Latest Reviews

Album Review: Essie Jain – All Became Golden

By Ray Finlayson; October 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

All Became Golden isn’t just another album from British singer/songwriter Essie Jain. Nor is it just an audio visual album, combining the talents of Jain, composer Nico Muhly, and filmmaker Nathalie Johns. It’s more than that, and what it is stems from is the disillusionment Jain found herself overwhelmed with after the release of her 2011 album Until The Light of Morning. “If I did put my hands to the keys, it just seemed [like] this impossible, overwhelming task,” she explains during the film version of Golden. Thankfully Johns rekindled her interest after proposing a new approach to her music, filming it live, in a manner that resembles how Frank Sinatra used to record, with an orchestra and conductor there beside him. “I knew if I played music again it would have to be something spectacular,” Jain goes onto explain in the interview, and All Became Golden is little short of being just that.

The music on Golden is undoubtedly that of Jain: the tracks are graceful and deliberate for the most part but without sounding too fussy or precocious. When “No Mistake” quietly sweeps into view with acoustic guitars strums and homely strings, Jain follows suit and sounds like she’s continuing on from her underrated 2008 album The Inbetween. Lyrics have never been a consistently strong feature, but she chooses most of her words carefully so that they suit her voice; she wraps her voice around a phrase or a word, embracing it so it leaves a warm impression. On “I” she comforts the phrase “I cried over and over,” like a mother reassuring a weeping child while on “Stand In The Light” has her skipping between her notes as woodwind flutters about beside her. Sounding at least a decade older than it is, Jain’s voice is a vastly intriguing alto that always felt like an instrument in itself, played with nuance, control, and temperament.

With an orchestra beside her, though, it becomes one with her accompaniments. She falls into the lush backdrop until she’s creating a buoyant vessel to drift across on. On “My Darling” she swells gracefully like a rising light during the song’s instrumental sections whereas on “Raise You” she fades away to a hum as the orchestra fades and slows to a stop. Muhly is to be paid due credit for his stellar work here. Jain has always had sturdy arrangements, but he finds a new grace for her tracks. Granted, having the orchestra at hand can only but help create this, but he sounds like he’s found a very refined and particular aspect of what Jain has to offer, and fine tunes it across nine tracks. “I really liked the idea of doing it live in front of cameras, because you can see there’s no trick to making music like this happen,” Muhly said of the project. He’s right to say so; Golden captures a seamlessness that is hard to fully appreciate with your ears alone. At the very least, the film of Golden helps you appreciate the nuance and the detail of the arrangements, or just sheds a little more light on the players on the album.

One of the glorious strengths of Golden is its power to evoke. Jain namedrops the likes of Nina Simone as inspiration, but her influence seems to reach further. “Dark Is The Night” sounds like her very own “King of Carrot Flowers” with ticking acoustic guitar while “No Mistake” sweeps across the floor gracefully, like a half-remembered waltz from the past. It’s the album’s centrepiece and lead single “Raise You” that stands the highest here, delivering Jain’s most impassioned performance as strings build and build. Strangely enough, the point of comparison I keep coming back to is Scott Walker’s grand and inimitable “Farmer In The City.” It’s not as overwhelming, but the effect Muhly creates as everything swells is noticeably similar, and it’s a wonderful moment captured, and perhaps both Jain’s most instantly and lastingly impressionable track to date.

If Golden has any failings, it’s when it falls into a desire to strip away the scope. Jain’s cover of Dire Straits’ “Why Worry” matches the surrounding material musically, but it stands out too much lyrically, having her sounding elementary. “Why worry? There should be laughter after pain/ There should sunshine after rain” goes the chorus, and it makes it clear that not all of Knopfler’s lyrics age well. At least when Jain’s own songs lean too closely too similar lyrical blandness, like on “My Darling,” she has a wistful and glorious swell to distract from it, if not elevate it to another level.

But any misgivings to be brought up against the album are likely to be overshadowed with the fact that it’s brilliant we once again have Jain back making music, re-inspired and renewed with an album that makes her sound better than ever. Granted, some of the intimacy of her previous albums is lost here, but like Jain said, Golden always had to be something spectacular for her to be driven to get involved. We owe it to Johns for giving Jain something impossible to say no to, and to Muhly for casting Jain so well, but without a doubt the brightest light of gratitude has to go to Jain herself for choosing to return and doing to with such grace and artistry. It’s hard not to believe that everything has indeed become golden – it certainly sounds like it here.

Album Review: Screaming Fields – Six Songs By Screaming Fields

By Ray Finlayson; October 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

Screaming Fields are Hamish Duncan and Joshua Riley. While I’m unfamiliar with Riley’s musical accomplishments, Duncan’s are certainly well documented, if not just here on the Beats Per Minute (where he was once a writer), then further across the tiers of the internet where his Sleep In moniker has had him turning a few heads. This isn’t the first time Duncan has teamed up to create new music, though, as his escapades with Leon Conolly back in 2010 resulted in the middling, but at times kinetic Octogasm under the name Lazy Dre. Once again, it’s hard to tell exactly where one contributing artists ends and the other begins, but on Six Songs By Screaming Fields, it’s clearer where he is in the big picture.

Much like recent Sleep In albums, the tracks on this EP mix together the analogue and digital side of things, combining terrorsome, deep beats alongside ruffling, drony electric guitar work. It seems to favour the former side of things though, relying on squelchy synths that work somewhere between atmospheric and melodical. “The Americans” opens the EP, and much like Octogasm’s opening track “Teatree,” it has the most likeable groove on offer here, almost overpowered by thundering drums and lost to the world of brevity. It’s something of a red herring, though, as Six Songs never quite hits on another elemental sound – but it still has features to like.

“I Myself” features Duncan on lyrical duties, and his hushed, self-affirmed voice matches the narcissistic words. “I’m too important to myself/ I need someone to take care of me,” he sings, emerging from a whisper as noises drill away alongside him, like alarms going off somewhere else irrelevant. He returns on the eight and half minute closing track “Perfect Place” where he also captures his inventive percussive edge combined with his knack for stereo tuning, creating a complex-sounding rhythm pattern that riffs on a singular melody. His words become a little mangled between the power chords of the guitar and spacey effects, but they help add a little ambiguity to the lyrics, misconstruing them to read “I won’t come around anymore.” His voice isn’t for everyone, but at this point in his career, he knows how to get the nuances he wants out of it, and here he’s displaying that despite there being only a few lyrical turns on the EP.

Riley also seems to make an appearance at the end of “Perfect Place” as the tracks winds down to close amidst reverse effects. His voice is higher, and that bit more nasal, but it’s got an interesting tone – it’s a shame they decided not to explore it more. That said, it could just be Duncan’s voice, mangled and altered until he becomes someone or something else. After all, Six Songs is highly detailed affair that boasts more than plenty of details; the linear notes list each and every sound ranging from “horse riding sample” to “lost cause.” The work gone into the EP shows; there’s plenty to hear here, but that doesn’t always make it compelling or greatly interesting. The fuzzy, violent guitar and the break-back beats on “Game Over” sound alert and intent, but they don’t make for a lasting track that has purpose other than to channel these noises back and forth. “There Is A Man Outside” suffers a similar fate: all the computer bleeps, background bells, and carnivorous synths make for a busy scene, but there’s not much cause behind it.

It’s most likely just an artistic decision to explore, but the tracks often seem to flutter about a likeable structure in an attempt to keep listeners on their feet, if not distract them with noises and effects. The marimba notes on “Perfect Place” are an interesting choice (and essential for the track’s transition in the latter half), but they seem ill fitting to the low drone and aforementioned layered percussion on the first half that could keep the track going on their own. “Game Over” is guilty too of just throwing in too much to create force but not adding in a heart or soul while “Sedated Chants” sounds like it could be a smooth minimalistic dance track had a lot of the fanfare been stripped away and instead the focus put on getting the best out of the hypnotic and distorted funk groove.

Despite its unevenness, the EP does work best as a whole, often falling from one track into the next without a moment’s notice with a notable exactitude. It’s all wrapped up in a dark-skied melancholia, and though it never mines the real detail from it and can feel a tad aimless at times, it knows how to wander around with a swagger of its own. Again, it’s hard to tell where Riley fully fits into the picture, but at the very least he takes Duncan down an avenue not far from his Sleep In work which is worth exploring the sake of possibility. It’s an intriguing chasm of noises and tones, but by the end you’re hardly screaming for more.

Album Review: The Meets – It Happens Outside

By Joshua Pickard; October 16, 2013 at 2:26 PM 

There are always certain self-imposed limitations when an artist jumps genres and starts to blend these often disparate sounds into something resembling a cohesive piece of music. We’re always told, “Don’t mesh this type of music with that type — don’t ever have this group of aesthetics set against something that could overwhelm the musical details.” But for those musicians who can successfully fold multiple genres into one another with a minimum of difficulty, there are endless tonal landscapes to explore and combinations of rhythms to develop. Brandon Locher — the architect and curator of musical collective The Meets — knows this all too well. Drawing together a host of 20 musicians, he has constructed It Happens Outside, an album that’s equal parts beat tape, drum circle, and orchestral improvisation. Mastered by Nick Zammuto (The Books) and produced by Locher, the album hums with the vibrancy of everyday life. And as these kind of collections live and die on the strength of their musical footnotes, it makes sense that It Happens Outside never short sells this aspect.

Rather than feeling segmented or arbitrarily tracked, it’s best to experience the album as one continuous loop, with each track neatly bleeding into the next — which for the most part, Locher and Co have been gracious enough to do (save for the time it takes to flip the LP). There is a sense of surprise and unexpected composition as you dive further into It Happens Outside. Pulling back layers of aesthetics to reveal their base foundations, Locher proceeds to build his soundscapes from bits and pieces of these genres and keeps them striding so closely together that the borders between each sample and fractured melody sound nonexistent. “Shruti’s Song” opens the record with the sound of what appears to be an orchestra tuning up for a performance, a description which isn’t actually too far off the mark. We hear slight electronic flourishes, percussion that circles back and forth without any real advancement, and some heavily warped brass sounds — though the track does seem leagues removed from being a simple throwaway interstitial.

“Stoned Eyes” follows up with a pseudo-martial beat and some vinyl scratches before switching gears and moving over into some respectable indie pop/rock territory. But given its almost overt improvisational aspects, the record never stays in one place for very long and continually changes gears to keep you off balance. But this sense of purposeful evasion only adds to the mystery surrounding these recordings. “Nobody, Not Even The Rain” brings the blooping electronics and heavily submerged piano and never seems to raise its voice above a hesitant welcome, while the “The Fish’s Eyes” blends distorted vocals and some clicking percussion to create an uneasy sense of motion. But it’s less the experience of hearing these sounds played out together (though that does produce occasionally miraculous results) and more an understanding of how Locher was able to creatively and tonally blend these different sounds together that causes It Happens Outside to stay with you long after the last notes have faded from your speakers.

And while the album doesn’t hit every note perfectly – the extended cauldron of sounds on “As A Period In Which Nothing Happens” sounds a bit too close to describing itself, and a few of the shorter tacks (both “Broadcast Fireworks Display” tracks for instance) feel a bit on the underdone side. However, other tracks, such as “Even When The Time Comes,” with its DJ Shadow turntablist tendencies, and the atonal percussive rhythms on “Today Grew Dark” display Locher’s deft hand at this type of “kitchen sink” approach to studio production, and the songs effortlessly side step any contrivances or forced associations that could have easily relegated this release to being just another odd musical conflagration. But Locher and his cadre of musicians never allow the weight of what they’re trying to accomplish overshadow the music itself. And as superficially atonal as some of these influences can seem, there is a expert hand working the strings, pulling everything together in an odd assortment of improvised orchestral flourishes, tribal beats, and complex melodies. It Happens Outside may be the work of a number of different musicians, but its voice is so singular and expressive and engaging that the record never seems disjointed — it’s the work of friends making friends, all the while developing the communal bond between the music and its audience.

Album Review: Cotton Ponies – Zwist

By Stephen Henderson; October 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

What seems on the first listen as an extension of not only post-rock but the scene evolving around the Discoporate crew in what was formerly Eastern Germany becomes, through multiple applications, a very listenable and promising, if not regrettably too short first offering from Cotton Ponies. In general it seems that these foals are finding their stride, but without qualification will I say that I am much looking forward to being able to continue to listen to this album, hopefully catch the dynamic trio in a less bridled live context, and wait for the evolution of the band. Small complaints would include a lack of transitions that I know they are capable of, and just a little more of everything. Fans of bands like Hume, Don Vito, Don Cab, and the grand slew of the post punk/rock bands will find themselves well at home in these twenty minutes, and will notice that no element has not been probed for applicability in this first of openers. To get a better idea of what to expect, see the play-by-play following.

The album opener “O” starts reminiscent of the opening lines of Battles’ first offering, with a loose tom followed close by clean guitars in based intertwining with one another in traditional, unobtrusive post rock still. Slightly ahead of itself, the beat pushes forward before breaking off to open, minimal chords, and eventually returning with a slightly elevated intensity to the original groove, and a sudden shift follows in the same direction, but with more distortion, and with what one could describe as a slightly more aggressive, but equally pleasant and accessible combination of interesting, starkly major sounding guitar riffs. The drums drive with simple but effective “Won’t Get Fooled Again” style grooves. A small interlude, and then a revival of the original playfully dancing lines of the opening directly before the close.

The second track “Hund” starts faster and intentionally dissonant, playing more with pseudo-mathrock and excellent use of muted strikes on the guitar. Following that we find something more in line with the first track, then something that sounds like psycho surf rock, with the guitar insisting on single notes high in register, and the bass mimicking in rhythm but residing on the lower tracks.

In the third, “Action,” we find more of the same, but with a slightly slowed down tempo, the begins awkward, and develops quickly into a demented polka of sorts, rife with strange bass chords and percussive elements form the guitar. Somehow the song evolves into a Yopo-induced tribal ritual from Latin America, with hard abusive on tri-tones, counterbalanced by tight drumming.

The fourth track “Sirene” may function more or less as filler, but is one of the most interesting tracks. Here it seems that group found the tonality and mood they were looking. Essentially reducible to three parts, the recurring thematic doesn’t stand up to the deliberate yelps and madness of the other parts.

The fifth track “Polyp” begins as a tribute to the beginning of “Larks Tongue in Aspic part I” from King Crimson, with small bells and rubbings on empty strings. It then slides easily into something that could have been from the post rock of the 90s, like June of 44. Without words the track slows to and expansive groove characterized by echoing guitar noises and a chugging base. The drums remain consistent until the track becomes something reminiscent of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” Then, to a Jane’s Addiction style groove, with a highly major tonic and very well placed drums. From that, we enter suddenly and intensifying assault surrounding major but harshly distorted progressions.

For the final track “Krypt” the band begins with a flowing bass heavy groove with more guitar noise than actual notes. Straight to a math groove with sound effects that come almost directly from a recent release from a contemporary German band. The only words in the album find themselves in the last two minutes, mimicking a, perhaps the only true, guitar melody, interposed with Collapsar style riffs in Sonic Youth chords. The thematics evolve in and around themselves to multiple incarnation with simple plodding bass lines and machine gun style drums, for a sudden and unexpected finish.

Album Review: The Darcys – Warring

By Ray Finlayson; October 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

There’s a lot to be said about Warring, the third album from Toronto four-piece the Darcys – but finding an entry point to talk about it isn’t particularly easy. The music on Warring is tricky to pigeonhole, shifting between typical genre stop-off points numerous times during a single track. It’s also an album that thrives in its full format, capturing a beautifully nervous and ambiguous mood and itching about within it. Although Warring has many great singular tracks, it isn’t an album you can advertise with one song while doing justice to its full context. Put simply: Warring is an accomplishment, and it takes time and attention to detail to fully realize this.

What the Darcys do especially well here is work as a singular unit, crafting songs that aren’t defined by their lead instruments, but rather by the often barraging, subtly undulating feel. Guitar and keyboard tones and textures are mixed together in a way that requires a few listens to fully register what you might be hearing while the bass slips between being pressing and quietly distorting. Even lead singer Jason Couse’s vocals are something more resembling an instrument rather than a simple channel for lyrics. His range can come off limited on first glance, verging on breathless at time (he virtually disappears during final moments of “Muzzle Blast”), but he judges and captures the best of his ability, like on the high rising notes on the chorus of “The River,” or on “Hunting,” where he sounds like an animal shrieking a sort of warning call across a field at night time.

The exception to this rule is the piano ballad centrepiece, “The Pacific Theatre,” which consequently captures the skeleton of what Warring is all about, stripping away a lot of the fanfare, and relying on nothing more than a few sparse Matthew Robert Cooper-like chords and melodies and Couse’s desolate vocals. It also allows one of Warring’s hidden strengths to come into the limelight for a brief moment, that being the intricate sonic detail painted into each of these tracks. On “The Pacific Theatre” a strangely poignant digital camera beep is heard at one point, and it feels like it would be capturing something Victorian in style. On “The River,” there’s pleasure to be taken from dissecting the wavering vocal melodies in Couse’s hooks that only burn them into your memory more, while the dark and moody tones that open up “Close To Me” seem to capture a sort of aural equivalent of an optical illusion, like they’re moving about while staying stationary.

While the details are important, The Darcys are still more then capable of working in a bigger scope. “Pretty Girls” and “747s” are the most anthemic tracks here, but they don’t sound pastiche at all. Instead they puff up the chest of someone who has been breathing shallowly for thirty minutes. There’s something cinematic about Warring, too, playing to the description they wrote about the album: “[Warring] is moving forward. It’s learning in motion. Competition and survival, letting go to persevere. It is anxiety about the future and the triumph of life in the moment. It’s victory on will alone, the force that eradicates failure as an option.” The album plays to this sort of paranoia, sounding insomniac at points (“Close To Me,” “Lost Dogfights”) and like it’s found a release at others (the lush flourishing riffs on “Horses Fell”; the fuzzy guitar chug of “Pretty Girls”). Like the album cover depicts, everything feels like it’s hanging by a thread, if it hasn’t already fallen to the ground.

Most of the time, though, it’s wavering between states, and it succeeds as a whole because it’s at its best when it’s like this: the release of the tension on the chorus of “The River” is a golden moment because it never sounds like it’s fully resolved; “Itchy Blood” is as fidgety as the title suggests; and “Muzzle Blast” sounds like a mind racing, obsessing over misconstrued memories again and again. It’s a sort of monochrome madness the band capture here that they go on to explore over forty minutes.

As much as I imagine Warring fits into its proper context as the third part of a trilogy of albums, I can’t say I’ve partaken in The Darcys or last year’s AJA. Still, Warring most definitely works as a singular product, providing an effective chasm to easily fall into once “Close To Me” breaks through the floor, like a nightmare suddenly coming to life. Although “Horses Fell” and “747s” do sound inherently similar, they explore different extensions of the same key. And “Itchy Blood” writhes about a little too long on its own, but it helps the album flow better, allowing the sinking chords of “The Pacific Theatre” to feel heavier than they are. These aren’t huge quibbles; Warring works and succeeds despite them. While you might not be able to easily ignite a conversation about the album, listening to it over and over will most definitely start a chain reaction of contemplative thoughts and theories about what you’re hearing.

Album Review: Grayskul – Zenith

By Chul Gugich; October 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

If the color-by-numbers liberalism of “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love” were an accurate indicator, the rap music coming out of Seattle deals only in ham-fisted treacles that appeal to folks who already know where they stand on such issues as “materialism” and “marriage equality.” (Still, more power to the pop culture zeitgeist machine if it encourages greater tolerance.) But while those aforementioned hits might be rare pieces of progressive cultural footage — especially when riding high on a milquetoast pop music landscape — they’re certainly not very weird songs. The Seattle-based hip hop duo, Grayskul, on the other hand, makes songs that are very much so.

Rappers Onry Ozzborn and JFK found moderate underground success in the mid-aughts, appealing to the Aesop Rock and Busdriver fans of the world, a fanatical base made more fervent by the lack of efficient music delivery vehicles pre-microblogging and Bandcamp. (Being able to have in-depth conversations about shit no one else has ever heard is an efficient way to claim authority, after all.) Grayskul’s label home at the time, Rhymesayers, was the ideal place for the niche rap of Deadlivers and Bloody Radio released in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Allusions to vampirism and robot invasion over moody, gothic boom-bap blended well with the crew’s fundamental roots in traditional Golden Era-style lyricism.

The duo’s new album, Zenith, released on indie boutique Fake Four Inc., forgoes the darkness of their previous material in favor of a wide-range of sounds oblique enough to maintain the group’s left-of-centeredness but also allowing for brief excursions into popular rap and electronic music styles of the moment. Production credits start with indie favorite Aesop Rock and trend further subterranean with names like Smoke, Void Pedal and Moodie Black. Album opener “Zenith” (featuring a brief Raekwon endorsement) is a salvo launched at the radio rap status quo over tense 4/4 drums; “Come On” is a lyrical workout with laser-guided synth and forward-marching boom-bap; and “The Gift” (featuring singer Reva DeVito) is melancholy neo-soul with a futurist hippy bent. This all happens in the span of the album’s first three tracks and it does much to keep your ears at full attention.

Elsewhere, some of the sonic experiments fall flat. “We Vanish” is rap-rock fusion (what a dreaded term) that I’m sure appeals to a very minor segment of those Vans Warped Tour-going heads who didn’t find the genre mash-up trend of the mid ‘90s regrettable. “Wide Awake” is a head-scratcher, too, with its lush synth and pristine, dreamy chorus by Themes. It sounds like a re-purposed Washed Out instrumental, which isn’t inherently offensive, but inside the context of what surrounds it the track falls too far out of bounds.

Seattle — and the greater Pacific Northwest area in general — is still a region finding its hip hop identity. Artists currently bubbling there run the gamut from the light pop fare of Macklemore to the bleak, medieval trap of Nacho Picasso. If you were to distill the city’s essential rap components to their base elements, however, you might find Grayskul left in the petri dish. Onry Ozzborn’s style settles in like the region’s perpetual cloud cover; he’s of the idiosyncratic school of lyricism with peers like El-P and Slug, whipping off sharp but askance science drops concerning a society in decline in one instance (“There Is No Edge”) and sending up the degrading nature of club culture the next (“Clubs”). JFK raps with a dexterous, perfectly in-the-pocket nasal scratch, the ideal foil to his partner’s droll wit. If Onry is the straight man, then JFK plays the court jester, like on the trap-inspired “Maggot” where he fires shots at radio rap convention over an otherwise conventional beat.

Grayskul’s home region is in no danger of reaching a hip hop equilibrium; there’s a massive range of sound worth exploring to anyone who has the time. This group, though, has always been ahead of the curve: they were acting like vampires way before the Twilight series found brooding life in gloomy Forks, Washington, for example. The main thing that sets them apart from what national audiences are now becoming acclimated to, is a piercing wit and penchant for finding artistic nuance in day-to-day topics, similar to how the best science fiction has always emblemized contemporary human existence. Depending on where you’re standing, Zenith’s best track, “I Adapt” (featuring Soliloquists of Sound and NyQwil), is either a treatise on the pratfalls of romantic unions, or obtuse commentary on the tendency for hip hop artists to fall into segmented musical “tribes.” Either way, with Zenith Grayskul has done its part in keeping Seattle hip hop weird and unpredictable.

Album Review: Tuff Sunshine – Kids Know

By Joshua Pickard; October 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

New York indie rock outfit Tuff Sunshine do a lot with very little. The band’s stripped down indie rock aesthetic plies its strength from the simplicity of their drums/guitar/bass setup which hasn’t really been improved upon in the last 40 years. There’s always room for experimentation of course, but if you’ve got that core dynamic where it needs to be, everything else just seems to fall into place. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve got revered no-wave producer Martin Bisi (Sonic Youth, Brian Eno) handling the recording and mastering duties. But Tuff Sunshine aren’t merely riding the coattails of the recent trend of bands fixating on an early 90s classic indie rock sound – though you can hear much of that time period in the tracks that form their recent Kids Know EP. Bringing together aspects of indie rock and post punk with the occasional funk rhythm flourish, the band skillfully mines these flooded genres, creating a distinctively thrumming rock landscape with only a bare minimum of pieces.

“All Hail The One That Got Away” kicks off the album with a burst of adrenalized Girls Against Boys alt-rock fury – with searing guitar riffs lancing out at right angles, grating up against a throbbing bassline and unrelenting percussion. The song brings to mind memories of Buzz Bin compilations and alternative radio superiority. And if the edges feel a bit smooth, the band can be forgiven a bit because of the persistent post rock barrage that comes squalling out from the speakers. But even in a landscape so filled with familiar sights and sounds as this, the band doesn’t linger long on any one idea. They shift into a more casually melodic groove on “Honeymoon,” a chugging rocker held up by a hummable melody that never shortchanges the importance of the band’s own interwoven dynamics (or the cowbell, for that matter). That being said, they falter a bit on the overcooked rocker “Mining The Moat,” a track that tries a bit too hard and feels a bit too flat. There’s no lack of effort but the execution feels much less refined than either of the previous tracks, and the overly glossy production does them no favors either.

Thankfully, it’s a brief misstep which is soon rectified by “Kids Know.” Borrowing liberally from the surf rock and post punk handbooks, the band distills layers of blurred distortion and pop melodicism into a churning, sub-three minute call to arms. But this isn’t simply a paint by numbers indie rock template, Tuff Sunshine understand well enough that rock music hasn’t changed much in the past 40 years, and there’s probably not much that’s going to change about it in the next 40 years. But what they do have is a charging rock song that never sacrifices creativity for accessibility. “Open Mic” closes out the album in roiling waves of submerged noise and elastic bass rhythms — not to mention the wiry fretwork that feels like it belongs on a Pixies b-side, buried deep in some record collector’s private stash.

While there is a creative dip in the middle of the EP, overall the band has done a wonderful job of not only adhering to the classic indie rock sounds that have felt so prevalent lately but also by expanding them beyond their roots. Often, so much care is given to imitating these familiar sounds without understanding the reasons why they resonate so clearly with people — which they have done for decades — but on Kids Know, Tuff Sunshine find a good balance of respect and creative momentum so that the songs, barring “Mining The Moat,” never feel slogged down in influence or nostalgia. You can get a feel for how the band themselves feel about this music. There is a love, and in truth, a reverence for how these sounds have led them in their own development as musicians. And while that love has led to a satisfying collection of indie rock revisions, I’d be surprised if the band doesn’t continue to follow their influences into deeper and darker places. But wherever they go, there’s no doubt that they’ll have plenty of company.

Album Review: Weekend – Jinx

By Joshua Pickard; October 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

San Francisco rockers Weekend like noise – and lots of it. If you give a quick listen to their 2010 debut record, Sports, you’ll immediately be greeted with towers of gushing distortion and thundering waves of dense percussion. Though far from being some heaving mass of undifferentiated sound, the band actually managed to impart some semblance of individuality into the record, allowing it to expand and contract in continuous rhythmic expulsions. Their 2011 follow-up, the five-track EP Red, found the band pulling back a bit on the noise and relying far more on melodic reconstruction and a grizzled dream pop aesthetic. It was far less abrasive than many of the songs on Sports and showed a band in a state of transition. Now it wasn’t always clear what the band was transitioning to at the time. But there was a feeling of sustained movement, and that is exactly what the band needed after the release of their impressive, though somewhat insular, debut.

On their sophomore LP Jinx, this forward momentum has carried them deep into the goth-stadium settings of musical ancestors like The Cure and Depeche Mode. It’s an easy comparison to make, sure, but it’s an apt one and shows the band proudly flying their new wave flag for all to see. But for every reference we conspicuously spot – a dark synth roll here or a throbbing bass line there – it’s the less obvious detours that the band takes through this well-mined genre that really makes the record stand out. On opening track “Mirror,” the band plows through leagues of Disintegration-era distortion-pop and drench everything in a viscous oil slick of noise-rock and gauzy dream pop tendencies. There is a sense of tangled freneticism that keeps the song constantly shifting from one sound to the next with barely a breath taken.

After the dense catharsis of Sports and the melodic experiments on Red, the band has settled into an almost comfortable position, where the jagged serrations of their earlier work blends almost seamlessly with the deliberate melodicism of their most hummable harmonies. Tracks like “July” and “Celebration, FL” find the band dropping the hiss and grit to give their songwriting chops a chance to air out, and far from alienating any of their potential listeners, this restraint actually lends the band a renewed sense of innovation and originality.  They’re still playing with the same toys, but the strides they’ve made in knowing why these sounds work so well together really highlight how Weekend have grown since the release of their first record.

And it’s not simply that the songs on Jinx sound clearer and cleaner than their previous work – though that is definitely the case – it seems more to be an issue that the band has a better understanding of how everything should sound, as opposed to how they think their fans expect it to sound. I’m not saying that they ceded any creative license on their earlier records just to cater to any perceived expectations, but at times, it certainly came across as a deliberate aesthetic choice. Here it seems more the natural progression of a band comfortable within their own skins and anxious to show their fans exactly what kind of noise-soaked mischief they can get themselves into.

The back half of the record does feel a bit more narcotized than the beginning, but it’s more shoegaze-meets-post-rock than creative lethargy, though it also holds more than few nods to the band’s occasionally murky pop predilections. It’s a different sense of momentum – less directly forward and more determinedly inward. And while you do occasionally miss the jagged guitar riffs that spilled out in torrents on their previous records (and on the first half of Jinx), the band makes up for it by developing a more attenuated sense of rhythm and melody. Whether it’s the post-industrial motions of “It’s Alright” or the Echo and the Bunnymen-influenced “Scream Queen,” they’ve tapped into a more cohesive set of musical tendencies. It’s no longer enough just to borrow liberally from the jangly goth-pop of the 80s, the band’s own personality has to come through clearly — and it does.

Weekend have expanded their musical palette and aren’t satisfied to simply rehash the past, either their own or their influences.  Granted, as they’ve smoothed out the rough edges a bit, some of the rugged immediacy has been lost, but they’ve more than make up for it in a newfound sense of lively rhythmic interaction. Whether they’re staring out at the constantly shifting world around them or simply focusing on the sound of their own languid pulse, the band never settles for creative stoicism. Jinx is a fascinating document of a band in continual motion – even as they expand on their own complicated aesthetic, submerging themselves completely in the surging guitar lines and low-end turbulence that wash across these songs.

Album Review: Haim – Days Are Gone

By Brendan Frank; October 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

Combining existing sounds in different ways can be nearly as exciting as finding new ones. This isn’t lost on California sister act Haim (HIGH-yim). Their sound can find a kindred spirit in every decade since pop music has come into existence. They also have everything they need to be earmarked as a buzz band: musical ability, charisma, sex appeal, an appropriate swagger level, oodles of personality, and fistfuls of hooks.

But singer/guitarist Danielle, bassist Este, guitarist/keyboardist Alana Haim and drummer Dash Hutton are something more than just amalgamators. Their debut album, Days Are Gone, avoids taking the path of least resistance, a path that can permanently hamper a buzz band’s outlook. Instead, it’s so steady-handed, so influentially diverse, and so ludicrously enjoyable that you really should really do some soul searching if it doesn’t do something for you.

Much of the appeal of Days Are Gone lies in the simplicity of its sometimes pop/sometimes rock songs. The melodies are instinctive and effortless, the lyrics undemanding, and the production (courtesy of Ariel Rechtshaid and James Ford) is shiny and modern. Very little of it is cloying. In other words, the kind of music that inspires honest-to-goodness excitement.

And if you like the Haim songs you’ve already heard, you’ll probably like the rest of them. While the production values are somewhat standardized, the album finds diversity by way of sundry rhythms and sharp vocal work. Danielle sounds like any one of Stevie Nicks, Fiona Apple and Victoria Legrande, but her heavy use of staccato inflections lends an electrifying R&B wiggle to “Forever” and “If I Could Change Your Mind.” When they do mix it up sonically, all of their affable qualities translate. “My Song 5” brings Sleigh Bells levels of compression, while the titanium pulse of “Let Me Go” is both confrontational and entrancing.

If Days Are Gone has a weak spot, it’s most definitely found in the lyrics. Then again, if you’ve come to this album looking for life advice, you’re in the wrong place. If you need a little motivation, however, Haim have you covered. The repeated chant of “Never look back/Never give up” on icebreaker “Falling” drives this point home quite well, along with crisp percussion and a metric ton of reverb gloss. In the best-case scenario, as found on the irresistible “Don’t Save Me” or the nimble single “The Wire,” there are modestly incisive rundowns of love lost.

The most exciting thing about Haim’s sound is the number of potential direction they can take it from here. For band who released their first single less than 12 months ago, Days Are Gone is a sizable accomplishment. With the triumvirate of googly-eyed rhythms, sinfully catchy melodies and a breeziness that seems only fitting, they’ve served up one of the most auspicious debuts of the year.

Album Review: múm – Smilewound

By Ray Finlayson; September 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

It’s no longer worth trying to figure out where múm are going, if they are actually going anywhere at all. Once their 2004 album Summer Make Good dropped, it looked like their fate was set: traditional instruments, collective childish vocals, and (attempts at) conventional song structures. They managed to execute those aims to varying degrees on Summer Make Good and on the two albums that followed it (2007’s Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy and 2009’s Sing Along To Songs You Don’t Know), even if it wasn’t all happening at the same time or on the same song. But there was always hope. With their childish enthusiasm, it was easy to want to follow the múm parade, but after wandering aimlessly with them for about fifteen minutes, it became evident that no one really knew where they were going. Come the end of Sing Along, it was beginning to feel like múm were making music for the sake of making music, and not to actually create a cohesive statement of any sort.

Since 2009, the Icelandic band have teased us with nostalgia, releasing Early Birds, which gathered unreleased and lost tracks from over a decade ago, when the band seemed to be promising and delightful. It was easy to imagine the band members finding their love of plinky Nintendo-like snyths and drum machines all over again after rattling through the charming retro sounds of their past, but a dedication to the sound in any form seemed long off. The best we could hope for was another “The Smell of Today Is Sweet Like Breastmilk in the Wind,” with some cut and paste percussion bringing the charm and memorability.

Rejoice then, all those who thought the band’s drum machine days were over. On their new album, Smilewound, múm have returned to the electronic side of things, once again – but not entirely – putting it in focus with traditional instruments and airy female vocals. On the opening track to the album, “Toothwheels,” static clicks fizz out a light rhythm and melodies are delicately plucked and swept into the mix; “When Girls Collide” has all the candy-coloured noises of something capturing the childish fun from the band’s early days; and drum machines quietly go into overload on the bonus track “Whistle” as arpeggios come and go. It’s all very charming at first glance, and it can feel genuinely great that the band have rekindled a fire that seemed lost.

What’s not great, though, is everything that has gone into making these tracks “songs.” While they’ve made plenty of admirable attempts to create a song with verses, chorus, and a structure that can easily be followed, múm have yet to master this talent. For all the appealing noises and sounds, Smilewound is something resembling a disaster in terms of ebb and flow and sequencing. While Sing Along made the mistake of coupling every energetic moment with a lumbering counterpart, Smilewound seems to want to revel in the languid pace, only occasionally bringing life into the mix. Making an album that focuses more on the slow, downcast side of things is fine. But the fact is that múm charm and win over listeners with spurts of energy; lingering beauty and poignancy isn’t really something they do well. But that doesn’t stop them trying, like on the plodding “Slow Down” and “Underwater Snow,” which completely disperse the forward flow of the album’s first fifteen minutes.

Smilewound finds me wanting to describe múm in ways I never really thought I would. Even when the songs bring in some more vocalists, and turn to using live drums, there’s something hollow and robotic about the way the tracks move about. On “The Colourful Stabwound” and “One Smile,” despite the animated drumming and welcome bass lines, the tracks are missing a human purpose to be going forward for. Any charm feels rigid, if not cold – and that’s not because of Gyða Valtýsdóttir’s icy vocals.

Another essential draw of múm also seems lost on Smilewound, that being sonic detail. While they didn’t sound like they were getting the best out of those instruments on previous albums, the odd bum note on a guitar, or the creak of a floorboard in the background gave the tracks moments of singularity. With the return of the drum machines, those imperfections seem lost, only rarely returning (the playful final iteration of the melody on the forgettable and unfortunately unimpressionable “Sweet Impressions,” for instance), if not existing in the sounds of the machines themselves. The timbre or the texture of the sounds they make is worth noting while working through Smilewound, but hardly worth returning specifically for.

It’s good that once again where múm might go next is truly up in the air, but Smilewound hardly make the band’s next release tantalizing. I’m a sucker for taking in each new album, hoping that something will click, and the genius of the band will show itself again. When “Toothwheels” dropped as a single months before the album’s release, it seemed like something worth noting might be on its way; the track felt like it had a purpose and a feel, with Gyða Valtýsdóttir’s vocals surprisingly brushing up to something resembling Natasha Khan on one her more breathless days. And the fact they’ve got a duet with Kylie Minogue to boast at the end (“Whistle”) added to the promise. But even these better moments suffer in their proper context, detrimental from an unrequired longevity, going on for a minute too long, like near enough every other track here. And unfortunately, with Smilewound, it’s beginning to sound like múm themselves might be verging on overstaying their welcome; with this album, it feels like there’s no longer any real substance to extract from the every-changing collective and their attempts to construct songs. In a moment of misplaced poignancy, Valtýsdóttir sings a line that could homophonically be heard as “If you love me then forget me now” on “Underwater Snow”; it’s beginning to feel like that’s the best option.

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