Archive for the 'indie pop' Category

Good Shit

October 20, 2007

So: Two general blog things of note.

First, both ninjajabberwocky and I have been really busy of late, and both simultaneously dropped the ball on getting posts up on this blog. This is a bad thing, so I’m putting something up.

Second, we’ve noticed that one of the reasons why our blogging has dropped off is that our posts have tended to be too formal. Thus, they take too long to make, and we don’t actually spend time doing it because it’s too… well, ‘intimidating’ is not quite the right word, but some word like that. Thus, this post is going to take me like 20 minutes to make. Hehe. But it’s still going to be good, I swear.

There have been a bunch of good albums which have come out in the past couple of months. A couple of them are pretty generally known: Kanye West’s Graduation, Radiohead’s In Rainbows, etc. I wanted to put up a few more albums that I’ve been listening to which not enough people are talking about:Les Savy Fav - Let's Stay Friends

First and foremost: Les Savy Fav’s Let’s Stay Friends. It’s some fucking great post-punk styled indie rock. Les Savy Fav have often been compared with Fugazi, who are one of my favorite bands ever, and it’s usually a good comparison. But here they don’t sound like it: They’ve gone really pop, compared to their other stuff. And it’s great news, which is rare. “Patty Lee” is a truly great pop song which is kinda a perfect example of how the album sounds: The angular guitars are still there, but they’re hidden under melodies and good singing. There are still some more aggressive tracks though, which are still awesome. And the rhythm section is fucking awesome, of course. That’s basically why the album matters: The rhythms are so tight that the songs will be driven into your head.

Sunset Rubdown - Random Spirit Lover

Sunset Rubdown’s Random Spirit Lover is amazing, and it’s hard to explain why. The songs are a mess. They don’t sound like anything else I’ve heard, which is a plus. But if I heard any of these songs alone, I would find them annoying and scattered. However, the album generates its own particular mood, within which the songs makes sense. The first third is just good pop music, but in the middle third of the album, starting with “Colt Stands Up, Grows Horns”, the songs become really experimental. And I keep thinking: I wish I knew why this is good music.

There are a couple of other great albums I want to at least mention, although they’re both very not-mainstream-listenable. A Place to Bury Strangers are this new band whose self-titled debut is brilliant. It’s basically shoegaze/Jesus and Mary Chain-style music, but along with beautiful lush pop feedback, it has a bunch of industrial noisy angry feedback. “To Fix the Gash in your Head” is one of my favorite tracks of the year. It’s almost danceable, but is about kicking someone’s head in. Between the Buried and Me are the other band I feel that I must mention, because their Colors is the best metal album of the year. For a lot of people, that’s like saying ‘the best knife to the stomach’ but if you give it a chance, there’s so much innovation behind the screaming. Seriously.The Boo Radleys - Giant Steps

The other album I want to mention is not a new release, but some 90’s stuff I’d never heard before. It’s the Boo Radley’s Giant Steps. Highest recommendation possible for this album, I swear. The stylistic variety is so great, it’s mind-boggling, but the songs all fit together too. It ranges from Beach Boys to 90’s alt rock to jazz to psychedelia to Britpop to guitar noise. And it’s all uniformly excellent. Best thing I’ve heard in a long time.

I’m not really feeling like uploading a lot of tracks, but here’s Hype Machine/YouTube:

Hype Machine: A Place to Bury Strangers – To Fix The Gash in your Head
YouTube: The Boo Radleys – Lazarus

posted by nerdbound

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Electrelane – No Shouts, No Calls

July 18, 2007

Electrelane - No Shouts, No CallsAfter the first listen, this album was good. By the second or third listen, it was one of the best of the year, and it just keeps climbing in my estimation with each time I play it. It’s a very vulnerable and delicate sort of album, which is not the sort of thing I usually go for (understatement). But there is power here too, and creativity. Never before have I heard an album that so ably blurs the lines between melody, harmony, and texture. Bass lines are hummable, vocal parts are used for harmony, and these and other musical elements alternate and rotate control of the melody, which is always central. These are not the kind of melodies you’re thinking of though, precisely because melodic voices often dive into harmony and repetition. The album’s minimal, natural sound and fantastic arrangements makes little things that otherwise might fade into the mix sublime. The sound uses droning, propulsive rock as a technique, but not as a controlling element. Previous albums have been accused of copying Stereolab, but this one, to me, sounds nothing like any Stereolab I’ve ever heard. Even the droning guitars are usually just a part of the system of interlocking melodic lines. This is no droning rock record with some pop bits mixed in: the droning is merely the often-brilliant texture beneath a shockingly melodic sound (or sometimes, the melody itself).

I’d never heard Electrelane before this album, but hearing it inspired me to go listen to their older material. At least on a first listen, nothing else is the achievement that this record is, although that’s not really fair, because never before have they seemed to be trying to make this record. Axes really is a droning rock record, strongly influenced by Kraut-rock. While The Power Out is more pop-influenced, it doesn’t have the natural, free sound and strong sense of identity that this record has (although “Enter Laughing” and some other tracks come close). Instead, it sounds like Stereolab (French pop drones) made a bit more punk. That’s a cool sound too of course, but No Shouts, No Calls is a brave step away from their influences. The sound isn’t entirely accessible, but more because it’s so personal and thoughtful than because its genre is drone or punk, and not pop.

“The Greater Times” did not impress me on a first listen, but it’s a grower, like many of the songs here. It builds very slowly, and beautiful melodic moments often occur only once or twice, as the melody continually meanders. The quantity of ideas here is impressive, and I think that might be why the song has grown on me so much. The lyrics also make this song a success: references to childhood and romance create a friendly atmosphere of innocence. The song really becomes superb around the two-minute mark: “You say you don’t know / What love means / Any more” is a beautiful “Modern Romance”-esque statement which grounds much of the rest of what is said on this album. It’s a call back to romantic comedies. You know, the ones where a cute guy and a cute girl who aren’t very personally compatible (they’re complete opposites, and hate each other at first) are drawn together by this inexplicable ‘love’ stuff. I’m not exactly a romantic, but the sentiment here is powerful, perhaps because, like “Modern Romance”, it doesn’t so much describe how this ‘love’ stuff is supposed to work as criticize its absence. The modern world is a big thing to criticize, but the album creates a little space where dreams of love seem grounded in reality. Which is kinda nice.

“To the East” is the single, and it is brilliant. The melodies are so well-arranged that every few seconds there’s another fantastic moment. When they sing “The East’s not so far away. / It could be home!” at 2:25, or “Come back / Come back / COME BACK / oh, to me!” a minute and some later, the emotion and beauty are both very real. “After the Call” follows, and is the first track that speeds up the pace and increases the sound of the guitar in the mix. It rocks, even beneath the fragile cries of “What can I do?” The contrast between the insistent rock guitars and the beautiful bedroom vocals makes for an incredible sound. The sense that the band really cares about the music shows through in the music’s insistent propulsion and emotional depth.

“Tram 21” is one of those tracks that’s almost an instrumental: vocals are present, but not lyrics, and instead the voices are used as texture and harmony. A great riff, then a guitar melody (I think that’s the ‘real’ melody, to be honest, and the vocals are just faking it), suddenly gaining in force. Then a chorus of ooh’s and ah’s forming a second melodic line. Then a second set of ooh’s and ah’s for more harmonic force. It’s a completely brilliant mood piece, full of ups and downs. The following track, “In Berlin” is perhaps the best track: it builds on a delicate arpeggio, adding strings, and slowly crescendoing to a brilliant climax: “You are all I long for this winter / and you are all I need”. The blend of sounds is intricate and seamless. “At Sea” is the joyous follow-up: “They say / There’s always tomorrow”, they sing, and then the guitar just starts bouncing.

“Between the Wolf and the Dog” begins as the hardest rocker on the album with an awesome riff, but when the vocals come in, they contrast strongly, somewhat softening the piece, and completely altering its feel. “Saturday” follows, creating a mood of innocence and wonder with a very simple yet gorgeous piano melody. However, it’s “Cut and Run” which really takes that mood and runs with it, achieving near-perfection. Acoustic (w/ ukelele!), it sounds like nothing else on the album, but is small, thoughtful, and ridiculously sweet. It’s a beautiful piece of bedroom sing-along indie pop, and the fact that it is this good is a testament to Electrelane’s song-writing.

Often, music about romance fails because it’s too delicate and wimpy, or because it’s over-emotional to the point where it glorifies destructive emotions (like the feeling of despair following a breakup). Either way, it can come off as brainless or whiny. This is highly successful music about romance, because it’s based on calls for strength and intelligence, with strong and intelligent music to back it up. It argues for romance, not because romance is a cure-all, but because romance is something worth working hard to achieve. And that’s a sentiment that even a real cynic can’t help but admire and treasure.

9.0/10

MP3: Electrelane – In Berlin
MP3: Electrelane – Cut And Run

posted by nerdbound

Feist, Grizzly Bear @ The Fillmore, San Francisco, 2007 June 26

July 14, 2007
photo courtesy of Muhammad Asranur

Visuals, baby. That’s what it was all about at this show. I’d bought tickets for my girlfriend Nicole and me with confidence that we’d hear a great show, and of course the music was great – a perfectly harmonized flood of sound flooring the audience at every turn – but what made this show amazing was how good it looked.

It starts when Grizzly Bear trudges up, slouching with a jaded weariness, staring gauntly out into the audience. After briefly announcing that they have just arrived from Portland, they silently turn to their instruments. The drums strike up and the guitar strings begin plucking their way into “Easier”, the first track from their 2006 album Yellow House. The song chugs steadily away for a while, the musicians silent and tight-lipped. Then, as the aural atmosphere coalesces, one by one each man slowly raises his head to gaze up into the lights, eyebrows lifting precariously, jaws finally wrenching open to deliver a magnificent mixture of moans and croons and wails, light and airy yet exquisitely piercing. The overall effect is to free the notes from their crude human sources – chords seemingly drift up out of nowhere, and ethereal voices layer on one by one, with bass/clarinet/flute player Chris Taylor’s almost imperceptible falsetto ringing in the echoing background of every beautifully blending chord.

Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor on flute
photo courtesy of Muhammad Asranur

As the set progresses, Grizzly Bear’s weariness seems to melt away as they become the heavenly vessels of a rare sonic purity. Taylor especially is an amazing spectacle to watch, his eyes shut beneath his pale hair, mouth stretched wide open in a Charlie Brown-sized wail as he clenches his hands tight over the edges of his bass guitar, which bucks and twitches with every crest and valley in his fluctuating falsetto. Drummer Christopher Bear too provides phenomenal stage energy; his body taut and twisted at an odd angle from all the tension within, he releases energy in incredible bursts of speed, sticks flying through the air to bottom out the songs with quick, pounding beats. Whereas on the album, percussion was relegated to the backseat for the swirling harmonies, here the beats are at the helm, driving and controlling the mood of each song. The songs overflow beyond their album instantiations throughout the set, especially an expansive, messily loud take on “Little Brother.” Thirty minutes of heavenly harmonies and textures, and then the band vanishes from the stage after some thank you’s, leaving the air ringing with the silent echoes of their performance.

After a short break, Feist’s backup band emerges under a dim blue light, scuttling across the stage to their places. The light beats of the xylophone begin, playing in the familiar pattern of “Honey Honey”. Feist enters and bends down to one mic, singing: “Ah-ah-ahh, ha-ah, ah-ah.” Her voice comes echoing back at her through the speakers, strained and fuzzy, reflecting off the walls as she stands still, listening carefully. And then she bends down again, a sweet harmony dropping from her lips into the mic, where it locks tight against the repeating melody. Feist lowers her head four more times, each time adding yet another harmony until the hall is filled with notes reverberating against every surface, clinging to one another in a beautifully fragile chord. And then, taking up the other microphone, she finally breathes the lyric into the aural fold: “Honey, honey, up in the trees, fill the flowers deep in his dreams…”

You know the way Feist’s voice is sultry and seductive, yet breathily girlish, seemingly encompassing all the romantic fancies of a seven-year-old girl in a summer dress running through the field as daisy petals swirl around her? Witnessing that voice in action is all that and more. The way she tilts her head from side to side, hair shaking out in a delicate wave behind her; the way she playfully punches pow-pow-pow along with the drumbeats; the way she peeks out demurely from behind her bangs with a spark of mischief in her eyes; the way she sways all across the stage, slow and mesmerizing during the quiet pieces but in wild joyful arcs for the upbeat numbers, stabbing at her guitar as she stamps her feet and flicks her hips back and forth. Innocent, girlish exuberance radiates from her in all directions, flowing through the crowd and infecting everyone with a silly childish energy.

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The New Pornographers – Challengers

July 11, 2007

They say that Challengers is the New Pornographers’ most ‘mature’ release yet. I suppose this makes sense if your vision of a ‘mature’ sound consists of songs that are – there is no other way to say this – just plain boring: less energetic and more contemplative, high on reflective repetition and low on the ornate frenzy that the Pornographers have become known for.

All this talk about New Porn and ‘maturity’ actually worries me a bit. That word has been bandied about so much lately when talking about the Pornographers, its constant and repeated use apparently signifying that the band have finally come into its own as a musical force, fulfilling the promise of their early work. But ‘mature’ for New Porn is not the same as ‘mature’ for other bands. When Twin Cinema came out, it was called ‘mature’ because it took their jangly, unfettered pop to whole new levels, filling out their sound and demonstrating a new variety in their songwriting. And yes, this did mean some more slow songs, but that wasn’t the heart of Twin Cinema‘s maturity. The maturity in Twin Cinema was an ability to seamlessly mix the calm with the frenetic, and to boldly march out the killer melody lines while keeping the soundscape soft and settled when called for by the song. Yet because the tempo of songs is the most obvious difference between Twin Cinema and the previous Mass Romantic and Electric Version, it seems as if everyone has equated ‘maturity’ and ‘seriousness’ with slow, ploddingly contemplative songs.

Well, if that’s maturity, then Challengers is certainly a product of adulthood. The album sounds as if the Pornographers read all those reviews of Twin Cinema and then decided, “Hey guys, let’s make a REALLY mature-sounding album by writing lots of quiet, contemplative songs inspired by our life experiences!”, forgetting that loads of gentle, dainty acoustic strums do not an album make.

This approach doesn’t merely fail on the album level either. In fact, what makes Challengers so incredibly frustrating is that every song has the potential to be an amazing showstopper tune. There are great riffs embedded in almost every track, but instead of unleashing them to fulfill their full primal glory, primary songwriter Carl Newman simply deploys them as endlessly cycling riffs that rotate and grind away beneath melodies with no direction and no climax.

Take for example “The Old Showstoppers”, the album’s second track – it seems primed for success at the beginning, with a riff that ranks among the Pornographers’ catchiest while still maintaining a unique, almost Western sensibility, but the song never takes that tense energy anywhere. Eventually the catchy riff switches off to a chorus that fails to strike the listener or appeal in any way, and by the time the riff returns, it’s a tired sound that only tells the listener that this song has no place else to go. The 3.5-minute title track, “Challengers”, offers a simple, pretty tune that would have worked much better on a track half that length, and even “Myriad Harbour”, the album’s most fun and electic song (though maybe that’s only because it sounds a little too similar to the Pixies’ “I Bleed”), only manages to rouse itself for a couple of stanzas before slumping back into a groove that is entirely too settled. In fact, “My Rights Versus Yours” and “Mutiny, I Promise You” are the only songs that have anything resembling a build-up of energy and tension, but even those level off about halfway through and rest at a lazy crest for the remainder of the tracks.

None of this is a slight to the band, which is plugging away with as much proficiency as ever – tight harmonies, steady guitars, and beautiful pop vocals. The trouble is that these songs just give them nowhere to go. It’s almost heartbreaking to hear all these elements being steadily layered on in the hopes of creating a full aural atmosphere, only for all the parts to sink into a malaise of sound with no direction or purpose.

If nothing else, the lyrics seem to have improved, but I have to admit that even this is somewhat of a disappointment. While it’s nice to see some poetics of substance (especially on “Myriad Harbour” and “Unguided”, Dan Bejar and Carl Newman’s respective odes to New York City), the sheer joy of Newman’s nonsensical word pudding on the previous albums was part of what made the New Pornographers such fun to listen to. The lyrics still work (especially on “Unguided” and “Adventures in Solitude”, among the best of the explicitly reflective tracks), concocting a sense of wonder and adventure unique to the Pornographers style, but that old glee is missing. Sure, it’s mature, but it’s also weary, and weary does not suit the Pornographers well.

You’re less liable to notice all this if you listen to the album by itself, but in light of New Porn’s past achievements, this album is a disappointment. It’s frustrating to me, as a huge fan of the band; I wanted desperately to love this album, and the listening experience was only made worse by the fact that everywhere I looked I could catch the edges of little diamonds of incredible pop riffs and musical moments peering out, wanting nothing more than to escape the mud that obscured them. Challengers is pleasant to listen to and even moving at times, but it’s a frustrating step back for the band from their Twin Cinema glory.

We thought we lost you,” croon Newman and Kathryn Calder in “Adventures to Solitude.” “We thought we lost you. Welcome back.” Here’s hoping that on the Pornographers’ next outing, we can say the same to them.

5.6/10

MP3: The New Pornographers – Myriad Harbour
MP3: The New Pornographers – Unguided

posted by ninjajabberwocky