Noah & the Whale – Last Night on Earth

Rating: ★★½ · ·

It’s pretty easy to label Noah & the Whale as sort of a bipolar band; their first release was loaded with sunny twee pop, while their sophomore effort was trenched with deeper, folksier tunes. While this is forgivable, c’est la vie, it’s still nice to bring about an even-tempered album, and that’s exactly what Noah & the Whale attempt to bring about Last Night on Earth.

It opens on “Life is Life,” which shows exactly the progression of this group on its opening line, “You used to be somebody and now you’re someone else.” The drum machine percussion and the drawl of Charlie Fink seem a little hollow at first, when the song begins. However, as the groovy little tune continues, it opens up to more of a sprawl. The overlapping of Fink’s vocals with that of the rest of the gang vocals of the band creates a stylistic motif for this band. It’s not a bad start, it’s just a bit “middle of the road.”

The motif of those gang vocals continues all the way up to “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N,” which is the band’s best bit from this album, despite it’s tedious to type title. It’s a catchy narrative of characters that may find themselves in bad situations, but still manage to carry on. It’s a universal theme of life, and is easily identifiable with the listener, so it is not hard to find yourself spelling out the chorus with the rest of the band, agreeing with the sentiment. This song is a reminder of why you love a band like this; the empathetic and simple qualities that live in their music.

If I could tell you to listen to any three tracks from this album, it would be the previous described, “Wild Thing,” and then “Give it All Back.” On “Wild Thing,” there is a bit of transport back to the last album. The five-minute song begins with a bit of feedback and echoing synthesizer, and then slowly swells to its chorus. This slow-mover is the deepest that Noah & the Whale will delve; the sugary gang vocals are cut from this track, and replaced by a climactic and distant “ooh.” Following this is mellowness comes another pop tune with “Give it All Back,” which salvages the mood from before and entertains with another narrative.

For the most part, they achieve their goal. They put “Wild Thing” next to a simple song like “Give it All Back,” which emphasizes their need to move back to a balanced album. It’s not a bad work and there is sure to be a song or two that suits your fancy. However, this album is exactly that; a few exceptional songs coupled with a lot of mediocre ones.

The Dodos – No Color

Rating: ★★★½ ·

The Dodos are a long way from where they were musically in 2008. What started as a duo of percussive madness faded to a more reigned in, and slightly boring effort, on Time to Die. With such a distinct and limited amount of sound producible with only a few members in a band, it seems like the only direction that The Dodos could go with No Color is backwards.

This revert to their old style of barely controlled chaos starts from the beginning with “Black Night,” but it isn’t exactly as rough as songs like “Fools.” Logan Kroeber starts things off with his furious drumming as always, and you can feel that this sound will build up to something great when Meric Long steps in with his strong, yet tinted with a tiny shred of whine, vocals. This song starts the album out right; a step back from too much production, but not a setback in the quality of the song. They continue this walk down percussive and rhythmic lane for the first three songs, which takes up a large chunk of this simple nine-track album, which is definitely something that I wanted to see.

On “Sleep,” the presence of Neko Case is especially apparent; her simple role in background vocals alters the very nature of the song. She takes what would have been just an ordinary song from this group and adds the icing on the cake, if you will, making something already desirable and good into something grand. While I wouldn’t think that I would enjoy the song with a lot of instruments from this group, it works surprisingly well. Normally what seems most effective for The Dodos is simplicity, but on this pretty little number the layers of instruments, a bit more depth to the vocals with the addition of Neko, and the overall contrast in complexity makes this a sure standout track.

A little later comes “When Will You Go,” which feels more like a pop tune than that of their traditional tunes at first—the drums feel far away, while the guitar is precise and tight. There isn’t the general feeling of about to spin out of control, or that climactic ferocity, but it’s an interesting spin for the group. Yes, the drums and guitars kick up toward the end, but it’s still a good knock at a solid poppier sounding tune, if that’s where they were trying to go.

After “Don’t Stop,” rounds out No Color with some intricate drums and then a final resounding beat, you feel pretty satisfied. There are certainly some weak places here and there, but for the most part, The Dodos have managed to entertain once again with their zestful rambunctiousness.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong

Rating: ★★★★ ·

After the release of their highly acclaimed first album, and then the release of an intriguing and excellent EP shortly following, the whole of the indie music scene has been anxiously awaiting The Pains of Being Pure at Heart to grace their ears with more fuzzy pop tunes. But now that the wait is over, and this buzzband from 2009 is back with their sophomore effort, will it live up to the first?

Belong, starts off immediately different from its predecessor on the title track. You can feel a thicker buzz in the guitar, a grungier sounding bass and a less bubbly, groovier feel to the track right off the bat. It may feel a bit disappointing to some at first, who wonder where their fluffy twee pop sound went. However, after repeated listens, or even toward the end of the four-minute song, it is easy to see and admire the growth of the sound. If this band produced a record that sounded exactly like the first, it would be mediocre and the spontaneity of said excellent poppy tunes would be banal. Even though it is not a completely drastic change, it is certainly a step towards a mellower album.

Oh, but not to worry, the bounce from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is certainly not gone: the very next song, “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” kicks away the hazy start and busts in with the sweet pop goodness you’ve come to know so well. Rolling drums are accompanied by the vocals of Kip Berman and Peggy Wang that are sure to melt your heart into a dreamy puddle; the same goes for “Heart in Your Heartbreak.” While these are both classic moves from this band, the real superstar track comes your way on “The Body.” High synthesizer spins from the beginning and it is probably one of the hardest songs to not move your feet to. Kip’s lyrics are as earnest and catchy as ever, urging you to “tell [him] again what the body’s for!” It’s a dance jam of pure exuberance, ready made for any party, be it in your head or with actual people.

Belong continues on, going to similar places as the first album, with songs like “My Terrible Friend,” that resembles “This Love is F*****g Right!” However, it hasn’t become monotonous in the way that I thought this album might. The group has matured in that they wandered a little in places, keeping things fresh, but not so far that it is unrecognizable to listeners. This effort, while just not quite as good as the first release, is everything that I was looking for: the flair of youthful energy and springtime freshness paired with the feeling of a step towards a new direction that often follows these sentiments.

Wye Oak – Civilian

Rating: ★★★★½

It seems like Merge Records can do no wrong as of recent, with stellar releases this year from names like Destroyer, Telekinesis and Apex Manor. So it is not a big surprise that this record is remarkable, well produced and enticing. Wye Oak has indubitably grown a great deal since their last release, and continue to amaze with how fulfilling their sound is for just a two member band.

Civilian is typical in that it has its immediate standouts, but unique in that after repeated listens, those that didn’t stand out before begin to emerge from the background, becoming new favorites. The opening track, “Two Small Deaths,” is one that grabs your attention upon the first listen. A bit of indiscernible chatter opens the song, giving that feeling of the moment before a show is about to start. It puts a bit of anxious-excitement about what is going to come after the chatter falls away, and Wye Oak certainly do not disappoint. Some simple feedback eases you in, and then the elegant and buttery vocals of Jenn Wasner hit you over the head, commanding your attention.  The track ebbs and flows between the swell of folk sound from the beautiful vocals and the shoe gaze guitars.

While the start to this album is certainly calm in it’s nature, it is by no means a template for the rest of the songs. On numbers like “Plains,” there are drastic build-ups to the powerful, vocal and instrumental, crescendos. It is here, along with the rest of the album, where the rich and strong vocals of Wasner are comparable to that of Victoria Legrand from Beach House. It’s so easy to get lost in the delicate, yet hurricane force strength of the vocals, but it’s not a feeling of misdirection. Instead, it’s the wonderful feeling of having nowhere to be, and getting lost leads you to something that you never would have found otherwise.

On the title track, “Civilian,” the song builds upon itself, layering the crispness of folk and the grit of the guitar. It grows and grows, and then hell breaks loose; all tension that has been built is suddenly released in a cathartic swell of squalling feedback. Elements of brilliance such as this are found all over Civilian, both in the attention grabbers and the slow burners. The prevalence of control and detail that Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner bring to their sound allows for them to push their boundaries, all while staying calculated. Sound like this merits multiple listens, and careful listens at that, or else you might miss a savory indie rock treat in this album.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/05-Civilian-1.mp3]

Download: Wye Oak – Civilian [MP3]

Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

Rating: ★★★½ ·

If the title didn’t already foreshadow this, Lykke Li has made a noticeable shift to a darker sound in general. The lyrics have reached a point of seriousness that can lead one to believe that this band doesn’t want to be mistaken as just a girly and cute throwaway kind of music. Lykke Li, hailing from Sweden, looks to prove that she can produce mature and progressive songs on this sophomore release.

Starting out on “Youth Knows No Pain,” you can see the immediate shift in this darker direction. While the bubbly organ jumping in and out may not convey this right away, when Lykke chimes in with her sassy voice, telling you to live things up while you can, because the “Youth [that] knows no pain” will soon grow old, you can feel the sense of urgency. On the second track “I Follow Rivers,” the group dabbles in the form of drastic ups and downs. It begins mildly quiet, but then dives right into a full energy chorus that carries the jangly tune.

Changing things up from the bouncy first two tracks, on “Love Out of Lust,” the band sounds anthemic, once again urges their audience to take advantage of the time at their hands before its gone; “dance while you can.” From here, if it wasn’t felt before, is from where the newfound profundity really takes off. Yes, the same fundamental sound is there: the bittersweet vocals of the front woman herself, the amiable bass lines, some electronic elements and the overall ability to make you move. When Lykke chants “I’m Your Prostitute,” on “Get Some,” it’s clear to see that she is reaching farther than before. She wants to make a statement with her music that is as equally as meaningful as listenable.

On Wounded Rhymes, Lykke Li does just that, the songs are enjoyable and catchy, but they don’t just stop there. Instead they progress into tracks that can become statements, driven by the desires of the band itself. However, this seriousness makes for a bland number of songs after “Sadness is a Blessing” brings forth the line that dubbed the album. The loss of playfulness that makes this band is absent here, and it makes for an anti-climactic close. While “Jerome” tries so hard, it doesn’t fit in with the songs that came in the beginning and it sort of feels as though she just gave up with the end.

As disappointing as this is, I don’t think it ruins the whole album. The first seven songs are solid and groundbreaking in this new I’m-a-big-girl-now-take-me-seriously style. For the most part, Lykke accomplishes what she set out to prove.

La Sera – s/t

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Known for her bass playing in pop punk super star band Vivian Girls, Katy Goodman has been looking for side projects since spring of last year. She tried her ways under the moniker of All Saints Day, and even released a seven inch. However, it apparently didn’t stick, and Ms. Goodman moved onto her latest project. Enter: La Sera.

 Like Vivian Girls, La Sera has those cutting guitars and the presence of Goodman’s wispy vocals. However, while her voice takes a backseat on her full time band, it is the main element of distinction to this album. On “Beating Heart,” the opening song, her voice is layered upon itself to create echoed sugared oohs in the background. The clear guitar contrasts with this vocal quality, and builds up to the breaking point of the song. This is when the clarity of the guitar shifts muddier, wrapping up the bubbly lo-fi track before its close. Next is “Never Come Around,” one of the singles from the album. Some tambourine spices things up right off the bat, mixing effortlessly with sunny vocals and thus the airy yet viscous song—the norm for this album.

I think what makes this album decent is that Goodman knows her limitations; most of the songs barely reach two minutes, which sharpens the difference in between them, so that the listener doesn’t get caught up in the thick and sticky jangly songs that this album is chalked full of. In this way, the album is able to have those crests and troughs, all while staying close to that happy medium. It doesn’t become too complex for its own good and frankly none of the songs are what I would call bad or boring.

While its shortness is what makes La Sera, it also seems to be what breaks it. When reaching the end of this quick burst of energy album, it’s fairly easy to forget the latter part. The simplicity of the whole thing turns on itself, and suddenly it’s over, and you haven’t really been taken anywhere: like running on a treadmill. Slight fluctuations were present, the songs varied, but there was never that pop punk power punch that knocked your socks off and left you satisfied.

All in all, it’s still a pretty good way to spend thirty minutes of your life. Goodman hypnotizes you with her serene pop/lo-fi tunes, as any good jangly guitar album should.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/LS_DevilsHeartsGrowGold.mp3]

Download: La Sera – Devil’s Hearts Grow Gold [MP3]

Banjo or Freakout – s/t

Rating: ★★ · · ·

The bedroom effort of Alessio Natalizia, Banjo or Freakout has become fully realized with this debut release. With a touch of professional production, the spacey and atmospheric sounds of this group feel tangible, yet still far away in their nature. A mix of electronic and physical sounds mesh fairly well on this album, and for some of the time, the band maintains that tightrope of emptiness.

Starting out strong, the band doesn’t sound very atmospheric. On “105,” the only hollow element that is prevalent in the song would have to be Natalizia’s pale and borderline falsetto voice that intensifies the buzzing guitar. Some synthesized dulcent undertones gradually trickle into the song, and pull it away from its humble beginning into the deep void of electronic emptiness. The synth undertones meander their way to “Go Ahead,” which is one of my favorite tracks on the album. A little bit muddier than that of the first track, it really focuses on a slightly playful quality in the mumbled vocals of Mr. Natalizia. Even though it’s shift towards a more electronic style, which I’m normally inclined to disgust, it takes a step in a fulfilling direction and becomes an enticing narrative marked by effervescing synthesizer and the dull roar of fuzz.

 Despite its promise at the beginning, there are some huge setbacks to this album. While it is a good start for a band like this, it is nowhere near perfection. Like other albums similar in style, the golden qualities that are presented in the beginning fizzle out, leaving the rest of the songs to sound overlookable and boring. The atmospheric levels of noise that interest and seem so intricate during the first few tracks slip easily into the recess of the listeners mind. Too simply it becomes background music that only serves for filling space, not for bedroom listening. Tracks at the very end like “Dear Me” lose the boundary between vocals and hollow sound, so that the two mold into one. The song loses its edginess and becomes just a bunch of noise that sounds thrown together with much haste.

 Some may say that this album falls under the chillwave category, or at least the latter part. While it does offer a relaxing break from a stressful day, it doesn’t stimulate the senses, save the first few songs. Perhaps I stand alone in the desire for music that will push and pull me places, all while maintaining entertaining qualities. Banjo or Freakout just leaves my brain hanging alone in the cold void of outer space. With some work, their next release could be stellar, so long as they focus on what makes the start sound so good.

Toro y Moi – Underneath the Pine

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Despite the deception that the name brings, Toro Y Moi is actually just one person: Chazwick Bundick. Last year, he gained attention through his first release Causers of This. Only a year later, Toro Y Moi is back with a whole new set of songs, which is fairly ambitious, even if the band is only really made up of one person. Ambitious or not, Bundick has made a fairly decent sophomore effort with Underneath the Pine.

Starting with “Intro/ Chi Chi,” Bundick looks to slowly ease you into his style, submersing the listener slowly into his groovy and chill world of sound. He is careful not to throw too much at you, but allows the two minute and twenty five seconds of quite bass and head nod- inducing slow beats. Almost hypnotizing, the first track lulls you into a state of calm, Zen feelings, if only so he can pull you out on the next song. When the last noises of the intro fade out, the positively 70’s disco sounds of “New Beat” kick in. Suddenly, you’re lost in the synthesizer and muted vocals of Bundick, whirling wherever the groovy sounds take you. By the end of the second song, Toro Y Moi has full control, and it is only a matter of what experimental beats he will daunt with next.

On shorter songs such as “Divina,” and “Good Hold,” this band keeps it eloquent. “Divina” is purely instrumental and “Good Hold” relies on a messy piano line that would feel otherwise too chaotic if prolonged for any more than it is. Despite the shortness of these two tracks, both of them are still chalked full of the entrancing qualities of this sound. Contrarily, on the longer side of songs you have surface goodies like “How I Know,” which just feels like summer all wrapped up into a ball. When you press play on this song, it feels like the annual first jump off the diving board and into the cool water that relieves the sweat from your brow. Deeper cuts like “Light Black” are also present: the beat may not be as bumping, but as the gritty sound creeps its way under your skin it makes for a echo-y few minutes of soothing noise.

 It’s the variety of songs on Underneath the Pine that makes it so interesting and enjoyable. While it doesn’t feel like Bundick is trying to permeate your subconscious, he does just so with his coy disco/pop/alternative smooth rock sound. Cool trance beats mix with lukewarm vocals to make it feel like spring in the midst of winter, much like February in Austin.

Asobi Seksu – Flourescence

Rating: ★★★½ ·

With Fluorescence as their fifth studio album, Asobi Seksu has been around since approximately 2001, crafting dream pop music that is sure to stand out from anything else you’ve heard from the genre. It isn’t because the music is that drastically different from the others, it’s due to the voice of front woman Yuki Chikudate. At points the vocals don’t really feel like they match, but it’s this sort of calculated chaos that Asobi Seksu has ridden upon since their beginning.

 From the start of this album, you can grasp a clear idea of what this group is aiming for with this release: shoe gaze/psychedelic pop that resonates with their listeners. Hell, you could grasp this from the title and album art alone. The first song, “Coming Up,” begins with a bit of synth, some rolling drum beats, the shake of some tambourine and the borderline falsetto vocals of Chikudate. After a few moments the distorted and swirling guitar kicks in, surrounding the listener with its dreamy aura. From here, the song really takes off, mixing the already present high-pitched vocals of Chikudate, with that of James Hanna for some contrast. For a start, you can get much better than this: the buzzing hooks of the guitar entice, while the vocals make you wonder where else the group can go with the album.

Following this lush first number comes an example of the calculated chaos that I mentioned earlier. While the instruments take a grungier, dug in sound, the vocals do not and are left to waver over the top. One might think that a whispery vocal would be the compliment to such a sound, but instead it is accompanied with a full voice, oscillating a lot between highs and lows. For some parts of “Trails,” it comes across as slightly disjointed, but at others it feels so right. Towards the end of the number comes a breakdown that should surely prove amazing live. While not the highest pitch, the vocals are entrenched and dripping with emotion and feeling, as though they are being pushed to their very limit.

The rest of the album follows suit of these two songs, but some do not quite reach their caliber. Depending on your personal flavor, that could mean that the songs that delight me fall flat to you; there are so many elements to this shoe-gazy sound that everyone can find something that they like about it. Whether it be on the long epic track of “Leave the Drummer Out,” or on the short “Deep Weird Sleep,” there is bound to be something that sticks with you.

While Flourescence is not the most interesting album that is going to come out this year, or maybe even this week, it is still good enough to merit some of your time. It’s light and fluffy music that is perfect for the start of spring lingering around the corner.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/02-Trails-1.mp3]

Download: Asobi Seksu – Trails [MP3]

Dream Diary – You Are the Beat

Rating: ★½ · · ·

When you think of recent lo-fi/dream pop releases of the past few years, of the various names that come to mind, one of them is bound to be the sweet sounds of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. So what could be better than a band that sounds exactly like them, save some different members? Nothing right?  

Right off the bat, it’s easy to see the similarities between Dream Diary and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. On “Paper Flowers,” you have the same bright guitars, synthesizer hum, and breathy-whispered vocals. However, it’s missing the element that makes all the instruments and vocals connect seamlessly, and it comes off exactly like a cheap knockoff karaoke POBPAH song; even the pacing is akin to that of “Stay Alive.” Halfway through I wanted to know where Kip and Peggy were.  Everything that the band is doing in terms of their sound is right and euphonic; it doesn’t sound repulsive, it just feels wrong. The vocals fall flat and the melodic shoe-gaze pop rhythms just resound emptily with nothing to carry them.

A standout song, regardless of whether it sounds original or not is found in “Something Tells Her.” Tambourine shimmers and shakes it’s way around the track, and with the female vocal presence layering over the top of the male, the normal flatness is expelled. This makes for a twee tune that actually goes somewhere that feels right and I feel like if Dream Diary focused on making more tunes that sounded like this, they could have made this album so much better. A few tweaks here, a few changes there and they could have just made pop jams in their own way, avoiding the dreaded criticism of sounding too much like another group. Sorry Dream Diary.

Take it this way: when you want the horribly unhealthy neon orange macaroni and cheese from a box do you reach for the mediocre store brand? Hell no, you get Annie’s or even Kraft for that matter. In some instances name brand matters, and this is one of them. So as the last track of You Are the Beat, “Audrey of Spirits,” fades to its mediocre shoe-gaze ending, calmly scroll down your iTunes to P, and listen to the real version. If anything, this album made me hungry for upcoming release of POBPAH.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Dream-Diary-Something-Tells-Her.mp3]

Download: Dream Diary – Something Tells Her [MP3]

1 101 102 103 104 105