Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mid-Year Best of 2013

I checked in back in April with this list, detailing the best songs in the first quarter of the year. The last couple months of 2013 have also been kind, building up a very strong year. Here are 10 more new songs that encompass the best of the 2nd quarter of 2013.

1. The National – “Pink Rabbits”

The National - Pink Rabbits by partacz95

There were three songs on the new album from The National that stopped me in my tracked, but none were as affecting as “Pink Rabbits”, a glimmer of hope in Matt Berninger’s often-gloomy world. “I’m so surprised you want to dance with me now…” might be the most touching lyric Berninger’s ever penned, a moment of happiness emerging from the unconfident.

2. The 1975 – “Chocolate”

The 1975’s work to date is a strange-yet-alluring mix of pep and ambience. The song is confident and catchy, featuring some fantastic guitar work. This is indie pop in the vein of Foster the People or Walk the Moon, and music like this leaking into the mainstream is making the world better.

3. London Grammar – “Wasting My Young Years”

With nary and album under their belts, London Grammar are building up quite the reputation. Songs like “Wasting My Young Years” and “Metal & Dust” are already passing around the blogosphere, garnering comparisons to Florence + The Machine and The xx, which is another way of saying it’s a bit like Florence with a gentle touch. Can’t wait to hear the whole album.

4. Cold War Kids – “Water & Power”

My excitement over the new Cold War Kids album emerged first when I heard the more uptempo “Miracle Mile”, but it’s actually “Water & Power” that emerged as my favorite from the album. The reverbed vocals over the soft piano and chirping guitars grow and grow, accompanied by the question “Are you willing? Are you brave? Who could make you feel afraid?”. There’s definitely some personal identification going on there with me, but I hope you like it as well.

5. Vampire Weekend – “Step”

There was an obnoxious week in my life when I couldn’t do anything but sing the opening verse to this song. Lyrically, it’s nonsensical, relying more on sounds than on meaning. But sonically this is the best I’ve ever heard Vampire Weekend, a band that has shown me glimpses but never quite convinced me.

6. Lana Del Rey – “Young & Beautiful”

Some songs are just too perfect for the artist. Despite the multitude of feelings out there towards Lana, it’s hard to deny this song could fit with anyone else any better, and that alone should show her validity as an artist. The symphonic nature of the song adds the drama, and Lana’s vocals perfectly encompass the glitz and glamour and underneath-the-surface woundedness displayed in The Great Gatsby.

7. Guards – “1 + 1”

Back in 2007, MGMT came out with an album that blew my mind with it’s combination of pop and psychadelica. It was apparently too poppy for MGMT themselves, because they haven’t got near that sound again. Enter Guards, with their curiously poorly reviewed album, to take up the baton. “1 + 1” grows and swarms, charming in it’s simplicity, and glorious in sound.

8. Rogue Wave – “College”

Rogue Wave’s career has never quite reached the peak of the very first time I heard them, huddled in a bar in San Antonio scribbling lyrics to “Lake Michigan” on my hand so I could Google the band later (this was before Shazaam). I gave their newest album a listen and found a few tracks that really caught my ear, including this indie rocker.

9. Iron & Wine – “Winter Prayers”

“Winter Prayers” is a special kind of Iron & Wine song, relying on not much more than Sam Beam’s hushed vocals and soft instrumentation. Beam has, across his career, penned some very moving and personal lyrics, and “Winter Prayers” rates high in this regard. “Slide down South/when once in a while your confidence leave you” he recommends to himself. The South Carolina native longs for home and healing. For him it’s the South, for you it may be somewhere else, but the sentiment strikes home. Out of place, cold, and troubled, sometimes we need home.

10. The Hold Steady – “Criminal Fingers”

Hold Steady, I miss you! One of the few bands of which I own a t-shirt hasn’t released an album since 2010, and I’m lonely. Enter Record Store Day b-side release “Criminal Fingers”, and I’m in love again. Please release a new album!

Some Others That Caught My Ear:

I hope you found something you like! I’m still working my way through new albums from Jimmy Eat World, Phoenix, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and others. A good music year continues!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Kurt Vile – “Wakin on a Pretty Daze”



Perhaps in a different time or a different mental state I would find a lot to like about Kurt Vile’s latest album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. Fact is, there is little negative to say about the album as a whole. Vile executes a very pleasant sounding collection that sounds great as a whole, but falls short when trying to identifying the high points of the album or single tracks worth saving. I suppose that’s both a compliment or a criticism depending on who you are and what you want. Could I sound a little more non-committal or indecisive?

Kurt Vile once again crafts his great blend of indie-meets-folk, with a dash of psychedelica. His vocals are soft and even lazy, and one can easily picture him singing the whole album with his eyes closed or possibly high. Maybe because the only drug I’m on is the Starbucks mocha I’m currently sipping I don’t find it as completely appealing as someone possibly could. But the fact is that Waking on a Pretty Daze would be a lot better served being played in its entirety in a Starbucks than it would soundtracking anything short of your latest essay. Part of this is because of how protracted the songs are. “Goldtone” is over 10 minutes long, and there are three songs longer than 7:42. Add in two more songs at six minutes or more. Indeed there are many moments where you say “that was good, but once is enough”, because the length rarely leads to anything much different than you heard at the beginning. As a non-stoner, I suppose I judge these as stoner jams.

That being said, the psychedelic guitar that runs behind the title track is an awesome piece of music. “Was All Talk” manages to build a little upon itself, electronically evoking something closer to The Antlers, which is high praise. The two best tracks are stacked in the middle starting with “Pure Pain”, which introduces something different sounding in an album that tends to blend together, suddenly shifting gears to something beautiful around the minute mark. “Too Hard”, the album’s top track, is dreamy and wondrous, combining the best of Kurt Vile with the same sort of alt-country touches that made the War on Drugs album so good. The lyrics when sung with Vile’s pensive vocals over some simply fantastic guitar work make for a great song on a thoughtful night. “There comes a time in every man’s life when he’s gotta take hold of the hand that ain’t his, but it is”, he sings. If Vile’s best trait is his vulnerability and deep thought, “Too Hard” displays it in full.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The National – “Trouble Will Find Me”


I normally don’t review albums this quick after the release, but seeing that I can’t turn it off, I think I’ve had enough listens to allow for making an assessment. Bottom line up front? The National have done it again, and in my mind have now cemented themselves in an elite group of consistent, dependable, amazing bands in the indie/alternative music circle. I still remember a couple of years ago when I lived in Idaho and purchased new music from Minus the Bear and The Hold Steady. Since I already had free shipping on Amazon I tacked High Violet from The National onto my order. That year High Violet ended up being my top album, and 2010 was a very, very strong year. In between now and then The National released two unbelievable non-album tracks, “Exile Vilify” for the Portal 2 soundtrack and “Think You Can Wait” from the movie Win Win (#2 for 2011). Now they return with Trouble Will Find Me, and the result is a second consecutive masterpiece.

The National succeed because they deftly and sometimes subtly excel in so many area. Their music never lacks for melody or feeling, but they never stray towards schmaltz. Matthew Berringer’s lyrics are heartfelt, but are often weighed down by feelings of anxiety or regret. He manages a personal relatability rarely found in a genre that is often lyrically nonsensical, existential, political, or some other kind of –al. Berringer’s deep vocals—a unique identifier for the band that is also simultaneously the hardest thing to get used to—bring a certain charm to the self-deprecation and lack of confidence he so often expresses. On “Demons”, Berninger unconfidently admits that “when I walk into a room/I do not light it up”. Underneath that same bridge where that lyric is found is a stunning bit of musicality that lingers underneath the surface: building strings, a touch of horn, Aaron Dessner’s fantastic guitar work, urgent percussion.

“I Should Live in Salt”, the opening track, builds beautifully as well. Rising from an acoustic guitar and subtle electronics, it breaks into one of The National’s most rousing choruses ever. There’s practically a moment like this in every song. “This is the Last Time”, over top of mournful string and distant piano, has Berninger reaching out for help: “Jenny I am in trouble, can’t get these thoughts out of me…”, his voice trailing into the growing, beautiful chaos. “Pink Rabbits”, set up around a simple piano and drum beats handled by Sufjan Stevens himself, is as emotive as The National have ever been, and try not be moved when the wounded Berninger expresses hope when he sings “I’m so surprised you want to dance with me now, I was just getting used to living life without you around”, a cathartic moment of confidence from a seemingly unconfident man.

To be frank, this review could go on forever. For brevity’s sake, I’ll just assure you there is so much more here that warrants mentioning: the piano that underpins “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, the dark mood that surrounds “Fireproof”, the power in the tenderness of Berninger’s vocals as they strain upwards on “Heavenfaced”, the pure openness and woundedness on full display in “Slipped” (“I don’t need any help to be breakable/believe me”, “I’m having trouble inside my own skin”, and “I don’t want you to grieve/but I want you to sympathize”, to name a few). Oh and how about the soft electric guitar on “I Need My Girl”, the forward movement and psychedelic guitar on “Humiliation”, and the pure and simple closer “Hard to Find”?

This album succeeds because it’s everything High Violet was that made it great, but it’s still different in it’s own right. There was almost a dark haze over tracks like “Terrible Love” on High Violet. These tracks are more pure, playing upon the sounds The National played with in the years between albums. I hold that “Think You Can Wait” may just be their best song ever (“Conversation 16” is in the picture too), but what I didn’t know was how much Trouble Will Find Me would play upon that same feel. What an amazing match: Berninger’s soul-bearing lyrics, combined with even richer musicianship than ever before.