25 December 2011

review round-up XV: 2011 second half, vol. 2 [singer-songwriters and indie rock bands]

Devon Sproule: I Love You, Go Easy review

Devon Sproule's sixth album opens in typically bucolic fashion, with the limber-voiced songwriter musing mellifluously on the mossy, terrapin-filled pond of her childhood commune (perhaps the very same "goose-poop pond" referenced at the start of her previous album), but the record on the whole finds Sproule -- an Ontario-born lifelong Virginian, freshly transplanted to Berlin, who's probably best beloved in the U.K. -- traveling musically and thematically further afield from her rustic roots. I Love You, Go Easy, which feels every bit as warm, thoughtful, and generously gentle as the twofold sentiment contained in its title, was recorded in her native Canada with a fresh batch of collaborators -- free-thinking Toronto producer Sandro Perri (Polmo Polpo) and experimental folk-pop trio the Silt -- who work some small wonders with the album's breezily expansive textural palette, making tasteful use of flutes, clarinets, saxophones, brass, and a few unobtrusively burbling synthesizers alongside Sproule's trusty Gibson. The result is considerably removed from the country-informed folk that dominated (but never completely encapsulated) her earlier work; it's both her subtlest and jazziest effort to date, certainly sonically but also in its songwriting, which tends more than ever toward long, fluid melodic lines and loose, open-ended structures. And the songs, if not necessarily her most immediately captivating or endearingly winsome, are as artful, personable, elegant, and finely crafted as ever, revealing abundant charms and quirks with familiarity. They're also frankly, unapologetically personal, vehicles for Sproule to explore the nuances of her relationships and emotions but also to sort through her life and career goals (though the two tend to intersect, particularly when it comes -- as it often does -- to her husband, fellow singer/songwriter Paul Curreri).

Twin Sister: In Heaven review

Twin Sister's most singular asset – and, apart from a general sonic softness which could be described as "twee," In Heaven's only really consistent attribute – is Andrea Estella's singing voice: a supple, adorable coo that's got a soupçon of Lætitia Sadier, a playful pinch of Judy Garland – by way of Nellie McKay, and, particularly when layered and harmonized, a warm, velvety mellifluence akin to underrated California popsters Simone Rubi and Terri Loewenthal (Rubies/Call and Response.) True, the band's carved out a distinctive, likable, retro-indebted yet minty-fresh baseline sound: dappled, spacey lounge-pop which calls to mind Baudelaire's "luxe, calme et volupté" (also, incidentally, the mantra of romanticist Canadian lushes Stars), and is perhaps best exemplified by opening ditty "Daniel," with its glowing, drifting Tortoise-shell veneer of vibraphone and organ and its gently zippy beatbox bossa. (Call it The Sea and Cupcake – with Estella as the gooey frosting – or, alternatively: Coctail Twins.) But In Heaven, if anything, only ramps up the genre-hopping of Twin Sister's early EPs, rendering it a rather diffuse, perplexing miscellany. Viz., infectious funk-slice "Bad Street" struts into kewpie disco territory (somewhere in the suburbs of "Funkytown"); aptly-named "Space Babe" ushers in the synth-washed and ponderous dream-pop of "Kimmi in a Ricefield" and "Luna," whose gauzy solemnity is then undercut by a spate of campy weirdness: "Spain" (torchy spy-theme pastiche), "Gene Ciampi" (Spaghetti Western clip-clop) and "Saturday Sunday" (easy-listening bubblegum? Petula Clark takes on Rebecca Black?), which largely dial back the synths in favor of screwball guitar. So: Heaven? or Las Vegas? or, more probably, (c. late 90s) Chicago? Hard to predict quite where Twin Sister will end up, but it's a lovely, leisurely, labile journey all the same.

Kathryn Calder: Bright & Vivid review

For an album titled Bright and Vivid, Kathryn Calder's sophomore solo effort sure starts out pretty murky. With its thick, squalling guitars, thudding drumbeat, and smeared, muffled vocals, "One Two Three" initially suggests that Calder is taking a page from the voguish, lo-fi girl group playbook (Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls, et al), but that soon turns out to be a bit of a miscue. There's a sense of polish and deliberateness in spite of all the hazy, swirling sonics; what emerges here, and throughout the album, is indeed quite vivid and bright -- but on the order of a lush, richly saturated Impressionist painting (or, perhaps, the album's autumnal-hued cover), an aesthetic far removed from the crisp, neatly delineated formalism of her work with the New Pornographers and Immaculate Machine. While Calder's relatively intimate, understated solo debut demonstrated a keen awareness of texture and a solid understanding of arrangement, those impulses come to the fore here in a considerably fuller and more conspicuous way, becoming as much of a focus as the songs themselves, if not more; take for instance the epically evolving, almost suite-like "All the Things," which is instrumental for more than half of its six-minute run time, and features Calder's voice, when it does come in, positively drowned in reverb. That voice -- warm, confident, girlishly pure, more richly developed than ever --still serves as the sublime vehicle for melody it has long been, rising brilliantly above the gentle haze on "Right Book," or tenderly harmonizing on "City of Sounds," but it's also sometimes treated as just one more, albeit integral, element in the album's lavish, layered tapestry of texture. For all the considerable volume of sound on the album -- which Calder recorded in her living room with her producer-engineer husband Colin Stewart (head of Vancouver's Hive Creative Labs), working at a leisurely pace and enlisting a generous cast of collaborators -- it never feels overstuffed. And while the songs, in general, tend not to announce themselves loudly, but rather blossom gradually, taking time to reveal their ample hooks and charms, they show just as much care and craft as the album's expansive soundscape. Even at their most immediately, infectiously accessible -- the glorious, electro-poppy earworm "Who Are You?," which has all the makings of an indie-night dance anthem, or the catchy, rocking "Walking in My Sleep" (the closest the album comes to New Pornos-style power pop) -- these are thoughtful, complex pieces of songwriting. A firm step forward on all fronts, Bright and Vivid is a thoroughly engaging listen and establishes Calder as a creative force and pop craftsperson every bit as worthy as her big-deal bandmates.

Darren Hayman: Essex Arms review

For the second installment in his planned "Essex Trilogy," Darren Hayman shifts his focus from the suburban, middle-class "new town" Harlow – the subject and setting of 2009's Pram Town – to a broader view of the East Anglian county's rural, working-class communities. Like its predecessor, Essex Arms is full of highly specific geographic and cultural references which effectively function as a backdrop to Hayman's usual assortment of love songs, character sketches and wistful ruminations. This time there's no attempt to cement the album's concept through a grand connecting narrative (or even a modest one), but the songs still hang together nicely to evoke a clear sense of place, with linchpins including "Dagenham Ford" – a touchingly bittersweet eulogy to a shuttered auto plant (and perennial football underdogs West Ham United) – and the languorous "Two Tree Island" (an ode to a former sewage works and landfill, now partially a nature reserve), with its vision of the countryside commingled with litter and waste. Sweetness and decadence run hand and hand throughout these songs, with references to semi-public sex and reckless (and sometimes fatal) joyriding intermingling with heartfelt declarations of love (none more pure and guileless than "Super Kings"' earnest refrain.) Perhaps the most winning moment (which is reprised en passant throughout the album, for good measure) comes with "Winter Makes You Want Me More," whose central sentiment is as poetic as it is self-evident; a cold-weather love song that's as universal as pawprints in the snow, shivering smokers and candy-striped flannelette sheets. Throughout, Hayman and a particularly strong incarnation of the Secondary Modern (including contributions from Fanfarlo, The Wave Pictures and – on the scene-setting "Calling Out Your Name Again," a duet with Emmy the Great) infuse the proceedings with a loose but decidedly folksy, countrified air, flush with pedal steel, harmonica, fiddle, mandolin and more. That musical modus may or may not be strictly relevant to the countryside in question, but it works marvelously well with Hayman's increasingly soulful songwriting, both on the hushed, melancholic tunes which make up the majority of this collection (starting right off the bat with the sad-sack "Be Lonely") and the handful of upbeat offerings, including the atypically rocky scrabble-playing closer "Nothing You Can Do About It." While it's not quite the uniquely charming statement Pram Town was, Essex Arms is yet another excellent addition to Hayman's ever-expanding discography.

Jeffrey Lewis: A Turn In The Dream-Songs review

Following the splendid career highlight Em Are I, and after a couple of collaborative detours – the uneven-at-best The Bundles with Kimya Dawson, and the delightfully loopy Come On Board with weirdo-folk icon Peter Stampfel – lovably quirky New York songwriter/cartoonist Jeffrey Lewis returns with a highly likable sixth album full of his characteristic wit, whimsy, sardonic self-deprecation and transcendental musings. Lewis' regular backing band the Junkyard are absent here (under that billing, at least), as are the occasional bursts of electrified rowdiness they've provided in the past. In their place are a clutch of mostly British indie-folk players (including the Wave Pictures' Franic Rozycki, who provides some fine mandolin work throughout), and a bevy of guests – members of The Vaselines, Dr. Dog, Au Revoir Simone, Misty’s Big Adventure and Schwervon – who help flesh out the album's pleasantly loose, vaguely psych-folky vibe, particularly on the tone-setting "To Go And Return," whose spacey, surreal lyric (a somewhat Seussian nonsense rhyme about the cosmic metaphysics of wish-making) is the source of the album's peculiar title. Despite all the friends he's amassed here, Lewis remains an archetypal loner, a condition which informs many of the album's sharpest numbers, from the lovelorn lambast "How Can It Be?" (featuring peppy, '60s-style backing vocals by the Dr. Dog boys) and the goofy "Cult Boyfriend" (which likens Lewis' romantic boom-and-bust cycles to a rapid-fire list of pop-culture obscurities) to "I Got Lost"'s gentle, plain-spoken disquisition on disconnection and "When You're By Yourself"'s wryly tender dissection of the practical logistics of loneliness – not to mention the hyperbolic shaggy-dog suicide saga "So What If I Couldn't Take It Anymore." (As usual – though still impressively – these songs rarely if ever come across as bitter or overly self-pitying; Lewis hasn't lost his knack for balancing depressed and depressing subject matter with insightfulness, sincerity, levity and charm.) All that time alone must give Lewis plenty of opportunity for deep thinking, which might explain the homespun, slightly stoned philosophizing of songs like the de facto centerpiece "Krongu Green Slime" – which uses the odd conceit of a pre-historic novelty manufacturing corporation to reimagine the entirety of evolution, over six protracted minutes of spare acoustic picking – and, perhaps more cogently, the touching "Time Trades," which moves beyond theorizing to offer some practical advice about long-term life planning. Songs like this – imaginative, contemplative, densely wordy, slightly silly but unflinchingly earnest – are arguably Lewis' strongest suit, especially in his recent work, and if the instances on A Turn In The Dream-Songs aren't quite as striking as those on its predecessor, the album still ranks right up there among his best.

Wu Lyf: Go Tell Fire To The Mountain review

British foursome World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation – amusingly tempting to confuse with their rather distant Stateside counterparts World/Inferno Friendship Society (both bands are, at least, similarly fervent, unruly and rabble-rousing) – craft music that's every bit as elemental, emphatic and willfully enigmatic as their album's title. On its own terms, stripped of the hyped-to-hell/anti-hype vortex of its appealingly mythic but all-too-familiar backstory, Go Tell Fire offers both considerable beauty – lots of chiming, churchy organ, lots of gorgeously liquid, lucid guitar – and considerable ugliness (including some brutish, pounding grooves, but especially Ellery Roberts' instantly divisive choked, guttural caterwaul, which is potent in chunks – especially in exhortative chant mode – but dreadfully wearisome at unremitting album-length full-throttle), neither of which feel like ends in themselves (nor a purpose-driven juxtaposition) so much as value-neutral vehicles striving, straining, yearning toward pure, pummeling visceral emotion. And, to the (inconsistent) extent that they keep things abstract (read: post-rock-ish), and avoid sounding like any other bunch of dull, drudgy indie-rock also-rans (most of the bits invoking their self-conception as "heavy pop," a rather sour, chore-like description), it mostly works.

Zee Avi: Ghostbird review

A pint-sized, ukulele-strumming, vintage dress-wearing Malaysian-born songbird who rose to prominence via YouTube videos, Zee Avi fairly screams cute, quirky whimsy. If that description raises any warning flags or cynical twitches, ghostbird might just not be your glass of agave-sweetened hibiscus tea. (Should it be held against her that both she and her music are the stuff of marketing directors' dreams? It's an open question...) But you'd have to be at least a little cold-hearted not to be pleasantly lulled by the warm, gentle breeziness of Avi's music; its evident charm, predictably familiar though it might be, is modest enough never to feel cloying. If nothing else, the album consistently sounds wonderful: helmed by longtime Beastie Boys associate Mario Caldato Jr. (Bebel Gilberto, Jack Johnson) with a genially eclectic textural expansiveness – drawing freely from folk, swing jazz and soundtrack-friendly pop, with a twist of South Pacific tropicalia – it boasts a particularly vivid variety of percussion elements (shakers, fingersnaps, crisply mic'd congas, brushed snare drums, bullfrogs, rhythmic vocal chanting and discreet turntable scratches.) As for Avi herself, her personality often takes a comfortable backseat to the sound – and her lyrics, save for the occasional pithy sun-dappled observation ("every good fisherman has a pelican watching over him") tend to stand out for vague syntactic awkwardness ("even my lover's no longer enamored by me") or blatant factual inaccuracy ("thirty-one days in June" – from a song whose refrain also asserts "my love will pay the rent") if at all – but her voice, a gorgeously honeyed, legitimately jazzy warble (recalling The Bird and the Bee's Inara George) that belies her 25 years, is simply beyond reproach.

philadelphia city paper reviews:

Jens Lekman: Having An Argument With Myself EP review

Oh so silent oh so long (four years!), Mr. Jens Lekman reminds us just what we've been missing with the delectably dense An Argument With Myself EP (Secretly Canadian.) Over some of the sparkliest, most lovingly detailed grooves of his career – effervescent Afro-pop, plasticine twee-funk, soupy yacht-reggae – the gallant Göthenburger peruses and ponders the debatably ethical society of his hometown (and this world over: Melbourne; Santiago) via personal anecdotes, romantic professions, driving directions, absent-minded small talk, socio-political critique and – of course – plenty of jokes.

Gillian Welch The Harrow and the Harvest review

It's been a long, dry spell since last we heard from Gillian Welch – eight years; though the ten sterling originals comprising The Harrow and the Harvest feel, characteristically, far far older than that. If anything, Welch and her indispensable partner (in songwriting, harmonizing, and stunningly meticulous picking) David Rawlings sound more artlessly natural than ever inhabiting these deeply bluesy (and sometimes gothically gloomy) Appalachian folk strains, any of which could slot right in at your next backwoods campfire.

Tom Waits: Bad As Me review

Saying someone sounds like Tom Waits has become a lazy rock critic cliché trotted out for any singer who's a bit growly or guttural. Bad As Me (Anti-), the man's seventeenth album, besides being an all-around marvelous return after the longest recording gap of his career, is a spectacular reminder that, in actuality, nobody sings like Ol' Tom, whose larynx unleashes everything from weary, warbled moans to feral, splenetically spluttering yowls to an eerily husky falsetto croon across a tight set of his inimitable juke-joint rumbles, junkyard blues and bleary, beery ballads.

Steve Malkmus + The Jicks: Mirror Traffic review

Sorta a shame he didn't stick with the wry working title Madonna in Love, but otherwise it's hard to fathom a legit complaint against Mirror Traffic (Matador), Stephen Malkmus's fifth album with the Jicks, first since last year's world-conquering victory lap with that other band of his, and most instantly, consistently approachable in ages. Spanning gorgeously warm countryfied lopes, smirking spazz-outs, and bulls-eye riff-fests, these fifteen cuts are spry, tuneful, funny and touching: nothing but gold, gold sounds.

Laura Marling: A Creature I Once Knew review

Third time out and the spryest, most striking work yet from the fiercely prodigious Laura Marling, A Creature I Don't Know (Virgin) finds the steely-eyed, still-implausibly-youthful songstress toughening up her nimble, classically refined folk with hard-boiled jazz, blues and (surprisingly bruising) rock inflections; following her increasingly inimitable voice (both literary and literal) into ever more dramatic, elementally mythic themes and haunting, heart-wrenching idiosyncrasies; and also — just showing off — penning her most immediate, ear-catching batch of tunes yet.

Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow review

Kate Bush – art-pop's high priestess; iconoclast icon who's the inspiration for at least one generation of would-be "eccentrics" – returns to show 'em all how it's done. Except, it's never been done quite like this: 50 Words for Snow (Fish People), her second album this year (but only third this century!) tackles its titular promise with zestful aplomb (and a little assist from Stephen Fry) – "phlegm de neige"..."whippoccino"...psychohail" – but also achieves subtler, equally prodigious feats of imagination and expressiveness throughout its seven mesmerizing, glistening-gentle, white-flurried powder-puffs of song.

The Dø: Both Ways Open Jaws review

There's much that's curious about Franco-Finnish twosome The Dø: the baffling bandname (pronounced "dough," incidentally); the ineffable charisma of Olivia Merilahti's potent, versatile soprano; the way their simple-seeming but naggingly elusive folky/poppy/bluesy tinker-toy tunes flit from gypsy jazz to junkyard electronica and somehow feel at once sparse and texturally teeming. Both Ways Open Jaws (Six Degrees), their modest, ambitious second effort, dances its bohemian dances with a Feist-y, casually effortless sophistication that seems primed to court mainstream attention, but without sacrificing a quark of their subtle, innate quirk.

Brite Futures: Dark Past review

Maybe Seattle electro-popsters Brite Futures' named Dark Past (Turnout), their debut-as-such, in reference to their somewhat notorious, decidedly dubious original moniker, about which the less said the better. It certainly couldn't be about the music, which is as day-glo bright as all get-out: glamtastic party-rocking power-pop with mirrorball glimmers of everybody from Queen and The Cars to Weezer, Phoenix and Daft Punk. It's blatantly mindless fun that, for once, is genuinely fun. Not bad for a buncha goofs who used to call themselves Natalie Portman's Shaved Head. Oh, wait, whoops.

Beirut: The Rip Tide review

Zach Condon's toponym fixation is alive and well in the tracklist of The Rip Tide (Pompeii), Beirut's quietly assured third full-length, but his old-world musical wanderlust is far less dominant than it once was: the defining Balkan, French chanson and Mexican folk currents of past efforts are synthesized here into a broader, more refined aesthetic; the characteristic barrage of trumpets, accordions, string bands and martial snares is more than ever in the service of these nine compact, comfortable songs.

Björk: Biophilia review

She may never recapture the synthesis of uncompromising artiness and pop accessibility which blessed her peerless '90s peak, but the music on Biophilia (One Little Indian), Björk's often arresting, occasionally impenetrable sixth (proper) full-length – in non-trivial danger of being overshadowed by the album's truly ambitious accessorizing (app-based interactivity, exhaustive conceptual exegesis, multi-media overload) – reveals that, when she wants to, she's still able to engage as well as merely dazzle, through concise melodicism, sheer sonic prettiness, and the occasional bad-ass drill'n'bass freakout.

Sam Phillips: Solid State review

Of the increasingly many industry-dispossesed critics-darling songsmiths to go the self-released, fan-financed route (see also: Jill Sobule, Juliana Hatfield), smart-pop lifer Sam Phillips must be among the more ambitious – Solid State: Songs from the Long Play is merely a compact, physical distillation of a long-running subscription-based online project which yielded, in full, forty-three new tunes. The ones compiled here should amply satisfy more casual fans that her rich, Beatles-indebted songcraft and wryly bittersweet vocals (often distinctively close-harmonized) remain as singular and effective as ever.

Feist: Metals review

Metals (Interscope) is Leslie Feist's calmest, plainest record yet; despite the occasional string-laden swelling of sound, group-chanted refrain, or Colin Stetson saxophone murmuration, it basically never deviates from her mossy-soft luxe pop métier, and it will serve comfortably as more-than-adequate background music for just about any demographic. Listen closer, though, and it's rarely if ever dull: Feist may have grown complacent but she's still a smart, thoughtful songcrafter whose subtle way with mood and melody are as meticulous as they come.

The Bees: Every Step's A Yes review

As though still stuck in a starry-eyed, pastoral post-Brit-Pop groove the rest of us have rudely tumbled out of, A Band of Bees (just The Bees to their fellow Britons) have been churning out sunny, amorphously Sixties-referencing psych-pop (and the odd samba detour) for nearly a decade now. The lovely, leisurely Every Step's A Yes (Fiction/ATO), which reaches our shores a year late, is their gentlest, folkiest excursion yet, recalling forgotten soft-pop sophisticates like the Mamas and the Papas (covered quite faithfully here) and The Association.

Baby Dee: Goes Down To Amsterdam review

For anyone who caught up with her classy, largely instrumental suite Regifted Light earlier this year, or the far-too-many who haven't had the pleasure, Baby Dee Goes Down To Amsterdam (Tin Angel) offers a quick and dirty tromp through the highlights of the big-hearted, crazy-voiced harpist/pianist's songwriting oeuvre, sampling both the unabashed tenderness and the chillingly dark, twisted recesses of her catalog, with lots of gleeful cackling along the way. Make a date with one of the most utterly singular talents of our times...and go Dutch.

Bon Iver: Bon Iver review

Superficially, the eponymous second Bon Iver album (Jagjaguwar) is a radically different beast from Justin Vernon's rapturously admired debut – texturally expansive and opulent where its predecessor was solitary and sparse; trading wispy folk for gooey, Oldenburgian Soft Pop. But the music's fundamental allure remains conspicuously unchanged: in a word, vibe. Befitting his work's preoccupation with environments (here, a litany of real and surreal place-names), and extrapolating from an ineffable voice which conveys (or evokes) reams more in sound than it ever does in actual sense, Vernon is, essentially, indiedom's preeminent purveyor of ambience.

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