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.
January 21, 2009
Since I have promised myself to keep this blog up to date and interesting, I must incorporate some new routine practices. That being said, one of these routines I’d like to explore is the world of influential albums that are not so current. To greater appreciate newer music, it is also important to understand where we came from.
I proudly introduce the first in the “Old Favorites” series:
Bjork is a terribly odd person. It is always discouraging when an artist’s eccentric lifestyle choices interfere or reflect poorly upon their artistic contributions (I’m talking to you Ryan Adams), and Bjork is a perfect example of this malady.
Since I was in junior high I have fiercely defended my fondness for Bjork’s music. I may not have fully understood the more technical aspects of her repertoire (I was only twelve years old), but I knew that her voice was gorgeous and that her beats were catchy. Years later, after hearing countless wannabes and imitators, I have come back to Bjork’s music with a better appreciation for her craft.
Homogenic is like the matriarch of modern electronic pop music. It is a risky, frightening record that pushed the boundaries of what was and what was not “pop”, and the results are absolutely breathtaking. Songs like “Joga” are so hypnotizingly beautiful and mammoth in scope, that they only seem to amplify the haunting vulnerability of songs like “Undone”. The jittery masterpiece “Hunter” is a true turning point in Bjork’s career, and perhaps a turning point in electronic music.
Here Bjork is showing her genius. She proves that her voice is not restricted to drum machines, orchestral arrangements, or synthesizers, but rather that she can combine these elements endlessly and comfortably. Perhaps the most striking thing about Homogenic is that despite all of its weaving beats and dissolving synths, the record culminates with a beautiful, beatless swan song in “All Is Full of Love”.
While Homogenic remains silently groundbreaking, part of me can’t help but imagine Panda Bear falling asleep to this record. It’s true that Bjork is easily overlooked by the populous, but I still hold significant faith in the fact that the “right” musicians have not ignored her completely, and we have all benefited from this act of selective listening.
January 20, 2009
With a new year comes new hopes. It all begins tomorrow with two important events: the presidential inauguration and the release of the new Animal Collective album.
The former may be the most exciting political figure in a long time, while the latter might be the most hyped album of the past decade. We’ve got a lot to look forward to in the coming months – I hope we’re ready.
I’ll be sure to post my personal review of the new Animal Collective record once I give it a fair amount of listens, so keep checking back.
I don’t think you guys want to hear me talk politics anyways.
January 20, 2009
Here are the albums that didn’t quite make the top 10, but that I feel were good enough to mention.
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
The Weight – Are Men
Drag The River – You Can’t Live This Way
Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst
Kings of Leon – Only By The Night (the first 5 tracks are amazing, the rest of the album is complete shit.)
Stephen MacDonald – Building Hands
January 19, 2009
As promised, the remainder of my favorite albums of 2008.
5. Phantom Planet – Raise The Dead
Pop/rock is such a broad genre that it has practically dug its own grave in recent years. Perhaps this is the justification behind the name of the new Phantom Planet record. Part concept album about cults, part infectious pop masterpiece, Raise The Dead is terribly refreshing. There isn’t much more to say—this album is addicting as hell.
Recommended if you like: Weezer, Rooney
4. Fucked Up – The Chemistry of Common Life
Every now and then a band will come along and literally save a failing genre. Maybe it’s just that Fucked Up came along at a time when people needed to hear good hardcore punk, or maybe they are just that fucking great. Seamlessly blending punk, garage, shoegaze, and dozens of other elements, Fucked Up have crafted an experimental masterpiece with The Chemistry of Common Life. Built around the bittersweet theme of rebirth, the record has a weight that most modern punk releases lack—there is a tremendous sense of urgency pulsating within each song. Fucked Up may have saved a once lost way of music, or maybe it’s been here the whole time—maybe they are simply doing it better than everyone else.
Recommended if you like: My Bloody Valentine, Minor Threat
3. Ratatat – LP 3
Mike Stroud and Evan Mast may be the hippest instrumental dance duo to come about in quite some time (possibly ever), but LP3 proves that they also know how to chill. Diverting from their usual high energy infectious grooves, Ratatat has made a truly atmospheric record. Don’t worry, the swarms of guitar harmonies are still there, but they take more of a low-key role here, allowing the rolling synths and tight bass lines to do the work. With LP3 Ratatat have proved that their unique sound is completely malleable, and that they are capable of doing whatever they want with it.
Recommended if you like: The Rapture, Air
2. Jay Reatard – Matador Singles ’08
Who could have guessed that one of the year’s best collections of pop songs would come from a punk kid in Memphis? Whether or not his arrival was properly forecast, Jay Reatard showed up anyways, and he showed up big. This hodge-podge collection of singles released over the past year is short on filler and abundant on hooks. The guitars are noisy, yet polished. The vocals are streamlined, yet unforgettable. The result just may be the catchiest garage record made in years.
Recommended if you like: The Ramones, Black Lips
1. She & Him – Volume One
Zooey Deschanel was born to be a singer, not an actress. Her voice shifts through melodies like a pop singer from the 1950’s or 60’s on tracks like “I Was Made For You” and “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today”. But while classic in style, Deschanel’s voice is also deceptively versatile. Zooey’s heart-wrenching delivery on the country tune “Change Is Hard” is reminiscent of a young Tammy Wynette. While Deschanel leads us through this whirlwind of forgotten pop perfection, M. Ward clearly establishes his self as the conductor of this orchestra, gently weaving together slide guitar and delicate string arrangements. There is something beautifully simple here, though a careful ear can become easily confounded with Deschanel’s endless layers of harmonies. The record feels effortless and fun, something that has been missing from today’s pop music for some time, and this is enough in its own right to earn She & Him Nation Full Of Ivy’s top nod for 2008.
Recommended if you like: Old 50’s/60’s pop songs, Old female country (Wynette, Rondstadt, Lynn)
January 6, 2009
This has been an interesting year for new music, but interesting does not necessarily mean abundant in this case. I will focus on quality over quantity here and give you my “Top 10 Albums of 2008” with appropriate honorable mentions.
10. Deerhunter – Microcastle
I had long avoided Deerhunter, mainly due to the host of snobby, music elitists who sang their praises. Man, was I a fool. I think shimmering is the best way I can describe this record. Everything is drenched in reverb, and I’ll be damned if two of the danciest bass lines I’ve heard in a while aren’t on here. This record taught me a valuable lesson: never judge a book by the obnoxious pricks who read it.*
* I also know plenty of awesome people who like Deerhunter, but you know the types I’m talking about.
Recommended if you like: My Bloody Valentine, Ride
9. Punch Brothers – Punch
I never liked Nickel Creek, but there was never any denying Chris Thile’s prodigal understanding of the mandolin. Here, with the help of some fellow virtuosos, Thile has pushed himself musically and emotionally to create a truly unique record. Seamlessly blending traditional instrumentation with stark originality and a beautiful use of dissonance, Punch sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. There are parts that sound like true Appalachian bluegrass, but the record is equally littered with a classical sensibility that is unmatched in most contemporary music. The fiddle player will chop out some old-timey pieces and follow them directly with classical violin bowing patterns that are desperately moving. Centered around an ambitious four movement concept piece, Punch is a daring record that is truly pleasant to the ears.
Recommended if you like: Nickel Creek, Allison Krausse and Union Station
8. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Lie Down In The Light
“And I wander and lay in whatever old bed, with good earthly music singing into my head.” Good earthly music is just what Will Oldham has accomplished with his recent offering under the moniker Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Simultaneously more lofty and focused than previous efforts, Lie Down In The Light is simply hard not to like. Pedal steel, violin, cello, female backing vocals, it’s all here, and it’s all good. Admittedly a more country-oriented collection of songs, Oldham’s new record floats from track to track effortlessly, resulting in a simplistically gorgeous album.
Recommended if you like: Ryan Adams, Sufjan Stevens
7. The Black Keys – Attack & Release
The hardest working blues-rock duo in Akron stepped out of their comfort zone with this year’s Attack & Release. Not content to make another grungy blues record in their basement, The Black Keys enlisted esteemed producer Danger Mouse to help them broaden their sound. The result is a meticulously arranged record that still manages to stay true to form. Organs and pianos abound in this sonically lush effort by a band that had long identified themselves as “underproduced”. Don’t worry, the fuzzed out guitars and violent drumming are all still there, but Danger Mouse has successfully helped The Black Keys find the soul their music has lacked in previous releases.
Recommended if you like: Jimi Hendrix, Stax Records
6. Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
The greatest living southern rock band returned with another larger than life release in 2008. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is an honest look into a band that has perpetually struggled to find itself from record to record. Don’t get me wrong, DBT’s previous releases are phenomenal, but the juggling of three unique songwriters often caused the band to trip over itself. Their most recent record finds the band literally finding each other. The loss of integral songwriter Jason Isbell was not enough to slow down the DBT machine, and Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is testament to this.
Recommended if you like: Drag The River, Lucero
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.
January 31, 2008
Every year, droves of adolescent boys decide that they want to learn how to sing and play guitar. It could be to pick up the cute girl that sits beside you in math class, or to develop a greater sense of self-worth and accomplishment. Whatever the motivation, an overwhelming amount of these aspiring troubadours will fall flat on their noses within the first few months, the rest eventually being weeded out over time. I ask you now, what happens when the perfect Dylan record falls into the hands of one of these chosen disciples of pop grandeur? Or better yet, what happens when Nirvana’s “Incesticide” and Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Diary” are discovered by one eager lad with a guitar and a dream, which then leads him through rock’s twisted corridors to Dylan and Young and a whole plethora of American folk?
The answer is Kevin Devine.This former angst-rocker turned indie-folk darling is burning all of the books on common singer-songwriter stereotypes, and leaving in his wake something refreshingly tangible and real. His lyrics are the New York subways and streets and brownstones, yet he manages to deliver them with the sincerity of a man with a broken suburban heart. He is the spokesman for a lost generation — the kids with college degrees who have given up on finding real jobs, and instead choose to haunt the lonely bars on the edge of town with both Bukowski and iPod firmly in hand.
His forte being his solo ballads that showcase his literary prowess with aching sincerity, Mr. Devine also maintains a solid rocking repertoire. Accompanied by the aptly named “Goddamn Band”, Kevin has successfully managed to excavate the traces of angst in his solo songs and craft them in to brutally honest pieces of American rock.
I had the pleasure of witnessing Kevin Devine’s sincere emotional unraveling yet again the other night at The Black Cat in D.C., which remains a crucial venue in the development of indie/rock music on the East coast. The set started out with Kevin alone in typical acoustic prestige, belting out individual volumes of some distant town, or perhaps his own personal diatribes that he cleverly disguises with the help of his Journalism degree-toting eye and tongue.
Soon enough Kevin was accompanied by a lead guitar which significantly changed the mood from somber nostalgic reverie to fast-paced, energetic pop crescendo. Devine feeds off of any sort of outside accompaniment (which is why I long for the day when I get the true Goddamn Band treatment), jostling and swaying with the music until he reaches a seemingly destructive level of pent up emotion and necessity. I say necessity because it is all so honest. It feels like Kevin Devine absolutely has to do this with his life or he will explode. As he strums fervently, often without a pick, his face quickly tenses and he becomes this entity of veins and vocal chords and musical essence that needs to tell you everything that it has experienced.
It’s like watching a volcano that is about to erupt and all you can do is stare in awe, knowing damn well that you are about to be consumed by its fire.
But this is a good way to burn — Kevin’s songs are easily accessible and it’s not all intense and overwhelming. His sets are sprinkled with considerable comical breaks and the sharing of inside jokes with the audience. It feels like you are watching a friend who has always been obsessed with music play for you in his living room, except he is making a living off of this.
If you haven’t already checked this guy out, then this is me demanding you to do so right now.
Listen to this: Make The Clocks Move
Kevin Devine – “Brooklyn Boy” Live @ The Black Cat
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.