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.


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.


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.

Warpaint – The Fool

Rating: ★★★★☆

After seeing these ladies play at ACL I was quite impressed. Despite playing for a small crowd early Sunday morning they managed to bring their quiet girl indie sound to the outdoor setting rather well, heightening my excitement for this album. Their sound is a mixture of psychedelic guitars with female vocals that vary from hushed to super strong, over the course of the whole album, as well as even in just one song.

Warpaint starts off with “Set Your Arms Down,” which begins in a slow sort of fashion moseys along, drum beats feeling very stop and go, but glued together by the meandering vocals until the build comes and the drums begin to roll faster and the murmurs of lyrics build – in unison at some parts and mismatching in others—and just when it seems that the band is about to spiral out of control the song is reeled in and transitions to the next song. Warpaint demonstrates their ability to form a complete and total song that may take you many places, but in the end they bring you back home.

They continue this journey in “Undertow,” the pre-released single, in which it feels as though Warpaint is asking us those questions of bitterness. The lead vocalist has a certain real feeling about her voice that makes you believe what she is singing; these are not just words, but rather a series of confessions. Perhaps the subtle imperfections, or the rawness on some notes is what gives the song this vibe. Whatever it is about this song, it certainly conveys the idea that they are not just a girl band, but one that wants, and should, be taken seriously.

Almost as if nodding to their name, “Composure” starts out with an echoed group chant in the background. Then the band moves the song abruptly, the whole beat is basically stopped, to a faster pace. In this transition they add more intricate guitar work, and a new song is born instantaneously. After dabbling into this new groovier pace for the majority of the song they slowly dive back into the chant, bringing the tune full circle. The album then sways smoothly into “Baby,” in which the soft flow of ooh’s and the delicate vocals add onto the gentle guitar plucking to give the song it’s simplistic lullaby shell and the melancholy tone.

For only a nine track album, it seems as though you have been taken everywhere by this band. They start you off with thicker slow movers such as “Warpaint”, lighten things up with faster, more danceable tunes like “Bees” an then bring it home with songs that combine these qualities, which makes The Fool such an enticing album. Warpaint exhibits all the aspects of a girl group without coming across as too sugary. There is a bite to their sweetness that prevents this album from being a one note dud, but instead a precision piece. I look forward to future efforts from this group.

Frank Smith – Nineteen

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Frank Smith comes off as a culmination of several genres. You have the bluesy guitar and the classic bass lines that make up an alternative country group, yet the raspy and distinct vocals that correspond with a more rock or pop genre. At first listen to this group my mind immediately thought of Ben Kweller, whom shares a similar sound. This country/indie sound comes across as incredibly enticing at first, but as with Mr. Kweller, it can get a tad flat and colorless after a while.

The album begins with “Nineteen,” a slow burner at first, carried by the methodical drum beat for about a minute and a half of the song. Aaron Sinclair provides the hazy tune with his unique voice, which has a clear, yet somehow gritty quality about it that instantly draws you in. When the song picks up at just the right time, an enticing sound of the blues guitar is added to the sped up pace and prevents the song from turning into a dud. It instead leads listeners to the next song, “5, 10, 15…” which continues the mellow tone of the first track. The waves of echoed twangy guitars together with the soft vocals and the “oohs,” give it crisp and pure indie/country song feel, making this a stand out track for Nineteen.

 Perhaps it is just my general dislike for country music, but the rest of the album sort of blends together after this for me. The overall slow tempo and the super distinctive sound of Frank Smith grows a little dull after the first few tracks and loses my interest. There isn’t enough variation between slow song and fast song, or rather any different aspects to help discern song from song. The whole feeling with the album is too mellow; it becomes boring too quickly and stays that way for too long.  

But through the monotonous and flat line “chillness” of this album, a slow, yet interesting track floats its way to the surface in “Swollen Tongue.” The bass and drums start the song, sounding the same as the others, but then the band moves to the bridge, where all the members chime in with their respective instrument, providing the edge you’ve been waiting for this whole album. On this song, they put together their cool, and mellow sound with instrumentation that makes the song interesting and new.

This is an album that is fairly simple, yet offers a few great tracks that really show the potential of Frank Smith as a band. Nineteen isn’t a standout album at all, but it still has some good qualities about it.


Download: Frank Smith – Nineteen [MP3]

Belle and Sebastian – Write About Love

Rating: ★★★★½

Belle and Sebastian are the darlings of the indie pop scene, which has been basically known for the past decade. This being their eighth studio release, they reinforce that they are not a band plagued by maturity and ten years of being indie pop superstars, they are Belle and Sebastian: always fresh and never ceasing to make youthful music.

The first track is “I Didn’t See It Coming” and starts the album with Sarah Martin’s vocals leading, which is a surprising, as one would think Stuart Murdoch’s infamous tone would be first heard. It turns out to be an enticing and creative surprise, as she and Stuart harmonize and play off of each other’s words, with bluesy guitar work in the background. During the build to the chorus they nod to everyone’s current economic situation: “we don’t have the money/ money makes the wheels of nowhere go ‘round,” but instead of this song becoming a pity party, these two tell you to “forget about it, honey,” and the song builds to a fantastic and joyful climax, with synthesizer echoing, giving it that twee-pop sound. Belle and Sebastian continue this happy mood with “Come On Sister,” which brings more synth and poppy goodness, sure to have you bobbing your head to the soft drum beats.

Then things slow things down a little with “Calculating Bimbo.” The percussion elements are more clearly heard in this song, and the slow drum rolls through as Murdoch pushes his voice to the limit and meets up with backing vocals for more harmonious moments. More of these vocally excellent moments come on “I Want The World To Stop,” where Stevie Jackson joins Martin in echoing Murdoch and you want to echo him too.

The rest of this album continues in this style, with “Write About Love, that has sort of the same idea of “I Didn’t See It Coming” and it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, as if all of your problems don’t seem so bad anymore. This is the general feel and tone of this whole work; looking past those things that put you down with a proverbial screw it; I’m not going to be down.

On the last two songs, Belle and Sebastian finish ever so strongly. In “I Can See Your Future,” they incorporate majestic horn work and some orchestral elements effortlessly so that this complex song feels simple and elegant. But Belle and Sebastian aren’t done, they bring a tangy guitar sound and whispery vocals on “Sunday’s Pretty Icons,” finishing in their classic style, and leaving you wanting more, in a totally good way.

Belle and Sebastian have come a long way since Tigermilk, but have shown that they will always make excellent, witty and classic indie pop that can brighten any day. If Write About Love isn’t proof of this, I’m not sure what is. As expected, it is most definitely a contender for a spot on my list of top albums this year.


Download: Belle and Sebastian – Write About Love [MP3]

The Authors – Get Haunted

Rating: ★★★★☆

A few weeks into fall, cooler temperatures are surprisingly here and you feel lost in the jumble of work or school, missing those summer days that are not so far gone. What better way to fall back into the relaxing mood of summer than to listen to music that feels like sunshine and ocean waves? With only an EP released prior to this, The Authors look to establish themselves as experts of the beach-pop, summer feeling genre. With Get Haunted, they do just this.

 “Timebomb” kicks off the album strong and fast right from the start. The guitars buzz away the background while slightly fuzzy lyrics float on top of all the other components of the song, swimming to the beat. Next comes “Never Know,” which is great in its vocals, almost a yelp, to the high pitched noise that blends in with the rest of the song, yet gives a “haunted” feeling, as does the raspy vocals at points.

But perhaps in all the jangly guitars and the hyper drum beats, Get Haunted would become banal, like some of the dog days of summer? False. “Feels Like Running,” an excellent song, starts with a hooking guitar rift that takes turns dominating with the vocals. The drums sit back in the spectrum of what the listener will notice, but they drive the whole of this song, as well as the album; simple, yet refined and precise enough to add en element of constant clarity. They then transition to slightly groovier tunes with “Battles” and “Lonely Ways.” The bass line is quite prominent in these songs, giving them the less washed out feel of previous songs and a more solid foundation, which is an enjoyable turn for this album to take as the band continues with their garage rhythms.

The Authors finish just as strong as they started with “The Night.” This brings the album full circle, from quick shadowy beats to a softer and less fuzzy end. They finally kind of slow down with the last few seconds of the song reserved to some ambient noises. Those melancholic ending notes the same as those final days before fall.

This album reminds me a lot of Surfer Blood’s album from earlier in the year. Like that album, it is a sharp and high speed chase from start to finish, but The Authors prove their distinctive sound with clearer vocals, all while staying inside the garage rock jangle that is Get Haunted; a true trip back to those blissful summer days.  


Download: The Authors – Timebomb [MP3]

Women – Public Strain

Rating: ★★★☆☆

As a Canadian indie band, Women made some waves with their self titled first release two years ago, be it a spot on “Pitchfork’s top songs of the 2000’s,” and comparisons of their sound to the likes of Deerhunter and, to stretch it, The Velvet Underground. Since then they have been hard at work with this new album, Public Strain, which would hopefully follow their debut in the combination of moody rock music.

Opening up the album is “Can’t You See,” which begins with an intense amount of feedback and ambient noise. This background noise continues through the whole song as somewhat monotonous vocals echo slightly above. The bass line throbs constantly, but those screeches in the background seem a bit too prominent for this simple of a song, and I find myself wishing they were gone about halfway through. “Heat Distraction” then loses the nasty noise in the background and moves to a faster, out right rock beat with repeating layers of guitar that serve as the main focus of the song.

Such is the main focus for this whole album, layers of sound topped with wavy guitars as icing on the cake (not your favorite kind of cake, but one that is still edible). Women vary between slow movers that showcase the dark sound that this band does so well, such as “Penal Colony,” whose melancholy lull carries over into a purely instrumental piece, leaving the listener to ponder where exactly the band is trying to lead you, but they attempt to give an answer to this question on exceptional tracks like “Locust Valley,” where intricate guitar playing and a simple chorus of just “oohs and aahs” make up the simple song. With songs like these, Women know where to put the builds in their album; it comes after another song that, I feel, has too much feedback and not enough actual music to hold it up.

They finish off with “Eyesore,” a rather long closer, but probably the best song on the whole album, as “Black Rice” was on their prior work. It seems like the singing and the guitars are almost equal, which gives this song an eloquent balance between pure instrumental and indie rock. There are breaks in the song in which the guitars outweigh the vocals, and in turn, bits where the vocals seem to be the main focus, which makes this song enjoyable for the six minutes and twenty five seconds it lasts.

This leads me to my biggest problem with this album: the vocals are not prominent enough, and they seem to blend together with each song. Every listen, it becomes more tolerable and the flaws become less noticeable. However, it just seems as though Women haven’t really made up their mind in terms of who they are.


Download: Women – Narrow With the Hall [MP3]

Frankie Rose and the Outs – s/t

Rating: ★★★★☆

With all the great lo-fi bands floating around, something is to be said about making a space pop album that doesn’t sound like all the rest. Frankie Rose should know this the best out of anyone, as she has been a member of many successful pop bands herself:  Crystal Stilts and Vivian Girls. Other bands cast aside, Frankie proves her knowledge of this craft with this semi-solo project.

The album starts out on a gradual pace, with only bare instrumental to begin, slowly submersing you into each layer of the opening song. First heard is the quivering feedback, which holds steady until Frankie Rose comes in to soak the song in a tone of wonder and bemusement that her echoed vocals provide. Next, sleigh bells are added for an element of percussion that carries the music slowly on, as Frankie repeats the same simple words, over and over. Is this the same person who was apart of bands that brought light and jangly pop songs to the table? Apparently not, as “Hollow Life,” is a deeper and completely different sound than anything Frankie and any of her previous accompaniments have put out before. Different, but overwhelmingly good.

That being said, this solo effort is not a complete turn from Frankie’s prior works. “Little Brown Haired Girls,” shoots out of the gate with driving drum beats, crashing cymbals and girlish gang vocals; sort of a combination of elements from the first two songs. You have the softer vocals from “Hollow Life,” mixed with a more prominent guitar part that “Candy,” the song in between these two, brings. It is a sure sign that there are still excellent quality pop beats to be enjoyed on this album.

 The rest of the album mostly follows suit from these two songs. There are softer songs such as “Lullabye For Roads And Miles,” which is as expected from its title, reliant on the lack of the quick drum beat and more focused on leaving a little emptiness to carry the song instead. And there are instances of superior jams, like “Girlfriend Island.” On this number, some la la la’s add to the catchiness of the guitar and proves this to be a song that is difficult to stay still to; it is impossible for me to stop tapping along with that irresistible drum beat.

 From this point, Frankie Rose And The Outs move through the rest of the songs quickly and wrap up their first full length album gracefully. They successfully combine a new hollow sound with the well loved, classic low-fi pop that bands like Vivian Girls are known for. With the slow moving songs so effervescent and the fast paced songs reminiscent of the sunny summer days not too far gone, there isn’t a more perfect time for this album to debut; at the brink of fall.

The Vaselines – Sex With an X

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Twenty years ago, after bridging the gap from small, unknown Glaswegian noise pop group, to indie stars, The Vaselines broke up, leaving their fans in awe of why a band at their prime would dissolve so quickly after their sudden success. Now, they’re back, twenty years wiser and hoping to make an album that holds the distinct and fast sound from their previous release, while adapting it ever so slightly so that it might fit in with the current music scene. It is a feat that may prove easier said than done.

After a brief, lullaby-esque, introduction, “Ruined,” picks up right where The Vaselines left off; rocking and rolling. With low grinding guitars and steady drums, pounding away in the background, Eugene Kelly and Frances Mckee harmonize to tell us the ever positive reminder that “you’ll die, we’ll all sigh.” While not the most upbeat of lyrics, the ever present drums juxtapose with said lyrics to balance the song, a great start to the album. Following this is the title track, which is also a song with a darker tone lyrically, yet comes across almost cheery. Mckee’s honey-sweet vocals serve as the temptation to which Kelly’s self deprecating words try so desperately to get away from, yet gives into at the end of each chorus, just as the listener gives into the enticing empathy of feeling completely controlled by desires.

Then, Sex with an X takes a turn to a slower pace, and begins to lose me.

At four minutes and thirty four seconds, “The Devil’s Inside Me” seems to hang on about two minutes entirely too long for a song that doesn’t have that much meat musically, or lyrically. Next, they follow up with another fast paced song, which disappointingly sounds much too similar to the title track, only without the depth and hooks that dueling vocals in the earlier song provided. This is the pattern for the next two songs “Overweight But Over You” and “Poison Pen.”

“I Hate the 80’s,” comes with some form of change: a layer of tambourine and high pitched organ for parts of the song, which serves as a sort of awakening from the lull that the past four songs doled out. This then leads up to “Mouth to Mouth,” which holds a tone of desperation that carries this song into the distinct category where “Ruined,” and “Sex With an X” reside. It has a strong build up to the chorus, yet doesn’t feel too worn by the end of the song.

Sadly, following the ninth song on this album, it feels almost as if The Vaselines have given up, with three songs left. “Whitechapel” drags on for a little too long like “The Devil’s Inside Me,” followed by another attempt to pick up the pace before closing the album with the same melody in which it began.

In the end, there just isn’t enough depth to this album. Yes, my feet are tapping vigorously and the lyrics are pretty damn catchy, but it is too difficult to keep all the songs from running together in my head. This is what makes Sex With An X a good collection of songs, but not a cohesive album that I will want to listen all the way through repeatedly. I applaud The Vaselines in their attempt at a comeback, but I am bored by the lack of variation that seemed to get lost with the passage of such a long period of time.


Download: The Vaselines – Sex With An X [MP3]

Review written by Nicole Baumann

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