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]

Telekinesis – 12 Desperate Straight Lines

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Telekinesis consists primarily of Michael Benjamin Lerner, who won over your attention from his first and self titled album. On 12 Desperate Straight Lines, he looks to keep you in his clutches, locking you in a steady sea of indie rock that will surely create a lasting adoration for this man and his craft.

Beginning with “You Turn Clear in the Sun,” Telekinesis picks up right where thy left off:  the crisp strumming of guitars immediately fill you with a swell of nostalgia for tracks form their last album like “Coast of Carolina.” In fact, these two songs are strikingly similar in that they both start with simplicity and then bust, with the crash of cymbals, into the airy and light sounds that this band has become synonymous with. Lerner’s intricate storytelling lyrics are back in full swing, and so are his borderline nasal-y vocals. However, the band seems to be in a slightly darker place lyrically, as Werner belts “I never loved you/ I’ve never loved anyone.”

This change can be felt instrumentally on the second song “Please Ask For Help,” which calls back on classic sound from the eighties with it’s trembling bass and guitars akin to that of Modern English. The drums punch harshly in the background while the guitar and Lerner echo in waves on the surface. Continuing this transition to darkness comes “50 Ways.” This song starts with a smidge of feedback and then some fairly grunge guitar that welcomes you into the song. However, Telekinesis knows their limits, and pulls back to their softer side, if only for a few seconds. The combination of soft to heavy rock fuses two drastically different textures of music and it works because Lerner’s voice bridges the gap between the two.

 If you listen to every track on 12 Desperate Straight Lines, you’ll be challenged to find a bad song. Each one is a fresh and snappy slice of what makes this band: rapid drumbeats, furious guitars, vital bass and wail of Lerner. By keeping the middle tracks relatively short, the band makes sure that they don’t become banal with their listeners; the only track after the third that pushes past the three-minute notch is the last. That being said, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stop to admire those small songs. On “Country Lane,” my personal favorite song on the album, the band lures you in with the hooks of guitar, then coats their sound with distinct riffs of a higher guitar part, creating one of the albums finer moments.

Telekinesis has succeeded with this sophomore release in that they kept things simple: the tracks are moderately short and fitting, and the lyrics are sharp and witty. However, it’s not much of a jump from their previous album, which is not that problematic on this album, but could prove monotonous for this band if they don’t mix it up for their future releases.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/carcrash.mp3]

Download: Telekinesis – Car Crash [MP3]

Cut Copy – Zonoscope

Rating: ★★★½ ·

Cut Copy have been producing synth-pop beats, ever since their first single back in 2001. Since then, they have turned out a few albums that all rely on their capacity to supply excellent alternative songs to put on at your dance parties, whether individual or group. On Zonoscope they look to keep you moving, and for the most part, they do just that.

The first song, “Need You Now,” starts from a small synth beat and then begins to build upon itself, until the vocals of Dan Whitford echo in, akin to that of an eighties electro-pop jam. As it progresses, this song is something like when you shake up a soda bottle—you can see the bubbles forming, building slowly to when the lid is removed and it explodes. Whitford’s deep and ever-so-thick vocals juxtapose with the airy synth and the steady head nod-inducing beat, with some handclaps, to crescendo to a belted chorus and a break down in the beat; an excellent start to Zonoscope.

Keeping up the precedent set by the first song, “Take Me Over,” relies on throbbing bass lines and some more 80’s pop goodness. Throughout the track tangy guitar and kaleidoscope synth, counterbalance with some ooh’s. This song is more danceable than that of the first; matching the brand of alternative dance that Cut Copy does so well. At it’s end, it does not feel like it lasted for over five minutes, but it did, and so did the first song. This is important in the genre of any music that is intended to make people move, as nothing kills a party more than a song that goes for too long in the same direction.

After a quick break from the electro-pop sound on “Where I’m Going,” Cut Copy goes back with “Pharaohs & Pyramids.” Again over five minutes, the band goes many places, but never ceases to make you dance. Following comes another hit on “Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution.” Sadly, it also marks the dividing line of excellent songs to just plain good ones on this album. The second half of this album pales in comparison to the first in terms of songs that you can move to, and that are intriguing enough to listen to even when you don’t feel like shaking it. What started out as something excellent has meandered into something still decent, but forgettable.

Here is where I can’t help but think that song placement is of utmost importance—perhaps if the band had infused their standouts with the rest of the album, maybe this would have come off as incredible as opposed to brilliant fading to alright. That being said, this album is nothing to turn your nose up at, or at least certainly the first half isn’t.

James Blake – s/t

Rating: ★ · · · ·

After releasing a successful EP in Klavierwerke, James Blake gained a spot on Pitchfork’s list of top fifty albums of 2010 and more recognition in the U.K for his distinct sound of electronic beats and dub-step. As a newcomer to this genre, I did not know what all it entitled, but after listening to this album, I can say that it is not the groundbreaking and delightful experience I thought it would be.

The first song, “Unluck,” feels like a complete and utter mess. Random sounds are mixed over an on-again/off-again beat to create for an electronic disaster, unmotivated and cacophonous.  Then James Blake begins to sing, and if it wasn’t already sounding disorganized, his auto-tuned voice adds just another element of contrast that makes it spin out of control even faster. For the three minutes of it’s duration, it feels like a headache inducing CD that is scratched and has been skipping, which is an interesting way (to say the least) to start an album out.

Thankfully on the next song Blake is more calculated, which is shown through the presence of a consistent beat through the whole song. Here on “Wilhelms Scream” is where I can see how this artist has been categorized into the dub-step genre: heavy bass and drum sound dominate the simplicity of the song, consistent with the genres’ description. Blake drops the heavy auto-tune from his smooth voice, so that the song is easier to listen to than the prior. While it is more soothing than that of the first song, it is still the same in repetitive nature. By the end of the song, it hasn’t really gone anywhere, and has been the monotonous repetition of words since the beginning.

After this song, I was ready to ease my ears and switch to something else that was more than electronic noises made by a computer, but I felt like I needed to be fair to Blake in making sure there were no redeeming qualities to this album before I deemed it an utter mess. Six songs in, I finally found a song that was worth listening to: “Limit to Your Love.” It begins with piano, and I couldn’t help but be driven in to the song on the sheer fact that it began with a physical instrument. Blake does revert to his dub-stepping for bits of the song, but it is tolerable in that it doesn’t become plain and boring as the other songs do. This euphoric sensation lasts through the next song, “Give Me My Month,” which sadly only lasts about two minutes. It is in these songs that I feel similarities to Bon Iver, and wish that Blake would have gone the route of only using small amounts of electronic fringe in his work, instead of relying on it to be the very backbone of his sound.

I’m not sure I understand this whole dub step/auto-tuned phenomenon. Is it the kind of genre where you have to be intoxicated or on some sort of substance that alters your perception? Perhaps I am missing something that is the key to enjoying this kind of music because this does not sound pleasurable to me, at all. If dub-step is your thing, then by all means, this album might rank five stars in your book.

The Go! Team – Rolling Blackouts

Rating: ★★★ · ·

So what genre exactly is The Go! Team? Pop, hip-hop, garage rock, alternative dance, or a list of various others? The answer to these questions is all of the above, as The Go! Team dabbles between many different genres, if not plain and simply their own unique combination of sounds. To me, this distinct variety that makes up this group is refreshing while swimming through a sea of simple pop albums. However, at times the group can sound a tad bit too hyper, and the variety can become a little lost on the ears of previous listeners.

This facilitating sound is apparent from the first song to the fourth. On the first track, “T.O.R.N.A.D.O,” those letters are spelled out from the very beginning, with what sounds like a full band of horns, akin to something you would hear perhaps as a pep rally. As you suppress the urge to yell “go tornadoes!” the song ends and transitions to “Secretary Song,” which begins with some chanting like that of the first, but then moves to more of a pop sound, with subtle string work and tinkling sounds of percussion.  At this point, it seems like The Go! Team might only have two tricks up their sleeve, but then they keep adding more to their repertoire.

On “Apollo Throwdown,” a flat out dance groove is thrown down. Gone are the pep-rally and pop sounds, and here are electronic beeps and almost rap (well rap to a white girl like me). If you can make it through this one without tapping your feet, then congrats, you’re a hard ass! This song is a free-flowing all out party-ready groove, encompassing the crazy energy this group has. Following this outburst of energy and dance tunes comes a complete turn in the form of “Ready to Go Steady,” which takes a sort of 70’s sound based off the slightly echoed drums. It’s hard to believe that these two songs back to back are even the same group, as they sound drastically different

If you are a long time fan of this band, then you know that this in not music for just any old day, but music for days that need a boost of explosive energy that The Go! Team offers. A certain mood is required for this group, and Rolling Blackouts is a sure testament to this. At the same time, if you have been a long time fan of this band, then nothing is that new for you in respect to their sound; it’s the same energy, and not a lot of new aspects that keep old timers’ attentions. As hard as this may be to believe, The Go! Team has lost the freshness that they once had. Granted, Rolling Blackouts is nothing to turn your nose up at, but it’s not something to stop everything for.

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

Download: The Go! Team – Voice Yr Choice [MP3]

Apex Manor – Year of Magical Drinking

Rating: ★★★½ ·

So what do you do if you’re Ross Flournoy and your band has just finished their productions as a group? Keep writing songs and diving further into the musical world, of course. In 2009, when The Broken West ceased existing, Flournoy continued his work alongside former band mate Brian Whelan, and also his new roommate Adam Vine— thus creating Apex Manor, a new group for him to belong to. The result is a power pop bang of goodness that will have you jamming along with the distorted guitars.

“Southern Decline” kicks the pop party right from the start. Flournoy spins the story of getting “high, while [he] feels low,” with guitars strumming away, juxtaposing such a negative subject with strong instrumentations. “Under the Gun” then follows and you can see the crystal clear and masterly executed production of Dan Long (who produced such bands as Local Natives) shining. Just enough distortion on the guitar parts fills all the nooks and crannies of this song, so that there are no holes for the airy percussion elements to slip through.

Three songs into the album comes my personal favorite “The Party Line.” Just when you think that The Year of Magical Drinking is going to be just another pop album, Flournoy throws in this number and you’re hooked again. Gentle, undistorted plucking of guitar begins the song and then the beat gets going and some more rock feeling washes over, making your head bob and fingers tap. It’s pure bliss for three minutes and fifteen seconds, even during the short return to quiet that comes before the final chorus. It’s a song that’s meant to be blasted, and blast it you must.

 Accompanying the previous track is another less pop, more rock song: “Teenage Blood.” The repetitive line of “I’ve got teenage blood/boiling in my brain” resounds, and for a second, you almost believe that perhaps there is a little bit of angst in Flournoy; the vocals stray from their refined execution, and the cymbals crash chaotically, but within a few minutes, the band is back to their style—a nice deviation and then return, so that they can finish strong. “Holy Roller” slows things down for basically the first time on the album and Apex Manor shows yet another side of their musical talent; a sort of bluesy , soft rock flair, without the cheesiness of course.

For their first full-length album, Apex Manor has done well. While not the most ground breaking sound, they combine pop with rock, and solid production to match their every beat. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it is a very good example of what mostly pop albums should sound like. Here’s to hoping for excellent future albums from this fine group.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/02-Under-the-Gun-1.mp3]

Download: Apex Manor – Under the Gun  [MP3]

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