Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Riding the waves of praise since the release of their last album, The Midnight Organ Fight, Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit are poised for their breakout album.  They’ve amassed a large following built on their recordings and a knack for delivering powerful shows to audiences across the globe.  The Winter of Mixed Drinks finds the group middling between intimate club group and powerful arena-ready rock band.

The Hutchison brothers, Grant and Scott, remain the core focus of the band.  It’s Scott’s vocals that dominate throughout the record, and Grant’s drum tracks that foreshadow a blistering live show.  But, at times, it doesn’t appear as if too much musically is going on within the songs aside from these two, despite three other members now being part of the entourage. Take “Things” or “The Loneliness and the Scream,” for example, which don’t actually have too much traditional songwriting to them, at least as far as the instrumentation dictates the song.  In the latter, it seems as if the guitar is merely there to keep Scott on pace.  This isn’t a huge knock against the band, as Hutchison’s voice can carry the band alone, but it does lead you to wonder precisely what the songwriting process was during recording.

“The Wrestle” is the first song where you can hear a bubbly bass line just beneath the surface of the vocals.  In creating this underlying tension, along with a staccato-sort of guitar strumming, the vocals really pull at you.  It’s such a song where you can picture the band belting it out on stage to throngs of adoring fans who all sing along simultaneously.  These are the type of moments you came to expect from Frightened Rabbit.

Guitars finally begin to crash upon your ears when you come to “Nothing Like You,” which is the fastest song on The Winter of Mixed Drinks.  This is the sort of song that has the pacing and drum work to really win over fans in the live setting, but for some reason it doesn’t really seem to fit into the collection of songs here.  Most of the songs have a slower, almost folk approach, so it feels sort of lost.

Much should be noted of the possible influence of fellow Scots The Twilight Sad.  Many songs seem to be coated in atmospheric noise, but only as an extension of the song.  “Not Miserable” has sort of a slow, drawn-out beginning, fleshed out by a fuzz in the background, whilst piano lines sputter along.  It’s something that leads you to focus on the lyrical content, which is perhaps a very current Scottish trend.  Then again, it seems like using atmospheric backing all about is just a general fad in the industry.

Once you finish your listening experience, it’s hard to sit down and think back to superb moments on The Winter of Mixed Drinks.  Every single song is pleasant, and some might say they are all good tunes, but none of them really achieve that feeling of exceptionality one expected from Frightened Rabbit this time around.  They filled the record with decent tunes, but leave you feeling somewhat indifferent, which is something you surely can’t say at their wonderful live shows.


Download: Frightened Rabbit – Swim Until You Can’t See Land [MP3]

Jason Collett – Rat a Tat Tat

Rating: ★★★½ ·

Many people will recognize the name Jason Collett for his involvement in Broken Social Scene, but this is not his first foray into solo work. Rat a Tat Tat is Collett’s fourth official album, and it has all the trademarks of his previous work, while also stepping forward into a bit of playfulness that wasn’t present on earlier recordings.

Opening this album, you find Jason dealing with relationships in his own way.  “Rave On Sad Songs” reveals his prowess as a songwriter of heartfelt tunes, something probably not accredited to his role in BSS. It’s a soft spoken song relying upon soft piano and very gentle guitar strums, which allow his distinctive vocals to tug at your heart.

Such mellow numbers were commonly featured in his last few releases, especially Idols of Exile, but as you move into tracks like “Love is a Dirty Word,” you find that Collett has gotten a little bit more lively.  As the bass line seems to shake your body, Collett delivers his idea that love is not quite all its cracked up to be.  Bouncing rhythms haven’t always been his forte, but he pulls it off here, showing that he’s got room to grow as a songwriter.  The idea that Jason is out to goof around a bit with his audience is only made stronger when you listen to “Bitch City,” which has a vocal performance reminiscent of Devandra Banhart, not to mention the subject matter.  Oddly, that same vocal effect shows up once again at the end of the album “Vanderpool Vanderpool,”  something that wasn’t noticeable on his earlier releases.

On his last record, Here’s to Being Here, we saw him exhibit a little bit of straightforward polished pop.  He still brings those lighthearted moments to this album, on songs like “Cold Blue Halo.”  There’s a fuzzed out keyboard groove that opens the number illustrating his widening set of tools, some provided by his longtime backing band, Zeus.  All that being said, the tune has a bit of foot shuffling feel to it, something sure to win out in the live setting. All playfulness aside, Collett still has the ability to write quiet numbers that find their way into your regular listening rotation on iTunes. “Long May You Love” and “Winnipeg Winds” are two songs that illustrate this point perfectly, as both have the steady stroll of acoustic pop moments attached. “Winnipeg Winds” creates an effective wind motif with the howling vocal backing that haunts the song when Jason is not at the helm.  One can assume he’s added these quiet moments to the record in hopes of keeping a perfect balance, and he succeeds in accomplishing that feat.

Focus at this time is surely on the upcoming BSS release, but aside from that project, it’s clear that Jason Collett has his own style and his own agenda to push.  Rat a Tat Tat is just another record that demonstrates what a strong songwriter he is, proving that he grows stronger as his music evolves.  Sure, it’s a lot more fun than previous works, but by making that change, Jason balances out this record, giving himself more options to write great songs in the future.


Download: Jason Collett – Love is a Dirty Word [MP3]

The Morning Benders – Big Echo

Rating: ★★★½ ·

California’s The Morning Benders (though they claim NYC now) have been flying under the indie radar until recently.  They’ve put out multiple releases, but the hype seems to have finally brought the band to the forefront with Big Echo.  A lot of this will be due to the production credits being given to Grizzly Bear‘s Chris Taylor.  While you can definitely feel the touches of Taylor, especially in guitar and bass sounds, The Morning Benders seem to have grown into their own sound.

Remember how Phoenix opened up Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix with its two best tracks?  Well, The Morning Benders seem to be applying that strategy to this album, and these opening numbers are blissful moments you won’t soon forget.  “Excuses” begins the album with a little bit of tinkering on the piano while some beach guitar washes over the song like waves.  All this arrives prior to the sweeping vocals being introduced along with the atypical percussion (not necessarily drums, but still percussion).  Mid-song, they seem to do a bit of meandering, but once again, the band kicks in at the 3 minute mark with that percussion and creative bliss.  They’ll follow this up with “Promises,” one of the songs that definitely resembles the work of the producer.  That bass and guitar sound definitely hit at the heart of Grizzly Bear, but The Morning Benders make it their own by coating the tune in a wash of pop.  Also, the vocals are not as pristine as Droste’s, which actually make a more compelling statement of musical prowess.

If you were to find a detractor to this collection of songs, you’ll find that it hits really hard up front, offering two brilliant songs, but then it kind of takes a step back.  Instead of pushing forward with their California avant-indie pop moments, they recline.  They trade the vibrant noises they began the album with for a set of bedroom moments, such as “Bedroom Sighs.” It’s an aptly named song, as you definitely feel as if the band has relaxed, wavering just a bit.  The end of the song does have sort of climactic moment near the end, but it just sort of loses the punch of the earlier moments of brilliance.  “Mason Jar” is similar, as the music is less movement oriented, choosing to push the focus on the vocal melody.  These aren’t necessarily bad moments by any means, it just lends the record to remaining a bit unbalanced.

However, “All Day Day Light” definitely kicks the album back into gear. You’ll find it as one of the more inspired moments on the latter half of the record, and it seems like the band could have employed a little bit different track-listing to balance out the power of tunes like this with the quieter moments.  All that being said, this number really shows you that the band is able to move beyond the producer.  It’s filled with energy, not to mention a little bit of sonic noise that shows The Morning Benders have a creative talent all their own.

And so Big Echo comes to a slow end with “Sleepin In,” another bedroom listen.  Although at times the record seems a bit unbalanced, it’s clear that The Morning Benders are more than just a masterwork of Chris Taylor.  They have a different spin on their own creation of pop, leaving the listener with a lot more bright moments.  Even the slow songs start to evolve on their own after repeated listens, so stay with this album, as you might have just found yourself a new favorite band to follow, and an collection of songs that will keep you occupied for weeks to come.


Download: The Morning Benders – Promises [MP3]

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks

Rating: ★★★★½

Ted Leo has been around long enough to have amassed a great deal of influences and personal touches on his musical repertoire.  Throughout the years he’s tried hard to squeeze all those influences into one cohesive album, to varying results.  Finally, The Brutalist Bricks sees Ted meeting expectations, combining influences and flair to create one of his best records to date.

His voice opens the album on “The Mighty Sparrow” with his trademark yelp meets croon.  You’ll notice that ringing guitar in your ear just before the drums kick into the song.  But, like the perfect Ted song, he slows it down in the middle just before a solid drums solo.  It’s this kind of classic songwriting that makes his music seem so refreshing and enjoyable listen after listen.

Then the group kicks it up a notch with “Mourning in America.”  Here is the hard-hitting song that began to surface on Living with the Living, but instead of a non-stop barrage of fury, he tones it down around the 2 minute mark.  Somehow, the rockers on this album seem so much more refined, as if he found the perfect recipe for his creations.

You’ll find yourself already involved in the album by the time you reach the one-two punch that is “Ativan Eyes” and “Even Heroes Have to Die.”  It’s the way that he strikes the chords that grabs at you emotionally in “Ativan Eyes,” but the vocal performance near the end grabs you when he strains to push his notes a bit higher.  The latter number is one of the catchiest tunes Ted has written, yet you’ll find it hard to figure out precisely why this is such an incredible song.  It seems like any other song he’s done, until you hit that ridiculously poppy hook in the chorus.  Some might say that this is a radio-friendly song, but the way he mutes his picking just prior to the “ooooooh, oh well” moment that is the hook makes it distinctively Ted.

Even when you hit the seemingly highest point, a place where Leo has occasionally fallen off in the past, The Brutalist Bricks continues to deliver great moment after great moment.  “Bottled in Cork” begins with a riotous fury of guitar and commentary of the political sort, but he pulls back and throws in an acoustic moment talking about “the path of least resistance” that carries until the end.  He mixes it up further with “One Polaroid a Day,” which is sort of a groovy number fueled by his “chugga-chugga” guitar rocking out (there might even be some sort of harmonics in the background) prior to a mini-solo, then going back into the groove.

Be sure not to miss “Bartolomeo and the Buzzing of Bees.”  For me, a long time fan, this is probably one of my favorite tracks.  The throbbing bass lines provide the backbone, which gives Ted the freedom to maneuver his guitar back and forth throughout the song.  This time he seems to relish in some negative space, filling it with feedback, but his vocals feel so warm here, that you just have to fall in love with Ted all over again (if you ever stopped).

And then there is the swan song, “Last Days.”  It’s the perfect closing statement for The Brutalist Bricks. It encapsulates everything about this record, and about Ted Leo.  It’s got that twangy guitar sound that is all things Ted, but there are some eruptive blasts throughout, both vocally and musically.  It shows you that he finally found the formula that allows him to put the tenacity and vigor of his live shows into his music without going too far on record.  It makes for a perfect personal statement for Ted Leo and should push the band further into the hearts of listeners.


Download: Ted Leo – Even Heroes Have to Die [MP3]

FT5: WTF? Songs I Found in my iTunes

During 1989 I received my first CD player.  Since that day, I’ve collected music vigorously, but only recently has that seem to have gotten a little bit out of hand.  Some friends know I have stuff, so they want to borrow it, or they want a burned copy.  Other times, people want me to make a mix for some purpose or another, so I gladly oblige.  It recently hit me that there are some mysterious tunes lying around in my iTunes library that I really rather wish weren’t there, or that I am going to pretend like I downloaded for a friend and lay no claim to whatsoever.  Do you have those too? It can’t be just me.

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Dawes @ Emos (3/6)

Date 3/6/10
Location Emos
Doors 9pm
Tickets $10 @ Ticketweb

The last time we caught Dawes, they were winning over the audience opening up for Delta Spirit.  Now they’re headlining their own set up at Emos this weekend, bringing you their blend of Americana and California-tinged bluegrass.  Luckily, the openers aren’t too shabby either; Cory Chisel & the Wandering Sons have the middle slot, and Jason Boesel opens.  You’ll know Jason from his role in Rilo Kiley and his work on various Bright Eyes records.  See you Saturday night!


Download: Jason Boesel – Hand of God [MP3]

New Tunes from Air Waves

Air Waves is the project of Nicole Schneit, and she’s gotten a lot of attention since Dan Deacon dropped her name.  But, don’t let that guide your interest, as Air Waves sounds nothing like Dan Deacon; Nicole has more of a punk-folk troubadour aspect to her. This tune definitely gives you the feeling that Schneit is not one to sit idly by why the boys do their thing.  You can check out the rest of her music by picking up the Air Waves EP, which is in stores right about now.


Download: Air Waves -Sweetness [MP3]

The Ruby Suns – Fight Softly

Rating: ★★½ · ·

Last time out, The Ruby Suns drenched their record in clever guitar parts, using electronic elements to fill out the empty space here in there.  This time around, they’ve changed that recipe entirely, filling their newest record, Fight Softly with beat upon blistering beat.  It completely changes the dynamic of the recorded product for the band; this is something old fans will have to get used to, as it doesn’t look to change anytime soon.

You hate to have comparisons to other bands define you, but once you hear “Sun Lake Rinsed” you’ll really understand that occasionally comparisons are completely valid.  From the first beat, you start to hear the faintest hint of Animal Collective, which only increases as you continue through the song.  One of the things that differs, and this could be a positive, is that the vocals of Ryan McPhun aren’t nearly as grating as those of Animal Collective tend to be. McPhun has a softer voice, which makes this more of a bedroom dance record than something you would blare elsewhere.

Fortunately, the one thing that differentiates the music on this album is that the melodies don’t rest merely upon the notes being used.  Others have used similar styles, but have piled layer upon layer of electronica to create dense melodies.  On a song such as “Haunted House,” you definitely can see all sorts of dance references, particularly Justice, but McPhun’s voice is just to good to completely ignore.  His voice is the one thing that makes the whole sound come together, uniting all the various melodies.

All that being said, it’s easy to see detractors for Fight Softly;  it’s the same sort of criticism that has led others to dismiss the electronic pop movement altogether.  After listening through the album for several spins, you can see that the music begins to blend together.  Yes, there are differences in each song, such as the jungle homage played out in “Dusty Fruit,” but repetitive listens, especially in one sitting make it all sort of bleed into one giant collage of electro-pop madness.  One might assume that the band chose to apply this strategy purposefully, but there is far more detail to the lyrical content than one would place on a collage of beats.

The Ruby Suns aren’t asking you to make a decision on whether or not you should include yourself in the massive throngs of electronic music connoisseurs, but they do want you to have fun while you listen to Fight Softly.  It’s an upbeat record full of some bright moments that you can definitely use on mixtapes for friends, but at times, it does tend to wear you down with a bit too much on the beeps and blips front.


Download: The Ruby Suns – Haunted House [MP3]

New Tunes from KISSES

It’s been sort of a rock revival around our offices lately, but let’s not forget, we like to throw down on the dance floor too!  We’ve got a new jam for you today, which really sounds a lot like Hercules and the Love Affair, only the vocals atop the disco beats sound more akin to Jens Lekman.  It’s that particular warm vocal that is destined to win KISSES loads of fans when they release their debut Bermuda on April 27th.  Hope you enjoy this little number, and remember boys and girls, it’s okay to shake it at the office sometimes.


Download: Kisses – Bermuda [MP3]

New Tunes from Summer Cats

Seeing as we’re throwing a party featuring all things Australia/New Zealand, I thought I would stick to the area and bring some jangle pop your way via Melbourne’s Summer Cats.  This number has got me bopping around my room right now, and you can tell why the energy in this tune makes it a live favorite.  I bet they’ll play it during their various shows at SXSW!  In the meantime, the tune comes your way on a new 7″ from Slumberland to be released on March 16th.  It’ll be the B-Side to the single for “Your Timetable” off last year’s Songs for Tuesdays. Go ahead, tap your feet; you know you wanna.


Download: Summer Cats – TV Guide [MP3]

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