Category: Reviews

Bibio – Silver Wilkinson

By , May 28, 2013 12:00 pm


Bibio – Silver Wilkinson

Warp 2013

Rating: 9/10

The best time of my life was a summer in my teens. The house built for a family was for now just my dog and I and for a few weeks the only thing to worry about was getting to work and getting a tan. The heat was a furnace where the colors seemed at once sharper and more muted by a stillborn haze as thick as a blanket. Florida weather in the summertime is a wonderfully schizophrenic cycle that is nevertheless as predictable as mosquito bites: the mornings lurid and sweltering and the afternoons speckled by thunderstorms that would move in slowly and deceptively, then piss everything away for an hour or two and slouch out with the furtive backwards glance of a few squalls here and there as the sun set. I was in love, whether with the girl or the idea of it I never really figured out until much later, after it spoiled, but that summer was something special and deathless. I can remember the days by the few records I played over and over again, and that effortless recall is something I miss now, when I’m checking release schedules and streams and promotional singles and consuming, consuming, consuming. It’s the music that drags me back into nostalgia that stays with me the longest now, and either that’s just me getting old or getting cynical or both, but what I think it really is is just wanting to go back to a time when that old saw “soundtrack to your life” actually meant something. This is me diving into the pool every morning; that’s all stars and after-work cleanup; there’s the one from the backyard party, never again with the green apple Smirnoff. I’d like there to be a better reason for why I love Silver Wilkinson so much, but that’s really all there is to it – this is a record that doesn’t invite me back but pulls me along with it. It reminds me why I love summer (life).

Where 2011’s Mind Bokeh tried out its dancing shoes in a dozen different genres but never found one to go home with, Silver Wilkinson is a more streamlined yet enjoyably disparate record. It’s still difficult to classify Stephen Wilkinson’s work, but Silver Wilkinson and Bibio in general is less about genre spotting and more about the vibe, a corny way of saying listen to the goddamn tunes. That blurry mix of acoustic folk melodies and vaporous, analog synth work is still the trademark here, dreamy opener “The First Daffodils” as obvious an opening statement as you’ll see Bibio make. It’s a little bit Simon & Garfunkel and a little bit Boards of Canada, that eclecticism apparent in his influences and the song structures, which meander about on tendrils of glitchy keyboards and pastoral guitar, usually before returning to the sparse ambient beauty at the heart of all his work. There’s hints of the hip-hop lover in the choppy, thrusting “You” and it’s mood-perfect Commodores sample; of the pop culture curator on single “A Tout A L’Heure,” where retro synths rustle up against a psych-folk acoustic melody; of the experimentalist, on the shape-shifting “Look At Orion!,” which harkens back to Bibio’s earlier work before unleashing a far murkier electro beast. Even “Business Park,” the black sheep of the bunch, turns a ‘80s horror movie theme into something almost comforting by the end of its herky-jerky loops.

Mostly, though, I keep coming back to the moments, times when the space-age bedroom folk and clipped funk is just a vehicle to take me back where I want to go, when the somnolent beauty of “Dye the Water Green” decides to linger around the synths pooling around its melody or “Sycamore Silhouetting” kindly stretches out on the grass before getting up to groove to “You.” The ellipsis in “You Won’t Remember…” is almost superfluous on a track so beautifully, delicately pensive, the kind of faded photograph that is impossible to look at without bringing back a whole wealth of memories. “You won’t remember, but he wanted you,” Wilkinson sings on a track that is bare-bones Bibio, a lonely acoustic garnished with a faint brushstroke of a synth and an atmosphere that hangs heavy, foggy, enveloping without being oppressive. Like the rest of Silver Wilkinson, it reminds me of the past, the good and the bad, but that latter is strangely muted and the loss is not so much a dull ache but a familiar lesson: “This is you, more than you could know.” Whatever else I forget, at least Bibio was wrong on one point – the music I’ll always remember.

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Release date May 14, 2013.

She & Him – Volume 3

By , May 6, 2013 12:00 pm


She & Him – Volume 3

Merge Records 2013

Rating: 5/10

It’s hard to tell whether She & Him have moved past the point of novelty or remain tarnished by it. On the one hand, the group’s collection of records has had nary a “bad” song on it. Forgettable, at times? Yes. Uninspiring, at others? Almost certainly, but throughout Volume 1 and Volume 2 and now Volume 3 the pair have maintained a reliable pop professionalism that has occasionally created sparks of black-and-white brilliance, an unerring portrait of a time when “I could’ve been your girl / you could’ve been my four-leaf clover,” was all that was needed for one starry-eyed girl to tell the heartbreaker in his varsity jacket. Few artists have recreated (and, arguably, mastered) a specific sound as lovingly as She & Him. The playful pop instincts of the Beach Boys rub shoulders with the wistfulness of ‘60s girl groups; doo-wop meshes imperceptibly with Brill Building melodies and hints of Nancy Sinatra sass; sweeping Phil Spector symphonics unfurl like a velvety blanket next to carefree fingerpicking and aw-shucks guitar pop. At their best, She & Him transport you to somewhere else, where Zooey Deschanel isn’t a star and M. Ward is just the man behind the curtain, another in a long line of faceless studio hired hands. It’s a place where the magic is in the simplicity of the songs and the everyday romance they conjure, effortlessly and innocently. But, shit – a Christmas album? And now Volume 3, a record so tightly and painstakingly circumscribed by its period sounds and M. Ward’s polite production that it loses any mild sense of personality She & Him have managed to acquire in the past few years, just at a time when Deschanel should be staking her own artistic identity loudly and firmly.

Here, M. Ward indeed becomes that man behind the curtain, his signature blues touch only a faint whisper among the carefully manicured jazz inflections and retro indie pop tailor-made for a summer Sunday – preferably spent down at the local soda fountain. When things are spiced up, as on the faux-disco of “Together” or on the rumbling cover of Blondie’s “Sunday Girl,” it barely registers a notch above the rest of Volume 3’s flawlessly produced, entirely inoffensive sounds, lest Ward disturb the neighbors. Previous records reveled in these same sounds, true, yet they did it with some vigor, a certain punchiness and spice that kept them bouncing around in your head far longer than they rightfully should have. Volume 3 prefers to keep the focus on Deschanel, and while the melodies remain, they too often seem like just another part of the tapestry, not the selling point. Yet where Volume 3 might have been picked up accordingly by a more prominent performance by Deschanel, the singer remains just as suppressed by the strict adherence to this genre exercise as Ward. Deschanel has never had trouble sounding wounded, but her voice here rarely jumps out at you – she prefers to just play the role rather than live it. Even when she’s obviously having fun, as she does on the whimsical ��Sunday Girl” or the quintessential torch song (“Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me”), it inevitably feels rote, a certain tastefulness that is pretty and nostalgic, yet largely uninteresting.

It’s unclear whether this is a result of Ward’s unusually subdued production or Deschanel’s own limitations as a songwriter, but this is where She & Him’s self-imposed restraints tend to sabotage their artistic growth. Deschanel writes fine pop songs, but at this point, the tired ‘50s tropes and Grease-styled romantic calamities unfairly handicap her palette and diminish her talents. As a result, Volume 3 can’t flourish under the force of her considerable personality or Ward’s craftsmanship, because the latter has been deadened and the former is unwilling to break the illusion. Until one or the other makes a change, it seems doubtful that She & Him will ever become more than a particularly well-credentialed homage.

While I was going about my life recently, sipping fair-trade coffee, reading Yelp! reviews of the latest artisan food truck in my neighborhood and listening to the dulcet tones of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s latest, a tragedy befell my otherwise perfectly acceptable and entirely ordinary day. Horror of horrors, my speakers’ power supply failed. Forced to listen to the rest of Volume 3 on my laptop, a poorly treated device at best, I had an epiphany; perhaps this is how She & Him were always meant to be enjoyed. Tinny, occasionally distorted, as if I was hijacking an AM signal under my bed sheets while trying not to wake my parents, who very much believe in a young boy getting a good’s night rest.  Alas, this remains the biggest problem with She & Him, a band more than capable of writing a great tune that nevertheless has a hard time engaging in anything resembling forward progress: no matter how many steps they take, you’re almost always guaranteed to end up with them, at the end of it all, right where they started.

With fourteen songs 11 Deschanel originals and three covers Volume 3 is an effortlessly effervescent, bleached-in-the-sun pop record. The album features some of the most dynamic, complex songs Deschanel has ever written, allowing for tempo shifts, disco grooves, string arrangements on multiple tracks, and horn flourishes that perfectly suit the She & Him sound. Produced by M. Ward and recorded in LA, Portland, and New York City, Volume 3 features guest contributions from NRBQ's Joey Spampinato, Mike Watt, Tilly and the Wall, Pierre de Reeder from Rilo Kiley, and Tom Hagerman from Devotchka.
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Release date May 7, 2013.

Phoenix – Bankrupt!

By , April 24, 2013 12:00 pm


Phoenix – Bankrupt!

V2 Records 2013

Rating: 8/10

It’s a deep, dark secret of mine that when I first heard “Lisztomania,” the initial single off 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, I hated it. Where was the pounding hook of “Consolation Prizes,” the fearless anything-goes mentality of United? Now, I’m not proud of this – in retrospect, I don’t even know how it was possible, so viscerally thrilling follow-up “1901” is and how immediate the album as a whole feels to me now. But I came around to it; we all did, really, as Wolfgang’s sales and Phoenix’s headlining turn at this month’s Coachella confirmed. That album was the perfect summation of their love for ‘80s glam and a knack for crafting airy hooks, lightweight as confectioner’s sugar and twice as sweet. Yet in the context of their career, it wasn’t all that much different from what had come before, despite my earliest misplaced misgivings. That’s why Bankrupt! is such an interesting record – for the first time in their careers, Phoenix have something to prove. They don’t shy away from their new billing as arena rockers, but their sound is as deliriously uncool as ever – “Entertainment” bursts out of the gate with a truly massive chorus, a wall of synths that looks at Wolfgang’s spartan in comparison production and laughs. But its oriental motif is chintzy and hilariously cheesy, and in Thomas Mars’ triumphant climax is just one double-edged wish: “I’d rather be alone.”

In that respect, Bankrupt! is a textbook dealing-with-success record. There’s a lot of pensive melancholy among Mars’ typically adroit verbal gymnastics, disguised by the searing brightness of the music but still found out easily enough for those willing to parse through his often-cryptic lyrics. This dichotomy works out well enough – Mars likes to poke fun at himself for “Trying To Be Cool,” but there’s nothing affected here. The hooks come hard and fast and appropriately stadium-sized, and Mars sounds equally at ease lamenting the cultural elite on “Bourgeois” as he does exhorting a lover to “follow, follow me” on “The Real Thing.” That latter track is a revelation in how Phoenix sees itself these days, a slow and deliberate anthem whose pounding chorus is awash in gated reverb and hits with all the intensity of a jet engine. Phoenix are still more than happy to get down, but “The Real Thing” is a song for waving your lighters in the air, for expansive fields and stirring up big, old, dumb human emotion. There is nothing here as instantly gratifying as that first buzzsaw synth of “1901,” but let’s be honest here: will there ever be? What Bankrupt! prefers to do, however, is further explore the sleaziest corners of the ‘80s and pile on the layers, not delicately but with wild, reckless abandon. Oh, and keyboards. Lots and lots of keyboards.

If it sometimes seems that Bankrupt! is bursting at the seams, it’s because it is. A song like album highlight “SOS in Bel Air” has no less than three different hooks running rampant through its breathless structure, while “Trying To Be Cool” pokes fun at itself and the band with a breezy, gleaming bit of ‘80s trifle that is decidedly uncool for 2013 – and that’s before the R&B breakdown that ends things without a hint of embarrassment. At times, the overwhelming amount of things going on may lead Phoenix to sound like it has written a check their songwriting chops can’t cash. “Don’t” bounces from deranged uptempo electro-pop to half-time chilled-out jam before abruptly switching back with a bizarrely disconnected synth riff, giving the track a disjointed, awkward feel. The chaotic, chirping beat that propels “Drakkar Noir” puts the focus squarely on the lyrics, which are laughably obtuse, even by Phoenix’s enigmatic standards; for Mars, it’s often a perilously thin line between saying a lot and saying nothing at all. The title track, meanwhile, continues the band’s theme of placing at least one semi-instrumental track drawn out to anti-pop lengths on each album, but whereas 2009’s “Love Like A Sunset” and It’s Never Been Like That’s “North” showcased a fascinating look at a side of the band not typically on display, “Bankrupt” never really goes anywhere, instead content to float around ambient keys and a muddy bass drone. It’s an odd blip on a record that otherwise refuses to pussyfoot around the candied hooks at the bottom of every track.

So, yes, there’s a goddamn pan-flute solo on the otherwise delightfully murky “Chloroform,” and if “Trying To Be Cool” didn’t serve as an obvious signpost, the fact that they recorded Bankrupt! on an old console used for Michael Jackson’s Thriller should make it clear that neon-rimmed bombast and thick, baroque pop is the order of the day here. On a pound-for-pound basis, the songs here take more than one intuitive listen to gnaw their way deep into your brainstem than did the readymade hits of Wolfgang or It’s Never Been Like That. They are heavier, and denser, and overwhelmingly less instant than their predecessors, as cloaked and finely adorned in all manner of bright, shiny synths as they are, at times almost crushed under the weight of an ambitiously flamboyant band. But these are still Phoenix songs, and by the end of a dozen listens they are as urgent as ever: that whip-crack drum entry on “Oblique City;” the coke-tinged VIP frenzy of “SOS in Bel Air;” the exhaustion that seeps into Mars’ voice on “Chloroform” married to that syrupy bass swell, the band on an inevitable club comedown. “Would I long for you? Is it up to you?” Mars asks on that last track, and by the end of Bankrupt! I feel the same way, the way I’ve felt each time I’ve fallen in love with a new Phoenix record no matter what my initial thoughts might have been – is it really up to me?

The deluxe CD which features a bonus disc that has in total 71 demos & sketches. The bonus disc is be a full hour of extras.
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Release date April 23, 2013.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito

By , April 18, 2013 12:00 pm


Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito

Interscope 2013

Rating: 5/10

Well, it’s tough not to want to fall in love with Mosquito. Here is a record that is so defiantly its own beast that it proudly throws out a one-fingered salute to such concepts as “theme” or “direction.” The gist of Mosquito is that there is no gist. Yeah Yeah Yeahs have always been adept at changing their sound to accommodate the times; it’s why they’re still kicking around, headlining festivals and generally being a kickass rock band, while their early ‘00s NYC peers are gone or forgotten. Where 2009’s superb It’s Blitz! showed that the band could write a mean synth hook as well as Nick Zinner could up the fuzz, Mosquito delves even deeper into a sound that is increasingly divergent and, at times, barely recognizable as Yeah Yeah Yeahs. First single “Sacrilege” is a fine example, setting things off with a full blown gospel choir and a typically combustible performance by Karen O. The epic scope and superfluous backing is an odd tack, but it is in line with what the band has always been comfortable doing – pushing their boundaries while maintaining those sharp pop sensibilities. That anything-goes mentality is admirable, but where It’s Blitz! succeeded precisely because it was so focused, Mosquito dips its toes into far too many pools to ever have a chance to really stop and appreciate the feeling.

Somewhere in this jumbled mess of a record is a gem of an art-pop album, one where you can clearly see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs expounding on the eclectic promise that It’s Blitz! hinted at. The grotesque, reggae-tinged “Under The Earth;” the skittish breakbeat of “These Paths;” “Subway,” another in a long line of insta-classic Yeah Yeah Yeahs ballads; these are songs as thrilling and adventurous as anything the band has done before. Yet in the context of the rest of the album, these songs are oases of inspiration in a disjointed desert of half-baked ideas and uneven songwriting. It’s the aural equivalent of that bizarre cover, an amalgam of contrasting styles and thoughts that clash playfully and loudly against one another but rarely in concert. Songs like the title track and “Area 52” almost sound like parodies of the band’s punk past, more an after-school special or something you’d expect to find on a rarities compilation rather than standing by side with the haunting “These Paths” or the meditative heartache of “Subway.” Dr. Octagon’s (aka Kool Keith) guest spot on “Buried Alive” is even more bizarre, a textbook case of cognitive dissonance that is meant to be fun but is just embarrassing for all involved. In Mosquito’s jumbled mess, throwing up a guest rap verse in the middle of a James Murphy-produced song is par for the course, experimentation for the sake of experimentation and nothing more.

For a band that has prided itself on keeping things fresh, this sort of halfhearted progressive spirit is arguably worse than if the band had decided to just double down on “Zero.” At its best, Mosquito is exactly that fresh, exhilarating album that “Sacrilege” promised, lurking somewhere down past all the erratic genre exercises. It’s there when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs commit, either thematically (“These Paths,” “Subway”) or emotionally (“Wedding Song,” the latest in a long line of weepy, nakedly powerful stunners from the group). The problem is, in the chaotic world of Mosquito, commitment is hard to find; at its worst, the album is a caricature of the band’s frenetic live show, Karen O giving her all on a song about how mosquitos suck blood and giving us absolutely no reason to sing along. Luckily for fans of the group, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have had no problems in the past moving on to the next thing. Here’s hoping they spend a little time and decide how they want to get there first.

'We would love for this music to make our fans feeeeel something, for it to stir some sh*t up inside of them, whatever that may be,' says singer Karen O. 'SO much feeling went into this record, it was the rope ladder thrown down into the ditch for us to climb up and dust ourselves off. I hope others can climb up it too; we're excited to share the good vibes.'

The band, whose members were once lovingly labeled by Rolling Stone as the 'goth, the nerd and the slut' have recorded three studio albums: All 3 albums were nominated for a GRAMMY award for Best Alternative Music Album. The first, 'Fever to Tell', was named as the best album of the year by The New York Times. The Patrick Daughters-directed video 'Maps' was nominated for four MTV Video Music Awards. The certified-Gold album was named by Rolling Stone, Pitchfork Media, and NME as one of the best albums of the decade. The second, 'Show Your Bones', was named the second best album of the year by NME. Rolling Stone magazine named it the one of the best album of the year, while Spin Magazine ranked it in their 40 best albums of 2006. Their third studio album, 'It's Blitz!', was named the second best album of the year by NME magazine, It's Blitz! was named as the second best album of 2009 by Spin Magazine and third best of 2009 by NME along with the single 'Zero' from the album listed as the best track of the year by both. And onto 'Mosquito!'
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Release date April 16, 2013.

The Flaming Lips – The Terror

By , April 6, 2013 12:00 pm


The Flaming Lips – The Terror

Bella Union 2013

Rating: 8/10

At first glance, The Terror comforted me. That human figure, reposed peacefully (on a plain? a beach?) against a great blue beyond, the various hues of red and green and orange filling everything through with a vibrant sort of life, a comforting color scheme that was appropriately psychedelic and thus, appropriately Flaming Lips. Now, The Terror frightens me. The person seems no longer at rest but entranced by something in that deep, blank blue, something cold and merciless and eventual, and what he sits on looks less like anything steady and more like something eroded (a cliff? an abyss?), something on the verge of being bleached of all those fiery colors. I’m reminded of Danny Boyle’s sci-fi excursion Sunshine, a movie that ends with Cillian Murphy and company incinerated against a glorious backdrop of searing white. That’s what The Terror stirs in me now – some poor soul, unable to move, transfixed by the simple grandeur of whatever awaits them when the color tendrils off into the blue and held still and dumb by the emptiness of it all. The Terror is what happens when the Flaming Lips let that blue void take them.

The album’s general ethos is if the pop wonder of “Do You Realize” abruptly cut off after Wayne Coyne wails “do you realize, that everyone you know / someday will die” and devolves instead into a disorienting blur of stygian synths, krautrock rhythms and a bleakness that erases any hope of what may have come after. So, yeah, The Terror is dark. Opener “Look…The Sun Is Rising” is less a paean to a new day and more a warning sign, not fresh life but sweltering, feverish death. It’s the perfect mission statement for the record and an excellent bit of foreshadowing of what Coyne’s headspace looks like in the year 2013. The Lips have always had a bit of a reputation as guys who were just happy to be along for the ride, uniquely able to indulge their weirdest impulses (Pink Floyd cover album, Ke$ha collaborations, giant bubble balls, etc.) in a scene that increasingly looks nothing like them. Whether it was because of Steven Drozd’s relapse or Coyne’s publicized split with his partner of 25 years, the Lips have no interest in playing the role of friendly psychedelic ringleaders on The Terror. It’s an album impressively focused in its construction – melodies hidden beneath the weight of fuzzy melancholy and brooding noise, lurching, mechanical rhythms bubbling below the surface, rarely breaking the oppressive miasma that hangs over most everything here. Nothing fits the record’s theme as bluntly as album centerpiece “You Lust,” a threateningly long opus that meanders its way through minimal ‘80s analog to dystopian noise rock to an ambient outro that seems to exist only to challenge the listener to get through it. Bookended as it is by the spiraling rocket launches of noise in “Try To Explain” and the hypnotic, deep groove of the titular track, “You Lust” offers no more respite than you’ll find anywhere else in The Terror – indeed, it revels, maniacally at times, in the deep, interlocked machinery of its groove and the freeform mania the Lips lay over the top of it. Coyne will make sure you get the point, too; minutes after the last of “You Lust” has faded away, “The Terror” notes, grimly, “however long they love you / we are standing alone / the terror is in our heads.”

Where Embryonic flitted from sound to sound and idea to idea with plenty of exuberance but little patience, The Terror locks into its apocalyptic atmosphere and throws away the key. It’s their most cohesive record since Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and its eternally exhausted realizations and powerful, if demanding, passages confirm that the band is as tight and concentrated as they’ve ever been. No matter how occasionally discomforting a listen The Terror is, no matter how slowly it seems to trudge towards the desolate buzz and whirring guitar rotors of “Always There In Our Hearts” that closes things out, it remains a singular record, one that deals in death and hopelessness as adroitly as anything from The Soft Bulletin. Those who fell in love with the Flaming Lips’ playful side may not find much to enjoy initially, but the treasure lies in the discovery – of just how deep the roots of these songs reach, and how carefully they are seeded and interlaced, one on top of the other. Coyne may not find the meaning he is looking for by the album’s end; I think if there’s anything to take away from The Terror, it’s to not expect anything but what you find in yourself at the end of everything, to find the solace in the fact that “You Are Alone.” It’s a dark heart at the bottom of The Terror, and one that takes a while to reveal itself out of the crushing murk and poisonous pressure. But it’s still a heart.

The Terror was produced by the band s long-time collaborator Dave Fridmann and The Flaming Lips at Tarbox Road Studios. It is comprised of nine original compositions that reflect a darker-hued spectrum than previous works, along with a more inward-looking lyrical perspective than one might expect but then again, maybe not. It s up to you, the listener, to decide what it means to you.
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Release date April 16, 2013.

The Strokes – Comedown Machine

By , March 25, 2013 12:00 pm


The Strokes – Comedown Machine

RCA 2013

Rating: 6/10

It opens up like everything else in their career has – fully formed, cocksure, a raucous roar of feedback swelling out triumphantly over a field’s worth of screaming fans. The video tells a story in documentary form, bony-faced guitarist Nick Valensi smiling and giving the camera the finger before segueing into Julian Casablancas playing the brusque frontman (the carefully considered “how-do-I-look-like-I-haven’t-showered-in-days look paired with the classic sunglasses at night, etc.) and then cuts to a promotional poster: “Who The Hell Are The Strokes?” before Fabrizo Moretti bangs his kit and the VU meter rockets into the red. That’s what the Strokes have always been, all while looking effortless at it all. They were the New York City Rock Band, brazen and loud and unerringly confident, unerringly cool, five friends loving life and rock ‘n roll. Yet these images are from the past and this song (“All The Time”) is a mere retread from the present, the Strokes trying on a pair of stretched-out jeans from 2001 one more time in the hopes of seeing them fit. When Comedown Machine tries to recapture past glories is when it is at its worst.

Even if “All The Time” would have you believe otherwise, the Strokes know this is the end of an era. Comedown Machine is a good name for the record, as exhausted and self-aware as it sounds; it could also be called The Last Record We Have To Make For RCA, if you want to read into that tongue-in-cheek album art. The absolute lack of publicity; the silence regarding future touring plans; the leftover rifts from the contentious recording of Angles; the dubious claims that, unlike Angles, Comedown Machine was a rather comfortable affair (they even recorded together!) – it all points to a band nearing the end of a run, or at least gearing up for something completely different. Because make no mistake: Comedown Machine is definitely different. It is without a plan and without much of an aim, save for vague touchstones in ‘80s pop and new wave, a path tread much more smoothly by Casablancas’ prior solo work. In its anything-goes attitude and slapstick approach, however, the Strokes end up sounding more at ease than anything they’ve done since Is This It, when they came on the scene unencumbered by expectations and mounting skepticism.

“At ease” is not to be confused with “pleasant,” however. Angles’ freewheeling attitude towards songwriting is expanded on here with greater emphasis on disco and funk undertones. Coupled with the band’s “anything goes” attitude and a seemingly haphazard approach to sequencing, Comedown Machine offers unfortunate pairings like the retro “All The Time” and the jarring falsetto of a-ha accident “One Way Trigger,” or the narcotic buzz kill of “80’s Comedown Machine” with the ragged garage rock of “50/50.” The latter half of the record, in particular, blurs together into a number of agreeable songs that nevertheless seem more indebted to the work of bands that are themselves indebted to the Strokes (Phoenix, Neon Trees, Hot Hot Heat), ‘80s synths and rote disco-punk rhythms predominating even when Casablancas manages to break through the murky distortion that usually cocoons his voice with a surprisingly sturdy falsetto (“Chances”). It boils down to a record that is as directionless as the band itself now seems to be, trying out new ideas and recycling them with other ones as quickly as one track skips to the next.

When those ideas are given time to develop, however, is where the Strokes still show they know how to write a damn fine pop song. Opener “Tap Out” sounds like the Strokes filtered through Hot Chip’s brand of musical futurism, seductive and dexterous and with a brilliant bit of musical interplay that mines the increasingly funky spaces between Albert Hammond Jr.’s bass and those kinetic twin guitars. “Welcome To Japan,” meanwhile, takes one of the band’s more open, playful compositions and ratchets up the seedy, nonchalant cool at its undercurrent into an emotional catharsis that accomplishes the rare feat of making Casablancas sound like he cares. Nothing, however, sounds as detached from any concept of the Strokes as closer “Call It Fate, Call It Karma,” where the band takes a detour into some hushed Cuban bar in the ‘40s and reimagines Casablancas as a smoky lounge singer and the band as his shuffling, tuxedoed cohorts. It’s different and sexy, and in its quiet is a bit of desperation as well: “Can I stand in your light, just for awhile?” Casablancas asks before finally realizing, “I needed someone.” It’s arresting and a bit sad, too; the culmination of the Strokes trying out every new tool in an increasingly diverse bag of tricks but still coming out with a record insubstantial enough to be a eclectic demo tape for just another band yet unsure of what they want to be, a band still overshadowed by a light cast over a decade ago. That reality is a far cry from the polished badasses that created Is This It, and perhaps now that’s how it has to be. Maybe Casablancas’ realization at the end of “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” is as simple as it sounds – what him and the rest of the band need can no longer be fulfilled by the Strokes. 

The Strokes announce their highly anticipated fifth studio album Comedown Machine to be released on March 26th via RCA Records. "All The Time" will be the official first single off the new album.

The Strokes consist of Julian Casablancas (lead vocals), Nick Valensi (guitar), Albert Hammond, Jr. (guitar), Nikolai Fraiture (bass) and Fabrizio Moretti (drums). The band has released four studio albums, Is This it (2001), Room on Fire (2003), First Impressions of Earth (2006) and Angles (2011) which have sold over 5 million albums worldwide. The band has headlined major festivals in the United States and UK, including the Isle of Wight Festival, Lollapalooza, Hurricane Festival, Splendour In The Grass, Rockness, Outside Lands, and Austin City Limits as well as sold out New York City's Madison Square Garden.
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Shout Out Louds – Optica

By , February 27, 2013 12:00 pm


Shout Out Louds – Optica

Merge Records 2013

Rating: 6/10

Our late, great Robin Smith called Our Ill Wills “a collection of songs that captured whatever they wanted to capture in their fleeting minutes,” an album “sung delicately and beautifully” and “a sugar hit even at its saddest,” and that’s about as compelling a summary of Shout Out Louds’ wistful, sunset-streaked romanticism as I could ever hope to muster. Smith called them cute and irrelevant, too, but mixed messages aside, Our Ill Wills was a highpoint for Swedish indie pop, for a genre and culture that dominated the blogosphere back when getting a song on an iPod commercial meant something. The craftsmanship and melodicism that made Shout Out Louds the Great Northern Hope has never really abandoned them, but the emotional nakedness that singer Adam Olenius used to drag us through the dirt with him appeared to be left out in the cold after “Hard Rain” ended with thunder in 2007. That’s a shame, too – their last effort, Work, was a pristine, efficient model of indie pop, sparkling in its harmonies and immediate in its hooks but with a production that was cold to the touch. It was the wrong kind of icy northern beauty.

Shout Out Louds’ core aesthetic has always been wrapping up the heartbreak and the grief and the nostalgia, all those pesky human frailties, around a wonderfully warm tapestry of bright, impeccably produced pop. It helps that Olenius yips like the Swedish Robert Smith, but the weight of the world – or the weight of the collective critical shrug that greeted Work – has had its effect. That spirited yelp is more controlled and conversational, a happy voice only on its face but still game; the lilting, Shins-y “Sugar” and the measured disco-rock of “Illusions” start Optica off on the right clog. Even when Olenius is little more than a withdrawn mumble on “Glasgow,” the band’s golden ear for production pays off, bringing in the lovely Bebban Stenborg for some backing vocals that shoots the melancholia through with a vibrant bit of whimsy. Despite doubling down on an electronic sound that pays homage to New Order and washed-out ‘80s dance, Optica feels more lived-in than its uber-professional predecessor, earnest and inviting despite the voluminous, cold soundscapes it inhabits. Glacial first single “Blue Ice” has no right to sound as interesting as it is – a warmed over midtempo ballad, one of many that swoon along to expansive synths and indulge in lyrics cribbed from your high school’s worst closeted romantic – but that lush production is a cosmic joy, painted in the same glorious Technicolor swathes the band’s video for it evokes.

The choruses are huge, the production immaculate, the vocal performances an adequately torn mix of regret and heartbreak and sugary climaxes, yet Optica never really latches on in any meaningful way. The closest it comes is when dissonance threatens to break through and rip that carefully woven tapestry just a little. Stenborg’s brisk turn on the creepy “Hermila,” the hot-blooded “14th of July,” and the antagonistic guitar squawks and discordant synths that twist through closer “Destroy” like the ghost in the machine all stand out mainly because they demand the facade let its guard down for a second, to let those emotional cracks reveal themselves in more than just the lyrics. It’s a paradoxical situation for Shout Out Louds – the better they’ve gotten at refining their craft, at writing the perfect chorus and combining them seamlessly with organic, vivid sonics, the further away they’ve gotten from the wounded empathy that drove their earlier records. At least ice burns. Optica too often feels like nothing at all.

Shout Out Louds took their time with these songs, recording for about 1.5 years in a small Stockholm studio and producing themselves for the first time with help from Johannes Berglund. A theme emerged and Optica was born, an album celebrating color and light from a band confident in its sound.
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Widowspeak – Almanac

By , February 12, 2013 12:00 pm


Widowspeak – Almanac

Captured Tracks 2013

Rating: 8/10

Widowspeak specializes in a sort of burnt-hued Americana, a nostalgic blend of singer Molly Hamilton’s ethereal heroin-chic aesthetic and the dusty, widescreen guitar-rock courtesy of bandmate Robert Earl Thomas she delicately navigates. For two people, Widowspeak makes an awful lot of noise: guitars whip-cracking smartly along skeletal melodic lines, robust, rattling percussion, a cloud of reverb that seems to have been transplanted straight from Jim James’ silo. Their old homes in Washington never seem too far away, licks and harmonics obscured by the damp and the foggy, a sense of green filling everything up with crackling vitality. It’s curiously obscured provincial music, whether that’s by Hamilton’s melancholy vocals, always seeming to sigh along rather than push forward, or Thomas’s hazy instrumental work, muscular riffs, dyed-in-the-wool rock and chunky blues filtered through a Jesus and Mary Chain-worthy level of fuzz. “I’m afraid that nothing lasts, nothing lasts long enough,” Hamilton moans on opener “Perennials,” a song that belies that sentiment with buildup that seems to revel in its own deathless sounds, the hints of Fleetwood Mac and that thunderous roar that Thomas builds up carefully, cacophonously. Almanac is a more appropriate title than it first appears.

The classic rock influence is more obvious on certain tracks – “Dyed in the Wool,” “The Dark Age,” and “Devil’s Know” all revolve around particularly striking riffs, bluesy and appropriately country-fried – but where Almanac distinguishes Widowspeak not only from its influences but from its own fairly rote past is how it comes across as uncommonly of its own time. Not 2013, really, but something lost and remembered, like how the sinister accordion and echoed halls of “Thick as Thieves” may have you relieving an old Ray Bradbury story. It’s a unique feeling that is achieved through how authentic everything sounds – that aforementioned accordion, the AM fade of campfire sing-along “Minnewaska,” the paranoid psychedelic dissonance and threatening Deerhunter-esque hum of “Storm King” – as well as how Widowspeak distinguishes itself with the attention to detail, to mood and tone, to managing a sound so beautifully out of focus as Almanac is. It’s a wonderful trick that culminates in album centerpiece “Ballad of the Golden Hour,” a runaway train of a track that escalates from an insistent acoustic strum into a watercolor of intertwining steel guitar and Hamilton’s wistful vocals. It’s a lovely, urgent representation of rustic Americana before the chorus, which then proceeds to turn that deceptive guitar motif into something dark and dangerous and desperately urgent, transforming Hamilton’s smoky declaration of “we can never, stay forever” from a lovesick entreaty to a forlorn warning. It’s a song that has its tracks in many different eras and sounds, each as timeless as the next, but never fails to leave an impact that is indelibly its own. Widowspeak’s greatest accomplishment is maintaining that same sense of simmering, uncertain wonder over the course of one wonderfully blurry album.

Widowspeak is an American band comprised of Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas, known for its dreamy, western-tinged take on rock and roll. Their self-titled debut was praised for its reverential spaciousness, Hamilton's haunting voice, and Thomas's sinister Morricone-esque guitar lines. On their second album, Almanac, the duo explores denser arrangements and new sonic territory, from Saharan rhythms to Appalachian-inspired melodies, all delivered with stoic, wistful restraint.
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Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob

By , February 4, 2013 12:00 pm


Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob

Warner Bros. 2013

Rating: 7/10

At the heart of it all – the cheesy, shimmery synths, dolled up with a glorious major-label sheen, the dance-floor bass wallops, the nostalgic grooves that call to mind bad movies and worse outfits – Heartthrob is still the same old Tegan and Sara fans have always known. The touchstones are now more Breakfast Club and Madonna than power chords and Metric, the production slicker, shinier, the cover a colorful, stylized wallpaper than an ominous tome or a blood-red rose, yet there they are on opener “Closer,” still dreaming of “how to get you underneath me.” There’s no way around it: Heartthrob finds Tegan and Sara finally bowing down at the altar of pop that they had been paying occasional respects to ever since So Jealous, yet those hooky melodies and incandescent synths only serve to cleverly disguise those exposed emotions, sharp lyrics and distinct, powerful voices. Heartthrob still bites as incisively, forgives as breathlessly as the Tegan and Sara of old, and that’s a wonderful realization after the culture shock of hearing the twins translated through producer Greg Kurstin’s (the Bird and the Bee) arena-geared sound. The drums here punch along fearlessly, robotically, while the synths paint things in day-glo colors and with fluorescent clarity, and signposts generally not associated with the sisters’ punk reputation – Pink, Robyn, Cyndi Lauper, et. al. – show up with increasing regularity. Yet where this carefully manicured sound can sometimes come off as prepackaged, Tegan and Sara present an interesting dichotomy between the glossy production Kurstin serves up and the strong emotional content the duo’s lyrics and vocal performances reveal. It makes Heartthrob a fine example of what pop music can accomplish when one doesn’t lose sight of the feelings that led to it.

Not to say that Kurstin’s work here is mere window dressing for Tegan and Sara’s typically adroit observations. “Drove Me Wild” is a vintage new-wave hit that very well may be the finest pop song of 2013, the kind of unassuming hook that burrows around and refuses to leave your head, “Back In Your Head” with those fantastically sleazy synths replacing that insistent keyboard line. “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” pairs a herky-jerky rhythm with a straightforward chorus as plain and simple in its pop ambitions as the venomous lyrics that propel it angrily forward. The best songs are those that combine Kurstin’s direct, anthemic style with Tegan and Sara’s unhinged emotion and insistent vocal melodies, be in it the manic, thrilling chorus of “Closer” or the defiant, bleak synth-pop kiss-off “Shock to Your System,” which closes out Heartthrob in suitably dramatic fashion. Even when the album crosses the line from glamorous to tawdry, as on the big-hair-and-leg-warmers nightmare of “I Was A Fool,” Tegan and Sara never sound like they are running through the motions. Heartthrob doesn’t intend to shack up with the electro-pop fad for a quick cash-in, but instead transforms their sound wholesale into something that sounds like a natural evolution.

Occasionally, the bright lights and mammoth, sparkling sounds detract from the flow of the record, a ceaseless dance party broken up only by tempo shifts. It’s a blueprint that comes off as more than a little uniform, especially in regards to some of the band’s loopier records (2007’s The Con comes to mind). Indeed, Heartthrob nears exhaustion by the time the one-two depressive punch of “Now I’m All Messed Up” and “Shock to Your System” close things up, a regretful hangover to a torrid night of affairs. Yet songs as pristinely produced and playfully constructed as “Now I’m All Messed Up” and “I’m Not A Hero” are not usually this immediate, this visceral; painfully detailed recreations of romantic entanglements gone right and wrong, often as quick one way as the other. For all its narrow musical sensibilities, Heartthrob never marginalizes its heart. “I’ve never walked a party line / doesn’t mean that I was never afraid / I’m not your hero / but that doesn’t mean we’re not one in the same,” the sisters sing, and it’s as telling a line about their musical ethos as it is a satisfying statement about their own identities. As crushing as some of these songs are, Heartthrob never lets you feel the weight, but prefers to revel in emotions good or bad, most often while sweating everything out under a crystalline disco ball. You can’t ask much more from pop music than that.

Heartthrob, the highly anticipated follow-up to Sainthood, gives us Tegan and Sara in their superhero tights and capes, ready to conquer the pop universe, and the new outfits suit them just as well as their old-school jeans and T-shirts.
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Ra Ra Riot – Beta Love

By , January 26, 2013 12:00 pm


Ra Ra Riot – Beta Love

Arts & Crafts 2013

Rating: 4/10

Clichés suck, but damn if Beta Love doesn’t qualify for the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage. Beta Love itself is sort of a cliché as it is, its music resembling the same kind of rote, brain-dead saying that is force-fed you throughout life at moments that might make you think the dystopian world of Office Space isn’t too far away. The drudgery here isn’t so much a case-of-the-Mondays as a pungent whiff of desperation, a band turning to a genre long since strip-mined to recover some intangible sense of relevance. 2010’s underrated The Orchard was largely ignored by critics and the same fickle public that had made them a buzzworthy group in 2008 and slapped them with a label as crafty and complex as “Vampire Weekend with strings,” yet at least it had soul and feeling, two things that are largely lacking from the mechanical Beta Love. Perhaps the departure of both cellist Alexandra Lawn and drummer Gabe Duquette (the secret ingredient to The Orchard’s success) and various touring struggles necessitated a change, but for much of its running length Beta Love sounds like a half-baked experiment, all knob-fiddling and jagged programming, candied indie-disco hooks that sound tinny and tapped out. It’s not for lack of commitment – Beta Love doubles down hard on an electro-pop sound that comes off as a strong advocate of cheesy ‘80s pop tropes and beating an innocent drum machine to death. Rather, it’s such an abrupt left turn for the band that, for all of its relentlessly chipper four-on-the-floor ecstasy and an ADD ethos that is almost Euro in its manic intensity, it sounds like a fake-out, a grinning rictus for the cameras and the blogs.

The songwriting is still there, thankfully. Hooks like that on “Binary Mind” and the jittery “Angel Please” bounce out of the speakers and seem to embed themselves in your spine, closely approximating certain party favors these restless tunes seem determined to emulate. The guitar solo that stutters through the feedback and rips itself up before resounding into something resembling a pleasant surprise on “That Much” is just the kind of 8-bit titty-twisting that would have been nice to see the band develop further. Instead, however, the hooks tend to come in one of two flavors, be it the propulsive, ready-made dance-floor hit (the aforementioned “Binary Mind” and the skittish “I Shut Off” are probably the best of these, hectic and unhinged energy that is fun in the moment) or relatively midtempo synth-pop (presumably standing in for what would be ballads on another record). Wes Miles, possessor of one of the finer voices in indie rock, races from one end of the scale to another, alternating campy, fun performances like “Angel Please” with octave-stretching reaches like “Beta Love,” with his voice occasionally approaching an absurd, almost pixie-ish quality. Violinist Rebecca Zeller soldiers on with Lawn gone, yet the splicing in of her parts sound like the hurried addition of a frantic producer or the kind of chintzy effect a regular four-piece might cook up, because, you know, strings and shit. It’s a far cry from the organic textures of the band’s past work, where Zeller and Lawn were no less an essential part of the mix than the guitar and drums. The lyrics, reportedly drawing inspiration from “the works of cyberpunk novelist William Gibson and futurist Ray Kurzweil’s musings on technological singularity and transhumanism,” are just as freshman English as you’d expect, groping for a message while everything else on Beta Love is merely content to just shake its ass.

It’s a disconcerting tonal shift, one that gets lost in its own medium as much as it garbles the message it’s ostensibly trying to make. The songs are still there, those hooks hard to resist, a strong pop foundation that is hard to crack despite the trashy synths reaching critical mass here. Yet it lacks the heart that made The Orchard such a rewarding listen, and with its tacky electro-pop sound may lead them to becoming more indistinguishable than they might have been accused of being before. The result is an unfortunately hollow album, recycled in its sound and empty in its emotion.

Beta Love marks Ra Ra Riot's first outing as a four-piece. Inspired by their lean new lineup (with Wes Miles on vocals, Milo Bonacci on guitar, Mathieu Santos on bass and Rebecca Zeller on violin), the recording process found the band members expanding and re-defining their roles within the new makeup of the group. They built upon demos created mostly by Miles and producer Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello, Wavves) at Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, MS. Joined by session drummer Josh Freese (Devo, Nine Inch Nails, Weezer) the band enjoyed exploring its potential, experimenting with new influences and exciting sounds.
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Yo La Tengo – Fade

By , January 17, 2013 12:00 pm


Yo La Tengo – Fade

Matador 2013

Rating: 8/10

There’s a great line in the tragically defunct Starz! comedy series Party Down, when the cast of catering irregulars is working the funeral for a well-respected businessman and receive some matronly advice about love from the man’s widow. In the best Aged-African-American-Fount-of-Wisdom tradition (cue Spike Lee howling), the lady warns: “Forget fireworks, you don’t want something that blows all bright then fades. You know what love is? It’s a crockpot—not flashy, not exciting—but cooks at a low heat—day in and day out, and won’t fade. I’m guessing your girlfriend has got herself a crockpot.” Unfortunately, this lesson is promptly turned on its head when it’s revealed that the marriage was an open one, but the point remains—one articulated ever so conveniently by Fade, Yo La Tengo’s thirteenth full-length album over a career (and marriage!) spanning over a quarter of a century and displaying an almost unfair sense of creative stability and consistency that has led to quasi-demeaning terms like “the quintessential critic’s band.” Also, Adam Scott probably listens to a lot of Yo La Tengo.

The Hoboken trio (husband/wife duo Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan and bass player James McNew) has long moved past reliable territory and is now well into the foundational, revealing an album simple and immediate in its concepts yet gorgeously honed by experience. Fade is content to settle in on a quiet, pop-inflected sound that the group has been moving towards ever since the early ‘90s, with the nearest musical landmark being 2003’s hushed, vastly underrated Summer Sun. Their more recent albums have seen the band opening up to a wider palette than longtime fans might be comfortable with—chamber pop strings and bluesy templates sprinkled here and there amidst the ten-minute-plus noise jams—but on Fade, the subtle dips into Motown or surf rock or ‘60s soul are natural outgrowths of a Yo La Tengo sound that already feels classic. Playing spot the influence is tempting, but at this point Yo La Tengo are the influence, mixing and matching Electr-O-Pura’s spindly guitar textures with Popular Songs’ crisp chamber-pop production and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out’s meditative, crackling atmospherics. And that’s just on “Stupid Things.”

Despite being bookended by two six-minute-and-change pieces, Fade clocks in at just a shade over forty-five minutes, an unusually concise turn for the band and a testament to new producer John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea and the Cake), who is only the second producer the band has worked with since 1993(!). He brings an affinity for additional orchestration—most notably the lovely, somber horn work on “Cornelia and Jane” and the increasingly complex layers of instrumentation, particularly the perfect saxophone, that runs through “Before We Run”—that provides a nice segue with the band’s work on 2009’s Popular Songs, providing embellishments that enhance rather than detract from the band’s fundamentally wistful, melodically rich aesthetic. Yet McEntire’s hand is a light one, more content to sharpen the edges of the band’s core sound than to hack away at anything wholesale. Take album lead-off “Ohm,” for example, a song so stereotypically Yo La Tengo—distortion pedals, buzz-saw, squealing guitars, fuzzy empty space and oddball percussion, Kaplan sounding almost preternaturally calm amidst the chaos, etc.—that it’s almost too easy to appreciate what the band is doing here, to wave it off as a band reveling in what makes them comfortable. What it actually is, of course, is a group making one of the best songs of their careers, nearly thirty years into said career, out of the same building blocks they’ve always done, drawing that chugging rhythm out almost hypnotically, propelling a pristine pop melody through a cyclone of wonderfully grimy noise, a groove with its feet firmly planted in Velvets-esque noise and sunwashed ‘60s pop. “Ohm” is the same old Yo La Tengo that has gotten the band and its fans this far, but tighter, settled, (and I’d never thought this was possible), more unerringly confident.

Fade is not an exciting record on its face, but finds itself in the emotional peaks that surface hazily here and there, through colorful production and exquisite songwriting: in the gradual uplifting and bubbly guitar tones of “Well You Better;” the sleepy romance of Hubley’s “Cornelia and Jane” washing out into the drowsy drum-machine driftwood of “Two Trains;” the softly triumphant horn arrangements of “Before We Run;” the pleasant feeling engendered by a soft collection of tracks coalescing together flawlessly, cohesively, into one languid, dazzling whole. The thrill is in those parts coming together so effortlessly and fluidly, bits and pieces of a brilliant past resurfacing in a present and future increasingly detailed and unique in its own voice, where the songs get better and the messages clearer the more time you spend with it. Kind of like a marriage, actually. Or, you know, a crockpot.

Fade is the most direct, personal and cohesive album of Yo La Tengo's career to date. Recorded with John McEntire at Soma Studios in Chicago, it recalls the sonic innovation and lush cohesion of career high points like 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and 2000's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. The album is a tapestry of fine melody and elegant noise, rhythmic shadowplay and shy-eyed orchestral beauty, songfulness and experimentation.
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…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Lost Songs

By , October 24, 2012 10:00 am

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Lost Songs

Richter Scale 2012

Rating: 8/10

It’s really a magnificent feeling when things just come together, when everything runs smoothly and without complications. When things just go right. For alternative pariahs …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, the past decade since 2002’s seminal Source Tags & Codes has been one long question mark, a series of stops and starts and things generally not going all that right that has been as frustrating as it has been occasionally inspiring (see: ex-guitarist Kevin Allen destroying thousands of dollars worth of electronics after losing at Guitar Hero in an Austin, TX bar). Albums like So Divided and The Century of Self were the aural equivalents of watching a movie with your friends that you’ve seen before and have hyped up as endlessly funny, like, the comedy of the year, man, and then for the next hour and a half you keep glancing sideways at them across the couch, waiting for a laugh, any laugh, hell even a smile would be nice, and before you know it the movie is over and your credibility is shot. Tao of the Dead was a nice progression, something with a purpose, but even as it went where it wanted to go without flying (too far) off the rails it was still trapped in that prog-rock dick-measuring contest the band has seemed trapped in for years, the kind that leads to 16-minute-plus songs the band calls “suites” without an ounce of self-consciousness. It’s a welcome respite, then, to see Trail of Dead take that focus and file it down to a sharp, angry blast of guitar-centric rock, with barely a song over five minutes in sight.

There’s no convoluted intro here, no self-referential Mayan death-chants or sweeping orchestral arrangements. The closest they get is the skittering jabs of guitar and foreboding phaser swell of “Open Doors” and a click-clack drum rhythm that sets the tribal pattern for much of the record. Then they fire up that guitar riff and everything, all the overwhelming production and space-age mysticism and the extraneous shit that cluttered up everything before is laid bare and with it comes a piercing clarity, that all this band needs to do is turn those guitars up to eleven and go forth. “Open Doors” is the most straightforward, brutal song the band has recorded since “It Was There That I Saw You” bloodied the opening of Source Tags & Codes. It’s compelling and cathartic in a way much of the band’s material has only pretended to be, cycling up through its verse and chorus higher and louder with a mindless simplicity that is shocking in all the right ways. Then comes “Pinhole Cameras,” and instead of an interlude there’s a thunderous four-bar intro and then the idling guitars rev up, the drum pattern goes into double-time and we’re off once again.

Lost Songs is likely the band’s harshest work since 1999’s Madonna, and while it doesn’t have the kind of epic interlocking parts that made Source Tag & Codes an art-rock classic, it seems like a renewed start for bandleaders Conrad Keely and Jason Reece. Keely has said in interviews that this album was inspired by real world events and, in a callback to their punk roots, is the band’s attempt to draw more attention to these issues. Obvious case in point, first single “Up To Infinity,” criticizes the Syrian civil war in stark, black-and-white terms alongside a classic Trail of Dead structure, building up the song only to break it back down via a scorching guitar riff, mangled by feedback and pissed off screams. Keely’s very “cynical indie musician” politicizing can tend to grate; the problem with lyrical sermonizing, especially with a band as heart-on-their-sleeve as Trail of Dead, is the potential to sound at turns uncomfortably blustery (“Catatonic”) and at others hopelessly clumsy (“Flower Card Games”). But the motivation is commendable, and succeeds in making Lost Songs an urgent, flammable piece of post-hardcore. Standout track “Opera Obscura” is a fine example of refining the band’s strengths while excising all the bloat that tended to find its way around Trail of Dead songs in the recent past. Reece’s frenetic drumming lays the groundwork for an ominous chainsaw of a riff that ratchets its way into the mix with a single-minded ferocity before Keely’s primal howl lets it all fade back to those solitary, syncopated drums again. The riff starts up again, louder and wilder, and when that guitar finally peters out like an overtaxed engine after a dizzying ride, it’s a bit of a surprise to find that less than four minutes have passed.

If there are nits to be picked, it’s with Lost Songs’ almost unwavering determination to pummel you into submission with its single-minded brand of relentless, wall-of-sound songwriting, a singularly passionate yet occasionally destructive approach. It’s something that starts to rub one raw right around the time Reece is screaming himself ragged on “A Place To Rest” (which, in a nod to their prog side, seem to be about Game of Thrones), and while “Catatonic” stands out for its sheer energy and that ascendant guitar solo, the second half of the album tends to bleed together, one vicious riff and thudding tom after another. The title track and closing song “Time And Again” are the only songs here that let up on the pedal even a bit, and both beg to be developed more than their short run times allow. That latter song, in particular, is just as affecting and emotionally honest a song as any the band has written, its geniality all the more surprising given the debilitating beatdown administered over the previous eleven tracks, but its frothy fingerpicking melody, a pleasantly surprising ostinato in treble, and that convivial bass line end far too soon.

The thing is, Lost Songs isn’t anything the band hasn’t successfully pulled off before, and many would say better. There’s something to be said, however, for Keely and Reece taking the passion that has always been there, perhaps hidden under segues and themes and suites, and placing it unapologetically front and center. Lost Songs is brash sincere, a caterwauling beast of chunky guitar chords and drums that never give you a chance to breathe, and in its best moments is as fiery and hot-blooded and rousing as anything off those earlier albums fans are always pining for. Perhaps it’s not yet a complete return, but Trail of Dead sound anything but lost.

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