three more from second quarter '10 - decided non-favorites, which didn't make the last batch due to per-post label character limits (wha?) - then six pretty great ones from 2009, reviewed this year (incl. one reviewed for citypaper) - then three more recent-ish AMG reviews of even older things, including one of my very favorite albums of the decade (well, ok, #96 according to my list. still pretty fave.) and this, i am pretty sure, brings me completely up to date in terms of reposting all of my review output here (!!) for the first time in maybe ever. except for the two reviews i wrote last week. so stay tuned...
We Are The World: Clay Stones review
L.A. art freaks We Are the World make no bones about the fact that they are not really a band -- they prefer the term "outfit," which seems vague enough to encompass an undertaking whose modes of operation include choreography, elaborate costuming, video, and all-around immersive visual spectacle in addition to their music. In any case, it's clear that the fullest expression of the group's project is to be found in the aesthetically adventurous, quasi-political performance art of their live shows, rather than on a piece of plastic or some digital files. That makes it difficult to know how to properly assess this debut album, which by the same token is clearly meant as more than a mere soundtrack or souvenir. Taken unto itself, divorced from its visual/experiential counterpart, Clay Stones still delivers plenty of visceral intensity: it's a breathless 45 minutes of violently propulsive electronic rhythms and stark, eerie atmospherics. Engaging but hardly easy listening, it's melodically minimal (beyond the throbbing bass, blank-eyed vocals, and scattered twitchy synth lines, harmonic content is typically scant) and emotionally monochromatic (even when the kinetic energy slackens, the mood remains relentlessly dark and edgy) but far from monotonous: primary musical instigator Robbie Williamson wrests an impressive textural and polyrhythmic array from a palette of black and grey, culling his constantly shifting sounds from industrial, minimal house, electro-clash (fellow techno-visual spectacularists Fischerspooner come readily to mind), and the twisted synth pop of the Knife. One frustrating weak point: Megan Gold is not by any means a tremendous vocal presence -- she adds a nicely bluesy, sub-Polly Harvey yowl to the pummeling title track and the glam-thrash stomp of "Goya Monster," but her vapid singsonging elsewhere (and flimsy nursery-rhyme rapping on "Fight Song") tends to detract somewhat from the album's dramatic drive where a more commanding vocalist could have helped transform it into something truly remarkable. Despite a promising start (the insistent yet inscrutable rallying cries of the first few tracks) and some inspired programming throughout (check the jittery tech-funk instrumental "Sweet Things Are So Hard"), Clay Stones remains conceptually intriguing and admirably sculpted, but a bit too stony to fully embrace on its own terms -- though it's easy and enticing to imagine how this could be tremendously effective stuff in person.
First Aid Kit: Drunken Trees and The Big Black and the Blue reviews
Suburban Stockholm's Söderberg sisters put their best foot forward on this, their first full-length outing as First Aid Kit: the album opens nearly a cappella, with a few slow strums and then a full minute of nothing but the haunting close harmonies that are the duo's strongest and most distinctive musical asset. In the 40-odd minutes that follow, the sisters' simplistic, repetitious song structures may start to grow stale, and their fine but unfussy folk instrumentalism may seem less than inspiring, but those harmonies are never far from hand, ensuring that The Big Black and the Blue is never less than an entirely pleasant listening experience. And it has potential to be much more than that -- taken individually, many and even most of these tunes have ample charms to offer, among them the sweetly melodic "Waltz for Richard," the wistful "Heavy Storm," and the intriguing "I Met Up with the King" (which bears a striking resemblance to Neko Case). Taken as a whole album, though, the songs lose a lot of their distinctiveness, and the uninterrupted loveliness can start to feel oddly dreary. The Big Black certainly doesn't dash the promise suggested by the duo's Drunken Trees EP (which in its final form was only four songs and 14 minutes shorter than this album) -- although that release's mild, playful experimentalism and small inklings of stylistic range are scrapped here for a more sober-minded American folk traditionalism that's perhaps commendable but not altogether compelling -- but it leaves that promise yet to be completely fulfilled. It feels entirely probable that they'll get there: the Söderbergs are still (astonishingly) young -- 20 and 17 at the time of this album's release -- and they've shown clear evidence of their raw talent and artistry. Their level of engagement is admirable: in addition to their genuinely prodigious vocal gifts and their more than competent handling all of the varied instrumentation here, save for the drums on several tracks, the sisters are credited with co-production and mixing, and they're also responsible for album's stunning, antiquarian-styled artwork. If they want to secure their place in this young century's burgeoning classicist folk wave (see also: Laura Marling, the Tallest Man on Earth), they'll merely need to come up with some songs that can truly make good on their otherwise considerably distinguished overall package.
Here We Go Magic: Pigeons review
Here We Go Magic made waves in early 2009 with an eponymous debut that was the one-man home recording project of indie folker Luke Temple; a curious, sonically hazy album essentially divided between sketchy ambient noise instrumentals and simple, tuneful, loosely tribal-feeling folk-pop nuggets. A little more than a year later, HWGM is now a full-fledged five-piece band with extensive touring behind them and a deal with big-league indie Secretly Canadian, but while their follow-up effort, Pigeons, varies from its predecessor in plenty of ways, the band's musical approach remains puzzlingly, if not unpleasantly, undefined. The most substantial through-line from the first album is one of sound, which remains dirty, dreamy, psychedelic, and swirling -- produced and recorded by the band in a house in the Catskills, Pigeons offers no substantial increase in recording fidelity, which turns out to be a good thing. More surprisingly, this album essentially jettisons both of the primary stylistic modes explored on the debut: the white-noise instrumentals are gone (and scarcely missed) but, with a few exceptions, so are the ambiguously ethnic, gentle world-pop vibes and much of the mantra-like melodic minimalism that contributed so much to the first album's appeal. Opener "Hibernation" floats fragmentary vocals atop a dense, stuttering Afro-beat lope, while the final two tracks, the circular chant "Vegetable or Native" and wordless, herky-jerky "Herbie I Love You," are built on layers of skeletal, intriguingly polyrhythmic percussion -- but that's about the extent of this album's global grooving. The eight intervening tracks form a motley, unfocused assemblage of eclectic indie pop, sometimes with a worked-up rhythmic drive -- the jaunty single "Collector" and the submerged-feeling "Moon" suggest either the mechanistic intensity of Krautrock or, less charitably, tepidly frenetic, warmed-over post-punk -- sometimes more ethereally floating. "Bottom Feeder" is vaguely countryish, making fine use of Temple's thin, overstrained pipes (shades of Neil Young reediness), while the curiously carnivalistic "Old World United," definitely the oddest thing on here, recalls the debut's old-timey waltz "Everything's Big." There's nothing particularly wrong with any of this, but despite this expanded stylistic and instrumental palette (and some notably lush, lovely vocal harmonies), it's hard to escape the sense that this album is, ironically, even more of an indulgently dabbling affair than its home four-tracked predecessor, which at least had an appealing simplicity and directness of approach. In the words of this album's prettiest tune: "it's casual, not mindshaking." And that's just OK.
Think About Life: Family review
No points for guessing what this well-named Montreal threesome thinks about life -- at least assuming that listeners can judge from the sound of this humbly hewn but highly enjoyable sophomore album, the band's outlook and overall aesthetic are unmistakably vibrant, messy, enthusiastic, and riotously colorful. At their best, Think About Life marry the sort of hyperactive, upbeat kitchen-sink pop purveyed by the likes of Junior Senior and the Go! Team to a more guitar-centric indie rock foundation, occasionally bringing a muscular, dance-punky edge to the proceedings. With live drums carrying the groove on every track but one (the New Order-ish electro-pop of "Nueva Nueva"), Family maintains a loose, live, almost ramshackle vibe throughout, although the band also makes fairly prominent use of electronics, with all manner of buzzy keyboards and a handful of cleverly integrated samples. There are flirtations with Afro-pop and Motown (the lovely, laid-back "The Veldt," whose chorus interpolates "My Girl"), a splash of hip-hop (the opening moments of "Set You on Fire," before it settles into more of a pedestrian indie-dance jam), and some frenzied neo-new wave ("The Wizzzard"), several of which come with a curious midsong breakdown of some sort. The grooves are typically on point, Martin Cesar's throaty vocals -- split between impassioned midrange warbles and a Princely falsetto with strong shades of TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe -- are pleasantly distinctive, and the whole album feels comfortably crammed with ear-catching trinkets and inventive arranging ideas, even if the band can't always come up with the melodic goods to make its sonic concoctions fully stick. The first four tracks form the most consistent stretch, with top marks going to the slinky disco strut and touching teenage love soap of "Sweet Sixteen" and the herky-jerky, horn-assisted funk-rock of "Johanna," which features a particularly gritty, determined vocal turn from Cesar as well as a brief, unexpected detour into polyrhythmic trombone Dixie. While the rest of Family doesn't always stand up to those high points, it does always sound like the bandmembers are enjoying themselves, and for the most part that sense of fun is infectious. And sure, it can also grow tiresome and overly familiar at times -- as with so many things, it's mostly a question of perspective. But if Family doesn't make you think about life, at the very least it ought to make you think about dancing.
An Horse: Rearrange Beds review
An Horse's tuneful, classically crunchy two-person indie rock fits in well alongside engagingly personable contemporaries like Wye Oak, Mates of State, and their sometime tourmates Tegan and Sara (who were largely responsible for introducing the band to American audiences), but it also owes a great deal to the meatier old-guard indie duos of the 1990s, groups like the Spinanes, Quasi, and Royal Trux. Like most if not all of these acts, An Horse derive a certain scrappy urgency and directness from their stripped-down, no-frills lineup: it's just Kate Cooper on guitar and lead vocals, Damon Cox on drums and backgrounds, but their limited numbers don't stop them from kicking up plenty of racket. The approach -- gritty and muscular but too melodic to come off as especially tough -- is wonderfully well-suited to the frank, up-front songwriting on their debut, packing a wallop of nervous energy that mirrors the emotional immediacy of Cooper's heart-sleeved relationship confessionals while moving briskly enough from hook to hook to preclude too much wallowing in earnestness. (The few exceptions, "Listen" and "Little Lungs," wherein the pace momentarily slackens, function just fine -- and even explicitly -- as breathers.) Opening shot "Camp Out" is the clear highlight, a bouncy four-chord jumble of sexual angst and exultantly hopeful confusion that builds to anthemic proportions, but the remainder of the album, which follows in a largely similar vein, is nearly up to that level. Ultimately, it's the sound as much as the songs that make Rearrange Beds so thoroughly enjoyable, that warmly familiar, tried but true indie rock buzz that An Horse seem to have offhandedly mastered, capturing all the necessary torment and jubilation of adolescence and rock & roll, and almost always coming out smiling on the other side.
Javelin: Javelin review
This limited-edition 12" EP -- packaged in screen-printed, re-purposed thrift-store LP sleeves -- distills the irrepressibly fun-loving, sample-based shenanigans that Javelin unleashed on their self-issued Jamz 'n' Jemz CD-R (and would soon extend to their Luaka Bop debut, No Más) into a highly concentrated five-track party. There are vocals here -- disembodied snatches of throaty R&B interjected into the bass-popping slo-mo funk of "Unforgettable Super Lady"; a brattily incanted schoolyard rhyme and a fluttery bit of goofball rapping buried in "Soda Popinski"'s 8-bit hip-hop hoe-down; even a full-fledged sung melody on the half-baked "Radio" -- but it's really all about the grooves, which are fairly bursting with kaleidoscopic cut-n-paste charm all on their own. In fact, it's probably just as well that the preposterously named "Lindsey Brohan" (a holdover from Jamz) is instrumental; its sugary day-glo electro cake could hardly handle any more frosting. Snatch it fast.
Joe Goddard: Harvest Festival review
Joe Goddard's solo debut, recorded for his own Greco-Roman imprint, is a largely instrumental, wholly electronic set that finds the chipper Hot Chipper displaying much the same affable good humor and nifty, nuanced knob-twiddling that he brings to his main band. The album's fruit-based titling scheme is an apt one: alongside their generally frisky, frivolous feel, these tracks have an analog warmth and inbred musicality that make them far juicier and more flavorful than your typical faceless techno fare, even sticking within a fairly limited, simple, and at times rather tinny-sounding sonic range. Hot Chip fans looking for an extra serving of the group's full-spectrum emotional electro-pop may find it wanting -- the only proper vocal song, "Lemons and Lime (Home Time)," is likably lush and croony, and makes a nice palate-cleanser in context, but it's fairly slight by the band's standards -- but Harvest Festival offers plenty of its own delights, with its nicely balanced track list spanning fully club-appropriate material and several mellower and/or murkier pieces. "Apple Bobbing" opens the album somewhere in the middle of that range and is an instant highlight, gradually layering one sweetly burbling synth melody over another as a classically styled Chicago house drum track jacks slinkily in the background. The grooves deepen through the disc's dancy first half, nodding to dubstep's woozy bass wobble and twitchy syncopations as they build toward the full-on thumping goofiness of the Biggie-biting "Go Bananas." The back half of the album is more abstract (i.e., not particularly danceable) and moodier, if not necessarily less playful, with a tendency to feel slightly unformed and unfinished -- though "Sour Grapes," with its serene churchy organ figures atop a rolling sea of dubbed-out liquid clicks, is headed in an intriguing direction. Nothing here suggests Goddard ought to consider leaving his day job, but it's a worthy diversion that should please most fans and onlookers curious enough to seek it out.
Pink Skull: Endless Bummer review
Endless Bummer is the second album-length Pink Skull release, but even though it has plenty in common with the woolly, chameleonic onslaught of 2008's Zeppelin 3 -- lots of percussion-happy, mainly instrumental disco-rock workouts, a pronounced psychedelic bent, nutty non sequitur track titles -- it feels somehow less like a straightforward follow-up than its own discrete venture, or even something of a reset. Perhaps that's due to Pink Skull's fluidity as a musical entity (live band/DJ collective/recording project), which has veered more in the full band direction in the intervening year and a half, or to the D.I.Y., project-like distinctness of each of their releases. (This one, for instance, was issued only on MP3 and vinyl, with an initial run of 1,000 copies in unique handmade letterpressed sleeves each emblazoned with a different "bummer" -- "Ingrown Toenail," "Fake Orgasm," "Ethnic Cleansing," "Emo," etc.) Arguably even less accurately named than Zeppelin 3, Endless Bummer is in fact both relatively concise and a considerably more positive-spirited and agreeable affair than its predecessor, with markedly less electronic wankery and only one true foray into all-out inscrutability (the noodly "Fast Forward to Bolivia"). Opener "Peter Cushing" is about the closest thing imaginable to a Pink Skull pop single, foregrounding Julian Grefe's self-harmonized vocals and a cheery flute riff with a simple sprightly beat and rubbery bassline harking back to the heyday of dance-punk. Predictably, things get a bit weirder and more expansive from there on out, but the basic template of organically fluid, disco-infused live-band grooves -- best exemplified by the hard-driving title track -- remains fairly constant, with just enough variety (skronking sax and chipper scatted doo wop vocals on "Chicken Dream Inside Egg"; glitchy electronic interjections on "The Inconsiderate Neighbor...") to keep things interesting. The flip side to this approach -- the album's other primary mode -- is the spacy, beatless synth exploration assayed on "Wheet" and "Fired So Fired," and on the two longer, more preposterously named bonus tracks, which achieve true ambient restfulness (another first for these guys) with no small debt to '70s kosmische musik. Pink Skull may not be doing anything all that new, but it's still a delight to hear the confidence and openness they've achieved here, settling into a groove without losing their appealing looseness and devilish sense of fun. If Zeppelin 3's itchy, dizzying eclecticism seemed desperate to make a statement and wound up barely skirting incoherence, Endless Bummer feels like it has less at stake but, paradoxically, something more to say.
Cornershop: Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast review
Back in 1997: Cornershop felt like real envelope-pushers with their simmering Anglo-Indian curry of breakbeat chop-ups, Filmi-flavored funk and sunny guitar pop. Back to basics: After a seven-year recording hiatus, they're staunch Brit-pop old-guardists, lacing their reincarnated riffs with sacred cowbell, goopy gospel singers and scads of sitar (which is pretty darn classic rock when you think about it), and covering both the Kinks and Manfred Mann (who knew "The Mighty Quinn" sounded so much like "Brimful of Asha"?) Back in business: Still sounding most fundamentally like themselves, with quirks sanded down only slightly, the 'Shop can still churn out an unbeatable summer soundtrack.
A Mountain of One: Collected Works review
As singular and imposing as their name foretells, U.K. trio A Mountain of One wholeheartedly embody the spirit of transcendent psychedelia, with all the beauty, lushness, grandiosity, pomposity, and ridiculosity that entails. The cosmic forefathers conjured in these grooves -- Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, Ash Ra Tempel -- may be fairly oft-cited as influences, but rarely have they been echoed with such solemn, magisterial fervor. The group's links to the space-case electronic purveyors of the Scandinavian neo-Balearic wave (artists like Lindstrøm, Low Motion Disco, Meanderthals, and, in particular, balmy noodle-meisters Studio, who've remixed their "Brown Piano") are readily evident as well, but despite the burbling disco grooves lazily coursing through many of these cuts, and the synth-kissed cover of Ginny's 1985 Italo-disco slow burn "Can't Be Serious," Mountain of One aren't exactly a dance act. It doesn't seem quite right to call them a full-fledged rock band, either (for one thing, all three core members are credited with programming in addition to various live instruments), but perhaps that's because moody, spacious synth odysseys, epically extended guitar explorations, and somberly intoned, quasi-spiritual vocals just aren't the sorts of things we expect from rock bands anymore. The "works" collected here -- two five-track EPs and a pair of new songs -- span driving, flamenco-assisted Latin-psych bombast ("Ride"), unabashedly soppy soft pop schmaltzballs ("Your Love Over Gold"), hypnotically free-floating flights of cosmic fancy ("Warping of the Clocks," "Arc of Abraham"), and even a few properly vocal-driven songs (the beatless, blearily blissed-out "Freefall" and the sublimely soaring "Innocent Line," whose gossamer disco-rock amble is stretched out to more than double its length with the Air-ish instrumental reprise) whose potently simple melodies slowly wend their way into your skull. Whether this is just the stuff to fuel your personal rocketship, or whether you find it all a bit too bloated and overbearing to handle, ultimately comes down to a question of taste -- not, clearly, these dudes' chief preoccupation -- but for those willing to climb aboard, Collected Works makes for a spectacularly smooth ride. Either way, it's hard to deny that A Mountain of One are an exceptional band, working with a level of ambition that doesn't come along nearly often enough and -- equally rare -- the chops and the commitment to see it fully realized.
Adem: Takes review
A covers album of a particularly personal stripe, Adem Ilhan's third solo record has all the intimacy and hand-crafted charm of a beloved mixtape, bringing the warmth of spirit and imaginative acoustic palette of his earlier works to bear on a handful of his favorite songs from the formative period (for Adem himself and for indie music in general) between 1992 and 2001. Anyone who was an ardent follower of the burgeoning "alternative" scene during these years should find something to smile at among Adem's song choices, which cover many of the era's big names (Smashing Pumpkins, PJ Harvey, Björk) but steer clear of familiar hits in favor of more obscure single sides and album tracks. Despite a fair breadth of source material (given the constraints of time and milieu), Takes functions quite cohesively on its own terms, and there's plenty to enjoy here whether or not listeners are familiar with the original versions. Many of the picks play to Adem's strengths in obvious (and thoroughly effective) ways -- the fluid, melodic guitar lines of Pinback ("Loro") and Bedhead ("Bedside Table") translate naturally to his layered acoustic picking style, while the spare, serenely transcendent emotionalism of Low's "Laser Beam" and Yo La Tengo's "Tears Are in Your Eyes" make a fine fit for his achingly rich, just-slightly-gritty voice (which, if anything, is perhaps a tad forceful for these utterly delicate songs.) Other selections involve a bit more reinvention -- it's no surprise to see Tortoise on the track listing, given Adem's post-rock backstory with Fridge, but he twists the lengthy rarity "Gamera" to his own unexpected ends, using the original track's introductory guitar figure as a launch-pad for a fast-and-loose free-folk excursion. Most intriguing, and perhaps the album's standout moment, is his Aphex Twin homage, which combines two tracks off The Richard D. James Album, smoothing out the freakish vocals of "To Cure a Weakling Child" and grafting them onto an impressively detailed acoustic transcription of "Girl/Boy Song," with surprisingly mellow, cheerful results. Elsewhere, dEUS ("Hotellounge") and the Breeders ("Invisible Man") get stripped of their rougher, grungier elements in favor of lusciously thick arrangements replete with glockenspiel, harmonium, piano, and an array of plucked string instruments -- all of which, along with dulcimer, Autoharp, violin, and assorted found percussion, make up the bountiful sonic trick bag from which Adem draws intuitively and judiciously throughout the album. Not an especially consequential offering, but a tremendously lovable one, Takes may be aptly and cleverly titled (punning on at least three senses of the word), but it's absolutely an act of giving on multiple levels as well: a showcase for the considerable musical gifts of its creator, a sincere token of tribute to his inspirations, and a generous treat for his listeners.
Why?: Elephant Eyelash review
There were some glimmers of articulate clarity and likably wry charm amid the mumblings and meanderings of Why?'s first full-length, Oaklandazulasylum, but they hardly anticipated the dramatic leap forward into approachability that marked their second. ("Their" because, between the two albums, Why? had mutated from an arty quasi-rap solo project alias to a full-fledged if hardly conventional indie rock band) Though still far from easily digestible, the challenges Elephant Eyelash presents aren't so much about trying to piece together a head-scratchingly oblique, willfully incomplete puzzle as simply taking the time to process and integrate its veritable flood of musical and, especially, lyrical content, an outpouring suggestive of a long-withdrawn, self-absorbed introvert who's suddenly become desperate to communicate with the world. What gets communicated -- in essence, the manifold nooks and crannies of Yoni Wolf's psyche -- is by turns playful, philosophical, insecure, morbid, and sentimental, and while that communication is still happening on Wolf's own terms -- which means reams of voluble verbiage peppered with nerdy absurdities, cleverly convoluted wordplay, and free-associative filigree, usually delivered in a nasal, over-articulated singsong that was really his only viable remaining link to hip-hop (and a pretty tenuous one at that) -- the upshot is a singularly striking set of images and insights well worth the scrutiny. Somewhere between intimate journal entries and free-form poetry, these songs float from factual, anecdotal snapshots -- like a vivid depiction (in the opening verse of "Sand Dollars") of watching a water-based graffito dissolve in the rain, or the casual specificity of "Yo Yo Bye Bye"'s scene-setting opening lines: "I was walking through San Antonio before soundcheck/looking for some pole to do pull-ups on" -- to probing meditations on aging and mortality (brooding closers "Act Five" and "Light Leaves"), inscrutable phantasmagoric whimsy ("The Hoofs"), and coded but no-less-heartfelt ruminations on love, loss, memory, and the alarming intensity of human connection (perhaps most affectingly on the wonderfully imagistic "Gemini (Birthday Song)." The subject matter can get fairly weighty, sure, but it's tempered by Wolf's deft balance of wit and sincerity, and by the delicately skewed indie pop backing of his bandmates. Indeed, Elephant Eyelash's music is nearly as remarkable and distinctive as its words; wispy, crunchy, structurally off-kilter compositions that are difficult to classify but favor a certain ramshackle charm and melodic sweetness, and in a few cases -- among them "Rubber Traits," "Gemini," and especially "Sanddollars" -- wind up feeling oddly, downright anthemic.
19 July 2010
three more from second quarter '10 - decided non-favorites, which didn't make the last batch due to per-post label character limits (wha?) - then six pretty great ones from 2009, reviewed this year (incl. one reviewed for citypaper) - then three more recent-ish AMG reviews of even older things, including one of my very favorite albums of the decade (well, ok, #96 according to my list. still pretty fave.) and this, i am pretty sure, brings me completely up to date in terms of reposting all of my review output here (!!) for the first time in maybe ever. except for the two reviews i wrote last week. so stay tuned...
08 July 2010
i know i've been doing a poor job of chronicling it here, but i might have mentioned how excited i am about music in 2010. it's been an awesome year so far, kicking off right out the gate with some tremendously great albums in the first two months, including the three that are still my #1-3 favorites of the year to date, and plenty more still-banging first-quarter jams that i posted about here (AMG reviews) and here (CP song blurbs).
the second quarter of the year has perhaps not quite maintained that supreme level of unbelievable awesomeness, but it definitely hasn't been far off. here are a dozen of the records i reviewed in april, may and june. presented, again, in the order they're currently slotting in on my best-of-2010 list. which, curiously, makes for a rough progression from more mellow/folky/organic to more upbeat/dancy/electronic, not that's necessarily indicative of what sounds i've been enjoying more.
Sam Amidon: I See The Sign review
This is the third set of interpretations of (primarily) traditional, public domain material from multivalent modern folk artist Sam Amidon. Like its predecessor, 2007's All Is Well, it was recorded in Iceland with producer Valgeir Sigurðsson and features the subtle, masterful orchestral arrangements of Nico Muhly; key contributions also come from drummer/percussionist Shahzad Ismaily and from Beth Orton, who sings alongside Amidon on four songs. Each of these collaborators adds to the album's rich, expansive, textural palette, allowing considerable psychological range within its generously subdued tone, from the urgency of opening murder ballad "How Come That Blood" (with Ismaily's tense, churning percussion and pointed mini-Moog jabs) to the lush, billowing sweetness of "Pretty Fair Damsel" (Muhly's florid celeste and woodwind figures), and the fluid tranquility of "Climbing High Mountains" (a restful treatment that tempers the song's world-weary lyric.) But always at the forefront are Amidon's voice --which recalls Will Oldham in its restraint and slight rustic roughness -- and, especially, the songs he has chosen to make his own. These include several tunes from the Georgia Sea Islands, learned (via Amidon's folksinging parents) from the powerful renditions of Bessie Jones, and sung in duet with Orton: the "singing-game" "Johanna the Row-Di" and "Way Go, Lily" (refashioned from a peppy handclapping jingle into a gently yearning ballad), and the admonishing folk-gospel number "You Better Mind," given a fervent, rousing reading and a vigorous arrangement that's at once stately and spirited. Christian themes (and apocalyptic imagery) crop up elsewhere, notably on the spare, somberly portentous title track and the simply sung lament "Kedron," but even the selections that aren't explicitly religious are treated with a gospel-like solemnity and directness of feeling. Muhly's playfully inventive arrangements work marvelously throughout to complement this seriousness with a delicate balance of levity, but the album's most lighthearted (and unexpected) moment is also perhaps its most spiritual: "Relief," a simple, deeply felt paean to the persevering goodness of life, might appear in this context like an old-time folk number -- after all, what kind of knucklehead would pen a line like "what a relief to know that the war is over" in days like these? -- but in fact it's by R. Kelly, salvaged from the unreleased 2008 fiasco 12 Play: 4th Quarter. And it's stunningly gorgeous; further confirmation, if any were needed, that Amidon's instincts and talents as a musical conservationist, interpreter, and reanimator are to be wholly trusted and cherished.The Mynabirds: What We Lose In The Fire We Gain in the Flood review
Ornithologically speaking, myna birds are noted for their talented vocal mimicry, which makes them a partially fitting but ultimately misleading namesake for this musical brainchild of singer/songwriter Laura Burhenn. True, the Mynabirds' debut outing does an uncanny job recapturing the spirits of its 1960s-era influences -- artists like Carole King, Bobbie Gentry, Jackie DeShannon, and Dusty Springfield who mined the fertile crossroads of soul, country, folk, and pop -- and much of that is due to Burhenn's marvelously rich, earthy vocal presence. But the effect is more an evocation of a certain vital, timeless mood than the re-creation of any specific sound; the album has a genuine warmth and tenderness that extend far beyond impersonation, and despite the undeniably vintage feel it's blatantly reductive to label it "retro." For one thing, these sounds have been broached frequently enough in recent years from various angles -- Leslie Feist's urbane soul-pop, Jenny Lewis' and Neko Case's roots-country redefinitions and, especially, Cat Power's Memphian sojourns all come to mind -- that they hardly sound out of place in the indie music world circa 2010. But Burhenn, working here with producer and fellow pop nostalgiast Richard Swift, makes them her own. The sepia-tinted cover image makes a good analog: it looks archival, but that's actually Burhenn -- an iconic, doe-eyed blonde -- seated in a church pew in a shot that underscores the album's pronounced devotional bent (with just a vague, impious hint of Dusty waiting to meet that son of a preacher man), That the gospel strains here, evident throughout but especially conspicuous on the thumping, slow-burning title track with its ineffable, pseudo-biblical mantra, are informed by Burhenn's readings of Jung and Sufi poetry (and her personal experiences of loss) rather than a Pentecostal upbringing makes them no less spiritually resonant. But if there's darkness and pain in these grooves there's also plenty of lightness and joy, with a consistent, compassionate message of redemption through acceptance -- as Burhenn sings on "Ways of Looking": "It can be easy if you just let it." That simplicity informs both the album's unstudied songwriting and its deft, uncluttered arrangements, ranging from that song's few breezy guitar chords and sparse tambourine to the pounding piano and garage rock swagger of "Let the Record Go" to the New Orleans-style brass backing up "We Made a Mountain"'s bluesy gospel and the strings bringing a perfect touch of gloss to "LA Rain"'s charming pop.
Tracey Thorn: Love and Its Opposite review
After the eight-year recording silence which lasted from the start of Everything But the Girl's indefinite hiatus until Tracey Thorn's triumphant re-emergence as a solo artist on 2007's Out of the Woods, the singer took only three years to return with a follow-up. Love and Its Opposite finds Thorn again working with Berlin-based house producer Ewan Pearson, but it effectively jettisons its predecessor's scintillating electro-pop for a more subdued chamber-folk style akin to that album's quieter moments; it's easily Thorn's least electronic work since EBtG's dramatic danceward shift in the mid-'90s. Then as now, the change of musical scenery hardly disrupts the caliber and sophistication of Thorn's songcraft or the power of her inimitable voice, which remains as gloriously warm as ever. Given that mood and maturity have always been her hallmarks, aging gracefully is scarcely even a concern: now that she's in a position to deliver a set of songs about the complexities of, in her phrase, "real life after forty," it feels utterly natural, a continuation of the emotional navigations she's spent her career documenting with characteristic insight and sensitivity. Stately waltz "Oh, The Divorces!" observes the seemingly inexorable progression of marriages dissolving around her with a creeping unease barely masked by its Sondheim-worthy elegance and verbal wit ("he was a charmer/I wish him bad karma"), and is deftly juxtaposed with the childhood nostalgia of "Long White Dress," concerning a life-long dread of weddings. (Perhaps tellingly, Thorn and EBtG-mate Ben Watt married in 2009, after 28 years of partnership.) On a lighter note, maybe, the bouncy "Hormones" comments breezily on menopause (the singer's) and adolescence (her daughters'), while "Singles Bar" is a wry treatment of aging-singles scenes and all their attendant hope and desperation ("can you smell the fear?"), in a tone that could be bleak or comical or both. Throughout, but especially in her poignant meditations on domestic relationships -- the achingly uncertain "Why Does the Wind" (given a nimble funk backing by Hot Chip bassist Al Doyle and Invisible stickman Leo Taylor), Lee Hazlewood's brooding "C'mon Home to Me" (sung with Jens Lekman), and the quietly self-scrutinizing "Late in the Afternoon" -- Thorn's romanticism is tempered by a hard-earned sense, approached with a mixture of comfort and resignation, that love and its opposite -- fear, perhaps, of loneliness or abandonment or simply death -- aren't truly opposed, but are necessary working complements, each enabling the possibility of the other.The Tallest Man on Earth: Shallow Grave and The Wild Hunt reviews
In nearly every respect, Swedish troubadour Kristian Matsson's second full-length outing as the Tallest Man on Earth is a direct continuation of the stripped-down roots folk style he introduced on his debut — an album that was deeply, unambiguously steeped in rural American folk tradition but also the product of a strong singular vision and voice. Arguably the most significant difference this time out is the wider stateside distribution that The Wild Hunt will enjoy thanks to its presence on Dead Oceans, and, hopefully, an attendant increase in exposure. It's richly deserved: even if — as may initially seem to be the case — this album offered nothing more than another ten songs cut from Shallow Grave's rough-hewn yet rarefied cloth, it would be considerable cause for celebration; for an ostensible one trick pony, Matsson's got a hell of a trick. But he's more than that: his distinctive gifts as a songwriter are more than equal to his undeniable flair as a musical stylist, and if the uncanny anachronistic effect of his work isn't quite as revelatory the second time around, this set offers the subtler treat of hearing an artist carve out further space for personal nuance and expression within an already well-established approach. Careful listening reveals a newfound looseness and emotional range here, particularly in the vocals, with tender moments like the sweetly sung "Love Is All" and bittersweet relationship dissection "The Drying of the Lawns" balancing the typically visceral, nearly strident delivery of songs like "You're Going Back" and jaunty highlight "King of Spain" (which wryly tips a hat to Matsson's most undeniable forerunner with its reference to "boots of Spanish leather"). Lyrically, too, his writing has grown somewhat more lucid and expressive, with even his characteristically poetic evocations of the natural world connecting on a more human and relatable level than past abstractions (from "Burden of Tomorrow": "I'm just a blind man on the plains/I drink my water when it rains/And live by chance among the lightning strikes"). Still, The Wild Hunt could hardly be called a reinvention. Save for the unexpectedly Springsteen-esque closer, "Kids on the Run," wherein Matsson trades in his trusty six-string for a piano, anything here could have slotted neatly onto Shallow Grave. And that's no trouble at all: when you sound like virtually nobody else out there, it's hard to complain about more of the same.
Tunng: And Then We Saw Land review
Continuing to edge farther afield from their pastoral past, Tunng's fourth full-length finds the London folktronic outfit weathering a slight reshuffle (essentially a consolidation of their live and in-studio lineups, with the notable departure of founding member/songwriter/habitual non-performer Sam Genders) and emerging in fine form with their fleshiest effort yet. Taking off from its pop-leaning predecessor, Good Arrows, extending that album's broadened instrumental palette and decreased reliance on digital tweaking, And Then We Saw Land ventures in several complementary directions without sacrificing the group's distinctive combination of bucolic folk and whimsical electronic interventions. Right away, the highly hummable "Hustle" marks a clear departure, with whirring synths giving way to a jaunty banjo-led bounce that's the brightest (glockenspiels!) and boldest (drums!) the band has ever sounded. "Don't Look Down or Back" veers between sedate, bittersweet verses and a rollicking group-sung chorus, and is one of several numbers here featuring fiery electric guitars juxtaposed with the group's more typical acoustic fingerpicking -- the most striking case being "Sashimi," whose blend of crunching bursts and pinprick counterpoint stabs (recalling Point-era Cornelius) lives up to the elegant, pungent delicacy of its namesake. Elsewhere, Tunng hew closer to their sometimes somber rustic roots, as on the darkly melodic waltz-ballad "October" and the pensive, downcast "With Whiskey," both of them relatively unadorned, classically styled British folk (notwithstanding the a-ha shout-out in the latter's refrain.) Throughout, but perhaps on these songs especially, And Then We Saw Land makes an excellent showcase for its two fine, understated vocalists, with Mike Lindsay's slightly gruff but soothingly warm, gently accented voice frequently doubled by Becky Jacobs' purer, girlish tones (Jacobs is a newly prominent vocal presence on this album, taking several leads including the sweet, nautical sing-song "These Winds"). And as they've evolved into even more of a collective (this album marks the band's most collaborative -- and notably, lengthiest -- writing and recording process to date), Tunng don't pass up several opportunities for group vocals, most memorably on the beautifully simple, gradually layered singalong at the core of "Weekend Away" (a multi-parter preceding the spare, unlisted closer.) While it's hardly the stark, across-the-board tonal sea change suggested by several of its most immediately ear-catching cuts, And Then We Saw Land is at once an adventurous outward journey and an invitingly familiar return from an always intriguing, intrepid, and under-heralded band.
Grovesnor: Soft Return review
Rob Smoughton's debut as Grovesnor is a glistening, spot-on tribute to the silky-smooth soft pop and Styrofoam soul sounds of 1980s hitmakers like Hall & Oates, Lionel Richie, and Phil Collins -- one of the few patches of the Reagan-era musical landscape that had not undergone an extensive process of reclamation and reintegration by the early 21st century, at least not without a heavy irony factor involved (cf. Chromeo). Call Soft Return a winking pastiche if you like, but it's not parody and it's not mockery: the degree of artistry and care that Smoughton brings to this material, both in terms of stylistic accuracy and straight-up musicianship and songcraft, is too great for it to come off as anything less than heartfelt homage. Which is hardly to suggest that it's lacking in humor -- indeed, the album's sense of fun is perhaps its greatest quality, coming through in the breezy tunefulness of its hooks and arrangements (replete with lush keyboards, tinny drum machines, and the occasional sax solo), but even more so in the lyrics, which use the appealingly louche Grovesnor persona to skewer playfully the genre's sensitive loverman conventions. These faintly preposterous first-person narratives, delivered in Smoughton's thin but serviceably soulful tenor, could easily be premises for exactly the sort of romantic comedies likely to be soundtracked by Grovesnor's primary influences. In the fantastically catchy "Dan," he's a prospective best man debating how to break the news that he's been kicking it with the bride-to-be, while "When I Saw You Dance" relates the wacky tale of a love affair blossoming at a high-school reunion. Even at his more serious -- and many of these songs do come across as surprisingly, legitimately heartfelt -- Smoughton's still liable to toss in a line like "I'm pretty sure I'm the guy for you baby/That's why I act so nonchalant." The album is somewhat top-heavy -- after the brief, funky, talkbox-aided tone-setter, the three strongest cuts are slotted right up front, including the glitzy, smooth-sailing "Taxi from the Airport" (with a groove on loan from Joe Jackson's "Stepping Out") and "Nitemoves" (which boasts both Smoughton's most sensitive crooning and his most hyperactive beat programming) -- but the quality never dips significantly, even if the obligatory handful of ballads and the Rundgren-esque titular instrumental aren't quite as riveting as these highlights.
Lucky Soul: A Coming Of Age review
Greenwich retro-pop darlings Lucky Soul took three years to follow up the (modest) surprise success of their delightful debut, with band mastermind Andrew Laidlaw near-penniless and literally living in the studio during this album's extended, painstaking gestation period. When it arrived, the well-named A Coming of Age found the group gracefully refining its vintage-leaning aesthetic, growing more ambitious and assured with its arrangements, and shedding just a bit of its youthful breeziness for a more restrained, slightly darker tone. Not that the band's unabashed fondness for 1960s girl group pop and sophisticated soul sounds ever overwhelmed its work to the point of novelty or pastiche, but here those influences feel even more seamless, natural, and strikingly, viably modern. There are a few slight but savvy outward steps: some heavier guitar leads here and there, vague countrypolitan inflections on "Upon Hilly Fields," a touch of disco glam to the rousing opener "Woah Billy!" (a song inspired, curiously, by the evidently effortless nonchalance of veteran troubador Billy Bragg), and the swirling, bombastic Bond-style melodrama of the terrific title track (an epic three minutes if ever there were). But Lucky Soul's best move is keeping their sound largely intact, simply offering more of all the things that made their debut so immediately, lastingly lovable: more handclaps and horns, more luscious, lavish strings, more of Ali Howard's swoony, girlish vocals, and best of all, even more irresistible throwback dance grooves. Assured uptempo standouts like the Motown-via-Dexys twist 'n' skank of "White Russian Doll," the organ-led bounce of "Ain't Nothing Like a Shame," and the strutting Northern soul stomper "Up in Flames" more than hold their own against the first album's fizzy floor-fillers. Strangely, where this album falls short of its predecessor is on the slower, sensitive numbers, which tend to be amiable, doo woppy ambles rather than all-out ballads (only the pleasant but ultimately undistinguished "Warm Water" approaches the mark there). There's no shortage of lovelorn lyrics (perhaps puzzling given the romance that bloomed between Laidlaw and Howard), but nothing with quite the emotional heft and potency of songs like "My Darling, Anything" and "Baby I'm Broke," moments that elevated The Great Unwanted from a brilliant piece of pop to a truly timeless creation. If that minor shortcoming relegates A Coming of Age to being nothing but a consistent, consummate, brilliant piece of pop, listeners can still count themselves very lucky indeed.
Sia: We Are Born review
If Some People Have Real Problems, upon its 2008 release, felt like Sia's "pop move," its warmly personable brew of mellow coffee shop soul offering a more approachable contrast to the sober soundtrack-fodder chill-out with which she -- and in particular, her increasingly ubiquitous, jazzily innocuous voice -- had become near-synonymous, what can we make of We Are Born? With this, her fourth proper album, recorded for yet another new label (pop/hip-hop titan Jive), the Australian singer has made a massive pop leap: a sunshiny, highly caffeinated set of frothy dance tracks and feel-good lite-funk. And it's a great look. It's hard not to smile in agreement when she sings, in the tremendously hooky chorus to the irresistible, disco-fied first single (a revamped Lauren Flax collaboration): "You've changed... for the better!" As Sia tells it, it's less that she's changed than that she's finally made the album she'd been itching to make for years, the catalysts including her increased distance from the evidently dictatorial market forces of downtempo and her recent romantic linkage with DJ JD Sampson (Le Tigre, MEN). Unexpected though the shift may seem, it still feels like an entirely comfortable one, a liberating opportunity to revel in the natural exuberance she's always held in check. It's a treat, then, but hardly a surprise, to hear how well Sia works her ever-expressive pipes in full-on club-diva mode, as on the aforementioned single and the equally delightful "The Fight." She displays impressive vocal versatility throughout, cooing and crowing like vintage Gwen Stefani on the awesomely ska-punky "Bring Night"; drawing on her reserve stock of quavering Winehouse-isms for the blue-eyed R&B of "Be Good to Me"; getting throaty on the decidedly emo piano ballad "I'm in Here," which recalls any number of tortured '90s alt-rock songstresses (ditto her extravagant take on Madonna's "Oh Father.") Much as her vocal flexibility lets Sia navigate a considerable array of pop styles with nary a hitch, her solid songwriting chops find her fully satisfying the conventions of each form she tackles, albeit rarely transcending them. Meanwhile Greg Kurstin, by now a past master of breezy, contemporary, grown-up girl pop production, supplies a likable balance of gloss and glitter, with plenty of fun, playful touches (toy pianos, synthesized orchestra bells, kids voices.) While We Are Born occasionally lapses into the anodyne, overly tasteful pop-folk balladeering of Sia's past, overall it's a charmingly cheery, light-hearted romp looking nowhere but sweetly, sanguinely forward.
Tame Impala: Innerspeaker review
The limpid lysergic swirls and squalling fuzz-toned riffs that populate Tame Impala's debut clearly owe a hefty, heartfelt debt to the hazy churn of late-'60s/early-'70s psych rock, but the members of this Perth threesome are hardly strict revivalists. In comparison to their similarly inspired contemporaries, they chart a course somewhere between Dungen's lovingly meticulous replication of their chosen style and Malachai's deconstructive, electronically enabled pastiche of same, deftly skirting the potential for parodic excess that comes with either extreme. Balancing an obvious reverence for their sonic forebears with subtly contemporary production tweaks, they make straddling two disparate eras feel like the most comfortable, effortless thing in the world. And that sense of unforced, unpretentious ease is fundamental to what makes Innerspeaker so simply, viscerally pleasurable: there's so much that Tame Impala get so wonderfully right here -- a distinct but understated undercurrent of melody, a relaxed but ever-present sense of groove, a crystal crispness and deliberateness to the sound even when it's treated with a healthy dousing of buzz and reverb -- without seeming like they're trying at all hard. Despite a classic power trio configuration and relatively limited use of overdubbing, the album frequently feels so sonically massive, so thick with ringing guitars, walls of effects, and tremendous, reverberating drums, that it's hard to believe it's the work of a mere threesome. Kudos are perhaps in order to neo-psych mainstay Dave Fridmann, who mans the mixing boards here with a relish and restraint that helps make this one of the most tasteful (and tasty) records on his recent résumé. Credit frontman Kevin Parker's lazily drawled, remarkably Lennon-esque vocals, too, (frequently Leslie'd or otherwise processed, which helps) with giving the album an extra air of free-floating authenticity (while only occasionally giving up anything as specific and tangible as a substantially intelligible lyric). It's only infrequently that individual songs manage to stand out from the surrounding fluid, atmospheric haze -- typically when the band decides to leave its hooks a bit of space to breathe, as on the chunky, chugging closer "I Don't Really Mind" or the crisp, snakily phased guitar lick cementing the deliciously poppy "Solitude Is Bliss." But the dearth of standout tracks here hardly feels like an issue -- indeed, Innerspeaker coasts so beautifully on its blissful, billowing waves of sound that readily discernible hooks almost seem like gratuitous distractions.
Diskjokke: En Fin Tid review
Joakim Dyrdahl's second full-length outing as diskJokke occupies the same realm of tunefully grooving, slightly spacy electro-disco as his eminently likable debut, terrain that finds the good-natured Norwegian in fine company with his countrymen Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and Prins Thomas. While Staying In collected tracks from a span of several years, En Fin Tid was conceived as a complete piece. Its title, which translates to "A Happy Time," describes the period surrounding its creation, during which Dyrdahl became a father and decided to focus on music as a full-time pursuit. The happy times in store for diskJokke's listeners, musically speaking, are hardly a new development, but there is a definite shift here from the playfully giddy and sometimes goofy excursions of his debut to a calmer, more patient sense of contentment, reflected in significantly longer tracks (extending well beyond six minutes is now the norm rather than the exception) typically featuring fewer ideas that are allowed to germinate, percolate, and crystallize over lavish spans. The album indeed works well as a gently, gradually arcing whole, building to a frisky kinetic peak between a pair of indulgently languorous poles. While every track is to some extent undergirded by a sturdy 4/4 beat (real or implied), there's a vast range between the yawning opener "Reset and Begin" -- whose hazily meandering synths and dubby, inconclusive dribble of percussion, vaguely tethered to an intermittent bass thump, barely manage to fulfill the second half of its titular précis -- and strictly physical workouts like "Big Flash" and the deliciously funky "1987," both of which lock down their insistent, unswerving, bassy grooves and require little else beyond some decorative keyboard fluffery. Dyrdahl finds a happy middle ground on the slow to unfurl "Rosenrød," which punctuates its propulsive, pulsating acid squelch with moments of blissed-out expansiveness, and the darker-tilting "The Bund," with its slo-mo disco murk and fuzzed-out 303 riffs. But despite the considerable spectrum of energy levels, these tracks all share a sense of casual, inquisitive exploration, inviting a similarly curious investigation of whatever response seems appropriate -- dancing or daydreaming or some combination thereof -- without necessarily demanding much focus on the gentle twists and turns. Even on the seemingly more involved journeys -- the title track's Lindstrøm-esque harmonic peregrinations, for instance -- we're welcomed to gaze off into the distance from the passenger's seat, assured of diskJokke's firm, friendly hand behind the wheel.Ellen Allien: Dust review
Ellen Allien's sixth full-length in just under a decade is something of a hybrid affair, revisiting familiar territory for the producer while also flirting with a few new ideas (guitar rock, tropicalia, songwriting) as befits her noted capacity for subtle reinvention. Decidedly more approachable than the austere, mechanical Sool, but often equally distant from the warmly embodied, melodic techno that comprised Orchestra of Bubbles, Dust's core aesthetic is a relatively stripped-down, minimalist version of electronic pop. Admittedly, Allien has her own, perhaps somewhat alien, understanding of "pop." Vocals feature significantly throughout, creating the album's most coherent throughline, and while her thin, electronically warblified voice doesn't particularly lend itself to melody, it carries an intriguing glimmer of personality. Indicative of its nebulous character, Dust is divided ambiguously between cuts that are clearly "songs" and others that feel more like "tracks," with most falling somewhere in between. The former category includes overtly guitar-based outliers "Sun The Rain" and "You" (one a pretty, surprisingly conventional shoegaze tune, the other an almost non-electronic piece of poppy, melodic post-punk) and the breezy bossa nova-tech of "Huibuh" (an unexpected yet natural fit for her whispery vocals.) These sit alongside striking but structurally unembellished dancefloor workouts like the instrumental "Ever," with its no-frills house thump and shimmering cascades of bell-like organ tones, and the hypnotically sparse, Latin-infused breakbeat funk of "Dream." Cheeky stomper "Flashy Flash" is an enjoyable throwback to Berlinette's hooky electro-clash, but the album's most appealing, humanizing moments tend to be subtler and less forced: the gentle clarinet chorale that pops up in the final minute of "My Tree," the kitchen-sink playfulness of shape-shifting closer "Schlum!" Ultimately, each piece offers its own discrete charms and its own limitations. Differently-inclined listeners may find some tracks too rote and uneventful, others too meandering and unfocused; likewise, Allien's evident inclination to have it all ways at once could come off as a timid or tepid, a failure to strike a strong, distinctive course for the album. But there's something inviting about her willingness to dabble and play here, trying on various stylistic hats and embracing the pleasures and potential pitfalls of each. Despite the considerable range she explores here (and the presence of yet another collaborator, veteran producer Tobias Freund) it's never difficult to hear the Ellen Allien in each of these tracks; the sound of one of electronica's most alluring chameleons growing a bit more comfortable within her own skin.
To Rococo Rot: Speculation review
To Rococo Rot's first proper album in six years (their sixth overall) finds the veteran "listening electronica" trio returning refreshed and reinvigorated, after the rather staid, perhaps overly-familiar Hotel Morgen, with their loosest, least electronic work to date. Recorded at Faust's studio in rural Southern Germany (the pioneering Kraut outfit's Jochen Irmler plays a self-made organ on the extended ambient closer "Fridays"), Speculation frequently approximates the sound of a live band playing in a room together, which is reportedly not far from the truth. Not that this is a full about-face into acoustic music: indeed, the record opens with a stiff, machine-calibrated pulse, though its dull precision merely forms a baseline anchor against which "Away"'s instrumental elements -- a plodding bass vamp, restrained hi-hat drumming, spindly guitar -- begin to slowly, steadily stretch away. For the most part, electronics serve primarily to add textural nuance to the live instrumentation that gives these cuts their musical meat; there are sometimes percussive or simple melodic loops present, but it's not usually clear (nor particularly pertinent) whether they were played or programmed. Especially on the album's first half, there's a newfound emphasis on groove, with the group settling into and briefly exploring one relaxed, supple vibe after another -- the rippling, circular "Horses" and the buoyant, marimba-led "Forwardness" are particular standouts -- sometimes calling to mind the soft-edged indie-funk of Fujiya and Miyagi (thanks largely to Stefan Schneider's nimble, economical bass playing), with a generous, organic give-and-take rendering the frequent comparisons to their alphabetical peers Tortoise more apt than ever. After a short, disruptive burst of squelching and the sparser, more rigid paranoid disco of "Working Against Time," Speculation winds down with a handful of less direct, more abstract pieces more comparable to TRR's earlier work ("Place It" in particular wouldn't have sounded out of place on The Amateur View), though here, too, there's a free-floating looseness, verging on clutter at times, that marks a clear break from their formerly pristine sonic and structural precision. The aforementioned "Fridays," a ten-minute scuttle-and-drone fest, marks arguably the album's greatest departure, even though it may not lead anywhere in particular. As always with these guys, the journey is the destination and the process is the experience; as studied or sophisticated as the ideas behind some of these sounds might be, it's an utterly simple pleasure that they've continued to find new moods and modes to experience along with us.
and as far as i'm concerned neither does the album itself. of course, an abrupt, unannounced online release like this, particularly from an artist as unpredictable and inscrutable (and, at least until recently, as widely written-off) as liz, doesn't exactly set up too many expectations to disappoint in the first place. i had actually been looking mildly, vaguely forward to new liz material since seeing her perform exile in guyville two summers back, when it sorta seemed like her prodigal-return-to-indie-rank'n'file was just around the corner. but even so i was pleasantly surprised when i downloaded the thing and found out how utterly breezily easy it was to enjoy.
granted, i'm probably more tolerant than most of goofy "experimental" nonsense; i can readily see how the stupid-stupid satirical spoken skits and bits could be pretty grating, but i am still pretty amused by them at this point (is that supposed to be a sarah palin impression on "beat is up"?) i guess i've always sort of liked liz the most at her weirdest (esp. on whitechocolatespaceegg, easily my favorite of her albums, which was definitely a grower, and which this reminds me of a fair amount), plus i generally really enjoy exploring and dissecting weird, ballsy, left-field projects like this (808s and heartbreak comes to mind, as does rebirth), which tend to more than make up in personality what they sacrifice in tastefulness. and plus i guess i'm just a fan. but regardless; it's easy to see how much fun she had with this thing, and, at least as important, a lot of the songs are dang catchy!
so it was kind of dismaying to refresh p4k tonight and see this blunt pan of the album, which feels like it misses the point in a way i don't expect from the site (esp. from doug wolk, a writer i like.) i can't complain too much about the review being a snap judgment, despite the fact that he can't have had more than four days to write it – after all i've only listened to it four or five times, all today. but: whereas funstyle feels not only like a great vein for phair to be mining right now, but also an almost pitch-perfect response/corrective to the charges critics (and p4k in particular) leveled against her last two albums – it's spontaneous, messy, uncalculated, pointedly uncommercial, etc. – this review feels like a continuation of exactly the same kinds of criticism – that she's fucking around and basically squandering her talent, albeit in a different mode this time – and reads like yet more overreactive punishment for not doing what she should be doing.
context is important, naturally. the infamous liz phair 0.0 was obviously based on a(n emotional) reaction to an aesthetic move that was perceived as invalid, rather than an objective critical assessment of the musical quality. by contrast, amy phillips' 2.0 review of somebody's miracle was a good deal more honest and considered about its biases (and tbh i have never heard that album, though i kinda want to now), which made its musical criticisms all the more pointed. but this review of funstyle (a 2.6) veers in the opposite direction; it seems to actively ignore the context of liz phair's career trajectory and the critical response thereto, and to focus instead on critiquing the music, in a way which feels awfully nit-picky for an off-beat oddity like this – whatever it may be, funstyle is obviously not shooting straightforwardly for some objective, uncomplicated idea of "good music," so why judge it on those terms?
[aside: if phair deserved the knee-jerk vitriol that accompanied the stylistic shift of self-titled album (which of course she didn't), doesn't she deserve some accolades from the indie powers that be for this shift back into realm of artsy personal expression? (well, no, not that neither, but turnabout=fairplay?)]
i mean, i may respectfully disagree with wolk about "satisfied" being "conventionally cruddy" – fair enough if he thinks so (i find it decently catchy, if admittedly conventional – though in this context the very notion of "conventional" is undermined right off the bat in a way that makes it sort of unconventional anyway.) as for his talk of bad arrangements and unjustified lyrical conceits, i just wonder who cares, esp. given the unapologetically unpolished nature of the album – i suppose these things might start to bother me at some point, but a few listens in they're hardly disruptive enough to be noticeable. but when he calls the album's four "key tracks" (an odd designation) "horrible on just about every conceivable level" that just seems small-minded. for one, they're very, very far from being boring – that much feels undeniable to me. as formalist experiments they're at least intriguing (the approach being a weird conflation of rap-album-style skits and "proper" songs.) most of them have at least one decent hook tucked in among their weirdness/hokeyness/vapidity. but more to the point, as horrible (i'd probably just say negligible) as they may be as songs, they seem at the very least effective (that is, not especially horrible) on the level of meta-referential set pieces establishing the loose, playful aesthetic tone and personal/narrative context of the album itself, which seems to be their primary function.
wolk rails: "this is Phair razing her image to the ground: spitting at anyone who thinks they know who "Liz Phair" is, or expects her to make Guyville VI: The Return of the Exile." but, really? what was her image again? since when has there been any clear consensus understanding of who liz phair is – hasn't she spent the past decade as one of the most divisive/inscrutable figures in indie rock? was anybody seriously still expecting her to make a guyville retread at this point, after she's spent her past two albums pissing people off by not doing that? c'mon.
besides, in many ways (as he acknowledges), this is a return to a lot of what people loved about those early albums. in fact, its blatant contrarian-ness is an absolute continuation and perfect encapsulation of a trait that has always defined her career: from the beginning and through-out her "sell-out" phase. pretty much everything about funstyle is in outrageously bad taste. but liz has never been tasteful. what the hell was "flower"? all of which makes this album a legitimate surprise that's simultaneously not at all surprising. so i guess i am disagreeing with wolk again, because this feels like a totally in-character (if not per se predictable) liz phair move.
anyhow, the chorus of "u hate it" pretty much says it all:
"oh oh, i think i'm a genius/oh oh, you're being a penius"
aw liz, where ya been so long?