Monday, November 30, 2009

The Bravery - Stir the Blood

Album Review
November 30, 2009

Nobody remembers Louis XIV, right? So the Bravery are just about the last quasi-big rock band anyone might expect to come within downtown sneering distance of a noteworthy hit by a bona fide pop starlet. But here we are: Sam Endicott, frontman for these oft-abused New York electro-rockers, co-wrote Shakira's Italo-crazed "She Wolf". He didn't, however, write the lyrics.

New Order-style bass lines like the one on "She Wolf" could practically be the story of this guy's career. They anchored the Killers-lite dance-rock of the Bravery's self-titled 2005 debut-- particularly its best song, "Honest Mistake"-- and turned scarce when the band dialed back the synths for rootsier wannabe-Brit mope on disastrous 2007 follow-up, The Sun and the Moon. While that synth-pop bounce is back on Stir the Blood, so are the group's shortcomings. Some are familiar, and some are worse than even the most hardened mid-2000s NME skeptics could've anticipated.

Endicott's voice still alternates between operatic Ian Curtis croon (remember Elefant?) and adenoidal Robert Smith whine (remember Stellastarr*?). He still sings songs that manage to evoke greats from bygone eras without any of the greatness: "Baby, we were born to be adored," repeats glumly hooky synth-rock opener "Adored", neatly desecrating the most famous choruses from Bruce Springsteen and the Stone Roses in a single refrain. "Born again" stomper "Song for Jacob" contains a sideways allusion to the Smiths' Louder Than Bombs, and make-out anthem of sorts "She's So Bendable" has that "How Soon Is Now" guitar wobble. Soma-dropping dystopia "I Have Seen the Future"-- in which the band accurately concedes, "I am a nerve ending without a brain"-- might as well be called "I have become aware of the title and primary neologism from Brave New World." Druggy (I guess?) finale "Sugar Pill" avers, "I am blissed out/ I have kaleidoscope eyes." Shakira this isn't.

"She Wolf" collaborator John Hill, who co-produced Santigold's excellent debut album, doesn't seem to have been much help sonically, either. Someone clinically extracts whatever trace of messy humanity made it through the first time the Bravery worked the nu-wave shtick, on their debut; Stir the Blood is a parodoxically bloodless listen. In another evolution of the band's sound, lead guitarist Michael "Moose" Zakarin now tops the cookie-cutter chord progressions with needlessly frilly prog-metal solos. See "Hatefuck", which gives the band's previous woman-unfriendly tendencies a shrill, witless apotheosis ("No one can hear you here"-- hey, wasn't that part of a David Spade dirtball-comedy routine?). As if that weren't enough to get us all excited, there's utterly unremarkable first single "Slow Poison": "Burn, burn, house on fire/ I'm so sick and tired." It goes on like this.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mountain Man - Animal Tracks

Track Review

November 23, 2009


Yeah, a group of three girls called Mountain Man. They sound as old as the hills and as current as some micro-genre that doesn't have a stupid name yet. With woodsy acoustic guitars and lilting, reverbed harmonies, the Bennington, Vt.-based trio of Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, and Amelia Randall Meath set up camp between the old-timey lilt of Alela Diane or Fleet Foxes and the laid-back lo-fi vibes of Underwater Peoples pals like Real Estate or Julian Lynch. All that said, nothing about Mountain Man's nostalgic underneath-the-stars simplicity really grabbed me until I heard a cover of "Animal Tracks" by Alex Bleeker and the Freaks. Where Bleeker's version rides in on enough Crazy Horse-type guitar to inspire another three Kurt Vile albums, Mountain Man's unadorned original foregrounds earnest vocals, concrete sensory details, and an equally sturdy melody; "The sweat will roll down our backs," the Mountain women sing. When you get far enough from civilization, hygiene isn't important.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mount Kimbie - Maybes

Track Review
November 19, 2009


"People... act like nobody before has used samples in an ambient way or cut up a song and layered it with electronic elements." That's Deerhunter/Atlas Sound main man Bradford Cox talking to our own Joe Colly in a recent interview. Much of the sample-based, ambient-leaning music under discussion these days falls beneath the nebulous umbrella of chillwave, glo-fi, or hypnagogic pop. Washed Out and other artists that Cox endearingly dubs "the chill-glos" tend to approach ambient sample-weaving from more of an indie rock context. Dominic Maker and Kai Campos, the London duo who record as Mount Kimbie, represent a rising cadre of artists coming at ambient textures from something of an opposite direction: dubstep.

Mount Kimbie release their music on a dubstep label, but it's not dubstep, exactly. Their two EPs this year for Scuba's Hotflush imprint, Maybes and Sketch on Glass, cover a lot of stylistic territory, using pitch-shifted vocals along with electronic and organic tones to create beat-oriented headphone music with the elegaic grandeur of post-rock. The second EP makes the bigger outreach to electronic DJs, but Mount Kimbie's most arresting track so far remains the title track from their first EP. "Maybes" is built around a glacially stretched electric guitar chord sample, indistinct but emotive vocals, and percussion that shifts between bassy rumbles and glass-like plink-plonks. The effect is to create a sonic space somewhere between Stars of the Lid and Burial. So Mount Kimbie aren't reinventing the wheel, but they're boldly going where Primitive Radio Gods and LEN, at least-- to name but two acts mentioned by Cox-- have never gone before.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

50 Cent - Before I Self Destruct

Album Review
November 17, 2009
2.5 stars

It's not the G-Unit leader's birthday anymore. 

Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson said his long-delayed fourth album would be "like a prequel" to his blockbuster 2003 debut Get Rich or Die Tryin' -- in other words, a back-to-basics return to the rapper-mogul's more aggressive roots.

But after 2007's lackluster Curtis and this summer's abysmal War Angel mixtape, not even A-list producers (Dr. Dre, Polow Da Don, Timbaland) and A-list guest stars (Eminem, Ne-Yo, R. Kelly) can bring back Fitty's glory days.

From unsettling babysitter-sex and street-hustling reminiscence "Then Days Went By" to chest-thumping call-to-arms ("I'm not tellin' you to shoot somebody, but...") "Crime Wave," the first half of Before I Self Destruct recalls the nihilistic ferocity of Fitty's legendary pre-fame mixtapes. But Eminem by far out-raps his former protégé on "Psycho," and 50 Cent's crabby sniping at a who's who of hip-hop stars on "So Disrespectful" only underscores his own increasing irrelevance.

The last several tracks shift to the club -- sometimes smoothly (baby-making Ne-Yo duet "Baby By Me"), more often not (baby-mama dis "Do You Think About Me"). Before I Self Destruct starts with 50 Cent literally growling, and it ends, on "Could've Been You," with Kelly crooning about sniffing his own excrement. Both sound equally laughable.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Tough Alliance - A New Chance (The Juan MacLean Remix)

Track Review
November 16, 2009
8 ("Best New Music")

"It's not a question of understanding it, man. If you feel it, you feel it, stupid." That's a male voice talking on the title track from the Tough Alliance's second proper album, 2007's A New Chance. And, at the risk of thinking when we should be feeling, I'm pretty sure those words get right to heart of what makes this Swedish duo's recordings so enduring. As with that quote, TTA's music is simple and emphatic-- a kid could "understand" it, as if that were the point-- but at the same time, there's something aggressive about that clarity, the shiny electropop hooks and the innocently cynical (or is that cynically innocent?) Top 40 emotion. You could follow the trail of references here back to John Cassavetes (the source of the sample), but you'd be missing the point. "If you feel it, you feel it."

TTA aren't the kind of band that makes portentous-sounding eight-minute epics. "A New Chance", at 4:34, is the longest track on the album of the same name, alongside eight other short, melodic, should-be worldwide hits. So it's a good thing Six Finger Satellite guitarist John MacLean, better known as DFA electronic artist the Juan MacLean, remixed "A New Chance" for a 2008 digital-only EP that's only now seeing the light of Klicktrack. You can hear the Cassavetes quote a little more clearly, but what this house-y remix really does best is put the original song up on a gleaming, hi-fidelity pedestal of piano and percussion and synth arpeggios, to be admired as well as felt. "I know a place where diamonds never fade away," TTA sing, and we're there, and MacLean gives it all a museum-worthy, disco-worthy frame. If you felt like you never understood these guys before, any day's a new chance. Don't fight it, stupid, feel it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Arctic Monkeys - Cornerstone

Track Review
November 13, 2009

Everything reminds Alex Turner of her. Who exactly she might be, however, is anyone's guess. Where much of the Arctic Monkeys' Josh Homme-produced third album, Humbug, lumbers along with ill-fitting machismo, "Cornerstone" stands tall from first listen, an impeccable case for songcraft and subtlety. Turner packs his usual vivid lyrical observations into this lovelorn tale, but he's learning that withholding them can be just as effective.

When the narrator on "Cornerstone" sees someone who looks to him like his lost love, if only ever so slightly, he starts kissing her. This usually seems to work out better than you'd think. At least until he asks if he can call the new girls the old one's name. As Turner rattles off real or imagined watering holes, his backing's organ-swaying nostalgia recalls another record named after a meeting place: Richard Hawley's Coles Corner (which coincidentally lost the 2006 Mercury Prize to the first Arctics LP). Turner's rich wordplay brings his fancifully poignant subject matter to life, but it's far from clear how seriously to take all this. No less so after watching the Richard Ayoade-directed video, which adds Morrissey-like gesticulations to the recording's resonantly Mozzy phrasing, but does little to resolve the song's central ambiguities. "I'm beginning to think I've imagined you all along," Turner sings about halfway through. A hint? Possibly. Or else one step in the grieving process en route to the ever-popular "making out with your ex's sister" phase.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

God Help the Girl - Stills EP

Album Review
November 12, 2009

Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch keeps putting out music from his planned musical film before anyone has seen the movie. This is a tricky proposition. And, so far, a successful one. This summer's self-titled debut album from the Glaswegian singer and songwriter's God Help the Girl project brought together a fine cast of female vocalists, led by Catherine Ireton, for girl group- and musical theater-leaning songs centered around some longtime B&S preoccupations: sex, religion, pop. The five-song Stills EP, as its name and format suggest, plays more like a collection of scattered moments than a full-length motion picture.

The best of these snapshots comes with the EP's heartbroken title track and centerpiece. As on much of God Help the Girl's LP, we're in Anne Murray or Karen Carpenter territory here-- the kind of soft, melodic, adult pop once derided as "Happy Housewives' Music"-- and there's nothing wrong with that. Relying on little more than minor-key piano, strings, and a wonderfully pent-up female vocal, this is a hell of a torch song, full of a level of vulnerability, tunefulness, and lyrical detail that's a lot less common, and a lot more controversial, in underground circles than supposedly more avant-garde approaches. Multiple listens reveal subtle shades of humor: "I'm getting a lot of work done/ I smoke two packs a day." Nice work if you can get it.

The four other songs may manage to captivate on film, but here they can come off sounding like relatively slight genre exercises-- well-constructed and well-sung, yes, but inessential. "I'm in Love With the City" has a swinging, jazz-standard feel as Ireton worries about her "cat's chance in hell" in a love triangle. Better than an ice cube's chance, anyway. Murdoch takes the lead on "He's a Loving Kind of Boy", which plays nicely with the old "chip on his shoulder" cliché, though mariachi-tinged horns add a distracting, novelty element. On the smoldering, bluesy "Baby's Just Waiting", multiple female vocalists wait on their boy to come of age, get it, then complain about losing "the kid who was eager to please." Finale "The Psychiatrist Is In", with clattering hand percussion and a whiff of Roy Orbison-style rock'n'roll balladry, builds on this theme of maturation, but Green Day did the whole shrink/whore thing more succinctly 15 years ago.

Murdoch recently scheduled a few God Help the Girl live shows. Available video evidence suggests the songs from the album come across even better in concert than they do as 1s and 0s, and that will no doubt be the case with the Stills EP material, as well. Still-- "Stills" aside-- though this release is now available on iTunes, it often feels like what it originally was: a 10" vinyl issue for the diehards who signed up to receive Murdoch's God Help the Girl subscription series. Then again, if subscribers get to find out more about the story behind all this music before the rest of us, membership may indeed have its privileges.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Bottin - Horror Disco

Album Review
November 9, 2009

Almost three years ago, Justice sampled Italian prog band Goblin on their second single, "Phantom". If the French-house headbangers wanted to show they could weld metal's gothic nightmarishness onto disco's giddy dancefloor excess, they could hardly have made a better symbolic choice. After creating classic film soundtracks for horror auteur Dario Argento with Goblin starting in the mid-1970s, keyboard player Claudio Simonetti went on to help pioneer what is now lovingly known as Italo disco. Horror, disco-- okay, you've met.

If cinematic scariness and electronic dance music were ever strange bedfellows, they certainly aren't anymore. Since "Phantom", Justice-style floor pummelers from Kavinsky to CFCF have acknowledged Goblin's influence. The band itself reunited for European live shows and a new album in recent years. And the guys behind German house and techno label Kompakt just started a new imprint, Fright, citing Goblin's Simonetti and Halloween film-scorer John Carpenter as touchstones. Within this burgeoning micro-movement, Venice's William Bottin has shown moments of demonic mastery, but his full-length debut, Horror Disco, rarely makes you jump out of your seat.

Wielding a Farfisa Syntorchestra synth like a slasher-movie villain brandishing a murder weapon, Bottin comes up with an album that is more about a spooky mood and quirky sonics than hypnotically pristine repetitions. No surprise, then, that excellent single "No Static" first emerged on darkly atmospheric New Jersey label Italians Do It Better; spacey arpeggios interlap and unfold seamlessly, subtle cries of "don't stop" and "can do it" giving this the feel of a contender for Nike's "Run" series. "Sciarando El Scuro" is the most ear-catching track after "No Static", its chirpy hook less poltergeist than poultry-geist.

From there, Horror Disco remains deeply reverent of horror and retro-futurist film music, with plenty of solid grooves to offer DJs, but not quite enough personality to make for a completely satisfying home listen. The stuttering rhythms and horn fanfares of "Venezia Violenta", the Halloween-esque repetitions of ominous finale "Endless Mother", and the creepy vocoder warnings of "Slashdance" are never unpleasant, but they're not exactly thrilling, either. Underscoring Horror Disco's revivalist tendencies is "Disco for the Devil", which features matter-of-fact mayhem from Douglas Meakin, who sang for some of Simonetti's Italo disco projects.

As (dig the name) Black Devil Disco Club have shown, nu-disco doesn't have to be novel to be good, but it should usually be entertaining. Horror Disco proves Bottin knows his craft, and the standout tracks are worthwhile even for Italo disco noobs, but there's too much dull drift here to let me recommend it unreservedly for your 2010 Halloween party-- especially with so much similarly minded disco spookiness out there. After all, at 78 minutes, Horror Disco is already eight minutes longer than the Flaming Lips' sprawling new double-album. As great as Embryonic is, that's still a little scary.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Sunny Day in Glasgow - Close Chorus

Track Reviews
November 6, 2009
8 ["best new music"]

If you hadn't noticed this was the standout on A Sunny Day in Glasgow's triumphant-despite-adversity sophomore album, Ashes Grammar, you're forgiven. When it's working, the Philadelphia band's diaphanous dream-pop washes over you like an "ambient slipstream," to borrow a nicely evocative phrase from the BBC. With 22 tracks flowing by in a little more than an hour, Ashes Grammar makes picking favorites even more difficult. Some tracks pass in a matter of seconds, mere interludes; others glide toward an infinite horizon.

I hadn't noticed "Close Chorus" was my most-played track from Ashes Grammar (well, tied with the 11-second intro) until my fellow staffers started saying how great it was. After the psychedelic clang of the Panda Bear-like "Failure", "Close Chorus" is only the album's second track that even resembles a conventional song. Make that songs: By around three minutes in, the bass line's quasi-techno bounce could almost be coming from a different piece altogether from the Cocteau Twins-haunted female vocals, effects-drenched guitar strums, and indeterminately warped hum. "Close Chorus" undergoes plenty of other metamorphoses, too-- drum machines trading off with live rock drumming, a few snippets of lyrics comprehensible here and there ("it's hard to believe..." "I just want to be happy")-- until, before you know it, shoegaze guitars start dropping like dying seagulls. You definitely won't notice that Ben Daniels recorded the song without founding singer Lauren Daniels (grad school) and mostly without bass player Brice Hickey (broken leg) and sibling singer Robin (looking after Brice).

I'm probably the only one who'll notice how one of the melodies vaguely recalls the chorus from the Offspring's "Gone Away", but why not listen again?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Pants Yell - Received Pronunciation

Album Reviews
November 4, 2009

Who gives a fuck about Oxford English? Pants Yell! have named their fifth album after, basically, the Queen's accent. If the title of last year's Alison Statton placed the Boston trio in the less-is-more lineage of Young Marble Giants, then Received Pronunciation acknowledges what they still more or less are: indie pop formalists, mastering a given dialect rather than inventing unknown tongues. The band's latest does away with the horns and strings of its predecessor, following a bit more conservatively in the tradition of wordy, tuneful, earnest underdogs from Small Factory and the Trashcan Sinatras to the Lucksmiths.

What Received Pronunciation loses in variety-- my kingdom for another "Two French Sisters"!-- it largely makes up for with increasingly accomplished songcraft. Since when has subtlety been supposed to call attention to itself, anyway? You're probably not going to like Received Pronunciation unless you occasionally enjoy breezy, midtempo songs with jangling/shimmering (choose one) rhythm guitar, slinky lead guitar lines, bustling drum fills, warm bass, and shy vocals, but the appeal of Pants Yell! is less about a particular sound than about lyrics and melodies. It also probably helps if you tend to appreciate understated storytelling and unexpected rhymes, though a line like, "I remember your white sunglasses/ And the way the sun just went right past us," is a little more Billy Bragg than Upper West Side soweto.

Received Pronunciation won't close you out like new slang; Pants Yell! would rather you make yourself at home, look around the place. First single "Cold Hands" sounds more inviting on each listen, with its "First of the Gang to Die" bounce, relationship anxiety, and wordplay that works without coming across like its singer needs a pat on the head. Parisian postcard "Rue de la Paix" luxuriates in detail, as singer Andrew Churchman declares, "I remember every little thing." But the songs more often show only what's needed: It's up to the listener to puzzle out the hungover unease of measured opener "Frank and Sandy"; "Not Wrong", in which the narrator admits he can't tie a tie, has to be one of the most peaceful songs ever about getting into a fight. Underneath the polite surfaces is seething coming-of-age pathos: "Does that asshole ever tell you that he still thinks of Megan?" Churchman demands on "Got to Stop". The biggest misstep is "Spider", a 50-second bit of sympathy for the arachnid in winter. You can be too understated.

"What's the point of all this living?" Churchman sings on accusatory finale "To Take", adding, "Living's all I ever do." He has told Swedish magazine Devotion that Received Pronunciation will be the final Pants Yell! album. They want to go the way of Huggy Bear and Felt rather than grow old and predictable. Too bad, because Received Pronunciation isn't my favorite Pants Yell! album, nor the most varied. If a recent Guardian column by critic Simon Reynolds is right, though, and what makes the Beatles, Motown, and great synthpop all immortal is not necessarily revolution, but "melody and emotion," then Pants Yell! definitely have the ingredients to last forever-- if only for a faithful few who speak their language.

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