Monday, August 30, 2010

Broken Bells: self-titled

James Mercer and Brian Burton ... sounds like a boring combination unless you're aware that Mercer is the lead singer from The Shins, while Burton is better known by his DJ name, Danger Mouse.  It seems an odd pairing at the outset, seeing as how The Shins are largely unplugged (aside from the occasional electric guitar), and Danger Mouse is, well, almost exclusively plugged.  But hey, if The Black Keys and Mos Def can hook up (and also RZA), then why not Mercer and Burton?

Pretty much everything Danger Mouse has ever touched has turned to gold.  The dude is a digital King Midas.  Gold, gold, gold, gold, gold, gold (some in terms of sales; all in terms of sound).  Danger didn't change his tune for Broken Bells' self-titled debut.

The duo of Mercer and Burton hooked up in 2009 to record for Dark Night of the Soul, a project helmed by Sparklehorse (produced by Burton), and produced my favorite track from the album.  The sound reproduced itself for the Broken Bells album, but less glitchy, less experimental; more tuneful, more poppy.  I'm not complaining though; tuneful and poppy are fine by me if they are done well... and Mercer and Burton do it well.  However, if tuneful and poppy are the themes for the album, then it simply sounds like Burton put electronic beats/sounds behind The Shins.  I wouldn't have minded it if they had branched out a bit on a few tracks.  This one, however, is fantastic:

Grade: B+
Blurb: It lives up to its billing.  The question now becomes, who couldn't Danger Mouse work with?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Joe Pug: Messenger

Joe Pug's 2008 EP Nation of Heat was outstanding, front to back; 2010's Messenger is anything but.  I should have been concerned when, last year, Mr. Pug gave away his In the Meantime EP for free.  Don't get me wrong, it wasn't the "free" part that concerned me -- it was the fact that there were no really good songs on it.  In fact, I didn't care much for that EP at all, but I brushed it off, thinking that maybe those were all the songs not good enough to make Nation of Heat.  Untrue.

The biggest difference between Heat and Messenger is that almost every song on Heat has a set of lyrical spiral steps, winding in various directions.  The music is great, but it's just a dude strumming a guitar, so it's the lyrics that shine.  Each song had its own story, its own bit of mystery.  Messenger lacks mystery.  Messenger also feels "bigger" -- which is not, as they say, always better.  His backing band shines on the redux of "Speak Plainly Diana" (I was at that show btw), but for the most part, I miss the sonic simplicity of Heat.

As was the case with Vampire Weekend's Contra, my favorite song from Messenger most resembles the sound and story of the songs on Heat.  "How Good You Are" is not only the best song on this album, it's one of my favorite songs from the year.  Absolutely fantastic; full of mystery and simplicity.  Take a listen:

Grade: C-
Blurb: It's not a terrible album, but it seems (to me) to be a step backward from the amazing tone set by Nation of Heat.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Phantogram: Eyelid Movies

I came across Phantogram while learning about the CMJ Festival in NYC back in November of 2009.  I immediately went to Phantogram's website, saw when their album was coming out (9 Feb 2010) and put it on my calendar.  I even set it up to e-mail me the day of the release so I wouldn't forget.  That's how much I loved their sound.  Instantly smitten.  And as soon as Eyelid Movies dropped, I picked it up and I knew I'd purchased one of the year's best albums.

Right off the bat, the album hits you with its two best tracks, and keeps on trucking.   There are one or two songs that don't seem up to snuff on the album, but most of the album is littered with gorgeous vocals, hard-but-not-too-hard electronic beats ("these beats are dope"), and interesting lyrics.  "You've got a mouthful of diamonds / And a pocketful of secrets."  I'm not sure exactly what that means (I can guess), but I like it.  Here (hear), see for yourself:


Grade: A
Blurb: Eyelid Movies is one of the best albums of 2010, and it's probably going to wind up as my favorite debut album.  It's hard to believe that these New York natives have only just gotten started.

Beach House: Teen Dream

The disappointment of Midlake was directly countered by the euphoria of hazy dream pop duo Beach House.  I liked their two previous albums, but I wasn't planning on buying Teen Dream (only $6!).  However, when the overwhelmingly positive reviews started to pour in, I decided to take a listen (R.I.P. Lala)... and I was floored!

My biggest problem with Devotion, their 2008 effort, is that Beach House failed to duplicate the sonic success of stand-out track "Gila" on the rest of the album.  Devotion and Beach House's self-titled debut were both released by little-known label Carpark; Teen Dream, however, was released by indie powerhouse Sup Pop (whose stable of artists is a who's who of indie rock).  As was the case with labelmates Blitzen Trapper, the move to SupPop proved monumental, and the band released their best record to date.

I don't want to go overboard here, but as soon as I listened to this album, I knew I'd found one of 2010's best albums less than two months into the year.  There are no throwaway tracks.  Half the album is straight up brilliant.  This album is so good that it makes me worry that they'll never top it -- this may be their masterpiece, and how in the world could they produce another record that's just as solid?  My only complaint is that the album is only 10 tracks, which leaves me wanting more, but for my money, it's nearly a flawless album.  I have a hard time choosing a favorite since I love the entire thing, but here's "Norway":

Grade: A
Blurb: If you need to relax or if you need chill music to listen to while you're reading at a coffeeshop, this may be your best bet.  Seriously, go spend $6 you won't regret (I'm looking at you Midlake!)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Midlake: The Courage of Others

Aaaannnnd 2010's biggest musical disappointment goes to... drumroll ... Midlake!  2006's Trials of Van Occupanther was one of the coolest and out-of-nowhere albums, so when news surfaced in late 2009 of a new record from the boys from Denton, TX, I was stoked.  However, Midlake must have found out how much I love disappointment, so they scrapped whatever they had recorded and put out The Courage of Others on the first Tuesday in February.

I don't really know what's wrong with this album.  It lacks soul ... or something.   There's definitely some sort of intangible, some sort of X-factor that was all over Occupanther but that is almost entirely absent from Courage.  And part of it may be my fault -- perhaps I set my expectations too high -- but they had 3.5 years to work on Courage, so I'm not sure what they were doing for that entire time (you can only play too much Wii before it becomes stale and boring, so I'm sure that wasn't it).

Surprisingly, a fair amount of music critics liked the album (hint: I'm not one of them).  Not surprisingly, my favorite track on Courage sounds like it could have earned its way onto Occupanther:

Grade: D+
Blurb: Ok, so this album isn't the end of the world, but it certainly was enough to make me wonder what in the world the guys who made The Courage of Others had done with Midlake.  (Go pick up The Trials of Van Occupanther if you don't already own it.)

Spoon: Transference

Spoon's Transference dropped a week after Vampire Weekend's Contra, beginning the non-stop release of good albums from indie bands, which seemingly continued every Tuesday from January through June.  Merge Records labelmates Arcade Fire have clearly hit the big time, but if I had been betting which band would have flooded the mainstream first, I would've put my money on Spoon (especially after they were prominently featured on the soundtrack for Will Ferrell's movie Stranger than Fiction).

The dudes from Austin, TX, have been, according to Metacritic, the most consistent band in America in terms of putting out albums that have won critical acclaim (ahead of Sigur Ros and music critic darlings Animal Collective, among others).  They don't overwhelm you; their albums rarely produce that "Dear-God-where's-the-'repeat'-button" track that you might hear on a Sigur Ros album ("Saeglopur") or an Animal Collective record ("Reverend Green"). But Spoon has produced solid indie rock, album after album after album after album.

Transference, however, seems just a little -- just a smidgen-- lesser of an effort than previous releases.  Perhaps this can be explained by their stripped down sound on some tracks, or the fact that this is an album that seems somewhat devoid of singles.  Don't get me wrong, it's a good album, but I have a hard time choosing a favorite track.  I'm not sure what's going on in this video (he looks like an older Charlie Kelly), but this might be my favorite track:

Grade: B-
Blurb: This might be my least favorite record of their entire discography, but it's still a solid effort.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Vampire Weekend: Contra

Hitting the shelves on January 11, Contra didn't have the hype that their self-titled debut had, but it was the first major indie release of 2010. The VW boys created their own buzz with that bizarre album cover (pictured; she's now suing the band), and releasing a music video that starred Jake Gyllenhaal and a Jonas brother for the [mediocre] track "Giving Up the Gun."

VW tried to go in a slightly different direction on Contra by infusing more electronica (mostly through beats and synth) and it worked at some points ("Run," "Diplomat's Son") and failed at others, most notably on "California English" (when will autotune die?!!).  The more prolific use of synthetic sounds didn't necessarily surprise me since VW's lead singer collaborated with Ra Ra Riot's lead singer to put out an entirely electronic album under the moniker Discovery (this track still blows my mind, and The Hood Internet felt the same way).

For my money, the album's best track is the one that sounds most similar to VW's debut: "Cousins":

Grade: C+/B-
Blurb: Contra isn't necessarily a "sophomore slump" album, but I don't think it's better than their self-titled debut.

Plants & Animals: Parc Avenue

(Author's note: I didn't technically buy this in 2010, but I bought it right before a New Year's Eve road trip, so I'm going to count it.)

I stumbled across Plants & Animals in the summer of '09, as I was falling deeply in love with the music of Patrick Watson.  I wanted to find out more about Mr. Watson, and the interwebs told me about his label, Secret City, which led me to his labelmates P&A.  Best accidental discovery ever!

Their debut album, Parc Avenue, is 11 tracks of goodness (well, 10 tracks; I don't like the finale).  A few tracks on Parc have jam-band tendencies, but that's not a bad thing in this case.  The track "Faerie Dance" stands out in that regard, clocking in at just over seven minutes long (more than eight minutes live, apparently), and has three distinct movements in the same song. Absolutely gorgeous.

The jam-band tendencies don't overrun the album, not by a long shot (and the most jam-bandy song is the last track on the album, so I can easily avoid it).  In fact, the lyrics are just as much of a selling point as the beautiful music itself.  The track "Good Friend" comes to mind.  The first time I heard the line, "I want to wake up and see your shoes in the stairwell," I was sold.  He doesn't tell you the how they got there, or why they are there, but it's fabulously mysterious. You can stream there entire album here.  Do it do it.

P&A also have a bit of Edward Sharpe in 'em; that is, they've got a bit of a '70s gypsy band vibe at times.  And that's also not a bad thing.  Listen for yourself:

Grade: A- 
Blurb: A fun band with an expansive sound and good lyrical storytelling.  Probably the most under-the-radar album from 2008.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Best Music of 2009: #5-1

#5. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest (listen to some of it here and get it for $5 here)
I was not a GB fan until this album.  Yellow House intrigued me here and there, but Veckatimest drew me in (read: is more accessible).  Sure, there are a couple of songs that I pretty much skip every time the album plays ("Dory," "Hold Still,"), but there are four or five songs that beg me to hit "repeat" as soon as they start winding down, which is the mark of a good album (in my mind).  GB walks the fine line between beautiful sounds and tones that make you cringe a bit, but they almost always land solidly on the side of beauty.  Everybody knows the song "Two Weeks" (or at least you should by now), but those other songs are just as good in some cases... but don't take my word for it (ba-dum-dum):

#4. The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You (listen here, buy here)
So I missed the boat on these guys until 2008.  Fantastic.  If you get the chance to see them live, please do it.  They've already blown up a bit, but expect their next album to be an even bigger hit and you'll probably see them on MTV or VH1 or whatever channel is indicative of mainstream success these days.  They'll still try to maintain their artistic side, but hopefully they'll keep things real (as Chapelle might say):

#3. Patrick Watson: Wooden Arms (listen to what you can here and pick it up here)
This dude has quickly become one of my favorite artists, entering a pantheon that includes such notables as Sufjan Stevens and Andrew Bird (if you know me, you know that there's no higher praise).  The dude is a genius (AKA mad scientist), puts on a nuts-awesome live show, and I am confident I'll be ranting and raving about him for the next decade.  Wooden Arms isn't as strong an effort as Close to Paradise, but it's a fine, fine, fine effort and I'll be listening to this song for years to come:

#2. Andrew Bird: Noble Beast (listen to what you can here, $5 dolla billz here)
This album disappointed a few people -- and maybe even me initially -- because it's not Armchair Apocrypha or Mysterious Production of Eggs, but once I mourned that fact and got over it, Beast is still a great album and I defiantly place it at this #2 spot (although, honestly, at this point Mr. Bird could play a wax paper comb for 30 minutes and I'd probably punch anybody that said it wasn't amazing).  Thankfully, he sticks to his usual instrumentation (guitar, violin, xylophone) here:

#1. Fanfarlo: Reservoir (listen to what's available, buy)
I stumbled across these guys before their debut album hit the shelves and I've been riding this train ever since.  I love the Arcade-Fire-meets-Beirut deal that they've got going on here.  Just like the rest of the top five, if you get a chance to see them live, you should.  They're a young band and as long as they don't pull a Weezer, I hope Reservoir is just the tip of the iceberg and that future albums are filled with songs as good as this one:

Monday, August 2, 2010

Best Music of 2009: #10-6

#10. Freelance Whales: Weathervanes (listen to it here or buy it here for $6)
This album can classify as '09 or '10, but I'm placing it in the former because it wouldn't make the top 20 in the latter (and I actually meant to place it at #11, but I messed up).  Whales owe serious debts to Postal Service, but they aren't derivative rip-off artists like Owl Crappy (that's the PG version).  They implement a banjo and a glockenspiel on several songs that pay homage to Sufjan.  At first, Whales struck me as a bit too saccharine (as indicated by their album cover) but there's a cleverness to the lyrics that move them past simple sweetness ("Shut me up with your long tube socks, / They don't scream, 'Hey, let's just be friends.'").  Beyond that, they make several fantastic analogies to being a house, being objects in a house, or being a ghost exploring a house ("Oh, you caught me sleeping in the power sockets, / You caught me mildewing the tiles of your bathroom.").  Don't let their sweet sound fool you; there's some deep and dark stuff going on therein.  Here's a fan-made video of "Starring," one of my favorite tracks:

#9. Various Artists: Dark Was the Night (buy it)
This double album reads like a who's who of indie rock: Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Andrew Bird, Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer, The Decemberists, Ben Gibbard (Death Cab), Iron & Wine, Feist, Spoon, Arcade Fire, Beirut, etc., etc.  There are more than a few throwaway tracks (even from some of the aforementioned bands), but when you've got 31 tracks, you can afford to have a few swing-and-a-miss efforts (plus it introduced me to Sharon Jones).  And not only was this a good album, its proceeds went to help promote AIDS awareness, thanks to the Brothers Dessner (The National).  Sufjan's track is beyond epic, but this song is probably the album's most beautiful (yet, in Bon Iver style, tragic and haunting to boot) [warning: explicit]:

#8. Other Lives: self-titled (listen to it here and buy it here)
The band formerly known as Kunek changed their name and didn't miss a beat.  If you like melody-driven piano rock, then look no further than Other Lives.  The Oklahoma quintet is what Coldplay might have been had they not hopped aboard the crazy train of popularity and radioplay.  Viz:

#7. Jaydiohead: Jay-Z x Radiohead (legally download it for free here)
I'm not a huge mash-up fan (never really liked The Gray Album), but this thing is awesome and rivals volume 1 of the Ratatat Remixes (but not killer vol. 2).  I'm not a Jay-Z fan, at all, but his lazy and laid-back rapping style fits well with most music (as Danger Mouse and Ratatat have both proven), and the Radiohead tunes -- from throughout the catalog, including Yorke's solo career -- are almost a pitch-perfect fit.  Enjoy [warning: explicit]:

#6. Port O'Brien: Threadbare (listen to it here or buy it here)
I wrote about this one previously, so you can visit it if you so choose.  But just trust me that I underestimated this album's power back then.  It's a grower, that's for sure, and I think it's in a sonic class of its own (hard to find a comparison for these guys).  And these guys have a great energy on stage and put on a good show, so see them if you get a chance.