Two Gallants – Ride Away

By , November 8, 2012 10:00 am

San Francisco lo-fi duo Two Gallants have been cruising along just fine with their brand of punk-tinged folk-rock, releasing three excellent albums on indie mainstay Saddle Creek before relocating to ATO Records for album number 4, the recently-released The Bloom and the Blight. A track like “Ride Away” is a fine example of the pair’s overall aesthetic, running Adam Stephen’s guitar ragged and highlighting his throaty, powerful vocals and Tyson Vogel’s pounding drums. The apocalyptic imagery and general dusty, campfire tone imbue everything here, planting Two Gallants and The Bloom and the Blight firmly in Americana territory with an outlaw bite. 

Two Gallants – “Ride Away”

Andrew Bird – “Orpheo”

By , November 2, 2012 10:00 am

After March’s superb release Break It Yourself, one would have expected Chicago multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird to take it easy on the road for the remainder of the year, enjoying the success of the best album of his career. Instead, he just popped out another album, a so-called “companion piece” to Break It Yourself’s textured folk and fingerpicking goodness. Hands of Glory is more innately country, the rugged, sepia-tinged mirror image of Break It Yourself and one that is as effortlessly authentic as all of Bird’s discography. “Orpheo” is perhaps the best representation of Hands of Glory’s aim, a reworking of Break It Yourself’s majestic “Orpheo Looks Back” to a more rustic, contemplative acoustic shuffle. It’s lovely.

Andrew Bird – “Orpheo”

…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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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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A Fine Frenzy – Sailingsong

By , October 17, 2012 10:00 am

Alison Sudol aka A Fine Frenzy has changed in her red locks for blonde ones, and with that comes a third album that is far more ambitious than anything the singer-songwriter has ever attempted. Pines is an imposing record, coming in at over an hour and ostensibly an overarching story where each song leads into the other, like “chapter[s] that lead into the next,” as Sudol herself described it. It also comes with a companion book and a short animated film, and although I don’t know how Pines works with those, I can confirm that the album lives up to its grand concept, more contemplative and folky than her previous works. Whether its the strong thematic threads or just a greater focus, Pines is definitely her most engaging work. “Sailingsong” is the catchiest thing here, a welcome up tempo burst that pops up optimistically at the midpoint of the record.

A Fine Frenzy – “Sailingsong”

A.C. Newman – Shut Down the Streets

By , October 16, 2012 10:00 am

A.C. Newman – Shut Down the Streets

Matador 2012

Rating: 7/10

At this point, it’s hard for Carl Newman to defy the expectations automatically placed upon any album bearing his name. There are the two albums with Zumpano, a ‘90s power-pop outfit (see: Sloan, also of the Great White North, who did it better). The five eerily consistent albums with the New Pornographers, a Canadian power-pop “supergroup” who reasonably could only fall under that term if you were a fervent follower of obscure ‘90s indie acts or in tune with mildly popular transplanted alt-country singers. Now, with Shut Down the Streets, three albums of sparkling solo work, releases that tend to weigh heavily on the side of (surprise!) power-pop, while leaning ever so slightly towards the ‘70s singer-songwriter tropes that Newman has long worshipped and bolstered by a seemingly endless bag of hooks and melodies that would make Costello and McCartney proud. It’s perhaps a tragedy of the digital age that for over the course of all these songs Newman has cultivated a distinct identity that, in a different time, may have made him one of a generation’s truly great songsmiths; as it stands now, this consistency has nevertheless marked him as “that guy from the New Pornographers.” He is the straitlaced pop scholar to Dan Bejar’s schizophrenic genre outlaw, the driving engine behind the success of one of indie’s biggest millennial bands but never the kind to pull on any heartstrings, to really stand up and beg to be noticed. Shut Down the Streets is an album that longs to defeat that perception, to go onward into some brave new territory – hell, Newman seems to already be there on the album cover – but it can’t help but keep one foot in the past.

Easy signposts to point to for the album are the much-reported death of his mother and birth of his son, two seismic life events for any person, much less in such close proximity to each other and in the midst of that person recording an album. It’s easy because Newman has never been so heart-on-his-sleeve with his songwriting as he is here, holding forth on grief and newborn love with equal, unusual candor. The gradual triumphant swell that bubbles to the surface in album centerpiece “Strings” is far less deliberate than past major-key jubilations like Get Guilty’s “There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve,” utilizing this album’s wider palette of sounds and instruments to a pronounced, organic effect. With it, the song’s understated chorus of “we’ve been waiting for you” is a heartbreakingly simple depiction of a father’s love rather than a bombastic, orchestrated declaration.

The album has a more bucolic tone than anything in Newman’s past work, a pastoral hue that calls to mind John Wesley Harding-era Bob Dylan and the work of New Pornos associate Neko Case (who is on board for some typically lovely harmonic contributions). Mixing elements of misty blue-eyed folk with his more typical baroque pop arrangements, that Americana edge that Newman has always tended so carefully yet shown so sparingly bears some pleasantly surprising fruit in tracks like “You Could Get Lost Out Here” and the rural jig of “The Troubadour.” Indeed, it’s the tracks that call to mind the past that tend to distract from the album’s overall feel. “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns” is a prototypical New Pornographers single, right down to that rollicking backbeat, clink-your-PBRs-together chorus and Case’s howling backing vocals, while “There’s Money in New Wave” is just the kind of carefully enunciated twee ballad Newman can’t help but writing at least once an album. At other times, the album’s distinct style detracts from the song’s themselves: the woodwind that skips about merrily introducing “Hostages” is one such example, gone as abruptly as it is introduced until a brief reemergence in the second half, an outsized distraction in an otherwise unremarkable pop-rock tune.

While decidedly uneven and lacking in the sheer number of hooks a regular dose of Newman provides, Shut Down the Streets does have two of the best songs of his long career in opener “I’m Not Talking” and closer “They Should Have Shut Down the Streets.” The former is a master class in songwriting, something that sounds like it was lifted wholesale from some glen in the ‘60s, and the subtle percussion and even the damn woodwind build to something truly magical, that affecting assurance, “No, I’ve never been close, but I’ve never been far away.” The latter is a slow burning recollection of his mother’s death, as quiet and contemplative as “I’m Not Talking” is soaring and rhapsodic. Both are fundamentally melancholy but at opposite ends of the spectrum in tone and the feelings they engender. With two bookends like these, it’s perhaps too easy to write off everything in between as not up to snuff, and while that may be unfair, it’s also inevitable – it’s these scattered moments of brilliance that make everything else seem so inconsequential. Shut Down the Streets is no doubt a flawed record, but the more I listen to it the more I see not just A.C. Newman the preternaturally gifted power-pop auteur in its failures and its successes but also Carl Newman the person, more relatable than he has ever been before.




A.C. Newman may best be known as the leader of The New Pornographers, but he has also made much-loved solo albums. These show a more personal and intimate side to Carl's songwriting, and on Shut Down The Streets, recorded in Woodstock in Upstate New York, he is joined by longtime colleague Neko Case to make one of his most gorgeous, wide-ranging records yet.
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Earlimart – U&Me

By , October 15, 2012 10:00 am

Blissed out indie pop duo Earlimart release their seventh album tomorrow. Entitled System Preferences, the record continues down the slow burning path that 2008′s Hymn & Her laid out. With Ariana Murray’s vocals now firmly entrenched alongside founder and Elliott Smith-worshipper Aaron EspinozaSystem Preferences is a meticulously produced collection of midtempo singer-songwriter pop, with a focus on gorgeous melodic inflections and haunting lyrics than any captivating hooks. Opener “U&Me” is a fine example, never rising above more than a druggy mist but percolating together pleasantly enough in that hazy guitar and piano motif near the end. Music easy to get lost in.

Earlimart – “U&Me”

Boys Noize – Rocky 2

By , October 11, 2012 10:00 am

German producer Alex Ridha aka Boys Noize just dropped his third proper LP, and it’s a prototypical electro banger from one of my favorites in the genre. Out of the Black is more focused around building up songs with proper structure and then pulling and twisting them into what most have to expect from Boys Noize: a warped, tech-y, slightly sinister brand of electro house. “Rocky 2″ is a fine example of the harder  side of things, almost as unrelenting as his punishing/fantastic live show. Please, Boys Noize, just no more collaborations with Snoop Dogg.

Boys Noize – “Rocky 2″

Pinback – Glide

By , October 10, 2012 10:00 am

San Diego indie patriarchs Pinback have only released four albums in their fifteen year career, so fifth record Information Retrieved is kind of a big deal for fans. Set for release October 16, Information Retrieved is a welcome return to the band’s brainy take on indie rock, with the requisite attention to tiny details and impressive musicianship that has been a hallmark of the group forever. “Glide” is a fine example, layering numerous vocal lines over a spindly guitar track and a light, shuffling drum pattern. RIYL: Built to Spill, The American Analog SetYo La Tengo.

Pinback – “Glide”

A.C. Newman – Strings

By , October 9, 2012 10:00 am

My favorite ginger is releasing his third solo album today, entitled Shut Down the Streets on Matador Records. A.C. Newman has always been the driving force behind the New Pornographers‘, the more straitlaced pop scholar to Dan Bejar’s crazy, off-kilter firebrand, and his solo work has always polished those pop instincts, oftentimes more contemplative and bucolic than his work with the New Pornos. Shut Down the Streets is probably his most mellow work yet, working in a wider palette of sounds and instruments than usual and keeping things at a steady, pastoral midtempo for much of the record. “Strings” is a perfect example, weaving slowly up through that plucked melody and booming percussion and some always welcome harmonies from fellow New Porno Neko Case, all accompanying a melody that keeps rising to a fulfilling, horn-drenched apex.

A.C. Newman – “Strings”

Ben Gibbard – Bigger Than Love

By , October 4, 2012 10:00 am

So, the long-awaited breakup album came not via a new Death Cab for Cutie but frontman Ben Gibbard’s first proper solo album. Death Cab’s 2011 release Codes and Keys waffled around atmospheric synths and songs that preferred to stretch out rather than get to the point. Gibbard’s new record, Former Lives, is a much more simple affair, rooted in a holy trinity of guitar, piano, and Gibbard’s preternaturally lovely voice. It’s all the better for it, allowing the music to center around the classic melodies and the lyrics (always Gibbard’s strongest talent). The underrated Aimee Mann joins in on “Bigger Than Love,” the album’s surging centerpiece.

Ben Gibbard – “Bigger Than Love”

of Montreal – Micro University

By , October 2, 2012 10:00 am

Because of Montreal never does anything half-assed, Kevin Barnes and company will be releasing a voluminous rarities compilation on October 23, entitled Daughter of Cloud (sixteen originals and an out-of-left-field Buffalo Springfield cover), just a few months after releasing one of 2012′s weirdest albums. “Micro University” is one of the confirmed tracks, and reminds me a bit of the band’s emphasis on funk on Skeletal Lamping along with the more straightforward pop inflections of Satanic Panic in the Attic.

of Montreal – “Micro University”

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