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Tag: Arcade Fire

Derek Porter has a composer's ear for atmospheric folk

There are artists in this world that cut a huge swath across their genre. They’re the Bob Dylan, Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie and Shins-type bands; their sound is so distinct that it’s hard for them to escape it, much less anyone who sounds like them. This is a shame, because as any hipster will tell you, Nirvana wasn’t the first band to sound like Nirvana. There were people before and after Nirvana who sounded just like ’em, but those before didn’t get the glory and those after glommed onto the glory without earning it or were shunted to the side as copycats.

I hope that Derek Porter can fall into the former category; it would be easy to shove him aside as a Bon Iver disciple, but that’s not a fair judgment. There are striking similarities in the folk tunes of the two men: both have a rustic sound, favor spare arrangements and feature a high, trembling vocalist. But where Bon Iver makes paeans to the cold desolation of heartbreak, Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a humble and inviting exploration of memory.

It’s probably good that these tunes aren’t as wholesale despair-laden as Bon Iver’s work. I don’t know if I could take much more of that. I much prefer Porter’s lively, bluegrass-inflected “I Remember” to the atmospheric density he employs in “All I Know Will Be Forgotten.” When “I Remember” drifts off into a weary haze, it still doesn’t meander into navel-gazing depression. This is because Porter takes careful care of the moods he creates; he’s not creating standard depressing fare, but his strength is still the moods he is putting out.

“I Forgot” is a cheery, wide-eyed tune, incorporating an accordion to great effect. It doesn’t have the direct, powerful melodies that some bands make their living on, but the overall mood cultivated is just as satisfying in this and other cases. There are good melodies sprinkled throughout, but the moods are much more consistent and thereby more praiseworthy.

Derek Porter’s Strangers, Vol. 1 is a solid EP. If you’re big on atmosphere (or a film scorer), Derek Porter should jump high up in your queue. He’s got a composer’s ear and skills. The tunes aren’t as direct, clear and elegant as Avett Brothers or Low Anthem tunes, but his command of mood transforms a room. It will be interesting to see if he develops his melodic prowess in the future or whether he pours himself even more into the atmosphere work. No matter which way he goes, Strangers, Vol. 1 is a great EP to put on during a lazy day and just be with.

Kings & Queens create an engrossing, entertaining trip-hop album

It’s kind of amazing how much Portishead has affected modern music. Their landscape-altering output only consisted of two LPs and a live album, but much of the downtempo, trip-hop electronica going on today can directly trace its roots back to the Bristol threesome (or Massive Attack, but I like Portishead more, so I name-check them more often). Kings & Queens is no exception to the downtempo family tree, and Jet in Carina owes much to its British forefathers.

But this is no mere tribute. Although Kings & Queens’ oversaturated emotions and massive beats are common to both artists, the direction of the tunes is entirely different. Portishead made/makes (if you count their new album as part of their groundbreaking work) paeans to solitude, disenchantment and discomfort musically and lyrically; they use emotions as a weapon to get points across. Kings & Queens does no such thing. Instead of making hollowed-out, icy-cold tracks, the members of K&Q layer on the sounds, coming to a sound that often evokes the morose glee of The Arcade Fire.

The permanently buzzing guitar, pulsing bass, vibrant keys and precise drumming propel the sound forward, not leaving any space to lag behind. Songwriter Rich Good makes sure that the tracks all have some element that the listener can hang on to, whether it be a line of lyrics, a hummable vocal fragment, or a distinctive instrumental moment. Even with the energy devoted to making these songs unique, the whole album flows in an incredibly satisfying way. Other than occasionally weird guitar work on opener “Who’s Thinking,” this is a chilled out, cerebral, deeply grooving album that commands attention and does not let go. When played in a room, the songs have the ability to change the whole atmosphere of a situation (and did several times while I was listening to review this).

Any song can be picked at random and extolled as a highlight. For example, “Signs” has a propulsive bass line that is contrasted by a heavily reverb-laden guitar line, creating a fascinating mood and tension. “Hold Your Fire” ratchets up in intensity from nothing until it sounds like the aforementioned Arcade Fire’s sweeping rock. “Origins of Things” has an incredibly tight interplay between bass and drums that excites like a lost Bloc Party song, circa Silent Alarm. Closer “Examples” turns a consistent four-on-the-floor bass drum beat into an eerie tune, which is harder to do than it sounds.

In terms of mood control, Kings & Queens Jet in Carina is one of the most engrossing records I’ve heard this year. The sound that the band crafted doesn’t just reside on CD; it gets into your head and into your mood. It’s gorgeous at times, heart-pounding at others, and morose at still other times, but throughout it all, a consistent mood is retained. If all trip-hop sounded like this, I’d be way more interested in the genre beyond Portishead. Highly recommended to fans of electronic music, downtempo, or soundtracks.

Of the Cathmawr Chills

I listen to a wide variety of music – really, almost anything but country (cue an involuntary shudder). I’ve got music for different moods and different activities. Of The Cathmawr Yards is the newest album from Horse’s Ha, an indie pop group with folk influence. Their sound is mellow, with a pace that is almost leisurely. Standard rock/pop instrumentation is set off by violin and non-standard vocals that vary from a single, husky female voice to a trio of two women and a man. If I had to describe them, I’d say they’re a varying mix of Fleet Foxes, Rocky Votolato, and The Arcade Fire.

The song “Plumb” is a somewhat simplistic opening, but it captures their style nicely. They make use of contrasting male and female vocals throughout, which is especially appealing with the multi-octave separation. The tone is a little dreamy, something like a folk-influenced lullaby.

Here and there in other parts of the album are bits that will make you smile. “Asleep In A Waterfall” has a bass and percussion intro that’s fun and mischievous; “Left Hand” delivers a solid dose of wit with the lyrics, “Let down by my own left hand / A pox on this man let down by his own left hand.” Additionally, use of trumpet on “Left Hand” gives it some great flavor. When I listened to “Heiress,” it reminded me of Firefly, beloved one-season sci-fi fusion of space, westerns, and competing western and Chinese culture. It has strong emotional appeal and a bevy of instruments coming into play throughout.

Elsewhere in the album, “The Piss Choir” is a standout with a playful intro and strong melody and progression. There is always something going on in the music of Horse’s Ha. It’s rich, full, and captivating; I’m constantly trying to identify the various elements floating in and out of each song. That’s awesome.

In spite of their interesting and nuanced vocals, instrumentals are where Horse’s Ha really shine. The song “Liberation” is an instrumental that makes use of a range of instruments, including guitar, violin, percussion, piano, and trumpet. “Map of Stars” also displays excellent instrumentals. The song has vocals, but they are secondary to some fabulous musicianship that occurs when removing singing from the equation. The song has a great feeling of movement and progression, almost like there’s some Aaron Copland (classical composer) influence to it. Horse’s Ha should do an all-instrumental album, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Of The Cathmawr Yards is a strong album that displays a wide range of musical capabilities and thoughtful writing. More importantly to me, it’s great music for relaxing, which is something I’ve found myself craving while traveling in Beijing. If there was ever a city absolutely guaranteed to make you feel stress, Beijing would definitely be that city. Not only am I enjoying the album, I’ve actually found it a little therapeutic! If you need something similar, be sure to pick up Of The Cathmawr Yards by Horse’s Ha.

We Sing the Body Electric Misses a Few Notes

I was a bit let down by the Lonely Forest’s We Sing the Body Electric – I expected great things from the first hard-hitting notes of “Two Pink Pills.” While the The Lonely Forest is capable of some intricate musicality and occasionally setting a mood that is uniquely theirs,  the album suffers from two things: sameness from song to song and a very annoying voice.

Though I don’t like to admit it, I can barely stand the voice of the lead singer, who sounds like Kermit the Frog. I would hate it if someone said I sounded like Kermit the Frog, but I found it really hard to enjoy the music past the first few songs when I felt like I was being sung to by a Muppet. While this closed-off throat sound and self-deprecating style is still fashionable for up-and-coming bands, it’s going to sound really dated ten years from now.

But for some positive things: The Lonely Forest is usually capable of coming up with some unique moods that might suffice for someone looking for something out of the way. Most songs are not too varied, but there is a moment of what I would almost call “sheer brilliance.”

The highlight of the album for me is “Tomato Soup,” an original piano-based song that is deceptively simple. I like this simplicity; it shows the band’s softer side, and here the band finds a sound that really works. “Tomato Soup” is almost ballad-like, and I like this song much better than their straight-ahead pop/rock songs, which seem to try too hard to be like Death Cab for Cutie.

Another ballad-like song, “Julia,” is also pretty good. Overall, the band is stronger on their down tempo tracks that happen to feature piano.

I didn’t really enjoy the Lonely Forest’s We Sing the Body Electric. It does have its moments, but consistently, the songs are just pale imitations of bands that are better them. Combined with a grating voice and songs that seem to sound the same from one to the next, it was hard to listen to at times. I would reccommend the magnificent “Tomato Soup” and “Julia,” but I would pass on the album.

Arcade Fire-Neon Bible Merge Records

arcadefireArcade Fire – Neon Bible
Merge Records

After near-universal praise of their breakthrough album, Funeral, I still wasn’t sold. Despite some magnificent high points, Funeral just didn’t add up to much for me. Luckily, the band’s new album, Neon Bible, strengthens their sound and ups the drama that was lying just below the surface for much of its predecessor.
A concept album aligned directly to the post-Bush American landscape, the same territory that most concept albums of the past few years have been treading, Neon Bible evokes feelings of suffocation, fear, and even hope; just listen to the whizzing ebullience of “No Cars Go.” Not only that, but the record is also full of songs that are meatier and better constructed than those on Funeral. Nearly every track is a winner, and they bleed into one another to form a cohesive statement. This is Arcade Fire with their guns blazing. From the stark desolation of the title track to the stomping giddiness of “Keep The Car Running,” the songs run the emotional, and sonic gamut. Best of all, though, is Bible‘s final salvo. A trio of songs, the aforementioned “No Cars Go,” the gently striking “Windowsill” and the epic “My Body Is a Cage” display the band at their peak. “My Body Is A Cage,” “that keeps me dancing with the one I love,” in particular, is singer Win Butler at his most over-the-top, with organs, choirs of haunted souls and crashing drums echoing his frantic refrain.
With Neon Bible, The Arcade Fire have justified their place as the next big thing, and have managed to create a work that will no doubt transcend the age that it so cleverly depicts. With its string sections, glockenspiels and accordions, it doesn’t sound like many rock and roll albums out there. But, don’t be fooled because the energy and the spirit is there… this is definitely rock and roll.

-Nick James