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]

Destroyer – Kaputt

Rating: ★★★★ ·

When thinking about Destroyer, one might envision the older drunkard who mumbles brilliant things under his breath. While Dan Bejar may or may not be drunk when he writes the songs for his albums, it is still obvious that he writes vaguely brilliant songs, often coupled with a variety of different musical accompaniments, which vary depending on the album. On Kaputt, it seems that Mr. Bejar has chosen to go the way of jazz, along with 80’s pop elements that put a new spin on his coded lyrics. 

 At the opening noises of “Chinatown,” it’s possible to think that perhaps you put a different CD into the player, due to the presence of saxophone and tambourine, but when the familiar guitar strumming is heard and Bejar begins his craft, you know you’re in the right place. The smooth jazz beat in the background mixes with voices, creating a hazy fog where Destroyer lives. It’s foggy enough so that you can see everything right away, but clear enough to understand and enjoy. Slowly, that irresistible beat pulls at the muscles in your feet and makes them tap, and you have been hypnotized by Kaputt.

I could go through the list of songs on this album and tell you of the brilliance in each and every single one, but that would spoil the fun for you. I will however tell you that along with this new jazzy sound, there are some other new aspects to the album, such as the presence of feminine vocals. No, Bejar does not climb to falsetto, but rather hires the vocal talent of Sibel Thrasher, who can be heard on almost every track. Whether it is a big part, or a tiny one, she adds another dimension to Destroyer—as if they needed more complexity. On “Kaputt”, she blends in with the lead vocals and disco beats, giving the impression that the narrator is an ambiguous figure, not just one man preaching to you about the delicate intricacies of life. At one point in the song, Bejar remarks that “it all sounds like a dream,” which sums up the lyrics, as well as the smooth music that becomes Kaputt, all swirling around in your head.

With this new spin on his wit, Destroyer’s choice to incorporate a different sound with their classic style contributes to the catalog of albums. It does not hinder the witty lyrics, nor does it take away from the intricacy that the group does so well. Bejar and company continue their path of wowing their audience with their sacred knowledge of changing just enough to keep their style fresh, but not too much where they have become unrecognizable.

If you’ve been a Destroyer fan since their origin in 1995, or this is your first experience with the group, the waves of cryptic lyrics will wash over you, leaving each person with your own spin on the meaning of his words, just like every well written album should.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/01-Chinatown-1.mp3]

Download: Destroyer – Chinatown [MP3]

Braids – Native Speaker

Rating: ★★★ · ·

In this day and age of Attention Deficit Disorder musical consumption, there is something to be said about the first thirty seconds of any album. It’s supposed to be a slice of one of the best songs on the album, drawing people to listen to the rest. However, Braids don’t seem to think it is that important, or perhaps want dedicated listeners because they chose to leave the first thirty seconds of Native Speaker empty, save for some atmospheric sound – a sign of things to come.

A few more seconds pass and soft drums kick in and “Lemonade” gets moving, with the half whisper, half clear vocals of Raphaelle Standell-Preston propelling it onwards. It proves to be a simple, yet elegant song that echoes through the emission of heavy instrumentation. Then, they move to “Plath Heart,” in which the sweetness of Standell-Preston’s voice is shown. A trace of a yelp provides the perfect vocals to ride upon the calm and collected ripples of the song, which is the norm for the rest of the record. Another standout track comes later on with “Same Mum.” For a longer number, it holds the attention of the listener for all seven minutes and two seconds that it plays. The sharper clacking of drumsticks, and raised beat let the song move, as if an easily run marathon.

My biggest problem with Native Speaker as a whole is that it fades into the background all too easily. Something about the lack of variety, length of each song (some are over eight minutes) and amount of soft space allows this album to slip under the radar, instead of pulling me into their world of dreamy pop. Instead of packing a punch in this short album, Braids are as spacey as a band can get. They start with emptiness, end with emptiness and throw in some emptiness in the middle. If one were to listen to one track at a time, the lack of substance would be acceptable, as the songs themselves are not bad—contrariwise they are rather intriguing. With each additional listen, they grow on me, but I want more than small noises that fade when the song ends.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like this album, but as it meanders its way to finish, I get a little bored. The band just doesn’t show much versatility or variety, and the long songs work against them in that they stretch the separation of each song so thin that it becomes transparent, and everything blends together. As far as music that will knock your socks off goes, this does not fall under that category. However, if you are looking for something calm and soothing, perhaps the perfect accompaniment to a rainy day, then by all means, this is your album.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Braids-Plath-Heart.mp3]

Download: Braids – Plath Heart [MP3]

Mind Spiders – s/t

Rating: ★★★★ ·

From the instant you press play on your stereo, to the moment in which its final notes resound, Mind Spiders refuse to stop. In that miniscule pregnant pause before the guttural guitar resounds through your speakers, take a breather, because you’ll need all your strength to keep up with their punk pace.

“Go!” is the album opener and does exactly what its title exclaims. It’s an almost two minute scramble of garage rock and gang vocals that pack a hell of a punch into a tiny slice of time. Before you know it, the first track is gone and the second is about to pass you by. On “Don’t Let Her Go,” it is easy to see a similar sound to that of the late and great Jay Reatard. The muddy vocals and frantic jamming guitar along with the shortness of the number all are reminiscent of Jay’s work on Watch Me Fall, namely “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me.”

However, this album is not simply a copy cat of other’s work, but rather, a culmination of tastes from a variety of genres; a little bit of 60’s pop here, some lo-fi there, and a dash of some all out punk. For instance, on “Read Your Mind,” the group starts out slow, with slightly clearer vocals and soft waves of “ooohs,” that occupy the first minute and twenty or so seconds. It’s almost as if the band wants you to relax a bit after the first three songs before they jump right back into their ferocity. The vocals become muddier as the song morphs from slow-mover into punk once more.

The next super stand out track is “No Romance,” which is sadly the shortest song on the album. It continues the quick pace, but not without grabbing your attention through a sea of compact jams. Following this is a lo-fied nod to Little Richard on “Slippin’ and Slidin.’” On this track, the overall distorted sound contributes to enticing quality; the more I listen to this song, the more I like it.

What this album has working for it in addition to its stellar beats is that Mind Spiders know their limits. While only four out of twelve of the songs last longer than three minutes apiece, it works for such a fast paced album. If every song were to last for slightly longer than it does, this album could have derailed from its hasty tracks. Instead, it was a toe tapper from start to finish.

So you as you look at the stereo in disbelief that track twelve is becoming track once again, do nothing. Allow this album to permeate the surrounding air like a gust of cold air into a stuffy room, waking you up like an icy shower —lather, rinse, repeat Mind Spiders.

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

Download: Mind Spiders – No Romance [MP3]

The Decemberists – The King is Dead

Rating: ★★★★ ·

After not the greatest reception of their last album, The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists have made their way back to the classic sound of their folk rock. This time around they have shifted ever-so-slightly to a larger influence of bluesy, Americana tones. As this is their seventh full-length release, The Decemberists are far from amateurs.

The King is Dead begins with “Don’t Carry it All,” which is an immediate stomper. It starts as though the beginning of an epic novel- slowly growing more intricate and detailed, without becoming too heavy at the end. Once again the listener is treated to the superb writing that this band brings to its albums. Blazing harmonica and the strikingly unique and bittersweet vocals of lead singer Colin Meloy combine with string work and methodic percussion to create this enjoyable, albeit not groundbreaking, sound for the first song. The group moves right along to “Calamity Song,” which picks up the pace. Fierce guitar strumming and refined howling in the chorus adds a touch of wildness to the album before they tone it down for “Rise to Me.” On this number, steel pedal guitar and vocal harmonies in addition to harmonica once again shape it to be the most classically blues sounding song of the album thus far.

As on the preceding album and those before it, The Decemberists have always been nothing short of excellent storytellers and songwriters, if one can consider those two different things. On “Rox in the Box,” you get brilliant lines such as “We all do what we can/ we endure our fellow man.” While on the two complimentary songs “January Hymn,” and “June Hymn,” Meloy takes you on an imagery filled journey through winter and summer, two drastically different seasons. These songs are similar in their simplicity, but different in the images they create.

It is really hard to find a song that is lacking in good qualities on this album; I didn’t find any. With their outstanding songwriting in hand, the album heads towards its finish with “This is Why We Fight.” Like the first track, this one is laced with several instruments and lyrical strengths. During the chorus Meloy bites the endings of his words, giving edginess to the song. “Dear Avery” then rounds off the album slowly and softly, more steel guitar ending the album as it began: bluesy.

While this is an excellent effort from The Decemberists, it isn’t a stretch. Simple blues elements added an interesting spin, but it seems as though the group was discouraged from their last album to stray from their classic sound too much. If anything, the album artwork is a testament to my feelings towards this work; it’s really pretty, and I like it a lot, but it’s not mind blowing. It would have been nice to see where they could go, but I’m far from complaining.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Down-By-The-Water-1.mp3]

Download: The Decemberists – Down By The Water  [MP3]

Sun Airway – Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier

Rating: ★★★★ ·

As the human race keeps pushing towards a completely digital age, it is no longer a novel idea to rely on our computers for musical inspiration. Take Animal Collective, and countless others that have delved into the seemingly bottomless pit of electronic sounds. However, there is a definite difference between dabbling into the realm of electronic alternative pop and diving too far into the deep end of noise. With Nocturne of Exploding Crystal Chandelier, these two gentlemen skate this fine line as though tightrope walkers.

The album starts out with “Infinity,” which, to my dismay, is a bit of a redundant dud when pitted against the rest of the songs. However, if you look past the first song and onto the second, “American West,” you can see what this band has to offer. Coat upon coat of electronic fizzle combine with a slightly cloudy vocal to produce a song that is filled with noise, but allows for a ton of variation in said noise so that the listener doesn’t tire of the same drone, but becomes interested in the complexity of the song. This is where I feel Sun Airway failed in choosing an opening song for their debut; shouldn’t the first song grab my attention and make me ask for more?

Next the band travels farther into the bliss pop genre with “Swallowed By The Night,” which is a change from the first three songs, in that it is devoid of the buzz and fast pace. Instead, this song focuses on the sweeping qualities in the vocal, which are sprawled in some parts, and then pulled back to their robotic precision. From this, the song gains an emotional dimension and allows you to feel like you are standing alone with the night sky, engulfed by its vast darkness and captured by the millions of twinkling stars.

And so Sun Airway continues with their neo psychedelic pop, alternating between faster, less human songs, and the softer, easier to emotionally read beats. A song that stands out strongly is “Your Moon.” The delicate vocals break into a downright outburst of longing when the chorus sounds clearly: “I just wanted to be your moon/ alone in your night sky.” This song truly encompasses the delicacy that this group angled for in their nod to Chopin’s Nocturnes. Like Chopin’s music, this band is soft when it needs to be, yet juxtaposed with sharpness that makes for a really pleasurable listening experience.

As far as first albums go, Sun Airway do an excellent job in showing their distinct sound, without growing too hollow or redundant, as electronic beats tend to. For this, I commend them and look forward to their next work.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/03-Oh-Naoko-1.mp3]

Download: Sun Airway – Oh, Naoko [MP3]

Matt and Kim – Sidewalks

Rating: ★★★★ ·

This is an album that can be perceived in two very different directions.  You can look at it in reference to all the other music that comes your way – the complex, indie, intricate guitar filled albums that blow you away. Or you can just take this album in for what it is: a man with a keyboard and a lady on the drums, turning out simple and catchy tunes. I chose the latter of those two options. 

Sidewalks starts out with “Block After Block, “ classic Matt & Kim: electronic synthesizer patterns and the yelp of Matt carrying over the hyper beat provided by Kim. By the end of the song, by the end of my first listen I was singing along with him on the “Block after Block” line of the chorus; it’s just that catchy.

 I tried to dislike this album, really, I did. But halfway though “AM/FM,” the second song, those repeated “oh ay oh ay oh oh ay ay oh-a-oh’s” had me hooked and there was no turning back. In the first six songs Matt & Kim don’t pause for a breather, instead they turn out song after blistering fast song. Each and every one of these first six jams is quick and ever so danceable. Your toes should be tapping and your head nodding like crazy.

If Matt & Kim haven’t won you over before the first four songs, just wait until “Where You’re Coming From.” This is the epitome of why this album is so enjoyable. It starts out as a simple beat and builds over the course of the song, progressively adding more and more elements to the song, whether it is the buzz of synth, or the electronic beeps and boops. Just when you think they are going to push it too far, Matt & Kim throw it all together and make you feel like the guitar isn’t a necessary instrument for musical greatness.  The climax of the song is one of pure bliss; cymbals crashing, voices echoing, lyrics falling into their place perfectly, and the electronic noises blending together with the actual beat.

As I mentioned before, the first six songs are a nonstop party, but this doesn’t mean the last four tracks are boring, on the contrary, Matt & Kim finish ever so strongly.  They slow it down on “Northeast,” showing a bit a depth to their music from an emotional stand point because the imagery in the lyrics show true feeling as opposed to simple beats. They then bring back their rambunctious energy on “Silver Tiles  and culminate everything together with “Ice Melts,” leaving the listener in the same place where Matt & Kim started, except perhaps a little out of breath.

So before you turn your nose up at this work because it is currently in the number three spot of top albums on iTunes, give it a listen with an open mind.  Yeah, it isn’t the equivalent of work from artists like The National, but I believe that you’ll find an entertaining and danceable bunch of songs in Sidewalks, that are sure to make your party mix for the rest of the year.

1 104 105 106 107