Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ra Ra Riot: The Orchard

The Syracuse, New York, sextet released their successful debut in 2008, and the follow-up effort, The Orchard dropped in late August.  "We both had doubts, / We're both in doubt," croons lead singer Wes Miles on the opening track.  Welp, that makes three of us.  My first few listens sensed a sonic sophomore slump, but after spinning the album a dozen times, I became convinced that it wasn't a slump so much as failure to match or eclipse the debut.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

If you haven't already heard about Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, then try displacing the rock under which you've been living.  This album debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, which, to my recollection, may be the first time an indie album has debuted (or even reached) number one on the charts.  There have certainly been plenty of deserving records that never reached that mark, but this album has earned its success.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jónsi: Go

Jón "Jónsi" Þór Birgisson might be best known as "the Sigur Rós guy that sings words I can't understand and plays his guitar with a bow."  Well, that's not incorrect, but Jónsi has definitely made a name for himself with his solo/debut album, Go.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chiddy Bang: The Preview

Chidera "Chiddy" Anamege and Noah "Xaphoon Jones" Beresin were both attending Philadelphia's Drexel University.  They got together and made a mixtape of a few songs that featured Chiddy rhyming over existing songs that Xaphoon put together with some fresh beats.  The story might have ended there just ten years ago, but in true Internet Age fashion, they put the songs up on a Myspace (remember those AwEsOmE FlAsHiNg BaCkGrOuNdS?), got discovered by a blog, who then put out their original mixtape (and their follow-up mixtape), and somewhere in there the kids from Drexel scored a record deal from EMI/Virgin, eventually putting out The Preview.  Niiice.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Phosphorescent: Here's to Taking It Easy

Phosphorescent, one of the many, many bands to emerge from Athens, Georgia, didn't register on my radar until last year, when they put out an album of Willie Nelson covers.  I'm not particularly a fan of the bearded, bandaned, pot-smoking Texan, so Phosphoresent's 2010 effort, Here's to Taking It Easy, wasn't one of the albums I marked on my calendar before its release in May (possibly the year's best month, musically speaking, with one - two - three - four - five - six -- and now seven -- good albums)... but it should have been.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Local Natives: Gorilla Manor

First released in the U.K. in late 2009, Gorilla Manor appeared on [digital] shelves in the U.S. in early 2010.  Local Natives, from Los Angeles, benefited from the British buzz and hit the ground running in February.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Blitzen Trapper: Destroyer of the Void

The posse from Portland produced one of 2008's best albums, so I was amped for Destroyer of the Void, released back at the start of June.  At first listen, I was disappointed with Void, but I continued to spin the record and it grew on me.

Perhaps what threw me off my [listening] game was the album's title track -- its opening track.  In a Plants-and-Animals vein, the song contains three (or four) separate song melded into one:
After getting over the fact that it struck me as a non-Blitzen-Trapper-type song, I was able to appreciate it.  Overall, Void strikes a balance between the helter-skelter compositions of Wild Mountain Nation and -- a bit to my chagrin -- the head-bangable tunes of Furr.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ratatat: LP4

I first came across Ratatat in a commercial for -- ready for this? -- Hummer.  Back in '04, I was sitting on my couch in college and this commercial came on and my roommate and I Googled the information before the spot ended.

(Parenthetical footnote: Hummer actually had a killer commercial campaign back then, featuring this awesome spot -- set to "Swamp" by Midwest Product -- and another ad that featured Album Leaf.  When indie bands get accused of "selling out" by putting their song in a commercial, what they are actually doing is getting their music to the widest possible audience, getting paid, and making more fans!)

Tokyo Police Club: Champ

Once dubbed "the Canadian Strokes," the gang from Ontario probably had too much pressure put on them after they recorded A Lesson in Crime EP when they were teenagers.  For some reason, their debut LP, Elephant Shell, seemed to fall relatively flat.  Undeterred, the Canucks left Saddle Creek Records (free sampler) for the greener pastures of Mom + Pop, and released Champ back in May.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sleigh Bells: Treats

Sleigh Bells was perhaps the most hyped indie band of 2010 (or at least they had the most pre-release internet buzz) after they rocked the CMJ fest in 2009 and were signed by M.I.A.  The duo in Sleigh Bells, Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller, has one of the most disparate sonic backgrounds of any band out there.  Krauss was in Rubyblue, all-girl pop group, and Miller was in a hardcore band called Poison the Well.  While waiting her table in 2008, Miller told Krauss he played guitar and was looking for a singer.  Krauss' mother, also at the table, offered her daughter's vocal services, and Sleigh Bells formed.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Black Keys: Brothers

I've been on The Black Keys bandwagon since 2003 or 2004, and I feel confident saying that the boys from Akron have just put out their best or second-best album.   The name of this album is Brothers (brought to you by the Department of Redundancy Department).

In a departure from Attack and Release, TBK only let Danger Mouse produce one track ("Tighten Up").  It's a great track -- and you can hear Danger Mouse's influences after the bridge -- but TBK retreated a bit to their roots (compared to A&R), rather appropriately so considering they recorded some of the songs at legendary Muscle Shoals studio, while also keeping some of the keyboard influences.  What emerges is a fantastic album -- not only their most critically acclaimed album, but also their highest selling album.  After a bit of a lull (2006's Magic Potion was the weakest link in their discography), the boys are back in town.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Band of Horses: Infinite Arms

Dropping on the same day as Brothers by The Black Keys -- and coming just two weeks after new albums from Broken Social Scene and The New Pornographers, and one week after The National -- I tried to give Infinite Arms a fair shake... I didn't want it to get lost in the shuffle.  Sadly, the album couldn't stand up to any of the aforementioned (except The New Pornos), and it eventually got pushed to the back of the listening stack.

I had no cause for worry when the album was dubbed Night Rainbows in the fall of 2009 when I caught these guys at Headliners in Louisville (that show was awesome!).  They played four songs from the new album and three of them were fantastic, but somehow I think only one or two of them made the cut into the new album Infinite Arms (for the record, I thought "Night Rainbows" was a poor name for an album,).

Monday, November 22, 2010

The National: High Violet

I missed the boat on the National until late 2007, when Paste made dubbed Boxer as the album of the year.  I gave the album a listen and was immediately repulsed by Matt Berringer's vocals.  I thought, "This is the album of the year?"  I kept listening, hoping that I would "get it."  Long story short: I got it.  Once I embraced Berringer's baritone, I was sold on the National's combination of good music and great lyrics.

At the initial listen of High Violet(only $6.99!), I was a little disappointed; I can't really explain it, but I felt like something was missing.  I think, however, that I expected to be immediately bowled over, but that's not how the National works.  For each of their albums (I got my mitts on Alligator in '08), there was a period of 4-5 listens where I had to feel things out.  Once I got through those initial listens, I was, indeed, bowled over.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Broken Social Scene: Forgiveness Rock Record

The other Canadian supergroup released Forgiveness Rock Record (FRR) on the same day as The New Pornographers put out Toghether (perhaps a bizzaro-Canadian version of the 50 Cent vs. Kanye battle?).  I'm not sure about the sales figures of the respective albums (my money would be on TNP), but as far as brilliance, the nod goes -- rather easily -- to Broken Social Scene (BSS).

I'd never been much of a BSS fan.  My brother-in-law introduced me to the band back in '05, so I picked up their self-titled double-disc album, but I could only get into about half the tracks (skipping the other half; the same holds true for You Forgot It In People).  FRR, however, doesn't have a throwaway track; pretty much every other song is a favorite and there is no skipping involved (and that's without much involvement from Leslie Feist).  Of the album's thirteen tracks, I rated seven of them as four- or five-star tracks.

The New Pornographers: Together

This Canadian supergroup (with, uhh, a unique name) put out one of 2007's best albums (top 20, at least), so I was pretty pumped about their latest release back in early May.  However, I ended up being a little underwhelmed.

Together starts off with much promise, and the first three songs have that classic TNP feel.  Pretty upbeat (read: poppy) compared to the first third of Challengers.  "Moves," "The Crash Years," and "Your Hands (Together)" are all fantastic.  The rest of the album, for the most part, doesn't seem to match the pace or the quality of the songs at the album's outset (with the exception of "Up in the Dark").  As with previous albums, I'm not a fan of the songs on which Dan Bejar (of Destroyer) sings ("Silver Jenny Dollar," "If You Can't See My Mirrors").  His voice just kills me.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Plants and Animals: La La Land

I first stumbled across Plants and Animals (P&A) in the summer of '08 while watching Patrick Watson YouTube videos.  The labelmates form a pretty strong one-two punch for the small Secret City Records.  P&A's 2008 release, Parc Avenue, was absolutely fantastic, so I had high hopes for La La Land.  Like some other bands' 2010 efforts (Joe Pug, Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses, New Pornographers), I was a little disappointed.

Parc Avenue was a feast for the ears, both musically and lyrically; Land leaves a little bit of both to be desired.  I'm certainly not against bands changing their sound (hey there Sufjan), but it's got to be executed to near perfection if you're going to pull it off.  Land leaves behind the sprawling, '70s gypsy jam band behind in favor of something a little more modern (?), titling one of it's songs "Tom Cruz."  They explained that the song was all about having fun (and paranoia?), and Mr. Cruise apparently came to mind.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Horse Feathers: Thistled Spring

If you've talked to me for the past two years, I have probably chewed your ear off about this set of Portlanders.  They dropped their third LP back in April and I immediately fell in love -- I know, big surprise -- but what is surprising is that I love Thistled Spring just as much as House with No Home (my favorite album of '08).

Lead singer Justin Ringle and his compatriots didn't change their sound that much from '08 until now, but there's enough differentiation to make it feel like a new album.  Horse Feathers also prove that you can judge an album by its cover.  Home featured an old barn atop a snow-covered hill, suggesting emptiness and melancholy, while Spring's cover is budding leaves, suggesting new life.  However, the music seems to fit the season of spring, but there is a lyrical undertone that suggests death instead of life, as evidenced in the song "Starving Robins."  That's something that's so amazing about Horse Feathers: they can sing about death in such a beautiful sounding setting.  This is also true with my favorite track, "The Drought" (which is, not surprisingly, about a severe lack of water):

I'll be honest: the first two or three times I heard that song I held my hands over my mouth and sat silently.  I probably could've forced some tears or something.  Breath-taking.  Haunting.  Beautiful.  "It's bearing down on me, / There's no clouds in the sky. / [I] Hear the pines crack and cry, / There's no reason to try."  Stuff is dying in that song, but the sonic beauty somehow envelops the lyrical sadness, and pushes past it ... but to what, I don't know.  I would absolutely love to have a long sit-down conversation with Justin and the gang about the lyrical content versus the overall sound.

Grade: A+
Blurb: I'm not sure how the best keep getting better, but these guys do it. It'll be a miracle if this isn't my favorite album of the year when January rolls around.

The Morning Benders: Big Echo

These young-looking chaps from San Francisco have a bright future.  I'm talking don't-look-directly-at-that-150-watt-equivalent-CFL-bulb bright.  Somehow I missed their debut album, but their follow-up, Big Echo, caught my eye with its good reviews and its fantastic album cover (which reminded me of one of my all-time favorite paintings).

The fact that Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor shared production duties with Morning Benders' lead singer (and driving force) Chris Chu, should give you an idea of the layering within the album (and Chu is a self-professed fan of Phil Specter's "Wall of Sound").  The Morning Benders trade in acoustic-guitar-driven sound of their debut for orchestral arrangements accompanied by guitar, especially noticable on opening (and stand-out) track, "Excuses."  However, the sounds of their debut album can be heard on my favorite track, "Cold War" (but the timpani drums, glockenspiel, handclaps, and woodwinds(?) add to the depth).

Although the album does have slower songs, the upbeat ones are generally my favorites.  "Promises" could be tweaked to be a Grizzly Bear b-side, but "All Day Day Light" is distinctly the Benders' own sound, blending that of their debut with the growth evidenced on Big Echo:

Grade: B+
Blurb: If you've got $5.99, I suggest you pick up this album.