are especially present songs like this one.
To be frank, this won’t be an album for everyone. This is for fans of indie folk bands like Fleet Foxes or even Of Monsters and Men. Maybe Mumford & Sons to a degree. But if that’s your style then there’s not much to dislike here. My only complaint, since it’s in the video below, is why in the world a beautiful song like “Emmylou” with lyrics like “Well the bitter winds are coming, and I’m already missing the summer, Stockholm’s cold, but I’ve been told I was born to endure this kind of weather” would make their video set in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park? Makes no sense to me. Amazing song though.
I wrestled with this album, much like I’ve wrestled with every Killers album since Hot Fuss. You see, I, like maybe you, and many many other people consider Hot Fuss to be an album of greatness. Alternative rock near its best. A collection of masterpieces of synth-driven rock. There was “Somebody Told Me”. And “Mr. Brightside”. Oh, and “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”, “Smile Like You Mean It”, and “On Top”. Same band! Same album! And a debut album!
Then came Sam’s Town, an album I probably underrated at the time. The album was Springsteen-y and different. Still good, but not as good. And then Day & Age, a slicker, easy-on-the-guitar album, clearly inferior to anything Brandon Flowers and company had ever done. Brandon Flowers then branched out on his own with Flamingo. And it’s actually Flamingo where you’ll find the most similarity to “Battle Born”, with the Vegas-influenced glitz and glamour meeting synth rock.
So what to make of this album? Well, it’s probably about time to give up hope that Hot Fuss Part 2 is ever coming. So instead I’m interested in judging Battle Born on its own merits, and in that sense it’s actually pretty good. Better than Day & Age by a good margin, and maybe a step below Sam’s Town. The Springsteen vibe is still present, especially on songs like “Runaways”, where the characters and storytelling will strike a chord with some. Songs like “The Way it Is” bring Vegas and Nevada to the frontlines, with mentions of Esmerelda County and Elvis. But when the chorus breaks in it’s a top tier Killers song. “Here With Me”, straight out of another decade, is the kind of song you could have never seen Flowers write in the “Somebody Told Me” days, but its chalk full of heart and sincerity. “A Matter of Time” might actually be the closest thing to old school Killers. On this song Flowers’ voice revert a little closer to the grittier style of the early album. It’s a welcome throwback.
A few more interesting tracks spring up as well. “Deadlines and Commitments”, while definitely leaning more on Flowers’ individual style, has a distinctive chorus and catchy melody. “Miss Atomic Bomb” has been presented as a sequel of sorts to “Mr. Brightside”. Lyrically, Killers fan will notice that “Mr. Brightside” himself actually makes an appearance in the song: in Mr. Brightside the protagonist sings “Open up my eager eyes, ‘cause I’m Mr. Brightside”, while in “Miss Atomic Bomb” he sings “I was new in town, the boy with the eager eyes”. It’s a clever touch by Flowers, presenting dedicated fans with a link to the past.
The weakness of the album is the second act. Songs like “The Rising Tide”, “Heart of a Girl”, and “From Here on Out” never take off. Only “Be Still”, a softer song with the uplifting line “don’t break, character” bolstering the chorus is the back end’s only highlight. Still though, this album ends up being pleasantly surprising given the career trajectory of The Killers, once a top favorite band in college and now relegated to “pretty okay” status. This is not an earth-shattering album, but there’s plenty here to enjoy, especially from the likes of “The Way it Was” and “A Matter of Time”.
Saturday, October 13, 2012
Muse’s fifth album ends with the most unpredictable sequence of Muse songs ever created, and for an over-the-top band like Muse, this is probably a good thing. Muse, which has seemingly always thrived on being huge and towing the line between brilliant and ridiculous, return with an album that contains, amongst other things: dubstep, Russian choir chants, psychedelic guitars, two songs by the bassist, two songs featuring apocalyptic news audio, and a four song sequence in which Matthew Bellamy’s only appearance is his trademark wail. And that doesn’t even count the Olympic theme song.
It’s starts about as Muse as Muse can be: “Supremacy” is full force energy, blending rock, symphonic strings, and Broadway bravado. Rising out of snare drum percussion Bellamy draws out the word “faaaaantasy” straight out of Phantom of the Opera before the song goes full on prog rock. It’s a genius first song and would have been great on any Muse album throughout their illustrious yet downward trending career. The second song, “Madness”, is nothing at all like “Supremacy”, instead softly churning over an electro groove until Bellamy breaks forward with an impassioned “I need your love!!!” as the song grows. “Panic Station”, although inferior to the opening two tracks, still packs a pretty good dance-ish punch over a sick bass line.
And then comes “Prelude”. This is Muse. Of course there’s a prelude. And naturally it’s the fourth song and not the first. Whether you care about it or not will strictly depend on whether or not you have always fancied the symphonic elements of Muse (I have). But you sure can’t miss what it leads into: the just absurd, ridiculous, “is it so absurd and ridiculous that I like it?” song “Survival”, known best for being the Olympic theme song. This is the song that features Russian men’s choir chanting and Bellamy declaring “It’s a race!! And I’m gonna win!!!”. It toes a fine line between stupid and awesome, but the wry smile on my face as I listen to it has me leaning towards liking.
The more “normal” sequence of the album comprises the next four tracks, with “Follow Me” being the most forgettable of the bunch. “Animals” gives ammunition to the Muse-are-just-subpar-Radiohead-copycats crowd, but it’s hard not to enjoy the song sonically, with some fantastic psychedelic guitar work tepidly stringing through the song. It’s some of the best guitar from Muse in my memory. It makes me forgive the noise at the end. Then comes “Explorers” and “Big Freeze”, the two most typical Muse songs on the album.
Still, years of training did not prepare me for the final four song sequence batch of this album. It starts with a dreamy number, “Save Me”, voiced by Chris Wolstenholme, the band’s longtime bassist. Perhaps surprisingly, the song is outstanding, and benefits from some great guitar work as well, particularly near the end. Genre-wise, it’s probably closer to something you’ll get when a mainstream rock band like Breaking Benjamin goes “soft”. Again surprisingly, this is not the last song fronted by Wolstenholme, who also helms the lesser “Liquid State”. The last two songs are then essentially instrumentals, but with their own touch. It starts with “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable”, the internet-famous Muse-does-dubstep track. It’s hard to deny the song’s power, and I’ve pushed my car’s volume with it already. It features Bellamy’s only appearance in the last four tracks, when he is heard wailing over the song’s crescendo. The final track, then, is “The 2nd Law: Isolated System”, a more classic Muse symphonic effort, mixing elements of ambient music, news reports, and strings into a capable closer to an odd album.
So how do you rate an album like this? Purely on individual song ratings the album actually doesn’t stack up that well to other Muse albums, but it’s hard to ignore that the album is abundantly interesting and entertaining as a coalescent whole, and that’s the album’s real strength. From the first note of “Supremacy” to the final note of “The 2nd Law: Isolated System”, it’s difficult to stop listening, and that’s a major plus.
Monday, October 8, 2012
If you’ve never heard of Divine Fits, you may have heard of their band members. Divine Fits exists as the side project of Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner. This represents an interesting preconception for me: over the years I have professed an undying affection for Spoon, but I’ve never really been able to get into Wolf Parade. And as far as the album goes, it’s hard to get past these preconceptions. On songs like “Would That Not Be Nice?”, where the songs sound much more like a slightly more electro-ed Spoon, I find myself enjoying them very much. “The Salton Sea” could have fit nicely onto some of Spoon’s very best albums, and “Shivers” and “Like Ice Cream” don’t really sound any different from Spoon at all. Heck, “Flaggin’ a Ride”, the album’s best song, channels Spoon almost exclusively, and it’s purely excellent and catchy. I wonder if Spoon’s other band members heard this one and though “dang, did you just give away the best song on our next album?”.
Finding the parts where Wolf Parade and Spoon collide into pure Divine Fits is difficult. On “My Love is Real” you get what is essentially a Wolf Parade song, but with a backbeat that sounds a little more like Spoon. Only on the final song, “Neopolitans”, does it feel like the talents of the band’s are really combined, and the song comes off good but not great.
Easy summary: “Flaggin’ a Ride” necessary for all, “The Salton Sea” and “Would That Not Be Nice?” necessary for Spoon fans, and the rest of it makes for an interesting and intriguing add to your music collection if you already fancy Spoon and Wolf Parade.
Always important to frame the context: Band of Horses are undoubtedly one of my very favorite bands in the world. Just the other night How I Met Your Mother used their song “Funeral” during a crucial emotional scene, and it struck a chord in me. Their sophomore album is as elite as elite gets. During one streak in the first half of the album they have three straight five star songs. I only have 83 five star songs in a collection of 11,448 songs. Their third album was amazing as well. So when I describe the fourth Band of Horses album as being almost saddeningly disappointing, both you and I need to be aware of what I hoped this album would be. This is an album where I have the release date written on a post-it note, where I buy it the second it’s available for download, and where I take a trip to Starbucks just to listen. And it’s done by a band that I’ve taken a picture with. I even own a shirt.
This is why rating this album is so hard. Am I being overly judgmental? Because yes, there are some great songs here. “Slow Cruel Hands of Time”, a wistful, nostalgic journey, would be stellar on any album. “Heartbreak on the 101”, featuring some lower register vocals from lead singer Ben Bridwell, emerges and soars. “Shut-in Tourist” is moving and introspective, if not self-damning, allowing self-pity and depression to overwhelm to the point where a foreign visitor won’t even leave the room. “Long Vows” and the sensitive steel guitar are about as country as BoH has gotten over the years, channeling some of the best of My Morning Jacket’s softest work.
But is that it? That’s just four songs. What remains, unfortunately, sputters between average and even two one-star songs, unprecedented by Band of Horses. It’s hard to imagine not skipping “Electric Music” or “A Little Biblical”. “Dumpster World” is mostly confusing, starting lounge-y and soft, but then genre-shifting to an unpleasant and noisy second half. The song, to it’s credit, is memorable even if not great. The same can’t be said for “How to Live”, “Knock Knock”, and the others. These are forgettable.
When my year-end list comes out, I’m certain it will contain some Band of Horses songs. Listen to the two below and you’ll have spent some quality time. But for the first time in their whole career I can’t find myself urging you to go out and spend money on the whole album. And that makes me literally sad.