Archive for the ‘ Pop ’ Category

Phosphorescent – Muchacho (Music Review)

Muchacho cover

Phosphorescent – Muchacho

Phosphorescent’s Muchacho album art is dominated by singer-songwriter Matthew Houck looking carefree and surrounded by topless hippie women. That, combined with song titles like “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)” might lead you to assume that this is all New Age messages of positivity. Actually, the recurring theme of the songs is that love is a painful trap, and Houck is happiest when not tied down. That also explains the women, I guess. But you could be forgiven if you listened to Muchacho dozens of times and still didn’t notice what it was about, because the songs are so quiet and shapeless that they’re almost impossible to pay attention to.

Yes, this is the album with the excellent “Song for Zula”: Its haunting, looping music perfectly complements the emotionally-damaged singer who curses love by contradicting “Ring of Fire”. If Muchacho had more songs like this, I’d have loved it. But most of the rest feel incomplete, like demos or codas. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far off to think of the entire album as a suite meant to echo “Zula”. That would be ok if this were an EP.

Nothing is bad. It’s just incomplete, with songs built on a repeating lyric that goes nowhere or gentle, lulling sounds that never feel like a finished work. It’s filled with interesting fragments, though. That hippie style merges well with some modern electronic flair, and it comes across as a production geek’s loving tribute to hippie songcraft.

Phosphorescent is a promising band that doesn’t seem to have mastered the art of the song. If you want background music, Muchacho will do excellently. If you don’t, this probably won’t work. I spent months wanting to give this a chance, and it kept turning into background music no matter how hard I tried.

Grade: C


Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Music Review)

The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You cover

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case has covered a wide variety of styles in her career, from sedate to swinging and from honest to impenetrable. Since finding success, though, she has stayed fairly settled: Simple symphonic music sets off her clear voice, letting her seem simultaneously exposed and in control. Her lyrics are compelling, but usually impossible to interpret clearly, and even the songs that sound personal are not. This paradoxical mix has won her acclaim, but honestly it’s been a few albums since I really enjoyed her songs. They seem to promise a lot, but aren’t very satisfying.

That changes with her new release, which has the attention-grabbing title The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. It is similar to those last few, with very little sign of the Case who used to sing with Maow, The New Pornographers, or on solo country albums. But this finally has a strong personal feeling to it. Maybe it’s as much an act as the old albums, but for once I feel like I’m listening to a person, not to a brand carefully test-marketed to hipsters.

That makes a huge difference, because Case’s power and confidence is incredible when I can accept it. These songs are beautiful, and while there are still some inscrutable lyrics, there are also entire songs that are straightforward. If the only frequent theme in the last few albums was cheering on nature and animals against mankind, this one has her taking a place among humanity. The repeated theme here is of woman standing up for themselves and reaching their potential. There is also “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”, a message to an abused child which contains too many details not to feel true. That song has no musical accompaniment and feels emotionally naked. In less confident hands, it would seem like a cynical attention-grab, but here it’s an honest attempt to struggle with a difficult topic.

Not that everything on The Worse Things Get is straightforward. There are plenty of lines like “I’m a Friday night girl bracing for Sunday to come”, and those messages of female empowerment come from unexpected angles (“hey little girl, would you like to be the King’s pet or the King?”) This is an album that feels both complex and simple at the same time. Of course, that sort of dichotomy has always been a part of Case’s appeal, but this time it’s finally working for me. If you’ve spent the past several years wishing you appreciated Case’s songs, this may be the album you’re waiting for.

Grade: B+


The Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas Reissue (Music Review)

All Hail West Texas cover

The Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas

Unlike many bands, The Mountain Goats’ recent, semi-major label stuff clearly outdoes the songs from their years in indie obscurity. That makes their new reissue of All Hail West Texas fairly inessential. It’s a classic piece of Mountain Goats history, and has a couple great songs on it. But all their albums have great songs, and it’s a lot easier to find them on the more recent releases. The band hasn’t sold out, lost their focus, or run out of things to say, and John Darnielle has grown as a songwriter and performer since West Texas. The liner notes to West Texas do add some meaningful symbolism to the lo-fi recording, but still, this was sung into a boombox (not even a four-track) minutes after being written. The solo acoustic guitar is functional but little more. Even after being remastered for this release, the quality isn’t as good as the live versions that were already available on YouTube.

I don’t want to distract from the fact that this album was good enough to help launch Darnielle’s career – 4AD picked him up right after this. He has a gift for describing life for the young and marginalized (when the narrator in “Jenny” has a moment of freedom, he explains “we were the one thing in the galaxy God didn’t have His eyes on”), and really poured his soul into songs that he didn’t expect anyone else to pay attention to. This stripped-down style works best when it portrays righteous anger, as in “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton”. But despite all that, there’s no reason to get lost in the Mountain Goats’ daunting discography until you have at least four great releases from after this point.

This reissue adds a few pages of interesting liner notes, as well as seven new tracks which weren’t preserved quite as well as the original album material. Most of those songs either sound like the lesser tracks on the album, or were never completely recorded. (The original recordings are used here, including abrupt stops when the tape runs out.) It does include one great addition to the Mountain Goats’ canon, though: “Indonesia”.

Are you a hardcore Mountain Goats fan who just happens to have a hole in your collection were All Hail West Texas should be? Then this was made just for you. Are you still a casual listener of the band? In that case, don’t worry about this yet. There’s a good chance you’ll become a hardcore fan at some point, and then this will be waiting.

Grade: C+


Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Modern Vampires of the City cover

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Like everyone, I found Vampire Weekend’s debut to be a surprise hit. Also like everyone, I intended to check out their follow-up, but never got around to it. It didn’t seem too important to buy another literate-but-light-on-meaning pop album with affected African vocal inflections. Now the band has a third album, and, like everyone, I was surprised to hear people talk about it in the same surprised, glowing terms they used for the original Vampire Weekend. So I come to this one without much expertise, not knowing how much of the growth I’m seeing would have been evident had I been paying attention a few years ago. However, I can say that Modern Vampires of the City is an incredible album.

Yes, you’ll have to get past an awful album title. And a drab cover photo of New York City in 1966. And the first track, “Obvious Bicycle”, is not going to grab your attention. But after those first five minutes, all of the album’s weak points are out of the way. What’s left is a masterfully crafted set of songs that make the band’s gimmicky sound and themes seem perfectly natural. If you don’t think you’re interested in pop albums, Modern Vampires may be especially for you. Vampire Weekend doesn’t seem to see any conflict between catchy, hook-filled songs and intelligent lyrics that reward attention. For example, “Ya Hey” is a fun track with a nonsensical-sounding refrain, but it’s actually about “Yahweh”. The band confronts the Hebrew god who wouldn’t even give His name clearly, faulting Him for the distance between Himself and His creation. The “Ya Hey” of the refrain is distorted in varied ways to play with the unpronounceable name.

Distortion also plays a center role in “Diane Young”, possibly the best pop song in years. It’s a mix of “baby baby baby”, lyrics about living fast, breaks in the tension that are practically a cappella, and sudden releases driven by an upbeat drum machine. In addition to all those blended aspects, the vocals are sometimes slowed down and run through cheap studio tricks that create a strong contrast to the otherwise-sugary song. Imagine a power-pop hit by Ween, and you’ll have a good idea of how this works.

It’s amazing to see the evolution from Vampire Weekend to Modern Vampires of the City. It’s obviously the same band, but where their early songs’ meanings were basically “Google what a ‘mansard roof’ is and you’ll understand”, these ones have a lot going on. (Atheism or discomfort with religion come up frequently, as in “Ya Hey”, but many songs are just general tales about life. Aging seems to be a secondary theme, as well.) The production and songcraft are excellent, with even the flow between songs feeling carefully engineered. It’s a varied but cohesive album with obvious care put into every moment. Whatever your past experiences with Vampire Weekend, this is a must-have.

Grade: A


Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito (Music Review)

Mosquito cover

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito

Mosquito finds the Yeah Yeah Yeahs continuing their path towards laid-back electo-pop and disco beats. Karen O is the casual, confident center of the band. While these songs have nothing in common with “lounge music”, it’s easy to imagine her vocals as the lazy swirls of smoke through a trendy but seedy room behind a velvet rope. However, though these songs can’t be written off, they also don’t possess any of the urgency or meaning that first defined the band.

The dominant theme is a sideways look at kinky relationships. This is most obvious in songs like “Slave”, and the title track is also a metaphor for parasitic men. But while earlier albums had occasional flashes of insight mixed in with the sex and relationships, this offers nothing beneath the surface. Sometimes the songs can still be inspired, such as “Sacrilege” and its story about sleeping with an angel. But that song also feels like just an introduction that goes nowhere (“Fallen for a guy/who fell down from the sky/halo round his head/feathers in our bed” comprise about half the lyrics). Ultimately, the whole album is like that: Worthwhile ideas without much follow-through.

The gaudy album cover clashes with the band’s sleek presentation, but is a worthwhile representation of “Area 52”. That song is a sudden, upbeat plea from Karen O for aliens to kidnap her, and it has the beat and trashy sound of a Lords of Acid-lite club track from fifteen years ago. That’s not meant to condemn the song, though: As forgettable as “Area 52” is, Mosquito needs more unexpected turns like that. Instead, with the band staying on a fairly predictable path, the best way to approach it is just to find out which song is the new “Maps”, and skip right to it. (That song, “Despair”, is smooth, catchy, and finally shows real emotion… just don’t compare it to previous songs like “Maps” or “Turn Into”.)

Karen O’s personality still drives the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and she’s still a frontwoman that most bands would kill for. But where that used to mean that every aspect of the performance was unpredictable and perfect for the song, now it means daring lyrics on top of tired music. Mosquito may be appearing after a four-year break for the group, but it doesn’t appear that anything changed in this time.

Grade: C


Two From Frightened Rabbit (Music Review)

Sing the Greys cover

Frightened Rabbit – Sing the Greys

I picked up Frightened Rabbit’s Sing the Greys recently, and I was immediately disappointed. Not that it doesn’t still have the charisma and emotion I expect from the band, but it’s a bit simple compared to their other albums, and the slightly rougher production is a problem for songs that should sound effortlessly soulful. Also, it doesn’t even cross the thirty-minute mark once you take out a few forgettable instrumentals and the live bonus track. I soon realized my mistake, though: I’d thought I was buying Frightened Rabbit’s new album, but I accidentally chose their indie debut instead. In context, Sing the Greys did demonstrate the band’s early potential. Today, though, they’ve lived up to that potential so well that this sounds fairly pointless. It’s not bad, but the only track that really stands the test of time is “The Greys”, a song about how “the blues” isn’t an accurate description of depression.

Pedestrian Verse cover

Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse

Fortunately, I corrected my mistake and bought Pedestrian Verse, Frightened Rabbit’s actual new album. It lived up to my expectations, and even assuaged my concerns that the band’s emotional style would start to lose its charm. They evolve here, with a fuller, even orchestral, sound. They’re on the path to becoming the Scottish Arcade Fire, but it’s hard to say how that’s a bad thing.

Most of the other elements are the same: Scott Hutchinson’s voice is rich and confessional, with a confidence and honesty that lets him get away with lines few people could (“a knight in shitty armor” or “the slipped disc in the spine of community”). The songs are beautiful but full of pain, portraying consistently bleak lives, and casual obscenity is common. (In Hutchinson’s world, “fucking” is the most soulless and emotionally numb thing one can do.)

After a few albums, Frightened Rabbit’s basic style is no longer as surprising as it used to be. But the decision to double down on their sound is an effective one, especially since the songs are as varied and well-conceived as ever. They are creative and evocative in their depictions of shameful regrets (“Backyard Skulls”), distant families (“December’s Traditions”), and even doubts about the band’s quality (“The Oil Slick”). “Holy” is notable not because the narrator rejects religion, but because of the way that the believers around him make him dwell on his own empty life.

Yes, the lyrics are as unrelentingly bleak as those descriptions make them seem. But the sound is smooth and uplifting, while Hutchinson’s Scottish accent provides nonstop vocal hooks. This is as easy to play on repeat as a simple pop album, but it’s also thoughtful and full of meaning. That’s a wonderful combination.

Sing the Greys: C

Pedestrian Verse: B+


David Bowie – The Next Day (Music Review)

The Next Day cover

David Bowie – The Next Day

After the longest absence of his career, David Bowie makes a triumphant return with The Next Day. The first question people ask when he releases a new album is always what he sounds like this time. Surprisingly, he simply sounds like David Bowie. After a career of creating and shedding personas, anxiously trying to get a jump on the next musical trend, this is maybe the most comfortable he’s ever seemed in his own skin.

Of course, there’s always been more commonality to Bowie’s works than the common wisdom claims. There’s a reason that most people are either fanatic or lukewarm about Bowie in general, rather than saying things like “I’m a fan of Aladdin Sane, but not the Thin White Duke.” Those personas were never truly different artists, but instead different views into the same performer: An intricate composer with a simple but sincere voice, who was alternately torn between savvy commercial moves and a distinctly unmarketable fascination with disasters and dystopias.

The title of The Next Day, along with album art repurposed from “Heroes”, may imply that his next identity is that of the aged rockstar, but that’s only half-true. He has stopped worrying about revamping his image or keeping fresh for a fickle audience, but there’s little sense that he’s cashing in on his past or worrying about his relevance. This is made clear when the title track turns out to have nothing to do with his career’s “next day”, but is instead a classic Bowie look at humanity’s dark side. It kicks off this album with a tale of religious zealots whipped into murderous rage, subverting any expectation you may have for an old singer shuffling off into retirement. It’s also one of the few energetic songs on the album, but it still manages to define the atmosphere of the whole thing. Yes, the album gets a lot of mileage out of celebrating Bowie’s career, so it’s best for people who are familiar with him. But rather than pining for past glories, he uses his current position as skillfully as he always has.

Darker topics like the title track’s show up regularly, especially on the sympathetic but passive observation of a killer on “Valentine’s Day”. Bowie’s still interested in the pop crowd-pleasers, though. “Dancing Out In Space” has a synthesized retro-groove that will sound comfortable to people who mainly know “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes”, and “Boss Of Me” is a schmaltzy love song saved only by a voice that’s capable of dismissing cynical evaluation.

And, of course, songs about pop stardom are also natural to Bowie. As always, though, he doesn’t sing them about himself, but instead pretends to be an observer of the dizzying heights he’s attained: “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” is a rocking celebration of someone’s future success, with an energetic build-up and only brief moments of release, implying a climax still to come. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, arguably the album’s highlight, is a crooning, introspective song about the nature of fame. He describes a reciprocal relationship between celebrities and fans that is sometimes symbiotic, and sometimes mutually parasitic. The contradictory conclusion, “we will never be rid of these stars… but I hope they live forever”, sums up everything he was trying to say in the days of “Ziggy Stardust” and “Fame”. Maybe that’s the real defining aspect of this album: Bowie has the same obsessions as always, but now he finally understands and controls them.

Grade: A-


Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – We the Common (Music Review)

We the Common cover

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – We the Common

Thao Nguyen has a voice that mixes simple honesty with a winking cleverness. With stripped down instrumentation and a slight reverb added to her singing, it’s attention-grabbing. Nguyen’s utter confidence and uncomplicated voice make her into an indie success story. However, on We the Common, performing as Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, she rarely sticks to that basic winning formula.

Admittedly, it would get a little repetitive if she never did more than that. The epitome of the simple folksy style that pulled me in is “Kindness Be Conceived”, a twee duet with Joanna Newsom. It’s hooky and adorable, but no one would want to listen to variations on that for a forty minutes. The best model for her would be the opening track, “We the Common (For Valerie Bolden)”. It starts and ends with Nguyen on her guitar, alternately representing a vulnerable woman and a united people (the song apparently inspired by the story of someone she met when visiting a woman’s prison). In the middle, the band joins her with a slowly building beat and a wall of sound to fortify the conviction that she presents. I want to hear more songs like that.

Otherwise, the really compelling moments come and go throughout the tracks. The Get Down Stay Down are talented and versatile, but so varied that the album has no consistency beyond Nguyen’s voice. (The band is perhaps nothing more than a rotating cast brought in to fulfill her vision, as fourteen other performers are credited, not counting the ones who contribute only background vocals.) There’s no commonality between the slow-as-molasses “Clouds For Brains” and the clanking mechanical soundscape of “City”. Elsewhere, some songs are bouncy and poppy, while others throw in a soulful saxophone or even organ. The vocals are intriguing in almost every case, and even most of the weaker songs would make me curious about the rest of the album if I heard them in isolation. Put together, though, the album only sporadically lives up to the potential that the pieces promise.

Grade: B-


Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away (Music Review)

Push the Sky Away cover

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

This blog mixes reviews of artists I’ve known for a long time with ones that are new to me. I’ve often wondered if I’m consistent in my approach to these categories. I think I am overall, but there are ways I can be skewed in either direction. Nick Cave is an excellent example. As a big fan of for years, and I’m able to find things to like even in his less popular works. On the other hand, when I already know of the best options he presents, it’s difficult to get excited about the ones that don’t reach those heights. His new album, Push the Sky Away, falls into that category: It has good moments, and if this were my first exposure to him, it might be enough to make me look into his other works. But compared to what a Nick Cave album should be, I know that it’s especially weak. There’s no reason to recommend this, especially when it follows on the heels of the excellent Dig, Lazarus, Dig!

The main problem is that it feels reserved. Cave has always been defined by a fearless, if not outright foolish, extremism. Whether talking about love, hate, joy, or angst, his lyrics and The Bad Seeds’ accompaniment is always over the top. Here, he seems comfortable in the persona of an aging crooner, taking no risks and refusing to lose control. I’ve described his music as a “psychological exorcism” before, but this would be better suited for a dinner party.

The Bad Seeds’ membership has always been in flux, but with Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey gone, the only prominent musician left is Warren Ellis. Possibly because of this, many of the songs do a great job of evoking a darker, threatening atmosphere behind their gentle sounds. The good moments fall into that category, with repeated lines like “you grow old, and you grow cold” or “we know who you are, we know where you live, and we know there’s no need to forgive”. Cave doesn’t always go for that dark, quiet approach, though, and he has nothing else for the other songs. Effectively, only one dimension is fleshed out here. At the very least, Cave needs to add a guitarist to the group next time.

“Finishing Jubilee Street” is the one exception, an interesting track whose appeal comes from its novelty instead. It’s not one to listen to repeatedly, but it’s interesting in a blog-post-as-song sort of way. (It’s a simple story, and repeating refrain, inspired by a dream Cave claims to have had after he wrote another song on the album.) Otherwise, Push the Sky Away features the least experimentation or artistic restlessness of any Cave album ever. He has good lines (“she had a history but no past”), execrable lines (“I was the match that would fire up her snatch”), and everything in between, along with a strange approach to naming songs: The titles “We No Who U R” and “We Real Cool” sound off, fitting in neither with Cave’s established persona or the style he adapted here.

As I said at the start, Push the Sky Away is certainly not bad. There’s half of a good album here, with some quiet, evocative examples of a mature Nick Cave. But that portion doesn’t offer a lot of variety, and the rest is forgettable. He’s set the standard by which albums like this should be measured, and this one isn’t necessary given what else is available.

Grade: C+


Eels – Wonderful, Glorious (Music Review)

Wonderful, Glorious cover

Eels – Wonderful, Glorious

Eels’ confessional lyrics are a welcome relief from the ironic detachment and guarded personalities of today. The band has even been given credit for inspiring the emo scene, but frontman E always stayed oblivious to the trends around him. His consistency through two decades of changing styles probably explains why the band is still around, but it does get repetitive at times. With their three-album “trilogy” in 2009 and 2010, I found myself losing interest very suddenly. But after taking a few more years off, I’m relieved to be enjoying their new album. I can’t say for sure whether Wonderful, Glorious is truly better, or if I just needed to ignore a couple albums so that they would sound fresh again, but I’m happy either way.

Wonderful, Glorious is still not one of the band’s stronger albums. Eels have seemed less musically adventurous since drummer Butch’s departure in 2003, and this one finds them consistently in their “nerdy white guy blues” mode. It’s comfortable, though, and it seems to encourage the most direct lyrics yet. If anything, E crosses into the territory of corny clichés, with songs like “You’re My Friend” and “Stick Together”. (Sample lines: “Yeah, you’re my friend/ Coming through again and again/ Your good will I never will betray”, and “It’s very clear we make a winning team/ We gotta stick together”.) E’s confident lack of coolness comes through for him, though, and he makes even those lines (ok, almost all lines except those) work. Despite playing it safe musically, it appears that this first theme-less album since 2005 freed E to write natural-sounding lyrics again. And as silly as those quotes may sound, long-term fans will appreciate the fact that he finally seems happy and comfortable with his life.

That matters. At this point, checking in with E is one of the main reasons to buy an Eels album. It’s sort of like keeping up with your favorite blog: You don’t expect the author to surprise you with innovations all the time, but it’s still worthwhile to keep up with their life. (Admittedly, buying an album is different than reading a blog. But this way, you get music, too!) Wonderful, Glorious features both the every-day moments and the mundane life changes. (“Bombs Away”, for example, is about the decision to be louder and more assertive.) As long as they don’t appear very frequently, I could keep enjoying Eels albums like this for a long time.

Grade: B