Category Archives: Album Reviews

REVIEW: Pissed Jeans – Honeys

Making adult music for adult people can be a difficult thing. I, personally, adore two of the best bands doing it, The National and The Walkmen, and yet I completely understand those who don’t like it. Those two bands (The National especially) are bands for middle-class boredom, in which you have sex with people who you don’t love, drink too much wine, pretend to laugh at the jokes of people you hate, and sleep at night by taking one too many sleeping pills. There’s beauty in that. “With my kid on my shoulder I try / not to hurt anybody I like / But I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” Matt Berninger sang on “Afraid of Everyone,” on the last National album, High Violet. The sentiment is something that is relatable, but it’s hard to really understand for a lot of people.

Where are the working class anthems for the worst parts of adulthood? My favorite of them is “The Jogger,” a tone poem of sorts off Pissed Jeans’ second LP, Hope For Men. “Promenade / The jogger / Piece of cake / Racquetball / Hiking trip / The jogger / Whole Foods / Matching outfit / Ford Explorer / The jogger.” The moment I heard that song, I knew exactly what he was talking about, and I think, when you read it, you do too. It’s a grimy, filthy, human version of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier,” behind a wall of Melvins-esque noise. Hope For Men was an album for adults like Jason Bateman’s character in Juno, who’s wife used his old Soundgarden shirt as a grungy shirt to paint in, who’s had to sell out and get a real job to make a go at a “real life.” Pissed Jeans are by no means a success story: four albums and 9 years in, frontman Matt Korvette still works as an insurance claims adjuster, trying to hide his other life from his coworkers, he said in a recent interview. One might take an issue with that fact, but the way I see it, they’re a band that thrives due to its connection to banal minutiae.

Four albums in, Pissed Jeans have done little to change their sound. They have, however, honed their craft in a really interesting way. Where Shallow was a bit of a sloppy, cacophonous mess, the band has steadily refined their messiness, to the point where that clutter is nearly collected into easy-to-navigate piles. Listening to Honeys makes you feel like the last 15 years never happened, and that the grunge movement is alive and screaming, even if it has seen its hairline recede a little bit. Korvette is only 30, but it’s clear that he’s got a firm grip on the issues with growing up and being forced into growing up. Through all the fuzz, it’s hard to pick out everything, but key phrases and themes (such as that of Fight Club style fantasy murder) that present themselves for digestion. There’s a line, about halfway through the album on “Cafeteria Food”, that sums a lot of things up: “Hey there project manager / I saw you eating cafeteria food / I know that seems like like a healthy choice / I argue that isn’t true.” The song itself is a lumbering mass of bass fuzz, and it does nothing but enhance the bile in his words: “You think you’ve got it all figured out, except where to send your kids to school.” There’s a Bukowski lite tone to his anger on the song, and the album in general, where each bitter line is a mix of pity and jealousy, even if it can’t ever decide which it wears better.

Pissed Jeans are a bitter pill to swallow. Even when you enjoy their music and what they’re saying, like the anti-misogynist screed “Male Gaze,” it’s hard to really connect with the music in a meaningful way. You shouldn’t take this as me detracting from the raw power of the band, and how truly awesome Honeys is. They fill a very specific gap that has been missing in music, and even as a sweatervest wearing dad, I click a lot with the visceral imagery and energy of the band’s drunken, angular wailing. You have to come at the band with the right angle, or else you’re just going to view them as a bunch of meatheads wailing on their instruments for no good reason. If you’re willing to let them into your heart, Pissed Jeans are going to fill the same hole that they fill in mine, and you’re going to find yourself trying to figure out just how to tell people about them. If you don’t understand their music – and I’m sure a lot of you will find yourself in that position – I would suggest listening to Slings + Arrows again, and going back to your desk.

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REVIEW: Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside – Untamed Beast

“Never have I had a rational mind, and never have I been rational inside.” That’s the very first line that Sallie Ford spits out on “They Told Me,” the first track on Untamed Beast, the brand new record by Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside. If Portland, OR had a sound, it would probably be that of Sallie Ford: persistently laser-focused, obsessed with notions of the past, and preternaturally good at using the given space to collect an unseen advantage. This is by no means a bad thing: the first time I heard this band, they were opening for Iron & Wine in the middle of the city, and the band’s sound made the place sound like a dive bar, despite the fact that they were playing their songs in the middle of the city, in a ridiculously mismatched venue (i.e. a massive one), at around 4 in the afternoon. Since then, the band hasn’t changed their sound so much as distilled it, carving away the unnecessary bits in favor of raw, pulsing nerves.

This is a band that plays in an alternate universe where Jack White and his White Stripes never existed, and though I have become slightly jaded about straight-up rock music, it’s hard to not be inspired by this band. Untamed Beast is the kind of stomper that reinvigorates your adoration for a particular style of music, or even for an instrument. It’s a record that may as well have been made in 1959, and indeed, if I were presented with it as an album that were that old, my only question would be about why nobody had told me about it sooner. There are a hundred little things to fall in love with here, be it startlingly reserved and intimate production present on the album’s closer “Roll Around,” or the way Ford punches up the word “Paris” in the chorus of the song of the same name: “You’re like a parasite.” And that’s just two examples off the top of my head. Each song reveals a series of hidden touches after several listens, and it’s hard to not be wrapped up by it. The best moment, however, is the sexy-as-hell bass solo near the end of “Rockability,” which is interrupted by Ford’s crazed barking – believe me, that’s better than it sounds.

Lyrically is where the album takes things to a different level, however. Simplicity is the name of the game here, and it works impressively for Ford: the metaphor in “Addicted” is one of the most effective on the album, which takes the easy route of comparing love to an addiction, but throws us a curveball by solving the problem by throwing you out “like a cigarette butt.” She toes the line between being thoroughly adept at writing love songs, and writing songs about drinking and screwing, all of which are done far too well to be allowed. On “Bad Boys,” when she exclaims all of the things she can do as well as any man, it comes off as raw and truly powerful, rather than clumsy, like it would with most other musicians: “I can fuck, I can drink, I don’t care what you think.” A line like that needs conviction to back it up, or else it’s just going to sound foolish, but I can’t help but find myself smitten in the span of that singular song – and I am not a bad boy. Even the silliest song on the album, “Do Me Right,” works better than it should considering its extended food/sex metaphor. And none of these songs last nearly long enough.

Near the very end of the album, on the aforementioned “Roll Around,” Ford sings something that fits perfectly with the timeless feeling I got when listening to Untamed Beast: “I just wanna live in the fifties / And you could take me on a date.” There’s a yearning for peace and quiet in that song, which is at remarkable odds with the sheer noise produced by the rest of the songs here. It almost feels like, over the course of half an hour, the band sheds every last layer of intensity, and all that’s left is for them to recharge in a place where, perhaps, the music they’ve made fits in a little better. Some bands just weren’t made for these times, and though this might be one of the best bands that fits that description, I can’t help but be incredibly hopeful that they get the admiration they deserve.

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REVIEW: Atlas Genius – When It Was Now

July will be the 10th anniversary of the release of the LCD Soundsystem song “Losing My Edge”. This is relevant because there’s a very clear message in that song: as you get older, you’re going to lose sight of how to stay relevant, and how to stay cool. At 22, I barely understand what is cool anymore, just as I barely understand why a lot of celebrities are famous. So, I have a hard time relating to a lot of what the kids listen to these days. In my line of work (i.e. talking about rock bands), this presents a unique problem: how do you talk about bands that you don’t quite understand? The main reason that I bring up “Losing My Edge” is because there’s a strangely prophetic lyric that people love to quote (I know I do whenever I get the chance), because it’s very silly: “I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables / I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.” Since I became jaded about what is played on the radio, I realized that this was a fundamental problem: nobody can seem to decide which they prefer, so every couple years, the trends shift back and forth. If the not-so-modest success of bands like Passion Pit, and the unstoppable rise of brostep, are any indication, we are currently in a “sold your guitars and bought turntables” period of time.

This is where bands like Atlas Genius come in. Poised firmly in the middle of these two sides, they fill a much needed hole that we call “dance rock.” Where once upon a time it was something like disco, and was terminally uncool, it is now something that sells out medium-to-large sized venues, which are packed with people age 15-25 (plus or minus a few years on each end), who hear these bands and get off on going to those venues, and spending a couple hours getting sweaty and having the time of their lives. The band arrive with a sound that feels more-or-less fully formed, which is a definite plus, even if you end up seeing them like a chess game, where you can already tell exactly what the next 10 moves are going to look like. There’s a joy in Atlas Genius’s debut record, When It Was Now, that you don’t see around much these days, for better or worse. There’s also a sort of heartbreaking sincerity that they exude, even if you can’t tell what they’re being sincere about means anything at all.

One of the main problems with When It Was Now is that, at times, it feels like frontman Keith Jeffrey is singing very sincerely about nothing. This is a common trope in pop music, when you want to sing at the top of your lungs to the music and jump around to the music, but once you start to sink your teeth into the actual content, you find it to be mostly hollow. “On A Day” is a great example of this: the track soars with incredible energy, and comes with a fantastic chorus, but once you start to take it apart, you realize that “It’s a shame to lie in on a day like this” is a head-scratchingly silly refrain for a chorus, because it feels vaguely hollow. Similarly, “Change the locks, change the scene / Change it all but can’t change what we’ve been” sounds like a lyric that you write as a placeholder while you try and work out something a little better, because you realize that people may laugh if you’re a grown adult and write something that one-dimensional.

When It Was Now is a fine record, to be sure. The biggest problem with Atlas Genius has nothing to do with the band themselves, but with the rest of the bands around them: they’re a dime a dozen these days, if you pay attention to what plays on the radio. The prevalence of synthesizers and the use of 80s vibes in modern alt-rock are used ad nauseum, to the point where one might have a problem trying to establish whether or not this band is worth grabbing onto, or if you’re better off just waiting around for the next band that sounds like this one. I enjoy listening to this album, but then again, I enjoyed it the last 10 times I heard an album that sounded like this one.

REVIEW: Parenthetical Girls – Privilege (Abridged)

Take pleasure in the simple things you break along the way…

The only time I really remember how long ago Entanglements came out is when I really stop to think about it. It came out just before the start of autumn in 2008, and the album very quickly became a go-to record for me. My new girlfriend labelled the album as “circus music,” based on the flow of album highlight “A Song for Ellie Greenwich,” and even after hearing that music regularly for the last four years, she’s never adjusted to the sounds that Parenthetical Girls make. Entanglements was my companion for the incredibly nasty winter that we saw in 2008, and somehow, I’ve never been able to disconnect the sound of songs like “Windmills of Your Mind” or “Avenue of Trees” from the sensation of watching snow drift down from the sky in the middle of the afternoon. That album influenced my thinking to the point that I actually quoted “Four Words” at a funeral during this period: “Bless we with breath, lest we forget.” I don’t ever know if that line means what I thought it meant, but hasn’t stopped me from adoring it.

It’s not quite accurate to say that it has taken over four years to get a new record from Parenthetical Girls. In that four years, they undertook the weighty task of releasing Privilege, a series of five EPs, meant to have come out once each quarter starting in ’10. That project finally finished this past September. Having thought that the process would take a little over a year, I abstained from listening to any of the EPs, so that I could listen to it as one cohesive piece once it was completed. So, really, because of my hopefulness, my wait for a new Parenthetical Girls album was almost exactly four years. Was that wait worth it? Absolutely.

One of the things to really take note of is that the songs of Privilege (Abridged) were recorded over the course of four years, and trickled out slowly. I realize that I’ve just discussed this, but it changes the dynamic of a lot of things here, when you realize that the first track, “Evelyn McHale,” was made a year before “Careful Who You Dance With,” which comes just two tracks later, and over two years before “Curtains,” which finishes the record forty minutes later. Parenthetical Girls feel like they’ve undergone a metamorphosis over the course of this record, and when you narrow things down to the timeline, it’s no wonder why. But what is truly a wonder about that timeline is that Zac Pennington’s songwriting abilities never falter, and each song is just as powerful as the last. The complete Privilege is an hour-and-a-half odyssey, in which each track fits in just right, but even when listening to the condensed version you can’t help but feel like this exact album was always the plan.

It’s impossible to ignore Pennington’s flair for the over-the-top. Indeed, this has always been one of the band’s best assets; it’s hard to not to find a lot of charm in lines like “She’s thick as shit, and pregnant with the myth of a noble proletariat” (“Sympathy For Spastics,” far and away the most flat-out beautiful song in the bunch), or “She was always this heartsick autistic kid” (“The Privilege”), and the worlds these lines inhabit are hard to not want to investigate further. That aforementioned flair makes him one of the most adept world-builders in baroque pop music, where people still use phrases like “noble proletariat,” but also have to worry about getting their heads kicked in because they danced with the wrong person. The stories here feel timeless in a lot of ways, where all of the players are, more or less, always doing exactly what they need to do to stay alive – no matter how dubious it might be.

Even after getting acquainted with the bigger picture, it’s hard to not want more from these songs and characters. This is not to say that anything here is lacking in any way; far from it. It’s a mark of the abilities of the players that I wish each song were at least twice as long (or more, in the case of the aforementioned “Sympathy for Spastics,” which clocks in at a criminal two-and-a-half minutes), because I want to hear more about these people. Even the music behind these songs feels like another set of characters entirely: one can’t help but marvel at the stomping drum beats of “The Pornographer,” with drummer/octopus Paul Alcott tightening the tension with every beat, to the point where it can be almost disorienting. The keyboard work of Amber Smith works as the perfect counterpoint to Alcott’s cacophony, sounding persistently behind the times in all the best ways (and it’s always wonderful when she shows up to sing backup – most notably during “The Common Touch” and “Curtains”).

While listening to the complete Privilege, I came across an interview with Zac Pennington, in which he was asked what made him decide to make a series of EPs in the first place. He answered that – and I’m paraphrasing here, because I can’t find the exact interview – he’d heard that the best way to unblock yourself was to do a series of some sort. That series may have taken longer than originally planned, but it can’t be said that we don’t have anything to show for all of the waiting. It’s entirely possible that Parenthetical Girls may never make a statement as grand as the one they made with Privilege, but I really don’t think they need to. This album is perfect – really, all they need to do from this point on is just make records as best as they can.

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REVIEW: Atoms For Peace – Amok

What’s your favorite supergroup? I guess, the real question with that question is, of the supergroups you really like, how many of them are as good as the parts? Broken Social Scene and The New Pornographers are among the most well-known, but the members of both maintain that they aren’t actually supergroups. In my mind, even the best of them have a lot of time overcoming the pitfalls associated with being associated with a bigger band. This is exactly why Atoms for Peace have been given a weary eye by most people: you take Thom Yorke’s voice and guitar, Flea’s bass, Nigel Godrich’s keys, and Joey Waronker’s drumming, and, if you’re think about what it might end up sounding like, you hit on what Amok actually does sound like. But let me assure you first: Amok is a neat little record.

Thom Yorke will never be anything but the frontman of Radiohead, and Flea will never be anything but the bassist for Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is not an insult to them, or their abilities; Thom Yorke has been a driving force in my life, and Flea may be one of the best modern bassists working today. However, that’s a lot of the problem. When I heard that Atoms for Peace was going to be a thing, I immediately wondered how much it would sound like a Radiohead record. The lucky thing for Amok is, it does not sound like a Radiohead record. It does, however, sound a lot like Thom Yorke’s solo album, the criminally underrated The Eraser. And it sounds like that on every single track.

The upside is that Amok serves to mend a few of the problems with The Eraser, in that it was very much clear that Yorke was attempting to go for something decidedly un-Radiohead with the record. The imagery on the album left almost nothing to the imagination, the production was sharp as a tack, and everything felt a bit Bends-era, but done with Nigel Godrich’s saccharine beats. While all of these things made The Eraser a beautiful record to listen to (even if it could definitely do with a re-sequencing), this album serves to make something slightly closer to a Radiohead record, without making something that makes you ask, “why didn’t he just do this back home?” Yorke’s current interests were incredibly evident on The King Of Limbs, an album that largely stripped away the lush guitar work of In Rainbows in favor of drum machines and repetitive tempos, much in the same way that Liars changed their entire makeup to make the stark, beautiful WIXIW last year. This far into Yorke’s career, it’s a comforting thing that he’s restless, because it means that he’s content with just trying out new things and new masks, instead of shutting everything down completely.

But, you may be asking yourself, what does Amok sound like? A fair question: one of the things that truly serves the album well is the fact that Yorke’s voice sounds more like an instrument than ever. His words have stopped being so far in front of everything else, meaning the sound of his voice ceases to be that focus, and becomes something to isolate, rather than pick apart, in the same way that you might stop to analyze the percussion on its own. This is a mark of the talent that Godrich has always has, because after being Radiohead’s unofficial 6th member for almost 20 years, it’s obvious that he knows how to play to the strengths of everyone in the band, and in this band, it serves well for everything to be a blend of everything at once. On most records, this would be a death mark. But here, it’s a comfort, and makes it more rewarding when you do manage to isolate a small section. Repeat listens reward you with the gift of discovery, like when you notice the howling backup vocals that coarse through “Stuck Together Pieces,” or the tribalism that come to the table courtesy of both Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco, who blend together in a way that feels hard to ignore a lot of the time.

This is a damn good record, and while it doesn’t have the same hit ratio that The Eraser did, this never works as a disadvantage. It works well as an aurally pleasing bit of art that you might stop to examine, from time to time. Over time, certain things spring up as being bits you like more than others, like how the beginning groove of “Before Your Very Eyes…” reminds you of an especially great mid-period (read: the 90s) Chili Peppers track, back when Anthony Kiedis was full of great, persistently groovy ideas. You might also appreciate that “Ingenue” sounds, at least for a minute, like it might erupt into a door-shaking dance track very soon, but it instead keeps along its same path of glockenspiel hammering and Godrich’s semi-funky keyboards toiling away as a portrait of someone trying desperately hard to not be excessive. It’s going to take a decent amount of time to truly sink my teeth into, but after a few listens, it’s clear that, in five year’s time, people will likely talk about giving this album a listen-through, and finding something new and exciting to connect with.

The unfortunate thing is, people will never be able to talk about Amok without talking about the works of Radiohead. You can already hear the internet, full of Radiohead fans, pushing up their collective glasses and readying a 1000-word dissection of how, exactly, this album is weak compared to OK Computer, and how Yorke will never make another Kid A. He is a force larger than life, and though having Flea in your band is no small potatoes, people will undoubtedly relate this album to any given Radiohead song before they even think to compare, say, the bass throb of “Judge Jury and Executioner” to any given Red Hot Chili Peppers song. This, really, is why the idea of the supergroup is inherently flawed: no matter how much you enjoy the touches that different musicians bring to the table from their day jobs, those albums are never quite going to live up to the best records those people made with said bands. But that does not, however, mean that those records aren’t any less enjoyable.

In short: this isn’t Radiohead. This isn’t Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is Atoms for Peace. Listen to them as a completely new band. I think you’ll be surprised what you find.

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REVIEW: How To Destroy Angels – Welcome Oblivion

We fade away.

When I was 13, I used to take daily walks on this massive trail that went near the apartments we lived in, which took at least an hour-and-a-half to traverse. Along this trail was a very short tunnel that went under a road, and one day, I noticed that there was something doodled in that tunnel: “so much blood from such a tiny little hole.” I am young enough that it was incredibly easy to simply go home and look that lyric up, and I discovered that it was from “The Downward Spiral” by Nine Inch Nails. Not long after this, I went to Fred Meyer to attempt to buy this album – only to be turned down because, really, who wants to sell a Nine Inch Nails record to a 13-year-old? “My parents won’t allow it – they’re Nazis,” I told the clerk, who looked to be maybe four years older than I was. She didn’t budge. It wasn’t a big deal – I had the thing, I just wouldn’t buy it. This story is unique for me because, unlike the experience of choosing between Muse and Modest Mouse, this decision did nothing to affect my personal time line. In fact, if pressed to tell you what I bought instead, I probably couldn’t – what happened after I was unceremoniously denied was nowhere near as important as that act. This story is nothing compared to the inner struggle of Trent Reznor, and even in the pit of despair that I seemed to have taken up Vegas-style residence in, I knew that there was further down to go – and Nine Inch Nails was it.

Over time, Nine Inch Nails became a background companion in my life. I ho-hummed with the best of them about what a weak release With_Teeth was, and rejoiced at how truly good Year Zero was (confession: I stole that record from Fred Meyer after it came out, as a small bit of revenge. It is only now that I remember that I stole it along with a copy of Se7en, which actually had Nine Inch Nails music in it – how strange!) I sat atop the stairs in a house in Northeast Portland, attempting to download the surprise release The Slip, before giving up and simply going down the street with my laptop to get it from somewhere that had WiFi. I never got the chance to see NIN, but something about Trent Reznor’s music has always brought me a small degree of comfort, despite the fact that I likely would not include them in my Top 20 favorite bands. To me, this is the best way to enjoy those records: at arm’s length. Those are albums you didn’t want to truly get inside you.

Once NIN was over, Reznor started doing truly incredible things. He won himself an Oscar and a Golden Globe, for the score he did for The Social Network, David Fincher’s too-good-for-words Mark Zuckerberg biopic. Then a Grammy, for score for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He defended the necessities of the major label, and started up a brand new band, with his brand new wife, former West Indian Girl vocalist Mariqueen Maandig and long-time collaborator Atticus Ross, called How To Destroy Angels. After two EPs, it was hard to really grab onto the difference between Nine Inch Nails and this new outfit, other than the fact that there was a woman singing the songs instead. The churning, industrial aesthetic was still there – just with a different voice. However, now, there’s a full-length album to show us what they’ve all been up to.

Welcome Oblivion clearly picks up where The Slip left off. On that album, Reznor somehow tapped into a strange dissonance, where everything was clearly industrial in nature, but the beats and blips sounded like they were grown, rather than created. “Keep It Together” grows out of muddy downbeats, and the energy of the track feels like it was raised from infancy right before your very eyes. There’s a sickly, lurching calm in Maandig’s voice as she whispers over the sputtering: “I can not keep it together,” she repeats, joined solemnly and unassumingly by Reznor. It’s disorienting, and it’s hard to shake a feeling that there’s something hanging just above your head, or right behind your back, not waiting to strike, but ready for something. “And the Sky Began To Scream” feels this way as well, though it feels like a monster underneath your bed – and that monster is just as obsessed with the wobbler bass effect that you and Mary Ann Hobbs. These are not songs made for dissent – these songs are made for slightly fucked up lovers. This is a feeling that’s hard to shake when, a lot of the time, Reznor creeps in, just there in the background, where you know he’s there, but you can’t quite get him in focus.

Then something out-of-nowhere happens, and five songs in, “Ice Age” shows up. Do you remember, about halfway through Portishead’s Third, when a ukulele song shows up? This is exactly like that. Sweet little strings blip in and out, as Maandig coos about the ocean, and the color of your eyes. It’s a lot creepier than it sounds, but after the tracks before it, it’s a song that feels a lot like whiplash, especially when she sings a line like “Sometimes the hate in me is keeping me alive.” It feels even crazier when we dive back into the world that we were in before, with “On The Wing,” which is just as subdued, but with a vocoder’d haze to go with it. The height of energy comes in the form of “How Long” and “Strings & Attractors,” which present themselves as being tracks that could have been club bangers in another life, but are happier being here. That energetic peak only lasts for 11 minutes of the album’s 60-minute run time, until it dives back into the haze and honey.

Welcome Oblivion never quite rises out of that haze – though this isn’t a bad thing. How To Destroy Angels is another version of the truth that is Nine Inch Nails, if that truth were really obsessed with Loveless. On the slow-burning, seven-minute closer, “Hallowed Ground,” the band sees you out with a wash of static feedback and whitewash, and by the time that track finishes, it’s hard to even believe that it was seven minutes. That’s exactly how the entirety of the album feels – it never feels like you’ve spent an hour on the record, which is definitely a very good thing. Those first two EPs might have felt like a sign that Reznor had lost his edge, but the reality is miles away from it. It feels like, instead of losing his edge, he’s just found a brand new, increasingly interesting edge.

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REVIEW: Jamie Lidell – Jamie Lidell

One of the things I love most about Warp Records is that, a lot of the time, you can tell, when you listen to one of their bands, that they are on that label. This is by no means a bad thing; they’ve come to represent a certain style of music, made for somewhat homely people dancing in basements with similarly homely people, who care about having fun as much as they care about the music itself. Be it the propulsive math rock of Battles, or the sweater-vest aesthletes in Grizzly Bear, Warp Records has always bred a very specific style and ethos. This is something I have always been grateful for.

I am likely the only one who really got into Jamie Lidell with Jim, his out-of-nowhere soul record that came out in 2008. From the first time I listened to the lead single, “Little Bit of Feel Good,” I was transfixed by his style and his swagger, to the point that I couldn’t move past the record. Sure, I listened to Compass when it was released, but it was hard to click with the aesthetic, after falling for Warp Records’ very own in-house crooner. Jamie Lidell became a musician who made an album I enjoyed so much, I barely wanted to see what else they had in store for me (this is something I have dubbed “the Wilco Paradox,” named for my inability to click with any Wilco record that was not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot;this curse was broken by the truly-underrated Sky Blue Sky, though it was rekindled in time for Wilco (The Album) and The Whole Love). I always figured, if I went back to Multiply, I would find something I liked. After all, Warp Records did, right?

The problem with Jamie Lidell’s newest eponymous album is that, most curiously, it sounds exactly like a Warp Records album. One might see this as a good thing – which it normally would be – but I’ll explain. “I’m Selfish” starts up with a blast of bubbling synths, which sound so forced, that you’re immediately pushed out of the record, rather than in it. These tracks feel like the 80s, but they sound like the 80s as seen through the lens of an 80s California-based cop film, which is exactly what I hear when the drum-machine blorts come in on “Big Love,” and I know that I can’t be the only one. The album’s lead single, “What A Shame,” is enough of a banger to help you feel like the first two tracks weren’t a waste of your time, where Lidell crooning like I like you’d really want him to… but then, there’s the rest of the album, which made me feel like I was fighting to get to the end, rather than hoping it wouldn’t end. “Why Ya Why” comes replete with horn wails and a synth line that reminded me of someone simply hitting the demo button on their new Casio and letting it roll. Once the penultimate track, “Don’t You Love Me,” shows up, it’s hard not to feel a little relieved by a truly beautiful song. Lidell has never been the most eloquent songwriter, but he’s always made up for it with gusto – which “Don’t You Love Me” has plenty of: when he sings “We need a new direction / Cause don’t know if we can go on this way,” you genuinely feel for the heart that wrote that line, even if the soul of it comes courtesy of – for better or worse – Stevie Wonder. Unfortunately, once “In Your Mind” comes along, that soul is replaced by robot vocals and the same weak synths that made the rest of the album so difficult to get through.

Jamie Lidell is not a bad record. I know I’ve definitely made it sound that way, but it honestly isn’t. Jim was an album that has never truly left my “music to sing along to in the shower” rotation, and as such, I’ve never given his other works the time of day they deserved. It could very well be that the problem isn’t him, it’s me. There’s a charm to it, in the same way that those old 90s Warp albums had that charm. The unfortunate thing is, beneath those charms could be found layers of depth and loving craft. Jamie Lidell, in the end, sounds like your friend’s kid brother who copies everything you and your friends do in an attempt to be cool – without really bothering to understand why you do those things in the first place.

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REVIEW: Cloud Cult – Love

Leave me alone, I’m going inward.

For me, love and music have always been linked. It’s something I’ve written about before, but no relationship I’ve ever had, romantic or otherwise, has escaped the same fate of being rolled together with music, be it that of Arcade Fire, Radiohead, or even Neutral Milk Hotel. My wife has always said that In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was the album she fell in love with me to. This isn’t about Jeff Mangum, though; this is about Craig Minowa. Just a few short days into our relationship, I put on Cloud Cult’s second album, Who Killed Puck? As far as album openers go, “Where It Starts” is likely one of my favorites, due in part to its rat-a-tat drums, but especially because it’s one of the most desperately lonely songs I’ve ever heard, to the point where Minowa seems consumed by it: “I found god on a Wednesday afternoon, drinking boxed wine and wishing you would call me / I found god in the middle of the woods, spitting at the stars and making love to a tree / I found god when I quit smoking cigarettes, I found god in a bag of weed / I found god in the back of my head: Too scared to even talk to you, but dreaming you would marry me.” His voice is fearful and nervous, but in a way that makes you feel like he’s trying to defeat his loneliness by scaring it away.

That morning was the first time I ever listened to Cloud Cult, and I felt connected to that song in a lot of ways, and to a lot of things about that band. I love how they have always felt like the only real-live hippies left in music (for every thousand copies of their superb Feel Good Ghosts that got sold, they planted ten trees), and they made albums called Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus and Feel Good Ghosts (Tea Partying Through Tornadoes). But most of all, I feel connected to the fact that, no matter the tempest swelling around him, it has always felt like Craig Minowa was always making music like he did with The Shade Project: in a closet, alone. “Where It Starts never stops feeling like that, and even my wife’s favorite Cloud Cult song, “May Your Hearts Stay Strong,” feels exactly like that, even if it’s a song about the truest love you’ll ever come across: “It’s the day in the place where she first said ‘I love you’ / spread his ashes with the breath of the last kiss that she blew.” In a lot of ways, Cloud Cult are one of the best-kept secrets in the realm of bands for lovers.

This is why it’s fitting that, nine albums in, they’ve decided to entitle their album, rather succinctly, Love. From the get-go, it feels like it always does: just Minowa, singing to himself. There’s a matter-of-factness to the way “You’re the Only Thing In Your Way” flows along: “Drive baby drive, until your trouble’s gone / Run, baby, run, until it all goes numb.” Breathe, keep breathing / I can’t do this alone. Everything else slowly joins him here: first the piano, then the sighing cello, and then a small orchestra – yet somehow, even when the kickdrum comes in, you still feel a strange loneliness. This holds on through the third track, “Complicated Creation,” in which Minowa seeks council from the moon itself: “Yes, you know that I’m a happy man, but something in me is burning.” And what does the moon say back? “I’ll give you some advice: You gotta live a little lighter, You gotta breathe a little deeper You gotta suck it, suck it in. There’s your medication.” It may be the grand plan for the record, but from this moment on, there’s a change in the record: Cloud Cult starts to feel less like a one-man band, and more like a full-on band, just like they’ve always been. Here, the title Love becomes very fitting.

The interesting thing is that, somehow, Love is the least over-the-top Cloud Cult have ever sounded. They have always been a great band, but there has always been something that you might find slightly hard to connect with, even if you could never put a finger on it. However, here, they sound almost painfully sure of themselves, both emotionally and sonically. The best example of this is the slinky-bass groove of “Sleepwalker,” which plods along with an eletropop pulse that almost sounds like latter-day Modest Mouse. But then, it kicks into overdrive, and it makes it half-impossible to stay still: “Where is your kid side? Where is your joyfulness? Where is your empathy? Fast asleep.” It feels like a clarion call, and with each observation Minowa makes about how you might be living your life, everything starts to build and build, until he’s hollering over a wave of guitar fuzz. This is the bizarre sound of a band’s unrest settling, where every good idea they ever had gets thrown into every other good idea, and everything sticks. And then, for me, I start to wonder: this band has always been a beautiful mess. Does it suit them to lose all of that childlike whimsy for a record, and make a balls-to-the-wall awesome record? Absolutely.

At the close of the record, “The Show Starts Now,” we go back to the beginning, and Minowa feels somewhat alone again, when he intones one of the most effortless lyrics thus far: “They say we’re made of chaos, I say we’re made of love.” Even as a chorus of voices swells up, it’s hard not to feel like he’s a single soul against the world, even when he delivers another simple lesson: “You’re no good to the living if you’re too afraid to bleed.” On this song, it stops being one person, and starts being a force of nature, and it’s really quite impressive to hear. There’s not a jaded bone in the bodies of anyone in Cloud Cult, and they all make music that wears that fact proudly on its sleeve. It’s a wonder that it has taken them so long to make a record that sounds quite as unassuming, while still being so sure of itself; while no one said it would be easy, it’s always great to watch a band make it truly look easy.

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REVIEW: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

All the ones who come, and all the ones who go, down to the water…

The first time I heard Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, it was on Abbatoir Blues/Lyre Of Orpheus. It’s hard to not find a lot of joy in that set of songs, especially when it starts with a song like “Get Ready For Love”, a massive, booming track that hits you in the face with a wall of noise almost immediately. I never got around to going backwards with Cave’s music, and as a result, I’m not aware of his stylistic shifts. It’s also hard to not love that album’s follow-up, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, a glitzy and glamorous concept record about the biblical Lazarus, brought back to life in 1970s New York City. For all intents and purposes, these are two very big sounding records, because a talent like Cave needs a lot of room to sprawl out.

It’s ridiculous to talk about “maturity” with a record like this, because Push The Sky Away is the 15th Bad Seeds record, and Cave’s 20th overall if you include Grinderman and The Birthday Party, but there’s something about this record that feels like an attempt at establish a new sound. Cave just turned 55, and has been making music for almost all of that. Though he’s never been on the cutting edge, he’s always been a reliable musician, who doesn’t quite feel like he has the capability to make music that people dislike.

It’s clear from the minute “We No Who U Are” starts up that something is different this time around, on Push The Sky Away. Cave never comes far above a low roar, even in the chorus, which is almost cooed. One of the first things that sticks out is that everything sounds so polished. It’s a beautiful sounding record, and proves to be a fine album to listen to, end on end, in your headphones. There’s a strange intimacy here, and somehow this is heightened listening in this way. Where Cave has previously been a man who’s swagger is almost audible, on Push The Sky Away, you can’t help but picture him sitting alone in a studio for all of this.

This record is, a lot of the time, a gothic tangle of tension and incredible imagery, and there isn’t a song on here that doesn’t feel like a lesson in masterclass storytelling. This swings wildly from “Jubilee Street” and its prostitute/pariah main character, or the unwavering belief in what we don’t see on “Mermaids”: “I believe in god, I believe in mermaids, too .” The latter example is a song that is delicate and beautiful enough to make you completely ignore a line like “I was the match that would fire up her snatch.” That’s a real task. Somehow, in his songwriting abilities, he’s made it possible to namedrop Miley Cyrus, Hannah Montana, and Wikipedia without blinking, and as such, you end up hearing it and thinking, “Wait, why?” and then just as quickly accepting it. There’s even “Finishing Jubilee Street,” in which Cave sings about… finishing writing “Jubilee Street”, and having a vivid dream. Should these things work? Probably not, but they do. And that’s a mark of a talented musician. All the while, his voice remains low and gruff, like the spiritual offspring of both Lou Reed and Johnny Cash. It isn’t until “Higgs Boson Blues” that he even lets his voice take off very much, and at that point, its been long enough that it’s almost shocking to hear (even if his trademark growl never surfaces).

A bigger fan than myself might question the sounds of Push the Sky Away, not really realizing that they are a band that knows what they’re doing, and it is pointless to try and question it. It could be a blip in the spectrum for Bad Seeds, considering how strikingly reserved everything is, or it could be a permanent change of direction. They are a band that manages to do a lot of things exceedingly well, and though it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this record is so strikingly great. In short: learn to love this record.

Christopher Owens – Lysandre

And if your ears are open, you’ll hear honesty from me, tonight.

Author’s note: I apologize in advance for being unable to really talk about Christopher Owens’ album without inevitably comparing it to the work of his former band, Girls. Regardless, I hope you enjoy this review.

The first time I listened to Girls, I was overtaken by the fact that Christopher Owens is going to be incredibly important to this generation. From the start, Album is an album that could fit into any decade of rock and roll very comfortably, likely including the ones that have yet to come. Somehow, it was an album that felt like one of the ones we were going to talk to our children about, and how we were so lucky to have been there to witness that band.

Then, Girls broke up, out of nowhere. Two albums in isn’t a bad way to go out, especially considering those were albums by a band that arrived fully formed, so there was never truly a need for the incredibly depressing feelings involved in wondering, “where could they have gone?” The only place for that band to go was up. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too terribly long for the solo debut from Christopher Owens, which he left the band to make.

First, the good news about Lysandre: if you were distraught by the fact that there wouldn’t be a third Girls record, fret not; this album has your fix, in an incredibly bite-sized portion. That portion size is one of the most striking and perplexing things about the album: its 11 songs stretch out to an almost disappointing 28 minutes, none of which come close to the four-minute mark. Owens is clearly sure of himself, and lyrically these are some of the most strong songs he’s written yet. “So, here we go, with my faith and my hand’s really shook up,” begins “Here We Go,” a statement of hope and confidence that feels so very, very far away from the slightly sorrowful hues behind those songs from before. This confidence is contradicted a few songs later, on “Love Is In The Ear Of The Listener,” where he spills out each and every concern he has about his abilities as a musician: “What if I’m just a bad songwriter / And everything I say has been said before?” in each stanza like this, he doubles back again: “Well, everything to say has been said before / And that’s not what makes or breaks us up.”

In its essence, Lysandre is a softer, more tender side of our troubled frontman, and really it isn’t a bad look for him. The entire thing has a habit of simply washing over you, and though this can prove boring for other bands, it works in Owens’ favor for pretty much of the time. Should the sax solo on “New York City” work? Probably not, but it’s hard to not want to groove down to the song’s jazzy breakdown. There’s also a definite sense of Owens as a world-class ringleader here: in every harmony and tempo change, it is clear that he has engineered this album to be exactly how it turned out, and though it is incredibly bare at times, it’s a remarkable thing that something this tight came together so quickly.

Now, the somewhat bad news: while Lysandre is a wonderful record, it’s hard to shake the wonder about why he needed to separate himself from former bandmate JR White. It could, of course, be argued that this is not the kind of album that people would want to hear from the band, but then again, who really cares? In addition to this, it’s also hard to shake the feeling of regression. The dynamic motion that made Girls so exciting feels almost altogether missing, save for the AM radio grooves that punctuate the album. This is excusable of course, but I’ve found myself wondering, “what would this have sounded like if it weren’t a solo record?”

Things like this are, of course, minor complaints. Owens feels like he’s working on building something here, and his stubbornness in the face of bullshit will no doubt make him one of our generation’s biggest success stories when all is said and done.I can’t truly bring myself to complain about each and every song he makes, no matter what name is on the cover. Lysandre may feel troubled at times, but I wouldn’t change a single thing about it.