09/14/11 4:00am
09/14/2011 4:00 AM |

Veronica Falls
Veronica Falls


Fans of goth and twee music seem like natural allies, but they’re hardly interchangeable. Bullied beta-males and appalled smart alecks populate both camps, but their reaction to outsider status differs wildly (they embrace over-the-top, romantic grimness or whimsical harmlessness, respectively). The self-titled debut from London’s Veronica Falls ties both groups’ boo-hoos together with a stylish bow. “Found Love in a Graveyard”is patient zero for this mutated strain of indie-pop and, like other songs culled from the band’s last year of 7-inch singles, is rerecorded here for clarity (death to fuzz for fuzz’s sake!). In addition to the “dearly departed”ghost eluding singer Roxanne Clifford’s affections, she also falls for a married man and one about to fling himself off “Beachy Head,”the UK’s infamous suicide cliff. It’s not that she’s unlovable, it’s just that when you’re pursuing the unattainable shit rarely works out. A vital, tongue-in-cheek disappointment flows through all of these songs. As Clifford puts it, “I’ve got a bad feeling, and it’s not going away.”While that sour uniformity of sentiment gives the album its personality, the sound changes up enough to keep it interesting. “Stephen” is crisp but wispy. The guitar rush present in “Right Side of My Brain”and several others is much tougher than you might be expecting (never quite “noisy”though, an important distinction). “Come on Over,”the record’s purposefully inviting closer, stretches out a bit to hit both poles—skipping then racing then skipping again. Some lovely bad mood comfort food, this.

08/31/11 4:00am
08/31/2011 4:00 AM |


The Rip Tide


It almost seems as though Zach Condon, 24-year-old veteran frontman and main proprietor of the internationally curious collective Beirut, is nodding in acknowledgment of the fact that the indie rock world into which he exploded a mere five years ago has changed so much that it’s barely recognizable. His approach, which has long been governed by basic principles like incorporate more instruments or explore more cultures, has, after a brief moment in the spotlight thanks to likeminded peers in bands like Arcade Fire and the Decemberists, largely fallen out of favor, replaced by minimalist bedroom electronics and often crude interpretations of all manner of retro pop. It’s been called the New Simplicity, and it stands to reason that it would make Condon very uncomfortable. Instead, he’s taken on certain aspects of it while managing not to lose himself in it. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Even though it’s been four years since Beirut’s last proper full-length, the widely praised The Flying Club Cup, their most recent outing, The Rip Tide, is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair, with nine songs clocking in at a brief 33 minutes. But more than its somewhat abbreviated length, it’s the directness of the album that really stands out: it doesn’t feel quite as set on globetrotting, or on packing every distant corner of the mix with some perfect, unexpected detail. We’re not talking about James Blake-style bareness, of course, and you’re not likely to mistake it for a Wavves record, but still, for the first time, the words “straightforward” and “pop” don’t seem totally off-base.

Rather than relying on the groggy, drunken, back-alley vibe that made Flying Club Cup so likable (but also sort of a pastiche), these songs are crystal-clear and engaging from the get-go. The quality of the recording plays a big part, providing separation and punch that was lacking before, but there’s also just less stuff competing for your attention. There are still horns, lots of eager strumming, and a few things you’ll have a hard time identifying, not to mention Condon’s ever-present booming vocals, but everything is deployed with the greatest of care, and it’s a revelation. The gentle, stripped-down “Goshen” is perhaps his most affecting melody, on an album full of them, and there’s not a single note out of place throughout. Even more impressively, the same can be said of more upbeat tracks, from “A Candle’s Fire,” where the instruments almost seem to take turns, to instant classic “East Harlem,” building as precisely as it does to one of the album’s (and the year’s) best payoffs. Condon’s new willingness to subtract left him not with a small-sounding album, but one where the remaining elements, the ones most deserving of inclusion, were given the space to sound as big and bold as they likely always wanted to. The Rip Tide feels a lot like a new beginning.

Photo Kristianna Smith

08/31/11 4:00am

Balam Acab

(Tri Angle Records)

Alec Koone, a college kid whose slow-beat, sample-based compositions as Balam Acab have drawn wide acclaim in narrow music-nerd circles, is painfully young. Young enough to blithely compare his debut album to Bach or make jaw-droppingly naïve claims like, “Probably no one who listens to my music really watches TV.” His debut record, Wander/Wonder, recalls the brief moment in the late 90s/early 00s when undergrads, earnestly believing that rock music was “over,” dutifully bought, then permanently shelved, Boards of Canada records. (I’m not accusing him of being a Warp Records nostalgist, just a 20 year old.)

The album actually braids some very au courant threads. The first, a commitment to making everything sound like it’s underwater, is tiresome. Glibly rationalize it as “pop music as heard from a fishbowl,” or whatever, but it’s been done, and since Person Pitch, quite often. More interesting is the (also faddish) use of sampled vocals, pitch-shifted and abstracted beyond the point of conveying anything but the vague sense that singers once deeply felt some now un-pin-pointable emotions. Koone is a talented composer. The uber-deliberate pacing of sampled beats is compelling—trip-hoppish, yet not quite that. The timing and placement of garbled vocals is informed by pop, but pleasantly confusing. In places it’s flatly beautiful (with a palette bright enough that “witch-house” epithets won’t sting). But why does all of this ache have to be so inarticulate? In the pretty, folk-informed highlight, “Oh, Why,” the title phrase shines through, a finally intelligible question. Koone should come up with an answer.

08/31/11 4:00am

Male Bonding
Endless Now

(Sub Pop)

Likening British guitar bashers Male Bonding to Wavves is a reasonable reaction upon hearing the hooky, short-fused punk of Endless Now, but associating the London-based threesome to a band so synonymous with “right now” is, upon closer inspection, a flawed assessment. In reality, the album is full of 90s signifiers–from Blink-182’s four-chord progressions to Nirvana’s fuzz pedals–but these elements have become so ingrained in the fabric of indie rock that it’s difficult to pinpoint any one specific time they represent, and the band doesn’t necessarily seem fixated on nostalgia, at least not intentionally. The first half of “What’s That Scene” is a race against itself, or maybe adulthood, with galloping drums and guitars played so hastily they’re on the verge of collapse. Eventually, though, they take a breather to draw out the line “Everything I have done, everything went wrong” against spacey guitar skuzz. These sounds and sentiments are the groundwork of indie rock; it’s what the genre returns to when it can’t figure out where to go next.

To add to the record’s at-the-crossroads feel, the vocals coming from guitarist John Arthur Webb are affected with a far-away wistfulness, giving rise to a shoegaze-like smear. Compared to the happy surprise that was their 2010 debut, the guys spent eternity in the studio—a whole week this time—clearing enough cobwebs to enter mid-fi territory. The melodies may require a few more spins to fully emerge, but when push comes to shove, these 11 tracks will likely sound as good 10 years from now as they do today, and that’s something we should be worried about with a lot of the nostalgia-grasping albums everyone’s so excited about.

08/31/11 4:00am

The R.E.D. Album


Game’s last album, 2008’s LAX, had the melancholic tone of a departure, and it was supposedly his final record. “Interscope don’t want me to retire,” he told HipHopDX in a 2008 interview. “Now, if you give me five, ten million dollars or something…” It wasn’t just money that brought Game out of retirement, but also reconciliation with estranged mentor Dr. Dre, who provides biographic interludes throughout The R.E.D. Album. There’s a distinctly adult, family-man vibe to a handful of the 17 tracks here, but Game seems uncomfortable in the role of vulnerable father, though his willingness to remove his red bandana is admirable.

In R.E.D.‘s first half Game reasserts his dominance of the gangsta rap field that defined early-aughts hip-hop on anthemic guest-assisted tracks. He and fellow Compton MC Kendrick Lamar out-rap each other on the dramatic first song, “The City,” a contest the younger rapper wins. “Drug Test” features verses from Dr. Dre and Snoop, but sounds archaic followed by one of the uneven album’s highlights: “Martians Vs Goblins” with Lil Wayne and Tyler, The Creator. Wayne also provides the hook on “Red Nation,” wrapping his nasally words around a sample from Zombie Nation’s soccer stadium favorite “Kernkraft 400.” Thereafter The R.E.D. Album peters out, except Game logs one last lyrical lashing, the DJ Premier-produced “Born in the Trap.” Sounding like himself circa 2004, he raps about his waning interest in hip-hop: “Sometimes I feel like this rap shit is heaven-sent/then I get a high and feel like it’s irrelevant.” Here, the latter rings true.

08/22/11 4:00am
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08/22/2011 4:00 AM |

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks

Mirror Traffic


Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks’ fifth album, Mirror Traffic, was recorded in early 2010, right after the group concluded a lengthy world tour and right before Malkmus went on the road with his other band. Yet you don’t hear relief for being back home or anxiety (dread?) about playing “Grounded” for the first time in over a decade; you just hear a really good, straightforward pop album.

In a recent interview, Malkmus described Mirror Traffic (a title settled on after receiving approval from David Berman) as having three types of tracks: “There’s upbeat songs, some angular songs, and there’s kind of slower mellow soul inflections.” For a man known as much for his obtuseness as anything else, it’s a spot-on description, and the “upbeat” songs, which also happen to be the most obtuse, provide Mirror Traffic‘s brightest moments. “Tune Grief” is a two-minute gallop of rock ‘n’ roll energy, album-opener “Tigers” is sung with an endearingly recognizable smirk, and first single “Senator” could have been a “Cut Your Hair”-level hit, if not for the blowjob chorus (which seems to be the point). The charmingly ramshackle “Stick Fingers in Love,” featuring echoey vocals, fuzzy electric and squeaky acoustic, is the album’s best song.

Malkmus’ trademark wit is on display throughout, too, including the following gems, “I saw you streaking in your Birkenstocks/A scary thought in the 2K’s” and “Sometimes these words are such bitter friends/Come back and bite you in the rearest of ends.” There’s a song called “Long, Hard Book,” sit-ups are said to be “so bourgeoisie,” and the newly fashioned Old Man Malkmus even makes an appearance, complaining, “Too busy putzin’ round the Internet/Revel in the disconnect.”

The thing that hampered the Jicks’ last album, 2008’s Real Emotional Trash, was its reliance on unnecessarily drawn out jam-heavy songs, and this despite the fact that Malkmus remains an under-appreciated guitarist. The longest tracks on Mirror Traffic, fragile “Share the Red” and choppy story-song “Gorgeous Georgie,” clock in at a reasonable five minutes and never feel gratuitous. It’s only when things slow down, “the slower mellow soul infections,” that Mirror Traffic drags slightly. “No One Is (As I Are Be)” would have worked if it were sung by Beck, who produced the album, but Malkmus’ disinterest in sincerity doesn’t gel with the track’s confessional lyrics (“I felt right at home inside my woodshed”), while the lazy blues of “Brain Gallop” and instrumental “Jumblegloss” are mere filler. But at 15 tracks, the soft duds are offset by the blasts of jumpy energy from “Forever 28” and “Spazz.” Last year, Bob Nastovanich, a member of the other band, claimed Malkmus doesn’t write in the “Pavement mindset” anymore. With all due respect to Bob, he’s wrong: Mirror Traffic is the Jicks’ most Pavement-like album, and not coincidentally, their best.

Photo Leah Nash

08/17/11 4:00am
08/17/2011 4:00 AM |

The War on Drugs
Slave Ambient

(Secretly Canadian)

The War on Drugs is one of those bands you may never have heard, a problem they should soon overcome. The Philadelphia musicians haven’t exactly done themselves many marketing favors in the past, keeping the focus on touring constantly, often in a number of other bands, while obsessing over the many, many layers of their multi-track recordings. It’s also been a whole four years since they released their last full-length, Wagonwheel Blues. But now, after the lineup has settled into a comfortable company of four, they’re set to release Slave Ambient, and it’s a testament to the band’s rare, almost outdated artistic integrity and devotion to craft, their story of eschewing expedience and the trappings of hype (i.e. moving to Brooklyn) to produce recorded music that has been long simmering and lovingly fussed over.

Album-opener “Best Night” begins with a muffled beat, one that quickly cuts over to swirling, layered guitars and warm, ambient swells, a steady texture of acoustic strumming underneath. It’s kind of the format for much of the album, which, at its loveliest becomes an intricate melt of good vibes. Pull one track apart and you’ll find other miniature songs, tracks and bits of ephemera clinging to each other to make up the whole. Frontman Adam Granduciel sings in a Bob Dylan-esque drawl, minus much of the grating nasal quality, giving the album a folky, spoken-word appeal. The ultimate effect: If you take a minute to imagine the road trip of your dreams, this would probably be 
the soundtrack.

Photo Darshana Borah

08/17/11 4:00am

Mister Heavenly
Out of Love

(Sub Pop)

Music writers are always desperate for a good hook, and this one came on a silver platter: Mister Heavenly consists of Islands frontman Nick Thorburn, Man Man leader Ryan Kattner, and Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer. They play a style of music they’ve deemed “doom wop,” which is also the title of a track on their debut album, Out of Love. There’s another song called “Reggae Pie.” And also “Pineapple Girl,” to give you an idea what we’re dealing with here.

Separately, the three players have tinkered with indie rock eccentricity for the better part of a decade, by way of Islands’ hodgepodge of quirky hooks and half-jokes, Man Man’s demented circus music, and Modest Mouse’s heirloom strain of ruckus. Add to that cagey press interviews as Mister Heavenly and tapping Michael Cera to play bass on their tour last winter, and Out of Love seemed destined to be a hare-brained caricature of their already loony anchor bands. Who would’ve thought that together they would restrain and self-edit impulses to make this thing work, quite well actually, without losing the bombast and color they’ve each become known for.

The darkened doo-wop thing makes perfect sense when you hear it. There are snappy, Platters-esque melodies, swinging drums and volleying vocals between Thorburn’s pinched-nose tenor and Kattner’s burly, ringmaster intonation. They hint at surf-rock at times, and crooned 50s balladry at others, with enough heavy bass throughout to add a sense of foreboding. But then that too is offset, with lines like, “I’ve tried so hard to keep my head on straight, but I’m cracking like a coconut.” You can’t say “coconut” and be taken 100 percent seriously, after all, no matter how many times the word “doom” appears in your press release.

Photo Jacqueline Di Milia

08/03/11 4:00am
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08/03/2011 4:00 AM |

Fountains of Wayne
Sky Full of Holes

(Yep Roc)

The title of Fountains of Wayne’s new album and sixth overall, Sky Full of Holes, refers to a line in the record’s final song, “Cemetery Guns.”Accompanied by a somber-sounding organ, Chris Collingwood sings, “Cemetery guns go bang, bang, bang/Shooting the sky full of holes.”

Holes is a more serious affair than any previous Fountains album, and after 2007’s all-filler-and-no-killer Traffic and Weather, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The group’s power-pop hooks and crunchy guitar sound are rarely present, replaced by songs like the country-tinged “A Road Song”and the literal “Firelight Waltz,”both laid-back affairs, a far cry from the material on albums like Utopia Parkway. Even the band’s signature dark humor has been dialed down; the folksy “Richie and Ruben”deals with the titular duo who will “blow through your dough just like they blew through mine.”

Collingwood and co-songwriter Adam Schlesinger are trying to make sense of what it means to be in their 40s, struggling with the limitations of their age, self-imposed and otherwise, and while it’s an intriguing concept, Sky Full of Holes suffers because of it; the album occasionally sounds too workmanlike, like an obligation rather than a labor of love. There’s no one standout song—a “Troubled Times”or “Stacy’s Mom”—and by the middle of the album, the tracks begin to blend together. The exception: “Action Hero,”about a middle-aged dad who’s racing against time, unsatisfied with the fact that he’s an action hero only in his mind. It’s so depressing that it’s funny, and I can’t wait to see where he is in a decade, wishing he were 
40 again.

08/03/11 4:00am


(Captured Tracks)

Widowspeak, a three-piece with Washington State roots and Brooklyn addresses, are notable for the clichés they avoid. Singer-songwriter Molly Hamilton has a cushy, languid drawl, the elongation of her words easily comparable to noted note-stretcher Hope Sandoval. But where Mazzy Star kept things at a crawl to wring every last drop of dreaminess from Hope, Widowspeak’s instrumentation is quick and bright, with guitars sometimes surly, sometimes surf-y. They laudably refrain from the converse extreme of pairing her airy singing with alt-rock crunch, as a more grandiose band like the Joy Formidable might. There’s plenty of drama in a lower-key juxtaposition.

The band’s self-titled debut, recorded by Woods’ Jarvis Taveniere, sounds cleaner than a lot of the records Captured Tracks puts out. Hamilton’s voice is the draw, and though it’s multi-tracked and layered in spots, it isn’t reverbed out to infinity. On super peppy numbers like the Northwest pun-titled “Fir Coat,” she just floats over the crisp rhythms and hook-y riffs, making everything seem more elegant. On the similarly evergreen-inspired “In the Pines” (might be a Washington two-fer, actually, adding in some youthful Nirvana Unplugged exposure) the guitars are just a touch rougher than expected, nudging her slow singing into something of a power-waltz. To critique, it’s truer to say that Widowspeak has stumbled on to an appealing sound than to say they’ve written a batch of airtight songs, but that’s true of so many promising young bands that the exceptions are practically cause for spontaneous break dancing. No head spins here, but Widowspeak is plenty nice.