Latest Reviews

Album Review: Jon Hopkins – Immunity

By Brendan Frank; June 25, 2013 at 12:01 AM 

As a music fan, there are few feelings that do more to validate wading through all of the muck than a genuine breakthrough. Wimbledon export Jon Hopkins’ career has been a series of baby steps, beginning with his debut Opalescent in 2001. From there he worked his way up, releasing follow-ups, collaborating with the likes of Coldplay and Brian Eno, and collaborating with King Creosote on the Mercury-nominated Diamond Mine in 2011. It’s a solid resume, akin to a wonderful character actor who’s never quite managed to elbow their way into limelight. With his fourth individual effort, Immunity, Hopkins is hell-bent on making his own luck.

And has he ever; Immunity is brilliant. It’s both a culmination of Hopkins’ earlier achievements and a progression beyond them. It can be fragile, kinetic or abrasive; it can make you want to dance or sing along with ad-libbed words, or just awe you with its beauty. Yet it exists in a realm that few other techno records occupy. It’s an impeccably organized listening experience that deserves and demands to be listened to in its entirety, thanks to terrific pacing, a broad sonic palette, and a confident command of rhythm.

The album’s arc is a reward in itself, each track both self-serving and contributing to the bigger picture, starting with the nervous glitch of “We Disappear.” By around the three-minute mark you get the feeling that Hopkins is just showing off, with an uncountable number of layers slithering and stutter-stepping over each other. From there, Hopkins plays roulette, transitioning into a deep house groove on the juggernaut “Open Eye Signal,” then playing up the contrast between grace and snarl on “Breathe This Air,” meshing a diaphanous piano part with a bubbling bassline.

Immunity’s first half carefully, continuously turns the screws a little tighter before going fully mechanical on “Collider.” Each piece is forged from experience, and the overall sweep is made all the more effective by Hopkins’ command of rhythm. He builds his beats out of everyday noises, from distant trains, to flipping pages in a book, to closing doors; everything becomes a part of Immunity’s intricate engine. It’s all fair game.

There are a few more breathers on Immunity’s second half, starting with “Abandon Window,” the delicacy of which is quickly thrown out for the hostile twitching of “Form By Firelight.” The twelve-minute centerpiece “Sun Harmonics” is an amalgam of what came before it, danceable but at arm’s length, smooth but with fissures under the surface. The closing title track brings to mind Four Tet’s “Slow Jam,” laying gorgeous pianos over what sounds like ambient noise from an office. It’s the album’s crowning moment, an emotionally saturated piece made all the more resonant by King Creostle’s shimmering vocals. All in all, Hopkins’ roadmap is splendidly plotted, taking the right amount of time to deliver you to your destination and showing you the detours you didn’t even know you wanted to see.

Album Review: Kanye West – Yeezus

By Chase McMullen; June 21, 2013 at 12:35 AM 

We all created this monster. In 2013, to criticize the force that is Kanye West – as much as it will annoy his many detractors – is akin to assigning a grade to Salvador Dali or Michelangelo Antonioni. It’s nearly as hopeless as it is arbitrary.

In truth, there is plenty to criticize in the, dare I say, auteur’s latest, Yeezus. This simple fact has led to an amusing dash of excuses from the media, which this critic shall not quote directly, if only to avoid ruffling feathers. In this unilaterally defensive act, a simple truth has been lost. The work of a true artist, at times, as equally interesting for its blemishes as its brilliant successes.

To the point, Yeezus is perhaps Mr. West’s most daring work of production, calling for assistance from areas as diverse as the dance world, through several Daft Punk collaborations, to Hudson Mohawke and a shattering sample of TNGHT’s “R U Ready,” (which Mr. West purchased, forcing the production duo to rework the track into “Higher Ground” for the release of their EP) the sonic backing to the album is both strikingly simple and deceptively layered. The former intention has been trumpeted at every opportunity in the rapid-fire media barrage supporting the album, with West declaring his interest in simplicity, and late-joining collaborator Rick Rubin expressing his own contributions as stripping away every unneeded element. The latter was the inevitable product of Ye’s obsession for his craft.

The process of recording and release, in fact, are equally of note to the LP as its very contents. While West has long been known as a man who will late to the last minute to put perfecting touches, the odyssey of Yeezus is daring, nonetheless. According, again to Rubin, the album was more a batch of unfinished sounds only weeks before its intended release, with him and West painstakingly piecing together – and then ripping away again – each disparate element, resulting in songs that pull every which different way, even in their often brief lengths.

Beyond this, the lack of supporting singles, with the only press for the album generating from the projections and live performances of “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead,” respectively, could be as revelatory for the music industry as Trent Reznor and Thom Yorke hoped their release strategies would be. As one of West’s own collaborators remarked, they consider their potential audience in need of, “washing the radio out of their ears.” By refusing to market to the charts, West stands to potentially other artists from its grips.

This has allowed him the most freedom in his career, resulting in an album both uncompromising and gleefully absurd. The wordplay is likely West’s most simplistic yet, generating laughable punch lines and painfully recycled quips such as, “careless whispers.” No less, much of the album’s content revolves entirely around how much joy the rapper finds in sticking it to his socialite mistress. Awkwardly wedged between these sex ballads are moments of angry social commentary, begging the question: what, exactly, is the intent of this album?

If anything, each and every Kanye West LP, up to now, has been focused, even ruthlessly so, on whatever his fascination or goal may have been. Ever the paradox, West has here crafted his most indefinite and, simultaneously, truly representative work. The indistinct nature of the material, in actuality, is the record’s masterstroke. Allowed to follow his every whim, embodying the eternally fractured nature of West’s persona: one minute the troubled philosopher, the next a borderline nihilist reveling in only debauchery.

Even through the often clumsy lyricism – which West has expressly stated was his precise intention – the MC is shouting to all who will listen a simple mantra: this time around, he just doesn’t care. He can weep for the powerful’s revision of the past, modern slavery, then fuck Kim Kardashian, put a clumsily autotuned Chief Keef between a sublime Justin Vernon, it’s all his show: he is, after all, a God. Upon first glance (or even the first several), album closer “Bound 2” is a clumsy cap to the sprawling insanity that is Yeezus, but spend some time, after the willfully forward-thinking nature, a tired Kanye can’t help but retreat into his soul-sampling tendencies of yesteryear. If there’s anything Mr. West finds completely alien to his person, it’s restraint, and Yeezus is the perfect, chaotic, and ultimately uncompromising dive into this world. While always maintaining its jaded distance, this is perhaps the closest we’ve come to all sides of the man that is Kanye West.

Album Review: Dirty Beaches – Drifters/Love Is The Devil

By Zachary Corsa; June 14, 2013 at 12:01 AM 

“I don’t care about pleasing your expectations. I was crying my fucking eyes out when I wrote this and punching myself in the face. This is why I’m doing this record. It’s for myself and my life.”

So wrote an impassioned Alex Hungtai, in response to a disgruntled YouTube commenter who took issue with his gorgeously flowing instrumental “Love is The Devil” when the track surfaced last winter. If there’s one cliche above all others that seems to define our current mode of indie culture, it’s the idea that what came before is always better than whatever is next. People will pine for your halcyon days past until you rot. People will always insist you’re selling out.

Alex Hungtai, however, as you may have guessed, does not give two tin shits what anyone else expects of him. In a time when so many bands are clearly angling for hitting the reliable, relatable pleasure center of so many fans’ brains, Hungtai is striking out in a bold, lonely direction, pleasing himself first, and openly so. It’s perhaps what makes his newest collection of small masterpieces as Dirty Beaches, the double album juggernaut Drifters/Love Is The Devil, so much a product of its time. These songs aren’t just raw, but emblematic of an encroaching era where there remain few sacred barriers between fans and artists, and after years of sarcasm and easy irony, it seems thinking music fans might be ready for some hot-blooded sincerity again.

Well, sincerity is here in immeasurable doses, friends! Gone are most of the greaser-era Lynchisms of Badlands, replaced instead with touchingly melodic ambient bliss-outs, and more compact songs that seem deeper, somehow more tangible than the lo-fi pop exercises that preceded them. As the conventional rules regarding the ‘album’ format wane and wither, so many artists, from Swans to Joanna Newsom to The Knife, are growing comfortable stretching out with epic lengths and over-the-top displays. Sometimes, this can mean a mere artistic indulgence, egomania let loose to run unchecked. In the case of Dirty Beaches, it’s a necessarily grandiose statement on longing, loss, and the ache of love’s departure.

Make no mistake, most everything here is still layered in a pulled-taffy gauze of murk, and that’s just how it should be. “Landscapes In The Mist” floats along on echoing clicks, pulled drearily in and out of focus by a wavering, ethereal saxophone. Elsewhere, “Belgrade” is all ominous John Carpenter synths, sounding like an earthier variation on what Emeralds were aiming for in the Does It Look Like I’m Here? days. Over on the Love Is The Devil end of things, almost everything encountered is emotionally-stirring synth work or eerily-plucked, reverb-washed guitar, the crown synth jewel being the jaw-dropping title track itself (all YouTube trolls aside). The fact that Hungtai’s transition into more ambient realms seems entirely natural, rather than odd or jarring, is a testament to his ear for quality.

The more song-styled moments equally amaze, full of spit-spraying, hungover/lovestruck howling and  terrifyingly sociopathic growls. The chintzy drum machines and broken Casio burbles power along like the Human League being mugged in a dark alley by Suicide, while Hungtai pries scorching anguish from the very bottom of a ravaged soul. He even manages to beat The Raveonettes at their own retro-obsessed game on “Night Walk.” Sometimes (okay, most of the time), the lyrics are hard to make out, but that’s surely by design rather than inexperience; the point here is the emotion displayed in the context of the voice itself, which communicates all on its own more than any lyric sheet ever could.

So, how is it that a double album totaling nearly eighty minutes of material has not one noticeable weak spot or hint of filler in the mix? Believe me, it may be hard to take my word for it, but it’s true. In purging his guts and diving into something deeper than just warped fifties nostalgia, Hungtai has truly come into his own as an artist with an unique voice and a compelling message. He’s fulfilled every promise made by Badlands and then some, and despite whatever depths of pain made such an eruption of shattered awesome possible, he’s managed not just one of the best albums of the year, but one of the most genuinely moving, as well.

Album Review: Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

By Josh Becker; June 11, 2013 at 12:01 AM 

It’s easy to imagine the scene: 11:45 pm on December 21, 2012. In an abandoned Soviet-era bomb shelter, several shadowed figures are hunched around a dusty digital clock radio, listening for garbled broadcasts of the coming apocalypse and silently counting down the minutes until midnight passes. In the right light, you might notice Kevin Shields, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, Justin Timberlake, David Bowie, and Otis Jackson Jr. A suffocating silence fills the room. Beads of sweat drip from Karin’s forehead; Otis bites his fingernails. To call the moment “tense” would be like calling a house fire a “mild inconvenience.” They’ve spent years planning for this moment, but they’re no less nervous now that it was about to happen. Maybe.

11:52. Kevin clears his throat but says nothing. The amused expressions of the two Frenchmen belie their anxiety; one of them has even taken off his helmet, wiping the inside with his shirtsleeve. David Bowie is napping on a dilapidated couch, having long since cemented his reputation as the ever-smirking skeptic of the bunch.

11:57. An announcer on the radio seems to shout over the static, but it’s no cause for alarm; he’s describing the scene at Times Square, where throngs of celebrants have drunkenly gathered to ring in the almost-new-year as though the ball were just about ready to drop. (Karin and Olof snicker to themselves at the Freudian implications of such a tradition.) JT suddenly remembers that he was supposed to be at the Staples Center, playing MC for the evening along with Selena Gomez. Oh well, he sighs to himself; what are they gonna do, fire him?

Finally, midnight. An anticipatory pause falls over the musicians, as though they’ve given the universe one last chance to prove the Mayans right. But the only thing they hear is the distant crackling of homemade fireworks and the excited shrieks of Russian schoolchildren up way past their bedtime.

“Well then,” says Karin, as Kevin nudges Bowie awake and Olof rummages through a messenger bag for the I Survived The End Of The World t-shirt he’d bought at the airport. “I suppose we must get on with it, then.” Kevin’s already on the phone with his boys back at Pickpocket Records, giving them the go-ahead to press copies of M B V.

As the group prepares to disperse, Otis furrows his brow. “What about Mike and Mark?” he asks, motioning towards the far corner of the room, where the brothers are tinkering with a cassette recording of the Pole Position lady: “Prepare to qual- / Pre-pre-prepare to qual- / Pre-pre-prepare to qualify / qualify / qualify.” The pair hardly seemed to have noticed the presence of anyone else in the room.

Guy-Manuel chuckles. “Oh, they’re always here.”

Otis arches an eyebrow.

“Though Lord knows how they got in without this,” he adds, twiddling the rusty copper key they’d used to enter the dank basement.

As the group walks back up the cinder block stairs, Otis gives one last look back at the two Scotsmen now rummaging through a haphazard pile of ancient Muzzy videocassettes and late-70s PSA filmstrips about the dangers of heroin addiction. Marcus is making downtempo boombox noises with his mouth; Michael is banging an old ARP 2600 with a crowbar.

“Damn. That’s nutty,” Otis says as he and the others close the metal door behind them.


Tomorrow’s Harvest would be the most hotly anticipated electronic release of any other year. After all, it’s been over a decade since the last great Boards of Canada album (Geogaddi), yet their impact on contemporary music has hardly lessened; indeed, their decayed educational film samples, warped synth lines, shellacked downtempo/IDM rhythms, and wistful half-melodies are perhaps chiefly responsible for the endlessly nostalgic chillwave and vaporwave trends, not to mention the hauntological transmissions proffered by the likes of Ghost Box Recordings. And for good reason–plenty of electronic musicians have made childlike music, but few have done so with as much poignancy or unease as the venerable Scottish duo. Too often, even the most tape- and time-warbled remembrances from the electronic underground nail the nostalgic aspect but forget how scary and mysterious the world could seem to us as children. Just where did all those anti-drug PSAs come from, anyway? And why were many of our most frightening nightmares filled not with monsters or pain but rather slightly off-kilter reflections of our daily lives? Childhood wasn’t just days at the beach and nights being read bedtime stories while Johnny Carson yammered away in the background. Even ostensibly happy moments could carry with them the sensation that something’s not quite right.

The brassy, logotone-like intro to “Gemini,” the first song on Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest, signals that the duo have not lost their fascination with either retro technology or the lurking tendrils of intangible danger to which children have always seemed especially attuned (a veritable sixth sense, if you will). But before launching into a deep analog groove–the first of many–it gives way to an unexpectedly cinematic sound: that of withering, lonely strings that wouldn’t feel out of place during the opening credits of a Kubrick film. This album isn’t any more sci-fi than Geogaddi, but it feels more widescreen. Whereas their earlier works gazed inwards on memories real and imagined, Tomorrow’s Harvest surveys some dystopian landscape, perhaps the one depicted on the cover (which happens to be San Francisco, but it might as well be anywhere).

“Reach For The Dead” introduces percussion in the form of an unadorned kick drum which does its thing for about two-thirds of the song’s length before a more classic BoC rhythm breaks through–languid enough to be considered “downtempo,” but clanging and clicking and glitchy enough to usher the track into IDM territory. Regardless of how you’d classify it, Sandison and Eoin have never been as rhythmically concerned as their Warp peers like Aphex Twin or Autechre. On Tomorrow’s Harvest, they venture even further into atmospheric and imagined-soundtrack territory whether it’s the distant whirring of a helicopter on “White Cyclosa” or the guttural drones of “Collapse,” the latter of which frames its otherwise pleasant arpeggios in a more menacing and, yes, off-kilter context.

Speaking of off-kilter, “Jacquard Causeway” plods with all the precision of a seasick sailor navigating choppy waves, its piteous synth line and stuttering beat operating on slightly different but interlocking wavelengths (and tempos) to disorienting effect. Before long, those lonely strings return and smear the track with an oddly romantic gauze, like an airbrushed Terminator. Maybe this part of the movie would be some fucked montage of post-apocalyptic androids collecting human limbs, I don’t know. The strings make another noteworthy appearance on “Nothing Is Real,” during which their fluttering chords dovetail nicely with the submerged synths but also contrast sharply with the driving drums (as well as the ever-present deep droplets of bass, one BoC feature that hasn’t much changed over the years).

Indeed, there’s enough unsettling ambiguity here to connote all sorts of weird images in the listener’s mind. The garbled countdown on “Telepath,” for instance, reminds me of HAL’s dying take on “Daisy Bell,” all noble intentions and miscommunicated messages. “Cold Earth” returns us to a semblance of rhythmic structure, but even here, the robots are not alright; deep within the mix, what sounds like a child’s voice run through a Commodore 64 utters something just short of intelligible. And “Transmissions Ferox,” perhaps named after the audio effect or the 1981 Italian exploitation movie, begins with what sounds like a woman repeating “1995,” though it’s difficult to make out. Whatever she’s actually saying, between that and the cut-up monk chants of “Palace Posy,” well, I’ve a feeling we’re not in the giddy vocal samples of “Aquarius” anymore.

Tomorrow’s Harvest, in sum, is like a Boards of Canada spin on a Boards of Canada record. It’s not drastically different from their earlier works, but it’s also not cut from the same cloth. It’s slightly darker and more industrial (check out that chugging, tinny beat on “Split Your Infinities,” if you can get past the Crypt-Keeper-from-the-future vocalizations and birdsong-or-laser squelches). It’s a bit more monochromatic; the different instrumental layers feel a bit more squished together here than they did on Music Has the Right to Children or Geogaddi, which further lends itself to the album’s overall disconcerting effect. And the duo’s trademark ambient interludes take on a more sinister liveliness than they did in the past; “Uritual” sounds like the Sentinels from The Matrix returning from the grave, while “Sundown,” though somber and glacial, also has its ominous chord changes slowly bleed into each other. Finally, closing track “Semena Mertvykh” is the sound of the machines powering down, one growling drone giving way to another until we’re left with but a flicker of an echo of the noise.

Still, the biggest change is in their focus. Where Music Has the Right seemed grounded in the real world (albeit a twisted recollection of such) and Geogaddi straddled the line between Star Wars and The Sandlot, Tomorrow’s Harvest finds the duo launching their sound into Lovecraftian orbit. And it sounds terrific; between this and Exai, it’s been a surprisingly invigorating year of damaged dystopian dreams for Warp. Sci-fi fans rejoice: this particular film is certainly not based on a true story.

Album Review: Disclosure – Settle

By Will Ryan; June 10, 2013 at 9:00 AM 

Disclosure is the rare artist that’s managed to stay a step ahead of the hype. It seemed the brothers Lawrence knew exactly what they wanted Disclosure to be upon arrival in 2010 with their frank mixture of classic house and UK garage. Even before their name had caught on with broader dance and indie landscapes in early 2013, they released their foray into pop, The Face EP, a record that still justifies all the coverage and chart success the duo has managed in recent months, by itself. In fact, it’s still up for discussion if they’ve topped that EP’s destructive centerpiece, “What’s In Your Head.” All this is to say that it’s hardly a surprise Disclosure’s full-length debut on PMR Records, Settle, is one of most stunning and immediate records of the year.

The thing about Disclosure is, even with Settle, they’re hardly charting unforged sonic territory. They’re sound is pretty straight-forward, all things considered. Jacques Greene is more ambitious. Phon.o is more sophisticated. Sepalcure is smarter and more complex. But the boys’ ground game is simply on a whole other level. They’re working in a different realm of songwriting and production mastery than, well, just about anyone. Their made-to-look-easy acrobatic, precision-heavy technical chops and dry-cleaned textural palate set them apart, but otherwise it’s zero frills four-to-the-floor, 120 BPM house music wrapped up in some of the most diabolical staccato synth melodies and vocal hooks ever put to tape.

Settle also hosts an A-list of up and comers from the UK underground including AlunaGeorge, Jesse Ware, and London Grammar and the record almost functions as a statement of the new generation (the Disclosure boys are barely out of their teens) ushering out the old in one fell swoop by wholeheartedly and unabashedly embracing its influence and constructing some of the most vital and irresistible music imaginable. The album even opens with a motivational speaker soapboxing about the constant of change before the duo deliver their momentum-grabbing mission statement with “When A Fire Starts to Burn.” Considering the duo’s lightspeed rise to prominence, the track’s sentiment feels too slyly on the the nose not to be self-aware. And at least one thing is clear: they’re not going to waste the opportunity they’ve been given.

The group’s watershed 2012 single “Latch,” which features vocalist Sam Smith, arrives after “When A Fire Starts to Burn” as if to get it out of the way early. The track is still a masterwork in pop build with its clenched-muscled chorus and Smith’s climactic delivery of “Heart beats out of my chest” flung into a vat of reverb. The unlikely chart topper, “White Noise” isn’t close behind, Aluna Francis’ vocals playing see-saw with a caffeinated jungle-gym hook. The track’s standout moment is its transition from widescreen synth ambiance to throttling, heart attack-inducing dance workout at its chorus.

Disclosure’s music is almost invasively commanding and they manage it by understanding the power of peaks and valleys, surprise, and how to nurture the hell out of a hook, making it grow and expand over the course of a track. They dot Settle with little songwriting motifs, like how they bring the kick back in a beat after its expected, the way splinters of a snare might converge and snap together so damn satisfyingly right before the whole song comes crashing back in, or the way they swing from huge reverb-soaked abstraction to bone-dry, head-to-the-pavement immediacy on a dime.

Settle is the kind of record where everyone will likely have their own favorite tracks and those tracks will probably change over the course of listening to the album a few dozen times. I’m personally partial to “Defeated No More,” “Stimulation,” and “Help Me Lose My Mind.” Friendly Fires’ Ed Macfarlane turns in one of the most affecting guest spots on “Defeated No More,” which also sports an ungodly bait and switch with the hook on the chorus, causing the synth melody to go into a spine-wrenching tailspin. “Stimulation” is bare bones Disclosure, the duo unraveling one of the most infectious, t0-the-point dance hooks in recent memory. Then there’s the London Grammar-featuring “Help Me Lose My Mind.” Settle may play like a non-stop tour of no-bullshit dance music theatrics, but the latter track complicates Disclosure’s disposition as the brothers land on a beauty and stark, aching emotion they haven’t shown before. A lot of that has to do with Hannah Reid’s unfathomably gorgeous vocal, but it’s backed perfectly by a wash of rainy synths and a downbeat bass part.

Settle has a couple weak spots. Tracks like “F For You” and “Grab Her” would be USDA certified bangers on any other record, but here they feel like filler due only to their flawless surroundings. Otherwise, Settle is nearly impossible not to like. It nonchalantly surpasses expectations at nearly every turn. For Disclosure, it’s a triumph, arriving at the end of a few tireless years of touring and recording. For us, it’s one of the most gleeful and replayable debuts of 2013.

Album Review: Mikal Cronin – MCII

By Brian Hodge; June 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

Twenty-seven can be a difficult age. Of course it still safely resides in the roaring twenties of youth, but the horizon of adulthood looms closer and closer. For musicians, the age portends even worse. For Mikal Cronin, 27, this conflict of optimistic innocence versus the angst of aging is more than a convenient trope – on MCII, it’s a dual-edged sword that he brandishes skillfully into a scintillating sophomore record, one stacked with some of the year’s best pop-rock tunes.

Cronin emerges from San Francisco’s psych-rock scene (he frequently backs high school classmate and longtime friend Ty Segall on bass), but he’s sanded down the genre’s frazzled edges for a polished, pop-friendly sound. Though the subject matter is serious, the record is consistently catchy, with Cronin’s vocals (mostly a mystery heretofore, even to his old bandmates) sitting cleanly atop fuzzy guitars, strings, and piano.

The album steps out with “Weight,” featuring a piano and acoustic guitar driven melody that gives way to Cronin’s introspective lyrics. “I’ve been starting over for a long time,” the album begins. “I’m not ready for another day I fail at feeling new.” The song features a few studio twists and turns – a perfectly placed drum fill, an acoustic guitar breakdown – that showcase the pop polishes Cronin’s incorporated since his memorable, more rough-hewn debut. But despite the song’s incessant catchiness and anthemic nature, it’s clearly a Klonopin for the anxiety beneath the surface. It sounds assured, but he’s clearly “not ready,” a phrase he employs nearly a dozen times.

Much of MCII is indebted to the fuzz-pop of the ’90s and Cronin has meticulously mined some of the choicest nuggets. Fans of Sloan and the like will certainly recognize the distorted guitars and neatly stacked harmonies that made the music from this era shine. But even songs as seemingly follow simple schematics, they are not without surprises – after all, this is still a contemporary record featuring Ty Segall. Take the loose swing of “Am I Wrong,” which brings back that great guitar sound, but adds a plinky barroom piano and a ripping Segall guitar solo. It makes for a fun two and a half minutes.

Indeed, if the devil is in the details, Cronin and co. have seemingly covered all their bases – almost too well. “See It My Way” is a bit of a wrong turn on the FM dial towards the ripoff rock that formerly littered the post-grunge landscape. It is but a minor detour and quickly rectified with the steady, stellar “Peace of Mind.” Here the solo comes not from a squelching guitar, but a perfectly placed fiddle. It works exceedingly well and makes a fitting end for the first half of the record.

“Change” energetically jumpstarts the album’s flip side before giving way to the strumming stomp of “I’m Done Running From You.” The reticence of the record’s first half has given way to increased anxiety, before things slow down with the resigned sincerity of “Don’t Let Me Go.” The song features some heartfelt lyrics (“Don’t let me go/ Cause I don’t want to know/ Is it my fault, we couldn’t grow?”), a result of clear intentions to be deliberately, sometimes brutally honest.

“I told myself with this project the main mission statement would be to just be honest — honest musically and lyrically,” he told the San Francisco Weekly. “I’m sick of bands with gimmicks, and sick of music [that’s] trying to lean on a genre too hard.” This ethos is perfectly encapsulated with the album’s closer, “Piano Mantra.” It’s a song that not many 27 year-old psych-rock bassists could write, let alone one featuring a vulnerable piano and distorted guitars. He recapitulates the album’s conflictions, but concludes that the “open arms are giving me hope.” And with Mikal Cronin at the young of age of just 27, fans of power-pop should have much hope indeed.

Album Review: Majical Cloudz – Impersonator

By Will Ryan; May 29, 2013 at 12:01 AM 

In a field used to haze and obfuscation Montreal’s Majical Cloudz mix frontman Devon Welsh’s vocals well in front of the music. The group’s focus, on their debut LP, Impersonator, is bare emotion and the duo’s sparse, semi-ambient electronic landscapes serve as a canvas for Welsh’s anguished inner dialogs about death, loss, and love. The music is exceedingly introverted, Welsh’s lyrics conforming to anxiety’s inward dance of indecision and contradiction. On the record’s most devastating track, “Bugs Don’t Buzz,” Welsh sings the most memorable line of the album: “The cheesiest songs all end with a smile / This won’t end with a smile,” before following it a couple verses later with “The happiest songs all end with a smile / This might end with a smile.”

On early standout, “This Is Magic” the duo build a stark, nightmare atmosphere haunted with inner demons with lines like “I feel like a kid / I see some monster standing over my crib” and “I hear a murderer walk / I hear his footsteps talk through the floorboards in my house.” The track is almost nothing but a steady kick drum and a thick organ melody with some minor synth textures building quietly out of sight and Welsh’s voice interrupting a clenched silence hovering above. The track feels like a physical place–one where Welsh is trapped facing his own mortality, real enough that you could climb those stairs and look down into that crib.

An aura of mystery and ambiguity hangs over Impersonator. The emotions and resulting thoughts are always present and felt, but their cause isn’t always clear. “Childhood’s End” opens with the lines “Someone died / Gunshot, right outside / Your father, he’s dead.” Who’s father? Who is the narrator? The track ends with the repeated phrase, “Won’t someone come home for me?” Album centerpiece “Turns Turns Turns” opens with “I did something, feel I / Can’t tell if it’s wrong.” It never tells us what the something is, but the refrain of “I don’t know” and the stain of regret on the words is all that seems to matter. “Silver Rings” repeats the words “Silver rings / Stay with me” over some compressed guitar plucks and a layer of starry synths, but the actual conflict never becomes clear. What are the rings? Is the song about a married couple? A hollow feeling of desperation pervades the track.

Then there’s “Bugs Don’t Buzz.” The track moves like a two-chord funeral dirge, piano keys played in marching repetition. The album’s most powerful moment arrives as some quaking bass synths slam into place like a meteor impact. Then they disappear again. “Bugs don’t buzz when their time approaches / We’ll be just like the roaches / my love,” Welsh sings before that bass synth locks into place. The line carries the weight of the world and the track acquires an almost apocalyptic severity. But the the song’s most resounding words come with a blessed moment of romanticism at the end of a string of tearful fatalism: “If life could be forever one instant / Would it be the moment you met me?”

Impersonator is an album that sees life as fleeting–that death and the end of things is an ever present reality. The obvious conclusion is to hold tight to the people and things in life that mean something, but that’s too neat of a sentiment for Majical Cloudz. On closer, “The Notebook” Walsh asks “How much do I have to love to grow / Will I be alone forever?” The answers are hinted at in the previous nine tracks.

Album Review: Pharmakon – Abandon

By Will Ryan; May 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

Pharmakon’s Abandon opens with a scream. It’s bloodcurdling and brutal and naked in a way even most noise musicians wouldn’t dare, but the scream is somehow transformed as its processed and compressed down to a suspended screech before some shuddering machine textures start to unfurl and the listener is suddenly submerged. It’s Pharmakon in a nutshell. Margaret Chardiet wants to confront the listener with the rawest of emotions, but that confrontation is transformative in a way that somehow becomes inclusive. Chardiet describes her music as an exorcism, but it’s apparent she understands how to to communicate that experience of therapeutic emotional release to the audience. They’re right there with her instead of just being immolated by throbbing mechanical fire.

Listening to Abandon is very much like listening to someone work violently through their demons. Chardiet’s vocals come mostly in the form of terrorized, sickened screams, unabated and pain-filled. But there’s a vulnerability and honesty to them as if they could crumble into sobs and tears at any moment. It feels less like performance and postulation and more like Chardiet clawing desperately for her only means of expression. It’s kind of stunning and earnest and heartbreaking and it allows a strange connection with the listener, instead of building up walls and distancing itself.

Chardiet’s songwriter and producer abilities are top notch too. Her sense of build is immaculate, using the contrast of her voice with a sparser backdrop on “Milkweed / It Hangs Heavy” to create mountains of tension. A lot of Abandon might qualify as dark ambient with its focus on industrial atmosphere and it’s subtle rhythmic inclinations nudge it toward experimental strains of techno as well. Even her growls and screams are treated with a merciful amount of delay while a lot of the barbed-wire drones circle in ominous patterns farther out of reach. “Ache” builds into a seismic, executioner rhythm while Chardiet screeches above before giving way to a beautifully swirling cauldron of reverberating voices and softly whining drones.

“Pitted” manages some forward momentum with its slammed-door tribal march and pulsing synth buzz. Chardiet’s ghostly and melodic — and downright gorgeous — vocals stretch skyward giving the track a kind of mutilated Dead Can Dance feel. “Crawling On Bruised Knees” follows with a repeated cavernous boom before settling around a fucked John Carpenter-esque synth sequence. Chardiet’s vocals arrive modulated and hardened. It’s the final push to the surface and the record getting back to its feet after being bruised and battered over the previous three tracks.

Prior to Abandon’s release, Chardiet explained the album was meant to tackle loss and “complete psychic abandon.” It’s a record that actively tries to work through those themes and all the damaged emotions that come with them in the rawest, most direct way imaginable. But there’s an arc to the record that ends with triumph and hope as well. Or as Chardiet put it “crawling out of the pit.” Abandon is one of the most cathartic, brutalizing, and beautiful experimental releases this or any year.

Album Review: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

By Joshua Pickard; May 21, 2013 at 12:01 AM 

In recent interviews, Vampire Weekend singer and lead guitarist Ezra Koenig has made mention of the fact that he and the rest of the band purposefully went against their pop instincts during the recording of their third record Modern Vampires of the City — specifically that if a song felt too radio friendly, it had to be distorted in some way. And while the songs on this album do hint at a darker perspective from the band than either their debut or Contra alluded to, the band, possibly despite their best intentions, have still made some of the catchiest, most hook filled pop songs that you’re likely to come across this year. Even when the lyrics tend toward the murkier aspects of human nature and experience (generally amid indelible sing-a-long choruses), you can practically see the sardonic smirk plastered across Koenig’s face.

But where Contra succeeded in breaking down the layers of Vampire Weekend’s debut to their base pairs and developing even more brightly shaded melodies on top of ridiculously crisp pop production, Modern Vampires of the City feels thicker—more densely packed—and benefits from the occasional musical detour that the band indulges in from time to time. But make no mistake; this is pop music through and through. And Vampire Weekend have a preternatural ability to make their songs breathe through a timeless pop simplicity. The sounds may be all too recognizable from the past few years (or decades for that matter) but the band fits them together in unexpected and curiously affecting ways. Whether it’s Koenig’s way of getting underneath a melody—right to the heart of the notes—or the band’s syncopated rhythm section and effortless integration of the endless influences which have marked all their releases, Modern Vampires of the City finds the band in both familiar and unfamiliar territory, and it’s pure pleasure hearing them navigate these waters.

For me, there has always been two major ways of approaching any album from Vampire Weekend. You can appreciate the pop hooks and meticulous construction, disregarding any sort of socio-economic proselytizing, or you can pull apart every lyric until this “message” is scrawled in crayon on the sidewalk, made perfectly clear for all who care to stop and read it. And while the advocation of one approach over another should rightly be left to each listener, it’s not terribly difficult to understand how incredibly subjective this all is and how deftly the band manages to side-step any obvious inconsistencies between the pop-centric instrumentation and the darker themes of mortality, faith, and society’s questionable demands upon the individual. But this isn’t The Knife and so we have a ridiculous amount of sugary ear candy on which to hang these sometimes unexpectedly heady lyrical insights.

And the band wastes no time in exploring this juxtaposition of saccharine melodies and darker thematic material, as album opener “Obvious Bicycle” twists Koenig’s piercing lyrics (“no one’s gonna spare the time for you,” “it’s been twenty years and no one’s told the truth”) together with gorgeously lilting harmonies and a subdued sense of rhythmic interchange within the band to form a meticulous composite of modern pop music–and it also finds room to sample reggae icon Ras Michael. “Unbelievers” digs into matters of faith and devotion strung up against some of the jauntiest organ and piano runs I’ve heard since Garth Hudson poured out his heart in The Band, and even Koenig’s declaration that “girl, you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train,” does little to quell the joyous sense of ecstaticism into which the band so happily dives. “Step” cribs bits and pieces of its melody from Oakland rap group Souls of Mischief’s “Step To My Girl,” who themselves took it from Grover Washington, Jr’s cover of “Aubrey” originally written by 70’s lite-AM rockers Bread. You got that?—ok, good. Oh, and the harpsichord and organ atmospherics make this song seem destined to soundtrack some adorably humorous scene from the next Wes Anderson movie. Come on, you knew it was inevitable.

“Diane Young” plays around with the idea of…well, dying young—with Koenig’s voice pitched and twisted on the joyously melodic “baby, baby, baby” bridge to great effect. “Hannah Hunt,” one of the clear stand outs here, is in some ways a statement from the band of where they’ve been and where they plan on going next. Beginning with some slight hiss and background noise, the song eventually opens up with Batmanglij’s delicate piano and Baio’s subtle bass plucks intertwining with Koenig’s soft vocals recalling the detailed travels of a couple as they reach out from one coast to the other. It strives for and attains an understated balance between the less-than-idyllic lyrics (“If I can’t trust you then damn it Hannah/ There’s no future/ There’s no answer”) and its grounding in breezy pop nomenclature.

Other tracks like “Finger Back” and “Hudson” hover above bleaker territory than we’ve come to expect from the band, while still maintaining a high level of pop polish. These tracks are wrapped up in images of burned-out cities and descriptions of historic acts of violence. Dark stuff for a band whose debut and sophomore albums felt more akin to the sunshine pop of the ’60s and the jangle pop of the mid-80’s than they did to the jagged rock of the early ’90s or even the more introspective indie pop of recent bands like Allo Darlin’ and Jens Lekman. Koenig’s hyperactive vocals twist around the shuffling gait of “Worship You,” and the band manages to make something memorable and remarkably original in what would have merely been a throwaway track from any other band. Even when what sounds like a distorted brass section joins the morass, the band never loses their footing and keeps pulling one idea after another from its apparently limitless bag of musical tricks.

Modern Vampires of the City is definitely a more mature album for the band, but really, what does that even mean for a band whose literate Afro-pop inspired zaniness has played such an integral role in each of their past records? They’ve certainly lost none of those qualities, and yet the album still feels as though it was written and recorded by artists who’ve grown by leaps and bounds in the interim between their last record and this one (which they have). For Vampire Weekend, this means that you block out all the backlash that occurred after the release of your last album and focus on expanding your already considerable pop expertise and refining the quality of your songwriting to an almost Van Dyke Parks level of shine. Koenig’s lyrics are as bracingly astute as ever and Rostam Batmanglij never fails to impress with his varied and creative arrangements; but to forget Chris Baio’s serpentine basslines and Chris Tomson’s insistent, though unobtrusive, percussion would do them a disservice, as they are just as necessary as either Koenig or Batmanglij. Vampire Weekend have gone from puckish indie rockers to a fully formed indie rock institution, full of the battered feelings and world weariness that often accompanies such a meteoric rise—though they still hang onto an almost naïve sense of pop wonder. Three albums in and Vampire Weekend are still climbing.

Album Review: The National – Trouble Will Find Me

By Brendan Frank; May 20, 2013 at 12:01 AM 

If there’s one thing you can’t fault the National for lacking, it’s an identity. Across six albums they have seen magnificent progress, artfully transitioning from booze-soaked barroom Americana to majestic, stadium-sized indie rock. The threads that have run through them all, underscored by the gloomy, ever-recognizable baritone of singer Matt Berninger, the lithe guitar work of the Dessner brothers and Bryan Devendorf’s imposing skill behind the drum kit, are thicker than ever on Trouble Will Find Me. The quintet’s development on their sixth record is fully audible, as they confidently plunge into quirky time signatures and key changes, fool around with loops, and sneak grandiose hooks behind Berninger’s declarations of loss and regret.

In many ways, Trouble Will Find Me is the National formula distilled. If you liked their breakthrough, 2010’s High Violet, it’s tough to imagine you won’t enjoy this as well, even if there are pronounced differences. Berninger’s lyrics are more distant, sighing in broad strokes and reveling in less detail. There are no more arms around stereos or walking with spiders, just exhausted, intimate dialogues with people who are often mentioned by name. Others feel like summaries of earlier National tunes, albeit with a little more Bowie and a little less of the Cure. How willing you are to overlook this rather intense focus on continuity will depend on how much you’ve bought in to the National brand. Taken one song at a time however, it’s really hard to fault them for it when every aspect of the music is crafted with such competence.

And yet there is a contradiction at the heart of Trouble. The experimentation with rhythm is pronounced yet natural, but the songs built around them may also be the National’s most linear. Many of them function as a singular concept, on to which further flourishes are tacked. The propulsive, elegant “Graceless” takes defenestration to another level, cleaving anxiously to an incessant, unflinching drum tempo, and the gorgeous “I Need My Girl” plays like a coyer version of “England,” stacking horns, synths and strings around a jeweled guitar. On “I Should Live In Salt,” Berninger’s coaxing reiterations of “You should know me better than that” are conveyed with the gentleness of pillow talk, then he beats himself up over it at the chorus: “I should live in salt for leaving you behind.” The repetition is the anchor in a song that’s stripped to the essentials and seems destined to become a live favourite.

But Berninger isn’t just heartbroken, he’s running an emotional decathalon. On “Humiliation” he’s close to his breaking point, weary beyond comprehension. “I survived the dinner,” he begins, before delving into less than flattering statements of self: “As the free fall advances/ I’m the moron who dances.” Elsewhere, things aren’t quite so bleak. He’s sporadically resolute (“Slipped,” “Don’t Swallow the Cap”) and rattled (“Pink Rabbits”), but the underlying message is that things aren’t quite right. Even if this isn’t his best prose, you feel for and with him. His ear for harmony and his command of his voice, on the other hand, are as sharp as ever. This is most evident on “Sea of Love,” which could square off against anything in the band’s catalogue. This is the National firing on all cylinders. The tumult of Scott Devendorf’s bass meshes in perfectly with his brother’s metronomic pounding, as Berninger’s searing melodies carry the arrangement from one inspired section to the next. The piano-based highlight “Pink Rabbits” sounds like their take on Elliott Smith, and it drips with poignancy: “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart.”

It’s not all solid gold though. Berninger tries out his upper register more than on every other National record combined. While it works for the most part, he sounds as if he’s straining to hit the notes on “Heavenfaced,” which may be the point, but it grates a little when compared to his usual Cognac smoothness. Sharon Van Etten and St. Vincent help round out the vocals, and offer support on a good handful of songs where Berninger may have wandered outside of his comfort zone. On the other side of the coin, there’s “This Is The Last Time,” where he’s is ably held aloft by pacing and harmony alone: “I won’t be vacant anymore,” he promises. It’s a vow that the National could hardly be accused of breaking, even if Trouble Will Find Me is perhaps less colorful than their past three albums. Here, the National are yet again standing atop the mountain they conquered nearly a decade ago. Unpredictable it is not, but taken as a study of sound and mood, it’s kind of perfect.

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