Posts tagged: chamber pop

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 Even when Olenius is little more than a withdrawn mumble on “Glasgow,” the band’s golden ear for production pays off, bringing in the lovely Bebban Stenborg for some backing vocals that shoots the melancholia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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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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Stars – Progress

By , September 4, 2012 10:00 am

Canadian band Stars are releasing their sixth proper album today on ATO Records, and, once again, Amy Millan has one of my early favorites. The North is a generally austere, sparse-sounding record compared to 2010′s messy The Five Ghosts, and “Progress” does a nice job juxtaposing the relatively subdued production with Millan’s delicate vocals.

Stars – “Progress”

New Stars album, 'The North', will be released September 4 on ATO Records. The album, which is the band's sixth full length, was recorded in Montreal's historic RCA Victor Studios and was produced by Stars, Graham Lessard and Marcus Paquin (Arcade Fire).
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Heavenly Beat – Faithless

By , August 13, 2012 10:00 am

Heavenly Beat is the brainchild of Texas native John Pena, who has been playing his “attractive music for attractive people” (this is a label I can get behind) since late 2009 with a variety of partners. “Faithless” is the second single for their stellar indie pop debut, Talent, which dropped in late July on Captured Tracks. It’s summery, wispy pop with some chamber pop and electronic influences, comparable to Pena’s work with old band Beach Fossils. Dig it?

Heavenly Beat – “Faithless”

Lost in the Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs

By , April 4, 2012 10:00 am

Lost in the Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs

ANTI- 2012

Rating: 8/10

While still an album obsessed with death and what may come after, A Church That Fits Our Needs is strangely hopeful even while it relates to the deepest parts of grief, a contemplation of past and present rather than a tear-stained farewell. Frontman and main creative force Ari Picker wrote this after his cancer-stricken mother killed herself shortly after his wedding in 2009, and, yes, A Church That Fits Our Needs is a hard listen. But it’s a triumphant one, celebrating the muse on the cover as often as it mourns her passing. Picker has stated that he wanted to provide his mother, an artist, “a space, in the music, to be, and to become all the things she didn’t get a chance to be when she was alive.” It’s less a funeral march than a memorial, finally arriving at the lush intersection of folk, pop and classical music that Picker has been threatening to master for years. Stuck in a sort of creative stasis with the release and re-release of his debut EP and LP over the past few years, perhaps it was this life changing event that was what Picker really needed to discover himself as his own artist. A Church That Fits Our Needs realizes all the potential that All Alone In An Empty House promised, and Picker, a Berklee College of Music graduate whose has written first orchestral work was for the North Carolina Symphony, melds all the various threads of his influences into a cohesive, heartbreaking whole.

There’s shades of the loss that permeated Arcade Fire’s Funeral here, a tinge of Radiohead’s chilly baroque arrangements, and the kind of orchestral finessing that Jonsi could appreciate; there’s also a heavy Stravinsky influence and the sweeping cinematic quality of film scorers like Nino Rota. In Picker’s arrangements, though, there’s a distinctly American quality – the sound of rushing rivers, the hushed crack of leaves in a wintry forest. The gentle finger picking and dramatic strings paint a chromatic, vivid picture in songs like the stately, melancholy “Icy River,” where Picker’s crystal clear tenor completes everything: “Icy river / put your arms around my mother / I burned her body in the furnace / till all that’s left was her glory.” Picker’s lyrics dabble in the crushingly intimate as well as the darkly fantastical – veiled lyrics about dead birds and golden eyelids, with nature imagery and archetypal discussions about heart and the hereafter predominating. It’s a soundscape that seems to revel in life rather than death, and it’s this verve and melodic enthusiasm that prevents A Church That Fits Our Needs from becoming a one-note lamentation.

Though it’s Picker’s lyrics that provide the emotional punch, it’s his superb technical skills that make A Church That Fits Our Needs so much more than a simple outpouring of grief. Picker enjoys playing around with meter, and his complex use of strings and use of fellow vocalist Emma Nadeau’s airy whisper dabbles in dissonance but always somehow manages to return to a resolving major lift. “As you close your eyes from the water / a golden light wanders with the birds / where have you been, what have you seen / all the peace when you come following / I’ll tell you it’s worth it all,” Picker sings on “Golden Eyelids,” and there’s the major key surge, an optimistic murmur, but there’s also a hidden tension in the taut, haunting strings that threaten in the background, swirling up in a gusty ostinato. For much of The Church That Fits Our Needs, there’s that struggle to find peace, to reconcile the lessons and traits he’s inherited from his mother with her untimely, senseless death. “My song can try / but there are things that songs can’t say,” Picker sings with more than a touch of sad finality on the closing lines of “Vines,” his voice close to breaking on the last couplet: “Am I hopeless? I trust you, but where are we walking to?”

It’s an appropriate theme for the record, where the loss of a loved one is not just something that can never be found again but is also an opportunity to reflect and cherish. It’s a theme that is also not necessarily resolved by the time “Vines” ends, although the harrowing gut-punch combo that is the tender ballad “This Dead Bird is Beautiful,” and the cleansing stomp of “Garden” comes closest. The former is the kind of bare acoustic piece that leaves no room for subtlety, Picker defiantly reminding himself that he’ll “always have her eyes,” while the latter picks up all the tense and pensive wonderings of the past eight songs and brings them crashing down in a cathartic wave of emotion, apocalyptic strings and percussion. It’s an exhausting listen, but what A Church That Fits Our Needs does so well is how it makes this loss palatable – the grief is real and heartfelt and sometimes overwhelming, but in its honesty and the warm instrumentation that Picker has mastered, it’s thoughtful and all too easy to get lost in. Even when there seems to be nothing left, there’s still simple beauty in life, Picker seems to say on “An Artist’s Song;” “So sing out your hymn of faith / cause I have none / your song is my armor.” It’s an odd sort of comfort, but it’s a comfort nonetheless, and if nothing else A Church That Fits Our Needs provides something to hang on to: memories. In that respect, it’s a fitting monument to Picker’s mother as she was, not how she ended, and it’s a touching, affirming milestone in his own career.

Lost in the Trees – “Golden Eyelids”

2nd album by celebrated North Carolina collective Lost In The Trees. The extraordinary record, entitled A Church That Fits Our Needs, is a work of vaulting ambition, a cathedral built on loss and transformation. While this might sound like a somber affair, A Church That Fits Our Needs is anything but.
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Andrew Bird – Danse Carribe

By , March 6, 2012 10:00 am

It’s usually easy for me to pick one song from a new album – highlight the obvious standout, pick one with the innately catchy melody, choose something that means something to me, etc. – so it says something when, after listening to Andrew Bird’s seventh proper solo album (tenth altogether) Break It Yourself, the only thing I wanted to post was all fourteen tracks. The good part about this problem is I could have picked any song at random and it would have been a fine representation of Bird’s Americana-tinged, baroque folk approach. Seriously, if you like what you hear, do yourself a favor and buy the whole of Break It Yourself, which comes out today. “Hole In The Ocean Floor” would have been the optimal choice, but the eight-minute-plus song length doesn’t really do itself any favors in a blog format. “Danse Carribe,” with its violin breakdown and pastoral melody, is about as good a snapshot as any of what Bird does so well.

Andrew Bird – “Danse Carribe”

2012 release, the sixth album from the Chicago-based singer/songwriter. Break It Yourself is the follow-up to his critically successful albums Noble Beast and Armchair Apocrypha. Features the single 'Eyeoneye'.
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Regina Spektor – All The Rowboats

By , February 29, 2012 10:00 am

It’s been nearly three years, but fans of Regina Spektor finally got a taste of new material with the studio version of “All The Rowboats” dropping this past Tuesday. It’s the first single from her upcoming album What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, her sixth release and tentatively scheduled for a May date. Spektor has performed this song live for years, but with Mike Elizondo behind the boards again as he was on Far, it has been fleshed out with a skittering drum pattern and the paranoid piano melody sounds better than ever. Far might have been my favorite all-around Spektor release due to the bigger production and her growth as a songwriter; hopefully What We Saw From The Cheap Seats continues this progressive arc for Spektor.

Regina Spektor – “All The Rowboats”

St. Vincent – Cruel

By , November 30, 2011 10:00 am

Slow week – aside from the Black Keys and the Roots, the rest of 2011 is all Christmas albums and best-of lists. So here’s another one of my favorite songs from 2011, the best off St. Vincent’s excellent Strange Mercy (although I’m sure Robin Smith would pick a different tune from that album). “Cruel” is deliciously weird like the best Annie Clark songs, but its heart is that wonderful bridge and follow-up chorus and the way Clark’s beautiful vocals and the playful guitar motif work in concert. Great stuff.

St. Vincent – “Cruel”

Florence and the Machine – Breaking Down

By , November 23, 2011 10:00 am

Still one of my favorite records of the year, Florence and the Machine’s Ceremonials still bites a month after its release. I currently have it at #3 on the year (behind M83 and Wilco), and each song continues to jump out at and surprise me. “Breaking Down” is another highlight, making liberal use of strings and a lovely chord progression in the chorus that sticks in your head. Can’t wait to see the tour for this.

Florence and the Machine – “Breaking Down”

Florence and the Machine – Lover To Lover

By , October 27, 2011 10:00 am

Florence and the Machine’s long awaited followup to 2009′s superb debut Lungs leaked online last week, and early reviews have been stellar. I haven’t had time to really get down and dirty with Ms. Welch yet, but from my cursory time with it Celebrations is just what I want from a Florence and the Machine sophomore record. The focus is still on Ms. Welch’s lovely, ethereal vocals, but the group’s penchant for complicated arrangements and truly epic sounding songs hasn’t weakened one bit. “Lover To Lover” is a bluesier number, with a prominent piano part and the kind of singalong chorus Florence has been making in her sleep.

Florence and the Machine – “Lover To Lover”

Girls – Magic

By , September 15, 2011 10:00 am

What San Francisco indie duo Girls have done with their sophomore record is what everyone hopes to see: get a hell of a lot better. Father, Son, Holy Ghost takes everything that was awesome about Album and blows it up over 52 minutes of superb dream pop and Christopher Owens’ brilliantly autobiographical writings. There’s plenty of six-minute epics, but a song like “Magic” is the purest distillation of what Girls do best – simple, effortless pop music with a soul.

Girls – “Magic”

Florence and the Machine – What the Water Gave Me

By , August 30, 2011 10:00 am

Nice to see that fame hasn’t gotten to Florence Welch’s head  - teaser single “What the Water Gave Me” would have stood out nicely on superb debut Lungs, meaning I’m more than just a little excited at the prospect of her second album. The as-yet-unnamed sophomore record is due out November 7. Can’t wait to hear The Voice again in concert

Programming note: law school is probably going to have some effect on my daily postings, but I’ll try to be as regular as my commitments can make me. It also gives me less time to keep up to date on everything new and improved out there, so as always I welcome e-mails and submissions. Thanks for sticking with us!

Florence and the Machine – “What the Water Gave Me”

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