Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fever Ray

So I just recently gave a few listens to an album I mentioned in one of my "things to look forward to" posts, the self-titled debut by Fever Ray, aka Karin Dreijer Andersson of Swedish electronic duo The Knife (it's out now digitally and I think in stores in March.) The more I let it sink in, the better I feel about it as a record, and now I'd like to take the opportunity to share my newfound excitement with you all.

Though the album art is extremely ugly and unappealing, the music is quite the opposite. The repetitive synthesized elements that characterized most of The Knife's work are also found here, yet more natural percussion is also included on some tracks, forming a concoction that is actually surprisingly similar to Animal Collective's "My Girls". While that alone could make for a good album, the real key with Fever Ray is Andersson's off-kilter, piercing vocals. She uses effects similar to Laurie Anderson's vocoder manipulations, and similarly has two separate "voices": one shockingly smooth and deep and the other her usual screechings. The layering of the two works beautifully and creates a richer, more lush feeling for each pop melody.

Most of the tracks are actually really good, but I guess my top picks would have to be "When I Grow Up," "Triangle Walks," and "I'm Not Done." Definitely one of the better releases so far this year, which I guess isn't saying much but whatever. Happy listening!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Born Free Forever; Comments Of The Inner Chorus

Having been extremely disappointed in most of the new albums I've been hearing lately (probably due to the failure to compare to the genius that is Animal Collective) I was really excited to hear something that I liked: Born Free Forever by Bobby Birdman. It sort of resembles Phil Elverum's masterpiece as The Microphones, The Glow Pt. II, but with a more polished sound and more emphasis on vocals, which sound surprisingly like Damon Albarn of Gorillaz and Blur. While some of the tracks (especially "Fire" and "I Have But To Know What I Want") immediately stand out and are excellent on their own, what I like best about the album is its cohesion as a whole. It seems like one giant piece of intricately woven folk music, electronic effects, and melancholy lyrics, just split among 14 CD tracks for more accessibility. The transitions are so seamless it would be impossible to tell when a new song began if it weren't for the different track titles, but at the same time each "song" is very fresh and different from the ones preceding. I'd definitely recommend it to fans of the alternative folk stylings of the aforementioned artists and others like Dirty Projectors and Bowerbirds.

Another interesting record I heard was Comments Of The Inner Chorus by Tunng. Though not as immediately wonderful as Bobby Birdman, I did enjoy the similar mixture of electronica and folk that seems to be a popular trend nowadays. Tracks like "Woodcat" and "The Wind Up Bird" carry some typical catchy folk melodies but add their own unique and exciting twist to the formula. Better yet, though, are the songs with more subtle use of electronics and samples, such as "Jenny Again" and the hidden track after the closer "Engine Room," which evoke favorite experimentalists that range from The Books to Fennesz (featured in the previous post.) It's some good stuff.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Endless Summer; I Need You To Hold On While The Sky Is Falling

Prompted by its surprise appearance in a very vivid dream, I gave another listen to Endless Summer by Christian Fennesz, considered one of the masterpieces of the glitch genre. As I usually am when something inexplicable compels me to listen to something, I was blown away. The album is subtle genius: it combines fuzzy glitch electronics with acoustic guitar strumming to create something that is both artificial and yet deeply human. The result is an awe-inspiring soundscape of pure nostalgia, for what I can't quite place. All I know is that this music perfectly expresses the same feeling of bittersweet hopelessness that settles in when something reminds me of times past. I don't know how Fennesz captures the feeling of good things coming to an end (hence the title) so well, but it's really beautiful.

Another intriguing album I revisited toward the end of my winter break was Kelley Polar's I Need You To Hold On When The Sky Is Falling. When I first listened, I was surprised by 1) the fact that Kelley Polar is actually a man named Michael Kelley and 2) the sparseness of what I thought was going to be a lush album of layered electronics. Having been compared to Junior Boys, it deserved another chance to really sink in, so I gave it one to no disappointment. The songs, like those of Fennesz described above, are bittersweet in that they have dance synths and club beats but also evoke melancholic feelings of emptiness and isolation. Despite the colors of the album cover, the album is actually quite dark and a bit disturbing, especially the track "Chrysanthemum." But the music is still really affecting throughout, just not in the way I initially expected.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"My Girls"

Animal Collective have posted a music video on their website for "My Girls." Funnily enough, it's almost exactly what I pictured when I heard the song.

Also, I'd like to revise my review from last time. After many more listens, "Guys Eyes" finally clicked and is now a vital part of the album and a good song. "Taste" is also now one of my favorite songs, and the album seems to be coming together as a whole slowly but surely. In addition, I'll concede that some of the tracks toward the end like "Bluish," "Lion In A Coma" and, through title and lyrics, "Summertime Clothes," all go along with the outdoorsy, summery feeling that inspires the album title. I still feel that "My Girls," "Brothersport," and "Daily Routine" sound more like dance club beats and to me only evoke images of flashy multi-colored disco lights piercing through the darkness. But I guess Merriweather Post Pavilion had nighttime concerts, too, so maybe it does line up. Anyway, the album is a very good one once you realize what the new sound actually means, it just takes quite awhile for that to happen.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Merriweather Post Pavilion

OK, so I think I've finally listened to Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion enough times to give it a fair review. It took some getting used to, probably because Animal Collective completely changes their sound with each new album release with almost no warning except for the occasional warm-up EP like People or Water Curses. This album is no exception, though it's perhaps less of a leap than Strawberry Jam was from Feels or Sung Tongs was from Here Comes The Indian. However, there are also many similar elements from old albums on MPP, whether it be the lyrics and vocal stylings of Feels, the crazed electronics and repetition of Strawberry Jam, or the vocal manipulations of Sung Tongs. Thus, Merriweather Post Pavilion has something for fans of each album.
At the same time, though, the album seems to lack something that the others have. Perhaps it's because it's so overproduced, or maybe it's because it feels overly dense with all the layers of electronic instruments. In whichever case, it's missing the earthy, human qualities of earlier Animal Collective releases. AC explain that they named the album after childhood memories of hearing music outside at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland, but to me none of these songs evoke feelings of being outside in the sunlight. Instead they seem dark and synthetic, like a colored light show in a dance club or something. I must applaud the vocal performances, though: never before have Avey Tare and Panda Bear sounded so good together. Their voices seem to float around each other and occasionally collide for some really exciting moments. Panda Bear especially outdoes himself on his songs, while Avey Tare sees to have reverted to the soft, semi-demonic voice he used back on Feels, and though this isn't necessarily a bad thing I kind of miss the raw emotion of his screaming throughout the insane asylum of Strawberry Jam. The album as a whole, while somewhat poppy, still sounds distinctly Animal Collective, so I applaud them yet again for managing to make completely different music that is still true to their style.

Another problem I have with MPP is that it doesn't feel at all like a cohesive whole. The cover art, while really cool, doesn't really match up with the music like their album art has in the past, and the songs don't really flow in a way that makes sense to me. It feels more like a compilation album, and it's sort of disappointing because we all know AC is capable of piecing together some stellar works. The songs, however, are fantastic and some of my favorites from all of their discography, and, if it's possible, I feel like I love the songs but hate the album.

Since it is more of a collection of songs than an album, I thought it would be more appropriate to review each track individually. "In The Flowers" is the opener and also one of my favorites, especially during the bridge when all of the instruments come in. It's vintage Animal Collective, and it's a great way to start the album. "My Girls" is more electronic and less typical, but this one works amazingly. Panda Bear's vocals really shine, and Avey Tare's backups work better than ever. The song is catchy and the lyrics are really endearing: he sings about how all he wants is a house for his family. "Also Frightened" is another track like "In The Flowers," but it doesn't have as good of a build-up as the first. It's still a nice song, though. "Summertime Clothes" is another really catchy tune that definitely sounds more poppy than most of Animal Collective's music, but I forgive them since it's so fun to sing along.

The best track on the album is definitely "Daily Routine," which features another stunning vocal performance from Panda Bear. He floats around some heavy organ electronics, similar to those on "#1," until eventually the whole song dissolves into a beautiful piece of layered music and extended vocals that closely resembles the latter part of "Chores." Again, Panda Bear sings about his daughter and his home life, though it's not so easy to decipher any precise meaning. The next track, however, is where things start to get iffy. "Bluish" is a sappy/cute love song that hearkens back to those on Feels, and it's pretty good overall. I don't mind the lyrics, but there's one musical part that makes me sort of cringe (right before the chorus) because it sounds so cheesy and fake. I do like the overarching synth melody in the background, though.

"Guys Eyes" is a complete mess, and I think the album would've been much better without it. Here they push the vocal layering way over the limit, and it just sounds like a jumbled mess of words with no clear melody to follow. What really gets me the worst is in the middle of the song when they apply the tried-and-true trick of repeating the same line ("need her") over and over: it angers me to think they can get away with making a bad song just by putting one of their classic techniques to use. The next track, "Taste," is really only good by default, though it does have an interesting Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat-like granular synthesis pattern going on in the background. It sort of resembles "Unsolved Mysteries" but just isn't as good. Fortunately, the bouncy and somewhat silly "Lion In A Coma" takes a similar formula and uses it to save the latter half of the record. The vocal distortions sound similar to tracks at the end of Sung Tongs while the overall style is very Strawberry Jam, and I love it. "No More Runnin" is just a generic "pretty" track, which is disappointing because it's the closest thing to a ballad song on MPP and Animal Collective ballads are usually so epic and beautiful (see "Safer" and "Banshee Beat.")

Finally comes "Brothersport," a song encouraging Noah Lennox's brother Matt to speak (or sing) out, though the lyrics are again hard to decipher. I really wish I hadn't downloaded the leaked version of this song (I've learned my lesson), because now I don't think it'll ever feel like a legitimate part of the album and will always just seem like a bonus track. But, then again, the whole album seems like 11 consecutive bonus tracks, so I don't really know. The bottom line is that, even though some aspects of Merriweather Post Pavilion disappoint, some of the songs are fantastic and rank among the band's best. It just isn't a Strawberry Jam or a Feels.

More Looking Forward

Really quickly, here's some more stuff I just found to get excited about: (I told you 2009 would be good!)

1. The Crying Light, Antony & The Johnsons' follow-up to the acclaimed I Am A Bird Now, is coming out on January 21st.

2. Noble Beast by Andrew Bird is due the same day, though I've already heard it and wasn't that impressed, except for the incredible track "Anonanimal."

3. Blood Bank, an EP by Bon Iver, is a "warm" response to the "cold" of debut album For Emma, Forever Ago from last January. It, too, will be released on the 21st.

4. Heartland, a new album from Owen Pallett's Final Fantasy pseudonym, will be finished and released in early 2009.

5. Apparently last year Panda Bear said he was working on a follow-up to Person Pitch. Though he didn't give any information about a release date, both he and Avey Tare are known for churning out lots of awesome music in a short amount of time (Person Pitch came out only months before Strawberry Jam, and both were incredible.)

That's it for now. If you have anything else you're excited about, leave a comment!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Looking Forward

So, after finishing off an amazing year in the music business, the time has come to start anew. Each year, I start off thinking that the previous year would never be topped. After 2007's slew of new releases from really important artists such as The Shins, Modest Mouse, Panda Bear, Stars, etc., I was expecting 2008 to be a bit less active. Now, sitting at the front end of '09, I've been thinking that it can only be downhill from the fantastic albums I just finished describing with my year-end posts.

To get my spirits up, I've been doing research to find out what might be exciting in 2009, and, to my surprise, I found a whole lot to look forward to. Here's 10 things that will (hopefully) get Baby New Year started off on the right foot to beat its older brother:

1. Starting the year off right is Merriweather Post Pavilion, a new full-length from my favorite band, Animal Collective. Though it's already out on vinyl and digitally (I actually just finished giving it a first listen, but I'll save my thoughts for later), the CD doesn't hit US shelves until January 20th, so there're still two more weeks of eager anticipation.

2. A double EP from another favorite, Beirut, is scheduled for release in February. It's called March Of The Zapotec/Holland, and the first is influenced by Zach Condon's trip to Mexico while the second will have more of an electronic sound (according to a reliable source, Wikipedia.)

3. A Modest Mouse EP featuring outtakes from the two most recent albums, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank and Good News For People Who Love Bad News, is in the works. Modest Mouse EPs are usually about the length (and top the quality) of almost any other band's studio albums, so I'll bet it'll be worth the wait.

4. The follow-up to So This Is Goodbye by Junior Boys is slated for release in "early 2009." It's as of yet untitled but I'm sure it's going to be brilliant.

5. Similarly, Menomena is working on a follow-up to Friend And Foe and plan to release it sometime in 2009.

6. The Flaming Lips, after finishing their movie project Christmas On Mars, plan to release a follow-up to At War With The Mystics and said it can be ready for release as early as June.

7. Hazards Of Love by The Decemberists will hit stores in April. I'm not sure how excited I am about this one, however, seeing as the songs on their Always A Bridesmaid singles series were extremely underwhelming.

8. Dan Deacon's follow-up to 2007's Spiderman Of The Rings, Bromst, will hit shelves in March.

9. Dogs Die In Hot Cars, as part of their 2nd album project, will be challenging fans to mix and touch up the 17 song demos they've posted on their website. Sometime this year, they'll choose their favorites and release them as the follow-up to 2004's Please Describe Yourself.

10. Two new artists that sound fairly exciting will be releasing debuts in the near future: Dreijer Andersson of Swedish electronic group The Knife will be releasing a solo album in February under the name Fever Ray while Sholi, an experimental/psych-folk group likened to Xiu Xiu, will be releasing a self-titled album the same month.

On top of all of that, old friends Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens are both long overdue for a new full-length, so keep your fingers crossed that they'll get their act together before the year ends. Also, Grizzly Bear have been working on a follow-up to their mini-masterpiece, Yellow House. And, Deerhoof and Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound have been releasing albums like crazy every year of recent history, so what's to stop them from continuing their trend into 2009?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The 10 Best Albums Of 2008

Finally, here's what some of you may or may not have been waiting for. To wrap up my year in review for 2008, here are my top 10 albums:

10. Vampire Weekend by Vampire Weekend: Though some may be sick of them after almost a full year of hype, the debut from the afrobeat ivy league pop band from Columbia University still retains all of its charm in my book. While the lyrics may be nonsensical and the sound may be a bit pretentious to some, there is no question that the songs are still unbelievably catchy and fun. It's hard to pick out notable tracks since each one has its own flavor and intrigue, but my favorites are "M79," "Campus," and "Walcott."

9. Devotion by Beach House: When I first heard this album, I thought it was pretty but boring, with the exception of the track "Astronaut." However, after about ten repeated listens at various points throughout 2008 and finally attending their concert in December, it all clicked. This album is really beautiful, with incredibly soothing vocals from Victoria Legrand atop flowing, dreamy, wistful indie pop instrumentals from Alex Scally. Notable tracks include the aforementioned and "Gila." Also check out the single they released in September, "Used To Be," which is probably my favorite Beach House song as of yet.

8. Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends by Coldplay: This album received mixed reviews upon its release in late summer, and it's pretty clear why. It was a giant leap away from Coldplay's earlier work, which mostly consisted of mellow songs that mostly sounded the same and were pleasant but not too interesting. Everything changed with Viva La Vida, however, most probably due to revolutionary electronic music producer Brian Eno's Midas touch. His influence pushes Coldplay to the extreme edge of their sound, and helps them craft an incredibly cohesive set of amazing tracks, including "Strawberry Swing" and "Death And All His Friends."

7. Women As Lovers by Xiu Xiu: Released way back in January, this album didn't receive much attention except from fans of Xiu Xiu's impressive collection of previous work. However, Women As Lovers is yet another perfect blend of "panic pop" and experimental noise, but this time in a different winning proportion. The songs are louder and harsher than ever, with much more percussion and less guitar than before. This is not a bad thing, though, and tracks like opener "I Do What I Want, When I Want" and possibly the best cover of all time, "Under Pressure" (featuring Michael Gira of The Angels Of Light) are some of the band's best work to date.

6. Dear Science, by TV On The Radio: I didn't think 2006's Return To Cookie Mountain could ever be topped, but this one does it. Every track here is amazing, and the entire album shows off TVOTR's incredible range of musical styles, from the dancy "Crying" to the hypnotic "Stork & Owl" (which sounds even better performed live) to the rocker "Shout Me Out" to the beautiful strings of "Family Tree." This band never ceases to remain interesting and fresh, and I hope the trend of improvement continues with future releases.

5. Microcastle by Deerhunter: I didn't use to like Deerhunter so much. Last year's Cryptograms, while having some good, profound moments, didn't really get to me the way good music is supposed to. Bradford Cox's side projects as Atlas Sound, however, were subtle and wonderful to my ears, and it seems like this album combines the best of both worlds. With a soft, shoegaze sound and some elements of noise pop, Deerhunter's third full-length spans across a wide range of moods, from the achingly melancholy "Green Jacket" to the catchy pop melodies of "Little Kids" and "Never Stops." And, to add to the perfection, the CD comes with a bonus disc of almost equally excellent tracks, entitled Weird Era Continued.

4. Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes: Way back in March I saw this group open up for another great group, Blitzen Trapper, not having any idea how popular they would become. My friends and I were stunned at how well the members of the band harmonized together, and their unique blend of Appalachian folk and Beach Boys-like pop struck a chord deep within all of us, especially with the haunting a cappella ending of the album-closer, "Oliver James." Each listen to this album, as well as the Sun Giant EP, still commands my attention now, 9 months later. More notable tracks include "Drops In The River," "English House," "White Winter Hymnal," and "Ragged Wood."

3. Shallow Grave by The Tallest Man On Earth: I picked this up at the radio station to review after hearing some good things about it from several publications. Nothing I read, however, could've prepared me for the sheer brilliance of this album. Each track is so simple, yet so subtle that with each repeated listen, new things appear and new tracks become favorites, eventually bringing out the beauty of every moment on the album. With a coarse, Bob Dylan-like voice, Kristian Matsson sings and strums, playing chords and plucking rapidly to create an immediately accessible album of folk tunes. The best tracks are the title track, "Gardener," and the album-closer "This Wind."

2. Street Horrrsing by Fuck Buttons: This may be one of my favorite electronic albums of all time. An interesting blend of shouted punk noise, beautiful electronic chimes and bells, tribal instruments, and beautiful background harmonies, the duo create a sound so unnique and wonderful that it is hard to draw yourself away. The entire album flows extremely well, and it can be appreciated on every level, whether using it as background music to work to or listening intently and embarking on the complete journey that is Street Horrrsing. Though the entire album can be considered one piece, each individual track is also an experience in itself, especially "Sweet Love For Planet Earth," "Colours Move," and "Bright Tomorrow."

1. In Ear Park by Department Of Eagles: Though its not as wildly experimental or sonically interesting as some of the other albums on this list, Department Of Eagles' sophomore effort tops the rest of this year's releases with its set of incredible psych-folk melodies. I read somewhere that the album is a tribute to Daniel Rossen's recently deceased father, and that the songs were too personal to put on a Grizzly Bear album (he's a member of both groups.) This is extremely evident on the more delicate pieces, including the title track, "Herring Bones," and closer "Balmy Night." Cohort Fred Nicolaus also lets his brilliance show on tracks like "Teenagers" and "Classical Records," and the two are a perfect pairing for the Beatles/Van Dyke Parks-inspired blend of pop and psychedelia that makes up this year's best album.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Playlist: Top Tracks Of 2008

Here's a list of my 20 favorite tracks from 2008, in descending order. The song has to stand out from the rest of its album in order to qualify, and thus I excluded songs from my favorite albums of the year. Also, I'm not going to put any album art because, well, it's annoying.

20. "Lost Verses" by Sun Kil Moon off of April
19. "Poor Old Ra" by The Pica Beats off of Beating Back The Claws Of The Cold
18. "Beg Waves" by Ponytail off of Ice Cream Spiritual
17. "Namer" by High Places off the self-titled album
16. "Bang Your Drum" by Wolf Parade off of At Mount Zoomer
15. "Things I Did When I Was Dead" by No Age off of Nouns
14. "Untrust Us" by Crystal Castles off the self-titled album
13. "Give Arm To Its Socket" by Republic Tigers off of Keep Color
12. "Leaves Grow" by Butter Days off of The Habit Of Making Up
11. "Paperback Suicide" by Evangelicals off of The Evening Descends
10. "Lump Sum" by Bon Iver off of For Emma, Forever Ago
09. "Godan Daginn" by Sigur Ros off of Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
08. "Out There On The Ice" by Cut Copy off of In Ghost Colors
07. "Cath..." by Death Cab For Cutie off of Narrow Stairs
06. "God & Suicide" by Blitzen Trapper off of Furr
05. "Kids" by MGMT off of Oracular Spectacular
04. "Orphaned" by Max Tundra off of Parallax Error Beheads You
03. "Cobwebs" by Animal Collective off of Water Curses
02. "Tom & Jerry" by Hecuba off of Sir
01. "The Rabbit, The Bat & The Reindeer" by Dr. Dog off of Fate

I've provided links using Elbows music blog aggregator for your mp3-downloading pleasure. Enjoy!

Superlatives 2008

Before we get to the best albums and best tracks, here are my superlatives for 2008! Enjoy!

Most Overrated Album of 2008: Vivian Girls by Vivian Girls
I really, really disliked this album and I can't see why it got such good reviews from a lot of credible sources. It's not that I don't like this kind of music, because, as you can see from other posts, I'm extremely partial to noise rock and noise pop when done well. I just feel that the songs on this album are boring and uninspired, so much so that I had to remove them from my iTunes library.

Most Underrated Album of 2008: Skeletal Lamping by of Montreal
I think this album is one where you either love it or you hate it and a lot of reviewers fell in the latter group. In my opinion, however, this album is a miniature masterpiece. It's easier to think of it as one gigantic piece of song fragments split among 15 tracks rather than 15 separate songs similar to those of last year's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? And though the subject matter may be lewd and, to some, immature, I think it's a bold move that pays off with some really good, interesting music.

Most Promising New Artist of 2008: Air France
Introduced to me through a mix CD at the very beginning of the summer, this Swedish pop group gave us a little taste of some wonderful electronic music with their two 2008 EPs, On Trade Winds and No Way Down. Considering the beauty of tracks such as "Collapsing At Your Doorstep" and "Never Content," it's hard not to get excited about a debut album in the near future. I can only hope they live up to their high expectations.

Best Live Show of 2008: Xiu Xiu
I saw these guys perform twice over the course of this year, and both times were truly amazing, but in different ways. The thing I love about Xiu Xiu's shows is how different their live music sounds from their studio recordings: they re-arrange the percussion of every song to create something entirely new with each show. Also, the raw emotion of Jamie Stewart's vocals and the incredible energy he, percussionist Caralee McElroy, and drummer Ches Smith pour into the instruments is shocking and loud. Both concerts were definitely worth the ringing sensation in my ears in the days that followed.

Worst Album of 2008 (and possibly of all time): The Black & White Album by Imani Coppola
My friends and I picked up this gem at a record giveaway at William & Mary way back in January, and let me just say that it is some of the funniest bad music I've ever heard. For example, the lyrics of "Black & White Jingle #1," sung by two dueling voices that reach increasingly higher pitches, are all similar insults to the opening aphorism "Sometimes it may feel like life's sucking you up, but it's not. It's just you sucking." Furthermore, tracks like "Dirty Pictures" and "Keys 2 Ur Ass" show exactly what is wrong with modern hip-hop, "This Is My Chicken" is a 12-second piece of barnyard plucking, "I'm A Pocket" contains only the lyrics "I'm a pocket in my pocket" over and over again, and "J.L.i.a.T.o.Y.O." features Imani shouting "John Lennon is a trademark of Yoko Ono ONO ONO ONO!" until our ears bleed. The lyrics of the last track, "In A Room," perfectly embody how I feel about this album: "A man walked in, completely naked; took a dump and then urinated." This is definitely a must-hear.