The Month in Music: Ben Taylor, Divine Fits, Yeasayer

Image

Listening – Ben Taylor

Ben Taylor is an incredibly talented songwriter, and it kind of figures: his parents are James Taylor and Carly Simon. Pretty good pedigree. He tried to avoid music for a while, but eventually found himself drawn to it, and the results have been impressive. He’s been one of my favorite artists ever since I discovered his album with the Ben Taylor Band, Famous Among the Barns, back in high school, and since he’s gone solo (well, more solo I guess), his work has been even better. Another Run Around the Sun is one of my all-time favorites (check out “You Must’ve Fallen”, “Someday Soon”, “I’ll Be Fine”, and everything else on there), and the goofily-titled The Legend of Kung Folk, Part 1 (The Killing Bite) (I guess there’s no part 2?) was excellent as well. Another Run was more acoustic and organic-sounding, while The Legend of Kung Folk leaned more towards R&B in its instrumentation and arrangements. Considering the somewhat dramatic shift between albums, it was going to be interesting to see which direction he went on Listening. The answer is mostly still in the more electric, sultry vein of The Legend of Kung Folk, but this time around, especially towards the end of the album, he throws in some busy electronica, not dissimilar to what Sufjan Stevens did on The Age of Adz. (Although certainly to a lesser degree, practically by default. Sufjan went cray-cray on that one.) Unfortunately, much like Stevens’s effort, these songs tend to get bogged down under the weight of all that’s going on. However, the first half of the album is less cluttered and shines like his previous work. The title track is a contemplative slow burner, and then “Oh Brother” picks things up with a bouncy ode to his twin stepbrothers (and an appearance from his famous dad). “Not Alone” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Legend of Kung Folk, save for some tastefully scattered synths in the chorus that foreshadow the greater electronic involvement on the record. Despite its weaker second half (which is not to say every song is bad – “You Could Be Mine” is a fun, reggae-tinged number), Listening is still certainly worth your time.

Start with: “Oh Brother”, “Not Alone”, “Giulia”

 

Image

A Thing Called Divine Fits – Divine Fits

Ok, I’ll admit that I was severely predisposed to like this album because one of the guys in this indie supergroup is Britt Daniel, the genius behind Spoon, probably my favorite non-Beatles band. (Come on, the Beatles are in a league of their own. It’s not really fair to put anyone else up against them, so I don’t try.) I had high hopes for this project, and A Thing Called Divine Fits does not disappoint. The only way to describe this album is cool – it makes the Barry Manilow tracks in your library feel very insecure. Divine Fits’ sound definitely bears the mark of Daniel’s influence – sharp, precise beats; well-behaved guitars that flame out in walls of distortion – but also reflects the contributions of Dan Boeckner, formerly of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, and Sam Brown of the New Bomb Turks. The most notable example of this is Boeckner’s voice, heard in half the songs on here. It’s very different from Daniel’s but is awesome too, with a sound that is roughed-up and desperate in a good way. Divine Fits also use synthy bass lines where Spoon never does, and this calls to mind the Cars (as does the cover, in my opinion). Divine Fits sound like the outstanding musicians they have proven themselves to be in other endeavors, and it’s awesome to hear them meld their styles together into something great.

Start with: “My Love Is Real”, “Flaggin a Ride”, “Would That Not Be Nice”

 

Image

Fragrant World – Yeasayer

Historically, I’ve never really been able to get into Yeasayer. I could tell that they were talented musicians writing good songs, but I don’t know, their sound was always just a little too world-beat-kooky for my taste. But hey, lots of people love them, so what do I know. However, they went in a new direction with Fragrant World, one that dips into the darker sounds of the electronic realm, and I love it. The songs are more focused, with fewer stylistic deviations within each, making for a more cohesive, powerful attack. The apocalyptic synths and nervous beats that drive songs like “Longevity” and “Devil and the Deed” are awesome, and it’s impressive that Yeasayer can utilize this sonic palette so expertly. If you’re already a Yeasayer fan, don’t worry, they didn’t completely eradicate their old sound: its influence can be heard in places like the extended outro to “Henrietta” and the intro to “Demon Road”, among others. And to top it all off, their label is called Secretly Canadian, which is hilarious. Definitely check out this album.

Start with: “Longevity”, “Henrietta”, “Devil and the Deed”

The Month in Music: Beach House, John Mayer, The Walkmen, and . . .

Bloom  Beach House

Beach House is an excellent dream pop band from Baltimore that started getting significant buzz with their last album, Teen Dream (they had that title first, Katy Perry!). Bloom largely follows the philosophy “don’t mess with a good thing”, but there are significant differences from Teen Dream. For this album, Beach House decamped to west Texas to record, and it sounds like the sweep and grandeur of their surroundings crept into the music. Leadoff track and single “Myth” sets this tone, with singer Victoria Legrand’s breathy vocals soaring at perhaps their highest heights to date over epic, swelling waves of guitar and synthesizer. In fact, “epic, swelling waves of guitar and synthesizer” is a pretty good description of most of the album, but that’s definitely not to say that the songs all sound the same. Beach House does a great job varying the mood and dynamics from track to track, delivering a record that is compelling, captivating, and beautiful from start to finish.

Start with: “Myth”, “Lazuli”, “Wishes”

 

Born and Raised  John Mayer

John Mayer is back! I was largely disappointed with his last effort, Battle Studies – the songwriting sounded unfocused to me, perhaps understandable given his highly publicized, ah, distractions – but he completely rights the ship on Born and Raised. This album is infused with a rootsy, soulful sound that leans towards country and Americana where Continuum leaned to blues rock. The sound perfectly complements the lyrics, which point to a calmer, more peaceful Mayer, who sounds like he has overcome many of the demons that landed him in the tabloids numerous times over the past few years. This is perhaps best illustrated on “Shadow Days”, where Mayer sings “I’m a good man with a good heart, had a tough time, got a rough start, but I’ve finally learned to let it go” over a steady drum beat and peaceful slide guitar. Only he knows if those words are true, but given the contentment and peace that seem to pervade this album, I believe it. Another favorite of mine is “Something Like Olivia”, with Mayer’s bluesy electric guitar recalling the best moments from Continuum and the lyrics singing the praises of Olivia, who though taken, Mayer finds a good model for what he should be looking for. (And of course, because of his tabloid past, you gotta wonder if he’s talking about Olivia Wilde and we’re about to get another round of headlines here.) It’s great to see John Mayer back at his best, because he’s one of the most talented musicians we have today.

Start with: “Queen of California”, “Shadow Days”, “Something Like Olivia”

 

Heaven  The Walkmen

 The Walkmen’s last album, Lisbon, is absolutely fantastic and one of my all-time favorites. If I was doing my favorite albums of 2010 list over again, it would without a doubt be in the top 10. (For the record, so would Dr. Dog’s Shame, Shame and LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening; Sleigh Bells’ Treats would be honorable mention.) Lisbon was influenced and inspired by a trip to Lisbon, Portugal, as well as Elvis music. Go figure, right? This, combined with the fact that the Walkmen could have best been described pre-Lisbon as a gritty post-punk band, made for a really interesting and excellent album. The follow-up to that album, Heaven, is not as great, but is still pretty good. As every review of this album will tell you, the Walkmen are getting older, and this album exudes the happiness and reflection that comes with moving into new stages of life. On some of the songs the practical meaning of this seems to be that the band is just less energetic. Thankfully though, this isn’t the case on all the songs, and there are several outstanding tracks: “Love Is Luck” and “Heaven” are, in my opinion, the best songs on here and stand up well to any of their previous work. Even some of the slower, more laid-back tunes, like the short homage to their love of old country music, “Jerry Jr.’s Tune”, are well done and enjoyable. Unfortunately, a few of the songs just never quite come together, which is surprising given that no song on Lisbon could be described that way. And producer Phil Ek, whose work I actually admire, doesn’t seem to be a great match here. The band talked in interviews about how exacting he was, how he made them do things over and over until they got it right, how he made them actually tune their instruments, etc., which they were grateful for and described as a good thing – but part of the Walkmen’s charm has always been how ramshackle and ragged their music can sound, and Ek’s attention to detail kind of rubs that out here. All in all though, I don’t want to sound too negative – the Walkmen hold a special place in my heart and this really is a good record. It’s hard not to compare it to Lisbon, but that’s not totally fair, and when looked at on its own the stronger tunes stand out and make this an overall satisfying listen.

Start with: “Love Is Luck”, “The Love You Love”, “Heaven”

 

 

And last but not least, those who know me know I couldn’t go without saying anything about . . .

Listen Up! – Haley Reinhart

 . . . my celebrity crush, Haley Reinhart. She won me over completely on American Idol last season because of how effortlessly and charmingly different she was from not only all the other contestants, but from what the Idol powers-on-high seem to want in their contestants. Her voice is incredible and unique, full of soul and grit and power, and this album does a fantastic job of channeling all her strengths and quirks into a batch of bluesy, soul-infused pop tunes that have a ton of personality. Reinhart co-wrote all but one track, and even though a couple of tunes in the middle are a tad snoozy, overall the songs are excellent. The only real minor complaint I have is B.o.B.’s appearance on “Oh My!” – he sounds like competition a little out of place, but to be fair, the more I’ve listened to it, the more in tune I’ve gotten with it. All biases aside, this really is a good album, not just for a former Idol contestant but for anyone.

(And man, that album cover . . . the typography is excellent. What, where did you think I was going with that?)

Start with: “Liar”, “Wasted Tears”, “Keep Coming Back”

The Month in Music: Alabama Shakes, M. Ward, Norah Jones

Boys & Girls – Alabama Shakes

Based on word of mouth that spread like wildfire, Alabama Shakes became one of this year’s biggest buzz bands, garnering lots of hype leading up to the release of Boys & Girls, their debut full-length. As with any buzz band, once the hipsters all realized, “Wait, other people actually like this band?” there was a little bit of backlash against them – but now that the dust has had time to settle, what’s the truth about this album? The truth is that it’s awesome, full of sweaty, earth-rattling, honest-to-goodness blues rock that gets as deep into your bones as it does your head. Alabama Shakes is mainly influenced by the bluesy, soulful music of the ’50’s and ’60’s (think Otis Redding, The Temptations, etc.), but what makes them interesting and distinctly modern is the simultaneous influence of contemporary indie rock, an influence they readily acknowledge. This is heard best in songs like “Rise to the Sun” and “Hold On”, which sound like they could be old standards until some distinctly modern-sounding guitar squall kicks in and overwhelms everything. The ingredient that makes their music so satisfying, though, is front-woman Brittany Howard’s voice. It’s gritty, soulful, and passionate, and she’s in complete control of it, whether howling in rage about how she’s been done wrong or cooing sweet nothings in barely a whisper. This is an outstanding debut that proves the band is way more than just hype, and that they are a force to be reckoned with.

Start with: “Hold On”, “Hang Loose”, “Heartbreaker”

 

A Wasteland Companion – M. Ward

Perhaps better known as the male half of She & Him with Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward has had an outstanding solo career for several years now, and A Wasteland Companion, his eighth solo album, continues that pattern. I once read a description of his sound as “soft-spoken, hard-edged Americana”, and that to me is the perfect way of describing it. He mixes a poignant tenderness, heard often in the gorgeous, wistful sounds of his acoustic guitar, with a sharper edge and irascible sense of fun, and this is as true as ever on AWC. While it doesn’t quite hit the pop peaks of some of the tracks on its predecessor, 2009’s Hold Time (see songs like “Never Had Nobody Like You” and “Epistemology”), it nevertheless contains a ton of true gems, from the fun (and insightful) bounce of “I Get Ideas” to the beautiful, classical sound of the title track. Ms. Deschanel herself appears on two tracks, “Me and My Shadow” and “Sweetheart”, and Ward uses her voice to great effect in very different ways, as a haunting background touch in the former and a sly, flirty presence in the latter. The only minor misstep here to me is “Watch the Show”, which sounds really cool but never totally develops the narrative in the lyrics, which dampens its emotional impact. Minor quibbles, though, on an overall outstanding effort from Mr. Ward.

Start with: “Primitive Girl”, “I Get Ideas”, “Pure Joy”

 

Little Broken Hearts – Norah Jones

There is one gigantic shadow that hangs over this album and must be addressed before anything else, and it is that of Danger Mouse. When I heard that Norah Jones was working with Danger Mouse on this album, I was apoplectic. Let me explain. It is undeniable that Danger Mouse has a very distinctive sound, sort of like a highly compressed spaghetti western thing, and that’s OK (even if it unpleasantly reminds me of Quentin Tarantino movies, which I hate, but that would be a whole other post). His sound is not in and of itself bad – I even like his work with, for example, Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells. What I hate, though, is when he works with artists who are already established and forces their music into The Danger Mouse Mold, rather than working to bring out their true sound. Put more simply, ALL THE MUSIC HE PRODUCES SOUNDS THE SAME. It’s almost as if he’s a musical parasite, latching onto the host artist and infecting their sound with his annoyingly clipped drums and watery guitars. That’s a little harsh, because I don’t totally hate his sound; I just hate how he seems to be homogenizing the indie rock landscape by working with lots of different artists and giving them all the same makeover. So, much like Beck’s Modern Guilt and the Black Keys’ El Camino, on Little Broken Hearts we end up with a very good album that is marred by the fact that it sounds more like Danger Mouse than it does the artist who created it. All this aside, though, the songwriting on LBH is excellent (and while Jones gets the lion’s share of the credit for that, Danger Mouse was credited as a co-writer, so to be fair, he probably had something to do with it as well). This is most definitely a break-up album, and Jones pulls no punches lyrically or otherwise. Highlights include “Say Goodbye”, in which Jones sends off a failed relationship in a sinisterly deceptive sing-song voice; “After the Fall”, which is gorgeously heartbreaking, driven along by a numbly disinterested drum pattern and Jones’s pained harmonies; and “Take It Back”, which has the restrained danger in the melody that was so appealing on much her last album, The Fall. It’s certainly no surprise that Norah Jones has produced an album full of quality songs, and I hope that next time around she’ll ditch Danger Mouse and continue to develop the excellent sound she has proven she already has.

Start with: “Say Goodbye”, “After the Fall”, “Happy Pills”

The Month in Music

Hello everyone! My name is Stephen and I will be your Resident Musical Correspondent, reporting the first Friday of every month. My goal will be to highlight albums from the past month that I’ve particularly enjoyed, unless there haven’t been enough of those, in which case I’ll make something else up (musical of course, I won’t subject you to my thoughts on what I had for dinner or anything). The region of the musicsphere I tend to occupy is that between mainstream and indie rock – basically, indie bands there’s a chance the average person has heard of. I don’t do Nickelback (obviously), but neither do I do That Obscure Electrodisco Quartet from Oslo That Only Twelve People Even Know Exists and Which Releases Its EPs Exclusively on Analog Tape. Those kinds of bands I tend to find are obscure for a reason. Anyway, March was conveniently a very good month in music, so let’s get right to it!

Image

Delta Spirit – Delta Spirit

Either this or Dr. Dog’s Be the Void is my favorite album of the year so far. I was first turned on to Delta Spirit because of frontman Matthew Vasquez’s foray with the indie folk supergroup Middle Brother (also featuring Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, another great band you should check out). Delta Spirit’s last album, History from Below, was reasonably good, but it wasn’t anything life-changing – on this album though, they’ve taken a huge leap forward. In fact, it’s self-titled because they felt like they nailed the sound they’ve been trying for, and this is how they wanted to define their band. Talk about a good sign. Rolling Stone put this album up on their website a couple weeks before it came out as an exclusive early listen, and in their description of it they said that like Wilco, Radiohead, and My Morning Jacket before them, Delta Spirit had expanded their sonic palette and gone in new directions with their sound. This may have been a bit hyperbolic (that’s quite some company to be thrown together with), but it largely hits the mark. Perhaps the best example of their new and exciting approach is “Tellin’ the Mind”. It starts out with a distorted amalgamation of voiced beats, with Vasquez trilling shrilly over it all and flaming out in a yelp. Then the guitars and organ pour on slowly, finally exploding hot and heavy under loads of distortion after the first chorus. The verses are all restrained tension, Vasquez spitting his lyrics over a confident, bluesy bass line. I love everything about this song, but those trills in particular. They provide the perfect release to the tension built up in the verses, and are a good example of what I love most in music – stuff that comes out of left field, but works well musically and sounds awesome. Anyway, I’ve given that one song a lot of real estate here, but literally every other song is outstanding and showcases their startling growth in musicianship. This album also specializes in memorable hooks and choruses – “Tear It Up”, “California”, “Idaho”, “Otherside”, “Tellin’ the Mind”, “Time Bomb”, and “Money Saves” all definitely have snatches that will stay in your head for days on end – and that’s over half the album! Great stuff. The lyrics are also quality; some of my favorite lines are: “I want you to move to California for yourself, but not for me” and “Meet me on the other side / No I can’t be honest with myself / No I wouldn’t believe a word I said”. If I haven’t convinced you to go listen to this album, I don’t know what to tell you.

Start with: Geez, well, I guess . . . “California”, “Otherside”, “Tellin’ the Mind”

Image

Happy to You – Miike Snow

This album is much weirder than their smash debut, and it’s very interesting because of it. They paint with a largely electronic palette again, but this time they move to the edges of that palette, weaving less conventional sounds and effects into spooky, alternate-universe club anthems. Pretty much every song has a sticky melody (from Stephen’s Glossary of Made-Up Musical Terms: ”A melody that gets stuck in your head easily”)  and at least one or two really memorable parts – for instance, check out the chipmunk synths in “Enter the Joker’s Lair” or the creepy vocals contributed by Lykke Li to “Black Tin Box” (whatever that box is, you clearly don’t wanna be messing with it). Despite its depressing lyrical content, “God Help This Divorce” is a particular standout, with plinking synthesizers, harp runs, and metallic percussion underpinning singer Andrew Wyatt’s wistful vocals.

Start with: “Devil’s Work”, “God Help This Divorce”, “Bavarian #1 (Say You Will)”

Image

Port of Morrow – The Shins

Port of Morrow has been a long time coming – it’s been almost 5 years since the Shins’ last album, 2007’s excellent Wincing the Night Away. To say the band has undergone some changes since then would be an understatement. Frontman James Mercer, always the brainchild behind the Shins, is the only one left in the band from WTNA, and how that came about was a little controversial. Mercer basically dismissed the old drummer and bassist – albeit for the very intriguing reason that he wanted to go for a groove-heavier sound – but they took to the media to vent their displeasure, and while the Shins has always been Mercer’s project, it did kind of give off bad vibes. So for reasons karmic and otherwise, I was skeptical that this album would be all that solid. Mercer is over 40 now (I know, hard to believe, sorry if I just made you feel old), and, well, indie rockers have a mixed record when it comes to aging gracefully. Thankfully, however, Mercer dismisses all such petty concerns on Port of Morrow and delivers an excellent collection of songs. The groove Mercer wanted is there, though it doesn’t beat you over the head, instead ably driving along Mercer’s infectious jams. Like WTNA, each song is stuffed with quirky little fills and riffs, most of which are contributed by Mercer’s new bandmates –  but of course Mercer’s voice stands out above it all. I saw them live at SXSW in March, and he is definitely a talented singer – he makes those ridiculous high notes (for example, see the chorus of “Simple Song”) look easy. Every song is high quality, the only minor complaint being “No Way Down”, which while excellent musically, is typical fare for musicians who get political (liberally oversimplified, in multiple senses of the phrase). The title track provides a trippy close to it all, with Mercer’s croon soaring above music that sounds inspired by his sojourn in the side-project Broken Bells.

Start with: “Simple Song”, “Bait and Switch”, “For a Fool”

Image

Busting Visions – Zeus

On their second album, Zeus polish the great sound they crafted on their debut, giving a modernized, unique take on classic rock. Many of the elements they use are recognizable from eras past, but Zeus tie them all together in unpredictable ways, whether it’s rinky-dink pianos slashing randomly into verses, or harmonies sneaking up from underneath noisy guitars. The album gets off to a rollicking start – “Are You Gonna Waste My Time?” is a strong contender to be my favorite song of the year – and keeps going until settling down into “Let It Go, Don’t Let It Go”, a slower, more psychedelic number along the lines of “The Sound of You” off their debut. Later on, “With Eyes Closed” starts off sounding like something the Hollies could have put out in their heyday, but as the chorus approaches, a gaggle of ghostly harmonies floats in and makes the song Zeus’s own. It’s by doing things like this, experimenting with their arrangements and structures, not to mention the instruments they choose to use and when they use them, that Zeus keeps their sound fresh and exciting. Another solid effort by a solid band.

Start with: “Are You Gonna Waste My Time?”, “Anything You Want Dear”, “Hello, Tender Love”

My 10 Favorite Albums of 2010

Hey everyone! Ian has been kind enough to let me share some of my thoughts about music, so I’m gonna talk about my 10 favorite albums of last year. This turned into a magnum opus of sorts, but I promise that by the end of it you’ll have so much to buy with those iTunes gift cards you got for Christmas that you won’t know what to do with yourself. So without further ado, here are my 10 favorite albums of 2010:

The Suburbs – Arcade Fire

I had sorta written off Arcade Fire after I heard so much about Neon Bible being a bit stodgy and bitterly political, and even though I finally got way into their debut, Funeral, I wasn’t that intrigued when The Suburbs came out. But since Arcade Fire was the band that gave us Funeral, and people were going OMGcrazy on Facebook about how great this new album was, I decided to give it a chance. The title track hit me first – and I was very intrigued. It didn’t explode onto the scene like most of the tracks on their debut, it took a different approach: slow-burning, confident, precise, and vaguely sinister. Then “Ready to Start” announced its presence with those ringing guitar strikes, and I thought we might have something special here. “Modern Man” was similarly right-on, then “Rococo” . . . I went out and bought the album that night. The most impressive thing to me about this album, though, is that they take the suburbs, a pretty mundane topic that I would guess they have no current connection to, and turn it into something epic and haunting – AND keep it completely emotionally authentic. Because another reason I didn’t give this album much of a chance at first was that it was about the suburbs, of all things – and how was some hip indie band from Montreal going to have anything genuine to say about that? Turns out they had loads to say, and they said it amazingly well. Maybe my second favorite album this year (#1 will come up later), although the Black Keys had something to say about that too.

Teen Dream – Beach House

I only liked this album, but didn’t love it, until one Saturday afternoon in December. I was lying on my bed staring out the window, with music on in the background of my sorta-nap, when “10 Mile Stereo” came up on shuffle. I was blown away – I had finally discovered what this music was made for! It’s dreamy, woozy, somewhat melancholy yet perfectly pleasant . . . and in my half-awake state it all made sense. (Note: No illegal substances were used in the making of this moment. Honest.) I listened to the whole rest of the album, and it was beautiful. Any record that can deliver an afternoon like that is alright by me.

Brothers – The Black Keys

I hadn’t really paid much attention to the Black Keys before last summer. I think I gave their last album, Attack & Release, a listen back when it came out, but it was only so-so in my opinion at the time (and I still think these guys have no need for Danger Mouse). But I was bored on the couch one Tuesday afternoon, and iTunes was featuring this album, so I gave it a shot. From the moment the crunchy goodness that is the guitar in “Everlasting Light” entered my ears, I was hooked. Especially when it was followed by “Next Girl”, an absolute burner of a song that pulses with feverish energy – you can just see him singing through gritted teeth during the verses. And then THAT was followed by “Tighten Up”, and then THAT was followed by “Howlin’ for You”, and then “She’s Long Gone” . . . I could go until the very last track. There isn’t a weak one in the bunch – which is really saying something, since there are 15 of them. I’ve long believed that the best length for an album is 10 to 12 songs, and I’ve usually found that to be true; most bands seem to run out of great ideas by song 13. But not these guys – nor Arcade Fire, I might add, who churned out 16 fantastic songs on The Suburbs. Definitely the work of uber-talented musicians.

It’ll Be Better – Francis and the Lights

So this album is only 8 songs long, and I don’t even really like the last one, so how did it make my top 10? Simply put, the other 7 songs are almost perfect. “For Days” might actually BE perfect. And you know what Francis cites as his biggest influence, musical or otherwise? Strunk and White’s grammar-usage guide The Elements of Style. I kid you not – he says so here. You might think this means his lyrics are overly bookish or something, but no – he said it showed him the importance of “clarity and minimalism”, which is so satisfyingly apparent in every song on here. Nary a synth is wasted, nor a drum beat tastelessly out of line. The guitars always cut to the heart of matters. His vocals are the perfect mix of restraint and going for broke. And despite his less-is-more philosophy, there are still a ton of little sonic moments that make me positively giddy. It’s just amazing. In fact, I’m gonna stop for a sec so you can check it out yourself —

Done? OK, we’ll move on.

Would It Kill You? – Hellogoodbye

A hugely pleasant surprise. And not because it’s so good – I really liked most of their first album, Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! (you may remember the single “Here (In Your Arms)”). It’s a surprise because it’s about as different as different can be from Z!A!V!D! (love the acronym). Where Z!A!V!D! was all electro-fied, auto-tuned, and zappy (what do you mean that’s not a word, spell-check?), Would It Kill You? is mostly analog, much brasher, and delightfully ragged at the edges. As frontman/songwriter Forrest Kline said in an article, he was tired of freaking out about every little tweak and setting, and just wanted to let the music be loose and natural. He certainly succeeded – you can tell he and the rest of the band poured all they had into this music, and had loads of fun doing it. Kline’s influences apparently widened too; on WIKY?, he channels the classic pop of the early- to mid-‘60‘s. It never sounds derivative though – the energy and fun in the music make it sound authentically their own. Check out the killer chorus of the title track (that link to the article lets you listen to this song too), the come-out-of-nowhere loping stomp of “Betrayed by Bones”, and the kinetic propulsion of “Finding Something to Do”. The lyrics are very good as well. Four years passed between their two albums, and Hellogoodbye lost members, went through record label troubles, and suffered numerous delays to this album’s release, and it sounds like they matured a lot through it all. While the goofiness of Z!A!V!D! was fun, it occasionally felt a little immature (see “Two Weeks in Hawaii”, where his girlfriend’s mom catches the two of them eating ice cream in the hotel room late at night – this might have worked if the band were still in high school). The lyrics on WIKY?, however, sound genuine and more wizened. They deal with less upbeat subjects like getting older and trying to learn to relax, but still concentrate mostly on the romance that makes life simply wonderful. Kline stays optimistic and sunny throughout, even when dipping into the less positive aspects of life, and his lyrics match the exuberant music to a tee.

High Violet – The National

Another one that caught me by surprise. I had wanted to love the National before this, but could never really get into Boxer or Alligator. How different the story is for High Violet. It’s hard for me to listen to this album the whole way through because it’s so beautifully, gorgeously, achingly melancholy. Frontman Matt Berninger’s somber baritone flows bleakly through cavalcades of perfectly fuzzed guitars, thunderous drums, brooding pianos, and punctuations of brass that somehow manage to sound both resigned and triumphant at the same time. His lyrics, which tend to repeat subtly powerful lines like “It’s a terrible love, and I’m walking with spiders” over and over, nestle comfortably amidst the swirling dirges around them, and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. Count me firmly in the National’s corner now.

The Orchard – Ra Ra Riot

I thought this reviewer did an outstanding job of critiquing this album, so I’m just going to turn it over to him:

http://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/38571/Ra-Ra-Riot-The-Orchard/

Transference – Spoon

Spoon is one of my favorite bands of all-time. I love Spoon. I saw them like 9 or 10 rows back from the stage at ACL in October. So so good. You should take another break to go buy this album and their last one (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga), and then buy Kill the Moonlight and Gimme Fiction. Gahspoonissoamazing.

Ahem, anyway, back to Transference. It actually took me a few songs to get in tune with this album when I first listened to it. I went in expecting the energy and vibrance of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, and apart from the excellent “Is Love Forever?” (those drums!!! aaaaahhhh!!!), I wasn’t really feeling it. But then I just accepted the fact that this is a more laid-back affair, and I fell head over heels for it. Every song is sharp and well-crafted, and if you’re into sonic delightfulness, you’re in luck because Spoon is one of the best in the game at it. The squishy tones to open “Who Makes Your Money?”,  the piano in the next room over on “Goodnight Laura”, the guitar-in-a-can that explodes on “Trouble Comes Running” . . . just so well done. Britt Daniel is a genius.

(Also – how great is the cover art? It’s a photograph from 1970, and it captures the dark, laid-back coolness of the album really well. I even think that if this music was a color, it would be that dark shade of green. Maybe that’s mixing up cause and effect, but I do believe that great cover art can take music to another level – you may notice that every album on this list indeed has awesome artwork.)

Contra – Vampire Weekend

Probably my favorite album of 2010. As you may have deduced by now, I’m a sucker for sonic goodness, but I’m also a sucker for great melodies, interesting rhythmic patterns, and all-out fun, and this album delivers all of those in spades. When I put this album on in my car, I can’t help getting a big grin on my face and singing along, trying to keep pace with Ezra Koenig’s crazy auto-tuned vocals on “California English” or exuberantly echoing the WHOA-OH-OHs of “Horchata”. And giddy is the only way I can describe the feeling I get when the synth and drums start pinging back and forth between the speakers to open “White Sky”.  Oh, and try not to move any part of your body while listening to “Cousins”. It’s practically impossible. No other album hits me quite like this one: track after track I’m just going “Gah, that’s so perfect!” through my barely-containable smile. Sonically and musically adventurous, tons of fun, joyfully danceable – I’ve run out of ways to express my love for Contra, so go see what I’m talking about if you haven’t already.

Say Us – Zeus

I owe a ton of thanks to my friend Alex Gorischek for telling me about this album. It’s great indie rock by musicians who are obviously super-talented. None of the songs really follow standard musical procedures, and all have at least one quirky instrument or harmony that makes you turn up the volume so you can hear just what it is they’re doing. They have multiple singer/songwriters in the band, and all of them deliver great stuff. “Marching Through Your Head” is especially rewarding, with the piano propelling the guitars and drums ever forward to fantastic effect. They do tender, almost psychedelic tunes just as well – see “I Know” and “The Sound of You”. And “At the Risk of Repeating” draws things to a great close – it’s a cool, unique song with a killer stuttering rhythm in the verses. The whole thing is thoroughly enjoyable.

Honorable Mention:

Magnetic North – Aqualung: A slight bit of a letdown after the epic, breathtaking Memory Man, but still a great collection of pop songs. “Fingertip” and “New Friend” are sure to make you smile, and “Sundowning” and “Time Moves” are masterfully wistful.

Broken Bells – Broken Bells: Danger Mouse is kind of a polarizing figure for me, but I do like his work when it’s with new bands such as this one. And I like the Shins (their last album in particular), so the pop sensibility James Mercer brings is a big plus. “The High Road”, “October”, and “The Mall and Misery” are highlights.

Till the Light Comes – Jackie Greene: The alt-country master won me over with his last effort, Giving Up the Ghost, and this was a solid follow-up. “Spooky Tina” is a lot of fun, the tough strut of “Medicine” is great, and “Take Me Back in Time” makes me want to just drop everything and go float lazily down a river.

Congratulations – MGMT: I get it, I get it, they didn’t want to be known as a couple of guys who write really catchy indie rock songs with witty lyrics that everybody loves . . . wait a minute. What’s wrong with that?! “Kids”, “Electric Feel”, and “Time to Pretend” were instant classics! But they didn’t want to be defined by them, so they veered way into the psychedelic and abstract on this album – and, in the end, it’s really pretty good. “It’s Working” is fantastic, “Flash Delirium” is creepy but very effective, and “Congratulations” closes things out nicely (and on a saner note). I do like this album, but I hope that now that they’ve made their artistic statement, they try to find some middle ground between its sound and those knockouts on their debut.

Of the Blue Colour of the Sky – OK Go: I really like OK Go. I love their videos, their unconventional approach to the business side of music, and most of all their songs that grab you and stick in your brain for days. Of the Blue Colour of the Sky has a ton of those – the first 4 songs in particular are to die for. The album lost points with me though for fading a little towards the end (in my opinion), and for Dave Fridmann’s heavy-handed production. It’s a testament to their incredibly sharp songwriting skills that even through Fridmann’s way-too-tightly-packed layers, you still catch that irrepressible sense of fun that defines the band in so many ways.

The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens: Wow. Stevens went absolutely nuts on this one, and it’s riveting. He was inspired by the work of a schizophrenic artist, Royal Robertson, and when you look at Adz with that in mind, you see how genius it is at capturing the core paranoia of Robertson’s work. “Futile Devices” is a calm red herring of an opener, but then “Too Much” hits you with the hailstorm of electronic noise that dominates the rest of the album. And to think – this is from the guy whose last two albums were pretty folk collections about states in the Midwest! Very impressive. Unfortunately, a few of the songs get bogged down in the chaos, and I didn’t feel that there were always solid tunes at the center like on his previous albums. “Get Real Get Right” really does get it right though, and in my opinion is the best track on Adz. Overall I still say it’s an incredibly interesting album that’s well worth your time.

Be My Thrill – The Weepies: The Weepies are one of the best indie pop groups out there, and if you’ve never heard of them, first go check out their previous album, Hideaway. The title track on it is one of the best pop songs I’ve ever heard, hands down. Be My Thrill is very good too, building on more or less the same foundation as Hideaway, and every one of its charming songs will have you happily humming along.  Highlights for me include “Please Speak Well of Me”, “I Was Made for Sunny Days”, and “Hummingbird”.

(And last but not least, I agree wholeheartedly with Ian – you got-to-tip on the tightrope, tip tip on it.)