Archive for the ‘ Pop ’ Category

The Builders And The Butchers – Dead Reckoning (Music Review)

Dead Reckoning cover

The Builders And The Butchers - Dead Reckoning

With their folk-rock sound and nasally, somewhat lost voice, The Builders And The Butchers are immediately reminiscent of fellow Portlanders The Decemberists. But where The Decemberists rely heavily on affectations of past eras, this band is rooted firmly in a modern, or maybe recently-passed, alternative sound. More importantly, their vocals don’t have nearly the range of Colin Meloy, and maintain a consistently whiny sound throughout. I was ready to dismiss them in the first few minutes, but before long, they started to grow on me.

The cover to Dead Reckoning, with its realistic but overly-saturated cartoon of a dead boy (as well as the back, filled with penny-eyed children being rowed off to their fate) makes a good summary of the band’s themes. The depressing and angstful lyrics contrast with upbeat, forward-moving music, and the whole thing is a little too exaggerated to feel the emotions personally. The band has an excellent ear for pop, although their sound has never been mainstream, and this brand of wrist-cutting flamboyance went out of style after The Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails.The back of the Dead Reckoning case

This is a band whose “Lullaby” starts with “It’s time we made ashes of our bones”, and who performs a song called “Rotten To The Core” as if it’s a dancy interpretation of Tom Waits’ cynical Blood Money album. The songs feature a huge variety of instruments (with a unique beat that comes from two people sharing a single drum set), but the results are always simple and repetitive, sometimes with a bit of a waltz or a march to them, and other times just with a stark beat to emphasize the disasters envisioned in the lyrics. Apocalyptic visions are where the singing sounds most at home, reaching manic heights with the proclamation “there’s a battle in the sky between God and the Devil” or warnings about monsters in the sea. Other songs (especially the opening “I Broke The Vein” and the closing “Family Tree”) are more personal, with a quavering narrator explaining his own pain, but the wider cinematic scale sounds the most appropriate to the band.

Though these examples may sound depressing, this is a fun album. It functions as a light, folksy call to arms for a fantasy war that doesn’t actually touch the listener personally. The Builders And The Butchers provide an unusual form of escapism, with a catchy style that sounds full and epic even when featuring mainly acoustic instruments. It’s a unique experience.

Grade: B

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Music Review)

Let England Shake cover

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Calling PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake a return to form is misleading. After all, she has reinvented herself with each new album. The first sign of her recent decline was when Uh Huh Her reprised past sounds instead of creating new ones. So this new album is a “return” only in the sense that it is nothing like what she has done before, and therefore sounds vital and natural.

Let England Shake is different not only in sound, but in focus. Harvey has turned her intense gaze away from herself and towards humanity in general. Specifically bemoaning her native England’s decline, she lays the blame on its destructive wars. Harvey’s singing here is mellow and restrained, admittedly not playing to her strengths, and the unusual (for her) backing vocals are a little flat, but that hardly matters: This is a vision as arresting as any she has presented yet.

In fact, the vision is unrelentingly bleak. Harvey’s western audiences may not often think about violence around the world, but this album offers no alternative to the idea that our time is dominated by war. Her quiet voice seems lost in a tide of nationalism and forces outside her control, telling stories of doomed soldiers and civilians fleeing through sewage. The mood is incredibly effective, offering no moments of anger to provide catharsis. The closest it comes to release is in the sarcasm evident on the propaganda-styled chant of “The Glorious Land”. (This is one of the standout songs, by the way, twisting a children’s chant about their rich, fertile nation into one in which the land is plowed by tanks and produces orphans.)

The songs cover wars past and present, confusing the message about England’s current decline. All the war portrayed here seems equally hopeless, with “On Battleship Hill” highlighting the unhealed damage that remains even after nature has reclaimed a battleground. However, this change in focus, which lets Harvey’s stories shift between survivors, victims, and observers, provides the main source of variety on the album without ever letting up on its point.

Let England Shake is far from Harvey’s best album, and not all fans of her rougher, more personal work will find the spark that they’re hoping for here. Despite that, this is an incredibly affecting document of our times. It’s difficult to listen to repeatedly, but that’s actually a testament to its songcraft. PJ Harvey is back in excellent form, and if it isn’t exactly with the sound you would expect, how can that be a surprise?

Grade: B+

Wye Oak – Civilian (Music Review)

Civilian cover

Wye Oak - Civilian

I was introduced to Wye Oak through song samples on the internet. The band makes an excellent first impression, with a mellow, ethereal sound that hints at meaning just beyond the listener’s grasp. Singer Jenn Wasner’s trancelike voice is calm and confident, and bandmate Andy Stack is an inventive musician. The dark but beautiful style leaves an impression of something like Portishead backing up the Delgados.

When I bought their album Civilian, though, I was immediately disappointed. Wye Oak is as talented as that initial exposure implied, but the promised meaning behind the songs never came through. The consistently mellow music didn’t make it easy to stay invested in exploring the songs, and Wasner’s voice began to sound more and more like someone singing through a mouthful of cotton. There are some brilliant moments, such as when “Dogs Eyes” implies that a human spark in other animals could cause crises of faith for both believers and non-believers. But even that song has nothing left to say after the first 40 seconds. In general, this is an album that makes you work hard to find meaning, but rarely offers enough to make it worthwhile.

I’ve been listening to Cilvilian for a few months now, always thinking that I was almost to the point where I could write a thorough review. More recently, I’ve started to come around to appreciating it again. Like a koan, the key step is in accepting the lack of purpose to the lyrics. Once that has happened, you can truly appreciate the music. This holds up under an audiophile’s scrutiny, but would fit in equally well in a department store background. Simple time-keeping beats usually let the focus stay on Wasner’s voice, but occasionally rises above it and builds to memorable crescendos. While the lyrics may not have much purpose, the vocals and instrumentation of this two-person band blend together seamlessly for the greater whole.

It’s difficult for me to review an album I’ve had such disparate reactions to. I’ve seen other people in all three of the phases I went through, and I’m not sure that there’s one correct “final” conclusion. I enjoy Civilian now, but I’m not sure if it was worth the effort I went through to reach this point. I can already imagine the next phase of my relationship to the album: I won’t feel compelled to listen to it much more now that I’ve reviewed it, and it will get lost in my music collection. Every now and then I’ll get a pleasant surprise from rediscovering it, but I’ll put it aside again after another listen. Those times it resurfaces for me will be as fleeting and inconclusive as Wasner’s voice.

Grade: C+

Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing (Music Review)

American Goldwing cover

Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing

When I reviewed two previous Blitzen Trapper albums, I focused largely on the significant changes between each one. The way I saw it, there was an unusual but linear path from their weird stoner anthems to folk and classic rock, and then to a more complex folk sound. With American Goldwing, though, it becomes apparent that the band is actually circling around a larger territory. So large, in fact, that it took four albums to stake out the region. This resurrects the classic rock influences that Destroyer Of The Void largely dropped, with guitar riffs and white funk dominating.

The big surprise with American Goldwing is just how straightforward it is. While Blitzen Trapper’s lyrics are typically circumspect and seemingly made for our post-ironic time, this sincerely mimics past styles. Most of these songs would have sounded perfectly normal blaring from a muscle car’s speakers in the mid-70’s, preferably with the open road of the album cover stretching ahead. (The spaceman on the road might have seemed a little out of place, though. The band hasn’t given up all their affectations.)

This style fits the band naturally. In fact, the first three tracks all sound like they could have been chart-toppers in their target era: “Might Find It Cheap” is a cleverly-worded call to the men out their to respect the ladies, and “Fletcher” recalls the danger and potential that seemed to buzz behind lazy youthful days. “Love the Way You Walk Away”, a regretful ballad intended to show a rock band’s softer side, is the album’s highlight. The creative energy that could have been used to write inscrutable lyrics is instead directed towards finding a new perspective for these traditional topics. Though the songs stay within well-tread territory, they never feel like retreads of old hits.

A few songs stretch on a little aimlessly, giving the impression that Blitzen Trapper was keeping themselves restrained in order to fit their chosen style. Perhaps that is why “Street Fighting Sun” is such a standout track: Coming near the end of American Goldwing, it merges the funky classic rock with all the modern weirdness of the band’s last couple albums. It would have been a good song on their earlier works, but here it sounds positively therapeutic. It’s a reminder that Blitzen Trapper can’t be tied down, even by their own design.

Grade: B

New Albums From Jonathan Coulton and They Might Be Giants

Artificial Heart cover

Jonathan Coulton - Artificial Heart

Jonathan Coulton has become one of the stars of geek-rock, thanks mainly to his empathetic songs about the softer side of monsters and mad scientists. With his easygoing charisma and strong online presence, he’s the cool big brother to a legion of (well-deserved) fans. However, his strength is in the power of singles, amplified by downloads and social media links. In album format, he seems a lot less impressive. Artificial Heart demonstrates this.

The new hits are there: Coulton zeroes in on geek culture obsessions both trendy (“The Stache”) and standard (“Nemeses”). The latter is the closest to his “classic” standards, playing up the needy motivations behind a storybook arch-nemesis. But most of the songs are quiet, introspective, and even occasionally realistic. Coulton’s second fascination has been with the banality of modern existence, and he hits those beats on “Alone At Home” and “Good Morning Tucson”.

These songs will all work great in concert, but seem less impressive mixed into an album. Tracks like “Fraud” and “Today With Your Wife” are a little too slow and focus on emotions that never seem as genuine as they do in Coulton’s more fantastic songs. That is the issue in a nutshell: Coulton is intelligent and clever person capable of making songs that rise above their gimmicky surface, but he frequently attempts more “serious” work that never reaches the same heights. He’s a skilled performer, but it’s the creative spark that separates him from your friend’s cousin who plays at coffee shops. That spark appears here, but too inconsistently and too subtly to make a great album.

Grade: C+

Join Us cover

They Might Be Giants - Join Us

They Might Be Giants, the longstanding rulers of geek-rock, also have a new album. Join Us is in many ways a fairly comfortable, standard TMBG release, but remains consistently good. It’s true that the band has kept themselves from becoming stale by mainly releasing children’s music these days – this is their first adult album since 2007 – but the important thing is that they are not stale even after all these years. These songs are clever and interesting.

The band has a wide range, from folksy to slinky to rocking to the ballads and the just plain weird evolution of 1990’s alternative. These are tied together by the distinctively nasal vocals and a feeling that we’re in the studio watching music geeks play around. That impression excuses them from questions of musical quality.

The lyrics are the same as ever, ranging from the cleverly phrased to the inscrutable. They run every idea through a process that ensures even straightforward topics require attention from the listener: Circumlocution, complex sentence structures, and an advanced (but natural) vocabulary make their lyrics annoying for some people but thrilling for others. Contrary to Coulton’s work, it gives even their mundane songs a sort of uniqueness. “Judy Is Your Viet Nam” and “You Probably Get That A Lot” may cover completely standard relationship topics, but they’ve never been worded this way before.

They namedrop everything from Banksy to Sleestaks, and talk about Swamp Thing only one verse after evolution. Sometimes it helps to understand the references, but often those are only the starting points for the strange topics: “The Lady And The Tiger”, for example, has very little to do with the classic story (unless I’ve forgotten the talking animals and laser vision).

As always, the band undercuts their potentially snobby image with self-deprecation and macabre humor. “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” features an obviously crazy protagonist who rails against “all the dicks in this dick town”, but names that character after the two bandleaders. “When Will You Die” is an upbeat celebration about an enemy’s eventual demise. And while “2082” may be an indecipherable time-travel story, it’s climax is a surprisingly disturbing murder.

They Might Be Giants has matured without changing significantly. If people find them repetitive by now, the best defense is to show that their quality standards are as high as ever. It is probably best for the band to maintain this pace of four or five years between adult releases. This keeps the albums feeling like special events, and gives them time to find new twists to their established style.

Grade: B

EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints (Music Review)

Past Life Martyred Saints cover

EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints

EMA’s music exists in a territory somewhere between songs and performance pieces. The music is generally repetitive grinding or droning, creating a shapeless platform for her lost-sounding voice and frequent non-sequiturs, and the recordings lose quite a bit by not being able to show her dream-like but charismatic performance. Despite that, though, the tracks work well as individual songs, with meaning and cohesion that distances them from most of the lo-fi artsy experiments that it could be compared to. It’s rare for music like this to win me over, but her release Past Life Martyred Saints managed to do it.

An edgy energy flows through the performance. Usually it’s in the amusical instrumentation or angstful lyrics, but it feels perfectly natural on the occasions when an angry noise breaks through the calm surface. These fit naturally into a complex persona that makes the occasional vague, boring stretch forgivable. Those stretches do exist, unfortunately, but they don’t define the album.

EMA is still young, and still clearly recalls the teen angst she sings about: The brutal “Butterfly Knife” is an unapologetic story of self-mutilation (“You were a goth in high school/You cut and fucked your arms up… 20 kisses with a butterfly knife”), and “Marked” portrays her as a hollow soul (“My arms they are a see-through plastic”) craving dangerous validation (“I wish that every time he touched me left a mark”). In some ways, Past Life Martyred Saints feels a little like a college art thesis that managed to take on a life of its own. It has that exuberant but sometimes-unfinished quality that can be embarrassing ten years later, and hopefully the success she found here won’t stop her from the experimentation and development that should still be in front of her.

Past Life Martyred Saints covers everything from Stephen Foster references to off-key acapella. It is bookended by two songs over six minutes long: “Grey Ship” and “Red Star”. The former sets the tone by wandering between breathy folk and electronic drone, while the latter closes the album with a more traditional song structure. The triumphant conclusion finds her with the mature conviction to leave a man who’s no good for her. Whether or not those two songs are meant to thematically define the album, there’s no doubt that it covers a lot of ground and hints at further development in the future. EMA is an artist to watch.

Grade: B

The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? (Music Review)

What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? cover

The Vaccines - What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?

The Vaccines have a sound equally influenced by 70’s punk and 80’s synth, with lyrics that sometimes dip into the sleazy, dangerous territory of The Raveonettes. These elements meld surprisingly well on their debut release What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? The punk elements keep the slower songs straightforward and emotional, without dipping into any boring or navel-gazing territory, and the other elements ensure that the harder songs are clear and well-produced enough to be accepted by a mainstream audience.

“Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)” and “Norgaard” are Ramones-influenced gems, which barely take three minutes when played back to back. These are the rare songs that can remain fun even when they stay stuck in your head for days. The bulk of the songs are in a slower style, with sparse arrangements around singer Justin Young’s deep, smooth voice. In songs like “Wetsuit” and “Post Break-Up Sex”, he provides a youthful approximation of soulfulness. while slightly more energetic ones like “Blow It Up” tinge the clean production with a garage influence. Somewhere in between the band’s extremes, the mid-tempo “If You Wanna” provides a bouncy beat and timeless sound, with a radio-ready message of break-up pain. (“I don’t wanna see you with another guy, but the fact is that I may. That’s what all the friends I do not like as much as you say.”)

This album has some of the best pop treasures of the year, but even at its short half hour runtime, it seems like the band have run through all their tricks by the end. It’s not immediately obvious how they will manage to follow this up without either becoming boring or abandoning their simple elegance. Even if The Vaccines’ career ends up being as fleeting as the youth and the lusts they portray, though, at least this album will preserve them.

Grade: B+

Blitzen Trapper – Wild Mountain Jam and Destroyer of the Void (Music Review)

Like most people, I discovered Blitzen Trapper with their 2008 album Furr. I was impressed enough to check out two more of their releases: Wild Mountain Nation and Destroyer of the Void. This creates a tricky situation for this blog, though: Since I only review works that are new to me, I’m in the position of examining one that pre-dates Furr and one that is more recent, while my main point of reference for Blitzen Trapper’s work is not being reviewed. Hopefully that doesn’t make things too confusing.

Wild Mountain Nation cover

Blitzen Trapper - Wild Mountain Nation

It’s amazing to see how different Wild Mountain Nation is from the breakout album that came a year later. The elements that would eventually make Furr are all there, from Eric Earley’s simple, high-pitched voice to the weird folk approach of the music. But while Blitzen Trapper now seems like a pretty straightforward indie-rock band with folk and classic rock trappings, Wild Mountain Nation sounds much more like the work of a stoner band.

In some ways, this helps to explain the band’s songs a lot. The hard-to-parse lyrics and meandering styles of Furr make a lot more sense if you imagine a bunch of stoners playing around instead of taking them at face value. Of course, Wild Mountain Nation is much further more out there, with lyrics that don’t seem to be concealing any deeper meanings (“She had a sweet tooth: Kiss-and-tell phone booth”). The music is much rougher, but there is actually more variety throughout the album. “Woof & Warp of the Quiet Giant’s Hem” revolves around a simple synth line with lyrics of “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”, while “Summer Town” is a heartfelt ballad whose harmonies and guitar-plucking could have come from any time in the past forty years. “Wild Mtn. Jam” sounds more like a country version of Ween than Ween’s actual country album, but “Murder Babe” could be a testosterone-filled hard rock song if the singer dropped an octave and the band slowed down by about 1/3.

The songs vary from pleasant to jarring, without ever delivering something that truly stands out. It’s not always successful (“The Green King Sings” occasionally sounds like a passive-aggressive band trying to drown out their oblivious singer), but the skill is definitely there. Blitzen Trapper just hadn’t nailed down their sound yet. The only surprise is how suddenly the then-four-year-old band was able to find the right mix for Furr the following year. The experimental, unserious nature is a welcome change from the styles that dominate the indie scene these days, but by coating it in a more staid, folk sound, the band managed to fit in with the modern scene without losing the subversive edge.

Destroyer of the Void cover

Blitzen Trapper - Destroyer of the Void

Once they found that mix, Blitzen Trapper apparently liked it. 2010’s Destroyer of the Void goes further along the path of rich folk-pop with a classic rock influence. The abrasive sounds and occasional yelps are gone, and the epic 6 minute opener makes a sharp contrast to Wild Mountain Nation’s OCD. The strange perspective is still present, along with lyrics that seem to make sense until you try to parse the specifics. It seems like the best way to explain it might be that they have changed from a “stoner band” to one with “psychedelic influences”.

Destroyer doesn’t have any tracks to match Furr’s standouts. Really, Furr’s first half had a more energetic edge that made it immediately appealing and earned some radio play. Destroyer takes its cues from the softer songs. Fortunately, though, it gives them more appeal: Furr seemed to lose its direction whenever the band calmed down, but this new album avoids the lows even if it doesn’t have the highs. It’s consistently good, even if it wouldn’t serve as the catchiest introduction for a new listener.

The sound might be more consistent now, but Blitzen Trapper continues to write interesting new songs instead of revisiting specifics of the past. The only exception is the strange “The Man Who Would Speak True”, a close cousin to Furr‘s “Black River Killer”. Both are murder ballads whose narrator is undeniably evil, but references a moral code that doesn’t quite make sense. The soulful vocals and soft music would normally be used for songs about introspective heroes, putting them at odds with the song’s actual theme. It’s a clever trick, but it mainly works because it is so rare for the band to revisit past styles.

I’m glad Furr led me to try out these two albums. They provided a lot more variety than I expected, and also gave me a new perspective of the album I already knew. Neither were quite as good as Furr had been, but Destroyer did manage to come close. It’s only a few weeks until this band’s next release, and I’m looking forward to it now that I know both how skilled and how experimental they can be.

Wild Mountain Nation: C+

Destroyer of the Void: B

Enter The Haggis – Gutter Anthems (Music Review)

Gutter Anthems cover

Enter The Haggis - Gutter Anthems

Perhaps it was unfair of me to introduce myself to Enter The Haggis at the same time that I was listening to the Dropkick Murphys’ latest album. Though the band isn’t bad, there is a reason that they have such a small fanbase compared to the Murphys. On the other hand, it might be unfair to make that comparison at all: They may both be American bands with Irish influences, but while the Dropkick Murphys combined that with blue-collar punk, Enter The Haggis dabbles in more straightforward pop.

That’s not to say that the Irish-punk movement has passed by the band completely. Gutter Anthem’s first song (after the instrumental opener) is a hard-rocking ode to alcohol and overindulgence. But, while it’s a good song, it just doesn’t sound natural coming from lead singer Brian Buchanan. His declaration that “we’ll sing a gutter anthem till the day we die!” sounds less like honest self-destruction and more like the stubborn partying of a fresh-faced student who knows that once the hangover subsides, he’ll need to start studying for those finals. The band sounds much more natural singing earnest pop songs about the importance of raising children right (“DNA”) or the way people need to face up to their responsibilities (“Real Life/Alibis”).

That’s not to say that any of the songs are bad. In fact, most of them are well-written. It’s just that the more rocking tracks sound like play-acting (The liner notes for “Noseworthy and Piercy” actually take the time to inform us that 19th-century fishermen had dangerous lives, in case anyone doesn’t understand that from the song), and the poppier ones feel somewhat mundane. The band deserves a small, devoted following, probably near a college somewhere, but it’s only the popularity of Irish fusion that has brought them to national attention. (Also, those aforementioned liner notes do help. Not all of them are necessary, but when they explain inside jokes or tie into the songwriter’s life, I’m sure it helps to turn casual listeners into fans.)

Gutter Anthems also features three instrumentals that testify to the band’s composition and performance skills. Two of them are too short to work as more than glue for the album, but “Murphy’s Ashes” shows how interesting Enter The Haggis can be. Adapting a band-member’s industrial experiment into a legitimate-sounding Irish instrumental was a bold and tricky move, but it turns out that the bagpipes make an effective replacement for synthesizers. It shows that while the band may need some more time to figure out what kind of music they do best, they definitely have the skill to write interesting songs if they figure that out.

Grade: C+

Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring For My Halo (Music Review)

Smoke Ring For My Halo cover

Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo

The first time I heard Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, my reaction was to try to remember what else he had done. His casual, assured style immediately made me think of Stephen Malkmus or recent Sonic Youth, practiced 90’s slackers who are still recording music. It was actually a surprise when I realized that Vile is someone new to the music scene.

Vile sings in an almost-spoken, laid-back style, which seems like it could become a sneer if he put a little more energy into it. Instead, it comes across as a half-whine, half-stoned sound. His backing band provides simple guitar-based pop with a lazy feel that calls to mind the “smoke rings” of the album’s title: It is fun and relaxing, with no real intention of going anywhere or trying something new.

When this style works, it can be excellent. The first few tracks give off a confident stoner-pop vibe that I really want to like, especially “Jesus Fever” (a perfect song to get lost in, with its folksy guitar and a downer-hook in the repeated line “I’m already gone”). Unfortunately, Vile front-loads the album with his best music, and it starts to wear thin by the end. On a second listen, even the early standouts have started to lose their luster.

The problem is that the lazy slacker sound actually takes a lot of experience to pull off. Bands like Sonic Youth had a full decade to figure out what worked and what didn’t (and at a time when the audience was more forgiving of experimentation). Vile skips over that long career of self-discovery, and tries to start out in the same territory that the masters are currently inhabiting. This quiet, laid-back style only works when it sounds completely effortless, but it paradoxically demands perfectection. A single note or line out of place stands out in these simple, clear songs, and they easily destroy the illusion.

The line between “mesmerizing” and “boring” is very thin for this music, and is mainly determined by whether it supports appropriately compelling vocals. Unfortunately, Vile doesn’t seem to have a grasp on what sounds good or bad coming from his mouth, and lines like “Don’t know if you really came but I feel dumb in asking” cause the entire composition to come crashing down. The slow pace of a song like “Baby’s Arms” is appropriately relaxing, but in a song like “Peeping Tomboy”, it just sounds like Vile is stalling for time.

Smoke Ring For My Halo is the work of some very skilled artists who haven’t yet figured out how to use their talents. I hope that they aren’t quite the slackers that they appear to be, because if they aren’t satisfied with the work here, they could still learn to record a real masterpiece. This album doesn’t seem to have a place now, but it would work well if it could become the occasionally-satisfying introduction to someone who got a lot better.

Grade: C