Boy & Bear – Harlequin Dream

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Rating: ★★★½ ·

Harlequin Dream is the second LP from Australian folk-rock band Boy & Bear.  Like their 2011 debut, Moonfire, this is a great sounding, very well produced record with several memorable tunes.

Boy & Bear work within the same reverb-soaked modern folk-rock style of bands like Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses.  Vocally, it’s hard not to hear a major Fleet Foxes influence here.  Still, Boy & Bear have found their own sound, and their tunes are generally more driven and upbeat than their contemporaries.

Harlequin Dream feels more pop and less folk-influenced than Moonfire.  The first five songs are all fairly bright, high-energy tunes.  The album slows down for the first time and takes a slightly reflective turn with “A Moment’s Grace”, before picking back up with the folk-sounding “End of the Line”, which has enough banjo in it to feel like a Mumford and Sons piece.  The next song, “Back Down the Black”, feels very out of place here, maybe because its subject is so much more serious than anything else on the album.  The last two songs are my personal favorites, especially the mellow, meditative “Arrow”.

The vocals throughout Harlequin Dream are quite strong.  There are some really well done, smooth harmonies as well as some impressive displays of range.  The title track in particular is incredibly hard to sing along to, although it’s catchy enough to make you want to try and fail (I did).

Lyrically this feels like a fairly straightforward rock record, with many of the songs covering such inexhaustible subjects as desire and loss.  The mood stays lighthearted throughout the album, but there’s still room for some complex lyrical structures in songs like “Real Estate.”

I like how Harlequin Dream expands upon the Boy & Bear’s already solid sound.  I definitely think that this band is only going to get more popular, and I don’t really have any criticisms of this album other than the fact that the ridiculous cover makes my eyes hurt.

Cate Le Bon – Mug Museum

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Rating: ★★★★ ·

This record feels more 1973 than 2013 and I love it.

Cate Le Bon may not be for everyone, but I think a lot of people are going to “get” Mug Museum. It’s quite a multifaceted record. Musically, Mug Museum is highly unpredictable, shifting between jangling chamber-pop and early indie rock with plenty of twists. Over all of this, Le Bon alternates between her sullen, jazzy low register and a strange, theatrical falsetto.

Although Cate Le Bon is from Wales, she recorded Mug Museum with Noah Georgeson (Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart) and Josiah Steinbrick in LA. The result is definitely her best sounding record to date, and one that still feels definitively British (partially due to Le Bon’s prominent Welsh accent).

Mug Museum is more instrumentally varied and more densely constructed than most of Cate Le Bon’s previous work. Smooth organs and synths set the tone for many of the more downbeat tunes such as “Mirror Me”. Assorted pianos, drums and horns fill in the gaps elsewhere. Great bass lines abound throughout the record, especially on “I Think I Knew” and “Sisters”.

Cate Le Bon is a supremely confident vocalist, holding her notes perfectly even when they’re not quite right. There’s something approaching ennui in her voice that reminds me strongly of Nico, although I think Le Bon is a more talented singer. Despite the fact that she writes all of her own songs, Le Bon has a very distant, detached way of delivering her lyrics. “I forget the detail but know the warmth,” she sings in the title track, and her music tends to make me do the same.

For the most part, this is a very easy album to listen to. Still, there are challenging moments like the one at the end of “Duke” when Le Bon pushes her voice past its upper limit in an almost comical way. The guitar work throughout Mug Museum is artfully careless, and it reaches its logical conclusion on the latter half of “Cuckoo through the Walls” in a mess of twangy noise and dissonance.

The title track, “Mug Museum”, is the slowest, jazziest tune on the album, and definitely my favorite. Give it a listen if you’ve got the time. “Mirror Me” and “Duke” are also worth checking out. Actually, just listen to the whole thing… It’s worth it.

Radical Face – Family Tree: The Branches

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Rating: ★★★★ ·

Family Tree: The Branches is the second installment in a trilogy of records from Radical Face. It continues the family saga begun by 2011’s The Roots, and will be followed by The Relatives. Ben Cooper, the voice behind Radical Face (who is also a member of Electric President, Iron Orchestra, and Mother’s Basement), explains that the lyrics on these albums are based upon “a fictional family tree — a Frankenstein of random genealogy charts, my own family history, some of my personal experiences and plain old fiction.” (http://www.radicalface.com)

The Branches is another beautiful Radical Face album despite the fact that it probably contains the most depressing collection of songs that Cooper has written. As in Cooper’s previous efforts, the harmonies and background vocals here are fantastic. The piano work throughout the album is also wonderful. Unlike Radical Face’s previous recordings, The Branches has been mastered, making it cleaner and a bit more modern sounding than Ghost, Family Tree: The Roots, or Radical Face’s two EPs.

The lyrics on The Branches are often quite dark. There’s a great deal of regret expressed here, and very few of the stories here have happy endings. Cooper begins “Reminders” by saying, “I wish I had more nice things to say, but I was raised not to lie.” This kind of bleak realism is representative of the tone throughout most of the record. The closest thing to optimism on The Branches is the kind of calm acceptance conveyed in songs like “Holy Branches” and “Letters Home”. The latter, a fictional letter from a wounded soldier back to his family, ends with the line “I’m all right; I’ve made peace with it all.”

“Summer Skeletons” is probably my favorite song on The Branches. It has everything that is good about Radical Face: simplicity, honesty, and profound, unassuming lyrics like: “we were down by the shore and the skies opened up and all the stars fell into the lake, and the water was warm. I walked in over my head then you pulled me out by the collar of my shirt.”

I do somewhat miss Radical Face’s slightly more hopeful side, and I must say that Ghost is still my favorite album, but I would highly recommend giving Family Tree: The Branches a listen.

Widowspeak – The Swamps EP

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Rating: ★★★ · ·

The Swamps isn’t nearly as gloomy as its cover and title might indicate.  Although the EP begins with a slow, somewhat melancholy introductory track, it soon gains momentum.  By the time the penultimate track, “True Believer” rolls around, the mood on this record could almost be called optimistic.

Musically, The Swamps is a bit more eclectic than Widowspeak’s first two albums.  At times, the band almost strays from the smooth, dream-pop sound of their previous work.  “Smoke and Mirrors” feels a bit like surf-rock, while “Calico” and “Brass Bed” are much lighter, folksier tunes.  Still, the band is instantly recognizable due to lead singer Molly Hamilton’s dragging, breathy vocals.  Hamilton has an effortless way of rising up into notes that reminds me strongly of Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval.

Lyrically, these songs combine the imagery of a swamp with both nostalgic and hopeful sentiments.  “Calico” and “Brass Bed” are about simple, domestic pleasures and reflect a lost sense of normalcy in a relationship, while “True Believer” is a more direct appeal for understanding.  “True Believer” contains a grand, sweeping chorus and is, for me, the best and most memorable song of the group.

I’m not the biggest dream-pop fan out there, and the songs on The Swamps might not be as strong as some of Widowspeak’s earlier tunes, but there’s something very compelling and soothing about the vocals throughout the record.  

Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond

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Rating: ★★★★½

This is one of the most exciting debuts I’ve heard all year.  Well, it’s not exactly a debut.  Mutual Benefit, a fluid band centered around songwriter Jordan Lee, has independently released several EPs, but Love’s Crushing Diamond is their longest and best effort to date.

I find this music very hard to describe or classify – in a good way.  The tunes here could almost pass as folk, but folk music is not this experimental or this expansive.  I can’t really call it pop; pop isn’t this introspective and delicate.  The immediate thing, the crucial thing to note is the incredible warmth of this album.  A soft analog hum pervades the piece, and there is not a harsh sound or a strained note to be found on the record excepting a few intentionally scratchy violins.

Love’s Crushing Diamond somehow feels like a cohesive unit despite being made up of endless combinations of seemingly incongruent instruments.  Banjos, cymbals, synths, organs, distorted guitars, strings, hand claps, and various chimes somehow manage to coexist and complement each other.  The result is a very modern sounding record, despite its analog veneer.

Vocally, Lee is at once vulnerable and precise, and sounds somewhat like Sufjan Stevens or Elliott Smith.  There’s certainly an Elliott Smith influence in the way Lee builds his own harmonies and double-tracks his voice.  His recordings, however, are more comparable to projects like Microphones or even Radical Face.

For me, there is not a single song worth skipping on this record.  My favorite though is probably “Advanced Falconry”; a song built on a great looping riff and lifted by beautiful strings.  Lee’s falsetto on this track is something special.  Like “Let’ Play / Statue of a Man”, “Advanced Falconry” has a great sense of movement and energy with very minimal percussion.

Both musically and lyrically, this is an uplifting record.  Most of the songs are celebratory, at least in some way.  Lee’s declaration that, “There’s always love whether tattered, strained, or torn,” in “Let’s Play / Statue of a Man” feels like a fairly good starting point for understanding this album.  As a lyricist, Lee is very concise and understated in a refreshing way.

Very few bands mix genres this effectively and naturally, and very few albums are recorded and mixed this well.  I haven’t heard many new voices as sincere and moving as Jordan Lee’s.  I hereby nominate Love’s Crushing Diamond for “best use of wind chimes in a genre-defying masterpiece”.

The Avett Brothers – Magpie and the Dandelion

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Rating: ★★½ · ·

Magpie and the Dandelion is the eighth full length album from the Avett Brothers, a hardworking folk-rock band that has enjoyed considerable popularity since their 2009 major label debut, “I and Love and You”.  Fans of the band will discover another consistent album and a few worthy additions to the band’s live set list.  Those on the fence, however, are unlikely to be won over.

The Avett Brothers make simple, accessible music that always seems effortlessly authentic.  In keeping with their previous efforts, Magpie and the Dandelion is a fairly straightforward and minimalistic album.  Musically, the record holds no real surprises; the Avett Brothers stick to their winning formula: real instruments, sparse arrangements, calm, sincere vocal performances.  

Any band that insists on simplicity to the degree that The Avett Brothers do puts a lot of pressure on their songwriting.  On top of that, The Avett Brothers write very literal, direct lyrics and often repeat them.  I like the idea of The Avett Brothers.  I like their sound, their confidence, their openness.  It’s hard to say a critical word about this band because their message is so earnest and positive, but I’m going to give it a shot.  

The songs, specifically the lyrics, on Magpie and the Dandelion are something of a let-down.  My inner grammar Nazi perked his ears up early and often while listening to the album.  While nodding my head to the first track, “Open Ended Life“, (certainly the catchiest tune on the record) I heard the line: “I was taught to keep an open-ended life and never trap myself in nothing” (apparently this includes the constraints of proper syntax).  Okay, okay, I know that double-negatives, even those as easily avoidable as the one caused by the choice to use the word ‘nothing’ instead of ‘anything’ in this lyric, are accepted colloquialisms and should be forgiven.  It would also be nitpicky of me to get worked up over conflicts of tense, such as the one found in the line, “I lived it but now I’m wanting out,” from “Skin and Bones”.  Where this album loses me, however, is in its constant use of pronouns with vague or missing antecedents e.g. the line: “Apart you’ll see how true it is and how back then it possibly was impossible for you or me to know it,” in “Apart From Me”.  Besides the general clumsiness of the sentence, I’m left with no clue what the word it is supposed to refer to.     

There are sweet sentiments throughout, even bits of wisdom worthy to be hung over many a kitchen sink.  Elsewhere though, the album hits you over the head with lines such as: “When to know what I should for my heart to rest doesn’t meet with the actions I make, I will seek the approval of no one but you in love for the changes I take.”  I can’t begin to parse this statement.  Unfortunately, Magpie and the Dandelion’s ultimate song “The Clearness is Gone” could also serve as its ultimate description.

Despite getting hung up on some of the lyrics, I did manage to enjoy parts of Magpie and the Dandelion.  Although the opening track is ostensibly about packing up and hitting the proverbial road, in many ways this record is all about commitment and responsibility.  Songs such as “Good to You” and “Bring Your Love to Me” reflect the real cares and concerns of songwriters who have become fathers and husbands.  There are some great piano parts on the album, most notably in “Morning Song”, which is at once hopeful and bittersweet.  My favorite song on the album, by a long shot, is “Souls Like the Wheels”.  This is the only live recording on the album, and the song dates back to 2008’s The Second Gleam EP.  The finger-picked guitar here is brilliant, and in contrast to many of the other songs on the record, “Souls Like the Wheels” is effective and emotive.

Crooks on Tape – Fingerprints

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Rating: ★★★ · ·

Fingerprints is the debut album from Crooks on Tape, a psych-pop group out of Dayton, Ohio.  While they are a fairly new band, two of their three members played together previously for over a decade in indie rock outfit Enon.  Fingerprints contains twelve songs collected from hundreds of hours of improvisational recordings.  The results are intriguing, if a bit unfocused.  

Individually, the songs on Fingerprints are fairly repetitive.  There are catchy, nearly danceable tunes such as “Duper”, songs built on mind-scrambling vocal loops such as those on “Tito’s Riser”, and a couple of more mellow tracks in “Summer’s End” and “Barging In”.  Taken together, they form a lighthearted, very sample heavy pop record that should reward multiple listens.

Texture, on this record, is established more through effects than song structure.  Everything, including the vocals, has a slightly muddied, dreamy tone.  The drums are kept light throughout, letting the bass and synthesizers come through the strongest.  While there are a few very alternative, 90s sounding guitar parts, Crooks on Tape spend most of their time here working through bubbling and/or pulsing synths.

One of my slight hang-ups about this band is that the vocals and lyrics often feel like an after-thought.  On most of these songs the vocals are somewhat muffled and low in the mix, and I found it very difficult to make out any of the lyrics on a first listen.  The vocalist has a nice range, and a higher register somewhat reminiscent of James Mercer’s falsetto, but there’s just something missing.  For the most part, these songs don’t have strong melodies, and the vocals never really feel important to the structure of the songs.  There’s also something of a sense of discontinuity about the record, owing to the constantly varying effects on the bass and different synth tones from song to song.

My favorite parts of the album are when the band turns up the delay and establishes a mellower, more contemplative atmosphere as they do with “Summer’s End”, which also feels like their strongest bit of songwriting.  Here, the vocals are a bit higher in the mix, and the tension of some of their faster songs is absent.  Altogether, Fingerprints is a solid, inviting debut from a new voice in the psych-pop landscape.