Cass McCombs – Wit’s End

Rating: ★★★★ ·

On his website, McCombs claims that this fifth record is a venture “going deeper into the mania of a man buried alive inside his self-made catacombs,” indicating that this album is a continuation and further explanation of said metaphor. However, even without this tidbit of knowledge from the man, Wit’s End is inclination enough to denote this surge to a more intricate and deeper reaching sound for Cass McCombs.

Wit’s End begins on a nonchalant note: the slow-moving drum beats and Cass’s gentle voice just sort of slips you into to his realm of ambiguity. No moment of anticipation, or calm before the storm, rather, in an instant you’re with him on an adventure to discover, or explore the human psyche. Such is the case with “County Line,” and continues onto “The Lonely Doll,” in which an eerie lullaby tinkling meanders through the song meanwhile you are narrated through a spindly tale of the title character. At this point, McCombs comes off as a Bob Dylan esque figure in getting lost in his own mind. “Buried Alive” describes this feeling as being “in a sea of black” and you can’t help but empathize with this man; we’ve all such a feeling of lost-ness somewhere along the way and Wit’s End makes this feel natural, and even right.

As far as the actual music goes, there is not too much to rave on about. It fits with the overwhelmingly powerful lyrics, and I think that is all that really matters for this album. Yes, there is the softly eroding piano on numbers like “Saturday Song,” that slowly beats you down with every press of the keys. And yes, there is the tender horn-work on the finisher “A Knock Upon the Door,” but there isn’t a reliance on that musical crescendo of majestic beauty. Cass McCombs is unapologetically cryptic and shady because that’s just the way he is.

At first listen, it seems that Mr. McCombs may have gone too far around the bend. The soft plucking of the guitar accompanied by his whisper of a voice sounds akin to that of a jaded old man with several regrets and misfortunes. However, the more listens acquired, the easier it is to ascertain the meaning behind this mans’ madness. Or if no meaning arises to your ears, it is at least devastatingly interesting to listen to the plight of another. It will grow on you.

Explosions in the Sky – Take Care Take Care Take Care

Rating: ★★★★ ·

In the days of computers for instruments, and a heavy weight on the vocals of a band, be it gang or solo, where do Explosions In The Sky fit in? Filling neither of these two aspects, they rely solely on the strength of their instruments to weave their listeners into an intricate web of simplistic, stripped down instruments. Known as Post-Rock, this genre of music allows for the music to be left up to your utilization: background music, inspiration for creativity, or something to contemplate.

For a merely six-song album, Explosions In The Sky do not fall short in the field of time for a full-length album. Instead, each song is long and sprawling, providing those crescendos and an abundance of catharsis that this band is famous for doling out. Take the first song, “Last Known Surroundings,” for example. Over the course of almost eight and a half minutes, you are taken to a variety of places by the changing rhythmic cycles of the instrumentation. Squalling, yet controlled guitars dominate the foreground of the song, while explosive drums kick in the background, leaving with the simplistic elegance that any song that this band produces contains.

While one might think that the long songs on this album would make each one stick out from each other as its own work of finesse, the contrary of this is true. Much like the chapters of a good book, each is brilliant, and they weave together to form a collective brilliance as an album. The sound fluctuates from loud to soft, and then back to loud again, giving those rolling hills of depth that are able to be filled with whatever strikes your fancy. Such depth allows for catharsis after catharsis and build after build without tire.

As I said before, one of the best qualities to this band is that they leave it up to you instead of forcing it down your throat. They pick the best possible times to grab your attention. So even if you are using their delightfully serene music as the filler of space while you work or think, they still have the ability to command your attention back to the music so that it can be commended as excellent craft. This is all you can ask from Explosions In The Sky.

I’m From Barcelona – Forever Today

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Honestly, I’m not sure how I’m From Barcelona works. Boasting twenty-nine members at one point in time, it seems like there must be a hierarchical system within the band, or else I don’t see how they could ever accomplish something with combining the creative genius of each member. Regardless of the inner-workings on this band, they produce catchy pop songs, despite any amount of time, or any change in membership. Forever Today is no exception.

While their last album was considered a bit of a set back for this Swedish super group, Forever Today is definitely a step back up to the fun sound that this group originally had back when they released Let Me Introduce My Friends in ’07. “Charlie Parker” begins with some classic synthesizer and those sweet and savory gang vocals that you’ve missed. From this first track, it’s evident that I’m From Barcelona has got their spunk back, and this album is going to be a restatement of that glorious energy. If the first song isn’t convincing enough for you, “Battleships,” two songs later brings some killer bass lines and the hint of handclaps, and as we know, handclaps always make for a great time. By the end of this one, you should be tapping your feet, joining together with this giant group of musicians.

One of the greatest qualities of this band is that since they have so much going on, and so many members, it feels easy to sing along and immerse yourself in the music with them, as if you are just hanging out with a bunch of friends. On “Always Spring,” another tasty pop song relies on the twinkling of some keyboard and the for-real handclaps. It’s a mixture of the energy that this band thrives on, with some serious undertones that are emphasized with the horn work pandering somewhere in the background amidst layers of other musical elements. This is perfect example of just the right amount of spirit combined with grace and elegance.

In the middle of Forever Today, it starts to feel like I’m From Barcelona are about to lapse back to their lackluster performance from the last album, but they manage to save it from that sad fate with a boost from “Come On,” which urges us to “let go” and “be free;” exactly what you would expect from this band. They finish things up with another on of those songs that mix their energy with thoughtful music with the title track, “Forever Today.”

As opposed to the all or nothing sound that we have been introduced to from this band’s first two releases, it seems that they have finally found a way to a happy medium, and it is certainly an enjoyable balance.

Federico Aubele – Berlin 13

Rating: ★★½ · ·

How does one describe the music of Federico Aubele? When I listen to his baritone voice accompanied by sultry electronic beats, it’s easy for me to picture a younger and slightly less debonair version of the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World crooning along to these sinister tracks, but perhaps that’s just me. However, there can be no denying the heaviness of Aubele’s deep voice makes this half electronic half Spanish club music stand apart from anything you’ve ever heard. Whether this is a good or a bad quality is purely up to you.

 As foreshadowed by the title, the time that Federico spent in Berlin certainly affected his music. In addition to the stronger emphasis on the electronic side of things, there is definitely a darker spin for this fourth studio album from Mr. Aubele. On the opening track “Berlin,” swirling atmospherics juxtaposed with flirty acoustic guitar greets you. Loops of echoed electronics adds flavor to the song as it grooves its way along, introducing you into the smoky club atmosphere that has been created. For an opening number, it is surely interesting in its unique sound, and provides that necessary hook for this album; it feels like you’ve been granted admission to a secret and exclusive party, with Federico Aubele as your gracious host. The next standout song comes on “Bohemian Rhapsody Dressed in Blue,” in which some flairs of tango creep their way seductively through the song. Some female vocals shadow that of the leading man at points, and their voices mix to create a strategically sloppy harmony that adds to the feeling of two people enraptured in each other.

However, this unique and special quality doesn’t last as long as one could hope for. After a few tracks of the same coy and mysterious beats, the smoke screen seems to fade away, leaving just a man and his elevator sounding music. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy this album and its overall sound, but in the end, it gives that vibe of awkward long trips in that confined space. Each song blends together to give off that feeling of a continual loop of similar sounds. In other words, there is nothing to separate this sound from something else.    

While he does change things up towards the end with his featured lady, if anything, it takes away from the fancy façade that was built up earlier. Tracks like “Ojalá” separate from the rest of Berlin 13 would sound refreshingly smooth and delightful, but go missing amongst the culmination of groovy darkness.

Despite my comparison of this music to that heard in an elevator, in the end, Federico Aubele still manages to make you relax through his layers of electronic components combined with that of classic. Although it is not the most exciting of albums, it’s a good way to kick back after a long day’s work.

Low – C’mon

Rating: ★★★½ ·

Low has definitely been around for a while: since 1993 they have been crafting their signature slow core beats for the world to enjoy. Hailing from Duluth Minnesota, this three-part band certainly knows how to spin beautiful tales of whatever they fancy and if nine studio albums wasn’t testament enough to this, than this tenth should seal the deal.

To start things off, Low showcases their most distinctive quality right up front on “Try To Sleep.” Sounding distantly akin to that of some Mott the Hoople song, the album begins with the male/female harmonies of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. The light percussive tinkling in the background combined with the slow strumming of the thick guitars comes together to make for a killer groovy jam. Despite the predictability of this sort of sound, you can’t help but take comfort in the peaceful elegance that they create. They are able to drift from a grungier kind of sound to that of clear and compact, forming their own kind of musical genre. From the first to the second song you can see this transition fairly well. On “You See Everything,” Parker takes lead vocals, and her buttery voice just coats everything in a golden light of majesty. The song meanders its slow churning way along, with Parker putting her touch of sweetness upon the topmost layer.

For an album that doesn’t have a big change in tempo, it manages to stay interesting until the very end. “Nightingale,” the third to last track, leaps out as dark and formidable, but twists into a peaceful, but still somber lullaby-esque song. Sparhawk has this sour drawl-like quality to his voice that makes everything drenched in emotion; it’s easy to tell that this man puts a lot of himself into his music. His deep and powerful voice is similar to that of Matt Berninger from The National. Like Mr. Berninger, Sparhawk can convey maximum emotion with his minimalist style.

While C’mon does not falter in its strength, it does get a bit heavy after a while. It’s not too heavy that it would deter from further listening, rather, it grows on you. Low leaves with the feeling that this album was a long-term work that this band really strived to perfect. For a group that has been around for so long, this is true evidence of their talent and longevity and it is another great edition to their ever growing catalog of albums.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/01-Try-to-Sleep-1.mp3]

Download: Low – Try to Sleep [MP3]

C’mon is out now on Sub Pop.

Sonny and the Sunsets – Hit After Hit

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Sonny Smith likes to dabble in various things: collaborating with The Sandwitches, making up bands, and not to mention the music for his own band. While not the most complex of bands, Sonny and the Sunsets still manage to produce excellent and ever so jangly indie pop/rock that is sure to prove enjoyable for everyone.

One of this band’s greatest attributes is the shortness of each song: most of them traverse the time period of two minutes, which is perfect for this kind of music. On the first and longest song, “She Plays YoYo With My Mind,” Sonny starts things off muddily as he paints a narrative of a love that is playing tricks with his mental sanity. Soft clicking starts out the song, which is joined later by that tambourine and the classic bass. The song builds upon itself, layering simplistic element on top of simplistic element, giving the outcome of raw pop. With all of the bands that work so hard to create intricate sounds through the use many instruments, and/or electronic components, this band’s sound feels like a whiff of fresh air. I mean, I love all of those highly detailed bands, but it’s nice to have a break every once and awhile.

As I mentioned earlier, the simplicity of this band is really what makes their sound so appealing and enjoyable. With tracks like “Home and Exile,” that rely on the simple harmonization and juxtaposition of Sonny’s bitter vocals with that of him female counterpart. On this track and overall, Sonny and the Sunsets, with their janglieness being the center of their sound, sound similar to that of a much more fun and poppier Dutchess and the Duke. They explore all kinds of topics in their lyrics, from that of their teenage years, to sadness, to the feeling of being radioactive. To finish off the album, “Pretend You Care” chimes in with its surfy, angled guitars and high-pitched synth. At the end of the song, you have a lovely breakdown of more of this guitar with some matted drums. It’s that point in the album where you appreciate all that this band has done, if that point hadn’t already happened.

Like the title of the album, Sonny and the Sunsets give you song after song that makes you love them, and easily at that. Upon the first listen, I was transfigured by their perfect-for-summer, or any season, sound that transcends its simplicity. Unlike other albums that take time to love, this one is a hit right off the bat. So have a listen.

TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light

Rating: ★★★★ ·

It’s been quite a long time since TV on the Radio released Dear Science back in 2008. While three years may or may not be considered a long time for some, it is still plenty of time for things to change, one of those things the sound of a band. As many fans know, the longer the time between releases increases anticipation and excitement for the record to release, but it also allows for some doubt to come into play: is this the band that you loved so long ago?

Nine Types of Light is both a yes and no answer to that question. When you press play on the cheekily named “Second Song,” you can’t be quite sure. Yes, everything is where it should be: the strikingly unique vocals, the textured guitars, and the occasional electronic noise. However, that furious energy that TV on the Radio brought to their last album seems to be missing. While you expect a fast and frenzied opening number, you get a well-reasoned and well-written slow burner, complete with that falsetto croon that this band is known for. For the chorus, the band brings back their traditional sound, and then lets it fall away on the verses and you can’t help but notice that this band seems to have both feet in different places, straddling that line between past and future. If anything, this combination of sounds is a great start, and is topped off by some horn work in the end.

As the album continues, it is clear that this is definitely a calmer approach to tunes than before. They chose to focus on what made songs like “Family Tree,” so wonderful on their last album; simplicity and elegance. “Killer Crane,” the longest song on the album, spans six minutes, sprawling with delicate vocals and even more delicate instrumentation. All the instruments, from the strings to banjo, all have room to breathe, and are not crowded by an overload of others.

While the first half of this album feels more meditative, the second half has that manic energy and fun that you’re used to associating with TV on the Radio. “New Cannonball Run” has those quick and sharp lyrics, while “Caffeinated Consciousness” is that number that you can always bob your head and tap your toes to.

In effect, while this band does sound fairly different at first, they bring it full circle. Their focus may be on the slower simplicity that they found, but this album is by no means a setback: it’s filled with a ton of detailed and enjoyable songs, so I suggest you take a listen.

Panda Bear – Tomboy

Rating: ★★★½ ·

If you had just entered into the alternative side of the music scene recently, and knew nothing of a little band called Animal Collective, there is still a great chance that Panda Bear would have crossed your path sooner or later. Despite being a rational fan of Animal Collective, I wanted to hate this record so bad. Something about how much it was hyped before its release just sort of irked me. However, despite my preconceived notions that had nothing to do with the actual music, I was able to overcome the intimidating enigma surrounding Tomboy to get to the electro- pop that Noah Lennox has down pat.

The first song “You Can Count On Me,” serves as a transition of worlds for the listener. With its echo-y and distorted vocals, the repetition hazes you to a certain level of detachment, so that you are in the right place mentally to enjoy the album. Thankfully, it doesn’t go on for too long, and soon you are already on “Tomboy,” the title track. Laden with buzz and grimy electronic elements, the repetitive nature of the first song is broken with the natural qualities of the second. Despite that being paradoxical, it still rings true; somehow, the inorganic elements of this sound work together so that the gravelly echoes feel more like tangible back up singers.

It is in this little detail that Panda Bear wins me over. While other kinds of electronic music seem to fall flat in their lack of empathetic qualities, Lennox has managed to fuse the impersonal to deeply reaching, all in one stroke. For instance, “Slow Motion,” feels bitter in its tone, but evolves into pocket of enticing and almost sassy sounding jams. Continuing this chunk of satisfying songs comes “Surfer’s Hymn,” which sounds just like the title describes: tropical. On this number, the background noises transition to sound like the rushing tide pushing back and forth.

The one place where this album falls short is in its overall repetition. While I understand the intentional usage on the first track, it comes up a bit too prevalently throughout Tomboy: at the end of “Slow Motion” and during “Last Night at the Jetty” (which bears similarity to “My Girls”). Too much of the same thing over and over again brings down this effort to the level of mediocrity that other bands of this genre have established. It is a good thing that this only happens a few times.

Overall, it’s about as good as you are going to get for this kind of artificiality. If someone can make emotionally reaching and evoking music from electronic machines, that is a feat in itself and should be appreciated and enjoyed.

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]

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