Reviews

Reviews

Kacey Johansing

KACEY JOHANSING – Many Seasons

Porto Franco Records

Kacey Johansing Official Site

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I’m not a fan when it comes to the music of Rickie Lee Jones or that other more recent Jones, Norah. Sure, they’re great at what they do but their style is just not my bag. Why then am I attracted to the music of Kacey Johansing, who has been compared in a vocal sense with these artists and others and on the surface shares many of their qualities. Quite simply, Johansing, for me, manages to circumvent the sleekness and showiness that characterises those artists and offers something that seems more earthy, more real. You just get the feeling that if Johansing was being discussed by the big men of music for a possible record deal, they wouldn’t really know what to do with her. “Sure, great voice but what’s with the lyrics? And what about how she jumps all over the place with genre and style. She’s got no formula, where’s the formula, How do we sell that?”. The fact that Johansing has managed to take a scattergun approach in this context but still has produced a very cohesive record is not only testimony to her undoubted talent but also her ample music intelligence and awareness. She has a unique understanding of what works but at the same time is not afraid to take risks – no safe formulas here.

The 25 year old American singer songwriter has been somewhat of a journeywoman having grown up in Colorado, moved to Boston and now is firmly planted in San Franscisco, a fact which peppers the album and informs much of its trajectory. She has surrounded herself with an army of erstwhile collaborative talent,
French singer-songwriter Vera Gogh, fellow San Franciscans Sleepy Todd and Matt Adams (The Blank Tapes) lend a hand but what strikes most is the proficiency of the assembled studio musicians who bring a discipline to the imaginative song structures.

Combining elements of traditional folk, jazz and blues with contemporary indie pop, Johansing employs melody to great effect as witnessed on the title track where the hypnotic piano mixes with the strings to great effect creating a atmosphere bordering on the wondrous, yet strangely unnerving. Sitting alongside this is a subtle, hardly heard guitar contribution that serves to unsettle and its this attention to detail and effect that elevates Many Seasons above the mire of sameness that can afflict the music of similar artists. ‘Angel Island’ has been a staple on this sites music chart over the last couple of months with its laid back style and understated chiming guitar hook.

Johansing’s impressive vocal talent comes to the fore on the beautifully spartan ‘Leave Your Sweater’ and the two step, whistler, ‘Oh Brother’ happily ambles along until prized open and briefly transformed by a key signature change. This ability to subtlely change direction albeit for a brief pause and thus totally transform a song is difficult to pull off but Johansing manages it here and to greater effect on ‘Same Old Same Old’. Even where she veers away from her pop influences and moves into the jazz and blues realm, ‘Photgraphs and Letters’ and the aforementioned ‘Same Old Same Old’ she doesn’t lose me. I must say, on first listen that almost happened but staying the course was easy in the end.

On the surface, lyrically Many Seasons seems innocent enough, playing at times like a ode to San Francisco and other geographical points but the dark noir styled ‘Spider Song’ is indicative of Johansing’s  depth as she creates an metaphorical moonlit image in which she croons in cathartic celebration as she watches, in delight an ex-lover sink.

The most noticeable thing about Many Seasons is the unnoticeable. It’s almost as if what Johansing doesn’t do is as important as what she does. The use of her exquisite voice is a case in point. Where other artists undo good work by overworking their manifestly talented pipes, Johansing gives of those just what’s required, never overwhelming the beautifully crafted arrangements. Her voice is just one part, albeit an important one, of the whole and the fact that she is obviously acutely aware of this makes her music the better for it. Three years in the making, Many Seasons is a outstanding debut album to savour on so many levels, a collection of songs that show off, not only Johansing’s practical and writing abilities but also expose her ability to nail the intangibles that sets great music apart from the good.

James Stocker – August 28, 2010.

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK – AUGUST 2 , 2010

VinylReviews

ARCADE FIRE (CAN)

The Suburbs

Merge

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the suburbs

Driveways, bikes, porches, cul de sacs; the urban landscape of the suburbs means different things to different people. David Lynch saw it as a place of deep dark secrets with a sinister underbelly (Blue Velvet), Tim Burton as a haven of mechanical monotony and brutal impulse (Edward Scissorhands), Frank Lloyd Wright described it as a place of “Wide lawns and narrow minds”.  The sameness of the sprawl, McMansions, flowerbeds, conformity, garage sales… it begs artists’ interpretation, and by casting their gaze across a world so familiar to most of us, they offer a representation we can connect with.  And one thing that often happens upon spending time away from a suburb you grew up in, be it months or years, is the strange feeling on return. The fact that often, on the surface, nothing has changed, and on the other hand it seems so different. Seen again through the lens of adulthood with experiences lived and a wider world explored , it brings a feeling of disconnection and self awareness that is unlike anything else.

Arcade Fire have embraced this idea, and with this third album produced sixteen tracks paying homage to the built environment of their childhood. Win and Will Butler were born in a small Californian town near the Nevada border with a population of about fifty and moved to a Houston suburb as small kids. Win described it on NPR as like “moving to Mars or something”.  What we have here with The Suburbs is a revisit to the faded memories of that time. The catalyst for the album began last year when Win Butler received a letter from an old friend… “he sent us a picture of him with his daughter on his shoulders at the mall around the corner from where we lived, and the combination of seeing this familiar place and seeing my friend with his child brought back a lot of feeling from that time. I found myself trying to remember the town that we grew up in and trying to retrace as much as I could remember.” 

Arcade Fire have struck a chord, delivering a package that people can relate to. The stresses we all face, the time spent wondering if we made the right decisions, lamenting about a time almost forgotten in the bustle of modern life. The Suburbs doesn’t come in with guns blazing however, instead it almost casually saunters in with the opening title track, with upbeat piano belying the lyrics indicating the theme ahead, “In the suburbs I, I learned to drive, And you told me we’d never survive”, continuing with “And all of the houses they build in the seventies finally fall, Meant nothin’ at all, Meant nothin’ at all”. The track bumps into the melancholy ‘Ready To Start’ a self-deprecating song of heartache, fear and stepping into the dark.  ‘Modern Man’ tells the story of our current time in western society, “Like a record that’s skipping, I’m a modern man, And the clock keeps ticking, I’m a modern man” it’s a far cry from the memories of being a kid cycling around the neighbourhood for no reason other than that’s what you wanted to do.

‘Suburban War’ sitting at the halfway point of the LP is a beautiful expression of the grief surrounding the loss of friends due to distance and growing apart…”Now the cities we live in, Could be distant stars, And I search for you, In every passing car”.  Starting with gorgeous guitar, this track almost seems like a continuation of the opener but in a totally different gear, sharing the lyrics “In the suburbs I, I learned to drive, People told me we would never survive, So grab your mother’s keys we leave tonight”.  It’s a sad reflection on what can’t be reclaimed, a weary, nostalgic comment on something that just happens sometimes, and something that most can relate to. 

The high speed frenetic world of today is captured in ‘We Used To Wait’, with staccato, minor-key piano chords evoking anxiety and the drums of Jeremy Gara building suitably to the track’s climax. Minimal drums and an ethereal quality mark ‘Half Light 1’ resplendent with strings and Regeine Chassagne on vocals, a very different track to her other offering on the album ‘Sprawl 2’ which has more of a  pop sensibility about it to the others. The other half of this track pairing has Butler’s mournful vocals capturing the feeling again of revisiting a place of emotional attachment, but this time with no one left there to consolidate those feelings with.  It’s driving past a house you used to live in, knowing there is another family in there now, their silhouettes behind drawn curtains.

Arcade Fire have actually been a band I have regretfully neglected over the past couple of years. Coming in to their sound and style with fresh ears has been a rewarding experience as it has going through the previous two albums. What sets The Suburbs apart from the others is how well it works as a whole. It’s not one to skip forward and back through, the tracks ebb, flow and build on one another beautifully to create a body of work that is nothing short of a masterpiece.  It draws on something within all of us, and is cathartic while still leaving things unresolved. In the post GFC world of today Arcade Fire have given a snapshot of our time, where nothing is certain, but life moves on, and it’s a shared experience.

Dave Roberts – August 14, 2010

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK – JULY 26, 2010

VinylReviews

MENOMENA (USA)

Mines

Barsuk

Menomena myspace

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If there was a niche genre in rock to match the Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) moniker in dance, say Intelligent Rock Music or something…, Menomena would be one of the first bands that would spring to mind. A creative whirlwind since forming back ten years ago, the Portland trio have triumphed once more with their latest and third album in a traditional sense (or fourth if you include the four song Under An Hour), Mines. If there was any doubt among fans and critics, and there was plenty of reason to go there, that following up Friend And Foe with something approaching that album’s genius would be difficult or indeed nigh on impossible, those doubts can now be cast aside as Mines is a more than worthy equal.

However, there was a dreaded feeling about the place a couple of years back that the trio, Brent Knopf, Justin Harris and Danny Seim may just be going their separate ways and that follow up album would never come. Rumours abounded that the band were intermittently collaborating via e-mail and had hardly laid eyes on eachother. Harris told Pitchfork back in July 2009, ‘Over the course of the last year…we weren’t all on the same writing page, necessarily’. However, somehow things came together and disagreements over the writing process served to produce an amazingly cohesive record. While Mines a small step back from the creative mini-explosions that characterised their first two albums, 2003’s I Am The Fun Blame Monster and the 2007 critic’s choice, Friend And Foe, Mines still contains that experimentation and intelligent songwriting but this time, there is a distinct emotional strength. It’s often the case that out of creative angst comes a band’s best work. Drummer Seim told European label City Slang, ‘ …(we)…did a decent job collaborating as the ideas began to take shape. But just when a song became familiar to us, the other two broke it apart again, breaking each others hearts along the way. We re-recorded, rebuilt and ultimately resented each other…and believe it or not, we’re all proud of the results’. And so they should be.

Technically speaking, Menomena has been and is one of the leaders in the indie rock scene with all three members being more than proficient at a range of instruments and the use of a looping computer program that serves to hold the disparate directions together during the writing process. Mines continues Menomena’s signature trade in writing powerful music across numerous genres. There is a power to the trio’s music, with each track packing a punch that makes the listener aware that something significant is at work. Each instrument oscillates between hitting you hard straight between the eyes and softly, innocently, almost unknowingly stroking your arm. Huge drums, blazing guitars, pulsating bass and big horns. But they never overwhelm or overpower and the album benefits as much from its subtle parts

The album contains smatterings of atmospheric and retro inspired rock and doses of sped up bar room blues, (‘Queen Black Acid and ‘TAOS’ respectively), good doses of straight ahead pop/rock (‘Killemall’) and wide brushes of the scenic and anthemic (‘Dirty Cartoons’ and ‘Tithe’). Hooks can come from anywhere, guitar, bass, piano or any of the plethora of brass instrumention on display with ‘BOTE’ and ‘Five Little Rooms’ being a perfect example of the latter. There is an unashamed use of brass on a range of tracks which has become a Menomena signature. The use of the piano comes to the fore on the dramatic, ‘Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such A Big Boy’ with a gigantic deep hook appearing every two bars mirrored by sax.

For all the problems experienced during the writing process, for all the problems associated with fitting in disparate influences and a multitude of instruments  as well as a big sound, Menomena has pulled it off with Mines. There is a noticeable cohesiveness to this record and what’s more, an emotion that perhaps has been lacking in previous releases. For all Friend And Foe’s technical and creative brilliance, that’s probably one area where that album was lacking. Mines on the other hand has it in spades which is clear that personal and creative differences between talented artists can often produce that intangible emotion that rounds off the rough edges that a cerebrally and technically proficient set of ideas often produce. That cohesion and emotion culminate perfectly on the closing track, INTIL. If it is to be the last piece of music Menomena gifts us (and lets hope it’s not), we’ll know they’ve given us and themselves one hell of a ride.

James Stocker – August 13, 2010.

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK – JULY 19, 2010

VinylReviews

CHRISTOPHER WILLITS (USA)

Tiger, Flower, Circle, Sun

Ghostly International

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There is little doubt that guitarist and electronic wiz Christopher Willits has reached a high water mark in his career with Tiger, Flower, Circle, Sun his second album that follows up 2006’s Surf Boundaries. Throughout its fifteen (or one) tracks it’s bursting with incessant activity and energy whether it be of the pulsating type that appears on its first half or the undercurrent buzz that accompanies the languid tranquility that ends it. It is less an album of separate tracks and is rather a collection of ideas and influences that represent the interconnectedness of the many and varied forms that make up life itself. Its soundscapes alternate between the microscopic and wide panoramas. No form of life is forgotten, whether it be the single celled organism or the complex nature of the human form. They are all represented through a myriad of electronic sounds that hang together to form a rich organic tapestry. There are only two tracks on the album, the exquisite pop of ‘Sun Body’ and the contemplative folk of, ‘Light Into Branches’ that could be taken in singular form.

Two themes seem to come through loud and clear on this album. Firstly, that we as humans are both insignificant and significant at the same time – insignificant if we see ourselves above and apart from all else but significant if we see ourselves as a small part of the cycle of life. That is the interconnectedness of all things is everything and as humans we must allow ourselves to be led at times rather than leading all the time. Secondly is the dual competing concepts of time – circular versus linear, with the former coming out on top here. And the connection between the two themes is ever present.

Willits ably and adeptly use Indigenous elements such as circular notions of time to drive Tiger… because he shows a distinct understanding of what this means. Non-Indigenous people are often caught longing for an understanding of circular time as a counterpoint to the more restrictive linear equivalent but only really have the latter’s reference point and their frustration with it to go on. But Willits, through his understanding that humans represent just one small part of a much larger picture is able to convey the importance of the endless cycle of life – a constant holding pattern that seems to emerge on ‘The Hands Connect To The Heart’ and ‘The Heart Connects To The Hands’ where a plethora of activity is constant, going nowhere, but going everywhere.

This activity is represented throughout the album by Willits unique guitar technique where melodies are given the appearance of floating in time and space but in fact are very much harnessed by an adept use of computer software. This is further enhanced by layers of synth combined with different swirls, blips, pulses interspersed with clever and subtle use of samples. Underpinning the activity is a strong base in which Willits guitar abilities can be clearly seen coming to the fore. Reverb also plays a large role in keeping things together.

But the music is only held together in the sense that it, rather than Willits himself is the driving force. It’s as if the music is nature itself and he is beholden to it. Sure, we know he is the architect but that the final product gives this impression is testimony to his awareness of the importance of time and space – to allow yourself to be taken somewhere. Indeed, Willits himself has commented on how he allowed himself to be somehow led by the music rather than the other way around. This is in keeping with the tone of the album and how it is nature that will always control us and not the other way around despite our determination for it to be otherwise. But Willits is not in the business of denigrating human culture. His use of an array of diverse cultural influences are testimony to this; the latin rhythm that underlays ‘Plant Body’ is joined by a guitar exemplfying a winding middle eastern trajectory by track’s end.

While Willits will more than likely remain on the fringes of electronic music, those of us who are lucky enough to be exposed to and stay long enough to appreciate his unique abilities will know we are blessed – blessed by Willits’s ability to weld together the organic with the processed. Careful and repeated listens will reveal more and more substance over time Just get those headphones on and discover a whole new way of looking at the world.

James Stocker – August 7, 2010

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK – JULY 12, 2010

VinylReviews

CRAZY FOR YOU

Best Coast (USA)

Mexican Summer

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You can be forgiven for being skeptical about whether the over the top attention that’s been lavished upon Los Angeles duo (and sometimes trio) Bethany Cosentino and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno is anywhere near deserving. There are two ways around this in allaying such skepticism. Firstly, much of the hype has come from a massive array of websites and blogs, too many to just simply label the simplicity of what Best Coast does undeserving. Secondly, a good music ear listens to its inner voice and shuts out what others have to say, in other words, hype or no hype, an album’s merits must be on the individuals terms. Don’t jump on the bandwagon either way, let the music do the talking and then take it or leave it but don’t shoot the messenger.

Crazy For You has the all the ingredients to polarise, heavily borrowing, some would say mimicking, the best that the 60s girl group era had to offer and mixing it in with a tinge of late 80s shogaze and a heavy dose of early 90s grunge. But there in lies one of its strengths. Cosentino and Bruno have combined these elements into twelve catchy odes to boys, boys and more boys laying bare an angst ridden yet strangely carefree post adolescent world. There is a definite timelessness to the record and if you were transported back to any of the eras its draws from, Crazy For You would stand on its own as an impressive listen and that’s what sets its apart fromother similarly sounding bands, the lo-fi DIY driven Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls come to mind. That for some is the problem – that it offers nothing new. The answer to that is easy – listen carefully, why does its sound so relevant now?

Cosentino’s vocals and lyrics are undoubtedly the centrepiece. Her sugar coated reverb drenched voice is hardly ever missing and dominates every track, leaving just enough room for a quick little perfectly placed and crafted bridge or lead melody. Despite the reverb which magnifies effect, Cosentino has a strong and impressive voice. The harmonies also possess a definite strength in not only production, but delivery. Lyrically, the songs on the surface seem simple, but if unpacked reveal a bittersweet protagonist awkwardly unsure of herself as she traverses the uncertainty that’s involved in courting rejection and inviting scrutiny of the self – the pitfalls of looking for love, or just a lustful tryst. But there is a private defiance in that voice and you get the feeling that none of the objects of her desire will ever get to hear her sentiments. For all that uncertainty and angst, the album’s backdrop of sunny California serves to sooth and allows Cosentino to never make things a matter of life or death nor allow herself to feel guilty for her soft-substance induced inertia.

That’s where the music plays a crucial role. Crazy For You packs in a stack of well constructed (and yes sometimes lifted) hooks in its short 31 and a half minutes. Here there is beauty in simplicity. The bright and animated mood is a perfect anathema for Cosentino’s paranoia and frustration. Each track works seamlessly into the next rendering the album a true package, easily listenable and easily left on repeat. And that is despite traversing three different eras and music styles. The seamlessness comes from being able to meld these together effortlessly.

Highlights undoubtedly include the reverb laden Boyfriend, an ode about an intense longing for an unobtainable guy which kicks the album off on the best of notes. The two chord progression in the verse is to die for and the lyrical intensity is matched by the power of the track’s chiming bridge section as Bruno threatens to embark on a solo but never does. Listen carefully to the timing of this track though. For all its
power and intensity, there’s a laconic air to the beat that backs the instrumentation and straightforward lyrics, slightly lagging behind and drawing the music back into itself. I don’t know whether this was deliberate, but its sure works.

While there isn’t a particulary weak track present on Crazy For You, other worthy mentions include, the title track, where Cosentino’s love has rendered her helpless, ‘The End’ with its hypnotic tone, ‘Summer Mood’ which is positively swimming in sugar laden harmonies and ‘Our Deal’ where she laments losing not only her boy but her drugs but you know she’ll just accept it. The little psychedelic melody here is a nice touch. Her voice on ‘I Want You’ soars high above the simple 1-2-1 beat before the song gives way to a dose of power-pop and ‘Honey’ channels the oohs and aahs of the 60s and welds them fastly together with a dose of good old fashioned 90s grunge.

Best Coast are never going to win any awards for taking music to new heights of originality, nor are they going to remembered for being particularly groundbreaking and you know what, who cares, they don’t. It’s getting harder and harder with each passing day to be truly original in any case and those that influenced Cosentino and Bruno had it much easier that they do now. The problem with what we do in the indie world sometimes is that we love our art so much we are always looking for something fresh, something new, something original. Well, guess what, this little punter for what it’s worth hasn’t heard anything original from a technical point of view on Crazy For You but he’s sure heard and more importantly felt something new and fresh that will have him coming back for more time and time again. Songwriting is more than just coming up with or utilising a bunch of great ideas whether borrowed or new, it’s also about connecting those ideas into a framework that’s intelligently structured and acutely aware of and sensitive to the sum of its parts. Make no mistake, having scored heavily on each count, Best Coast are vital stuff.

James Stocker – August 7, 2010

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK – JULY 5, 2010

VinylReviews

EXPO 86

Wolf Parade (CAN)

Sub Pop 2010

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wolf parade

To say that the last five years has been a busy time for Wolf Parade’s frontmen Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug is something of an understatement. In that time they have released together as Wolf Parade and separately through their side projects with Handsome Furs (Boeckner) and Sunset Rubdown (Krug) a staggering ten albums. One might think this could have adverse effect on the quality of the material produced, but the opposite is true. The third release from Wolf Parade, Expo 86, is a tight, brooding beast of an album; it hits the ground running and doesn’t slow down over the ensuing fifty five minutes. 

With Krug contributing six tracks and Boeckner five, the pair have a definite symbiosis, both lyrically and instrumentally. The reverbing guitars and fuzz-laden synths allow each another space when necessary while also smashing together on occasion to create a tension that is darker and edgier than their previous albums, Apologies To Queen Mary (2005) and At Mount Zoomer (2008). 

The album kicks off with somewhat bizarre lyrics from Krug on ‘Cloud Shadow On The Mountain’, “I was asleep in a hammock, I was dreaming that I was a web. I was a dreamcatcher hanging in the window of a mini-van..”, his quivering vocals then lamenting “I’d say that I was all alone…” the track is high tempo with tight riffs and like many tracks to follow, completely danceable. This was something they set out to achieve, in fact the main criteria Spencer Krug had for the songs was “whether or not he would dance to them”. ‘In The Direction Of The Moon’ is a standout song, starting with deep wobbly synths that ebb and flow all the way through the following five minutes, it’s a likely candidate for a remix or to be used as a sample, something that hasn’t previously sprung to mind from a Wolf Parade track. At times it sounds somewhat dishevelled, but it works, and flows seamlessly into the brilliant ‘Ghost Pressure’. Immediately accessible, this track was one of the first released prior to the album, and again Krug’s keyboard dominate. It crashes into the next track ‘Pobody’s Nerfect’, another of Boeckner’s, giving the guitar-work centre stage, as it rises and crashes, having a big arena feel to it one minute before zooming in to a more intimate space.

The album takes things down a notch with ‘Yulia’, a bitter-sweet tale of longing and distance, “So when they turn the cameras on you, Baby please don’t speak of me, Point up to the dark above you, As they edit me from history”. The closer for Expo 86, picks up the tempo again with ‘Cave-o-Sapian’, spacey keyboards penetrating more strange lyrics..”I had a vision of a gorilla, he was a killer! A killer!”. It’s a catchy, unabashed sing along track, a great way to finish the album, summing up the tone of this cohesive piece of work.

Expo 86 received its title after the four members worked out they had all attended the World’s Fair in Vancouver as kids during the same week. The album leaves you with a feeling of a having had a good fun time, as you get from just experienced a damn good festival (or World’s Fair).

This record is testimony to the talents of the members of Wolf Parade, and the fact that though the dichotomy of the frontmen’s position across the indie scene has them channelling energy into other projects, they can still come together to produce an album that works, and leaves you with a sense of fulfilment and a time well spent.

Dave Roberts – July 5, 2010

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK – JUNE 28, 2010

VinylReviews

HERE’S TO TAKING IT EASY

Phosphorescent (USA)

Dead Oceans 2010

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I’ve always been amazed how the genre of country music can often manage to mask the emotional pain of lost love with music that is joyous and uplifting. There’s always an air of optimism in the most harrowing of tales, if not lyrically then certainly music wise. Here’s To Taking It Easy, the fourth (or fifth if you include To Willie) long player from Athens, Georgia native Matthew Houck under the Phosphorescent moniker, while the tales are not harrowing, can certainly be described in these terms. Not a straight up country record in any traditional sense in that it combines pop and rock sensibilities and after all is an indie record, Here’s To Taking It Easy has an air of positivity on the surface and despite the difficulties life throws up, Houck advocates the useful adage of just getting up and getting on with it. There’s a sense of fallibility in these songs but also a sense of the subject knowing how to cope with his shortcomings, at peace with who he is. Even a cursory glance at the subject matter of each track reads like a highly effective, highly confident coping mechanism. Houck’s Phosphorescent moniker is certainly appropriate.

That mechanism surfaces when speaking of his own insignificance on ‘Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)’;
‘so apart from the things I touched, nothing got broke all that much’

The tale of life on the road and having to neglect that significant other is the subject of ‘We’ll Be Here Soon’ but Houck insists on giving time the arse and insisting to his partner;
‘raise your glass and raise it more, and praise and laugh and praise some more, and you know, we’ll be here soon’.

Heartbreak is all over ‘The Mermaid Parade’ but similarly self re-assurance aids the subject of the song to overcome his wife’s infidelity;
‘…and yeah I found a new friend too, and yeah she’s pretty and small, but god damn it Amanda, god damn it all’.

In fact, you get a sense that no matter what happens, Houck is resigned to the randomness of life’s journey and there’s little point in worrying about things you cannot alter. Witness ‘I Don’t Care If There’s Cursing’, the ultimate lyrical lesson in shoulder shrugging. Come what may indeed.There’s even resignation hanging leaden over ‘Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough) as the protagonists life in bars on the road is taking more than a toll on his relationship. The rhetorical question is consistently asked ‘But tell me honey have I gone too far’. The answer is known before the question is asked and an answer is not required. At the same time, there’s little sign that the eternal tourist is going to change his ways. That theme of road and relationship is continued on ‘Heavin Sittin’ Down’ and the outcome is the same.

This theme of leaving things to fate is somewhat challenged on the Neil Young inspired final track ‘Los Angeles’ where Houck roasts those music heads in the industry who trade in lies and deceit in search of the all mighty dollar. But here, there’s no shrugging of the shoulders but a firm determination to succeed on one’s own terms;
‘Said I ain’t coming to Los Angeles baby, just to die’.

The lyrical themes are complemented by the uplifting and optimistic nature of the music, undoubtedly Houck’s strong suit. The southern character in the musicianship on Here’s To Taking It Easy is more than evident and first class in delivery. Each riff, each lick, each slide foray paints a panoramic picture of open wide vistas giving the sense of a nine track road trip of regret yet resignation. Houck even takes New York’s Coney Island to a rural setting on ‘The Mermaid Parade’ and seemingly shouts Alabama’s worth from the rooftops of a Brooklyn bar on the album’s opener.

While every track excels on this record, the inclusion of the chant-laden ‘Hej I’m Light’ adds another dimension. Houck and friends repeat the mantra over and over again in joyous strains throughout the four minutes while a simple bass note rings out amid canoodling guitar and a laconic and hypnotic beat. Whenever I hear it, I just imaging grabbing come close friends, downing a few beers around the fire in
the middle of winter and giving the collective vocal chords a damn good workout.

Sure, Houck’s not going to win any prizes for orginality and his influences are clear for all to see but he has put together a package of tracks that have a seamless quality and Here’s To Taking It Easy is a true album. Witness how We’ll Be Here Soon’ melts into ‘The Mermaid Parade’, I need not say no more. The change in musical direction that began after the release of the introspective Pride in 2006 and first surfaced in his tribute to Willie Nelson last year has seen Houck add a new vitality to his music and leaves us waiting rather impatiently for where he’ll head next. Wherever that is, you can be sure that he’ll get there under his own steam.

James Stocker – July 24, 2010.

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK – JUNE 21, 2010

VinylReviews

CERULEAN

Baths (USA)

Anticon 2010

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Baths - Cerulean

There has been a recent move in the genre of electronic music to embrace a more DIY and experimental guise while using traditional structures, stretching and reshaping them into the unconventional. Los Angeles artist Will Weisenfield’s foray into the field under the moniker of Baths is no exception. If you’re looking for a blissful, relaxing, chilled out adventure to use for your next come down, you’ll get it in parts with Cerulean, Baths debut album, but at the same time, if your not embracing its full form it’s likely to drive you to distraction with its catatonic spliced up beats and syncopated rhythms. That is, if it doesn’t have your full focus.

Weisenfeld’s original take on the genre, like Dan Snaith (Caribou), Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus), Kieren Hebden (Four Tet), Chazwick Bundick (Toro Y Moi) and Ernest Greene (Washed Out) before him, renders the current period a high
watermark in electronic music. Cerulean plays like a collection of organic adventures full of dramatic verve, a physical and cerebral experience that takes you to places that render a cinematic feel. It is music that transports and transcends. It doesn’t merely put you in a mood, its transforms that mood time and time again from relaxation to expectation, comfortability to restlessness. The other lasting thing about this record is its proponents rare ability to fit so much in yet leave that essential ingredient, space. Weisenhall could have fallen into the trap of overdoing things with the amount of talent he obviously possesses but he doesn’t and because of that displays a musical intelligence way beyond his 21 years.

Cerulean begins with the curiously named ‘Apologetic Shoulder Blades’ with its haunting vocals, slow broken hip hop style beat and emotive underbelly while ‘Lovely Bloodflow’ contains an urgency in its understated keyboard melody and myriad of clicks. ‘Maximalist’ first found its way to listeners through the doyen of music websites, Pitchfork and immediately struck a chord with its video game loops, Avalanches type voice samples and unstinting yet patchy rhythm. The immediacy returns with the Muse like beginning to (Heart-symbol) that develops into a pitch heavy loop that circles endlessly as Weisenfeld laments his inability to love within safe boundaries.

The child samples on ‘Aminals’ combines with a galaxy of trippy beats and magical electro-guitar play while the title of ‘Rafting Starlit Everglades’ matched with its organic and natural sound gives the feeling of doing just that. The outstanding ‘Hall’, sure to feature highly in the Indie30 best songs list at the end of the year starts with a mesmerising mashup of loops, pitch and vocal manipulation which introduces so effectively the addictive interchange of multiple melodies that follow. This tracks elements fit so well together, giving the listener a seamless journey into electronic excellence.’You’re My Excuse To Travel’ is another highlight where Weisenfeld uses his somewhat tortured and manipulated high vocal register across a consistently catchy melody that sits atop that once again familiar hip hop timing signature.

The final four tracks further demonstrate Cerulean’s complexity and contemplative character. ‘Rain Smell’ uses background silence to great effect over a combination of simple piano and a descending keyboard melody. ‘Indoorsy’ is more upbeat but no less wistful while ‘Plea’ flirts with the eastern and aquatic as Weisenfeld implores somebody to need him. The album ends with the warm and smooth ‘Departure’, although you get the distinct feeling that there’s more to this than meets the ear.

This review might have name dropped some aforementioned contemporary artists of similar ilk but that in no way should mean anything in judging this album other than they are all playing to their own original and innovative tune in a, for want of a better term, definable genre. The orginality and almost fearless nature of the Baths sound hangs out on its own, with a autonomous trajectory that will intrigue further as Weisenfeld matures. After all, and I have to keep reminding myself of the fact, he’s only 21.

James Stocker – July 10, 2010.

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK – JUNE 14, 2010

VinylReviews

TAME IMPALA

Innerspeaker (AUS)

Modular 2010

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TI

The first few dripping notes emanating from Dominic Simper’s bass guitar and the jangling guitar work of Kevin Parker and Nick Adams on opener ‘It Is Not Meant To Be’, give the instant impression that something special is about to unfold on Tame Impala’s debut album, Innerspeaker. The impression turns out to be spot on. The pychedelic indie rock act from Perth have produced an immensely impressive, taut debut full of infectious hooks, an ever present groove and a masterful use of spatial awareness. It’s a seamless listen, a record easily able to be played on repeat again and again, definitely a true album where tracks complement each other and when hung together, all twelve paint a widescreen full of souped up acid infused soundscapes that have the hallmarks of the best that pyschedelia from the 60s and 70s had to offer.

But make no mistake, Innerspeaker is not merely a homage to those eras, it is fresh and immediate and has ‘now’ written all over it, revitalising and reinvigorating rather than imitating. The songwriting is intelligently hypnotic leaving a creative atmospheric hazy swirl that looms large across the span of the entire record. It’s also very deliberative in that there is no wastage in any of the tracks, each riff, melody, lead, bass line and percussive change is meticulously arranged and laid out for full effect. Take the subtle percussive change that feeds the groove of ‘Alter Ego’, one of the album’s strongest tracks, for it is essential to the driving pulse of the track and leaves you hanging for its entry each time you listen. Similarly the off timing in the chorus as the chord progression of the guitars sits masterfully up against the up tempo beat on the splendid ‘Expectation’ and then throw in the Lennonesque sounding Kevin Parker’s reverb heavy vocal arrangements and you have one of the more memorable moments in music this year or any other for that matter.

Although largely sporting the songwriting fingerprints of Parker, the execution of ideas is a highlight. The immense musical ability of all four members is palpable and not just from a technical standpoint, but there is a definite impression that all are in total control. It’s often what they don’t do that contributes to such a fine assortment of songs. Innerspeaker could have been cluttered with a myriad of unnecessary elements but it isn’t, its economical when it has to be and there is a realisation from each member that space is fundamental to creating a first class psychedelic rock album. The appropriate stick work of Jay Watson is a perfect case in point, fills where they need to be, never overdone, never overplayed, the subtle percussion work a strength, and indeed highlight, of the album.

The album begins with a perfect one two punch with the mastery of the aforementioned relationship between bass and guitar on the opener making way for the intense groove of ‘Desire Be, Desire Go’, a track that has been given the treatment since its appearance on their self titled debut EP. ‘Alter Ego’ is a masterclass in synth work thanks to Adams, while ‘Lucidity’ spins off into a killer riff and sports a classic pysch inspired lead break. The verse-less ‘Why Don’t You Make Up Your Mind’ is probably the most immediately catchy track while listening to single ‘Solitude Is Bliss’ is to take a masterclass in song arrangement.

The melody amidst the steady beat that provides the centrepiece to the lengthy ‘Jeremy’s Storm’ is outstanding while the cascading chorus of the varied ‘Expectation’ where Parker’s vocals standout provides a perfect counterpoint for the song’s many parts. The blues inspired prog of ‘The Bold Arrow Of Time’ rests on a Hendrix inspired guitar riff while at the same time taking you into the back room to ingest some serious mind altering substances. The busy riff that dominates ‘Runway, Houses, City, Clouds’ is juxtaposed against a relaxed chord progression that provides space exactly where it’s needed. Closer ‘I Don’t Really Mind’ is a 70s synth and effects inspired pop gem with a kiss arse chorus.

The strength of Innerspeaker is the fact that every song is of equal worth and the fact that I’ve mentioned each one in this review speaks volumes. There’s no temptation to skip any of them as the journey through is never difficult. In fact, its probably the easiest run through on an album that I’ve had in a long time. Its immediacy though does not mean that its worth won’t last. Far from it, its multi-faceted nature sparks up something different with each listen. After the recently embarrassing efforts of Wolfmother, The Vines and Jet that so damaged Australia’s indie rock credentials, let’s hope that Tame Impala has restored some global credibility at a time when it is badly needed. Let’s also hope its inspires some creativity in others. With Innerspeaker, Tame Impala have provided an important template with regard to taking the essence of a time in music history and moulding it into something that is well and truly for the here and now and beyond.

James Stocker – June 18, 2010

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK – JUNE 7, 2010

VinylReviews

ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI

Before Today (USA)

4AD 2010

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APHG

Back in 2005, Ariel Rosenberg, aka Ariel Pink, made a statement about his live performances that in part sums up his relationship up to now with the public domain. The one time recluse told LA Weekly,

‘People boo me everywhere…they don’t even hide their contempt. I’m used to it now. It probably comes from the fact that I’m not very good”.

Apart from being humble and wrong, his self-synopsis however, is true to a point in that it only reveals Pink in a superficial sense. Sure, technically he struggled in those early days due in part to self-admitted laziness but also to a single minded and somewhat stubborn determination to filter his musical learning process from within. Quite simply, he never actually envisaged playing the tracks live and only emerged from the comfort zone of his apartment due to ‘popular’ demand. When creating music, often even getting through one rendition of a creation was hard enough, replicating it live was another thing altogether. His take on his influences was entirely his own though as he squirrelled them away in the inner world of his home and his creative mind and penned hundreds of songs to cassette. When those songs finally saw the light of day to a minimal audience after Animal Collective got hold of a CD-R recording of a collection that would become 2004’s The Doldrums and released it on their Paw Tracks label, Pink had announced himself to the indie world as an excessively, yet inwardly talented creative force prone to master the essence of and then sabotage traditional musical structures and deliberately skirt the edges of listenability. Over the years, everything from 60’s pop, pyschedelia, 70’s AM rock, disco, punk, post punk and 80s new wave and no wave have been given the Pink treatment.

The interesting thing about Pink’s musical trajectory is that all of his music up until recently was written before the Paw Tracks era. Succumbing to writer’s block in 2005 around the time of his sister’s car accident that left her in a vegetative state, all of Pink’s releases since 2004 have been assorted compilations of disparate EP’s and singles. In 2008, Pink decided to embark on a new phase of his career and set about on in his own words ‘get(ting) it together’. His band Haunted Graffiti, made up of keyboardist Kenny Gilmore, guitarist Cole M. Greif-Neill and eventually drummer Aaron Sperske was put together marking the first time Pink had a talented bunch of musicians to assist his creative vision becoming a concrete public reality. The result was a number of kick arse singles that drew the attention of British indie 4AD who backed the collection of tracks that became Before Today, this weeks feature album and Pink’s first record using a proper studio and something approaching modern recording techniques.

What Pink and his band have produced is nothing short of a triumph, successfully scuppering the potential argument of whether or not he has sold out his DIY lo-fi roots. The results on Before Today are clear indications that he hasn’t, all of the cheek and randomness of past recordings are there but what is also present is accessibility in that experimentation and some real coherent and lasting creative quality. The jittery fragility is ever-present as each song threatens to fall apart at the seams, as Pink’s songs have always threatened to do, but they don’t, hanging together as creative tapestries of a by-gone era re-working and re-energising radio rock and pop on a level hitherto unknown. Many of these tracks are in fact re-workings of earlier Pink tracks, namely ‘Can’t Hear My Eyes’, ‘L’estat’ and ‘Beverly Kills’.

Before Today is a confounding listen and it makes twists and turns within songs that you’d never pick or expect. In fact, it takes more than a few listens for the entire thing to start to gelling together. Vocally as diverse as ever in tone and style, musically its a scattered, yet strangely seamless journey through the genres and eras of popular music. First single ‘Round And Round’, a virtually unrecognisable renovation of ‘Frontman/Hold On’ is probably Pink’s most polished recording to date and undoubtedly will figure highly in end of year lists. On the surface its a funky disco number resting its allure on the vocal hook in the chorus. But even here, disaster looms at different times, exemplified by the fact that Pink’s vocals in each verse tend to fade away before lines are completed as if to say, ‘you need to come to me cos I ain’t comin’ to you’. The blink of an eye album opener, ‘Hot Body Rub’ contains a twin sax attack lying over a loose fitting bass line, slightly off drum beat and Pink’s indecipherable vocal echo  and is at once alluring but as dishevilled as ever. What follows is rollickingly brilliant take of the track, ‘Bright Lit Blue Skies’ by 60s group, The Rockin’ Ramrods, a take that sees Pink hit heights of enthusiasm previously unseen. The confounding, ‘L’estat (Acc to the Widow’s Maid) is a undoubted standout, sitting high among Pink’s best ever with its sunny 60s feel juxtaposed with a double time move into 70s pop complete with tinkling ivories that then dovetails into a carousel like synth vortex finishing with a flourish of prog rock that hints at a glimpse of Sky.

‘Fright Night’ sees Pink’s Cure influences come to the fore with the bass line reminiscent of ‘A Forest’. ‘Beverly Kills’ is another highlight with its roller disco synths, funky bassline, tight beat and 80s style hubbub – another accessible single perhaps? However, if your looking at this number to sweetly serenade you musically around the rollerskating rink, Pink aims to set you up for a fall as the sweetness and light descend or ascend into, depending on your point of view, a seemingly without focus stop start timing signature, a myriad of interweaving off kilter vocal renditions of the line ‘can’t stop the press’ and a cacophony of monkey noises. Pure Pink!

‘Butt House Blondies’ is a pure rock gem with its rock out opening and flailing guitar solos but it has that many other influences working away its almost headspinning, from 70s melodic metal to sugary coated yet creepy melodies and vocals that sound at home on an spoof 80s movie. ‘Little Wig’ seems to be a straight out rocker until the progressive rock elements kick in and ebb and flow throughout. ‘Can’t Hear My Eyes’, is a soft rock gem full of starry eyed synth work and pop perfect sax sensibilities, complete with fills from that long lost piece of drum hardware from the 80s, the Roto Tom. The track first made its way to these ears last May as a single and is further enhanced here with adept production. ‘Menopause Man’ may seem like an element of lazy comic relief but there is much more to it than first appears. Its stalking bass and casual vocals that break into a swirl of off beats and synths before the giant chorus kicks in is sheer brilliance. ‘Revolution’s A Lie’ is a stomper of a closer that is almost hypnotic in its metronome nature and through this and its Martin Hannett type interferences has the marks of album era Joy Division all over it.

Before Today as a finished product fully digested brings one back to Pink’s words of 2005. Again telling the LA Weekly,

‘I tell the record company to just get me in a real recording studio…I’ll go into mad-scientist mode, and it will be great. But that hasn’t happened. They don’t want to give me money, because I might release a shit album, which could definitely happen. I’ve got my good days and bad days, for sure. But the best rock & roll is all stuff you’re not supposed to do. Rock & roll is the history of rules being broken and people taking chances.”

For various reasons it took Pink another five years to br presented with and take the opportunity to get into that real recording studio and take that chance and boy he did not waste it. He has done what is extremely difficult to do in music and indeed any artistic pursuit, he has taken his music in all his lo-fi DIY glory off to get a spit and polish but instead of coming out all shiny and new has simply grabbed the tools himself and deliberately left more than a few scuff marks. Before Today is new but not that new, an exit but not really a departure and definitely not a sell out as many old fans may attest. Its simply an improvement, an improvement that sees the encyclopedic experimental pop master at the top of his game.

James Stocker – June 12, 2010

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK – MAY 31, 2010

VinylReviews

This Is Happening

LCD Soundsystem (USA)

DFA Records 2010

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James Murphy and his LCD Soundsystem are back with their third and possibly final album, This Is Happening. Having garnered massive acclaim around the traps, the LP has hit Billboard’s Dance/Electronica chart at number one knocking Gaga from her five month perch at the top with a resounding thud. What we have here are 65 minutes of electro-infused laments about spaces between people, the fickleness of the industry and personal anxieties.

The Band performed a couple of secret gigs in April at New York’s Webster Hall and the Music Hall of Willamsburg in Brooklyn, where Murphy made an impassioned plea with the crowd not to leak the album before its official release on May 17. Onstage and on his knees he stated “If you get a copy of the record early and you feel like sharing it with the rest of the world, then please don’t. We spent two years making this record and we want to put it out when we want to put it out. I don’t care about money – after it comes out, give it to whoever you want for free but until then, keep it to yourself.”

Kicking off the album is the nine minute slow burner ‘Dance Yourself Clean’, which kicks in at three minutes to become a synth driven indication of what we have in store. The following track ‘Drunk Girls’, takes a different tack and is the most light hearted on the tracklist. The video for this was done by Spike Jonze and has a nightmarish quality about it, seeing the band pushed, shoved, and basically set upon by a group of aggressive people in white dog costumes. ‘All I Want’ takes things down a notch, with Murphy’s melancholic take on relationships..”Wake with a start, and the dog and the girl are gone, so you pack up your things, and head into the lame unknown, you never had needed anyone for so long”. The track ends with him pleading “Take me home…” This mood continues into the next track ‘I Can Change’, with the blunt and brutal lines “And love is a murderer, love is a murderer, but if she calls you tonight, everything is all right, yeah, we know, and love is a curse shoved in a hearse, love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry, and this is coming from me”. The synths dominate this track giving it a definite retro-Euro feel.

‘You Wanted A Hit’, is a standout, cynically deriding the music industries insatiable appetite for the next big thing. Murphy’s contempt is sustained over nine minutes, the length of the track itself a sabotage of the radio-friendly four minute pop song. It has some nice synth work going on for the first two minutes before the beat picks up in volume and tempo, and it drifts away as Murphy begins his cool and levelled dig, “Yeah, you wanted a hit, but tell me where’s the point in it? You wanted the hit, but that’s not what we do”. ‘Pow Pow’ is a pumping, percussion laden step in yet another direction. Murphy’s spoken word meditation on looking from the inside out, follows on from ‘You Wanted A Hit’ perfectly. Definitely glints of David Byrne on this one, it’s a statement about the media saturated dumbed down world we live in today, knowledge through television. 

Recorded at Rick Ruben’s famed LA mansion, This Is Happening highlights Murphy’s skills as a savvy songwriter and skilled vocalist. His self deprecating, brash and cynical stance reflect those of his generation while still leaving room for energetic dance-floor tracks. If This Is Happening is the final outing for LCD Soundsystem they are finishing on a high note, showing they are a band with some depth who have something to say. 

Dave Roberts – June 5, 2010

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