Posts tagged: art rock

…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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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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The Jezabels – Trycolour

By , April 23, 2012 10:00 am

Rough sledding the next couple weeks with finals (saying goodbye to my first year of law school can’t come soon enough), and a couple more reviews in the pipeline (and, hopefully, a Coachella overview). Australian buzz band the Jezabels have been on the verge of breaking through for the past year or so, with their debut LP Prisoner having been released on those shores this past September (and becoming one of my favorite albums of 2011), but it just got an American release at the beginning of April. It’s sweeping, anthemic indie rock, with shimmering guitars and stadium-worthy acoustics the order of the day (think Arcade Fire). But the standout is Hayley Mary, whose throaty vocals are the engine that keeps everything moving forward (think Florence Welch or Kate Bush).

The Jezabels – “Trycolour”

2011 AMP award-winning debut album from Sydney indie-rock sensations! Includes 'Endless Summer'.
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