Bon Iver – s/t

Rating: ★★★★½

If someone were to tell me that a band with falsetto, auto tuned on occasion vocals, and folk music backing was one of the most soothing and beautiful sounding groups they had ever heard, I would probably scoff at them and laugh. When describing Bon Iver, it seems as though this band should not fundamentally sound as lush and gorgeous as it does, but I’m not complaining. After their first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was released back in 2008, Justin Vernon and company have been gaining praise, as well as attention, and this sophomore effort certainly seals their place as giants of the Indie world.

From their last album, there is certainly not that much immediately different to the sound of Bon Iver. You have the faded and distant sounding drums, the swells and builds in sound, the delicate ferocity in Vernon’s falsetto voice. It’s all there, but now it sounds a touch more refined and practiced than that of the previous release, as though the band went the extra mile to make these tunes sound polished and pristine. On “Holocene,” the third track, the intricacy in the layers of sound is especially noticeable. Gentle guitar floats upon subtle waves of synthesizer, the ever-graceful vocals leading the song at a meander. Such is the kind of song where you just want to close your eyes and let the music hit you like a gentle breeze; it’s simply beautiful.

One of the more noticeable changes of this group is the distancing of lyrics and the focus on the sound of their wispy music. The instruments do not overpower the songwriting, but they share the space coming out of your speakers rather than the words riding above. This does make it a bit more difficult to discern exactly what words Vernon utters, which is only a drawback if you don’t have the luxury of looking them up in the album booklet. If anything, this vagueness makes me want to listen to this collection of dramatic songs more, in attempts to ascertain the meaning behind them.

The bottom line is that this album is simply magnificent. Whatever you want to call it, folk, drifting soft rock, it is beautiful in every song, in every note, and capable of pushing you emotionally. It is the perfect anthem for anything: driving, walking the dog, bedroom listening, and I can see this becoming a staple in a large number of listening catalogs. Rightly so.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/08-Calgary.mp3]

Download: Bon Iver – Calgary [MP3]

Cults – s/t

Rating: ★★★½ ·

For a band that basically came out of nowhere last year, Cults have gathered quite the following in the past year that they have released music. Be it praise from various musical critics, or just growing popularity of fans, this band had a lot of hype. However, upon listening to this self-titled debut, it is clear that this excitement and attention is well deserved; Cults have crafted a gem of a summer album here.

The band opens with “Abducted,” an explosive and energetic entrance. For about the first thirty seconds, you have the muted and echoed version of Madeline Follin’s angsty vocals, playing the role of heartbroken female. Then things get turned up to full volume for the chorus, and the song takes off, xylophone raging right alongside Follin’s voice whist she screams the pain away. She hands the vocals over to the male perspective of the two-member group, Brian Oblivion, who assumes the position of heartbreaker, giving the song the edgy tradeoff between the two of them. After this song fades away, the single that got everyone talking about this band, “Go Outside” follows and keeps the energetic and sinfully sweet pacing for this band.

A big part of this album is the large youthful presence of several elements of the band. For starters, you have the valley girl esque, high pitched, and extremely female vocals. Accompanying this is a Fisher Price sounding xylophone, which only adds to the childlike feeling of Cults’ sound. It reaches an all time kiddy feeling on the song “Oh My God,” whose chorus sounds akin to a little girl taunting one of her playmates, which is ironic in that lyrics reach farther than that. It’s a cute little number, one that stands out from the others on the latter half of the album.

That being said, the extreme amount of energy that makes it enjoyable is also what makes it sound a bit too juvenile and grating after repeated listening. For this reason, this album becomes one that needs the right mood to be listened to, as opposed to an all day every day kind of release. But when you’re in that youthful and happy go lucky mood, there are a slew of great tracks to dance to and enjoy. As a first release, it’s a decent start for Cults and I look for interesting future albums from this duo.

The Rosebuds – Loud Planes Fly Low

Rating: ★★★★ ·

After five full-length studio albums, it is safe to say that The Rosebuds have shown you the various things that they can do. Be it dance tunes, grounded indie rock, or wispy pop, this band has done it all. With such a wide range of capabilities, it is hard to predict where this band will go next, which contributes to the delight and spontaneous feel to Loud Planes Fly Low.

Things start out strongly on the first song, “Go Ahead” where listeners are greeted by the mellow voice of lead male singer, Ivan Howard and the sweet echoes of female singer Kelly Howard. As far as pop tunes from this band goes this has got to be one of the more solid ones. Faded percussion rises then falls to meet the serenity developed by soft “ooohs” of the background, creating a head bob worthy beat. By the time it builds up to the end at four minute twenty seconds, it’s hard to resist the urge to skip back and repeat.  The Rosebuds make it difficult to move on from the bluesy, yet breezy appeal of this first number to the second song, which is always an excellent sign of things to come.

The breezy pop with deeper set roots continues on the second song, “Limitless Arms,” as well as the third, “Second Bird of Paradise.” However, on the fourth song, you have a pop track with a basis in a sort of disco groove. On “Come Visit Me,” Kelly explores the feeling of throwing away future consequences for an instantaneous gain (“Even if it fucks me up”), while maintaining a stellar 70’s feel with it’s string work. It’s songs like these that serve as reminders to the versatility of The Rosebuds; they can deliver danceable tracks that have substance as well.

“Worthwhile” ends things in a softer, acoustic light. Ivan leads the way once more with his soothing voice, and delicate strings join him and the guitar plucking towards the end of this little number. It’s a delightfully tender moment, and is the perfect finish for The Rosebuds.

Honestly, I can’t find a song worth complaining about on this album. With its limitless diversity, there is definitely something for everyone to enjoy. So find your own favorites on Loud Planes Fly Low and cherish a band that brings so much to the musical table.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/TheRosebuds_woods.mp3]

Download: The Rosebuds – Woods [MP3]

Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

Rating: ★★★ · ·

I feel like I’ve been waiting for Death Cab For Cutie to step up to the plate and produce a record that blows me away for the longest time. It seems as though they have produced some really grand songs, but have not necessarily excelled at making a cohesive album that strikes listeners with hit after hit, at least not for a long while. On Codes and Keys, it’s not a total wash, but it certainly does not fit the gripping and fantastic album that I’d hoped for.

While it is disappointing that this band did not miraculously intensify from their last release, it is still comforting to know that they know how to craft some good songs. If it’s any consolation to those long time fans of Death Cab, there isn’t much drastically different on this album. You have the bleak yet ever enticing vocals of Ben Gibbard, which serves as the distinctive quality for this band. The album starts with “Home Is a Fire,” on which you’d think that they’d begin with one of those knockouts, but instead you get a slow, crawling start, as if the band is reemerging from the depths of the three years since their last release. However, it comes across as a bit of a boring song for those who are fairly educated and familiar with the band’s sound.

Things don’t really get going until you reach “You Are a Tourist.” It’s classic Death Cab from the start: loops of Gibbard’s vocals echoing in the background, pragmatic and dignified drums and the semi-serene, on the verge of edgy, guitar. As I mentioned earlier, there is no doubt that this band knows how to make a killer pop song, and it is proven on this song, as well as later on “Monday Morning.” This track divulges the tale of a muse that Gibbard admires and then marvels at the simple events by which he met this darling female. It’s little gems like these songs that make me hold onto this band.

There are other tracks as good as these, some that are throwaways, and others that lie somewhere in the middle, leaving it up to you to make the decision whether they linger in your listening catalog. Such is the tradeoff of having a front man with such a distinctive vocal quality: it allows for some numbers to run together, or sound akin to another track that the band has already produced.

I don’t think that Codes and Keys is by any means a step back from their last record, but by no means is it a step up. Death Cab For Cutie seems to be fairly content with this ratio of excellent songs to mediocre, and if that ratio is cool with you, then listen away. After more than a decade it’s impressive that I am still drawn to their subtle indie-pop, which is a feat in itself.

David Bazan – Strange Negotiations

Rating: ★★★★ ·

David Bazan has a long list of accomplishments and releases, be it with Pedro the Lion, one of his other bands, or alone. With this as his third full length under his own name, Bazan adds another notch to his belt of alternative indie rock achievements, and with it he brings the same in-depth songwriting and deep man voice as before.

For fans of this bloke, you’ll be pleased to hear that not much has changed sound wise; he didn’t feel any urge to suddenly mix things up with electronic beats. It’s classic Bazan, profound lyrics that delve into personal subjects, urging you to do the same as you listen. Records from this man have always been personal, and Strange Negotiations is no exception (not that you would want it any other way).  The album begins with “Wolves At The Door,” which kicks things off a little faster than one might except from this gentleman. You get more of a grasp of a pop tune as opposed to a deeply rooted and meditative slow jam that you would expect. Nevertheless, the implications of this man are not to be missed, especially when he plainly states, “You’re a goddamn fool and I love you.” It begins the motif of acceptance through faults and Strange Negotiations.

As you move down the track list, song after song strikes with the same deep resonance, none of which fall as too vague or intricate. Each and every song has aspects that push it up to Bazan’s level of intimacy, adding to your relationship with this man, as he confides in you his innermost sentiments and stories. Whilst doing this, he is able to build up such a relationship to the point where he can give some epigrams to his audience, but it doesn’t feel like he is preaching, but rather mentioning something to a close friend over a drink. On “People,” one of my favorites, Bazan nonchalantly iterates words of solemn truth like “When you love the truth enough you start to tell it all the time / when it gets you into trouble, you discover you don’t mind.” It’s the little lines like that, that increase my love for this man and his writing.

Much later on the album, when you reach the title track “Strange Negotiations,” it only feels right that it is a long, drawn out reflection. It feels like this whole album has been building up to this point, and at six minutes and ten seconds, you can let his voice sink into the recess of your mind, touching something, hopefully evoking some sort of emotional response. The finisher, “Won’t Let Go,” which is as slow and provocative as its predecessor, follows, to end on a serious note.

In all, Strange Negotiations is a ten song work of carefully crafted lyrics and melodies that are sure to strike companionship into those who choose to listen, if companionship with David Bazan had not already existed.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/01-Wolves-At-The-Door.mp3]

Download: David Bazan – Wolves At The Door [MP3]

Let’s Wrestle – Nursing Home

Rating: ★★★½ ·

In a year’s short time, it appears that Let’s Wrestle has come a long way. After releasing and impressive debut in 2010, they’ve worked hard over the past year to push for another stellar alternative rock album. They stick to their guns on Nursing Home, using the formula for success that they accumulated on the past record.

Things start off with “In Dreams Part 2,” which gives a preview as to what this band can bring to the table in raw form. It begins slowly for the first few seconds, and then Let’s Wrestle kicks you in the face with their raw guitars. Then Wesley Gonzalez begins the iteration of his dreams, which seem strange, but it is only fitting, as they are someone else’s dreams. It’s an interesting and intriguing start off typical of this band. On the next song, “If I Keep On Loving You” they keep up their furious brit-punk stylings, but crank up the catchiness. I mean, you start off with some throbbing bass, add in the matted drums of the slight shriek of Gonzalez, and it’s love at first listen. For such a valid start, it’s easy to feel like the only way that Let’s Wrestle can go from here is up, and, it’s a pretty valid conclusion to come to.

This band goes on in their common fashion, but the songwriting feels a tad more complex on Nursing Home. They tackled dreams on track one, love on track two, living in the suburbs on track three, taking care of a mother on track six, the list goes on, etc. “For My Mother” comes as a bit of a standout for this band, both in the songwriting sense and in the typical sound of Let’s Wrestle. It’s a song without the classic raw guitar and the blasting cymbals and an emphasis on the delicacy of such a slow punk tune. There still are the perfectly imperfect vocals and the edginess, but it’s channeled into the soft plucking of the guitar along with the faint drums.

The only problem that I have seem to come across on Nursing Home is that there are a few, and I mean a few, songs that I can see myself passing by on future listens. On the last album, every track was a good pop-rock tune, destined for repeated listening, but there are a few that fall flat when you reach the end of the album. Perhaps it is just the nature of this style of brief songs, but overall, it’s a fairly decent album that will have you tapping your toes and clapping your hands to the fast paced beats.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/dearjohn.mp3]

Download: Let’s Wrestle – Dear John [MP3]

Chad VanGaalen – Diaper Island

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Without a lot of prior  knowledge in regards to Chad VanGaalen, I pressed play on this album with the notion I would be hearing cheeky punk beats. When an album is named Diaper Island, I can’t help but feel like there is supposed to be edgy and not-so-dramatic tunes to be listened to. I was shocked upon listening to hear the beautifully meditative craft that has been spun for us. Perhaps I’m jumping on this man’s bandwagon a little late; he does have other album releases dating back to 200, but still, this Shins, yet darker, sound is really enticing.

Despite the first two songs being all right, the one that got me hooked was “Burning Photographs,” the third track. It starts out with some cloudy ambience, and then jumps right into that catchy guitar and soft percussion that has me classifying it as jangly pop/rock and will have you bobbing your head and tapping your feet. VanGaalen’s voice is perfectly sharp and produced to fill the space not already taken by the groovy beat. At this point, I started to listen with extra-keen ears, hoping that more songs like this would grace Diaper Island. Luckily, I was right.

“Heavy Stones” follows, slowing down the album after the last song. While “Burning Photographs” was explosive and sharp, “Heavy Stones” is contained and meditative. On this one, the vocals remind me of those of Tony Dekker from Great Lake Swimmers, but that may just be due to their shared Canadian origins. Regardless, it is a song that presents its calm-sounding self to listeners, luring us into the peaceful sounds, only so it can break our hearts when VanGaalen croons, “I can’t remember your name” during the height of the song. “Sara” continues this calm spin on things, but the vocals have taken more of front spot for this number, becoming the main aspect.

After being introduced to two very different styles this early on the album, you can’t help but wonder if it is going to be a continuation of variety, or if the artist will pick a side in their styling’s. This man is different in that he does not; Diaper Island becomes a culmination of jangle and soothing, with “No Panic / No Heat” serving as the song that ties both sides together into one. The rest of the album continues in this fashion, and at the end, I was quite impressed; there are a lot of stunning qualities that I was missing out on in Mr. VanGaalen.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Chad_VanGaalen_-_Sara.mp3]

Download: Chad VanGaalen – Sara [MP3]

Gold-Bears – Are You Falling in Love

Rating: ★★★½ ·

With summer break looming over us all, it’s the perfect time for a twee-punk band like Gold-Bears to make their debut. As this is their first ever album released, this band is brand new to the music scene and looking to win a spot in your heart as well as your stereo. Surely you have room left for some jangly guitar and hazy percussion in there?

From the very first song, you can hear the clear alternative punk soundings of Gold-Bears. “Record Store” begins with flat sounding drums along with gentle acoustic guitar, and then some raging, yet even-toned, electric guitar streams in. Then the song picks up, and you have the carefully placed cymbal crashes along with breaks in the raging melody to that of the delightfully soft beginning. Meanwhile, the suiting vocals blend together with the instrumental aspects of the jam. After this lovely opening tune is finished, the band moves to “All Those Years.” On this one, some gang vocals continue the energy and are instantly reminiscent to bands like Ted Leo and Pharmacists. They’ve got that crash pop beat mixed together with the percussion of a more punk style band, which is noticeable on the third song.

After a pretty positive and upbeat start for Gold-Bears, they slow things down as they approach the middle of the album. The title track certainly stands apart from the rest of the songs in this body of music, as it is filled with foggy feedback and jingling tambourine that is sure to serve as an appropriate break from the quickness of the fast paced start. It’s the perfect placement of such a song that slows the listener back down for a breather, if only so they can jump back in at double time on the next number, “East Station Attendant.” This one is the direct opposite of its predecessor, fast, short and rocking.

Gold-Bears continue this impressive debut with more standouts like single “Tally,” that relies on gang vocals once more to carry the streaming beat. They close strong, yet delicate, and leave their listeners happy to have taken a chance on this band. For a first album, it is nothing short of appealing. So when you reach the end with them, and reflect on Are You Falling In Love?, you can answer with a yea, I’m pretty sure I am.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/GoldBears-SomethingToThinkAbout.mp3]

Download: Gold Bears – Something To Think About [MP3]

Psychedelic Horseshit – Laced

Rating: ★★★½ ·

When one is a member of a genre that has been dubbed ‘shitgaze,’ you must know how to walk the tall tightrope between producing music that is entirely listenable and enjoyable, and producing music that sounds like, well, shit. If used simply to add a slight layer of distortion that mostly fades away to reveal solid tunes then it falls into the first category. If a band simply mixes layers of ill-fitting instruments, the result is that of the second. Thankfully, it seems as though Psychedelic Horseshit falls into the first category, for the most part anyways.

“Puff” starts things out in a mildly timid manner. Squalling feedback noises echo in slightly at first, while a grumbling noise builds to execute a groovy first tune of pure instrumental. This beat continues to the next song on which the buzzy vocals of Matt Whitehurst come into play. His addition to the muddled jam is foggy at first while you acclimate to the overall effect, but by the end of the second song there is a general feeling of normalcy to Psychedelic Horseshit. Thanks to his voice matching the instrumental aspects, the first two songs, short as they may be separately, seamlessly combine to create a good introduction to Laced.

As I said before, the majority of this album falls along the line of an enjoyable uniqueness. Some of the highlights of this feat come on numbers like “Tropical Vision,” where the band uses the gritty ambience of the background to set the tone of the song. I mean, when you open with the noise of birds and bongos, you can’t help but feel the waves and sun of the beach. To me, this is probably one of the most enticing songs on this album. The aspects that combine to make-up the ‘shitgaze’ definitely attribute to something, as opposed to just being there to fill empty space on a record. It feels motivated instead of random.

What makes this band able to produce quality albums is the ease of enjoying their sound; I don’t have to struggle to discern the good qualities, they lay them out quite plainly. That being said, there are a few songs that I straight up don’t like for the same reason: they are too plain. I understand what the band was going for on “Dead on Arrival,” with their slow-paced and bleakness, but it doesn’t do much for someone on a listening standpoint, but perhaps that’s just based on my own listening standpoint.

Regardless, I’m still in awe that I could enjoy something within the genre of ‘shitgaze’ so much. It’s the perfect chill record for the up and coming dog days of summer.

The Antlers – Burst Apart

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Back in 2009, this band first made their way to the top of the Indie-scene with the release of their stunning album, Hospice, which graced the sound systems of many with its emotionally progressive lyrics and cathartic sound. With the release of Burst Apart, it feels as though this band has already been around for a long time, despite it only being their sophomore effort. While not as pressing as their last, this second release from the band shows appropriate growth for The Antlers.

On Hospice, they reminded me a bit of another Brooklyn band, The National, in their dark and somewhat dreary lyrics. Now, on this album, they seem to be a tad more focused on the aesthetic aspects rather than just the lyrics. The approach feels more ethereal and vague, giving out the sense of maturity and complexity. I’m not saying this band gave up their narrative writing in exchange for a smoother record. Rather, it’s just not as prevalent on this work. Take “I Don’t Want Love,” the opening song, for example: the sweeping guitars and the half falsetto of Peter Silberman flowing over the top of methodic drum beats. There is still that desire to throw away all emotionally caustic elements, but it simply enveloped inside the wail of the arching guitar; it’s a great opener for The Antlers.

They follow up their opener with “French Exit,” on which the sound transitions to an almost danceable beat. The bass resounds heavier, accompanied by some electronic elements to boot to make for a head-bobbing and foot tapping experience, which is not what one would quite expect from this band. After they follow this with “Parentheses,” the single from this album, The Antlers keep doling out hit after hit.

On numbers like “Rolled Together” you start with some ultra faint guitar drizzling in, and once again the strange, and oddly high-pitched wails of Silberman. They build upon themselves in this one; guitars trade places with the vocals until they mix and become one cohesive wave of elegance. They finish with “Putting The Dog To Sleep,” which sounds as dark as the title denotes. Silberman asks someone to “prove to me I’m not going to die alone,” and you can feel the demons that plague this man transmitted through his captivating lyrics.

Sonically, this band is quite strange. If you separated all of the elements that this band has and isolated them, they would sound weird and moody. However, when together, they weave into a blanket of comfort that is able to convey all sorts of feelings and release. I find it odd that The Antlers would release this now, one the brink of summertime, when it would have been the perfect late fall/early winter jam. Regardless, it’s an excellent work, worthy of listening at anytime of year.

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