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.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dr. Dog: Shame, Shame

The folks from Philly known as Dr. Dog have been around for almost 10 years, and for my money, they've only gotten better (which means they're the anti-Weezer).  Fate was one of my favorite records in 2008, and Shame, Shame is just as good, if not better.  Dr. Dog felt they had grown, too, and they switched labels, from tiny indie Park the Van to nice-sized Anti-.

The Beatles-esque harmonizing that has made Dr. Dog so enjoyable is back, and their 1960s homage to pop-rock is even more prominent.  The album also feels a little more personal.  Referencing specific streets in West Philadelphia (born and raised?) gives "Shadow People" the sense that the narration is non-fiction.  "Station" references the drain and strain of touring (perhaps the only track that both feels and sounds melancholy), while "Jackie Wants a Black Eye," tackles serious subject matter (physical pain being only thing that can provide the sense of being alive), but you wind up tapping your toe.

Dr. Dog pulls off the same trick (somber lyrics + upbeat music) with "Where'd All the Time Go," which contains a sad story (being depressed, attending funerals, anti-social behavior) but somehow leaves you feeling optimistic.  Hear for yourselves (in this unofficial video):

Grade: B+/A-
Blurb: I can't wait until their next album because they've already put out a new little ditty.  Pick this album up, it's a keeper.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Frightened Rabbit: The Winter of Mixed Drinks

These Scotsmen know how to rock.  Their debut album, 2008's Midnight Organ Fight, rocks, but it is partially in the fetal position in the corner, dealing with the pain and anger following a broken heart.  The Winter of Mixed Drinks, however, has the tone and feel of an album that is "over it."  If Organ Fight is the setting sun at the end of a long and painful day, Mixed Drinks is the dawn of the next morning, bringing with it hope and healing.

The opening track, "Things," makes it clear that the narrator has moved on; he realizes that things are just things, so he abandons them and embraces the freedom.  From there, he moves on and he doesn't care to where, offering up one of my year's favorite lyrics: "Swim until you can't see land."  Continuing to find self-assurance, lead singer Scott Hutchison proclaims one another song that a girl in his past "was not the cure for cancer."  One of the song titles, in fact, is "Not Miserable."

In addition to the less depressing lyrics, the tempo and sound of the music seems happier -- not cheesier, mind you, but filled a bit more with contentment.  Even the slower-paced piano rock of "FootShooter" or the fuzzed-out and few-noted "Not Miserable" don't feel melancholy.  While no song matches the pace of "Living in Colour," it's "Swim" that takes the cake on this album with its added strings:

Grade: B+
Blurb: If you're in the midst of post-break-up angst, then throw on Organ Fight and cry it out, but if you've moved on or if you're trying to move on, Mixed Drinks should give you a buzz.