Friday, October 30, 2009

Wild Nothing - Confirmation

Track Review
October 30, 2009

Art needs something to push against. With Bush-Cheney now in the rearview mirror (Jesus, drive faster!), and the technological possibilities for creating and distributing new music almost too vast to think about, bedroom track-makers are finding their constraints in the mediums of the past. From lo-fi to glo-fi to, um, Sleigh Bells, rising artists are experimenting with recording effects-- analogue hiss, cassette warping, red-line distortion-- that highlight their own recorded-ness, their own fakeness, the fact you're hearing anything but a flesh-and-blood live band standing across the room. In doing so, they're occasionally breaking free of the bounds of actual 1960s garage-rock, actual 80s synth-pop. We may look back at all this stuff and laugh someday. Right now, these feel like pretty heady times.

Which brings us to Wild Nothing. Blacksburg, Virginia-based Jack Tatum records under a couple of different guises-- Abe Vigoda-y tropical-punk band Facepaint, ramshackle singer/songwriter project Jack and the Whale-- but his (maybe surprisingly) impressive cover of Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting" made clear this one was something different. While the ghost of the Cure's synth-pop hits haunts the trebly guitar riff and frail vocals of Wild Nothing original "Confirmation", Tatum's heartache is shrouded in neon haze. A voice way up in Passion Pit range will deter some, especially because it's often off-key. But don't let such flaws kill it for you. Comics critic Sean T. Collins has described "a way of doing things that is not intended to look or sound effortless, that draws attention to its own construction, but which--with every pixelization and artifact, with every crayolafied visual and left-in glitch, with every burbly synth and sky-bright color--pushes against that construction and springs out into something wild and wonderful." Isn't that something?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Shrag - Rabbit Kids

Track Review
October 28, 2009

Brighton, UK-based quintet Shrag, like many of their 1970s indie-punk forebears, are one of those bands whose tunes and natural charisma could easily endear them to a wider audience, but whom the vagaries of record release dates, hype cycles, and airline prices have so far conspired to keep a well-loved secret. The shouty, synth-charged group's "Punk Grammar", from a compilation for a local club night, first appeared on our own Matthew Perpetua's Fluxblog way back in 2004. Two years later, breakup ballad "Hopelessly Wasted" made its way onto a couple of Pitchfork contributors' year-end lists. Shrag's 2009 self-titled debut LP, drawing mostly from prior 7" and mp3 releases, proved they had in them a whole album's worth of songs at nearly that high level.

New single "Rabbit Kids", due in December, is another fine chance to get acquainted with the band's charms. The oblique title and muffled production-- or is that just my mp3?-- again suggest the early English DIY movement. The surging boy-girl chorus and exposed nerves could almost entice you to visit MySpace again. We don't hear the full story, but the scene is one of painful departure: "Why don't you just stay?/ It's hard to see you fall apart that way." Little details-- "The hand in palm/ The coral dawn"-- help what sounds like personal heartache resonate for a wider world. It doesn't hurt that the song is bright, scrappy, and exuberantly melodic enough to rank alongside tracks by Love Is All, the Long Blondes, or early Los Campesinos!. A few more like this, and Shrag might break through yet, though you get the sense they're happy just playing in a band with their friends.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Various Artists - The Twilight Saga: New Moon OST

Album Reviews
October 26, 2009

The Twilight Saga: New Moon OST

Sensitive young men who avoid sunlight and the gloomy misfit young women who adore them: For all the gasps that greeted Twilight author Stephanie Meyer's recent embrace of indie rock, the parallels between the two are obvious enough. On different scales, each has seen its financial fortunes rise the past few years as well. The music industry's troubles are widely known, but indie's stock continues to climb. Phoenix and Animal Collective are two of the year's breakout bands. Jay-Z endorsed Grizzly Bear. Sonic Youth went on "Gossip Girl". As reverse indicators of indie rock's increasing popularity, there's the backlash: Slate recently slamming NPR and praising Creed, or recent underground interest in commercial dead ends like lo-fi and glo-fi.

Hollywood has hit up Brooklyn before. New Moon's soundtrack is melancholy and nocturnal, as befits the book where Edward leaves protagonist Bella for her own good, but it repeats some mistakes from past indie OST close-ups. Yeah, of course, indie rock is "just" pop music, but the companion CDs to Garden State, and TV shows such as "The O.C.", "Gossip Girl", and "Grey's Anatomy" (all at one time helmed by New Moon music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas) over-emphasized indie's adult-contemporary streak. By contrast, the Slumdog Millionaire, I'm Not There, and Sofia Coppola film soundtracks work partly because they share the same restless disregard for boundaries that indie listeners-- ideally, at least-- aspire toward.

Despite being the soundtrack to a young adult drama, the New Moon album alas leans toward the adult contemporary. It's packed with indie-friendly royalty, but hardly anybody here sounds anything better than pleasant. As usual, Thom Yorke fares best: The jittery synth-rock of the Radiohead frontman's "Hearing Damage" shows more of the heart he moved to his sleeve this year on gorgeous cover "All for the Best", and then an atmospheric outro steals it away again. Grizzly Bear's "Slow Life", with Beach House singer Victoria Legrand, and Bon Iver's "Roslyn", with St. Vincent-- both welcome collaborations on paper-- unfortunately fade into ethereal acoustic wallpaper: vaguely pretty, too unremarkable to have noteworthy flaws.

In the battle of the potential radio anthems, Death Cab for Cutie's chiming rocker "Meet Me on the Equinox", with its propulsive Narrow Stairs bass and hugely obvious "everything ends" chorus, beats the nonsensical baroque-pop of the Killers' "A White Demon Love Song". Lykke Li's feedback-streaked piano ballad "Possibility" is a relative bright spot, but like the rest of the tracks here, it pales in comparison to the work on her own records.

Elsewhere, Editors could finally rid themselves of Interpol comparisons with oppressively maudlin cabaret crooner "No Sound But the Wind", but you'll only wish there were no sound. A New Moon remix of Muse's histrionic "I Belong to You" mercifully cuts the pain of the six-minute album version in half, with few other apparent improvements. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's smoky acoustic lament "Done All Wrong" is probably too hard on itself. The few uptempo tracks here-- the chord-crunching "Monsters", by former Longwave frontman Steve Schiltz's Hurricane Bells, or the wobbly Saddle Creek-ishness of L.A. band Sea Wolf's "The Violet Hour"-- are as overly familiar as they are toe-tapping.

The New Moon OST has all the touchstones of what is considered, by many who consider themselves cognoscenti, "good" music-- from Yorke to Grizzly Bear to the more populist Death Cab, Killers, and Muse-- but it uses its tastefulness to solidify the borders of what is acceptable, not to broaden them. Even New Moon's most adventurous musicians rarely do anything catchy, startling, or moving enough here not to blend into mostly forgettable gothic-romance slurry. Strange as it may seem, not blending in is what some people want. Catchy is what pretty much everybody wants. So indie boys and vampires may have in common their unhealthy pallor, their emotional sensitivity, and their romantic clumsiness, but they're not the same, after all. Believe it or not: Indie kids have souls.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Remix Collection)

Album Reviews
October 21, 2009

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix [Remix Collection] 

The past few years have given us not only a shit ton of remixes, but also of remix compilations. Looking back, remix collections have usually tended to draw on songs from multiple albums, whether we're talking about the Beatles' Love, Madonna's You Can Dance, or Blur's Bustin' + Dronin'. These days, everybody's pulling from the Further Down the Spiral playbook: Bloc Party have released not one, but two remixed versions of individual albums, LCD Soundsystem recently gave us 45:33 Remixes, and Mariah Carey is already said to be working on a remixed version of her latest, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel.

When you compile even the best remixes from one album, rather than an entire career, there's going to be more bloat. It's just inevitable. And bloat of any kind is anathema to a group like Phoenix, whose suave electro-rock is nothing if not streamlined. "I think it was Lord Byron who said at some point that there were too many books for a human being to read," lead singer Thomas Mars told a recent interviewer from Webcuts Music. "You know it's the same now: There are too many remixes! There's no time to hear them, technically in a lifetime."

You could almost say the same thing about new Phoenix remixes alone. The French four-piece's triumphant 2009 album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, has been helping drive HypeMachine traffic for months, in part because the group shared the instrumental "stems" for first single "1901" at the same time they posted the original mp3. (If that wasn't enough, the band has also streamed demos and acoustic tracks from the album.) So Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Remix Collection) was probably inevitable. Its source material is impeccable. Its remixers are Internet-nerd A-list. And a few of the remixes are actually pretty fucking good.

As an album, the digital-only Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Remix Collection) is also kind of frustratingly odd. I doubt even Sofia Coppola will feel the need to listen to the whole thing, straight through, very many times. As for DJs, you can probably guess from the fact that only one of the compilation's 15 tracks exceeds six minutes this isn't one of those remix CDs that makes all the originals more dance-friendly. Nor is it a remixed version of the entire album: The whole thing is built from only eight underlying songs. If you're listening at home, and you want to hear "Fences" five times in a little more than an hour, plus "1901" and "Lisztomania" a couple of times apiece, and you're tired of simply putting Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix's first three tracks on repeat, then this is the album for you.

It's hard to stay annoyed with any of that, though, when so many of the individual tracks are so strong. Phoenix albums are typically (gloriously) front-loaded; this one feels back-loaded by comparison. Subtitled "Deakin's Jam", Animal Collective's take on the Tangerine Dream-y space-out of "Love Like a Sunset" deserves to be mentioned alongside both group's best efforts this year, drone-drowned and ecstatic. While the original "Rome" burns with white-hot cigarette-ash guitar distortion, a remix credited to "Neighbours with Devendra Banhart" fiddles (quite nicely) with piano and acoustic guitar, creating a gentle, atmospheric space for the loveless narrator to get his shit sorted out.

Other high-profile remixers' work here is consistently above-average, if rarely on par with the originals a lot of us pretty much know by heart by now. Passion Pit's "1901 Bo Flex'd" tweak goes deeper into John Hughes movies, with hugely romantic synths, but its clickety-clackety arrangement is disappointingly cluttered. Yacht does the farty bass thing with "Armistice", to so-so effect (when Mars sings, "Look what you wasted," it sounds almost accusatory). San Diego ex-Muslims the Soft Pack steal the show with a scuzzy, garage-rocking quasi-cover of "Fences".

The rest of the compilation definitely won't blow your hair back like the first time you heard Phoenix, but it probably won't make you get up and adjust the iPod boombox, either. UK indie-dance trio Friendly Fires' piano-house remix of "Fences" could use a little personality, but it's a fine idea skillfully executed; same with Brooklyn dream-pop band Chairlift's haze-ification of the same track. Turzi's "Love Like a Sunset" has nothing on Deakin's jam, but the French five-piece do a decent job of raising the original's Krautrock-psych quotient. England's Alex Metric and France's Boombass offer up some pounding potential Ed Banger or Kitsuné material. Speaking of: Where's that dreamy "Lisztomania" remix by L.A. duo Classixx that appeared on Kitsuné Maison 7? Or that Don Diablo "99 Fences" Jay-Z mash-up? (OK, copyright law, got it.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix has made Phoenix, deservingly, one of the year's biggest indie-rock success stories. They've appeared on "Saturday Night Live", sold more than 135,000 copies, and landed a spot in a widely viewed Cadillac commercial. If the album has anything to do with the battle between Phoenix's inner Mozart and the group's inner Franz Liszt, though-- referring to the 19th-century musician who gives "Lisztomania" its name-- then Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Remix Collection) has more in common with whichever one suffered a momentary lapse of editing skills. Your move, Mariah.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Kings of Convenience - Declaration of Dependence

Album Reviews
October 19, 2009

Declaration of Dependence 

Kings of Convenience made headlines last month. No, wait, Leslie Feist did. It's been an eventful five years since the Norwegian duo's previous album, Riot on an Empty Street, featured the Canadian songstress on two tracks. After Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambæk Bøe's recent New York show, that a surprise Feist guest appearance got top media billing underscores just how eventful. Sorry, guys, I guess royalty isn't what it used to be.

No longer does Quiet Is the New Loud, the title of Øye and Bøe's 2001 Astralwerks debut, sound like such an appealing mantra. The hushed politeness that Kings of Convenience and, earlier, Belle and Sebastian reintroduced to indie listeners around the turn of the millennium must've lost its fresh feeling somewhere between Natalie Portman big-upping the Shins and the Decemberists doing a prog-folk rock opera. Then there's the more than 400,000 copies Riot sold in Europe, a number that looks virtually impossible for a group of such modest stature today. Throw in Øye's two mostly solid albums fronting dance-poppers the Whitest Boy Alive, and, well, what do Kings of Convenience have left to say?

"Quieter is the new quiet," apparently. Despite calls for the whisper-folk pair to make Øye's house and techno background more apparent, Declaration of Dependence doubles down on hushed Scandinavian understatement. No drums, unless you count slapped fretboards or squeaking fingers: just two voices, two acoustic guitars, and occasional cello, viola, or one-finger piano plinks. Along with sharper songwriting focus, this go-for-broke softness makes for the most durable, rewarding Kings of Convenience album yet-- a Pink Moon to past efforts' Five Leaves Left. Barring a last-minute José González surprise, it's also probably the best new full-length of its style you'll hear this year.

The songs on Declaration of Dependence reveal everyday tensions with a cool, undemonstrative reserve. You can hear the spare but descriptive verses as about romance, the band itself, or global politics, depending on your preference. Where Riot opener "Homesick" offered the suggestive image of "two soft voices blended in perfection," the new album's first track, tender "24-25", declares, "What we build is bigger than the sum of two." Slowly shuffling "Renegade" uses bold, vivid brush strokes to carry out that old maxim, "If you love something, let it go"; "Why are you whispering when the bombs are falling?" a solitary voice asks, between slightly dissonant strums. "Riot on an Empty Street", a holdover since years before the album of that same name, finds a traveling singer lost for words, but not for delicate melodies.

Rather than become more electronic, Kings of Convenience here choose simply to apply dance music's minimalism and sense of texture more fully to their chosen acoustic-pop form. Bittersweet single "Mrs. Cold" has been compared to Jack Johnson, probably because both use percussive hand slapping, but the popular surfer-turned-singer has never recorded anything so perfectly poised, so deceptively depressing; a ringing lead guitar line repeats like a looped sample. "Boat Behind", a single in other countries, floats a melancholy violin line over a tangled tale about reuniting with someone but never belonging to them, sounding almost like another lost Arthur Russell demo. "Rule My World", which follows Sweden's González into forceful denunciations of theocratic zealotry, has the bouncy upswing of French house. Øye's smoky falsetto fills in for the absent Feist on songs like "Freedom and Its Owner". "Power of Not Knowing" neatly echoes Simon & Garfunkel's "April Come She Will".

Both halves of the duo now live back home in Bergen, Norway, after a multi-year absence by the Whitest Boy Alive singer. Whether inspired by lovers, each other, or the warmongers of the world, Kings of Convenience's latest is ultimately just what its title says: a bold and beautiful assertion that we are better off together than apart. Or, as "My Ship Isn't Pretty" wonderfully puts it: a series of "quiet protests against loneliness." If the album cover had you expecting 2009's umpteenth nu-Balearic cruise, be glad we got this eloquent message in a bottle instead.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Crayon Fields - All the Pleasures of the World

Album Reviews
October 14, 2009

All the Pleasures of the World 

New indie development: Tweemo wimps are getting some now. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has morphed from dorky supporting character who can't even throw his own punches in 10 Things I Hate About You to... dorky leading man fooling around with Zooey Deschanel in this summer's (kinda great!) (500) Days of Summer. Jim and Pam from "The Office" not only got hitched, they're already expecting. It's gotten to the point where I feel bad about my teenage cousin's romantic prospects because he started looking less like Michael Cera.

The Crayon Fields negotiate the transition from virginal boys to men with rickety chamber-pop aplomb on sophomore LP All the Pleasures of the World. On predecessor Animal Bells, which introduced the Melbourne four-piece's winningly wispy take on Zombies-Byrds harmonies and Elephant 6 ramshackleness, frontman Geoff O'Connor sang, "I want to be famous, gee." All the Pleasures of the World ditches the childishness of the debut and the obliqueness of the side project without losing sweetness or nuance. Adding strings and a new-relationship glow, it's the kind of album that could make the Crayon Fields downright lovable.

Reference points: the Crayon Fields covered heartbreaking New England folkie Kath Bloom as a recent B-side, and current fellow Down Under-er Jens Lekman is DJing an upcoming album release party. So on opening track "Mirror Ball", released on 7" last year, the object of our narrator's affection reduces him to "a virgin in a dancehall"; where the Velvet Underground and Nico promised "I'll Be Your Mirror", O'Connor reflects, "You are still my mirror ball," Pavement scrawl intersecting bashful 1960s teen-pop sway. Second single "Voice of Paradise" starts off closer to vintage Syd Barrett spaciness, then recycles one of the previous album's lyrics, like a bedsit Kurt Vile-- all to let O'Connor's beloved know how "lucky" he feels. You won't gag, I promise.

But you may get that feeling in your stomach like you just drove over a dip in the highway. All the Pleasures of the World is, in some ways, a celebration of hovering between two worlds. On the title track (and upcoming third single), O'Connor is too young to love, so he just loves everything. On slightly too long string-backed love epic "Lucky Again", which captures the embarrassing hyperbole of freshly requited adoration more accurately than I've seen outside indie romcoms, he's too young to lie about his age, but old enough to forget. And, on "Celebrate": "Surely we're old enough to have plenty to celebrate/ And young enough to have more if we wait/ But let's not today." Not a girl, not yet a woman; the innocence of classic pop, the messiness of the recent indie past.

In a song title: "Timeless", almost. This is the one the kids who believe said romcoms will be putting on mixes for new girlfriends and boyfriends. Bells and bird chirps make it easy to picture the dawn-lit scene as O'Connor murmurs, "When I wake up next to you, I forget I have a day to be dressed for." The Crayon Fields could've left this one a Nick Drake strings-and-acoustic ballad. But they don't. All the Pleasures of the World is an album for people who listen to the Clientele while reading the Sunday newspaper and making tea, and it's an album for people who listen to Camera Obscura while sighing wistfully, and most of all it's an album for people overjoyed with finding themselves, suddenly, rapturously, between hello and goodbye. "There are so many things I should've felt long ago that I'm just feeling now," O'Connor confesses on "Graceless". Hey, you know who used to sleep under a Peter Pan poster? Bruce Springsteen, that's who. Look it up.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Neon Indian - Psychic Chasms

Album Reviews
October 13, 2009

Psychic Chasms 

"Borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered 80s." Those words, when James Murphy over-enunciated them on what's still arguably the decade's best piece of music-as-music-criticism-- LCD Soundsystem's 2002 debut single, "Losing My Edge"-- had the decisive feel of a gauntlet being thrown down. One 1980s baby struck back with a Nintendo Power Glove. Just a guess: Probably not what Murphy had in mind.

Of course, cheaply copied reminiscences of a blurrily imagined decade are basically their own genre now, cloudy and proud. The sound has many names, but none of them seem to fit just right. Dream-beat, chillwave, glo-fi, hypnagogic pop, even hipster-gogic pop-- all are imperfect phrases for describing a psychedelic music that's generally one or all of the following: synth-based, homemade-sounding, 80s-referencing, cassette-oriented, sun-baked, laid-back, warped, hazy, emotionally distant, slightly out of focus. Washed Out. Memory Tapes. Ducktails. Ah-woo-ooh.

For Alan Palomo, reflecting on the music of the Reagan era has a personal component. The Texas-reared Mexico native's dad, Jorge, was a bit of a Spanish-language pop star in the late 1970s and early 80s. The analog electronics of that bygone period echo throughout the younger Palomo's increasingly promising previous recordings, whether with former band Ghosthustler (he wore the Power Glove in the video for their "Parking Lot Nights") or, more recently, on VEGA's Well Known Pleasures EP. Finally, working with Brooklyn-based visual collaborator Alicia Scardetta as Neon Indian, Palomo has brought all the best of 2009's summer sounds-- bedroom production, borrowed nostalgia, unresolved sadness, deceptively agile popcraft-- together on a single album.

Whatever they owe to the past, the memories on Psychic Chasms are Palomo's and ours. Soft vocals recalling You Made Me Realise-era Kevin Shields. Italo-disco synth arpeggios. Hall & Oates drum sounds. Divebombing video-game effects. Brittle guitar distortion. Manipulated tapes that bend the notes the way Shields' "glide guitar" did, the way bluesmen's fret fingers did. Field recordings of birds. Oohing and ahhing backing vocals. And samples, on at least two songs, of the elder Palomo, whose electro-rock approach was quite similar. All combine on eight or nine unforgettable songs and a few tantalizingly brief interludes, indelibly capturing the glamor and bleary malaise of being young and horny as an empire devours itself.

Like a low-rent Daft Punk, Palomo takes what 1990s rock fans probably would've considered cheesy-- LinnDrum and Oberheim rhythms, Chromeo-plated electro-funk Korg riffs, processed party-vocal samples-- and not only makes them part of a distinct artistic vision, but also keeps them fun. Quick opener "(AM)" is rife with detail, as an indecipherable tenor floats over a mock-dramatic drum fill and 8-bit star cruisers do battle against twinkling fairy dust. Another sub-minute interstitial track, "(If I Knew, I'd Tell You)", keeps its secrets to itself, letting multiple melodic synth lines hint at a gulf-sized pool of melancholy over a tape-altered rhythm track. "Laughing Gas", at slightly more than a lyric-less minute and a half, is the one that ruins my attempted distinction between songs and interludes, with bongo drums, robot vocal samples, and euphoric giggles straight out of those Air France kids' dreams. The cumulative result is a meltdown-deadened but deliriously inventive perspective on pop.

"I really hope the medium by which someone writes a song isn't the only thing the song has going for it," Palomo told our own Ryan Dombal in a recent interview. With Psychic Chasms, Palomo doesn't need to worry. "Deadbeat Summer" and "Should Have Taken Acid With You" are two views of the same non-endless season-- one mind-expandingly lazy and the other too lazy for mind expansion, both undeniably catchy, both earning doctorates in The Graduate school of coming-of-age ennui. The Italo-alluding title track, the New Order-throbbing "Local Joke", and the visceral funk alarums of "Ephemeral Artery" are beautiful bummers, tracks with lyrics the faithful are sure to puzzle out the way kids used to with the first couple of Weezer CDs. "Living this way held by a single strand/ But you wouldn't understand," worries "6669 (I Don't Know If You Know)", which comes back, refracted again, as 56-second finale "7000 (Reprise)". If you want to destroy his sweater, hold this thread as he walks away.

Overall, Psychic Chasms is something like a dream collaboration between the Tough Alliance and Atlas Sound, the latter of whose Internet-only Weekend EP shares a delinquent theme with one of Psychic Chasms' best songs. After barely a half hour, the whole thing is over, but there's enough going on in the layered electronics and enigmatic longing to make this one of the year's most replayable albums. Consider "Terminally Chill", which has more vocal and instrumental hooks than the average Top 40 song, but also the immediately recognizable stamp of an impressive young talent. Palomo's gear was stolen last month while on tour with VEGA, but a recent FADER video suggests he could launch a decently credible alternate "career" as an acoustic troubadour doing Mexican traditional songs. For various mundane personal reasons, this cassette-focused album is one of the actual CDs I've listened to most since I actually listened to CDs. A new generation's borrowed nostalgia? High time.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Neon Indian - Psychic Chasms

Video / Album Review
ABC News
Oct. 12, 2009

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