Vivian Girls – Share the Joy

Rating: ★★★½ ·

Despite various member changes since their origin in 2007, Vivian Girls seem to know exactly who they are and what they aim to do on this album. Their simple and fun songs rely on catchiness, zest and pure lightheartedness. However, with all this focus on fluff, does Share the Joy just become a write off, or did Vivian Girls manage to do the difficult task of stuffing sunshine into a bottle?

Let me first say that this is definitely an album that grows on you. While the stark and flat vocals of Cassie Ramone can be a little difficult to listen to at first, tough through it; as the rewards near the end of the album are great; not to say that the beginning is bad, it is just a bit of much needed introduction for those who are not already in love with this band. These ladies open with “The Other Girls,” a rather long first track that begins with a little furious guitar, but for the rest of the song, the band develops a very chill mood. The muted and far away drums combining with the jangly guitars continue on their second number and single “Heard You Say.” On this number, background vocals are utilized to their full effect: the “oohhss and aahhss” dominate, but leave room for some lovely guitar riffs.

At this point, Vivian Girls have given you a good taste of their hazy pop sound, accompanied by the clichéd woe-is-me girly lyrics, but you’re still waiting for those knockout numbers. About halfway through Share the Joy, “Sixteen Ways,” fills this desire. The heavy guitar and drums allow Ramone to sink down a little in her vocals, and the deepness of the song in general lets it become one of my favorites; you can’t help but love that simple strumming and harmonization. Following this song, “Take It As It Comes,” is some girl to girl advice that could fit seamlessly in with something from the sixties. Akin to something from the past, you can practically see these three ladies waving their fingers, sassily urging to “think with your head” instead of your heart. “Light in Your Eyes” then finishes off the album with more of the group effort vocally, both harmonically and through the trade off of the lead voice. Much like the album itself, this end track begins softly, but by the end, Vivian Girls have won you over.

While this is a very fun album, it doesn’t come off as oversimplified. With summer just around the corner, most of these songs should be able to find a home blaring out your car windows, the hot sun serving as the icing on the cake to this bubbly work, or vice versa.

Something Fierce – Don’t Be So Cruel

Rating: ★★★½ ·

Since not a lot is known about Something Fierce, and by not a lot is known I mean that they don’t have a Wikipedia page, I feel like I should give you a bit of background to this group. Hailing from Houston Steven Garcia, Niki Seven and Andrew Keith have been making late 70’s era punk since 2005. In 2009, these three folks self released their second album, There Are No Answers, but Don’t Be So Cruel marks their first release with Dirtnap Records.

When the throbbing bass introduces you to Something Fierce on the first few seconds of the title track, you can instantly hear the influence of early post-punk from the late 70’s. As the song gets to its meat pretty quickly, you can see other indicators of their nostalgic sound: the guitar standing out above some gritty vocals. After the barely minute song opener comes to a close, you get to hear this bands first proper tune, “What We Need Now.” Basically a continuation of the first song, this one focuses slightly more on the lyrical aspects and delves deeper into the skill set of this group. Whereas the first track was merely an anthem and appetizer for the rest, the second track seals the listener’s interest in this power punk pop jam.

While some of the music produced with a punk label on it may be labeled as simple in the lyrics or fundamental aspects, Something Fierce certainly cannot fall into that category. Each song does not just repeat a jangly chorus too many times that you know all the words after the first listen. Instead, this group crafts well thought out and written songs that also fit in with classics of the punk world. An example of this comes on “Ghosts of Industry,” one of the longest songs on this album, on which the half falsetto vocals juxtapose with the rough and tumble guitars and those dry, airy drums. At the same time these stellar instruments all rage on, a more intricate than you would expect amount of lyrics float somewhere in the middle. While normally indiscernible lyrics are one of my biggest pet peeves, I feel like this muddy quality works for the group; it’s like leaving the best bits to be discovered after repeated listens.

Such depth is just one of the golden qualities that this album possesses, but Don’t Be So Cruel does have some drawbacks. After repeated listens, some of the tracks have the ability to run together in the mind. For some, that won’t be a real problem; you will be able to appreciate the tightness of the songs. However, to others, it could prove this album just a little too repetitive. That said, I still believe that there are some delightful numbers interspersed through this work. Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself blasting this out of your car windows in the spring breeze.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/12-Empty-Screens.mp3]

Download: Something Fierce – Empty Screens [MP3]

The Kills – Blood Pressures

Rating: ★★★½ ·

With a name like The Kills, there is a general connotation of thick, deep-set rock and roll that comes with this band. With past releases that have realized this connotation, this group consisting of merely Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince, has methodically strummed and beat their way to the front of the indie rock music scene. With Blood Pressures, they keep on with their distorted guitars and slightly rough around the edges sound.

The first track, “Future Starts Slow,” begins with some twangy yet grunge guitar work accompanied by vocals from both members. With the drums resounding slightly higher over the top of the track at points, you can get a clear grasp of the emphasis on percussion elements in addition to that of just the guitar. As the words “You can blow what’s left of my right mind,” are doled out during the chorus, you can feel the sweet release of this band. They are just trying to make some swell tunes, and by poking fun at a failing sanity, they offer everything that’s left of their creativity to their audience to take and make their own.

Whereas their last record, Midnight Boom, was a step away from their traditional serious sound, Blood Pressures is a culmination of their grainy rock alongside lighter bits. There are the simple songs that bring lighter notes on the short “Wild Charms.” While hardly offering whimsy, it is a quick break from the thick guitars and the vixen-esque voice of Mosshart and a glimpse at a solo from Hince. Contrarily, on the very next track “DNA,” you have everything that the track before it was not; the garage rock guitars, some choppy percussion and the seductive vocals of Mosshart.

But for me, the band’s full excellence comes on “The Last Goodbye,” in the latter half of Blood Pressures. Gone is the prominent guitar and present are the comforting lullaby feeling words. With just a piano and some crackly record player sound effects, the track makes you feel as if you are in a different time, perhaps saying goodbye to a good friend, or even a lover. At this stripped down level, the basic fundamentals of this group are savory and sweet, despite the solemnity of the song.  Despite the cheese factor that it could have had on this album, I feel like it would have been much wiser to end with this track. It is such a strong track from this group that the other songs that follow just kind of get lost in the shuffle.

Regardless of track order, this is still a fairly enjoyable album. With its ups and downs, and transitions from grit to clean, The Kills have once again produced a good effort.

The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

Rating: ★★★★ ·

For years, The Mountain Goats have been wooing you with their cryptic and lyrical masterpiece songs that are poetry set to various tunes. You’ve fallen in love with their endlessly complex yet simple bank of songs that just keeps on getting bigger. So I’ll save you the introduction to a band that has already made itself a staple in a whole lot of hearts, and I’ll get to the review.

Much of this review and the perception of All Eternals Deck is determined by your current state of affairs with this band. If you like the Mountain Goats already, then this album will be just another reaffirmation of your love for them. If you don’t like the Mountain Goats already, this should be a step in the right direction towards your newfound affection towards them. If you hate them already, stop reading this.

As I’ve mentioned, this album is just another great addition to the overwhelmingly large catalog of songs that this group has already produced. From the first song “Damn These Vampires” begins with the familiar half spoken-half sang vocals of John Darnielle, who never fails to impress me with his delivery. A brilliant voice he has not, Darnielle still manages to convey the raw emotion that is needed for poetry. Despite the title, the first song comes off as an empathetic and encouraging tune for an unknown protagonist. As the tale is spun, you feel encompassed in the lyrics of this band and it’s as if you have been transported into the world of fiction of the Mountain Goats; a place where you will remain for the duration of this album.

Like a great novel, the songs that make up this release all wrap you in their cloak of deception at first, but after some thought, the words begin to make sense and add up to something that cherishable. Early tracks like “Age of Kings” draw you into their cryptic world, with dramatic strings chipping away at the underlying belly of the song. Other works like “High Hawk Season,” incorporate “ohs,” “ahhs,” and harmonies in the chorus from a juxtaposed deep voice that takes some of the nasal from Darnielle. The songs work together to lead you to areas that you never thought a song could, potentially becoming a new favorite work of fiction.

Overall, it’s a really well written work from this group. It warrants many listens trying to decipher just what those words mean. More importantly, what they mean to you as the humble listener.

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

Download: The Mountain Goats – Damn These Vampires

Brown Recluse – Evening Tapestry

Rating: ★★½ · ·

Despite the creepy implications of their name, Brown Recluse is far from such dark arachnid qualities in their music. Instead they rely on pop, and at that, psychedelic pop laden with airy vocals and crisp instruments. Ironically, many happy and jubilant sounds are produced from this band on Evening Tapestry.

Starting off with “Hobble To Your Tomb,” Brown Recluse begins on a high note. As one of the more interesting numbers on this album, it serves its pertinent job of making me want to see where this band is going to go for the rest of the album. It builds gradually, with short spurts of organ-like synth, and stop and go styling. The horn work at the end creates such promise. Seriously who doesn’t love horn work? However, the song doesn’t really go anywhere; much like the rest of the songs as a whole.

 While this album is chalk full of groovy pop tunes, it just won’t make the transition between good and great to me. Perhaps it is the blandness of the lead vocals; they suit the music, but at the same time there isn’t that disparity that allows for some noticeable separation of instruments and singing. It doesn’t command your attention, but lets you wander a little ways off, and it’s easy to get distracted from the tunes that are brightly playing away. The same goes for the shortness in each of the songs, which, sadly, but inevitably causes them all to sound similar.

Despite it’s one-note-nature, Evening Tapestry still has its moments. Such moments occur on numbers like “Impressions of a City Morning,” that starts with some quick, yet soft drums, and follows with the jingle-jangle of a tambourine. At some points during this number, I get the feeling of some old Belle and Sebastian song, chalked full of that story-telling diction and delicate vocal qualities that Stuart Murdoch does so well. Another stand out comes on “Monday Moon,” that relies on jangly guitars and the slight wail of some funky synthesizer to spin a poppy tune.

To be honest, most of the songs on this album are likable; there just isn’t enough variety in general to warrant excellence or even longevity. As I listen to this over and over, I just can’t latch onto hardly any of the songs. They run their course and then are done, becoming forgettable. Instead of falling in love with Brown Recluse, I feel more so like being their friend; I’m not quite ready to spend all my time with them, but hanging out every once and a while could be alright.

Evening Tapestry is out now on Slumberland Records.

Those Darlins – Screws Get Loose

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Despite releasing an album back in 2009, Those Darlins are still a band that has been flying under the radar. However, I don’t see them staying in that predicament for long after this work catches fire.

If the album art wasn’t enough of a clue, the instant you press play on this album, it’s clear that this is a playful, blunt, edgy and full out rock and roll fest. “Screws Get Loose,” the title and opening track is probably the best song that you’ll come across when things are all said and done. While normally it’s not necessarily a good sign for the best song to come first, it doesn’t hurt Those Darlins because all of the songs are decent. Its appeal begins with the jangle of the opening procession and continues to the classic garage punk sound. The grit of the feminine lead vocals is perfect in that it doesn’t fall into the sugary category that everyone else seems to be going for these days.

These punk vocals are also vital in convincing listeners that all the female narrator wants to do is “Be Your Bro” on the second number from Those Darlins. On this track, this band establishes themselves as people who could very well be your friends. Their songwriting (not just on this song) is simple and relatable; since it’s easy to discern what the band is discussing it quickly becomes like an inside joke between you and them. However, their lyrics aren’t oversimplified, they still manage to cover a wide variety of topics, from only wanting to be friends with a desiring male, “Be Your Bro,” to discussing and giving a testament about the evils of money, “$.”

The same can be said for the sound of the group; it goes a variety of places while still staying under the giant umbrella of garage, be it the pop, rock or punk variety. On “Let U Down,” there is a poppy vibe in the beginning that carries through the 70’s guitar riffs spliced though the tune. Later on comes “Tina Said,” whose guttural guitars and bobbing bass lines twist it to a darker, yet still jamming beat. “Fatty Needs a Fix” is a start to finish punk race that is molded by its quick-witted words and precision drumming, but don’t forget to stick around for Dutchess & the Duke—esque “Waste Away.” Such diversity will allow Those Darlins to bridge the gap between forgettable and kick ass.

At the end of Screws Get Loose, there is a bit of silence and then a guitar solo layered upon the melody of the first song, prompting you to go back to the beginning and start again. As the band intended, I suggest you do the same; this will surely be an album that you will play over and over.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Those-Darlins-Screws-Get-Loose.mp3]

Download: Those Darlins – Screws Get Loose [MP3]

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]

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