From The Closet: Hum

hum“She thinks she missed the train to Mars, she’s out back counting stars.”  Before the Cadillac commercial, I was a 13-year old kid when I first discovered Hum.  Best known for their 1995 hit “Stars,” the Champaign, Illinois quartet combined heavy-distorted guitars, melodic-monotone vocals, and songs about plants, dreams and suicide machines that proved a breath of fresh air from Pearl Jam-clones in the mid-nineties.  1995’s LP You’d Prefer an Astronaut is a solid effort, but 1998’s Downward is Heavenward is a ten-song epic adventure through space.  For every tender moment sung by lead-singer Matt Talbot, there’s a sonic blast of splintering guitars that erupt like a goddamn Android Volcano!  I’m not quite sure what that means but you can judge for yourself by listening to my favorite Hum song, “I Hate it Too.”

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/08-I-Hate-It-Too.mp3]

Headlights – Wildlife

headlights-wildlife

Rating: ★★★ · ·

When Headlights released Some Racing, Some Stopping, they showed hints of absolute pop glory.  “Cherry Tulips” was one of the best songs I heard that year, and I still use it, but could they build on the continued promise and move forward with their third album Wildlife?

Whilst recording the album, turmoil struck the band, and they lost a guitarist, so it won’t surprise many to see this album as a side-step, rather than a natural progression.  Erin Fein’s presence is definitely felt here more prominently than I expected, as each song is filled to the brim with her fusion of keyboards and angelic vocals. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a record you can dismiss, it just doesn’t necessarily live up to the dreams in my head; then again, little does.

“Secrets” is one of the songs you’ll definitely fall in love with once you get your hands, and ears, on it.  Slowly it builds with keyboards and rimshots, but the faster the handclaps go, the faster the song seems to pick up the pace, before it bursts forth.   Juxtaposed to this tune is “You and Eye,” which builds on some of the haziness from the band’s first album, Kill Them With Kindness.  It’s a song that seems to trod along, built upon the voice of Fein and her little electronic flourishes.

One of the standout tracks comes just as early, but the oddity here is that Tristan Wraight seems to take the spotlight from Fein.  His voice recalls the sunny-side of pop music, and the song is structured carefully around the percussion and guitar work.  This definitely is the direction I saw the band heading when I got my hands on this album, but unfortunately it’s one of the distinct moments, only because there aren’t many songs that live up to it on Wildlife.

By the middle album, the group seems to have taken the middle ground between Emily Haines solo work and Stars. Not all will find this as a disappointment, as those bands deserve as much acclaim as they get.  But, the problem with songs such as “Long Song for Buddy” or “Wisconsin Beaches,” which is an acoustic number, is not that they aren’t enjoyable or artistic, but rather that they seem to be a lackluster performance in comparison to the brighter moments of the record, and the promise of the record before.  Clearly, the lyrics point to a darker side of the human relationship, dealing with love and loss throughout as the subject matter, but one can still discuss such things with a certain panache.  The fact that it’s not there is what holds this album back from being one of the great indie-pop albums of the year, but if you take a careful look inside, you’ll find that Headlights have left you with plenty to be happy about.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/04-Get-Going.mp3]

Download: Headlights – Get Going [MP3]

Amy Millan – Masters Of The Burial

amy-millan-masters-of-the-burial-art

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Having clocked in years with Canadian indie mainstays Stars and Broken Social Scene Toronto native Amy Millan struck out on her own in 2006 to release her debut album Honey from the Tombs to mostly favorable reviews, receiving comparisons to Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams.

Arts and Crafts Records will be releasing Amy Millan’s sophomore release, Masters of the Burial, and I must admit, coming into this review the only exposure I had had with Amy Millan was her work with the aforementioned bands.  Being a fan of Broken Social Scene and the solo outings of Brendan Canning, Kevin Drew, and Leslie Feist I was excited about the prospect of jangly, slightly quirky indie-pop album. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

Masters of the Burial is a very mature record. The majority of the eleven tracks could easily be seen as middle of the road adult contemporary, but in the best way possible.  This album is very easy to listen to, relying on softly brushed drums, well placed mandolins and, of course, Millan’s beautiful voice.  On tracks like ‘Bruised Ghosts’, ‘Towers’, and the album closer ‘Bound’ it is evident that Millan could easily hold her own with the Allison Krauss’ and the Norah Jones’ of the world, just ask your parents or Brenda in the accounting department if you don’t believe me.  When Millan breaks away from the country-tinged folk trappings on tracks like ‘Bury This’, the percussion heavy ‘Day to Day’, and the beautifully haunting ‘Lost Compass’, she truly shines, easily evoking feelings of loss and regret.  Plus there is a cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark’, if you are into that kind of thing.  Like my mama always says “A cover is as a cover does…” (my mama never says that).

While this record won’t be on my end of the year lists, I have nothing but respect for it.  It is comforting, and I know it has an audience out there that will love it. I just fear that, with it’s ties to indie rock, it will be shot down before it even has it’s chance to shine.

The Postmarks – Memoirs at the End of the World

memoirs

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Last year, The Postmarks threw a collection of covers out to the world, and the year before, they hit us with their self-titled debut.  Oddly, they garnered little press, though their sound, resting somewhere between early Camera Obscura and slow-jam Stars songs seems like it would be all the rage.  Will Memoris at the End of the World be the album to get the group over the hump?

When opening up with “No One Said This Would be Easy,” you start to get the feel of the band; they know it won’t be easy carving out a niche, but their destined to do it all on their own terms.  You’ll find that the string arrangements being used here will draw some to conclude that The Postmarks have a place in the land of the twee, but there seems to be some sort of solemnity underlying here, which takes it somewhere else.

“My Lucky Charm” is the group’s nod to Camera Obscura, although singer Tim Yehezkely recalls a young Jenny Lewis from long ago.  Polite horn flourishes dance in the background bring that gentle tropicalia feel to the song, perhaps an aesthetic quality ingrained in the band from their hometwon in Miami.  But when you get to “Don’t Know Till You Try” you can see a slight addition of electronic touches here and there, which is where you might get a Stars meets Headlights sort of quality.

Still, once you get to this point, you start to see one of the unfortunate drawbacks to the album as a whole.  Every song is absolutely listenable, although “Theme from ‘Memoirs'” lacks a bit as far as interest goes, all the way until the album draws to a close.  However, none of these tracks absolutely have to be listened to at any given point in time.  You could skip around; you could buy one song on iTunes; or you could ignore it altogether.  Nothing on Memoirs at the End of the World stands out to differentiate itself from other like-minded groups.  You can easily enjoy listenting to the entire album for an extended period of time, but the question begging to be asked is do you really have to listen to it?

To be frank, you don’t have to listen to it.  It’s not something you absolutely have to have in your collection, but if you do happen to find it, and you’re into bands listed above, you would do well to pick it up.  Honestly, The Postmarks made a beautiful record, just not one that is begging to be listened to over and over again. You’ll probably love it, but then again, you might soon discard it. Pick your poison.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/01-No-One-Said-This-Would-Be-Easy.mp3]

Download: The Postmarks – No One Said This Would Be Easy [MP3]

The Most Serene Republic – And the Ever Expanding Universe

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Rating: ★★★½ ·

Canada’s The Most Serene Republic have spent the majority of their career flying just below the radar of most indie music fans, but at their newest album, And the Ever Expanding Universe, demonstrates, this young group has continued to mature in more ways than mere age, honing their craft of compiling mini-suites of pop.   Such a progression alone warrant accolades, but the fact that the band has continued to form into a tightly knit group with songs to back it up is an entirely different achievement in and of itself.

“Heavens to Purgatory” is the second track on the album, opening with gentle guitar strumming and Adrian Jewett’s vocals sweeping highly.  Enter drums and female vocals from stage left.  Then the vocals of Emma Ditchburn take over, leading you towards the chorus and insurmountable joy.  Dripping off is a gentle usage of horns a la Broken Social Scene.

Up to bat next is “Vessels of a Donor Look,” a song with a certain amount of swing to it.  It’s as if the band combined their own touch of multi-instrumental indie rock with lounge tropicalia.  You’ll find that this song is one that demands repeat listens, begging for you to grab a cocktail and enjoy the rest of the show that is And the Ever Expanding Universe.

The longest song on the album, “Patternicity,” again seems to be constructed of multiple arrangements within the arrangements themselves.  It’s as if the band approached the writing here with a touch of a composer’s attitude, which makes sense since rumor has it that band constructs their songs around piano pieces.  Although instrumental, this song ultimately rewards in its ability to shift from one perspective to another. Uplifting.

And for their third album, the band begins to wear some of their influences by fellow Canadians a bit more openly.  “Four Humours” sounds oddly like an outtake from an early Stars record, but make no mistake, the band owns this song. Their moderate flourishes of musicianship appear in the middle of the song as the bass takes a short walk just before the song returns to the fold.

Two things are amiss on this record.  First, Jewett doesn’t take nearly as prominent a role as he has in the past, which seems odd considering his live showmanship.  Second, there appear to be a lot of electronic flourishes throughout the album, which isn’t bad as a whole, just a continued departure from where the band began in the early years.

All said and done, And the Ever Expanding Universe is perhaps the most complete album the group has produced to date, leading most to assume that the group will only continue to climb further as they grow.  We’ll surely be hearing from The Most Serene Republic again.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/03-vessels-of-a-donor-look.mp3]

Download: The Most Serene Republic – Vessels of a Donor Look [MP3]

ATH Interviews: Broken Social Scene

bss_coverPrior to Broken Social Scene taking the stage at Bass Concert Hall we were able to grab a few minutes with Brendan Canning and Charles Spearin. They talk about the current state of the band, their most recent tour, and details about their solo albums. Thanks to Robin and Brendan for all of the arrangements and preparations.

Read the Brendan Canning Interview

Read the Charles Spearin Interview

ACL Interviews: Stars

Amy Millan is a quite the busy lady. She sings for major Canadian bands Stars & Broken Social Scene, tours with both acts, and somehow found the time to put out a solo record. The Canadian songstress, currently on tour with Stars, answered a few questions for us before her band’s performance at last weekends ACL festival. Amy and I discuss why she won’t be doing a BSS Presents album, how Stars can win a Juno award and why MP3s are just as good as vinyl. Read about these topics and many more after the jump.

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