Akron/Family – Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free

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Rating: ★★★★ ·

When you come across the musical landscape today, it’s fairly easy to classify most groups within a certain genre, especially when it comes to independent music.  Akron/Family‘s new album, Set Em Wild Set Em Free (out now on Dead Oceans) , does not fit easily into any such category, and listeners are better off for the approach to songwriting that the group has taken.

“Everyone is Guilty” jumps the album off with a funky math rock instrumental moment, but just as you brace yourself for a prolonged psychedelic math trip, grouped vocal harmonies bounce in, altering the landscape within the song; the song progresses, bouncing back and forth between the gang vocal approach and the elemental science funk.  For the most part, this song serves as the perfect opening to the album, as it lays down the dichotomy of the entire album.  This album is one that never stays in one place for too long, combining various albums, different paces and a variety of other musical tricks to make this one of the most diverse listening experiences of the year.

Of course, there are moments when the experimentation goes a step too far, but alas, no band is truly perfect.  Take the longest song on the album, “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon,” which meanders along well enough, as all the songs on this album do, but then it is destroyed by irritating noise experimentation. Such moves are a rarity in this case, but this is one moment, of the few, when they band fell off the tracks. Similarly, “Creatures” tries to delve into some electronic drum work, and although the vocal performance is memorable, it detracts from the song a bit as the atmospherics lead the listener to wander.

Still, there are some clearly perfect moments in abundance.  The gentle rolling along of “River” creates a song that suits the title of the song, as it seems to gently move along due to the steady pacing of the drums.  It’s as if you can hear the river coming down towards you.  “Sun Will Shine” is another gem off the album, which recalls the structures of a band like The Dodos who construct and deconstruct with perfect execution.  Even the haunting moments of “Many Ghosts” brings to mind the folkier side of bands like the Unicorns, as Akron/Family uses various instruments to create a wall of oddball sounds to accompany their finely woven tunes.

For those interested in this album, you will not only be rewarded by an enjoyable listening experience, but you will find that the length is suiting as well.  This is an album where you will get what you paid for in length, as well as in the quantity of songs.  Sit back for a spell, and let Set Em Wild Set Em Free take you away for awhile.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/07-many-ghosts.mp3]

Download: Akron/Family – Many Ghosts [MP3]

Cats on Fire – Our Temperance Movement

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Rating: ★★★★½

Occasionally, you come across a group that is reminiscent of everything you truly love.  Clever lyrics, jangly guitars, smooth vocals; all joining in unison in order to craft that perfect pop song. Cats on Fire have constructed 10 such songs with their second album Our Temperance Movement. Consider us lucky that Matinee Recordings was able to put out this album by the Finnish quartet.

Immediately upon pressing play, you will more than likely realize that the band shares a certain affinity for bands such as Felt or the Smiths, sharing those classic vocal similarities, but not in such a fashion where you feel as if they’re merely playing the role of imitators.  Singer Mattias Bjorkas can hold the sway in his voice just like Lawrence or Morrissey.  But, you’ll find that in listening to his voice, it stands alone an a different entirely.

Now, the band probably has a lot of influential waters that they could soak up with a sponge, all of which are visible in their songs, but a different comparison comes to mind when listening to the album.  Our Temperance Movement recalls early Belle and Sebastian records, or just your favorite pop album, where every single song is so good that it would be hard to decipher which song on the album was meant as the single. You won’t be able to find a throwaway track here, which is an oddity in this year’s music output.

“Lay Down Your Arms” has that familiar jangly guitar you’ll recall from all those classic recordings, creating a mood of stomping about your local pub dancefloor.  As the vocals sway back across the song, you can’t help but feel moved by the meldious tune.  “Letters from a Voyage to Sweden” follows shortly after, with tales of watching a cruiseliner filled with adulterers and sodomites.  Even with such a taboo topic, the song rolls along; it’s the perfect song for quiet headphone moments lying in your bed in thought.

With songs like “Tears in Your Cup,” Garden Light” and “Fabric” neatly tucked into the latter half of the album, you’ll find that your listening experience is never lacking in above average tunes.  Especially when you encounter the bookend to the album “Farbic” with its backing female vocals and bouncy strum.

As the album wraps up completely you’ll be rushing to record your favorite tracks for that next great mixtape you are preparing for your friends.  You only want the best tracks, and every song on this album will suffice to prove to your friends just how great your tastes are; so go on and introduce them to Cats on Fire.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/02-lay-down-your-arms.mp3]

Download: Cats on Fire – Lay Down Your Arms [MP3]

The Horrors – Primary Colours

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Rating: ★★★ · ·

The Horrors hail from the U.K., a land where hype and image go a long way to establishing a band, or at least estbalishing a fan base.  Luckily for the band, their 2006 debut had the licks to back up the gothic persona of the band; it played like a noisier and longer version of early Misfits records with the fuel of modern contemporaries.  This time around, they’ve gone a little bit more indulgent, expanding their palette and their affinity for noise.

While the band toyed with noise throughout their debut, it has a strong focus all over Primary Colours.  Opener “Mirror’s Image” is a prelude that deals with creating a brooding sensation for listeners a la Bauhaus before the wall of noise and the Ian Curtis imitations come crashing upon your ears.  Okay, so maybe its more Brandon Flowers than Ian Curtis, but since they’re from the U.K., you’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.

This is where the whole entire album goes.  It’s wave of noise and feedback crashing upon wave upon wave upon wave, but if you listen closely, you’ll find something even more sinister than the band’s gothic attire; you will find a pop band masquerading as noise rock.  Peel away the layers, and you will find a band not unlike the Killers pogoing about. Now, this isn’t an entirely ominous thing, as some might suppose; clearly the band is full of bubbling bass and other hooks to draw you into their world. Take the closer “Sea Within a Sea,” which is probably one of the strongest tracks on the album.  It bobs along for a minutes before the vocals come in to play; the echo behind the vocal once again brings in the darker side of life that one associates with Joy Division records.

Now, the noise is all well and fine, but it occasionally seems to get in the way of what the band does so well, which is create infectious melodies that will attract listeners across spectrums.  “Scarlet Fields” is the perfect example of this, as the bass line is everything about pop structure in song-writing.  Stir that up with a killer keyboard element during the chorus and you’ll find a hit lurking here.  And yes, this song still stirs souls, but it could do even more if they just removed a little bit of the noise and echo that always seems present here.

You’ll find that for those looking for that noisier element in your rock catalogue that The Horrors will definitely be a fitting addition with Primary Colours, but those of you looking for pop gems might find it a little too loud for your ears.  All in all, it’s another solid addition to the groups on-going catalogue.

The Veils – Sun Gangs

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Rating: ★★★ · ·

Let it be said; this album is full of amazing songs.  Sure, that’s a weird way to start off a review, but one would have to listen to this album to understand why it receives a less than stellar rating.  Sun Gangs, the new album from London’s The Veils, is a vibrant affair, switching at every change of song. It drags influences from all across the globe; it does this without sounding overtly banal. Yet, something is amiss here.

On opening number “Sit Down by the Fire” singer Finn Andrews comes off like a cross between the hallowed voices of Win Butler and Will Scheff, though the music definitely lends itself to a more Arcade Fire styling as pounding piano work is maxed out with accompanying percussion and guitar strumming. You’re ready for an album full of such tunes, such great tunes, but then they put a bag over your head; you’ve awoken in a completely different place.

Title track “Sun Gangs” is a wonderful tune. It is the second track on the album, but it doesn’t have a lot of relation to the place where your journey began. Melancholy moments like this make one remember the sweetness of Spirtualized, and Spaceman’s ability to pull at your heartstrings with his voice alone; Andrews does the same, even with his lyrics. So maybe we’re in for a solemn album, and the opener was just a bit off.  Wrong again.

All of a sudden we’re thrust into a space-rocker of sorts with “The Letter”, in a somewhat Muse meets Clap Your Hands Say Yeah sort of way.  Sure, it sounds like quite an awkward affair, but it’s a striking song nonetheless, one worth listening to on repeat, at least a couple of times through.  The next song is sort of a rocker, with definite leanings toward Muse. Then we’re back again to the mellower moments as the band goes into “It Hits Deep.” Once again, this song tugs at you emotionally, and that really has a lot to do with the spectacular voice of Andrews.

Still, this is the variety of songs that you are presented with in the first moments of this album, and you still have another half of the album to go, which follows the same pattern more or less. This is precisely the issue that many listeners will find when listening to the album from start to finish.  The songs do not seem to connect to one another there is not a fluid movement from one place to the very next.  The schizophrenic nature of the album detracts from the overall quality; this record needs some cohesiveness. Individually, there are some ridiculously good songs, but they don’t work together as a whole.  Otherwise, The Veils constructed a solid effort of tunes worthy for any mix tape.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/07-the-house-she-lived-in.mp3]

Download: The Veils – The House She Lived In [MP3]

Art Brut – Art Brut vs. Satan

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Rating: ★★★½ ·

Art Brut burst onto the music scene a few years back wtih their stellar Bang Bang Rock N Roll.  The band was energized, and Eddie Argos self-deprecating wit came out swinging.  Now, three years down the road, Art Brut are preparing to take on the devil himiself for their third full length, Art Brut vs. Satan.

Round three has the band coming out with a barrage of tightly wound rock fury; the flare is back again, and you can feel the power in the chords.  Interestingly, the driving force does not appear to be the music, however, as singer Eddie Argos is pushed way up front in the final mix.  For some artists, this might not be a bad decision, but I don’t think Argos dead-pan delivery warrants such a focus, despite the cleverness of his lyrics. Often, the band brings a tour de force like Les Savy Fav pummeling our ears with a frenetic pace.  Angular guitars cut through thin air with sharp turns of melodious guitar chugging around each corner. Still, the focus has been, and always will be, on Eddie Argos.

Opening the album, Eddie tries to rehash his evening of drinking in “Alcoholics Unanimous” by sending out a group text, as he is sure he was up “all night making mistakes.”  Clearly he has no problem with calling himself out, as he continues to do so on “The Replacements” where he admits he hasn’t heard of The Replacements at this point in his life; this is a bit sad, or at least it seems like some egregious error. Even so, you’re left to question whether or not he trying to good you into buying into everything he has to say.  Perhaps this is his point.  Argos wants us to question the way we listen, or why we listen, or even who we listen to these days.

Altogether, the album comes together quite nicely; it’s as consistent as their debut album.  One will always wonder what would come of the band if they ever had a full-fledged singer at the mic stand, but even now, without such a person, they band sound as brash and enjoyable as ever.  This is an album that will hold your attention through to the end.

Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

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Rating: ★★★★ ·

Something seems to exist in the Glaswegian waters these days, as more and more substantial music sets sail for America via Scotland. The newest album, My Maudlin Career, from Camera Obscura is just another example of a country that is pushing out superb tune after superb tune.

Long has the band been haunted by their kinship to Belle and Sebastian, but here we see them completing the step away from such association, much as they did on their last album, Let’s Get Out of This Country.  They’ve stepped away from the modest pop stylings of their earlier days, immersing themselves instead in a history of 60s soul and R&B.  This time around, the band has gradually drifted into the perfect dance halls from historic days long gone.

Tracyanne Campbell is the focal point of this entire album, as it should be.  Her delivery, especially in songs such as “French Navy” is nearly perfect, spinning masterful webs of melody at every turn.  She finally seems comfortable in the limelight, and that confidence shows through and through.   But, she’s not the only vocal presence here, as there are some carefully placed “oohs” and “ahhs” visiting the landscape of this album (see The Sweetest Thing).

Musically, the album is quite close to its predecessor. It’s as if the music was crafted carefully in the Motown studios; all the arrangements are done with such precision that you’d be hard pressed to find a point in this record when anything seems off-kilter.  One thing that might be lacking for some listeners, however, is that the music doesn’t have the pace, or some of the urgency, that went with the last album.  Sure, songs like “Swans” and  “My Maudlin Career” have a sligth pace, and a certain vibrance, but there is no “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken.” But, this serves the album sufficiently well, as the album comes across with a lot more balance than the previous effort.  Its nostalgia is fitting, and the album is the most even output in the band’s history.

Through and through, the album comes across with moments of meandering melody and a whispering sense of longing, which, afterall, seems to be the lyrical focus of the album.  The very mention of “maudlin” recalls a certain sense of emotional sentimentality, as if you’re looking back with a sense of longing.  It’s no mistake that the lyrics match this focus; the music seems to further the intent as well.  And of course, the ever present ideal of love, and loves past, present and future.

Listeners be sure to make it all the way until the end of the album, as “Honey in the Sun” is one of the most rewarding songs on the album.  It’s the bookend that sums up the thematic elements of the lyrics, and adds further detail to the growth of this very talented group of musicians from Glasgow.  Nicely done Camera Obscura.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/11-honey-in-the-sun.mp3]

Download: Camera Obscura – Honey in the Sun [MP3]

Metric – Fantasies

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Rating: ★★★½ ·

It has been extremely difficult not to fall in love with Metric; the band has consistently put out enjoyable pop tunes throughout their evolution as a band.  Their fourth album, Fantasies, is just another progressive step in whatever direction the band chooses to go.  Yes, maybe it’s not the same band that you couldn’t get enough of on Old World Underground, but this album is stocked full of fantastic singles and even more ridiculously good moments than ever before.

The world caught wind of “Help, I’m Alive” a few months back, and the album couldn’t have a better opener than this. As the synthesizer and drums push the song forward, you are on the edge of the seat waiting for the song to crash down, but as always, the band remains coy, pulling back with just enough restraint to play innocent; that is until Emily hits the high notes, and warms your ears. “Sick Muse” follows immediately keeping the fast pace.  It’s a lot more straightforward than previous songs in the Metric canon, but the chorus is where the band seems to excel this time around. In fact, the choruses throughout the album are one of the elements that differentiates this album from the past.

You’ll also find some moments on this album that seem like they were skeletons left in Emily Haines’ closet as she wrapped up her solo work to work on this album.  “Twilight Galaxy” is just such a song, as it rests on “oohs” and what sounds like a programmed drum track.  While one could complain about such a moment being on this record, it shows just how far Haines has come since her inception as rock-goddess extraordinaire. “Gimme Sympathy” is a similar song, though it’s fleshed out a bit more by the presence of the rest of the band.  All in all, it’s a twist we hadn’t seen yet, and it’s one that works well for the band.

Unfortunately, a lot of the angular guitar work is gone from this album, or at least it has hidden itself behind the hills of electronic presence.  On one hand, this makes this album ready for those who wish to take it to the dance floor, as the synths will definitely blast out of speakers around the world, but it also makes the album comes across as a lot more polished than before.  The ferocity of the group here is subdued; Emily now is more than just the pretty face of the band.  She seems to be the leader in every sense here, and for some, that might be a little disheartening.

Suffice it to say that most of those fans who fell in love with the band will still be happy with the most recent output, as there are gems all over this record.  Who knows where the next step will lead the band, but as long as they can continuously pump out pop music this good, they are sure  to have followers for years to come.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/06-gimme-sympathy.mp3]

Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

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Rating: ★★★★ ·

Austin resident Bill Callahan is more widely known for his releases under the Smog moniker, but the release of his second “solo” album will surely have heads turning in the direction of his future; his most recent ventures seem to be the most focused of any of his releases, which definitely prove beneficial to the listener.

Of course, there is really only one instrument on this album that is truly worthy of discussion, and that has to be the ragged baritone vocals of Callahan himself.  His voice is easily identifiable, but it also serves as the predominant element that courses through the entirety of the album.  Everything else seems to play second-fiddle to the vocals, and one can presume that that is precisely where Callahan would like to leave us.

Take, for instance, “Eid Ma Clack Shaw,” the album’s first released single.  The song is comprised mostly of two elements: one being the voice of Callahan, the other being tinkering piano that bounces gleefully in step with the vocals. “The Wind and the Dove” follows just after, and you’re caught on the brief moments when the pitch and delivery seem to change just the slightest bit, creating a sense of reserve.  Both songs emphasize the voice rather than the music, although this isn’t saying that the music is altogether uninteresting. One merely needs to listen to the gentleness in the production, even when other elements are added to the textural mix of the song, such as the female vocals that filter in and out of “Rococo Zephyr.”

This entire outing seems to come out of a place of reserve, as if Callahan is taking his time to think things through, watching the world around slowly go by each day.  Lyrically, the songs approach various levels of observation and commentary on fairly mundane things, but developed in the way only Bill can do.  Even the song titles seem to illustrate the idea of thought, and other such processes, which is apparently where a lot of the album stems from, as Bill admits to being a bit restless during the recording of the majority of the album.

At the end of the journey, you’ll find one of the longest songs in the Bill Callahan/Smog repertoire, which isn’t entirely a bad thing.  It’s the perfect bookend to the album, as the narrator here admits that it’s time to put some things away, such as God.  With the album coming to a close, it’s time to put it away, as Bill has clearly made his point.  He’s crafted a set of mellow semi-folk tunes using his voice as the instrument and his lyrics as your guide through his world and his thoughts.  It’s a good run through from start to finish.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/03-the-wind-and-the-dove.mp3]

Download: Bill Callahan – The Wind and the Dove [MP3]

Papercuts – You Can Have What You Want

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Rating: ★★★★½

This appears to be the decade where people actively seek out the atmosphere of a quiet bedroom recording, as bands like Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes burst forth with warmth and comfort, the kind you would find beneath your Grandma’s quilt in your room. Unfortunately, Jason Quever and his band, Papercuts, have often been overlooked in the discussion, though few will feel that way when this record hits the streets.

You Can Have What You Want is the third proper full-length from Quever, and listeners will find that this is his most complete collection of songs to date.  The songs are the most fluid he has composed, and they seem to courageously go from one shining moment into the next. Melodies rise just as you thought they’d fallen away, and it all feels as if a master architect assembled the songs piece by piece; everything on this record feels absolutely right.

Jason’s vocals sound amazing this time around, albeit a bit underdone at points. Some will find fault with this approach, as you must surely dig deep into your listening experience in order to grasp the lyrics, but most will find this aesthetic quite appealing whilst searching for their favorite tune as they rearrange their closet by color.  Take “The Machine Will Tell Us So,” a song that meanders carefully through seas of organ and cymbal work, almost so quiet you can’t help but let wonder if the music is only in your head; then the chorus bursts in full of calming melodies, taking the song in an entirely different direction, though only for a moment.

Of course, Papercuts aren’t afraid to pick up the pace, at least musically.  “Dead Love” and “Future Primitive” are both set back to back, which may be due to the fact that each of these songs call for a bit of toe-tapping, though one must only do so in place, as the vocals are not begging you to move about. “Future Primitive” is the first single from the album, and features a lot of the elements of the rhythm section of Jeremy Jay, only with quieter lyrics, if you can imagine that. Sure, it’s a standout track, but almost every track here shines in its own manner.

The title track to the album, “You Can Have What You Want,” is just yet another example of how beautifully Jason shapes his songs; he is able to fill up empty space with bits and pieces of vocals and instrumentation, all pushing the song to the fullest potential.  Really, this is all one needs to ask of his or her favorite musician: can you get the most out of your song? The answer to that question, and in regards to this whole album, is a resounding yes! If you want something to listen to in your bedroom, this album may be the best one for your ear.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/papercuts-you-can-have-what-you-want.mp3]

Download: Papercuts – You Can Have What You Want [MP3]

I Was a King – s/t

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Rating: ★★★★½

Occasionally the overseas hype makes its way to these Eastern shores, and in those cases it rarely amounts to much.  This time, I Was a King, aim to put all that hype to rest, as they have an album of such quality that it’s hard not to immediately fall in love with every single song on the album.

From the opening moments of the album, there is a definite haziness to the production, as if the album was washed in a dense Irish fog; that sentimentality will remain throughout the record, though the album definitely breaks through in a major way.

More than likely, you will find that this album borrows largely from the late 90s Brit-pop as the guitars carry a certain amount of fuzz, and you would be hard pressed not to find some similarities between the band and Teenage Fanclub. There’s elemental grit on almost every single song that comes your way, but beneath it sleeps that great pop beast that is near and dear to our hearts.

One issue that some might take upon immediate listens is that the lyrics are not openly decipherable; one must listen closely throughout the entire album in order to get a hold on the precise subject matter.  But isn’t this what we all want from our music?  Does music have to be so immediately accessible?  No! This album answers that time and time again, as it unfolds with rewarding moment after rewarding moment.  And those vocals are so warm and inviting that they recall little known band The Comas, so much so that one might confuse the singers as the same man, but alas, there is a great distance between the two.

It’s difficult to describe such an album that goes all over the place and yet remains stationary.  The album artwork in this case is a sufficient descriptor of the album, as each song is full of different colors and sounds.  In part the album is 90s power-pop, but psychedelic moments shine through from the same core, only to be outdone by the space fuzz guitarmonies that cradle the vocals.  This is an album that refuses to be defined, and it refuses to sit in one place.  Here you have ADHD recorded, perfected, and sold to appease your ears.

No matter what you find enjoyable, you will find that this album is perfectly suited for you and your listening.  It’s not overtly abrasive where you can’t sleep with it at night, nor is it near mellow enough where you don’t want to crank it all the way to eleven; you won’t be able to put this one down.  Please, spin it again and again.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/14-norman-bleik.mp3]

Download: I Was A King – Norman Bleik [MP3]

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