Titus Andronicus – Local Business

By , October 18, 2012 10:00 am

Titus Andronicus – Local Business

XL Recordings 2012

Rating: 8/10

As far as self-professed nihilists go, Titus Andronicus are the dingiest, the booziest, the most completely aware, revelling in their shit-stained universe like a technicolour dreamcoat of worthlessness. Local Business, their third album, comes essentially defined as an album of meaningless Replacements rock ‘n’ roll, beginning by celebrating resentment like the gang bumped into Michel Foucault ‘round the corner and decided there’s no escaping the bitter, repressive pill that is life. “I think by now we’ve established that everything is inherently worthless and there is nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose,” Stickles sings, like a song to self, a declaration that, after building up nothing and battling with it like an actual fucking civil war, there’s little to do but sit in the squalor and smile. If you’re worried that Local Business serves you little, that it’s quaint, short, lacking concept- that it’s not punk rock through a practical, patterned lense- who could blame you? This is a band who named themselves after a big bloody play, who made something so monumental in The Monitor that they can probably never come down from it. The aftermath, this, the jittery one-punch Local Business, is practically a joke.

What Local Business entails though, in all its dramatic-comedy borderlines, is that age-old poetical cliché, as made famous, presumably, by melodramatic Facebook pages: behind every joke there’s a layer of truth, or, in Stickes’ case, behind every joke there’s a man throwing his life away, or having it wrecked by a manipulative universe going nowhere. Local Business feels like a far more accepting record of its neuroses than The Monitor; the gang-vocals are sillier, less taglines to mission statements and more pantomimic jingles. “Food Fight!” is a joke before the dark wave of “My Eating Disorder,” and “Titus Andronicus VS The Absurd Universe” is two minutes of a band rocking out as a quintet for the frills. From a band who tagged a nine minute song with chants of “It’s still us against them and they’re winning!” Titus Andronicus seem, on Local Business to be treating their aphorisms with a sense of silly: no longer incredulous, drunk and confused by the universe, Local Business is a messy, bizarre account of things Stickles and co. know they will never really understand. And so yes, “Food Fight!” is the silliest thing he’s recorded with this band, all chants and tuneless harmonicas where your nine minute epic should be, but “My Eating Disorder,” washes over it like a dark, dark wave, a list of pains and struggles that can only be explained in their processes, and not the reasons why or even an attempt to find them.

“In a Big City,” the most distinctly anthemic song in Stickles’ career, seems to make a fair point about him and his band- if it sounds like they’ve changed on Local Business, become more closed off and wackier by eliminating all the recurring players on The Monitor, at least they’re always this band, one talking about what it is to be an awful (average!) human among a load of others with grass greener: “I grew up on one side of the river / I was a disturbed dangerous drifter / moved to the other side of the river / now I’m a drop in a deluge of hipsters.” A song like this has more levity than those that came before it, but none of the weight is shed; Titus Andronicus is still a band feeling this all quite heavily, even if a joke can spare their troubles. Hell, it’s not as if you can reject any of these songs on the basis of the band’s ability to shoot them loud and proud, not even “(I Am The) Electric Man,” another piece of look-behind-you! pantomime gold, played sweetly and comically but ever so profoundly. Titus Andronicus rollick through this album, saying what they feel they need to and occasionally a few other dumb things, but never insincerely. Less wide-eyed Springsteen and more weird scratchy Replacements is the verdict. Really, it’s more meaninglessness in meaningful songs.

Local Business ends with another long, meandering send-off about the discovery of shame, as was the long journey of “The Battle of Hampton Roads.” Unlike its predecessor, though, “Tried to Quit Smoking” is the work of the same sad-sac in resigned slacker mode, easy to imagine lying slouched in an armchair with the guitar pressed up close, humming high lyrics that are excuses for all the bad times (“it’s not that I wanted to hurt you, I just didn’t care if I did”). Local Business feels as pressed with adrenaline through its run as the albums before it, but this final indictment of meaningless life is as vitally summative of the album as anything else, a stony acceptance of what’s happened and a hundred justifications lacked. There are enough lyrics in their world to tell you that a Titus Andronicus record isn’t as much medicine for bad times as it is a time to grieve and grin, and so Local Business may not look up to the sky like The Monitor did, but there’s no denying this is the same band, done searching, perhaps, but rocking out to the persuasion of pointlessness. “There’s nothing for me to do now but turn the radio up loud, put Eric’s sunglasses back on and black it out.” Just five guys, hangin’ out and relaying basic philosophical arguments about nothingness. Blast it loud.

While the first two albums were elaborate concoctions, Local Business is of the earth. Titus Andronicus the studious recording project and Titus Andronicus the raucous touring machine are no longer two distinct beings; there is only Titus Andronicus, rock and roll band. This is to say, it was recorded primarily live with precious few overdubs, with an elite squad of musicians.
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Menomena – Moms

By , September 25, 2012 10:00 am

Menomena – Moms

Barsuk 2012

Rating: 9/10

To Moms, there should be a story: Brent Knopf left the band, leaving some sort of unspeakable trail behind him, surely? This half-band, a bassist, a drummer (now everything), just two of three distinguishable songwriters (who sound, it’s worth nothing, fairly similar, somewhere between Kings of Leon brassiness and, er, something else- Pitchfork suggested Blur, and on “One Horse,” you can’t deny their perception) and half a democracy. We should say, as we do, that this album is something different, or that Knopf has fractured his band; we should say this Menomena is new, rather than old, or that Menomena is dead. Menomena is certainly different.

But what Menomena now is, what Moms really is, perfectly and devastatingly, is generic alt rock. Trumpets blaring on “Plumage,” or on the chorus to “Giftshoppe.” As “Heavy Is As Heavy Does” dropped, ahead of the album’s schedule, it was the straightest song of their career; a solemn piano ballad lamenting fatherhood, the patriarchy and the male form in general; a song maximising its pain as it realised it, getting heavier and more solo-mad as its own hopelessness was realised. And I, too, realised, as Seim or Harris (whichever one) sang it (“as prideful as a man he was / proud my father never was of me”), that this was the Menomena album that was going to hurt. They’ve hurt before, of course- certain lines from Mines have cut like a knife, not least the very first (“I get so caught up in my ways”)- but Moms is less about passing around the Deeler software and creating a randomised song, however sad, and more about lamenting family trees and the things that created us worse for wear. Together, Harris and Seim have created a rock album punching the stomach the way their lyrics do.

It’s almost strange to think this is the band behind Mines, an album praised, in its entirety, for its innovation, and for its mysticism: Mines bared it’s soul at times, but never in such an explicit way. Harris and Seim have never written songs like this, ones as direct and self-explanatory, and at times, ones as cinematic: “One Horse,” the album’s groaning sign-off, feels like a score, with its fine-tuned sad howls and sudden cuts; with its ability to stare right in the eye as it does; with just those words, “you were a one horse town,” and then the spiralling downward fall. Moms is cinematic and serious, concerned with its own drama rather than the place it had to fill.

And so Moms plays out like a classic alt-rock record, similar in my mind to The Bends or Change as collection of samey, reflective songs, each with their own fireworks. It’s not about innovation but introspection, and blown up. Moms, instead of a long monologue exchanging thoughts on Knopf’s departure to us all, is an album of one-sided dialogue and unrequited longing; the title itself is dedicated to motherhood, but it seems untouched throughout the songs these two men write about. Instead, the themes are focused on the other women and elder men in these songwriters’ lives; the lovers within arm’s length in “Plumage,” the bastard dads in “Pique,” and the fools, guess who, letting them in on “Skinertercourse.” The music is endlessly climactic, and everywhere: “Plumage” weaves and weaves around its sharply-spun piano notes, and reaches its conclusion around the same time Menomena do: they rattle around the song like their very own epiphany, and “guess I’ll have to face” is sung, resigned, one more time before the song fizzles out pathetically. On “Pique,” the song halts on a similar, damaging revelation that has circled in and out of the songs existence until then: of being used, and accepting it, Menomena close the book, slapping one last guitar chord and crescendo in their wake. These are two songs to self, crossed with endless motifs about how nobody cares.

Moms is a collection of depressive love letters and we, rather accidentally, are their recipient.

Moms explores a new vulnerability and resiliency within Menomena, a band that's taken change not as an excuse to opt out but instead as a catalyst for growth. It's tragic and intimate, comic and endearing, personal and motivated. In 10 songs and just less than 50 minutes, Harris and Seim cast pop cascades into noise kaleidoscopes (''Baton''), chop and twist a melody until it becomes a big dance beat (''Capsule''), and build inescapable arrays of tension and texture that finally release (''Tantalus''). Opener ''Plumage'' couples its surge of energy with a cleverly playful study of sexuality, while ''Pique'' turns the same sort of seemingly impossible tessellated-rhythm tricks that have become a Menomena trademark.
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Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t

By , September 12, 2012 10:00 am

Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t

Secretly Canadian 2012

Rating: 8/10

I’m probably not quite with it to give Jens Lekman his dues, and for that I thank you, future run-ins with spellchecker, but anyway: of love songs, Lekman pointed I Know What Love Isn’t to break-ups, and speaking to Pitchfork claimed that a record centred around one is made by accepting, hand in hand with its listener, the pain of it all. Up until now, this is hardly the man we’ve known; the You’re So Silent Jens laughed, played maudlin piano trilogies about Rocky Dennis, and then dedicated retro dance songs to himself; the love-song aspect was there, but driving backseat to the witticisms and showy moments. Until now, Lekman has been the perfect performer and the ideal entertainer, to the point where he even pronounced “father” as “fadduh,” as if he was bringing up Camp Granada’s easy-humour on the indie spectrum. What makes I Know What Love Isn’t feel different is that the laughs reveal the romantic twangs a little after, like the joke that dies out to sad sighs; instead of standing by his Stephin Merritt, eye-rolling shtick, Lekman has made an album of sad love prophecies, focusing on the story of two people rather than the remarks of one. “The World Moves On,” his six minute dance anthem- given all its fun rock conventions- isn’t all that fun when you realise it’s genuinely about the world moving on.

What strikes boldest, then, is that there’s nothing particularly weird about Lekman’s music when it’s at its sincerest; these songs are those of a storyteller truly documenting, as well as he can, what has happened; “I Know What Love Isn’t,” the fullest, most conventional Lekman song to date, is based on his experiences of almost proposing to his friend for citizenship and completely non-romantic ideals. And it sums up exactly what I Know What Love Isn’t- I’m talking album, here- amounts to; the serious perspective of Lekman channelled, as per usual, through funny conversations (“do you wanna go see a band? / no I hate bands, it’s always full of men spooning their girlfriends?”) and musical arrangements that sound as funny. Here comes the flute solo! And so Lekman continues to borrow from his own long tradition- that it’s easy to laugh a problem off- but on what he considers to be his first real “album,” he also decides to examine it.

I Know What Love Isn’t is focused on what’s quixotic in the process of elimination- what makes Lekman tick, at this point, is writing big, romantic arrangements and having lines that demarcate: “let’s get married for the citizenship / I’ve always liked the idea of a relationship that doesn’t lie about it’s intentions,” he sings on the title track while it flourishes- the bravado of guitar smacking around verses and choruses, the violin swells and, yes, the flute solos, all celebrating little more than Lekman’s rational peace of mind. Or maybe I Know What Love Isn’t mourns the death of Jens Lekman the romanticist? Apparently, it’s the exact same guy, but using the same tools- marriage, violin swells- as sombre facts of life.

The album is the result of its own thought process, and ultimately becomes the most revealing thing Lekman has written, even if it is his most succinct record. Lines seem less about the big laugh, even in similar arrangements- “Erica America,” for instance, feels sad more than anything, and so a quiet line like “Sinatra had his shit figured out, I guess” is genuinely a quiet line. That’s something- I Know What Love Isn’t doesn’t try to be funny, because at times it really isn’t (a line from the same song: “Erica America, I wish I’d never met you / like I wish I’d never tasted this cheap wine”), and because, ultimately, the album isn’t constructed that way. Lekman isn’t necessarily an entertainer here: he’s a man of music blooming in corners, with the littlest of piano performances on “Become Someone Else’s” or an honest-to-god singer-songwriter acoustic song elsewhere on “I Want a Pair of Cowboy’s Boots.” You can say what you want- it’s the same old Lekman, but only ten songs- but I know different.

And ultimately, a lot of I Know What Love Isn’t is flawed. “The End Of The World is Bigger Than Love” can be dull, and a slight feint at that; it suggests that the end of the world even factors in to Lekman’s mind on album entirely dedicated to love and the loss of love. “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder” is a conversation first and a song later, so dedicated is it to Lekman’s newfound love of craft. But there’s something in this clunky, structural record that suggests a musician uncaring of where his career peak was or what even defines him anymore. At some point, there’s a musician writing what he believes to be an honest, appropriate break-up album. One that sticks with you quite morosely, that doesn’t look for the upside, particularly, but doesn’t shy away from the serious hilarity of the woman who doesn’t want to be with you but doesn’t actually have anyone else in mind. By peeling away all of love’s non-events, I Know What Love Isn’t is a tragicomedy, not particularly in one mind about what it is, but knowing it’s sort of awful. And so I’m probably in no state to understand Lekman’s album, and probably in the perfect state to overrate it, but as a conventional rock record, and an attempt at the immaculate indie Lekman has been striving to make, this feels right for him: finally, a record he made even in sad and happy. Sinatra may have had his shit worked out, but Jens doesn’t. Or, maybe that, again, is the point. He does, and it turns out his shit isn’t at all romantic.

The album came out of a break up which isn't a new story. He fell in love and it didn't work out. It borrows sparingly from the vast and colorful palette of sounds he created on Kortedala. I Know What Love Isn't has strings but not a string section, an upright piano not grand, a single saxophone, gracenotes from a flute, a lot of tambourine. Combined in exact proportions with Lekman's melancholy abstract lyrics, the songs evoke the classic sound of the Brill Building in it's heyday.
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Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary

By , August 16, 2012 1:00 pm

Wolf Parade – Apologies to the Queen Mary

Sub Pop 2012

Rating: 10/10

I’ll admit that most of Apologies to the Queen Mary sounds like a cosmic event to me. A ritual of sabotaging artificial light in “Modern World”; a spaghetti western about guns in “I’ll Believe In Anything,” updated for a generation that has synthesizers and makes glitches; an album that is literally haunted by ghosts, and is accidentally channeling them in every sad corner. To be haunted, Wolf Parade seem to say, is to be a person, and so there’s ground at the feet of each of these spooky songs, something that protects them from the otherworldly and makes all the yelping, the swirling keyboards and the general high-fantasy of the record more about ‘people’ than the metaphors surrounding them. You don’t have to seek divorce out from whales hanging in the underground, or ghosts haunting the very human decisions Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug talk about making. You don’t have to understand deranged expressionistic wordplay to know that “Shine a Light” is about office drudgery and the companionship that gets a dude through it.

As Apologies to the Queen Mary ends, it seems to resolve around people: “This Heart’s on Fire” is the record’s conventional rock jam, and more importantly, the rock jam about love, and between two hermits refusing to give into the record’s heady exploration. It’s a quiet and dignified love, according to Boeckner- of saying no to going out and instead staring, numbly, into the TV with your lover. Wolf Parade add jet packs to these songs about people, is all: they make this quiet statement and then launch it off of earth in a distinct, mysterious moment. These songs are taken to places that put the subtle, and often impossible, in big bold, and so Apologies to the Queen Mary stands on a launch pad in the ground and stares around, and then up.

And isn’t that what an indie rock record is all about? We’ve been taught by this loosely defined, escapologist of a genre that the only real rule is that things mean a lot. A lot of the time, we’re taught that everything comes from nothing, and so there’s a taunt on Women’s perhaps-masterpiece, Public Strain, that goes “can’t you see? / can’t you see?” as the band plays grainy, distorted music over the top of anything they want to say to their audience, which they’re pretending isn’t there. It’s indicative of what the album is- something to not be understood but to tug at you in the process- and so the key lines are there, maybe, but never explained, and never really there for you to come to peace with. Public Strain infuriates me only because I love it, and there’s something in that: the record you have problems to sort out and come back to, a hundred times over, when it doesn’t treat you right.

Wolf Parade do the same with a bottomless bucket of poems. They make it sound like an album of distortion is an onslaught of words, and so I understand about forty percent of what Boeckner says, and I’ll settle to understand way less of what Krug is spilling onto pages, and yet this album, Apologies to the Queen Mary, stabs to the heart immediately. “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts,” the song that affects deepest on the record, has one moment of clarity, and it’s the la la las. As always. “Hungry Ghosts” is like a shopping list scrawled out for symbols of fear, which is why so little of it makes sense but still makes you quiver inside. “Hungry Ghosts” rattles off its hopelessness like an endless document; “I got water, and I got holes, so,” it shrugs, as if that’s enough explanation to fend against God and hunters and all the things rattling around the corners of the song’s parameter. Krug’s expression is what is sublime here: that these words could be sung with such conviction, or that line could make such sense when yelped like an apocalyptic deal-breaker.

I love that line, because Krug acts as if I’ve got a fucking clue what he’s saying. “So” is such a resignation.

With their lightning-crackling delivery, Krug and Boeckner deliver songs with double lives, and all feel deranged and two-fold. Wolf Parade have prog-rock in their blood, able to tell stories about the weirdest things that don’t exist and equate them to a day that wasn’t any good; “You Are A Runner And I Am My Father’s Son” might be about having complex father issues, but with the gunshots chasing an execution and the stolen voices, it becomes an overture for exile in a high realm. Or maybe that’s just because I listened to it while playing Majora’s Mask, but it’s so dramatised; if you don’t want to turn out like the man your father is, Krug says, then invent a world and run as far away as you can from it. That is the kind of quality these two songwriters own at all moments: the ability to build something up to understand it, to put it in bright lights so its importance becomes clear.

I would have to guess that is what “We Built Another World” is about. And I guess, really, I’ve just never heard a record so perfect in tone: the record’s only no-synth track, “Modern World,” is peeled back for symmetry, to present a bare dissertation against technology and unrelenting change, played on piano and guitar and things you can build without electricity. “I’ll Believe Anything” has its bloodshed pulsing through it- something that is portrayed to note in its music video- and gets somehow impossibly louder and more intense until the song is on top of itself without ever really changing. “Dinner Bells” is given the spacey, high-up altitude of a song talking about losing and absence. Sounds like someone’s cut a large hole through the song as it rattles, on its own, through a disorientating instrumental march. Quite literally sounds like there’s little more to say now that there are no more dinner bells (“dinner bells to ring”).

It’s almost as if Wolf Parade were bound to this super-emotional, charged prog-rock universe; Krug, on one podium, making silly keyboard sounds turn songs fantastical and magical, and Boeckner on the other giving songs their gritty indie rock grounding with soul-crushing guitar tones as on the miserable “Dinner Bells.” And both always knowing exactly what thing to talk about, and how: “you’re the one eyed feather,” Krug sings on that track, and it sounds believable, in some place beyond this. It’s unquestionable that this is cosmic music, out of this world or set where the tension’s too unreal for this one, but that’s what gives it the feeling it has to us in the office jobs. It’s indie rock that gives us highflying importance. I think it’s telling that Wolf Parade never gave us another record as perfect as this, and that they couldn’t find a way to stay at peace together. If you don’t much like the universe you made for yourself, what are the chances you’re going to like this one? Apologies to the Queen Mary is that two-fold record that makes indie rock as important as it is to me, and it’s a little spooky that it occupies this impossible, unsettling place in my heart. So.

Wolf Parade – “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts”

This Montreal band has toured with the likes of Modest Mouse and The Arcade Fire, they played last year's All Tomorrow's Parties festival in California, self-released two limited edition EPs, and have a song (a cover of Frog Eyes' 'Claxxon's Lament') on The Believer magazine's recent covers comp. Time magazine picked "Apologies..." as one of "Canada's Most Anticipated Indie Albums Of The Year". Expect to see and hear much more from Wolf Parade. Sub Pop. 2005.
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mewithoutYou – Ten Stories

By , May 15, 2012 10:00 am

mewithYou – Ten Stories

Pine Street 2012

Rating: 8/10

To start at the end of all stories, “All Circles” carries a quintessential mewithoutYou lyric executed like one of James Blake’s; it is a singular thought captured out of time, with its significance deemed only by itself. “All circles presuppose they’ll end where they begin but only in their leaving can they ever come back around, all circles presuppose.” That’s the kind of lyric that would be a connective piece amidst the narrative of any other mewithoutYou track, like something that jumps out half way through the story but sort of inadvertently lives in the shadow of the rest of the song. We’ve seen this in Weiss’ song writing over and over, in the bags of marijuana he left out on the track, or the money he gave reluctantly to the track, and all your favourites that seemed to fall out of line in their tracks only to be repaired later on. As a lyricist as obsessed with stories and fables as Weiss is, every lyric walks freely into the other and ties itself onto it in a moment of hypocrite bastadry, and yet what “All Circles” does with its words- the most “my brother and my sister don’t speak to me” of all lines- is have them in orbit for three minutes of repetition to create one of ten stories without ever telling it. As the music grows and grows before its simple climax, Weiss seems to be creating a song meant for a listen as instinctive as it is poetic.

“All Circles” may be my favourite mewithoutYou track of all time, which fills me with a shitonne of guilt because it replaces a song as contrastingly made as “The King Beetle On A Coconut Estate,” which is a descriptive song that delves the deepest Weiss has into storytelling. Regardless, “All Circles” is sold to me the way any track in the band’s career is; it’s a lyric that sounds placed above the melody, actually moving entirely to it. This is the only impulse I have to go on when it comes to mewithoutYou- the construction of their songs, with Weiss playing the narrator as the constant through what has become an expertly diverse career of punk-cores and psych folk- but no amount of time I pour into having an epiphany over the themes of Ten Stories, it will still seem, in many ways, the most at ease the band has been, even if it isn’t necessarily the happiest they’ve been. It flows between its stories with the confidence a band five albums in can afford, with the raucous “Grist For The Malady Mill” going tactful into the moody, crisp “East Enders Wives.” Or, if you’d prefer, “Nine Stories” and “Bears Vision” seem the same story separated for air. Whatever connection these songs make for you, it feels done so easily that an album could simply fall out of these guys.

Moments of this ease produce slabs of indie-rock proper for mewithoutYou, which is a first. “Cardiff Giant” is a twinkly alt-rock track, one entirely made out of guitar riffs and a conventional rock set-up, and it finds its way on the album neatly. And yet the confidence we hear on these new, simpler layers seem to do nothing to demystify Ten Stories, an album much like “All Circles”: never overtly explained, because you’d have to seek out the liner notes to know, really know, that a song on this album acts as an open dialogue about an owl and a walrus, with both parts read by Weiss. Ten Stories regains something cryptic through its words, which is what I’d guess it really shares with Catch For Us The Foxes. For another comparison, it feels as fabled as It’s All Crazy! but with its themes laid with less explicitly for the animal community: “Allah, Allah, Allah” is a very different look at religion from “Nine Stories,” which captures a desperation rather than the universal clarity of insisting “it’s alright!” in the face of spirituality. “Jacob knows a ladder you can climb” is not a lyric sang for joy, but for a different kind of impulse is captured entirely. Our own Channing Freeman noted that this album’s predecessor carried a solution to its own campfire problem: sing along, be happy, two things this album don’t quite entail in the same way- this is, I feel, a dark record, the stories in which Weiss’ animal kingdom gets put in trial and sentenced to hanging- but it remains the work of a band free of inhibition amidst all the soul-searching. In a moment of levity, however, Weiss draws his own comparison between this and the album that came before it, which is that the band will say what it wants to say, basically: “we’ll knead a bit of dough to get by.” Indeed? Ten Stories is at ease with its ambiguity and style-shifting.

And let’s not forget just how much a feat that is for a song writer who has been helplessly searching since day one. While I think I’ll never quite understand the madcap story behind Ten Stories, beyond the animals and the circus clown chilling in the corner, I don’t think I’ll ever forget just how circular mewithoutYou are being with it, right down to that amazing meta-inducing ending. “Only in their leaving can they ever come back ‘round” is a little line of self-help for Ten Stories, as it closes its album by going back to the start and thinking it all through again. Continuity is very much on the mind of this band through their albums, whether it lingers within the broad lyrical aphorisms- you’ll remember “I do not exist” in Brother Sister- or from album to album. You can call “February 1878” a whole song of its own, separate from “January 1979,” but both linger within the other. On Ten Stories, I think, there’s another chapter bring written about death from the breakdown on the railroad tracks; Weiss wonders if he’s “already died” on this album and doesn’t know, though some do, “no certainty exists.” What lingers in all mewithoutYou albums, and in the continuity of these two connective songs, is uncertainty, the thinking things through and coming back around. The way a thought changes in time: “sometimes I think all our thoughts are just things and then sometimes all our things are then thoughts.” And so yes, this is rather a traditional mewithoutYou album, because hasn’t that term moved beyond what musical styles they play in by now? It makes sense that “All Circles” is how it all closes out, with Weiss, as ever, instinctively working his way towards a thought, and with such absurd confidence that we would think he’d already arrived there. One would think he rather suits the concept-album. He kneads a good adventure, after all.

mewithoutYou returns with their 5th studio album, Ten Stories. Helmed by producer Daniel Smith (Sufian Stevens) and mixed by Brad Wood (Smashing Pumkins), Ten Stories is an allegorical coellection of songs that, at first listen, follows a winding narrative about a circus train crash in 19th century Montana. Long time fans will know that although we are introduced to a talking elephant, fox and tiger there is always more then meets the eye.
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Best Coast – The Only Place

By , May 8, 2012 10:00 am

Best Coast – The Only Place

Mexican Summer 2012

Rating: 3/10

No matter how many times you say fun I still can’t have it. The Only Place feels like the greying out of Bethany Cosentino, the same sentiments she’s been pushing just rolling on to the next page, blowing through the streets, always the streets of California, like an endless gust of weed smoke. It is talking to the same people from the same couch as trashy TV rolls quietly and insignificantly in the background, thinking about fixing the same problems but clinging to them like little nuggets of meaning, pining over the same guy and being too lazy to do anything about it. We’re still supposed to take it to the beach and get high to it and take pictures of our cat to go on a clip reel with it. We’re right where we left off: “when I’m with you,” when we’re together, “I have fun.”

Okay. Either this record is boring, or I am. Don’t tell me. The way Crazy For You ended epitomized that record, because it held up a mirror to its mad dependence. All the weed was taken out of the skull-fucking boredom of waiting for your prospective boyfriend to not come ‘round; going half out of your mind and talking to your pet was a replacement act and saying the same thing over and over and over again was to calm the thoughts that consumed. The distractions only lasted minutes. Minutes? Perfect! Write a pop song. “When I’m With You” was a fitting conclusion of all these little anxieties, because what is an album about ‘weed and my cat and being lazy a lot’ without the fun you could be having? I guess it’s nothing. The Only Place is kind of nothing.

In its nothingness, everyone will tell me, “it sounds like every Best Coast album” and point back to Crazy For You as being as simple as what follows it. It will reinforce a lyric like “I wish my cat could talk,” a line that is pretty much the holy grail of simple lyrics. Give me a simple lyric any day, for all the obvious reasons: it’s honest, or it speaks to an experience we’re probably all having, or maybe it’s just easier to connect with someone over having a bad day than it is to grasp for meaning in it. When I hear a simple lyric of Cosentino’s, though, it’s simple because she has nothing to say and no experience to share with anyone but the dude she’s talking to. This would be James Last’s surf pop muzak if not for the elongating of words like “fun” and “life” and the constant repetition of that nothingness refusing to dig through the surface. All Cosentino has to write about on The Only Place is the distractions, and last time around that nothingness, played on a purely upbeat note, lasted the summer and died out as fast as the weather did.

And so the most hideous crime The Only Place commits is that, yes, it is an “emo” record, just like Cosentino said she wanted- emo not for the guitars twinkling or the skramz screaming, but for the gloomy, plodding place it exists in. It comes from exactly the same place that the sun shone on for Crazy For You, but with the grey shading. That doesn’t refer to the inevitable move away from being a lo-fi band, either- it barely factors. Again we’re at home with Cosentino on the couch, listening to her music the way it was lazily written, and lazy isn’t an insult: it’s like a badge a Best Coast record proudly pins on itself. Everyone is out somewhere with something to do and The Only Place is at home with the curtains pulled over.

The result of darkening the room by the beachside is this: the drab distractions of fun and the sad twee ballads all move The Only Place at a precisely made, sluggish speed through half an hour of Cosentino’s white lies about being unhappy and pissed off with friends. It’s all held up through jangle pop played in a major key, but in this even Cosentino seems unsympathetic towards her character- the melancholy is only ever piled on a happy melody and the never-ending sadness, as on the guitar-chugged “Last Year,” seems like a red herring played for the hell of it (again: nothingness). That’s why the song indulges in the surface of lyrics rather than the words on the inside, and why Cosentino becomes more entertaining when she expresses her “la de das” instead of the problems she seems little interested in. “What a year this day has been” is a lyric that reflects the grungy, uncaring nature of this track, but any venting on The Only Place remains simply that on this is an album of surface- nothing goes any deeper, because nothing can come from nothing.

What The Only Place entails is a list of reasons to not be having fun, but the description is unsympathetic, and not only in Cosentino’s lyrics: the music feels entirely out of step with the record’s moody facade, like eleven new versions of the impassioned, irony-smacked “Positively Fourth Street” but intending none of the scorn Dylan did in his music. And this is just how Cosentino writes; her dad-rock-surf-pop guitar music sounds nothing but sincere in its airy and carefree construction, and as a result it means as little as her lyrics do, just in the complete opposite way. What results is a bizarre record of contrasting base material, a bittersweet record without any of the force behind what make those words sting. The Only Place becomes a record that is suggesting everything but giving none of it, and what sucks the most is that this badge of laziness is entirely of Cosentino’s choosing. She neutralises these two parts into some sort of post-beachcore album that cynically rhymes words like “fun” with themselves, just to point to as it was last time around.

So it’s fitting that the best moment here is “Up All Night,” a song entirely about feel: it’s long and gloomy, but dedicated to its story for more than four minutes, ditching the superficial twee brevity for a little focus on what’s upsetting Cosentino and how a pop song of little guitar riffing can speak for that. This side of Cosentino feels none forced as the band rollicks through guitar licks and percussive snaps that dot together the bitter with the sweet in a more palliative way: Cosentino is wistful on this closer, and the music actually reflects that, without a smile. Best Coast’s style feels fully connected here, rather than just presenting the description, the “emo,” as an afterthought. It’s as if the saving grace to Cosentino’s sadness is the time dedicated, which makes sense for this album of nothing; there’s something buried under “Up All Night,” finally. But until this moment, I’m not having fun with The Only Place, and when it’s down and out I’m not not having fun with it. All I feel towards this record is some sort of angry indifference, which feels like the exact empty feeling that it impacts on us; like nothing matters as long as I hear the same words and the same chords over and over until all I can say about this record is nothing, over and over. This is an empty record, and the exact opposite of what it means to write classic music, because through all its forced smiles and fake problems, it’s an album that means absolutely nothing to me.

Best Coast – “The Only Place”

The Only Place is the follow-up to the acclaimed Crazy For You and finds Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno maturing in both sound and perspective. This album finds front woman Cosentino transitioning into adulthood, with the feeling of uncertainty and self-doubt at the emotional center of the album. As with all of Best Coast's previous recordings, on The Only Place Cosentino handles all songwriting, lyrics, vocals and rhythm guitar, while multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno plays lead guitar, bass and drums. What's new this time is their decision to work with producer and composer Jon Brion.
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Maps & Atlases – Beware and Be Grateful

By , April 24, 2012 10:00 am

Maps & Atlases – Beware and Be Grateful

Barsuk 2012

Rating: 8/10

My whole experience of Maps & Atlases reads like an off-base rockumentary cliché, but anyway: I understand that Maps & Atlases are not the band they once were. This seems like an absolutely ridiculous statement to make of a band that has done little more to their sound than nuance it; the guitar tapping is still present, muffled under the song though it may be, and the experiments have just been restricted to compact boxes to move about in. The band hasn’t split itself down its side like it may seem, rather it’s just suppressed the big and the bold into the background to make room for (sure, go ahead and use the word) a “pop” song. It’s the toning down of it all, though, that makes it so criminal, and so when they nuance, they nuance hard. Maps & Atlases were once something of an imposing band, which means they were in your face and clever and they did these things to you; their second and most noted EP was aggressive and progressive, trying a whole lot at raucous speeds. Now, Maps & Atlases are a band able; namely, they are “danceable,” the band that sat around and listened to Prince a shit-tonne. Beyond the immaculate construction of their record, we do what we want with Maps & Atlases these days; the fans who claim they’ve given up on this band but for a live show are just as righteous fans as those of us who embrace this new band who made “Winter,” the band with supposedly funky choruses. Whatever the result is, I recognise the lame cliché on this one: it’s like listening to two different bands.

Cliché number two: that side of Maps & Atlases that died (by being quieter than usual) has made Maps & Atlases the band I was always hoping they would evolve into. There were moments on Perch Patchwork where a very bright light shone down: songs as showy as “Pigeon” suddenly sounded like warm home recordings, even in their cerebral nature; it felt like listening to a band making the greatest equation on how to party. Awful math rock jokes aside, there’s something of a super-group to be had of a Maps & Atlases who can make a visceral impact rather than just construct one. People have said you can dance to Beware and Be Grateful, which essentially means you can feel things as you listen to it; you can hear the patterns of the saddest moments, like Davison’s ‘I, I, I’ repeating as an endless transmission in “Remote and Dark Years.” Yes, it’s not something you need to read in a review, but Beware and Be Grateful is even more a warm, touching record than the ones made before it. As Davison loses it on the guitar-crackling “Old Ash” and lets his voice loudly preach and then crumble in a heap, a new vision of Maps & Atlases comes beaming out. It’s a passionate band standing on the top of all their wacky, wonderful architecture and caring profoundly about it.

These aren’t ferocious songs and they aren’t always playing with everything on the forefront, and it’s compelling to see that; the band has rounded up the edges of their songs and put them into the ground, so that “Fever” is as many times as complex as “Everyplace Is A House” but comes out as a song with a very conventional beauty to it: no guitar noodling, maybe, but so many little things going on within it that constitute bro-y complexity, just in a better way: so many guitar patterns and little programmed noises to be followed. Beware and Be Grateful is easy to dismiss as too easy, or not the band we once knew, but it feels to me like the band that finally found themselves saying what they want to say and in the way they want to. Which is why, chief among all clichés, I consider this somehow representative of the band as a whole, no matter how different it’s all gotten: a band showing off as a secondary objective, playing songs with immense warmth and love. We can speak of the impossibility of reconciling version one of this band to version two, but for me, Beware and Be Grateful is just a band growing. Growth, at its most disgustingly ordinary and clichéd. Heartfelt geniuses that these guys are, they sell it.

Maps & Atlases – “Silver Self”

On their second full-length album, Chicago's Maps & Atlases defy easy categorization, choosing to walk their own incomparable musical path. Beware and Be Grateful sees the band's trademark experimentalism morphing to suit a more direct--though no less beguiling--songcraft. Fueled by a panoply of sonic influences, the album abounds with novel invention, spanning hymnal harmonies, percolating rhythms, even, in the case of centerpiece track, ''Silver Self,'' a full-on guitar solo (though to be fair, it's unlike any solo previously committed to wax). Songs like ''Remote And Dark Years'' and ''Fever'' are gloriously liquid and lyrical, channeling Maps & Atlases' tightly constructed creativity into a genuinely distinctive brand of boundary-busting, asymmetrical pop. Self-assured and astonishingly ambitious, Beware and Be Grateful is a worthy follow-up to the band's acclaimed Barsuk debut Perch Patchwork.
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Cate Le Bon – Cyrk

By , February 21, 2012 10:00 am

Cate Le Bon – Cyrk

The Control Group 2012

Rating: 7/10

On my absolutely wishy-washy but definitely noble search for as many singer plus guitar albums I could find, it was in Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day I was able to make a home- preferably a log cabin- to crawl up in. Not that this is a review of that (though if I can petition someone to write a glowing 5 for it, yes please), but it is the warmth in that album that startled me. Even if it isn’t the perfect acoustic album- there’s more to it around the edges than that, shout out to the album’s obscure fiddle player – Bunyan’s assurance on a song such as “Love Song” speaks volumes of how to make an album that carries guitar and voice to its core. It’s not her gorgeous voice we will wax lyrical about forever unless it goes hand in hand with the guitar below it, and the rest is a fill-in. There, in Diamond Day, lies a classic album built on a steady foundation.

This mini-review, of course, fails to point back at the actual make-up of CYRK, an album driven by a musician and her band - drums, organs and such, they’re definitely a mark on this album, curse ‘em- but it’s in sheer strength of will that Cate Le Bon comes across like the room’s been cleared out. To me, it’s an album of vocal and guitar, too dressed-up in places like “Greta,” maybe, for that assertion to be actually true, but transparent enough to hold those two fundamentals at its centre. It’s the guitar-work that compels Le Bon to the shade of herself that is punk, but it’s the same instrument she falls back on for her less acidic moments. At the risk of being caught out by someone else in their boxy bedroom who knows I have nothing to say about CYRK beyond “cool music” or worse still, “sounds like Nico,” allow me to distract the conversation to Le Bon’s startling live show: as support for St. Vincent, she was the living, breathing definition of sparseness, which is the most fabulous of endorsements for Annie Clark’s supplement, in a strange way. Her live show presented that unsettling singer-songwriter style nuanced into its purest form, something most would call nothing more than “a lady and a guitar.” I prefer to think of it as a lady and some ridiculous chord changes, liberated by her small-time status enough to push through the intense experiments she’d been purveying. An expert fit, I’m sure you’ll agree, to St. Vincent, but Le Bon didn’t fill the stage as a band-leader. This was a pastoral (whatever that really means anymore) take on her peer’s quiet debut Marry Me, tampered with so little that even if I knew none of the songs, I was hearing them as if getting their inaugural play-through.

That lovely, simple magic doesn’t feel lost on CYRK, even when the shuffling drums roll over “Fold The Cloth” or the keys try to get some authority over it, and how they try: even mixed in louder, they’re still somehow kinda unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Even then, the base of this album feels sprinkled on by the band around it. Those twinkling effects on “Puts Me To Work” are put on top like the most awesome of supplementary essays, further explaining the character and zest of CYRK but not taking away from Cate Le Bon’s simple image. The character of this album is in its fine lines- again, reminiscent of Annie Clark as she plays on the borders of comfort and its sinister, opposite number- and those, laid bare, are simply given marking points by all this stuff. The organs, the drums, and such, are going to lend Le Bon a certain amount of comparison, but it’s in the guitar we keep falling in with Stephen Malkmus and her voice we so desperately want to connect to Chelsea Girl. Not that there are any gosh-darn flutes in this album, but “Fold The Cloth” gets its power from those wandering guitar-lines at 1:24. If anything, CYRK is more the work of someone working in Kurt Vile’s discipline, chilling from the couch as she makes an album of two great talents. Le Bon is doodling, but as she refines it, CYRK becomes a clear piece of work with a well-clarified core.

Even if, once in a while, she’s all up for dismantling her world, dusting it off and putting it back together in some new ridiculous layout. “Greta” seems to stress a particular breaking point for the album, but neither side is radically different from the other. It stands, in this warped little interlude, one which will put the easily horrified among us off brass instruments forever, that Le Bon is as much of experiment as she is of constructing songs, and in its creepy-as-hell last gasp, “Greta” is consciously laying down the deliberately fragmenting sound of Le Bon, one that she tampers with for nothing more than the delight of it. And so the disorientating final seconds of CYRK are indicative of the musician behind them in many ways, which is almost frustrating in light of part one of the inverted “Ploughing Out.” Le Bon is playing beautiful chords for the first round, and if it’s not that which sooths, one can point to the earnestness of everything: the softness of drums and the cooing vocal enveloping the headphones is the album I’m constantly searching for. That’s a story, I’ll bite, that lends itself to about half of CYRK (and half of my life), but to me it’s in Le Bon’s guitar-work she finds her innate strength, that which demolishes with about the same dedication it helps her sparkle bright. This album sits in the comfort of a pastoral tune and its strong-willed, angular resolution. The twist in “Ploughing Out” moves entirely in chords, treacling down to the next movement like the rough patch needn’t have words, needn’t have a reason; it’s just Le Bon’s electric guitar, now near-autonomous, causing the scene. Now leading some semblance of a band towards singer-songwriter paradise, it’s just a startling achievement to see a musician command her music so well. No wonder her audience got her stepping onto that tiny stage alone: that’s a really cool guitar, after all.

Cate Le Bon – “Puts Me To Work”

A new force in song craft, Cate Le Bon resides in Cardiffm Wales's French quarter and befitting a songwriter who only writes in the dark, her music is a heady and personal Gallic stew of equal parts Nico, Malkmus and the chronicler's own observations on the impossibility of existence. Drawing on her experiences of 2011, Cate created collection of pop nuggets imbued with the playfulness of Faust and Syd Barrett and the tropical melodies of Os Mutantes. Existential word play and fuzz fused guitar lines tear through like an angry bee in a CAN on Cyrk.
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Guided By Voices – Let’s Go Eat The Factory

By , January 19, 2012 10:00 am

Guided By Voices – Let’s Go Eat The Factory

Guided By Voices Inc. 2012

Rating: 3/10

In a decade or two of very awesome ideas in indie rock, one of the best also has the least to do with music. It’s chronicled in the to-do list of Stephen Malkmus, and if it turns out that he doesn’t have one, I’m fairly sure these are the bullet-points: firstly, write some music. There’s no outlet better for a guy who still speaks in riddles after all these years. Secondly, don’t release another Pavement album. The live reunion, yes, that’s inevitable for such a legendary band, but Malkmus recognises his riddles are no longer Crooked Rain riddles, not by a long way: you have to write as if you don’t really care about writing to make “Range Life,” backhanded even if it was immaculately crafted. His lack of temptation to do it again- to be the casual genius only unlocked by Pavement- is kinda commendable in my eyes. He’s not arguing against how much he bloody well was Pavement. He’s just aware there’s no need to assert that anymore, because, well, being one thing doesn’t necessarily mean being it forever.

Robert Pollard is not Stephen Malkmus, sadly.

I’m not bringing this up to start a band vs. band argument, especially as Guided by Voices occupy that favourite band hall of fame in my sweet little head. But as far as reunions go, here’s one that shouldn’t have happened, and here’s the exact reason Stephen Malkmus got it right. Robert Pollard has billed Let’s Go Eat The Factory as a reunion album, a new era straight from the old era, one that brings the ‘classic line-up’ back together like a doting indie commune. What it is in reality, however, is far from that beautiful hippy image: this is just another moment of self-indulgence from a man with too much of his own stuff going on in his life anyway, all of it music. This is an album that marginalizes its most exciting aspect, the return of Pollard’s long-time companion Tobin Sprout, and ignores the return of old friends Mitch Mitchell and Greg Demos entirely. This isn’t a reunion album anymore than tacking the name on with four different guys would be. Rather, it’s Pollard’s declaration that this band is, through it all, his own. And god, what a mistake that is.

Because you have to wonder what happened to tear apart Pollard and Sprout here, why exactly their connection has gone so wrong. It’s not a partnership anymore, and I guess that’s another thing on this long list of inevitabilities I don’t want to face. That’s all Guided By Voices really are on this record- a band of crappy lists, a competing arena for a Pollard counting wins off of songs. It’s a game only Uncle Bob is playing, of course, and whatever little flag of jangle-pop pride Sprout is proudly waving on Let’s Go Eat The Factory is burnt to a crisp by the misguided leadership of his friend the jock. It’s a record in which Pollard trades personalities with himself obsessively, back and forth between the days when he was obnoxious as hell- the award goes to any number of his solo records- and those where he was just plain tedious. Sprout will remember fewer of those days than the line-up that informed Pollard’s late GBV records, of course, and so with him having a firm grasp on one of the band’s records for the first time in years, he shows up his dull and blocky counterpart a hundred times over.

In fact, for ten tiny minutes, Sprout finds a way to kick the ass out of Let’s Go Eat The Factory. He still has a Peter Gabriel quality (which, fittingly, would make Pollard Phil Collins in this particular Greek tragedy) that gets him to making a track as creepy and nostalgia-manipulative as “Old Bones.” He can also still write the odd R.E.M. throwback track- the advantage here being that these are consequentially worthy GBV throwbacks- and so “Waves” propels ever forward like a sweet, twee moment amidst the joylessness of Robert Pollard’s falling over and getting up again. Those ten minutes are a welcome distraction, but they’re hampered regardless by the time Pollard spends on Let’s Go Eat The Factory stumbling over himself. He starts doing it literally enough by the time “Cyclone Utilities” has bumped by, but the dents in the road Pollard prides himself in are no longer the warped fantasies they were. I guess, really, it’s as simple as it not being 1993 anymore. “Go Rolling Home” and “The Room Taking Shape,” are typical GBV snippet songs, dedicated to using the hook once lest it be overused. It’s only that the hook doesn’t emerge for those thirty seconds, and as I get all clingy over indie rock for the umpteenth time, I just wish I could be moved by this.

As he stumbles from place to place thirty seconds at a time, I can’t help but feel Pollard is to blame for the devastating, non tear-jerker, non-anything of an album Let’s Go Eat The Factory ends up being. It looks into endless possibilities and takes twenty-one left turns in all, moving unexplained from eerie spoken word to dissonant piano play, and yet it plays out so predictable that Mitchell and Demos- surely innocent parties in all of this- are probably wondering when “Chicken Blows” is going to crack up the room. To be this predictable while moving with such stylistic abandon seems impossible. Hell, it was Guided By Voices who made it seem impossible in the first place; who could be boring with so much going on? On Let’s Go Eat The Factory, each stylistic move feels like a cheap gimmick, something Pollard would give over to an unexciting, unsurprising solo album. “The Big Hat and Toy Show” might sound like nothing else on Let’s Go Eat The Factory, but that does not make its inclusion worthy or daring. It makes the album feel like it was made in the dark with no understanding of how Bee Thousand got moody or how Alien Lanes embraced its flaws. Instead, the mood is uninterested and the flaw is shitty basslines.

I’m aware, of course, that Let’s Go Eat The Factory will be awesome and explainable to other GBV nerds, or if it isn’t- which is more likely- it won’t matter anyway. You can’t tarnish a legacy set in stone on its own merits (or in this band’s world, on quirks), a fact that Pollard has well enough proved without this record. I hated Space City Kicks, but it didn’t detract from my belief that Pollard is some brand of mad-scientist genius. And so all this might not speak with as much praise to Malkmus’ decision, because he might have fun with another Pavement record. That’s all Pollard is doing at the end of all this, even if it just seems like one ridiculous tease to the rest of us: to get the gang back together, to release your cult indie band’s first record in eight years, all of it for belly laughs aplenty. The LP comeback of Guided By Voices makes no difference, it won’t make any difference in the summer, and so it’s not on the scale of music’s biggest mistakes. It’s not a Metal Machine Music, but only because it’s too unremarkable. It’s not Chelsea Girl ruined by flutes, because Pollard wanted all those awful guitar noises. Here, instead, is a bad album not doomed to be one in history. It’s just a sludgy, grumpy record from a band who once knew pop music needed whimsy. Is it the classic line-up’s fault they aren’t all that classic anymore? Mainly, it’s just Pollard’s, Pollard with his grump on, stomping angrily on the status quo as Sprout outshines him in his ten minute segment. How dull, Bob. What a boring record, and what an indie mistake.

Guided By Voices – “Waves”

After a fifteen-year hiatus, the classic lineup of Guided By Voices (Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos and Kevin Fennell) finishes off its year-long reunion tour by releasing an album of 21 new songs, deliberately choosing to return to what bandleader Pollard calls the semi-collegial approach of iconic GBV albums like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. Let s Go Eat the Factory is much more than a mere return, however: sprawling, variegated, heavy, melodic, and yet still recognizably and coherently Guided By Voices in both its literal and mythic senses. At first I said: no reunion, period, explains Pollard about the decision to revive Guided By Voices. And definitely no record or re-formation. But the tour went so well; the response was really unexpected. I thought at some point that a lot of people would like to hear new GBV music. The chemistry was still there. Eschewing the recording studio, Let s Go Eat the Factory was instead manufactured in the living rooms, basements and garages of various longtime band members. Some tracks were recorded more-or-less live at Mitchell s garage, where the band would often practice back in the early- and mid-90s. These sessions comprised Mitchell, Robert and Jimmy Pollard (Bob s brother and long-time collaborator, who, though never a part of the touring ensemble, always played a crucial role on the classic-era releases). Some tracks were improvised over acoustic jam sessions at Demos s house. Many were recorded at Sprout s place in Wherever, Michigan, and later lovingly messed with in order to achieve the proper level of weirdness. Band members occasionally switched instruments, and Pollard gladly accepted input from other band members. Sprout wrote or co-wrote and sings on six of the 21 songs. The aesthetic is very much GBV, but in some unexpected ways (more prevalent use of keyboards and samples, for one thing) the 21st century can t help but poke its nose into the resulting music. Devoted fans of Bee Thousand will not be disappointed in, for instance, the demonically tuneful Chocolate Boy, or the relentless chug of We Won t Apologize for the Human Race, which Sprout describes as Peter Gabriel singing I Am the Walrus. Other standouts include Doughnut for a Snowman, which Pollard calls the goofiest, twinkliest song I ve ever written, or Spiderfighter, a Sprout number that was in fact the first song title conceived for the new album, and which features a piano coda that Pollard likens to a Pete Townshend demo for Lifehouse.
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Atlas Sound – Parallax

By , November 16, 2011 10:00 am

Atlas Sound – Parallax

4AD Records 2011

Rating: 6/10

Bradford Cox is more comfortable with the lights off. Parallax is proof of that; on the cover of Logos he was pictured faceless, but here he’s in the dark. It feels like a big statement to make- here is a man and his microphone, literally clutching to music- but it also seems like a resoundingly ambiguous one: is this image of Cox stepping out of the shadow, shedding the discomfort that’s put weight on songs like “Agoraphobia,” or is he hiding in it?

For all the ambiguity, Parallax feels like another hiding place. He circulates the happy piano notes of “Te Amo” as some whacky detour from the horrible conversation he is having with himself. Talk about misdirection: “you’re always down.” In a way, “Te Amo” is much like the angriest of Bob Dylan songs, a “Positively Fourth Street” or “Rolling Stone,” in how much of a contradiction it is. Like those songs, it’s practically glowing, the noises moving in a dreamy, euphoric sequence but the lyrics out of step, their delivery chilling and hell, even the distracting album artwork putting the lights out.

The fact that Cox can make a song like this is a testament to how intriguing his career is. Deerhunter could lend themselves Strokes comparisons and little else if it weren’t for the way Cox writes music as conflict. It’s hard to remember Halcyon Digest, a year on, in the way I thought of it then; thinking it was a ‘celebration’ sums up how easy it is to forget the depth in any of Cox’s Deerhunter songs, no matter how comfortable they feel as pop songs. “Coronado” was another one that glowed, but behind the slick sax solos there was a confused man of so many questions and so few answers. That’s the kind of thing that draws you in to the “catchy” Microcastle and Halcyon Digest- the little conflicts- and so how can we not be drawn into the dark spaces in Parallax?

And I certainly am drawn to Parallax. I find it impossible to stop coming back to “Te Amo” and its bittersweet flips of the coin, but at the same time I’m completely intrigued by how impossible Cox makes it to grasp at his intentions on “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs.” The difference, though, is split: “Te Amo” is a working pop song, but I’m not sure Cox wants that so much this time around. Logos had a melodic bent and exciting features that made every adoring indie fan giddy (Panda Bear, say no more), but Parallax is made in some sort of endless vacuum of nothing but Cox.

As a result, it might feel more like a proper album, and maybe even the “comfortable” album we’ve been waiting for Cox to make. But this is only an album in how impossible it is to appreciate out of its context. No “Angel is Broken,” no point in the comedown that follows it in “Terra Incognita.” As for the comfort Cox may have finally found in Parallax, he only finds it in the obscure, the impossible to describe, and the ever-moving. Parallax never stays in one place for too long, regardless of how pretty it remains throughout its entire run. There is no revealing the world behind “Praying Man” or “Parallax” in the same way “Coronado” revealed more than simply a pop genius. Instead, Parallax comes with its own set of intentions, and few of them feel for us.

And for that reason, that lack of inclusion, there’s no rating I can find to do Parallax justice. It feels like a wholly unique masterpiece in ways, perhaps because it is simply impossible to shut off- there’s no turning away from this aching, mysterious music, and even the most basic tracks feel justified by the ominous things happening around the corners. But coming off the open Halcyon Digest, Bradford Cox has turned sharply on his heels for a different type of honesty. And by no means think that because Cox obscures himself he must be disingenuous. That’s never been his problem. But Parallax, unrealised masterpiece or not, sounds like the man in his bedroom with a thousand songs to leave unexplained.

Atlas Sound – “Te Amo”

Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

By , November 1, 2011 10:00 am

Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

Parlophone 2011

Rating: 8/10

Mylo Xyloto is perfectly designed to blow up in your face. Eleven proper songs, all named after the biggest and the best, like landmarks tumbling side by side: holy lands, flames, princesses, waterfalls and uh, Charlie Brown? Each song hits some sort of ridiculous climactic hotspot that seemed impossible the second before it happened. Just listen to “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” the moment the drums kick in for real. It seems completely implausible that a song that started so big could become any bigger. It sounds like the exact Coldplay song that you want to get made over and over again, and for Mylo Xyloto, it finally gets made. It’s Coldplay at heart. Nothing strung together by flimsy concepts; no X axis and no Y axis, no violent Spanish conquests. It’s just huge.

In that sense, the record feels like “Fix You” eleven times, exploding from all sides. There’s something about that song that can easily hit at the gut, and it’s more about when that moment comes in than how, the organ-like sounds shuffling off stage for a climax made glorious by Will Champion’s drum-kit. On Mylo Xyloto, however, Coldplay don’t dedicate much time wondering when their songs will hit their glorious peaks, for this time they appear confidently boisterous, at large when they go in and larger when the drumbeat kicks. It’s a powerful thing, hearing a band this way, so it’s a moment such as “U.F.O.” that kills the record’s infinite momentum, putting a band that seems energized at all corners into a state of contemplation too reserved for the bright colours they’re splashing their graffiti with. Mylo Xyloto was not a record made by a subdued band, and so when this acoustic number creeps in- along with the restrictively controlled beats of “Up in Flames”- it feels like too much thought and not enough waterfall.

To hell with the contemplation; what makes this record so good is the complete abandonment of making Coldplay a leftfield band. Viva La Vida might have had us begging them to take us back- our very own Adam Downer complimented Coldplay for their ‘balls’, and later their guts- but Mylo Xyloto completely refuses the listener a moment alone with their brain in that way. There’s no time to be surprised by any experimental balls when “Hurts Like Heaven” strikes full force, no time to ponder where Eno weighs in on this one. Interludes aside, every song is designed to bash you over the head rather than to let you use it. Mylo Xyloto is a big, broad album, with songs founded on themes no less than the greatest conceivable. And who doesn’t fall for that Coldplay? I mean, it hurts like heaven? It’s us against the world? This is a Coldplay in their very own world. It’s huge and relentless, and they’re wrapped up in it.

It makes perfect sense, too, that they’re so wrapped up in it. Chris Martin can sing that every teardrop is a waterfall on any track he likes, and so when those lyrics come on “Paradise” for the first time, it doesn’t feel one bit phony. If anything, the lyrics flow; just as Arcade Fire could engross every song on The Suburbs in its theme- the same words for the same problems- Martin’s newest record (and first since his favourite band’s third) is a successfully didactic and direct body of work. The lyrical themes that circulate like a broken record on Mylo Xyloto may be the first poetic success of Martin’s; on any other Coldplay record, it might be hard to take a line like “you use your heart like a weapon / and it hurts like heaven” into the gut, but Mylo Xyloto isn’t trying to get under the surface. It’s just searching for the biggest reaction and the most fantastic feeling. Everything Martin says here, whether or not he says it over and over again, is justified by how every song on Mylo Xyloto pushes the same buttons. Every song aims to make a waterfall of a teardrop, so why can’t he say it over and over again?

It’s kind of great how at ease I find myself with a Coldplay that can be this repetitive and use the same trick a hundred times over. To hear Rihanna’s absolutely stunning performance on “Princess of China” isn’t a surprise because it simply bolsters the style Coldplay are playing with on this record. Her spot amplifies a song to heights it wasn’t already at, and that’s what Mylo Xyloto seeks in every move it makes forward. This is a Coldplay that wants to build and build to a point like “Fix You” over and over again, a Chris Martin who only cites influence in ideas as ambitious as graffiti and The Wire. The results don’t have to be the same as those things, and so it’s hard to get caught up in the trippy, colourful artwork that the record tries to reflect. Instead, we just bask in “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” a song splitting at the sides, huge from start to finish. “Turn the music up!” is Chris Martin’s command on Mylo Xyloto, and it’s probably the only lyric he’ll ever get us nodding to.

Coldplay – “Charlie Brown”

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

By , September 13, 2011 10:00 am

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

4AD 2011

Rating: 9/10

Since Annie Clark is such a one for contradictions, how about this one? Strange Mercy is, at the same time, her most shocking and most unsurprising record. I mean, it’s like she put the thing through a blender, but of course it’s like she put it through a blender. Who are we talking about? This is St. Vincent’s career, which has thus far has developed into a glowing success without daring adhere to the normal structure of indie pop. It’s much more sinister than that- Actor, as she put it herself, was influenced by fairy tales, but only in the wholly ***ed-up, completely backwards Hans Christian Andersen way that fairy tales get told. That’s what made “Black Rainbow” sound as if she was travelling the Yellow Brick Road backwards, arriving at the hurricane for her final scene. So yes, it’s shocking to hear her send the structure of a song a little awol, to watch as she twists a purdy scene into a terrifying one (“What Me Worry,” my goodness), but don’t tell me you aren’t waiting for Strange Mercy to hit that sludgy, disastrous moment.

I guess St. Vincent likes the little disasters as much as we do. I found myself doing a fair amount of eye-rolling the first time I played Strange Mercy, because you’re not waiting for long. In fact, Strange Mercy self-destructs within seconds; “Chloe In the Afternoon” is deliberately off-centre, its swampy guitar work giving more texture than melody (that’s a guitar?!) and Clark flat-out refusing to resolve her voice with the song’s rhythm, putting her words a literal second or two early, or maybe late. It’s hard to tell when the song ends sounding so completely whole. You can be just as well astonished by the same trick played on “Northern Lights,” where she pulls back the song, ready to thrust into full gear, for a kind of non-solo in which her guitar simply circulates a disgusting noise for a little while before releasing the song for a climax played straight. It’s one of those on-paper things, really: these little noises should be nothing more than plain ugly diversions from otherwise irresistible pop songs, but thrown into the middle of a song as simple as “Northern Lights,” doesn’t that sludgy patch sound sort of assured? It’s like a signature, that squiggly, atonal moment of nothing, whether it stands out as surreally as it does here, or whether it marks the heavy chorus of “Cheerleader.”

Even if Strange Mercy is like a blender with its top blown off, it’s undeniable how convincing St. Vincent has become. Actor was produced to be almost suffocating, and as a result had songs that felt compressed in sound and time. Her third record feels like an attempt to remould Actor with all the space in the world. It continues to merge together two atmospheres, one eerie and the other distinctly vintage, and as a result songs like “Surgeon” ooze with the confidence of a musician who knows her own game. The intro of “Surgeon” echoes Nancy Sinatra’s ‘60s Bond tune, “You Only Live Twice,” but is only there long enough for the song to become too warped for this pleasant nostalgia (“best find a surgeon / come cut me open”). It’s a testament to Clark’s songwriting skills how we are forced to note both of these atmospheres colliding.

For a record that’s so deliberately messy, it’s nice to note that Strange Mercy says that nothing’s so cut up it can’t be fixed. “Strange Mercy,” the record’s title track, is as scattered as the record itself, the drum beat a little out of the way, but it feels like one of the most sincere pieces of music in St. Vincent’s short career. It’s devoid of any theatrics and awarded more space than she has given to any other song, only indulging a climax for seconds where a lesser musician would need minutes. The song reaches, of course, the moment it has to reach- it has to be contradictory, as unsettling as it is beautiful- but I like to think there’s no line in Clark’s career that can be as brilliantly sweet as this one. “If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up / I don’t know what.” Not that it even ends up meaning anything, but it acts as a summation of what Strange Mercy is concerned with- both the shocking and the comforting, always at the same time, always nothing less than beautiful, even if things have to get a little ugly.

St. Vincent – “Cheerleader”

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