Archive for the '2008 Albums' Category

Deerhunter’s Microcastle is perfect

June 4, 2008

I’ve heard all kinds of rumors about when this album is supposed to be released: August, October, Novemeber… It’s a moot point now because it has leaked. The cover art isn’t even out yet. But whatever: None of this is important. What is important is that this is one of the best releases of the decade: it’s currently in my top 3 of the 2000’s for sure. I really can’t praise it enough.

Look, I have finals going on right now, so there’s no way that I can really make a review right now that does justice to how great this is. In fact, this album is already interfering with my finals because I keep putting it on when I’m supposed to be working and drifting away listening to it. If I flunk all my classes, at least I get to be sublimely happy while doing it.

A brief history of Deerhunter: They release a debut album that is harsh and unfriendly. Nobody notices. They experience a bunch of in-band tension and nearly do not release their second album. What is eventually released, 2007’s Cryptograms, comes from a couple of different sessions and varies wildly in style and aim. The first half alternates between long ambient meditations and hard-as-nails post-punk where the band locks into a killer groove. The second half is largely psychedelic pop. Pitchfork loved it, and, after many many listens attempting to understand it, so did I. But it’s a hard album to listen to because of its enormous stylistic variance and the fact that it’s easy to feel a little… bored by the white noise noodling. A lot of people just heard it and went “WTF?” That said, “Cryptograms”, “Octet” are perfect, and many other songs are absolutely riveting and sound totally fresh. The band also got a reputation for their weird live shows in which the frontman, Bradford Cox, would show up in women’s clothing and discuss his feelings and… Deerhunter followed this album with the Fluorescent Grey EP, which lacks any of the ambient noodling and has a few good songs in its short length. Pitchfork and I love it too.

Bradford Cox has been spending most of this year doing solo work under his moniker Atlas Sound. The 2008 release Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel is a good album, but IMO not as good as his Deerhunter work (although some love it more). It certainly lacks the confusing lack-of-centeredness of Cryptograms and has a number of good pop songs, but lacks the awesome grooves that come from having a band.

My co-blogger and I had the privilege of seeing Atlas Sound live when they came to Stanford campus. We were both favorably impressed, and I liked his album more afterwards. He let his songs be less ambient and more dance-y because that was what the crowd wanted, and that displayed the pop hooks underlying them to great effect. I also got the impression that Bradford Cox is awesome: There is a story involved. Atlas Sound was going to open for the Breeders at a festival the next weekend, so Bradford was wearing a Breeders T-shirt. My co-blogger was wearing a Pixies tee. So of course, Bradford called him on it. He asked the crowd which was better (we thought it was the Pixies, to his dismay. We were also right) and challenged my co-blogger to an arm-wrestling competition. Any discussion of this arm-wrestling match would be incomplete if it didn’t mention a) that (from what I understand) Bradford is gay, cross-dresses for shows, and said that the arm-wrestling match would determine who was the more masculine (yay subversion!) and b) has Marfan syndrome, a disease which (I believe) makes him look a bit strange and stops him from having much muscle.

My co-blogger let him win for a moment, but then crushed him. We talked to him a bit after the show and he was really cool.

So up until I heard this album, I liked the band but their recorded output all left me unfulfilled. Cryptograms was too hard to love, Grey was too short, and Blind lacked the band and rock tendencies. Nevertheless, I was convinced that Deerhunter was AWESOME and had tons of potential. They have now proved me right. This album is Deerhunter at their tightest.

The new album is far more immediate than any of their past work. This can be seen through the production, which is much brighter and up-front, and the music which finally captures their sound. They describe themselves as ambient punk, but this is the first time that those two completely different styles of music have come together so well. Songs still vary quite a bit from the more ambient to the more psychedelic pop to the more punk but they now all sound like the same band. Part of that comes from the excellent sequencing. The first third is more pop-oriented. It slides from there into a more ambient middle section. Unlike Cryptograms though, every song is short and sweet and has a pop hook somewhere. Frankly, each of the short songs in the middle is absolutely gorgeous, shocking me every time I hear them. Finally, just before the ambient music becomes too much to take the guitars hit HARD and you’re thrust into “Nothing Ever Happened,” and the more raucus final third. But even at their most rock-oriented, you can hear their ambient textures which mean that these rock songs continually change and never get old. You hear them a second time and notice a little bit more of the subtext, the hidden sounds, the sort of little Easter eggs which are always there in truly great music.

So now I’ll just mention a few highlights. “Nothing Ever Happened” is probably my favorite, with its awesome guitar soloing, and solid groove. But “Little Kids” is a close second: It returns more to the themes and style of Blind and is absolutely transcendent. By which I actually mean that it sounds kinda spiritual in its lifting-upwards of innocence, increasingly submerged in static. “These Hands” is a brilliant little shoegaze track. It uses some beautiful textures: what sound like strings but might not be, underlining vocal wails and guitar noise. “Agorophobia” is also great: It’s more like psychedelic pop, but is more driving than typical for such music. “Never Stops” and “Saved By Old Times” both rock pretty damn hard, while still having great pop hooks, and “Twilight at Carbon Lake” is a beautiful drifting closer, which feels like it’s going to float away before the guitars come crashing in for the shoegaze-esque (reminding me of Ride) finale.

It’s a wonderful thing to listen to a record that is this good. You can stream some tracks at their Myspace.

9.7/10

posted by nerdbound

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Fleet Foxes Are Awesome

March 15, 2008

Fleet Foxes - Sun GiantI suppose I’m a bit late to this party, now that Pitchfork has already given Best New Music status to their Sun Giant EP. But shit, a) sometimes the Fork has bad taste, and this is not one of those times, b) I’ve heard that not everyone reads Pitchfork (really? But don’t you want to be cool? Oh wait…), and c) their forthcoming Ragged Wood LP is similarly great. As in, it is the best album of 2008 so far.

Describing the music is tough. It’s folk music: not 60’s-style folk music, but something older. Of current artists, it most reminds me of Califone, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, etc. Kinda folk music with a bit more rock influence than any of the acts mentioned before (although still not very much rock as such… As I say, it’s hard to describe. But it’s definitely livelier). While Califone and Grizzly Bear often sound fractured and muted, Fleet Foxes even at their quiet moments sound like they’re winning. It’s very spiritual-sounding music, in the old “Simple Gifts” sense. Their MySpace calls it “baroque harmonic pop jams.” Not too bad, actually.

Honestly, what they remind me of most (emotionally, not at all stylistically) is Nirvana’s live acoustic cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” That’s kinda a bizarre reference, I’m aware, but the two are similar in that both artists seem to believe that they’re something powerful (as opposed to merely ‘pretty’ or ‘personal’) in old folk music classics, and they bring out that power. It’s emotional music, and not always happy music, but it’s never whiney music because it’s not about the personal emotions of the artist. It’s about the emotions of the artist’s culture, the collective unconscious. It grafts a connection between the listener and some much bigger shit.

Many of their songs (such as “Blue Ridge Mountains”) alternate between soft, weary, nearly a cappella parts and big, ridiculously happy parts with the whole band. The emotional tension between the two styles is a lot of what makes the songs work so well. It makes the ‘sad’ here sound more like ‘ loss and redemption’ than ’emo’ and the ‘happy’ more like ‘at one with the birds’ than… well, however ‘happy’ is usually defined.

I actually like the Sun Giant EP a bit more than Ragged Wood. It’s a little artier, has a couple of amazing hooks, and is (of course, given its shorter running time) more consistent. As of now,”Mykonos” is my favorite Fleet Foxes song, due largely to its unusual song structure. It starts as a big, happy tune that slowly breaks apart, before voices enter a capella in the middle with what could be a totally different song. The drum sound is fantastic, and both sections have great hooks. It’s kinda like having two songs in one, but the two sections play off each other in interesting ways. “Drops in the River” and “English House” are also fantastic.

That said, Ragged Wood is the greater achievement. Every song on it is a success. “Ragged Wood” and “Quiet Houses” are big and exciting, and probably my favorite (given my rarely downbeat mood). “Ragged Wood,”like “Mykonos,” sounds like several songs in one, with hooks galore. At least two or three guitar parts that are beautifully combined with the vocal melodies: in parts, it really swings too. “White Winter Hymnal” wins the contest for most memorable hook, a big circling choral bit; while “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” and “Meadowlark” are just gorgeous in their simplicity. “He Doesn’t Know Why” and “Heard Them Stirring” sound like they’re going stratospheric.

I could literally praise every song here individually. No two are alike, and none fails.

9.1/10

posted by nerdbound