Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Ra Ra Riot - The Rhumb Line (2008)
Ra Ra Riot have a name that will make people either roll their eyes in boredom for every indie name that has gone before it or make people tilt their head in interest. Can a band name really instigate a reaction to their sound before hearing one note of the album? If I told you that some band called Pearl Jam or The Mars Volta existed you'd come away with some sort of reaction too, but a band's name can sum up their sound many times. Either of these two camps that give the album a chance will probably come away with the same reaction regardless, indie rock being indie rock doing something indie.
That last line technically made no sense (my sophomore English teacher would have torn me a new one), but it actually does if one has listened to Ra Ra Riot's "The Rhumb Line." This is an album full of so much sound and grandiose movements that it wants to be so epic and exciting in that way that only the general genre of indie rock is and catch them all in some beautiful cavalcade of sound. Some of the songs work with this as the driving force behind most of them to some degree, but as an album the concept fails as each song tries to sound more daring and louder than the previous. I'm not trying to imply some old-man kind of "turn that music down" reaction. This deals mainly with lead singer Wes Miles tendency to over sing almost every song on the album in a Keane-esque way.
That's just the tipping point. Everything on the album seems overdone. The mixing, the lyrics, instruments, from the manipulative string section that accompanies most of the album to the useless piano that just repeats melody after melody. After just listened to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's debut album, I would listen to each track and be shocked that the song was already over, enjoying it so much. With Ra Ra Riot it was usually the opposite, each song overstaying its welcome and lasting so much longer than my iPod claimed it to be.
The reason why this album fails so much isn't because it sounds bad (even though it does). It's because the album wants to manipulate the listener so much into how he/she should feel during each part that it becomes boring. Similar to the most melodramatic movie that Lifetime will put out this year, each song is so predictable in not just terms of notes and instruments (here's where the strings come in, and now a solo part), but it hardly seems shocking when some of the trite lyrics roll around. Some sample lyrics: "If you were here/Winter wouldn't pass quite so slow" ("Winter '05"), "When I look in your eyes/What am I supposed to do?" ("Too Too Too Fast"), or one of the worst of the bunch, "When I look into your eyes/I tend to lose my thoughts" ("Can You Tell"). On two of those songs alone he talks about looking into eyes. Two of the songs?!?!
The one song on here that really stands out is one of the singles "Dying Is Fine." Only this song on the entirety of the album really works to the benefits of the band's style. The overboard of instruments and emotions that is found on most of the songs actually work to the benefit of the constraints, taking something as lame as the words "Dying Is Fine" but making it actually sound sad and meaningful. By no means are Ra Ra Riot untalented and bad musicians. Quite the contrary. The music is well-performed and there is a good band here somewhere underneath all of the manipulation and predictability that is just dying to come out. The lyrics get corny in ways that are bad and good some times, but with some work and toning down this could be a band to watch. Until then...
Standout Track: "Dying Is Fine."
Overall Rating: 4.0
* Ra Ra Riot's rise to fame is quite impressive. After 6 months of working they already got notice from Spin Magazine and were opening for the likes of Art Brut, Editors and Tokyo Police Club.
* The band's original drummer, John Ryan Pike, went missing June 2, 2007. The following day his body was found in Buzzard's Bay in Fairhaven, believed to have drowned.
* Single "Drying Is Fine" was inspired by the E.E. Cummings poem "Dying Is Fine)But Death."
* "Suspended in Gafa" is a Kate Bush cover.
The first notes I took while listening to The Pains of Being Pure At Heart's self-titled debut album are just the words "explodes nicely." On subsequent listens that statement really rings true for the whole album. I don't mean to imply that each song gets loud in a Megadeth sort of way but more that each song has certain characteristics that don't just become head-bopping rock n' roll music for the teen crowd, but they all have these subtle explosions of instruments and voices throughout each song that sounds quite nice. Quite nice indeed.
But it's more than just a nice explosion that makes TPOBPAH (easiest abbreviation since The Presidents of the United States of America) a great start to a good band, it's their unique sound. It's easy to classify as indie rock I suppose, but that's a bit of an understatement. It's not really Rock either, and even has elements of pop in it (just listen to lead track "Contender" and tell me it doesn't sound like it could be in the top 40 (well, a good top 40)), but their sing-songy rock style is admirable. Each song has these minor explosions of music that set one apart from the other, but none jar the listener, they are just their style. This sounds vague, but trust me, listen to the album and it will be there.
One of my nitpicks I have about a lot of albums is that they just get boring after a while. It seems to be the common theme that even good bands and good albums have. That's not to say that the songs are bad, but it often seems like the band/artist have run out of ideas at a certain point and are having a hard time executing new original material near the album's end. TPOBPAH is one album that avoids this problem. Never do any of the songs slow down to the point of being boring or repetitive, but instead remain steadfast. Listen to "Young Adult Friction" with its great breakdown in the middle and you'll see what I mean.
The band sounds like they're from another era entirely. It's modern I guess, but they combine multiple genres of the last couple decades it's hard to classify, and that's a good thing. They have the best of the 80's fuzz guitar going for them, the laid-back singing of the best 90's indie bands, and lyrics of the best 70's pop. "Everything With You" is one of the best songs of the year, with beautiful lyrics detailing the greatest of relationships when one can do everything and nothing exciting with someone and still be happy. That song alone sums up what The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are all about.
Standout Track: "Everything With You"
Overall Rating: 8.7
Some Trivia For People:
* Band name comes from unfinished children's story that friend of the singer Kip Berman wrote.
* The moral of said story was that the time and adventures one has with one's friends when young is the most important thing in the world, which the band found fitting for their outlook on life too.
* Kip says that "Contender" is about himself being a loser, seeing a band like Exploding Hearts while working at a call center and feeling like he'll never make anything of himself.
* The songs have characters, but none are fictional nor non-fiction. Most are based on the band's own adventures in life, but none are completely fabricated either.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Of Montreal is one of those bands that's impossible to ignore. Their albums just scream so much color that their charm is easy to be seen even by the most apprehensive listener. I can understand completely how someone can hear one of their albums and be turned off, but at the same time I think something is completely wrong with you if you are turned off by their music. It's that much fun.
Their debut album, Cherry Peel, isn't in the same league as some of their other music. Kevin Barnes knows what's been done in music before and is constantly trying to evolve their sound to not just explore new directions in the genre but to also entertain the listener in ways they usually aren't. Most music can get boring fairly quickly, regardless if it's pop music or even indie music. It can get repetitive and boring fast. Barnes is aware of this limitation and doesn't want to fall prone to it. Most of his songs never sound the same and are so colorful that one hears something different with each listen. Their first album works more as a sign of things to come, but that doesn't mean it isn't catchy in its own regard.
The main thing that the album lacks is the wall of sound that they would later do so well. The band practically craves to have overproduction done to them, to have even more instruments and sounds coming out all the time to further compliment the music, and yet this album is fairly lo-fi. The songs are still plenty fun. Opener "Everything Disappears When You Come Around" is classic Of Montreal, complete in its lovelorn lost and colorful tone. Both it and the following track, "Baby," showcase what the band does best, writing indie pop songs that are also poetic.
All of the songs have a quality to them that sets them apart from the others. "I Can't Stop Your Memory" stutters in a nice way and has a great middle section. "Don't Ask Me To Explain" hints at things to come, what Kevin is trying to achieve. The distorted acoustic and great vocals deliver well (reckoning a good-era Weezer perhaps?). The highlight of all these tracks is "Tim I Wish You Were Born A Girl." The song isn't creepy but genuine and beautiful, one of the most creative love songs in some time. All of the instruments enter and leave the song like a stage show, gradually adding to the song and resulting in the best track on the album.
But of course the whole album doesn't hold up. I can't gush the whole time when there are a few clunkers. "In Dreams I Dance With You" suffers from the lo-fi sound. The song is begging to have more production added to it, the lo-fi-ness taking away from its quality. A lot of the songs, while good in nature, just don't remain memorable after one listen. That's not to say that there isn't anything to be gained from multiple listens to the album, but in comparison to what's to come they simply remain okay songs in the long run.
Cherry Peel is a great debut to a great band. It hints at what's to come and it's a good thing that Of Montreal changed their style up in the next few albums. There is a sound here that is working really well, but it can't seem to find its voice yet and the right production to handle it. But even what is here is still very good and is interesting to see where the band had its origins.
Standout Track: "Tim I Wish You Were Born A Girl."
Overall Rating: 8.0
* The band's name changes in interviews with lead singer Kevin Barnes, but it mainly comes from a failed relationship he had with a woman from Montreal.
* The band's sound can be heard evolving on this album. Most of the songs deal with personal issues and loves lost, but on later releases Of Montreal would involve more in-song dialogue and characters.
* One of the rare Of Montreal albums with cover art NOT done by Kevin's brother, David. Possibly done by photographer Tim Root with the help of David Barnes.
* Bar/None records are also known for some other obscure bands, such as releases by They Might Be Giants, Yo La Tengo, Puffy AmiYumi and Orange Juice's Edwyn Collins.
Friday, June 19, 2009
A lot of the songs pack the punch that would later lead to the Industrial genre. "Head Like A Hole" is one of the best songs Nine Inch Nails ever recorded and is a great opener to the album. It's become the anthem of the 90's, the fight against the corporate machine and expression of never trusting that which is given to you. It sets the tone for the album right away and gets things going. Following song "Terrible Lie" keep things going at a heavy pace, taking inspiration from the other sounds of the 80's while gradually leading to a new genre of music as the album progresses. But most of the fun ends there.
Many of the songs are just to much of the more of the same. It's a shame that the originality that the album starts with doesn't transpose to the rest of it. "Down In It" quickly mucks things down, with a lame talk-rap in the middle of it that Reznor likes to riddle throughout the album. "Something I Can Never Have" also fails on many levels, just sounding corny and awkward in retrospect. It makes it hard to realize that this was such a revolutionary album at the time, but becoming the machine of Nine Inch Nails that would dominate the 90's. In retrospect it sounds more like a sign of things to come, a blueprint for the genre that was yet to be realized.
The one other shining spot on the album is the wonderful "Sin." Again, it's another track that goes to the dark side that Reznor may like to go to one too many times in his music for the sake of just selling albums, but the songs works so damn well that you can't hold it against the guy, just like most of Nine Inch Nails' best work (see: "Closer"). It's a sign of things to come, but for now it's a few great songs surrounded by a lot of mediocre ones. I gives a point for each good one and nothing for the whatever ones.
Standout Track: "Sin."
Overall Rating: 4.0
Thursday, June 18, 2009
It's easy to dismiss metal music as just being a loud noise-genre. It's known for being incredibly loud, heavy guitar licks, crazy drums rolls and the yelling singing. This is also the main reason why most metal is, in fact, loud noise. It's hard to tell one band from another, but it's also hard to figure out what the point the song is. Bands are just loud for the sake of being loud and don't really put much more into it than that. That's why when a good metal album comes along like Mastodon's debut, it gives one hope for the genre. That, yes, good metal can exist that isn't just noise.
To break down the album would almost be an insult to the album. That's not to say that there aren't any singles on the album. Far from it. The first two songs alone are some of the most memorable metal songs one will hear in some time. But the songs work better as a whole, one after another, building on the energy and power of the previous song to flow into the next one. Opener "Crusher Destroyer" is a powerful behemoth. What works so well about this song alone, and many of Mastodon's songs, is that it's such a well-constructed song. The guitar licks don't just show off the talents of both guitarists, they are so melodic and play off one another that they could practically go on any indie album or, daresay, classical album. They are pleasing to the ear not just because they sound so incredibly loud and cool, but because they are actually constructed and treated like real music, not noise.
The real star of the band is drummer Brann Dailor. Here is the most intense drumming one will hear in some time. His drumming ties all of the musician's talents together while also taking the main attention of the listener. The singing is good too, it matches the music well and is melodic in a metal sense too, but the drums always grab the attention of the listener. The fills are so intense and well-performed that it begs to be brought attention to, but Dailor isn't trying to detract from the rest of the music. He does the rare job that a drummer does by not just showing off and being incredibly talented, but ultimately adding to the message and emotion of the song as well. It's really something to be heard.
Mastodon's debut bodes well for things to come. It's a breath of fresh air to hear such a heavy album that not only stays true to many of metal's finest, but really adds to the genre in ways never thought possible. It does all of this while just being damn fun to listen to as well. Rock on!
Standout Track: "March of the Fire Ants."
Overall Rating: 8.7
A massive, elephant-like mammal of the genus Mammut (Mastodon), that flourished worldwide from the Miocene through the Pleistocene epochs and, in North America, into recent times, having long, curved upper tusks and, in the male, short lower tusks.
* The last song on Mastodon's first 3 albums refers to Elephant Man. The one on this album is aptly titled "Elephant Man."
The typical and almost knee-jerk reaction to say to Fabrizio Moretti's alter-band Little Joy is that they are Spanish Strokes. The definition is basically justified when singer is Rodrigo Amarante of Los Hermanos, and the fact that it really does sound like the Strokes if they were slowed down a little and had a little bit of a Spanish jive to them. This isn't a bad thing at all, almost makes for a better Strokes album than their most recent effort, but doesn't make for revolutionary music either.
That being said, the style that the band has created is unique to its own. Most of the songs are laid-back and drift in and out of the eardrums of the listener, never commanding the attention but occupying a nice void in the background. The main points that it hits really well are in the more harder tunes. Opener "The Next Time Around" quickly sets the listener up for what could be a good concept for an album, a nice call-and-response from the lead singer to, well, himself, and then a nice middle 8 from Binki works well and hits all the right notes. Too bad the rest of the album doesn't hold up nearly as well.
The slower tunes are the album's blessing and curse. The band seems to handle rocking ones in a fairly competent way, despite "How To Hang A Warhol"'s clunkiness. "Shoulder to Shoulder" is a nice slow and suspenseful song, covering touch, intimacy, love, all that fun stuff in a nice sensual way without sounding boring. But then "Play the Part" can't seem to hold the same token, never going anywhere and just going round in circles. "Evaporar" does the same thing, a ballad that just doesn't really get the stride it's trying to get so bad.
Most of the songs just sound like unfinished numbers, like a mediocre White Stripes album. This is interesting seeing as Little Joy worked on these demos for months before finalizing the album, but with a little more fine-tuning the songs could work better. They seem to be lacking any real dimension to the tracks, just meandering in and out of the rhythm that Moretti has set up. The album isn't all low points, I make it sound a lot worse than it really is. "Brand New Start" pops and fizzles in all the right places and is the sing-along that most bands dream about having. "Keep Me In Mind" is the one song that uses all elements just as well as the opener.
Little Joy has potential to be more than just a side project of The Strokes. It will take a bit more of an effort from the band, which is a shame because this album is a lot of work in the making. It's got enough character and quality on its own that it can become a good side project, possibly the best of all of the Strokes various side projects (I'm looking at you, Nickel Eye). Until there's more direct motivation from the band to not sound lazy and really inhabit this laid-back sound, either through the more whimsy and fun that is found in some of these songs and not the boredom that the others emote, and it could be a fun ride to watch.
Standout Track: "Brand New Start"
Overall Rating: 7.2
* Let's count the members of the band and where they're from: Drummer from The Strokes, Fabrizio Moretti, plays guitar on tour, and did drums and other instruments on the album. Singer from Los Hermanos, Rodrigo Amarante, is the singer and guitarist in Little Joy. And finally Binki Shapiro, a female multi-instrumentalist.
* Album was produced by Noah Georgeson, a native of San Francisco. He's released his own albums and has produced many of Devendra Banhart's albums, along with Joanna Newsom and Bert Jansch.
* Little Joy was created after Los Hermanos and The Strokes were playing a festival in Libson, Portugal, in 2006. They joked that they should form a band. Amarente was in L.A. working on Devendra Banhart's album and would hang out with Moretti to talk about anything but music. They worked on some music following the sessions.
* The band name comes from a cocktail bar not far from the house that the album was created.
* Album was released on Election day of the famous 2008 election.
* Moretti and Amarante are both fluent Portuguese speakers, hence some of the lyrics on the album.
* Binki is also girlfriend of Fabrizio.
* Translation of the Portuguese at the end of "Next time around:"
I'll belong to you
that's how its meant to be
Now let's only begin
* And here's "Evorar" while I'm at it:
Time we have
As we give
Run the race
Whatever it takes
Time we give
As we have
The cost to run
The corresponding cost
The time I lost
Only now I know
Learning to give
Which was won
E'm still ago
That time has
I could not run
I find it
Ahh do not move
Hummingbird in the air
The river is there
The water is gone
Tide comes in
He turns sea
Shed in the sky
Ahh leaves behind
Salts and minerals, evaporate!
Monday, June 15, 2009
The album's success doesn't come from the mountains of guest raps on the album. As good as those are, it really is Kanye who shines the most here. Leftover beats that West had saved over the years for himself pay off on his debut, despite lacking a thorough clear view for the album as a whole. Looking at the first couple of songs are a bit of a mish-mash on what West is really going for. "We Don't Care" starts the album strong, relating "We weren't s'posed to make it past 25/Joke's on you we still alive,/Throw your hands up in the sky and sing 'we don't care what people say,'" setting the tone right away that West is critical of the struggle in America in the present day based mainly on education, or the struggle to get proper education. He's on point to an extent, although later on this view really starts to become a contradiction or just pointless in some of the skits (see almost all of them), but he makes some solid points here. Real shining moment in the opening is "All Falls Down," where West takes advantage of his broken jaw to make a very typical rhyming pattern but pronounces them differently, rhyming "secure," "career" and "hair" without sounding forced.
All of the songs here, including the singles, flow together to make a unique album as a whole. Even though "Jesus Walks," "Slow Jamz" and "Through The Wire" have become famous in their own right, they fit right in here as the next logical step the album should take. And all the previously mentioned songs are some of the highlights of the album. "Slow Jamz" seems to be one of the most fun songs, a party that everyone would want to be invited to with Twista's insanely-fast rap that the listener can understand yet never repeat on their own. "Through The Wire" is West's breakout moment and "Jesus Walks" may be the best mainstream religious song since "My Sweet Lord," both in how blunt they are and universal at the same time.
Most of the songs work as a way to show off West's unique rhyming and singing patterns, but also showcase his creativity as well. "Get 'Em High" is one of the highlights, incorporating the guest vocals in a different and fun way as Kweli is literally called up to talk to some girl that West wants to get with, while "Never Let Me Down" has some of Jay-Z's best rapping since "The Blueprint" (kind of ironic if you see the trivia below).
The album isn't all highlights, and it can't be helped. The second half of the record features some of the lulls that are found on many rap albums, where it seems like West has to falsely give the album length. "Breathe In, Breathe Out" has some clever lines and quips from West but altogether lacks any real value in the long run, along with "School Spirit," which may work if the song wasn't censored but one can't tell. In fact the only reason the song might be important would be for West to sample the intro line from the song later for "The Good Life" on Graduation. "Two Words" bites and stings where it should but comes at an odd pacing in the album as the album is starting to wind down and may have worked better somewhere in the middle, whereas the final three tracks work as good closers, if not belated somewhat.
"The College Dropout" is the breakout album for Kanye West. Before he was known as the producer of "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" but here he makes a mark for himself as a genuine rapper as well. His persona is laid out right away, the ego, the mentality, the contradiction, and yet as a complete package the guy is one of the most brilliant people in music now. The album has its faults and is bloated, but what works is some of the best stuff to be made in rap music in more recent years, which the genre needs badly. He's a welcome addition to a dying breed.
Standout Track: Get 'Em High.
Overall Rating: 8.5
"The College Dropout" and Kanye West trivia:
* The main reason there are so many guests on the album is the fact that a lot of the songs were meant to appear on other artist's albums, beats, whatever. "Never Let Me Down" was meant to be on Jay-Z's "The Blueprint" (West added the spoken-word part), second single "Slow Jamz" was originally on Twista's album "Kamikaze" (2003), same vocals and all, "Jesus Walks" written and recorded for Rhymefest, and "Get 'Em High" on Talib Kweli's "The Beautiful Struggle," only taken off after the album leaked and Kweli revised the tracklist.
* Number one single from the album? "Slow Jamz," in February of 2004. It replaced OutKast's reign of the singles at No. 1 for both "The Way You Move" and "Hey Ya!" which had been a 10-week takeover.
Justin Timberlake - Justified (2002)To his credit, Justin Timberlake tried something different for what he could have done. Heck, he even did something different for the sake of pop music in general. How many contemporary male R&B singers have the balls to sing "Gentleman, Good Night. Ladies, Good Morning" on their first song? What gives JT the personality to pull it off is all in delivery and likability. Girls want to be with him, guys want to be him. He's got chops all right.
That doesn't make up for a pretty mediocre album. Upon its release, his debut album was hailed as a great solo album from the guy from 'NSYNC, and by those standards it is a step in the right direction. But it also fails on many levels as well, lacking anything to really set him apart from many of the other crooners of the genre, let alone the ones he was trying desperately to set himself apart from. The album opens strong enough with "Like I Love You," a song that benefits tremendously from Clipse's mid-song guest rap. JT takes a spin on the typical structure of such a song and has the bravado to pull it off. He's off to a good enough start and it bodes well for him.
The feeling doesn't last. Most of the album is filled with too-long crooning and trite lyrics that make 98 degrees look like poets in comparison. The Neptunes produce most of the songs on the album and Timbaland guests produce on a few too, but the repetition sets in fast. Most of the songs are forgettable and frankly don't go anywhere at all. But the main thing that Timberlake has control of here are the lyrics. Let's take a look at "Take It From Here," one of the many love ballads from the album. With lines like "I Wanna Be Your Lake, And any problems you Have, I'll Wash Them Away" (Gag) and "Wanna be Your Broadway Show on Review" filling up the bulk of the song, it's clear that there isn't much creativity going on in the songwriting department. Having just listened to David Archuleta's album, it's obvious that these lyrics didn't work for him, and even with a talented enough guy like Timberlake he can't pull them off either. They just aren't meant for being pulled off at all.
Most of the songs are boring on their own and suffer from far too much crooning ("Nothin' Else" makes 2x1-1 Look classy), most of these songs are just too long. Everyone seems bored by the end of "Last Night," a chorus that repeats one too many times, and the bulk of the songs on the album suffer from that. The thing that JT has over everyone else is a recognizable style and a great voice. It isn't utilized here really at all, but his voice does show and is the only reason for listening to any of the songs on this album. He easily goes from his breezy falsetto to a laid-back talk-sing style, that not only makes him distinct in a land of imitators but also gives his music a much-needed addition.
There are songs where things work. "Last Night" may overstay its welcome, but the song is catchy enough that it works for the most part. But the real standouts on the album are the two main singles that broke the guy out, "Cry Me A River" & "Rock Your Body" respectively. "Rock Your Body" is the clear winner for the album. The beat is infectious and so instantly recognizable it joins the ranks of Usher's "Yeah!" as the club anthem of a generation, infectious and catchy as hell one can't help but admire the song. "Cry Me A River" works for the most part as a great ballad if it wasn't for Timabland's need to overproduce every damn song. The beat is too wall-of-noise to really match the music that Timberlake is singing, let alone the mood, that it becomes too much for the song and it stumbles, but for the most part the song works.
I feel it's best to look back at JT's debut as a preview of what's to come. He gets a lot of the crooning out of his system here to make room for the real talent that will show on his follow-up, but the bulk of this album is just too long and boring. The main singles are the real stand-outs here, and anyone else would kill for the songs, but if they weren't by this guy they probably wouldn't stand out nearly as much. Luckily the talent shows through in the future and there is still the best to come.
Standout Track: "Rock Your Body"
Overall Rating: 3.8
* McDonald's. Want to know the relation to JT? Fifth single supposedly from the album, titled "I'm Lovin' It," was released in 2003. The song doesn't appear on the album but was a leftover from the recording sessions. But it was sold to McDonald's and used in an advertising campaign, thus resulting in the annoying jingle we all know today.
* In the background of the music video for single "Like I Love You" is none other than backup dancer Kevin Federline, later on to become famous for relation to Britney Spears. And we all know JT and Britney used to date.* Maxïmo Park also do a cover of "Like I Love You" on a compilation that covers 40 years at the BBC. The Dillinger Escape Plan also do it for their iTunes-only EP Plagiarism. And Basement Jaxx do a remix of it.
* More songs on the album and relation to other bands: The Rolling Stones performed the chorus of "Cry Me A River" several times during "Miss You" in 2003 with Timberlake. Check it out here. New Found Glory also covered it (Found here), Lostprophets, and The Frames.* The beat for "Rock Your Body" was intended for Michael Jackson's comeback album "Invincible" but sold to Timberlake instead. Better move I'm sure. Also, this was the infamous song that was sung at the Superbowl when he says the line "Gonna have you naked by the end of this song" when he pulled off Janet Jackson's cloth. Let the controversy ensue. Makes one wonder if the line would have been "Better read The Raven by the end of this song."
* Vanessa Marquez, the singer on "Rock Your Body" and even more famously (although lesser known) is the jingle "I'm Lovin' It," has done little else. Did background vocals for Usher and Bow Wow and her contract expired and has since done little.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Having just listened to Horse Feather's album, I figured it would only be just to follow it up with what many consider to be at the forefront of the folk industry in the modern era. Sam Beam's efforts have given the genre a much-needed shot in the arm, not distinguishing countless other efforts over the past decades, but the genre was in need of some fresh blood. What Beam brings to the genre and music in general is a new approach to how music communicates with the listener. This isn't through simplicity, even though that's the main sound one may get from first listen to his debut album, and not through strange experimentation, but through a few advantages that Beam has to his arsenal.
At the forefront are his lyrics. They are beautiful and poetic at many times, but are also so simple in their premise that it baffles the listener. Take listen to what Beam focuses his attention on during his songs. It's hard to find a single song on here that doesn't have a recognizable line from it, but they are beautiful in almost all parts. Here's a few fun ones: "Grace is a gift for the fallen dear" ("An Angry Blade), "You're a poem of mystery" (Faded From The Winter), & "love is waiting and better days" ("Promise What You Will").
With the lyrics comes his attention to detail. Previously Beam taught film and it constantly comes up in interviews that there is some correlation between that and his music. Music and film already have such strong storytelling components between the two that, yes, that judgement is definitely true, but that doesn't mean the music George Lucas would record would be half as interesting. It's more personality than anything else and what Beam chooses to sing about, or more importantly how it' about. He focuses on small details and repeats lines constantly, building up suspense between such minute details like a bird stealing bread in different locations or a match being struck on a keyhole.
The music itself is complicated and concrete all at once. "An Angry Blade" has guitar hitting like rain on a window, striking at such precise moments that sound entirely different on another song on the same album "Muddy Hymnal." The album is mostly percussion-less often just Beam solo with a guitar being mixed on a 4-track, but he creates a White Stripes-like illusion of a much fuller band through such lack of instruments. The slide guitars weave in and out of songs and duel at some points ("Faded From The Winter" contains some great stuff) but also emphasize the music, not providing filler between verses but more of a path to the next portion of the song.
Another of Beam's driving forces is his voice. His melodic half-whisper is not only unique to music but creates a tone that is entirely his own. Throughout the album one gets the sensation that he is sharing something entirely intimate with the listener, something he has been pondering for months on end and is only now sharing with you through his song. It's easy to dismiss it as lazy or just bad in this American Idol karaoke age, but what Beam does is more impressive than most singers do. Listen to his voice on one of his early great "Upward Over the Mountain" and you can hear a voice being crafted in the song, a hesitation to sing it out as loud as possible but more to share a private coming-of-age moment in one's life.
The album's only downfalls are just a glimpse of what is to come. Iron & Wine have a great debut here that easily surpasses many bands that have come before and imitators that are to follow, but is does get caught up in its own genre a bit too much. Everything on here is incredibly interesting and not easy to skip, only suffering from just being so similar from some of the other ones that it's hard to distinguish one from the other. I don't mean this in a bad way, but only that some of the songs are repetitive in tone and message that it's easy to get lost on the album or, more likely, forget where you are. These are minor complaints on an overall great album, like a mindless complaint like "Revolver" needed more tracks."
Standout Track: "Upward Over The Mountain"
Overall Rating: 8.9
Some Trivia For "The Creek Drank The Cradle:"
* It's basically common knowledge that Beam taught Cinematography at the University of Miami before his music career took off. Some of his film credits, aside from music for "In Good Company," are hard to come by. Does anyone out there have a list of any films he's made or worked on?
* My good buddy (and Sam Beam aficionado Kyle) points out that Beam has directed all of his music videos up to "Boy With A Coin," so there's some of his work. I'm still interested in things outside of his music, though.
* One of the album's bonus tracks, correctly titled "Carissa's Weird," was available as a 7" vinyl single. Any correlation between that and the band of a similar mis-spelled name?
* The album has many great lines in it. One of my favorites is "We all assume the worst the best we can." Anyone else got any favorites?
Horse Feathers - House With No Home (2008)
My interest in Horse Feathers began with the fact that lead singer and main member Justin Ringle composes all songs on his own. Later Peter Broderick mixes everything and adds in all of the orchestra to go along with his music. This isn't a bad thing whatsoever, and Horse Feathers is able to inhabit the chamber-folk genre quite well. But it does make the inception of the songs a more interesting prospect. Would these songs work better as solo guitar songs (like Iron & Wine?) or do they succeed with the additions of strings, banjo and percussion? In most cases, yes, and quite well.
Horse Feathers aren't my kind of music whatsoever. Not to say that I don't enjoy a good folk band every now and then, but folk music is one of those genres that it's easy to sound like he's imitable. Only so many times can someone seem like a Bob Dylan suck-up or Iron & Wine, to the point that being an ambient band is hard not to get compared to Animal Collective or Aphex Twin to some extent. When a band does a genre successful, it's immediate that anything that sounds similar will be labeled impersonator, thus making their music fake.
Justin avoids these trap falls for the most part. Sure, some of the songs fall into this category and don't attempt to do anything with the genre but inhabit it, but the songs on here that excel at it are really worth the time to listen. Ringle's wavering falsetto is the strong point of the band that sets it apart, never has vulnerable sounded so real in folk music while still singing about a message. The album starts out strong enough and maintains well, even though "Rude to the Rile" never seems to get its building momentum going. "Working Poor" is an excellent banjo-laden track that accelerates with such subtly into a call-and-response, breaking down immediately and building back up again. "Albina" does a similar technique as well, the instruments on the album emphasizing the urgency in Ringle's lyrics.
The slow songs work too, as "Helen" and "Heathen's Kiss" prove. But overall there is a sense of laziness throughout the album, not on the band's part, but on an ability to expand this genre further. There are some really good songs on here that inhabit it quite well, but what hasn't been heard here before? Halfway through the album the music suffers and falls into background music category, which is a shame because the stuff on here is good enough. There is something that Horse Feathers has going and with each attempt I feel they will get there, but until then it's all genre and nothing breakout. That doesn't mean that they should do something crazy, but without one track that really illustrates what separates this band from the rest make it hard to hear what all the fuss is about. They'll get there.
Standout Track: "Working Poor"
Overall Rating: 7.5
Some fun facts not mentioned in the review:
* Justin Ringle's band are labeled as being from Portland, OR, which is true, but the guy was born and raised in Lewiston, ID. He simply moved to Portland in 2004 and would play under the moniker Horse Feathers until Peter Broderick heard his stuff and became another member as producer.
* Peter Broderick's other works include: Norfolk & Western, Dolorean, and Loch Lomond.
* Peter's sister, Heather, plays Cello on the records, but does not tour with the band.
* Singer Ringle doesn't intend that all lyrics are understood clearly, but has stated in interviews that he wants more to match mood than add clarity.
* Some more of Ringle on my favorite track, "Working Poor:" "I think in 'Working Poor,' for instance, the contrast between the words being about hardship, yet the music staying somewhat upbeat, kind of gives some sense of hope." Read more of an interview Here.
I'm trying something new out as well and giving a little bit of trivia following each review. Just things that I stumble across that I find interesting about the album or things I may hear on it. We'll see how that goes.
I really have no idea who reads this thing. If you do read it, please leave a comment on what you think. Sitemeter tells me if people visit but I have no idea what they think. If this sucks then tell me it sucks, if you enjoy it then say what you like. I'll keep writing regardless because I'm going to get through all this music and this seems to be the only way to make me do it. I would just like this to be the more interesting for others as possible, so tell me what you think.
Thanks to those that stumble across this page and take a look. Hope you enjoy!
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Ghostface Killah - Ironman (1996)
It's almost unfair to the rest of the members of Wu-Tang to call this a solo album. Only two songs really feature Ghostface on his own, and the bulk of them feature Raekwon and the whole album is practically produced by RZA. It does say on the cover and all that it features Cappadonna and Raekwon, but this is Ghostface's album ultimately. And what a strong debut from the rest of the Wu-Tang clique for the guy. The beats! The rhymes! The flow! It's all here. And what an album.
More notable about the album is Ghostface's showcase of variety. On Wu's album he's usually more harsh, dealing with heavier lyrics and violence. But here he's more vulnerable, showing who his softer side on the ode to his mother "All That I Got Is You" and "Wildflower." RZA's familiar snare beat is present in all the songs, but he's toned himself down even by his standards. The beats are aren't overproduced as seen on almost any club jam nowadays, forcing the attention to be more on Killah's rhymes and not on the toned-down, yet still catchy, beats.
It's refreshing to hear such intensity and rush on a rap album, giving the impression that Ghostface and Co., got something to say and ya'll better listen. "Winter Warz" is a great example of what sounds like guys freestyling over a great beat and dissing on each other's style. "Camay" and "Daytona 500" are the centerpiece of the album, two back-to-back tracks that illustrate Ghostface's lyrical styles of handling R&B and ripping into straight up rap in the following track.
The album has aged remarkably well, if anything the references even more strong in the present thanks to the comeback of "Ironman" by the film. If anything Ghostface was ahead of his time with his debut album, creating songs that not only solidified him as one of the members of Wu to succeed outside of the clique and hold his own, but also to dissuade from the Wu's views, to embrace that group but stand his own as a solo artist, which they all eventually had to do (even U-God). Nice start to a nice set of albums to come.
Standout Track: "Daytona 500"
Overall Rating: 8.3
Some Fun Facts while listening to this album:
* Lots of movie dialogue throughout the album, just like Wu's. Listen for some "The Usual Suspects" on "Assassination Day," "The Soul Controller," and some "Carlito's Way" too.
* Speaking of samples, "Mystery Of Chessboxing," known as "Ninja Checkmate," is sampled here amongst other Wu efforts. The film follows a young man who wants to avenge the death of his father by a Ghost Faced killer. An old Chessmaster trains the boy to defeat this Killah.
* First single off the album is "Daytona 500"and has a music video composed in anime-style akin to Speed Racer. One of the first anime music videos to be shown on TV and is still popular.
* All tracks produced by RZA save one. The one that isn't? Fish, by True Master, who's rapped on "Pro Tools" and other Wu-related projects, but mainly sticks to producing.
* Album peaked at #2 on The Billboard 200 in November of 1996.
Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes/Sun Giant (2008) *
On first listen I took Fleet Foxes sound for granted. I didn't get what they hype was about that surrounded the Seattle band, they just sounded like folksy group that were doing what others have done before and wasn't that impressed. But after seeing them at Sasquatch I have to admit that my appreciation for them has grown immensely. That's not to say that I'm still thinking they pulled a Vampire Weekend last year and got a little too over-hyped, but it was deserved to say the least (IMO I think Gaslight Anthem deserved more of the praise, but that's when we get to the G's people).
So lets break it down why Fleet Foxes has left an impression on the music world. They have a unique sound to say the least, a combination of impressive vocals from singer Robin Pecknold, his baroque poppiness invested into their folksy sound that is matched by the wispy guitar and harp throughout the album. Never before has an album been able to match space so well, creating a very unique area where this music exists and the instruments are free to float in and out of each song in such a heavenly way. Listen to the guitars and vocals mix together on "English House" and it's apparent right away how important the building of each song is to the band. They're quick not to use the gimmick over and over (thus not making it a gimmick) and instead use it as just another instrument.
Of all the songs from Sun Giant, "Mykonos" stands out the most. The breathy chorus lifts Pecknold's beautiful voice to, again, a heavenly state, creating the most pop-like song that's been made in some time in the folk tradition. The breakdown in the middle of the song slows everything down. "Brother you don't need to turn me away/I was waiting down at the ancient gate/You go wherever you go today/You go today" they sing in perfect harmony, making the song more like a battle call-to-arms than you're simple folk song of the past.
On their debut album the songs are much focused, more of this quality of songs. Here they change their style a bit more and take light risks, but risks nevertheless. "White Winter Hymnal" starts off with a beautiful opening a Capella sing-song that carries the whole song, joined by the whole band and continued through the song. Folk rock has never sounded like it could fill an arena more than here. Repeated listens of the album will showcase these qualities more, the little touches throughout the album of how seamlessly it flows from their giant whispering anthems to an immediate breakdown with the whole band in full force.
They also change their style up more to take full advantage of their strengths. "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" focuses on just the lead vocals and a solo guitar, still floating in space but more somber than many of their other pieces. They prove that they don't need to do the whole choir thing every song to still craft a lovely piece of music. Or the more awkward (in a good way) "He Doesn't Know Why," that staggers to it's eventual beat in an unconventional way. "Your Protector" is a humble cry to wanting to keep a love as close as possible even though that love wants to run free. Their imagery the lyrics evoke are matched by the rustling guitar and strings in each song, the building drum in the back that makes each song more of a war march than a ditty.
If there's anything that FF suffers from it's their choice of style. I'm not implying that they should go out and make a punk rock opera anytime soon, but because each song follows the same pattern that makes it so good is also what makes it suffer too. "Meadowlark" is one of the only lulls in the album, not because it is a slower song (even by their standards) but because it never seems to find itself. Their album changes this pace up quite a bit to the point that it's masked but still present, which will make for interesting releases from the band to come. For now it's a great way to start and sets the stage for what is to come from Fleet Foxes. Hopefully they can stay their own unique path instead of using their gimmick to its full extent to become exactly that, utilizing their poetic lyrics and beautiful harmonization to continue to create such pretty, complicated songs.
* I combine these albums into one because their EP was later released as a bonus disc to their debut album, so it makes sense to simply combine the two.
Standout Track: "He Doesn't Know Why"/"Mykonos"
Overall Rating: 8.6/10
Here it is. The most innocent Marshall Mathers will ever be. That's not to say his least angriest, he'll find plenty of things to get pissed off about later on in his career, but this is the album where he'll focus more on the relationships in his life and how they affect the average life of an everyday rapper. Before the fandom rocketed into the stratosphere, before the drug addictions, before the retirement/comeback, before basically he became too self-aware to really be himself anymore and only a caricature of himself. And it's a really good album.
You got to give a guy credit who describes killing his own wife/baby-mama with the help of his daughter in such a playful and creative way on "'97 Bonnie & Clyde." Can anyone honestly say that his more recent fanfare dissing on Kim Kardashian and (gasp!) Michael Jackson are anywhere near the same caliber as he is here? Or how he plays already responds to the controversy such songs will cause on "Role Model" as he tells the viewer that if they get violent they'll be just as famous as himself. He'll reminisce about this later on one of his greatest songs "Stan," but this is before that so there's still some innocence to how demented the guy is actually being. His freedom to take the listener all the way to the edge is unprecedented because how could he ever know that he would blow up and become such an influential character?
That's not to say that he's always on point. Eminem's problem on most of his albums is he seems to lose track of which identity he wants to be and the songs just become boring. "If I Had" is a predictable look at how things could have been, "My Fault" has his typical call-and-response between himself and himself, but doesn't really give Slim a proper flow to create something worthwhile. "Rock Bottom" doesn't add much as well and only creates more forgettable tracks in the middle of what could be a great album.
"Just Don't Give A Fuck" shows off his swagger a bit more, showcasing his mid-sentence rhyming pattern a bit more and hinting at his style to come. The "fuck the world" attitude of Em is in full force here and, yet again, makes his innocence to the whole stardom to come sound much more interesting than the path he's chosen lately. The creativity behind the two lead singles off the album, "My Name Is" and "Guilty Conscious" are some of the brightest on the record. The battle between him and maestro Dr. Dre on the latter is a great evil vs. eviler, Marshall not afraid to remind Dre of his misdeeds of the past ("You Gonna Take Advice From Somebody who slapped Dee Barnes?") but is quick to inhabit his persona and be just as mischievous. And the breakout single that launched the man to super stardom has faded somewhat over the years, the references still recognizable and he would perfect the craft of slamming celebrities while at the same time acknowledging his greatness in the lead singles to come, but here it's understandable why he broke out because of it and it's still got those great verses.
Do a handful of great songs make up for a good portion of mediocre ones? It's hard to build a respectable rap when it's based around a so-so hook (see "I'm Shady" and "If I Had"), but his rhymes are the mark of the album that would keep listeners coming back for more. It turns out to be a fun album that Em will never quite be able to match again but will try continuously, but most of all seems like a sign of things to come from the white guy from Detroit. He sums up his whole career to come in one line: "Extortion, snortin, supportin abortion/Pathological liar, blowin shit out of proportion." Couldn't agree with you more, Marshall.
Standout Track: "'Role Model"
Overall Rating: 8.1
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Maybe it's the generic album cover. Or the whole American Idol thing. If you really think about it, the whole AI phenomenon is 2 for 8 of their "winners" in terms of not just chart success but overall contribution to music. David Archuleta wasn't the winner of Season 7 of the hit karaoke show, but being the runner-up still means you get an album release to some modest success, and when you're a teen/adult/soccer mom heartthrob like our boy David A. here, then you get a little bit more than the average runner-up.
But I digress. I'm supposed to be talking about the album, right? But everything about it I can practically describe to you without even listening to it. Everything about it screams generic Wal-Mart Greatest Hits crap. A lazy album cover and a track list that could be put on random on an iPod and make no real difference to how the album sounds all say that it's just a cash cow (I know! I'm shocked too!). The songs that are here are pretty horrible. Power-pop single? Check. Slow ballad? Check. Talent? Well, that's debatable.
"Touch My Hand" sums up the album pretty much. "Can't Let The Music Stop/Until I Touch Your Hand/Because if I Do it will all be over and I'll never get the chance again" is the type of 7th grade notebook poetry we're talking about here. Any good singer can elevate such banal lame lyrics to something perhaps a bit more exciting (David doesn't really have the chops), but who should bother? None of this really needs to be put on record in the first place. It's a waste of plastic, and if you digitally downloaded the album then it's a waste of silicon on your hard drive before you delete it.
Most of the songs here are slow ballads, but besides the fact that they're boring like no other, David's voice really doesn't make them work (and isn't that the reason he progressed so far on the show?). His voice has been auto-tuned to death on most of them or overproduced it's impossible to really judge how talented the guy is, but it lacks any real color to it. It has a raspy loungey-sound to it, but only in the most mediocre sense possible. It comes as if little D.A. doesn't really care about the lyrics he's been handed (probably doesn't) and I doubt the real listeners of this album care either (probably don't). The sway-bots on the show may wave their arms as he mugs through ballad #2 "Barriers" or single "Crush," but outside of that safe home it's hard to find any real songs here.
David A. likes to spend his time either pondering why his love is no longer with him or what he can do to keep his love there, or why love is so hard in the first place (see every damn song on this album). The album is well-made in the sense that everything sounds fine and doesn't sound awful, but does mediocrity and boredom relate to a better rating? The album isn't worth the plastic it's printed on.
I could really detail how horrible the rest of the album is, but lets just let the lyrics speak for themselves: "But It's Harder To Hold on to your Hands/Than the Hands of time, I need a Hand, girl" ("My Hands"). "Tell Me Why you're so hard to forget/Don't remind me, I'm not over it" ("A Little To Not Over You"). "Some days are cold but together/One day we'll both change the weather/And it gets better" ("Don't Let Go"). I swear the guy says "hold on" in almost every song. When he isn't singing such trite lyrics he's filling the song with his useless and empty "Whooo's" and making one-syllable words into 9-syllable ones.
The only song that even comes close to having any kind of real identity to it is "Your Eyes Don't Lie." Bear in mind we're just comparing one pile of crap with a smaller pile of crap that doesn't stink as bad, but in an album full of simplistic boring similar-sounding songs, "Your Eyes Don't Lie" has a whistle to it that actually inhabit the very cheesiness that little Davey is doing everywhere on the whole album that it becomes competent in its own right. There's not much in store for little David past this flash-in-the-pan, so he can enjoy the moment while it's there, but I'm sure in a few more seasons of American Idol the runner-up from nowheresville, USA will be hard to worth remembering.
Standout Track: "Your Eyes Don't Lie."
Overall Rating: 0.8
Monday, June 1, 2009
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (2005)
I have to admit I was late on the CYHSY bandwagon when they first came out. I didn't like "In This Home On Ice" on first listen, didn't really get what the big deal was about and just thought of them as a Modest Mouse/Built To Spill knock-off band with their notable off-key singing and crunchy guitar. I think it's still right to be reluctant to jump on any bandwagon for a band right away (how apt), but in this case I was definitely wrong for their debut album (their follow-up we'll get to later).
It's almost the most-perfect summer album that ever came out if anyone knew when it really came out. The buzz surrounding the band's climb is almost more exciting to look at than the album itself (we'll focus on the album here). On its own, the hype is justified in such a swinging debut, Alec Ounsworth's very discernible vocals being the star of the show, but I would go one step further in taking notice of Tyler's Sargent's backing bass throughout the album. Really listen for it "Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)" or "Details of The War" (Really, just listen to any of them) and you'll really hear something that is usually just mixed under power chords or the identifiable organ for this band. Those are both important here too, but those odd little bass lines add what could have been fine songs on their own into something quite more fuller, richer, a better palette for the ears. Whatever romantic comparison you like.
The lyrics may be the standout of the album. "Details of the War" is a drunken ballad to one who has seen too much of war firsthand, or the beauty of "Is This Love?" that is so damn simple Brock and Martsch wish they wrote the song. I especially like the playfulness of "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth," not just for the organ buzz that opens the song, but how Alec interprets the band's lyrics into such a grand song that could fill any stadium, detailing shooting down bumble bees with a shotgun. It's fun details that might otherwise go unnoticed. The real stride of the album comes in the middle "Skin," through "Heavy Metal" and up to "Gimmie Some Salt." This medley of hits in ways are the bulk of the album and there isn't a dim song in the bunch, all intimately poppy and catchy in their own odd and unique ways. CYHSY won't be burning up the Top 40 anytime soon, but you're damned if you don't know these songs. Closer "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood" is good too. Add that to the medley I just mentioned.
It's a combination of all these member's unique addition to the band to make one full kaleidoscope of sounds to create a really good album. Hard to describe exactly what they sound like besides the fact that the lead singer "sings weird," but their distinct sound of harps, harmonicas and, yes, Alec's voice, all gather to create one hell of an album. Dig it already.
Standout Track: "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth"
Overall Rating: 8.8/10