Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Rating: ★★★★★

When Fleet Foxes released their self-titled debut back in 2008, they took the musical world by storm with their folksy, and harmony flooded jams. So when they announced that they would be releasing their sophomore album, much anticipation grew for what this cherished band would do next. Could they potentially follow up their flawless debut with something even better? Or would Helplessness Blues be forever dwarfed in a shadow of comparisons to the album that won you over to the Fleet Foxes side in the first place? Based on my rating, it should be pretty easy to tell where I stand.

This album may be a step in a different direction for this band, but it certainly is the right one. “Montezuma” begins with delicate guitar plucking and the almost too perfectly sweet vocals of Robin Pecknold, joined quickly by the harmonies of the rest of the band, bathing you in warmth. For Fleet Foxes, this is probably the perfect opening song; the simplicity paired with the introduction to a new sound for makes it rightly placed. Whereas their last album relied most heavily on the vocal aspects, it seems as though the instrumentation has become a stronger force on the same level as that as the vocals. This allows for Fleet Foxes to step into that tender climate of being far enough away from their old stuff, but nowhere near unrecognizable.

The rest of the album follows suit in a way that only this band could; you’ll be hard pressed to find a song that you don’t love. On the first half of the album, you have soft at first then earthquake strength of “Sim Sala Bim,” only to be outdone by the climactic “The Plains / Bitter Dancer.” But to me, the real superstar comes on “The Shrine / An Argument,” which has be arguably one of the best songs of the year. Last, but certainly not least, you have the explosive, jangly, single, “Grown Ocean” which serves as the icing on the cake.

So at the end of this masterpiece, it’s easy to be transfigured by the delightful and beautiful sounds that this band has produced. It’s remarkable how they were able to produce two flawless albums back to back, and if they hadn’t already marked a spot on your list of favorite bands, then this should certainly seal the deal. Look for this to make its place atop some end of the year lists.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/FleetFoxes_HelplessnessBlues.mp3]

Download: Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues [MP3]

Low – C’mon

Rating: ★★★½ ·

Low has definitely been around for a while: since 1993 they have been crafting their signature slow core beats for the world to enjoy. Hailing from Duluth Minnesota, this three-part band certainly knows how to spin beautiful tales of whatever they fancy and if nine studio albums wasn’t testament enough to this, than this tenth should seal the deal.

To start things off, Low showcases their most distinctive quality right up front on “Try To Sleep.” Sounding distantly akin to that of some Mott the Hoople song, the album begins with the male/female harmonies of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. The light percussive tinkling in the background combined with the slow strumming of the thick guitars comes together to make for a killer groovy jam. Despite the predictability of this sort of sound, you can’t help but take comfort in the peaceful elegance that they create. They are able to drift from a grungier kind of sound to that of clear and compact, forming their own kind of musical genre. From the first to the second song you can see this transition fairly well. On “You See Everything,” Parker takes lead vocals, and her buttery voice just coats everything in a golden light of majesty. The song meanders its slow churning way along, with Parker putting her touch of sweetness upon the topmost layer.

For an album that doesn’t have a big change in tempo, it manages to stay interesting until the very end. “Nightingale,” the third to last track, leaps out as dark and formidable, but twists into a peaceful, but still somber lullaby-esque song. Sparhawk has this sour drawl-like quality to his voice that makes everything drenched in emotion; it’s easy to tell that this man puts a lot of himself into his music. His deep and powerful voice is similar to that of Matt Berninger from The National. Like Mr. Berninger, Sparhawk can convey maximum emotion with his minimalist style.

While C’mon does not falter in its strength, it does get a bit heavy after a while. It’s not too heavy that it would deter from further listening, rather, it grows on you. Low leaves with the feeling that this album was a long-term work that this band really strived to perfect. For a group that has been around for so long, this is true evidence of their talent and longevity and it is another great edition to their ever growing catalog of albums.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/01-Try-to-Sleep-1.mp3]

Download: Low – Try to Sleep [MP3]

C’mon is out now on Sub Pop.

ATH Interviews: Papercuts

ATH: You’re four albums into your career, which is a great deal further than a lot of bands get to go nowadays.  Is there a special formula that keeps you motivated for writing, or are you luck insofar as you’re the predominant musician/writer?

Jason: Well I just try to make the focus on enjoying the process of writing and recording albums, so my level of motivation and enjoyment stays in my own control. If I focused on the ups and downs of my “career” or what I thought of the business side of things, it would probably be a bit harder to stay productive. I just try to focus on the process and enjoy it, if it stopped being fun I’d probably stop, even if the material aspect was tempting… Also I’ve never made hype friendly music, maybe that’s enabled me to keep rolling without feeling like my time has come and passed…

ATH: Listening to your catalogue, one of my favorite things has to be your voice, aside from the overall awesomeness of course. It seems have this sort of raspy/whispery (is that a word) resonation (I mean this in a good way) to it? When you first began recording yourself at home, was this just the general nature of your voice, or were you modeling the tones after anyone in particular? Any effects used on it in the studio?

Jason: Thanks, I don’t really attempt to make it do much except sound as good as I possibly can with the voice I have and the material i come up with. I, like most people, dislike the sound of my own voice, so I just like to use reverb or echo to make it transform into something else a little. That way I can try to hear it as something other than my own voice, like another instrument.

ATH: You record a great number of LPs for other bands. Does the recording process differ greatly when your working with other people’s work as opposed to your own? If so, how?

Jason: Well I certainly am in totally different roles in the two situations, especially for this new record. When recording other bands I tend to try and be a positive figure in the room, someone looking after the band to try and facilitate a good atmosphere and interesting sounds, but with an ear to technical details. Getting Thom Monahan to co produce enabled me to become more of a performer than ever before, focusing on playing instruments, singing, writing and arranging, etc… I loved being able to walk away from being a technical person for my own record, and try to look at the big picture…

ATH: Similar question here, sort of….it’s odd, but despite how much I’ve listened to your records, I don’t know a whole lot about you as a person, other than your recording/songwirting prowess. Tell us…what are some things we don’t know about you: Favorite meal, first musical memory, thing you can’t leave at home when you head out on tour?

Jason: Favorite meal, well this may look like pandering but I had an amazing hamburger when I was at sxsw, it was a diner near waterloo records, I forget the name of the place. Oh my god, we are going back when we’re in austin again. My first musical memory is the Beatles, I became obsessed really early with “Revolution”, the loud one… I can’t leave home without my ipod now (thanks Dana!), I need to hear the Vashti Buynan rarities record every few days, it puts me in a peaceful place…

ATH: I’ll gladly admit that I’ve listened to your records year round, but they seem to have this odd seasonal quality to me that makes them perfect for either winter weather, or those cool autumn nights before the winter has completely taken over (which it never does in Austin). With this in mind, do you ever think about such a thing as seasonal listening when you’re writing a new record? Or are there any other odd things you reflect upon, such as where the song is best listened to, i.e. a small venue, bedroom headphones, etc.?

Jason: I listen to my demos when I go for long walks in my hilly San Francisco neighborhood. I usually decide if a song is good or not listening to headphones walking around so I guess that’s probably what I think of when I think of people listening to the record. I love spring and summer the most and think of it as that kind of record, though maybe other people think of it as a darker thing than I do, which is totally fine!

ATH: Obviously, you should be proud of your work, and especially with the Fading Parade being so recent, this might be sort of a ridiculous question, but, is there one particular record of the four major Papercuts albums that your more proud of than any other, if perhaps you were going through a difficult time, or one where you can acknowledge you made huge leaps and bounds as a songwriter?

Jason: Well I feel most happy with fading Parade, probably because I was in a really good place writing it, and recording it I had the help of Thom as well as Frankie Koeller and Graham Hill, who played on the record and helped me arrange some things.  The album You Can Have What You Want was written at a very sad and dark time in my life so in one way I’m glad I had the record to help me work some heavy things out, in another way it’s hard for me to think about what a bad time it was when I wrote it. So I think about records in terms of how things were at the time more than a rating system, you know?

ATH: Having toured a fair amount myself, is there any one thing you dread about being on the road with your band? Personally, those long stretches from say Arizona to Texas always sucked the life out of me. What do you guys do in the van to entertain one another?

Jason: Being the leader of a band, I dread those bummer drives and uninspiring shows and gross back stages mainly because I dread the others in the band being depressed on the road. I feel too responsible for everyone having a good time, which is impossible to do all the time when you are on tour for a month…. I have ups and downs myself too, sometimes I wonder if I can face people on stage and pretend I like myself, but somehow once we are actually playing, I usually remember why I’m there in the first place and enjoy it….

ATH: Seeing as its difficult to really carve out a niche for one’s self nowadays with the massive quantity of bands on the Internet, is there any alternative life that you could see yourself living should this ever prove to be insufficient, for whatever reason?

Jason: I really can’t imagine doing anything else and being slightly happy, it’s the thing I love doing so I work pretty hard to keep being able to do it! If I couldn’t make records I’d probably become a beach bum, move to san diego and play guitar on the pier through a pignose amp pinned to my fanny pack while on roller skates….

Photo credit goes to Robert Loerzel @ Under Ground Bee.

More New Music From Fleet Foxes

Well we hear on the streets that the new Fleet Foxes album Helplessness Blues has leaked super early and indie fanboys are already going crazy.  With a distant release date of May 3rd, you’ve still got some time to check out singles like this one “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” before you pick up the album in about a month.  Will they be able to keep their buzz going on the sophomore effort?  Only time will tell.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/fleet-foxes-the-plains-bitter-dancer.mp3]

Download: Fleet Foxes – The Plains/Bitter Dancer [MP3]

Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Rating: ★★★ · ·

You know that old addage, if it works, don’t change it?  Well, for long-time fans of Mogwai, it seems that this has sort of been their mantra for quite a while.  Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will is the band’s seventh studio album, and while I honestly can’t say that I hate this record (not in the least), I also don’t think I’ll be able to say that I’m going to fawn over it for any lengthy period.  That being said, it’s one of their better releases, of the last three or four.

“White Noise” sort of begins where you’d expect a new Mogwai album to lift off.  It’s got some nice little guitar lines, one of those cymbal-heavy drum pieces, and then electronics begin to burst forth, though not in an overbearing fashion. It never really goes anywhere, yet it’s not like you’re asking the song to take you on some journey necessarily.

When you arrive at “Rano Pano,” that distorted guitar humming in the foreground really makes you hopeful, praying that the band’s just going to unleash a wall of sheer noise on you.  And I suppose that in some manner, this is what they do provide, building guitar line upon guitar line, adding synthetic noise atop it all.  However, the one thing that’s been unfortunate is that the band has such great prowess with their songwriting that they almost always show a fair amount of restraint.  Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will is filled with songs that leave open the space for some sort of sonic explosion, like “Rano Pano,” yet they hold back.  I reckon they’re probably laughing at us all, knowing that we’re here pleading for them to unleash some fury.  If you’re looking for that, you’ll probably find that “San Pedro” is one of the tracks on this effort that fits the bill, and it’s sure to be one of those Mogwai stage songs where the band completely let loose, as they’ve been known to do on occasion.

Perhaps one of the oddballs in this collection, though one you should listen to, is “Letters to the Metro.”  It’s by far one the quietest moment on Hardcore, and it’s possibly the most beautiful, if only in the sense that it doesn’t have the same tension building tactic that other songs utilize.  These are the sort of tracks that you wish Mogwai would infuse in their albums more often, and not solely because they’re deemed “pretty,” but because they provide a more subtle step in the album’s pacing as a whole.  They can clearly still show their craftsmanship as a band here, but it provides for a more dynamic listen.

As with all Mogwai records, I know that I’ll break this out at some point in my year, yearning for something that will just clear my head for a little bit, allowing the musical part of my brain empty out.  Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will should be seen as a band that seems to always maintain their skills, yet never forage into new territories.  Perhaps, if you’re looking for a fault, it’s that this record, as well as a few in the past, doesn’t see the band trying to break into anything new and bold.  Instead, it’s a good album, but nothing that will have us asking why aren’t there more bands like this one?

More New Music From J Mascis

The incredible frontman of Dinosaur Jr. known as J. Mascis has another new tune from his upcoming solo album for us to check out.  This new jam is called “Is it Done” and appears on the new singer songwriter style album Several Shades of Why from the legend of the indie world.  You can get your hands on the new album March 15th via Sub Pop Records.  This jam is in addition to the song “Not Enough” we dropped on you a couple months ago.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/J-Mascis-Is-It-Done.mp3]

Download: J Mascis – Is It Done [MP3]

New Music From Low

Indie veteran band Low are ready to release their first new album of new material since their underrated effort from 2007 Drums and Guns.  The band’s new album is entitled C’Mon and features this new single “Try to Sleep”.  It’s of course a slow burner from the group that helped invent the term “slow burner”.  You can pick up a copy of the new record on April 12th via the always bad ass Sub Pop Records.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/01-Try-to-Sleep-1.mp3]

Download: Low – Try to Sleep [MP3]

More New Music From Papercuts

We already shared a new tune from Papercuts with you guys last month and now we want to throw another one your way today.  As previously reported, the new album is called Fading Parade and hits stores on March 1st via Sub Pop.  This new jam goes by “Do You Really Wanna Know” and gets us even more excited for the upcoming album.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/01-Do-You-Really-Wanna-Know.mp3]

Download: Papercuts – Do You Really Wanna Know [MP3]

New Music From Mister Heavenly

The mysterious indie supergroup known as Mister Heavenly finally have some recorded music to share with us blogging geeks.  Our first taste of the new band comes in the form of “Pineapple Girl” and doesn’t fail to deliver on the hype built by the group.  It’s a catchy tune that’s already getting some heavy spins here in the ATH office.  You can also check out the second new song “Mister Heavenly” over on Sub Pop.  A debut LP is said to be out sometime this spring.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Pineapple-Girl.mp3]

Download: Mister Heavenly – Pineapple Girl [MP3]

New Track from Obits

For me, 2011 is looking really exciting.  It seems like the guys with guitars are taking aim at the rest of us, and really letting loose.  Yet another release I’m excited for comes from Obits, who will be releasing their new record, Moody, Standard and Poor via Sub Pop on March 29th.  My favorite reason to get super excited here is that singer/guitarist Rick Froberg used to jam in Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes.  Much like those two groups, Obits always seem on the verge of kicking you in the face via heavy percussion and sharp-edged guitars, but as age has taught them some restraint, they’ve honed their chops just enough to keep it all cohesive.  One listen to the drums here, though not necessarily experimental, more just pounding, and you’ll probably be tapping your feet at your desk. We’re cool with that.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/obits-yougottalose.mp3]

Download: Obits – You Gotta Lose [MP3]

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