Saturday, October 26, 2013

10 Years of Loving Music

collage

I’ve now been blogging to some extent about music for about 10 years, starting in the Xanga and Myspace days. And as I start to ramp up to my annual top 50, I thought it would be fun to journey from 2003 to 2013 with some Past and the Pending approved tracks that have highlighted the years past.

2003. Muse – “Butterflies & Hurricanes”.

My affection for Muse has not aged well since they transitioned from mega-talented orchestral rock band to the kings of over-the-topness, but back in 2003 I was all about Muse. To this day watching the “Butterflies & Hurricanes” piano break live is one of my favorite moments in music.

Other gems that year: Postal Service – “Such Great Heights”, Snow Patrol – “Run”, Death Cab for Cutie – “Transatlanticism”, and The Shins – “Pink Bullets”.

2004. The Killers – “Somebody Told Me”.

One of the best debut albums of all time, The Killers’ “Hot Fuss” was alt rock masterpiece after alt rock masterpiece, capturing the early wave of modern synth rock. The highlight was “Somebody Told Me”, a song that still rocks today.

Other gems that year: The Arcade Fire – “Rebellion (Lies)”, Jimmy Eat World – “23”, The Hold Steady – “Killer Parties”

2005. The Hold Steady – “Cattle and the Creeping Things”.

There’s no other Hold Steady song that aptly sums up how great they are more than this one. It’s a rock song and it’s a story and it’s a key stage setter for Separation Sunday, an all-time great concept album. There’s no winning picking out a best line, because the entire song is a quotable Biblical journey. I’d explain, but someone already has better than I ever could: http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2005/aug/holdsteady/lyrics_cattle.html

Other gems that year: Nickel Creel – “Doubting Thomas”, Sigur Ros – “Hoppipolla”, Spoon – “I Summon You”, Sufjan Stevens – “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”

2006. Cold War Kids – “We Used to Vacation”.

Boy did I play this song a lot. To this day I can’t think about anything other than driving around Idaho at night when I hear this one. Cold War Kids’ barroom rock style always should’ve been bigger than it was, and I love them still to this day.

Other gems that year: Fleet Foxes – “Blue Ridge Mountains” and My Chemical Romance – “Welcome to the Black Parade”

2007. LCD Soundsystem – “All My Friends”.

Oh 2007. What a year. This year provided so many of my favorite songs that picking is hard. Truth is, my two favorite songs of all time were both from 2007, but if I have to pick one I have to go with “All My Friends” a powerful, emotive, and masterful piece of music that sticks with me still. “You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan, and the next five years trying to be with your friends again”.

Other gems that year: Band of Horses – “Detlef Schrempf”, Jimmy Eat World – “Dizzy”, Radiohead – “House of Cards”, The Shins – “Australia”, Iron & Wine – “Innocent Bones”

2008.  MGMT – “Time to Pretend”.

I guess my ire towards the new MGMT album stems from my love for “Time to Pretend”, a fuzzy psychedelic piece of pop rock that showcased what you could do when you combine all the weirdness of the world with the magic of a good melody.

Other gems that year: Fleet Foxes – “Mykonos”, Spoon – “Black Like Me” and “Finer Feelings”, Coldplay – “Death and All of His Friends”

2009. Biffy Clyro – “Many of Horror”.

My weakness for the swarming and powerful and, most importantly, building rock song flat out gave in with “Many of Horror”, a song from a band I’d never heard of and only mildly like. And it makes a sucker of me at the bridge.

Other gems that year: Passion Pit – “Sleepyhead”, Minus the Bear – “Throwin’ Shapes”, Iron & Wine – “God Made the Automobile”, Grizzly Bear – “Two Weeks”

2010. Caribou – “Jamelia”.

2010 was probably the second strongest year, only coming in behind 2007. With four five star songs to pick from, I’m sticking with my then #1, “Jamelia”, a headphones goldmine that explodes right before the two minute mark. iTunes says I’ve played it 57 times, but that doesn’t count the 200 times in the car on the way to grad school in Ohio.

Other gems that year: Sufjan Stevens – “Futile Devices”, The Antlers – “Kettering”, Mimicking Birds – “The Loop”, The National – Conversation 16”, Freelance Whales – “Generator ^ Second Floor”

2011. M83 – “Steve McQueen”.

Some things never change. 2011 is two years old and I still can’t pick my favorite song. But I can tell you which one still gets the most airplay. M83’s “Steve McQueen” is the zenith of a career defining album, and one of three fives stars on the album. Play it loud.

Other gems that year: Fleet Foxes – “Grown Ocean”, Young the Giant – “Apartment”, M83 – “Midnight City”, War on Drugs – “I Was There”, The National – “Thing You Can Wait”

2012. The Shins – “Simple Song”

A decade after dropping one of my favorite few albums of all time (2001’s Oh Inverted World), The Shins struck again with music in a completely different mold. Gone was the lo-fi, and here was “Simple Song”, a song with a lushness and positivity that rings true.

Other gems that year: Grizzly Bear – “Yet Again”, Sufjan Stevens – “Justice Delivers its Death” 

Only about a month to go before the 2013 list comes out, and the year is looking pretty strong. Thanks for sticking with me over the years!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Uncovering Some Stray Alt Rock Tracks

Sometimes songs get a little buried and forgotten over time, or maybe they were on an album that wasn’t that great. But every now and then they spring up and remind me of how awesome they are even if I don’t mention the band a lot. With that in mind, back from the grave are these four awesome songs for your listening pleasure:

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – “Misspent Youth”

War on Drugs – “I Was There”

The Republic Tigers – “Golden Sand”

Minus the Bear – “Throwin’ Shapes”

The Civil Wars – “The Civil Wars”

civilwars

The Civil Wars’ tense partnership is fairly well known at this point, and although I’d rather not recap it, it would be impossible to deal with their sophomore album while ignoring it. After releasing their enormously popular and award winning debut album Barton Hollow, full of fantastic tracks like personal favorite “Poison & Wine”. The Civil Wars managed two well-deserved Grammy’s out of their debut, and partially occupied the gaping whole in my heart permanently left by Nickel Creek’s premature schism.

I’d rather just point you to this link than discuss the drama in length: http://www.npr.org/2013/08/02/207981618/the-civil-wars-joy-williams-on-the-duos-fragile-bond. Suffice it to say that right in the middle of touring, the band broke up, citing some “irreconcilable differences” or something. It wasn’t cordial either. John Paul White didn’t give interviews, even though Joy Williams does, she can’t speak for him because, well, they don’t speak.

So it was to a great surprise that we got a second album out of the duo, apparently finished right before the breakup. And in the wake of the album we got no press junket and no tour. The album is there, but it goes no further than that. And for a band that always excelled in the male-female vocal tension, we’re left to read even more into the despairing lyrics on their eponymous album.

On Barton Hollow, I found the album curiously backloaded, and they flip the script here. From a pure rating perspective, the albums are about equal across the board, but although I give them the same rating as I did last time, I think I was about a half star short in 2011. And why does this one fall a little short? I think it has something to do with the sour taste in the mouth. On “Poison & Wine” the tension is palpable but the lyrics still convey a sense of longing and hope. Mostly because of the backstory, their newest album’s tension feels less hopeful, and instead feels like you’re listening to a breakup happen. And maybe it shouldn’t feel that way. Take “Same Old, Same Old”: “I wanna leave you, I wanna lose us, I wanna give up, But I won’t”. Hard to take that as hopeful if by the time the album is released, they quite literally gave up.

Ah, but musically this is the same band, and that makes everything much harder. There are some absolutely stellar and moving tracks here. Debut single “The One That Got Away” is dramatic and stirring, fusing rock and folk. There's an edge to the song not present before, and not present again afterwards. “Eavesdrop” may be the most swelling song they’ve written yet, rising over gentle mandolin and guitar to break the best single climax they’ve written yet. Bluesy and John Paul White-focused “I Had Me a Girl” brings a little soul to the joint and tones down the melodrama on an album that could use a lot less.

Maybe this album would sit better if it didn’t feel like a lie. Is that fair? I don’t know. Sometimes people lie to themselves to try and make it work. Sometimes the most well-intentioned of things don’t work out. But all that said I find it impossible to hear a song like “Dust to Dust” about two lonely people rescuing each other and not find it’s message a little off-putting in retrospective. There’s also the issue that the second half of the album doesn’t have any memorable songs save for a good Smashing Pumpkins cover, or that it features John Paul White distinctly less than Joy Williams, which contributes to making a “pretty good” album out of an album with such a distinctly great first half. If you can get past the backstory, though, there’s plenty enough in that front half to satiate a Civil Wars fan.

But I still miss Nickel Creek.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Kings of Leon – “Mechanical Bull”

Kings-of-Leon-Mechanical-Bull-2013-1200x1200

★1/2

The journey of Kings of Leon has been a strange and opinionated one. Nearly everyone who is into alternative rock or the festival circuit has an opinion on the Tennessee rockers. Such is life for a band that committed the two cardinal sins of indie music: 1) changing their sound, and 2) getting huge. I discussed their transformation back in 2010 when Come Around Sundown was released and showed a band that wasn’t completely sure whether they wanted to be gritty southern rock or new school arena rock. The result was a bit of a mixed bag, and now we sit three years and one drug and liquor-fueled hiatus later. Because of the range of opinions surrounding KoL, allow me full disclosure regarding mine. Did they change their sound? Absolutely, indisputably yes.

Just listen to the difference and understand what people mean when they criticize. If you were in love with their early albums and don’t like what they’ve become, I don’t blame you one bit. I don’t necessarily fit into that group though. I believe Kings of Leon are at their best when they combine their southern rock soul and gritty vocals with just a touch of polish. That being said, this is where I think they peaked:

Although I’m an “old school” fan, I believe their best work was not 2003’s Youth & Young Manhood or 2004’s Aha Shake Heartbreak, but actually was 2007’s Because of the Times with 2008’s Only By the Night a close second. 2010’s Come Around Sundown was too much of a compromise, juggling between the old and the new, and ending up tepid and mediocre.

So now, three years later, we get 2013’s Mechanical Bull, with some early promises of returning to the early roots teasing fans ears. In reality this is only true to some extent, but it’s a definite improvement over their 2010 effort, and thus their best effort in half a decade. The album starts with a rush, and it’s hard not to get a little excited. Lead single “Supersoaker” is the kind of gritty-meet-a-touch-of-polish track that I love, and would be a top track on nearly all of their albums. “Rock City” is the kind of fun track we haven’t seen in a while, with Caleb Followill declaring he can “shake it like a woman”. “Rock City” and grinder “Don’t Matter” pull out of the arena rock phase that KoL entered, existing in a more pure rock ‘n roll sense. There’s even some more produced-sounding tracks that succeed in the vein of Only By the Night. “Tonight” survives and thrives on the back of a soaring riff, built for the big stage. Even when he soars on “Tonight”, Followill’s voice doesn’t have the same echo chamber reverb that is used on Come Around Sundown, and it’s a noticeable improvement for a vocalist who gets miles out of his throaty growl. “Comeback Story” is autobiographical (“Picking up the pieces in the world I know/With one in the fire and one in the snow/
It's a comeback story of a lifetime), and will likely please fans of the more charming side of KoL. What really hits you on the song, though, isn’t just the lyrics but the way Followill sings them with such sincerity. Followill’s lyrics can be cocky and brash, but here he sounds legitimately wounded.

Lest I heap too much praise on the album, there’s also plenty of unexciting tracks here too. “Beautiful War” is a little too clean and brooding, and “Temple” goes nowhere. “Coming Back Again” and “Family Tree” are forgettable. Overall though, the album is a solid return to goodness, especially on the strength of a strong opening, and a smattering of winners like “Tonight”, “Comeback Story”, and “On the Chin”. For a band that I wasn’t sure would keep making music, I’m pleased. I’ll probably always listen to Because of the Times to get my Kings of Leon fix, but Mechanical Bull is a much more solid effort than Come Around Sundown, balancing their gritty charm with their expansive new sound without feeling like a compromise, and this album may foreshadow a good post-superfame musical life for one of the best mainstream acts in music.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Volcano Choir – “Repave”

Repave_(2013)_Album_Cover

Justin Vernon sure is a busy man. If you follow indie music, you know Justin very well. If you follow it only fleetingly, maybe you think his actual name is Bon Iver. Justin Vernon is Bon Iver, but he’s also DeYarmond Edison, Gayngs, and Shouting Matches. When he’s putting on his best Bon Iver disguise, he’s Volcano Choir. What is Volcano Choir? It’s Justin Vernon teamed with Collections of Colonies of Bees, which is in itself part of All Tiny Creatures. Are we confused yet? Because that was fun to write, especially since it all made sense to me. I guess I could have kept it simpler and said “that Bon Iver dude has a side project, and it’s really good”.

I think I was slow in turning out this review mostly because it’s all a little hard to break down. Volcano Choir as a side project to Bon Iver seems now to make different sense with 2013’s Repave than it did with 2009’s Unmap. This is because 2009’s Unmap was, to me, a confusing mess of noise and generally a failure, and it seemed to act as Justin Vernon’s bizarre electronic extension of his cabin-in-the-snowy-woods indie folk sensation For Emma, Forever Ago. There was exactly one good (make that great) song on it (“Island, IS”, #6 that year on my year end list), and the rest was an odd collection of noise. Seriously, click on that link there.

If For Emma, Forever Ago was Justin Vernon displaying his deft handling of emotion, and Unmap was him displaying his desire to expand beyond folk, then they became perfectly married on Bon Iver’s epic, five-star Bon Iver, Bon Iver, an album that pushed beyond the folk sound, improving it without losing the emotion. And now here we are with a new Volcano Choir album. Trust me, despite my love of Justin Vernon, I disliked Unmap enough to not even buy Repave on faith. I had to listen to it first.

Surprises, surprises. Once an outlet for experimentation, Repave is an outlet of a completely different kind this time, and it’s all for the better. Indeed, it would have been unthinkable in 2009 that a soaring, emotionally visceral song like “Comrade”, could ever be on a Volcano Choir album, but here it is. Unlike Unmap, this album isn’t a one hit wonder. “Byegone” soars in such an open way that it would make “Beth/Rest” proud, putting hearts on a sleeve in unabashed fashion. The end soars like an Arcade Fire call to arms (“set sail!”), something that, again, you wouldn’t have foreseen years ago when Justin Vernon first came onto the scene. “Alaskans” has an old school Bon Iver feel to a point, albeit missing the falsetto trademark in the verses. “Dancepack”, more than the others, seems to exist successfully in it’s own space rather than as a connection to other work. “Tiderays” and “Acetate”, in all their success, could have fit nicely on the most recent Bon Iver album. It’s definitely still Justin Vernon in the way that his songs don’t make lyrical sense, instead relying about the sound of the words to create images and feelings, with varying degrees of success. I find it easier to let the music sort of wash over me than to seek interpretation, because you just won’t be able to handle “tossin’ off your compliments/wow/sexing all your parliaments” if you try to make sense of it.

After all these words, what then do you make of this album. Justin Vernon is a hard man to pin down, and I think he loves it that way. He makes no distinction between his projects, and would take offense to me calling Volcano Choir a side project. It’s just a project to him. We only think of Bon Iver as the main thing because it got bigger. I suppose he’s right. It’s his music after all. So maybe it’s hard to understand Volcano Choir album #2 compared to album #2 because they are connected only in namesake. The only real connection is Justin Vernon, who has transformed from folkster in a cabin to electro experimenter to some sort of crazy awesome hybrid. I don’t necessarily like things simple, because then I couldn’t analyze it like this, but if you want the straight, simple truth here it is: this album is great. Any Bon Iver/Justin Vernon/Shouting Matches/DeYarmon Edison/Volcano Choir should own it and will enjoy it.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

I Will Feel the Same, But Older

Oh wake me please when this is over
Oh when the ice is melted away
And the hunger returns
I will feel the same but older
And I'll be twice the man that I thought I was

A Collection of Small Reviews for the Short Attention-Spanned (Like me!)

Sometimes albums start to pile up because I have a hard time to get motivated to write a full-on review. Sometimes people don’t want to read full reviews anyways. If this is you, it’s your lucky day!

James Blake – “Overgrown”

James Blake, the crooner of the post-dubstep movement. Doesn’t that just sound ridiculous and pretentious? Yes, but don’t let it keep you from giving James Blake a listen. His albums require the right mood; they are slow and moody and often minimalist. But at their best, the highest highs are high indeed. “Overgrown” and “Life Round Here” are highlights, with “Life Round Here” being a gem on a good pair of headphone. And “Retrograde” is an absolute knockout that will get under your skin in a dark room.

Guards – “In Guards We Trust”

Guards certainly merit some early MGMT comparisons at their best, especially on tracks like “1 & 1”, where the group vocals and psychedelic touch swell. Too bad there aren’t a lot of moments like this one. Guards have a knack for interesting alternative rock songs, and the album is overall worth listening too, but there’s just something missing that keeps it from being too memorable.

Youngblood Hawke – “Wake Up”

★1/2

Maybe you were like me and you were intrigued by the high energy, super fun “We Come Running” that has made the rounds in the backgrounds of just about every tv show trailer. Let me save you some time and urge you to stay clear. Yes, “We Come Running” is good, but the rest of the album is a study in repetition, following a nearly identical pattern all the way through until the songs aren’t distinguishable from one another. “Ahhs” and “wooah-ooohs” and uptempo synth rock abound, and abound again and again and again. There’s potential here, but it’s seldom realized.

 

The 1975– “The 1975”

Disappointment can come in many ways, and one of those ways is the disappointment of unrealized expectations. So let’s be clear, there are some AWESOME songs on this album. “Chocolate” will be in my year-end top ten I’m sure. “Sex” is like a cheeky British Jimmy Eat World song. “City” and “Robbers” are strong as well. The rest is nearly rubbish, and it’s tough, because there is so much talent here. The 1975 prove here they can write brilliant tracks if they know what direction they want to go in. There’s ambient rock here, there’ pop rock here, and there’s alt rock here. When they get the mix right, they win, but most the time they lose. $4 towards the 4 songs mentioned is a much better use for your money than buying the whole album.

MGMT– “MGMT”

I promised myself I wouldn’t waste too much breath on MGMT, who manage to almost make me angry. I’m stuffing this review down here in an attempt to keep myself from getting carried away. So yes, MGMT, I am one of your legions of fans that adored “Time to Pretend”, that thinks “Kids” was amazing, and who played “Weekend Wars” repeatedly. You got huge on a psychedelic pop rock, and then you decided to drop the pop and the rock part and just go full on psychedelic. In interviews, you’ve made it clear you’re intentionally trying to alienate fans of songs that got accidentally popular. Well, consider me alienated, MGMT, good job. Your album reeks of ego. If you’re gonna pull a full on Thom Yorke with “Creep”, at least pull a Thom Yorke and make a line of flipping fantastic Radiohead albums. Instead you give us this: a hyper-weird, directionless, meandering mess of psychedelica, pretty okay up front, and awful in the back half. To make matters worse, it has teases. There are glimpses of the band I loved in here. You can hear it on “A Good Sadness” most of all, and you can hear it a little on “Alien Days”. Believe me, I’ve reviewed music as a hobby for about seven years now, and I’m very capable of both analyzing and loving some truly weird music. To me it’s not about diving deep and understanding what they’re doing, because I’m not convinced they’re being anything but egotistical and contrarian. MGMT are a talented group, and they are frustrating, because they don’t want to be who we want them to be. That’s their choice and their lives and it’s their music, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.