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Month: October 2010

And the scream to prove to everyone that I exist

Frightened Rabbit have been one of my favorites all year. The Winter of Mixed Drinks dropped in March, but it’s had tremendous staying power in my listening rotation. The FR boys recently dropped this fantastic video for one of my favorite tracks off the album, “The Loneliness and the Scream.”

Be forewarned: I cried at my desk at work the first time I saw this video. It is that heartbreaking. But it’s a good cry. Yes, there is such a thing. No, I’m not going any further into that subject. Enjoy:

The single drops November 22. I’m not really sure what that means in this digital era, but probably something cool will happen on Nov. 22 that is marginally related to this song and/or other Frightened Rabbit tunes.

Daniel G. Harmann takes a Risk and hears it pay off loudly

Even listeners who obsess over their favorite bands do not spend as much time with the tunes as the artist who created them does. This uncomplicated fact should be reason enough for artists to routinely change sounds and for listeners to accept those changes. Sadly, this is often not the case. “I’ve just got a connection to that one album, y’know?” For that reason, I try to give a wide berth to bands that want to change it up.

I say that because Daniel G. Harmann‘s Risk is a change of sound. It’s not a dramatic change in sound (i.e. Plans –> Narrow Stairs), but it is a fundamental shift in the purpose of the tunes. While Harmann still makes grand, sweeping, morose tunes, he’s making them this time with the express intent of rocking while doing it. Note the fact that he’s brought along a band, cleverly titled “the Trouble Starts.”

While Harmann was no stranger to distorted guitars, pre-Risk, they weren’t the central mood marker in most tunes. Here, they are: Harmann’s voice, which previously drove the proceedings, takes an equal seat with the guitars in many songs. This is not a bad thing, but for a guy who absolutely loves The Books We Read Will Bury Us, it’s disorienting to hear a distorted version of Books’ “Solidarity” appear on Risk. I could write a whole post on the differences between the two versions, but that wouldn’t tell you much about the album as a whole.

On the other hand, it’s comforting that he did include some old tracks (the entirety of Our Arms EP appears), as it eases the transition some. If he had just dropped a whole album of tunes like “Estrella” on us oldtimers with no warning, there would have been a lot of weeping.

That’s because “Estrella,” in the vernacular of rock’n’roll, absolutely kills it. I’m talking charging guitars, pounding drums, rushing cymbals, Daniel G. Harmann yelling unintelligibly in the roar and epic strings to top it all off. It sounds like Explosions in the Sky. It is absolutely fantastic, and totally unexpected. It is far and away the highlight of the album, as it’s the one that you’ll be pressing repeat for.

There are other moments on the album of similar but not greater caliber. The playful riff of “Auckland to Auckland” is underscored by a complicated tom pattern. “The Horse and the Sistine Chapel” is a straightforward rock song, albeit with Harmann’s decidedly unstraightforward vocal tone. “Lions” even starts out with a guitar riff as opposed to a big sheet of distortion. In short, Daniel G. Harmann really wants to rock out. So he does.

Is it good? Yes. It’s definitely good. Harmann’s aforementioned vocals and unique melodies keep the proceedings from turning into a Silversun Pickups album (although “Lions,” with its male/female vocals, tries really hard to ape their sound), and the band is incredibly tight behind him. They manage to keep Harmann’s more ambient tendencies in check, which is good for his new rock sound. Things never get monotonous, as they well could have, had he just slapped distortion over his old songwriting ideas.

I like Risk. It’s a well-composed album of rock tunes with occasional forays into mellow romanticism. As I skew toward the calmer side of music most of the time, I prefer the fewer moments of mopey emotionalism (” Knob Creek Neat”) to the squalling stomp of “Brass Tacks,” which is the majority sound. Be not swayed, though: Risk has definitive charms (again: “Estrella” destroys it) that I would be slighting if I passed over the album. If you’re a fan of art-powered, moody rock like Silversun Pickups, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, and things of that ilk, you will find many joys in Risk.

Daniel G. Harmann and the Trouble Starts’
drops Tuesday. Get it here.

Josh Caress vaults forward in his songwriting skill with Perestroika

My love of Josh Caress is extremely well documented on this site. Ever since Letting Go of a Dream, I have been in his musical thrall. I have liked some of his albums more than others, but I have eagerly awaited each of them.

Perestroika, his latest and maybe last solo album for a while (nooooo!), contains the seven best songs that Josh Caress has ever written. There is a slight issue with this (there are twelve songs on the disc), but that’s still an incredibly high percentage of powerful tunes.

While his rate of success is somewhat astonishing, his formula is not that surprising: Caress has taken the best parts out of each of his last four releases and made a cohesive sound. The dramatic, sweeping, romantic pop soundscapes of Letting Go of a Dream form the core of the tunes. The inventive, complicated, Sufjan-esque instrumentation of The Rockford Files layers on top of this, bringing a depth to Perestroika‘s songs not present anywhere else in his catalog. The distorted guitar oomph that first appeared on Wild Wild Love lends an Arcade Fire-esque bombast to the tunes. The insightful lyrics of Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure! cap off the entire experience, lending meaning to the moving musical proceedings.

Add in the mix the unique voice of Josh Caress, and you’ve got a distinct set of songs that ranks highly in my top albums of the year.

While Caress splits the album into two sides of six songs each, I find it easier to analyze the album is in three parts: tracks 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12.

Tracks 1-4 take the Jayhawks-style Alt-country of Wild Wild Love and replace the twang with an epic indie rock flair. Each tune is an anthem in their own right, and I mean that in the very best possible way.   In the opener and title track, he’s yelling “Perestroika! On! My! Mind!” as suitcases thump and bells ring. “Is That What You Want?” sees the pulsing guitar line making the song into an epic instead of the vocal line. “We Will Fight” features a choir yelling/singing its way through the whole song, culminating in the chorus: “We will fight! We will fight! But not with violence! We will fight! We will fight! We will fight to strengthen the things that we’ve made!”

The final song of the suite is “You Are the Light,” which sounds like a lost Joseph Arthur song on uppers. The chorus is a glorious singalong. It is a blissful cap to this set of tunes. There are literally no parts to complain about in these songs. They are nigh on perfect.

Tracks 5-8 are a bit of a headscratcher, as Caress takes a sharp turn into Radiohead sounds. There’s some Kid A electronic work (“Deconstruct”), some Hail to the Thief/In Rainbows-style rock (“Searching at the Edge of the Real Thing”), and more. They’re not bad at all; he appropriates their sound nicely. Even his vocals, which have always been a bit wavery and high, fit well in context.  They’re good tunes, but they make little sense in the context of the album, and they’re just not as good as tracks 9-12.

While it is somewhat disappointing that the middle of the album turns away from the formula he spends two-thirds of the album perfecting, there is an upside. Josh Caress has gotten better by testing out sounds before incorporating them fully into his songwriting. If considering the melancholy electronica and rock as a potential future inclusion to Caress’ sound, this becomes a less frustrating suite of songs. Imagining his current powerful sound with electronic underpinnings helps me get over the fact Perestroika would be an incredibly cohesive album if not for the middle.

The last third of the album returns to the sound that Caress established in the first third. While “Everything I Wasn’t Meant To Be” is probably the least engaging of the eight folk/indie tracks, “Pulling the Curtain Back” is one of my favorites. It grooves hard, has a great melody and includes a stylistic throwback to Letting Go of a Dream. But the cascading guitar riff doesn’t revisit the style near as much as “Prodigal Son,” which uses the heavy reverb that was the trademark of Letting Go. The very specific mood it creates (and recalls) makes the track one of my favorites.

The closer, “By the Light of the Lantern We Go,” is true to its name, as the track is a nearly eight-minute-long journey. From the glockenspiel at the beginning to the full-on roar that occurs at the end of the tune, Caress takes the listener through all of his styles, motifs and ideas in one symphonic burst. It is a fantastic way to cap off a brilliant album.

The lyrics of Perestroika are relentlessly optimistic in the first and third acts, which matches the sound neatly. They include some of the most poignant that Caress has penned, especially in  “Perestroika On My Mind” and “You Are The Light.” The middle third’s melancholy and conflicted verses match the sound. Again, the middle isn’t bad; it’s just not near as good as the rest.

If this review seems disjointed, it’s because I feel that way about Perestroika. If this had been an eight-song album, or if something else had happened in the middle, I would be hailing this as the album of the year. It’s still going to be in my top ten for sure: the songs are just that good. Heck, the first four tunes alone constitute the best EP of the year. It’s my favorite JC release since Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure, certainly.

Josh Caress is edging ever closer to his masterpiece, and Perestroika is an enormous step in that direction. Do yourself a favor and get this CD.

Some thoughts on Hype Machine, pt 2

After complaining about Hype Machine’s inability to successfully choose bands to feature, I am pleased to see them promoting the uber-now girl-rock band Warpaint this week with a pre-release stream of their upcoming album The Fool. It sounds really solid. The pensive, powerful sound that has been circulating on the blogs for months does not seem to lose any force when songs are dropped in a mass quantity. That’s good news, because many blog bands just can’t get over the hump.

That’s an entirely different post.

Regardless, get over there and check out Warpaint, if you haven’t. It’s some good indie rock, especially if you’re into female vocalists.

The Top Twenty Quest: The Mountain Goats

It’s fitting that The Mountain Goats‘ latest album, The Life of the World to Come, features songs exclusively titled after Bible references. (“Genesis 3:23,” “1 John 4:16,” “Ezekiel 7 And The Permanent Efficacy Of Grace,” etc.) The inspired fervor with which I adhere to these music makers notches one step below religious.

I have now seen John Darnielle and co. three times, each time alone. This is because I have found five people who even like the band, much less love them. This is not for lack of trying; I have tried to get almost every one of my friends to listen to them. Their responses, even when listening to the most accessible of tracks,  range from kind ambivalence to undisguised disgust.

It is somewhat disheartening, to say the least. Not that I can hold it against anyone; Darnielle’s voice is unusual, there are catchier songs in the world, and the lyrics are erudite. The band will never be confused for an All-American Rejects knock-off. The songs take some work to get used to, and that’s just not what most people look for in music. It doesn’t even have the residual side effect of rocking that hard, which excludes fans of stately rock like The National plays.

It’s a tough sell.

That’s where the semi-religious fervor comes in, for those who invest in the Mountain Goats see returns in spades. With 500+ songs (no, really), Mr. Darnielle is one of the most prolific songwriters I’ve ever heard of. Even though many of them are little stories as opposed to confessionals (which only appeared later in his so-far 20 years of recording), a full and developed psyche is on display in musical form. It’s not always the kindest, cleanest, most organized or loveliest persona that emerges, but it’s pretty thorough.

That connection to the lyrics ties people to the Mountain Goats once they’re in. Knowing the Mountain Goats’ discography is the closest I can ever get to knowing someone I don’t actually know. But it’s not just any person I don’t know: he’s a passionate, flawed, wild, interesting, intelligent, crafty individual. John Darnielle seems like a dude who you’d want to know.

That’s expressly why I’ve avoided meeting him. I’m sure he’s different in person than he is in his songs, and that would be disappointing at this point. So I’ll keep to his songs.

So I go up to his shows alone, because that’s the closest I’ll ever be to the persona that his songs create. It’s like having coffee with an old friend that you know has changed. You’re going to tell the same old stories, and it’s gonna be awesome, as long as you just skirt the surface of what’s happening now.

The ACM@UCO Performance Lab, where the Mountain Goats played recently, is pretty tight. It provided a lot of space for people to spread out and gave the Mountain Goats a pretty big stage. (I’m used to seeing them at Opolis, so anything more than matchbox-size is big in my mind.)  The Goats did not disappoint, throwing down a set composed of mostly old tunes, with only a few new ones interspersed.

While every MG set is great because I love them so much, this one was marked by two sad circumstances: Darnielle broke the piano’s sustain pedal in the first song, and he didn’t feel 100 percent health-wise. This turned some songs into alternate versions (“Dance Music” was played at about half-speed without the piano leading, which made it explicitly not dance music, which was very confusing). “No Children,” which hangs on the jaunty piano line, was a little subdued, but it is what it is. Some days don’t go your way.

Honestly, it didn’t really matter what was played. I wasn’t specifically there to hear anything (although “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” and the ultra-obscure “Waving at You” were pretty amazing, as I’d never heard either live). I was going because I get the songs. I haven’t heard all of them, but I relate to the passion and sentiments behind 75% of MG music (excluding songs about the alpha couple, as I’m not an alcoholic). And it’s hard to find anyone that you relate to 75% of the time.

Even if it’s a slightly unreal persona constructed of songs, I’ll take that. And I’ll keep going to Mountain Goats shows.

photos/Stephen Carradini, Oct. 26, 2006. Opolis, Norman, OK.

Sons and Daughters invent their own distribution strategy

There is no model for releasing music anymore. Case in point: Sons and Daughters, a band from Franklin, TN, in the vein of Sandra McCracken, Derek Webb, Waterdeep and everything else on Noisetrade (check them out right now, if you haven’t already).

I first heard of the band via blogsurfing; a friend of a friend posted the video of “All the Poor and Powerless” to her blog. The video doesn’t even state the artist; it simply shows the two members of the band playing the gorgeous song, interspersed with beautiful shots of people ostensibly poor and powerless. I scoured the Internet looking for the authors of this song, but no dice. I messaged the guy who posted the video, but he never got back to me.

Fast forward three months. I remembered “All the Poor and Powerless” because of a different song I was listening to while writing this poem, and I sought out the video again. This time, I found the bandcamp page of Sons and Daughters, offering a free download of the song. This version, however, is a bit more tricked out, with a choir and a rhythm track. After a bit more searching, I found the band’s website, which shows evidence that there has been touring. I deduced that the band passed through the Christian college of the enlightening blogger.

I kept digging (surely there must be more, I thought) and found a free two-song sampler from Noisetrade. Unsurprisingly, one of those songs was “All the Poor and Powerless.” The other was a decent track called “Your Glory.” That’s where the trail dies. There are only two recorded songs from a band that has apparently has enough material to be touring.

In short, they are gaining a following after releasing exactly two songs. Their debut release is coming out in May (seven months from now!). This is an incredibly peculiar business strategy.

But! If the goal is to reach people and play music, they’ve hit on exactly the right formula. It’s an odd way to go about it, but they’ve figured something out: one absolutely stunning song can get you far in today’s music world.

“All the Poor and Powerless” is exactly that: absolutely stunning. It is stately, passionate, powerful and calm in turns. But over all of that, it is just breathtaking. The male and female voices are wonderfully paired, the instrumentation is incredibly well recorded, and the songwriting has a gravitas not heard or felt in many songs. You need to hear it (and I’ve given you almost half a dozen links to do so. Here’s the Twitter, for good measure)

So, here’s to “All the Poor and Powerless” and to Sons and Daughters. I eagerly anticipate their upcoming release. And isn’t that what good singles are supposed to do? Yes.

A couple thoughts on Hype Machine

I love Hype Machine. It’s the only sort of radio that I listen to. Like any other radio station, it plays a particular slice of music: the newest of the new indie rock. Seriously, I’ve listened to tracks mere minutes after their release before. It’s also pretty particular about what it doesn’t play, which is what has me thinking about Hype Machine in general.

1. I posted last about Guster’s fantastic new album Easy Wonderful, which has incredibly catchy pop tunes on it. If this CD had been released by anyone else, under any other name, it would have been eaten up at Hype Machine. Magic Kids, the Format, The Sea and Cake or any other number of bands that play pop songs could have released Easy Wonderful and enjoyed a healthy (not fanatical, because straight-up pop is not the thing right now) response from the blog community.

But because Guster has been bagged and tagged with the “hippie” label (ignoring for right now the fact that many HypeM-approved bands like Cloud Cult are even more “hippie” than Guster in their practices), they get no love. One blog trashed their album as “too white” and another said it was inevitable that they’d hear it around because of “local flavors.” And that was the totality of the response to what I believe is one of Guster’s best and most accessible albums to date. In comparison, bands like Wolf Gang and Gemini Club (you’re allowed to say “who?” at this point) are all abuzz in Hype Machine.

At some level, this is exactly what blogs are for. Lots of people know and love Guster. Guster doesn’t really need the promotion. Gemini Club, on the other hand, could use the love. They probably still tour in a crappy van, while Guster tours on buses. That is, if they tour yet. Yeah.

On the other hand, I feel as though the blog world is missing out on good music because of preconceived notions. This is not major news (“Hipsters discovered to be pretentious! More at 10.”), but it’s still disappointing every time it comes up in a quantifiable way. I think a lot of people who like blogs would like Guster’s new album. They probably won’t ever find out about it.

2. Whereas I’ve overshot the tolerance of the blog community for music toward the pop end of the spectrum, Hype Machine itself may have overshot to the other side of the ditch. They put up Hauschka’s Foreign Landscapes for streaming play a week in advance of its release. This is all well and good, except that Hauschka is a modern composer (like, with strings and stuff). Modern composers just don’t get that much play on Hype Machine. To listeners’ credit, there have been 4,361 plays of the first track; but by track four there are only 1880 plays, dropping to 956 plays by the end of the album (track twelve).

In comparison, Whole Foods is still streaming Easy Wonderful (are you catching on to how much I love this album yet?), and its first track has 8638 plays, dropping to 4507 by the end of track 12. Given that there are different audiences for the two bands, it’s still notable that Guster’s stream, which is on a decidedly un-music-related website, is performing at a much higher level than a Hauschka stream on a site that is expressly dedicated to new and strange music.

The fickleness of Hype Machine listeners strikes again, it appears.

What you call love is just urgency

I’ve been listening to Guster‘s Easy Wonderful for almost a week at work, which is saying a lot. Not only is it a good enough album to stand up to 15-20 listens in rapid succession, it’s an album that keeps me interested and coming back to different tunes. I was originally obsessed with the folky stomp of “Stay With Me Jesus,” which rivals “Jesus on the Radio” as the best Guster track with the Christ in the title. I moved on to the almost Blue October-ish shuffle/murmurs of “On the Ocean” and then the bouncy “This Could All Be Yours.” Most recently I’ve been noshing on the ukulele-led “What You Call Love,” which has an absolutely arresting chorus.

If you hadn’t parsed the fact from the above paragraph, Easy Wonderful is pretty upbeat musically. But in true Guster style, the songs never tip over into the saccharine or the maudlin, riding the line where the two emotions mix. This dedication to the confluence of emotions does provide the album’s single low point, as “This Is How It Feels to Have a Broken Heart” would actually lead one to believe that it feels like disco, and not like dying. It’s a bit confusing.

After being lukewarm toward Ganging Up on the Sun, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself loving Easy Wonderful. Although it is extremely enjoyable, it continues Guster’s musical progression. They’re making unadulterated pop songs now, with the unconventional instrumentation of their early work all but disappeared. There’s no track that approaches the songwriting prowess of “Come Downstairs and Say Hello,” nor is the subtlety of “Backyard” attempted anywhere here. The dramatic power of Lost and Gone Forever is almost entirely gone, replaced with instantly accessible melodies and feel-good vibe.  This is not a bad thing at all, but one must note that Guster of Easy Wonderful and Guster of Lost and Gone Forever have little in common but the voice.

One past the nostalgia (and “This Is How It Feels…”), Easy Wonderful is a glorious set of pop songs. Each of them are cheery, catchy tunes that will warm your cold heart or mellow your frantic one to a goofy grin and a high five. “Do you love me?” Adam Gardner belts out in the song of the same title, and the answer is undeniably yes. What other option is there?

Easy Wonderful is streaming at Whole Story, the Whole Foods official blog. Go pick it up.

The Morning Benders + skateboarding = love?

I went through a skateboarding phase in middle school. I owned a skateboard, played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 like a madman with my brothers and had a favorite skateboarder (Rodney Mullen, whose talent I still respect immensely). My talents did not mirror Mullen’s, however, and I moved on to other pursuits.

I didn’t move on from my enjoyment of skate culture and particularly skate music. (Pennywise! NOFX! OPM!) But I was thrown for a loop yesterday by the soundtrack of the Transworld skate video I was watching: “Excuses” by The Morning Benders, which is a sublime San Francisco indie-pop tune off their new album Big Echo. Has indie music made its move into skateboarding? If so, why the chamber pop of The Morning Benders? Shouldn’t something with a few less string parts get adopted first?

I have no answers here. I’m still mostly thrown for a loop. The skating is great though: