May 15, 2009
Sometimes a band or musician simply comes along at the perfect time, and such is the case with Canadian indie-rock duo Japandroids. This drum and guitar outfit has delivered a raw, passionate, garage-rock masterpiece with their new album Post-Nothing.
Maybe it’s because I will be a college graduate this summer, which entails all sorts of scary life-related decisions and problems, or maybe it is the fact that at some point we all were sixteen, driving fast in the summer with the windows down and the music deafeningly loud—whichever the case, this record hits me like a punch in the face, and I’m sure many people will feel the same.
Opening track “The Boys Are Leaving Town” perfectly captures that terrifying yet exciting feeling of leaving home for the first time. The line “Will we find our way back home?” is shouted repeatedly during this song’s sing-along climax. The following track is “Young Hearts Spark Fire”, which is rightfully the lead single from Post-Nothing. No song in recent memory has captured the bitter sweetness of growing up quite like this one. The following lines will quickly become your favorite ones to sing at the top of your lungs: “We used to dream, now we worry about dying/I don’t want to worry about dying/I just want to worry about those sunshine girls.” This is the song that should be played at high school graduations across the country. Who could disagree with lines like “You can keep tomorrow, after tonight we’re not gonna need it”?
These catchy, gut-wrenching lyrics are really what make Japandroids special. Many bands are doing the whole two-man band thing these days, and Japandroids’ energy and sincerity sets them apart from these cookie-cutter bands. It is also hard these days for a band to be this emotional and punk-influenced without getting pinned with the horrid “emo” tag, but Japandroids do a good job of being aggressive and up-front enough about how passionate they are, which keeps their street cred appropriately intact.
In the end, Japandroids have delivered a 35-minute summer masterpiece of a record with Post-Nothing. While the second half of the record doesn’t match the blistering pace of the first one, the songs are still good and true to the overall carpe diem theme of the album. So roll those windows down, turn your stereo up as loud as you can stand it, and get ready to spend your summer with Japandroids.
April 29, 2009
Quirky indie-Appalachian warbler Will Oldham recently unveiled his twelfth release under the moniker Bonnie “Prince” Billy. The new record, entitled Beware, picks up on the playful country embellishments of last year’s Lie Down In The Light, but it almost takes a few steps backwards conceptually.
While he has made no qualms about his current love affair with traditional country and folk music, Will Oldham teeters a bit too close to the edge at times on Beware. Whereas last year’s exceptional Lie Down In The Light showcased this new infatuation honestly and effectively, Beware borders on the exaggerated at times, with country arrangements that are at times too playful and over-the-top. Songs like “You Can’t Hurt Me Now” feature high-flying fiddles and an almost faux Gospel choir that tend to take away from Oldham’s otherwise poignant and intelligent lyrics.
Speaking of his lyricism, Beware at times takes a few steps backwards to the older days of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s catalog. The jovial country romps are occasionally countered with darker subject matters and non-typical country self-loathing, which is interesting in its own right, but can also detract from the cohesiveness of the album.
Perhaps the biggest complaint with Beware is the same issue that Oldham has subjected himself to during his tenure as Bonnie “Prince” Billy—Oldham rarely ever makes a record with the same people twice. The stripped-down mastery of previous releases such as I See A Darkenss and Superwolf presented an effective medium for Oldham to showcase his lush songwriting, and last year’s “Lie Down In The Light” perfected his new obsession with lofty traditional music, thanks in part to the beautiful female harmonies of Ashley Webber. On Beware, Oldham has yet again surrounded himself with a new cast of musicians, which certainly adds new elements to his music, while simultaneously detracting from any sense of surrounding consistency.
But then again, this is part of the mystique and charm of Bonnie “Prince” Billy. The fact that Oldham can be consistently prolific, no matter the surrounding cast or their familiarity and chemistry with him, is utterly astounding. It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds though; Beware is still classic Bonnie “Prince” Billy in many ways. The lyrics are often self-reflecting and desperately internal, as Oldham seems to sing increasingly about his lonely position as the perpetual harbinger of indie-folk music. It is a weight that Oldham has grown to appreciate, or at least accept as permanently his own.
Key tracks include the whimsical “I Am Goodbye”, and the somber “Heart’s Arms”. The latter of which finds Oldham vulnerably asking, “Why don’t you write me anymore?/Have you found something as good just next door?” Oldham has really begun to master his song variety, seamlessly balancing upbeat pop-type songs with his more introspective slower ones.
The truth is that at the end of the day Will Oldham is still arguably the best contemporary indie-folk songwriter around, so even if Beware isn’t as complete as some of his previous releases, it is still good. Oldham has built a career around being unpredictable, and it is this youthful spontaneity that keeps the 38-year-old so relevant today.
March 25, 2009
It is usually difficult for a band to toe the line between commercial success and underground integrity, but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have made it look pretty easy for some time now. The little art-rock band that could has more than established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in recent years, with two critically acclaimed albums and a slew of successful EPs. On It’s Blitz!, the group’s third full-length release, we see a band that continues to deliver, and has matured substantially in the process.
Most people will walk into It’s Blitz! expecting another garage-punk tour de force, and as a result most people will be sorely disappointed. This is definitely a record that requires a few listens before an honest judgment can be placed upon it. The differences between It’s Blitz! and previous Yeah Yeah Yeahs records are stark and abundant, but it is not exactly fair to expect a band to continue to put out the same album, especially a band as talented and unpredictable as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
The record begins with two pure dance tracks in “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll”. Initially it is hard to come to grips with the blatant dance-pop direction that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs exhibit here, but this is not exactly thoughtless indie club music. At the core of these synthesizer heavy tracks are well-constructed pop gems. In “Heads Will Roll”, lead singer Karen O delivers the line “Off with your head, dance ‘til you’re dead” with a defined confidence and urgency that is often lacking in similar dance songs of this stature.
Karen O and company follow their foray into the underground dance world with the hypnotically beautiful “Soft Shock”, a dreamy little number that features some impressive reverse guitar work from guitarist Nick Zinner. “Soft Shock” is followed by the mandatory slow love song, “Skeletons”, which finds Karen O at her most vulnerable. In many ways “Skeletons” resembles the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s previous hit single “Maps” from their first full-length Fever To Tell, but this time around the band trades the grungy guitars for a lush soundscape of synths and strings.
Those who fell in love with the old Yeah Yeah Yeahs will find great comfort in the ripping anthem that is “Dull Life”. Here the band balances out the dance tracks and slow songs with what is potentially the most aggressive song they’ve ever recorded. Zinner takes the foreground here, reassuring everyone that no amount of synths can replace the angular perfection of his guitar playing.
Perhaps more shocking than the addition of the opening dance tracks is the fact that It’s Blitz! boasts a staggering amount of slow pretty songs. The record closes with “Hysteric” and “Little Shadow”, two tracks that showcase Karen O’s hauntingly delicate voice. Known for her theatric stage presence and scratchy yelp, Karen O sheds that reputation here, instead delivering her lines with a soft, sweet confidence that establishes her as a very capable singer. In “Hysteric” we hear the lines “Flow sweetly, hang heavy, you suddenly complete me” in the chorus, which may be the most sincere thing that Karen O has ever sang.
“Little Shadow” closes out the record in appropriate fashion with slow, pulsing drums backing Karen O as she beckons “to the night, will you follow me?” — and she is incredibly hard to resist. With It’s Blitz! the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have delivered a focused, emotionally charged record that is as diverse as it is precise. Karen O, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase have introduced an abundance of heart and integrity into an otherwise lifeless and fashionable genre—rarely has electronic music been so moving.
January 22, 2009
It is very hard as a reviewer to completely ignore the blinding amounts of hype surrounding this record. In fact, the only people not swept up in the monster that is Merriweather Post Pavilion seem to be those who created it. Despite the countless accolades and prophecies already laid on this album, I will do my best to be fair and honest. Here we go.
Merriweather Post Pavilion is a good record. Do I believe that it is the best release to come out in the past five years? No. In fact, I don’t even think it’s the best Animal Collective record to come out in the past five years. That being said, I’ll start with the positive.
The guys of Animal Collective (Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist*) are growing up. Lyrically, MPP is not necessarily more mature than previous Animal Collective releases, it is just more focused. The album exudes a strong sense of honesty and simplicity — the guys just want to settle down. With lyrics like, “All this movement has just made your kisses hard to find/It’s what I hope for/No more runnin'”, and “I don’t mean to sound like I care about material things like a social status/I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls”, it is clear that Animal Collective are nostalgic for simpler times, or perhaps anxiously awaiting the days when they can escape the neon parade that is indie rock stardom.
The band’s intentions aside, the result is an atmospherically beautiful album. Synths swim effortlessly around the tracks while the voices of Tare and Panda soar to ridiculous heights, never getting in the way of one another. The bass-heavy beats compliment the songs effectively without overpowering anything, adding just enough danceability to the record. The result is a self-sustaining aesthetic of sound.
Now let’s move on to the things that I do not like about MPP. Namely, the complete lack of guitar hurts this record. Don’t get me wrong, it is amazing to think that Animal Collective created this gorgeous album completely sans-guitar, but imagine how much better it could have been with a few well placed chords soaked in reverb.
This brings me to my ultimate complaint — Merriweather Post Pavilion honestly makes me want to listen to Strawberry Jam (the band’s 2007 release) that much more. While fully realized and cohesive, the new record lacks the urgent passion of tracks like “For Reverend Green” (one of Animal Collective’s greatest achievements IMO). Despite which vocalist you may prefer, there is no denying this album’s utter lack of a good howl from Avey Tare. But then again, this is probably intentional. To me, Merriweather Post Pavilion feels like an attempt to silence the critics, or rather to prove that Animal Collective simply does not care what anyone thinks. Just when it is becoming convenient to pigeonhole them into a style, they quickly evolve into something refreshing, yet familiar. Why not drop the guitars and the screams in favor of pretty songs about being in love?
Don’t get me wrong — the shortcomings that I find in Merriweather Post Pavilion just make me like its strong points that much more. It’s nice to know that artists can still reinvent themselves positively and continue to push the boundaries of music. It’s also nice to know that even electronic noise pop bands can write simple songs about taking a walk on a summer day, being a father, and falling in love.
* Guitarist Deakin sat this one out.
The official video for the first single “My Girls” is pretty amazing. Check it out.
February 4, 2008
The Shackeltons are dramatic.
Do not be mistaken—this is not a negative description. This music is dramatic in both scope and arrangement, which makes for a refreshingly unique experience.
These guys hail from Chambersburg, PA, and have established a significant fan base due to their recent signing with Seattle-based Loveless Records and generous play from indie radio station KEXP.
Initial comparisons to Joy Division are accurate enough, but there is something more aggressive and urgent going on with the Shackeltons. “Yellow Cadillac” is a prime example, with slight dissonant guitar plucking eventually erupting into a sort of frenzied post-punk anthem. Where Joy Division pushed you to the edge of your musical psyche, the Shackeltons shove you overboard.
These guys are a real spectacle live, and producer Sam Jones (of Wilco documentary fame) has done a commendable job capturing the raw intensity of The Shackeltons. The mix is consistent and nothing feels overly forced. The only concern I have is in regards to preserving their live spontaneity. This is a band that is used to headlining local shows and playing to very accepting crowds, and I can only hope that opening for bigger bands and playing to less enthusiastic crowds does not break their spirit, because the live show is where these guys hook you.
Honestly the album is really solid. “Get Out” and “Tremble” are the standout tracks for me, but “Your Movement” is probably the most representative song on the album. “The Breaks” is a brooding rocker that really captures the band at their best—robotically timed guitars, rolling bass, Sean Hallock’s unrelenting beats and the inspired desperation of Mark Redding’s vocal delivery.
After listening to a few tracks you may quickly begin to think that Redding is actually insane, and this is part of the Shackeltons charm, as odd as that might sound. Redding is ripping his heart out and dangling it in front of your face, but there is nothing whiney about his delivery—he is genuine and aggressive. His live performance is a sight to behold, as he flails his body around without any noticeable regard for safety. Redding throws himself all about the stage, convulsing among a surreal diorama of Christmas lights and torn flowers, issuing a profound warning about something that you can’t understand but can definitely feel. It’s all urgent and imperative and dramatic. There’s that word again.
In the end, I am happy with the album. Because I have seen their intense live shows, I held a higher standard than most for this record, but it holds it’s own. It took a few listens, but in the end I think that this is a fair and good representation of the band. This album is The Shackeltons. It is raw. It is violent at times and extremely danceable at others. If you have ever liked Joy Division or Interpol or The Strokes, then you NEED to listen to these guys…I hope that didn’t sound too dramatic.
December 7, 2007
Follow the Lights is the most recent E.P. offering from alt-country wonder kid Ryan Adams and his talented backing band The Cardinals. Adams has embodied the word “prolific” throughout his young musical career, releasing nine albums and a slew of E.P.’s in a span of seven years. Prolific or not, Adams has earned quite the reputation for being a critical hit or miss. Admittedly more of a songwriter than a performer, Adams has been accused of having a lazy editing eye, releasing too few great songs to justify so many releases.
Perhaps it is all for the best.
Maybe Ryan Adams has simply been creating distractions so that his best work can inevitably shine through years down the road. Given his overwhelming catalog of releases, it’s easy to roll your eyes at yet another E.P., but Follow the Lights shows great promise, and more importantly it shows that Adams has finally got his act together and is ready to start earning his illustrious title.
The E.P. consists of many older Ryan Adams songs that have been re-worked with The Cardinals’ magic touch. There are also a couple of new tracks, along with a very respectable cover of the Alice in Chains song “Down in a Hole”. The disc begins with the title track, which has an ethereally soft feel. Keeping in tradition with previous efforts, Adams’s songs usually carry a message of longing for a certain person or a specific place. His use of imagery is almost poetic at times: “If everything we are is real/Our memories are attics in those houses on the hill/Our love is there above us holding everything so still”.
“My Love For You Is Real” is a bona fide country love song.
If you have been debating about picking this E.P. up, take a listen to “Blue Hotel”. Adams wrote the song for Willie Nelson, who released it on his album Songbird, which Adams also produced. This version makes appropriate use of The Cardinals, creating a nice background for Adams’s country-tinged moan. You can practically feel his agony pouring through the speakers during the chorus. The lofty verses spring into a full choir, only to retreat, leaving you with nothing but Adams’s beautiful desperation as he shouts “’Cuz I give up, I give up”. If this is truly his new direction, then let’s hope that he does not give up quite yet.
The Alice in Chains cover is very impressive and makes interesting use of The Cardinals’ varying talents, as well as Adams’s prodigal vocal range. “This Is It” has changed drastically since its debut on 2003’s Rock N Roll. Like the rest of the E.P., “This Is It” has benefited immensely from the cohesiveness that Adams has found playing with The Cardinals. Everything sounds smooth and appropriate and Adams’ himself seems to finally be comfortable with his musical surroundings, but we’ll see how long that lasts. The remaining two tracks “If I Am A Stranger” and “Dear John” are live studio cuts of songs that Adams released on previous Cardinals’ records (Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights respectively).
With the release of Follow the Lights, it would seem that Ryan Adams has finally reached his plateau. This feels like it’s where he’s always belonged, and where he should inevitably stay. It’s just plain good ‘ole country-tinged rock, and Adams can only run from his country roots for so long. Instead of continuing to test to see just how far he can push his creative envelope, Adams should learn to be content and dive headfirst into more albums such as this one and Jacksonville City Nights. Adams admits on “Blue Hotel”, “I couldn’t see the future/I liked the past too much.”
Well Mr. Adams, if this is your future I will be eagerly awaiting your next offering.