The Babies – Our House On The Hill

Rating: ★★★½ ·

The project between Woods‘ Kevin Morby and Vivian Girls‘ Cassie Ramone isn’t exactly a new project, but their newest effort for Woodsist seems like the side-project finally got some much deserved focus from the two core songwriters. Our House On The Hill is the perfect execution of sunny pop with a ramshackle approach, giving listeners exactly what we’ve been looking for since we first got wind of the band.

“Alligator” takes aim at my pop-centric heart almost immediately.  A ringing guitar accompanied by Morby’s sunny vocal approach definitely pleases, and when Cassie Ramone comes in for accompaniment midway through the track, I couldn’t have been happier.  It’s a simple tune, with fairly common writing, but it’s just the beginning of the infectious hooks coming from The Babies.  Immediately following you’re greeted by slow-walking, where Morby and Ramone take dead aim at bright pop by trading vocal duties back and forth. This is the track I longed for the group to create!

A few tracks ahead and you enter the realm of perfection with “Get Lost,” one of the standout tracks on Our House On The Hill.  This is definitely Morby’s track, and it’s his vocal performance that steals the show, though the low-key approach of the various verses just builds the tension for the group to blast off into a bliss filled meandering guitar affair to close out the song.  Just because there’s a hit like this laying in the middle of the record, it doesn’t mean there’s not enough interesting tracks to fill out the album exceptionally.

You can take “Mean,” which is mostly a one-man Morby affair, with the singer coming off with hints of Bob Dylan, both in the writing of the track and the vocal delivery.  Ramone’s quieted backing vocals only strengthen the track even more.  There’s also “Baby,” which belongs to Ramone, and definitely wears the mark of her other project, Vivian Girls, though there’s also similarities to Best Coast lurking in its structure and vocal delivery.  These are just a few of the various examples that mark this effort by The Babies, leaving you with an effort that doesn’t really repeat itself, though paces back and forth in similar territory.

Our House On The Hill is all over place, and in saying this, I’m meaning it as a compliment.  In combining the great songwriting attributes of Morby and Ramone, the record never really gets stale, and if anything, it only improves reveals more gems from listen to listen.  Depending upon your mood, you might light the sunny pop elements, but others might find themselves leaning towards the more stripped down tracks like “That Boy.”  Thats precisely why I think The Babies are so successful on this round, doing what they do best on their own terms, and excelling in every way.

 

New Track from Tallest Man on Earth

It’s good to have Tallest Man on Earth back again, not that he’s really been gone, but you know what I mean.  Rolling Stone posted this great new track, “1904” from the songwriter today, and it’s exactly what you want from the man we fondly refer to as the Swedish Bob Dylan There’s No Leaving Now is the title of the new record, set for release on June 12th on Dead Oceans.  There’s a little bit of a change to Kristian’s vocals in the second half of the song, which hopefully shows that he’s looking to add something to his sound.  In the end it’s not really going to matter much because he’s got this quality that makes everything he writes emotionally touching.  He better be ready for more praise!

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/The_Tallest_Man_on_Earth_-_1904.mp3]

Download: The Tallest Man on Earth – 1904 [MP3]

The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Personally, The Magnetic Fields is one of those bands that I can’t explain to people, let alone explain to myself.  For almost two decades Stephin Merritt has used the group as his primary outlet for songwriting, but the last couple of years he’s definitely led the group in varying directions, with various effects.  For all intents and purposes, Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a great return to form, demonstrating the prowess of Merritt and his band of merrymakers.

“Andrew in Drag” is the second song on the record, but it’s so phenomenal it’s hard not to start with such a track.  The sound’s definitely on the more playful side of things, at least with the accompanying instrumentation, but Merritt’s soaring voice will win you over.  His gifts as a poet, oddball that he may be, shine through here. “Your Girlfriend’s Face” has the same childish tone in the lyrical matter, which harkens back to the days of 69 Love Songs in its accessibility and clarity.  Electronic flourishes seem to be the sound du jour on this outing, rather than the more distortion-based tracks we found on the last two efforts.

“I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” is a great track, featuring vocalist Claudia Gonson, but what really sticks out is its remarkable similarity to Bob Dylan‘s “You Belong to Me.”  I’ve played this song so many times tonight that I’m not sure if I love it for its similarities or on its own merit; regardless, you’ll find this song playing in your mind for days to come. What does stand out when listening to this song is the vocal presence of Gonson throughout Love at the Bottom of the Sea, though I’ve always found myself gravitating more towards the Merritt led tracks.  She’s got a certain light-heartedness in her tone that makes it easy to find that union between music and voice; the band’s usage of electronics definitely fits Gonson here.

But, with Gonson taking a more prominent role here, Merritt seems oddly missing for parts. Of course, “I Don’t Like Your Tone” finds Merritt gently wooing the audience, using the deepness of his voice to draw you into the song.  However, when he comes in on “All She Cares About is Mariachi” it sort of seems like a one-tone approach that he’s used on this Magnetic Fields effort, minus the outstanding “Andrew in Drag.”  I guess I miss the man on the oft-overlooked i.

For all intents and purposes, there are some great songs here on Love at the Bottom of the Sea–one that’s probably goes down as a top in the band’s long cannon.  However, the songs by and large just don’t stand out the way you expect from a Merritt penned tune.  You’ll find the juvenile playfulness and short songs, but for once, theses tracks don’t demand your attention and adoration; they sleek by as cute and enjoyable, yet not wholly remarkable. I’ll still stand by this as a good record, just not my favorite from The Magnetic Fields.

 

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.

FT5: Things to Do While Listening to Music

If you find yourself here, odds are that you’re probably a huge music fan, which means that music is going to play a predominant role in your life.  I surveyed many friends, and mostly talked to myself, trying to figure out what the majority of people are doing when they decide to jam out.  Of course, seeing as I’m the writer, I had to put my own personal touch on this, and thus the ranking of said practices while listening to music.

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The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt

Rating: ★★★★½

To begin, I knew very little about Kristian Matsson and his project The Tallest Man on Earth.  But, his second album, The Wild Hunt, will not only change that for me, but for many listeners across the globe.  It’s easy to place the Swede’s work in a certain genre, even under a certain association with a famed folk hero, but throughout the duration, Matsson makes this album all his own, creating a beautiful piece of work to be played over and over again.

You’ll start The Wild Hunt with the two things that will stick with you eternally: incredible finger-picking and the uncanny resemblance to a young Boy Dylan. The former is one of those things that enables Kristian to pull out every single emotion from his tunes, carefully plotting where his fingers go with ease.  The latter is something that might plague him, which is unfortunate, as every song on here stands on its own merit, creating a great collective song cycle.

A lot of folk music has the capability to seem redundant, especially when you feel as if you have heard the singer before, but a few deviations make The Wild Hunt rise above typical folk revivalists.  For one, his songs are rather short, in comparison to similar artists.  It allows him to make really succinct songs such as “Thousand Ways” or “Troubles Will Be Gone.”  These songs will breath fresh air into your listening experience, and they’ll leave before you grow tired of hearing them blend into the next number. Then there is the tiniest vocal inflections he puts into his recorded performances that make Kristian stand out in what can sometimes be branded a stale world. Every slight move up or down on the scales, or every little yelp allows the vocals to stand on their own, rather than live in a world of comparisons.

Listening to this album time and time again, I found it difficult to discover a favorite track, as each listen, each mood evoked something different for me.  At first, it was “King of Spain,” which comes off like a folk song written by a steam engine.  On top of that, the subject matter of the song wins me over with its nod to the Iberian Peninsula. But, “You’re Going Back” took me in a different direction.  It has hints, at least in the song structure of a lot of old punks who’ve turned to country, such as Chuck Ragan, with it’s throaty yell of “driver please don’t go that f**cking way” near the last minute of the tune.  Here you find The Tallest Man on Earth getting carried away with his own passion, and that definitely makes each song a winner in my book.

Fortunately for me, this album came across my desk while I was in search of something calming, yet something challenging.  The gentle moods created by songs like ‘The Drying of the Lawns” fit perfectly into what I needed at the time. Then I looked back at the whole of The Wild Hunt, and I found that each song had something to offer, and nothing to throw out the window.  The Tallest Man on Earth has made a complete record worthy of repeat listening, now and forever.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/06-King-of-Spain-1.mp3]

Download: Tallest Man on Earth – King of Spain [MP3]

FT5: Modern Rock Stars

0115top5coverWe really live in a day and age when the idea of being a rock star is just about gone. Gone are the days of the lead singer who gets mobbed by fans everywhere they go or sleeps in hotel rooms full of strange women.  We don’t even get a lot of musicians with drug and alcohol problems anymore or who quite obviously don’t give a shit what anyone thinks.  You know, those people who were just way cooler than you ever hoped to be?  Dylan, Jagger, Plant, etc.  We all know the names.  That’s what makes them rock stars.  So today I wanted to create a list of those “modern rock stars” who have carried the torch of debauchery and coolness into a new age.  These guys (and gals) represent all the great things about being a rock star: alcohol/drug rehab stints, celebrity girlfriends, trend setting, don’t give a shit attitude, members of popular bands, and decent music all earn you a place on this list.  As a disclaimer I’ll say that all these artists rose to fame in the last decade so this means you won’t see a Dave Grohl or Eddie Vedder on this list because they have long been in the halls of the greats.  I’ll also make an attempt to compare each artist to who they most closely resemble from years past.  Please don’t assume that I’m comparing anyone artistically, I just wanted to give you a  frame of reference.  Follow the jump for the full list.

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FT5: Cover Songs

“CUM ON FEEL THE NOIZE!”  Without those five words, Quiet Riot’s career would’ve lasted three months instead of thirty-four years.  It’s a lowdown-dirty shame “Cum on feel the Noize” was actually a cover originally performed by an English glam rock band called Slade back in 1973.  Woah…just felt like Matt Pinfield for a moment.  This week’s edition of the Friday Top 5 is dedicated to the greatest cover songs of all-time…according to me, of course.  Sadly, the following list does not include Limp Bizkit’s disturbing version of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” Michael Bolton’s take on Otis Redding, or anything off the I am Sam soundtrack.  Follow the jump to see if your favorite cover song made the list.

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