Owen – New Leaves

New_Leaves_digipak_3.inddRating: ★★★½☆

Owen’s sole member, Mike Kinsella, has been tooling around the scene since before we even knew what a ‘scene’.  With his brother, Tim, Mike helped start the groundbreaking band Cap n’ Jazz in 1989 which, with a solitary LP and a handful of singles and compilation tracks, changed the way we saw indie rock.  Since the bands split in 1995, Kinsella has put in time with such indie luminaries as Joan of Arc, American Football, Owls, and eventually settling with a his current solo project, Owen, in 2001.

In that time Kinsella has released five albums under the Owen moniker.  Each of these albums, while progressing with minor changes from one to the next, have essentially remained the same: Kinsella’s calming, but oft-times uncertain voice, telling of drunken late nights and one night stands, all with a background of lush acoustic melodies that surround you in blankets of finger-picking, hammer-ons and pull-offs.  If Kinsella weren’t such an accomplished lyricist and musician this formula would become tiresome.  In all honesty, for this reviewer, it had gotten tiresome around 2004 with the release of Owen’s third album, I Do Perceive.  I had grown tired of the clever narratives and pretty songs about finding girls and losing said girls.  I had all but written off Mike Kinsella.

But starting with 2006’s At Home With… and continuing more in his current album, New Leaves (released this week on Polyvinyl Records), something happened with Owen: Mike Kinsella grew up.  After a marriage and a new daughter, Kinsella’s lyrics have matured. Now he is longing for change in his life.  In the first single “Good Friends, Bad Habits” Kinsella laments about being jealous of his friends late nights and bar fights, but in the refrain he clarifies “Sometimes, like every time she breathes, I embrace my routine”.  This sentiment is carried on throughout New Leaves, in songs like the title track and “Amnesia and Me”.

There are still the tracks, most notably “Ugly on the Inside” and “Brown Hair in a Bird’s Nest” that hearken back to his previous lyrical content, and it just seems tired compared to recent domesticated enlightenment. Overall, though, New Leaves is a beautiful and heartfelt record that deserves a listen or two, but it would be nice to change things up every once and a while.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/02-good-friends-bad-habits-1.mp3]

Download: Owen – Good Friends, Bad Habits [MP3]

Rain Machine – Rain Machine

rain_machine_covRating: ★☆☆☆☆

We all know and love TV on the Radio, right?  So it seems only natural when one of the band’s most integral members, guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone (recording as Rain Machine), steps out and releases a solo record we should take notice, right? Well, you would be about half right.

The first half of Rain Machine’s self-titled debut (released this week on Anti-) is good, maybe even better than good. The songs are the polar opposite of what would be released as a TV on the Radio track. They lack the density and the sense of paranoia that the band has finely crafted over the years. Malone, as Rain Machine, writes songs with room for the listener to breathe. The tracks almost seem like skeletons of TVOTR songs, waiting for Dave Sitek to fill them in.  Standout tracks include ‘Give Blood’, ‘Smiling Black Faces’ and ‘Driftwood Heart’ which easily rival anything Malone’s main band have ever released.  Seriously, these songs are that good.

But after track six, ‘Hold You Holly’, something happened to the album. It appears that Malone, for lack of a better word, stopped giving a fuck (Sorry, Ma! If you need proof I’ll let you listen. The expletive is warranted.).  The last six tracks make up for 35 minutes of the albums one hour running time, and boy are they painful.  The seventh track, ‘Desperate Bitch’ could’ve easily had four minutes shaved off it’s almost nine minute life span. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the lengths of the tracks that get my goat, it’s the lack of respect for my time.  Author Kurt Vonnegut believed, and I’m paraphrasing here, that you should make your writing (here, songs) easy for your audience to ingest, because you are asking a lot for them to pay attention to you.  If you are going to write a 1,000 page book or 9+ minute song you makes sure fill with as much meat as possible (TWSS!). Malone has a blatant disregard for this listener’s time.

The last half of this album is pure, self-indulgent jack-assery.  Sorry, Kyp, I don’t mean to rain on your slow, boring parade. You are not Curtis Mayfield, you do not have the fortitude for an extended, meandering jam.  I used to have a theory that every song was someone’s favorite song.  For the million of people that love U2’s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ there was always one that loved ‘Lemon’. But Kyp Malone disproved this theory. It is impossible for anyone to like the last six songs on this album, let alone having them be someone’s favorite song (It’s a fact, I did extensive research.)

A five to six song EP or a couple of singles would have easily brought three to four stars, but as a full length, those first six songs just aren’t strong enough to carry the bloated dead weight of the rest of the album.

Volcano Choir – Unmap

volcano_choir_unmapRating: ★★★½☆

Speaking of collaborations, Wisconsin’s Volcano Choir brings together Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Collection of Colonies of Bees (which features former members of the mighty Pele).

The nine tracks that make up their JagJaguwar debut, Unmap have more in common with ambient music than either of Volcano Choir other parts.  Using tape loops and minimal vocals, and restrained traditional instruments Unmap plays more like a score to a film than a traditional indie rock release.  That’s not to say that it’s not good, because it is.

What is so bold about this mostly quiet record is the lack of traditional vocals.  You would think having the current indie golden boy, Justin Vernon, in the band you would feature him prominently in as many tracks as possible, Volcano Choir do quite the opposite with only two of the nine songs having traditional vocal arrangements (Island, IS and Still).  It’s no surprise that these tracks are the glue that holds this whole release together.  You’ve previously been introduced to Island, IS, but you might surprised how familiar with Still you might be.  You probably remember it as the autotune (take it easy, Jigga!) vocal track, Woods, at the end of Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP, but here it backed up with a full band.  I must admit, I like this version better.

The rest of the songs rely on the human voice as an instrument, an additional layer to the already lush soundscape.  Many bands have attempted such things before and it has always come off as pretentious and over produced, luckily that is not the case on Unmap.  The songs on Unmap come across as an organic progression of a group of individuals who have a true passion for the music they are producing.

For some this record will be hard to get into, but if you just give it some time you will be greatly rewarded.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/03-island-is-1.mp3]

Download: Volcano Choir – Island IS [MP3]

Castanets – Texas Rose, The Thaw And The Beast

AKR066_900Rating: ★★★★☆

If you were hard pressed to find our generations Tom Waits, a deserving nominee would be the Castanets main singer/songwriter Ray Raposa.  Raposa’s vocal delivery is more akin to Will Oldham’s than Waits’ own whiskey-soaked growl, but the ability to change his bands, Castanets, persona from release to release is downright Waitsian.  Raposa’s work in the Castanets has been called everything from noise to freak folk, but, to these ears, the Castanets, like Waits, is pure American music.

On the bands most recent Asthmatic Kitty release, Texas Rose, The Thaw and The Beast, the Castanets have made one of the most consistent releases in their career.  It’s hard to describe this release, so if you wouldn’t mind humoring me for a bit I will explain what I see in my head as I listen to this album: imagine an almost dead planet with a sole survivor (stick with me!). This sole survivor, let’s call him Ray, composes a set of songs about all that he has lost. From the opening track, ‘Rose’, he sings about a lost love and falling in love with the world and in the closing refrain sings “I am left here to worship on my own”.  The record flows seamlessly from one track to another, sometimes allowing for vast open spaces without ever being boring.

In it’s short 39 minutes, Texas Rose, the Thaw and the Beast traverses from the tuneful Americana of ‘Rose’, the clipped beats of ‘Worn From the Fight(with Fireworks)’, the booze-soaked dirge ‘No Trouble’, and Phil Collins-esque ‘Lucky Old Moon’ (some how, with that description, this song is fantastic).  I know this sounds like an eclectic blend of styles, but trust me, it works better than you could ever imagine.

Ray Raposa and his Castanets have not only released a cohesive album of Southern Gothic hymns, but also a truly enjoyable listening experience in Texas Rose, the Thaw and the Beast.  This is a night-driving must.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/01-Rose-1.mp3]

Download: Castanets – Rose [MP3]

Why? – Eskimo Snow

whyeskimoRating: ★★½☆☆

Following their critically acclaimed third LP, Alopecia, Berkeley, California’s Why? return with Eskimo Snow, a new collection of hip hop infused indie rock.

The word “new” may be misleading because the tracks on Eskimo Snow were recorded during the same sessions as 2008’s Alopecia.  One might think that songs recorded in the same session would carry familiar ties between them, and sure there are similarities, most notably singer/MC Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf’s distinct voice, but, for the most part the bulk of the similarities end there.  I guess the clearest example would be explained like this: Eskimo Snow : Amnesiac :: Alopecia : Kid ARadiohead, on Kid A, was focused with a clear vision and while Alopecia isn’t a high concept album it shares the same focus.  Yoni Wolf spits self-deprecating, acid tongued rhymes that tell tales of loneliness and depravity.

On Eskimo Snow, like Radiohead on Amnesiac, Why? offer up a much looser collection of songs, and while these songs aren’t bad they also don’t make up a very cohesive release. Wolf mostly abandons the rhymes for traditionally sung vocals.  In an interview with Pitchfork, Wolf noted that his work on Eskimo Snow was “the least hip-hop out of anything I’ve ever been involved with”.

There are several tracks, such as ‘Against Me’, ‘These Hands’, and ‘The Blackest Purse’ that are reminiscent of the bands earlier work.  I would have much preferred a tight EP, rather than this meandering album.  I am looking forward to their next release with a truly new batch of songs.

Why? will be performing Sunday, November 8th at Fun Fun Fun Fest. They take the Orange Stage at 3:50 p.m.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/03-Against-Me-1.mp3]

Download: Why? – Against Me [MP3]

J. Tillman – Year In The Kingdom

GuerrillaGroup_1_tillman-300x300Rating: ★★★★★

Since 2004 J. Tillman, born Joshua Tillman, has been consistently releasing quiet, understated records on various labels in the Pacific Northwest.  These records, while all solid releases, always followed the same template: hush vocals, gently picked guitars, mournful lyrics. With the release of Year in the Kingdom something has clicked with Tillman’s formula.

Maybe it has been his tenure as drummer in the Fleet Foxes these past couple of years that has lead to this beautiful and full sounding record or maybe it has just come with age.  On Year in the Kingdom we hear a road-weary Tillman lamenting on the human condition, we are met with songs of repentance and rejoice.  This is a simple record: mostly just acoustic guitars, a banjo here and there, light percussive elements, and Tillman’s voice, prominent in the mix.  Initially having the vocals so high in the mix turned me off to the release, and I retreated back to 2007’s Cancer and Delirium, which is quieter and more restrained, but the title track on Year in the Kingdom kept pulling me back, and I’m glad it did.  On repeated listens you realize that why the vocals are so high in the mix is, perhaps, because Tillman is confident in what he has to say and doesn’t wish to hide it in flowery instrumentation.

From the theme of repentance in ‘Year in the Kingdom’ to lines that would make King Solomon blush on ‘Earthly Bodies’ to the redemptive crescendo of  ‘There is No Good In Me’, we have been given one of the most fully realized records that I have heard in years.  Robin Pecknold better thank his lucky stars that he has someone of this caliber backing him, because, frankly, J. Tillman is doing just fine on his own.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/J-Tillman-Though-I-Have-Wronged-You.mp3]

Download: J Tillman – Though I Have Wronged You [MP3]

Sunny Day Real Estate – LP2

sdre_lp2Rating: ★★½☆☆

Sunny Day Real Estate’s then posthumous second album Sunny Day Real Estate (or LP2 or The Pink Album) has always been regarded, at least to myself, as a mysterious album.  It was largely recorded after the band had already disbanded, frontman Jeremy Enigk and guitarist Dan Hoerner never completely finished writing the lyrics, and when it came time to turn in the album artwork, the band opted for the ominous pink cover (is it possible for pink to be ominous?) and simple song titles.

After falling in love with the band from listening to their debut, Diary,  I eagerly ran out to by this album the week it came out (Fun Fact: LP2 was actually one of the first CDs I bought after getting my drivers license) and listening to the open track ‘Friday’ I was thrown off.  Gone was the propulsive emotive rock I got used to on Diary, only to be replaced with mid-tempoed far-eastern influenced rock. My sixteen year old heart was distraught.

I struggled through the next couple of tracks, ‘Theo B’ and ‘Red Elephant’, knowing, at the time, that this was the last album this band would ever produce , and feeling a sense of disappointment in the bands swan song.  But on track four ‘5/4’ something clicked, the fragility in Enigk’s vocals and the instruments carrying it the first half of the song gave way to completely different band.   I played the hell out of that CD, loving every song on it, from 1:45 mark in ‘5/4’ on.  Later, after the release of the bands first post-break-up album, How It Feels to be Something On, it’s clear to see the transition the band was going through on LP2; relying less on the classic indie rock tropes and venturing out in to more atmospheric rock. 

That album deserves five stars.

This, the 2009 reissue, of LP2, deserves much less fanfare.  I don’t want to call this a cash grab, because really how much cash is to be made on Sunny Day Real Estate, but with the limited recordings in the bands repertoire is such a release warranted?  Sure, the album sounds better than it ever has, and the two bonus songs (‘Spade and Parade’ & ‘Bucket of Chicken’) are nice additions, but in today’s download friendly world, they are just a click away.  I have never listened to this album, or Diary for that matter, and dreamed of a remastered edition, I took it for what it was: a fantastic album that sounded great and was ahead of it’s time.  I would be much more excited about the remastering of Fugazi’s first several albums or the remastering of The Jesus Lizard’s first four albums (NEXT WEEK!).

But I have no ill will towards these guys.  They are embarking on their first tour with the original line up in years, and hopefully these reissues will pull in new blood into the fold of Sunny Day Real Estate fans, and hopefully they will release a new album that will erase The Rising Tide from our collective memories.

Go see the old-timers at La Zona Rosa on October 7th 2009

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/04_5_4.mp3]

Download: Sunny Day Real Estate – 5/4 [MP3]

The Dodos – Time To Die

the_dodos_time_to_dieRating: ★★★★☆

Since you’ve already been introduced to the Dodos in the ACL Spotlight, I won’t waste any time with the bands history.  Time to Die is the bands second full length (both released on Frenchkiss Records), and initially it shared a lot of similarities with it’s predecessor, 2008’s Vister, but on repeated listens the familiarity wanes into something completely different.

On their debut the Dodos existed as a two piece and, per my experience, two piece bands tend to have a certain something that sets them apart from larger groups. Some would say it’s sloppiness, and I would I agree that there is a looser sound when it is coming from such a small outfit, but I would also argue that, in a two man band, there exists an earnestness that sometimes eludes bands with 3+ members.  When listening to Visiter you are listening to band trying to fill the space with their modest instruments and voices.  It was spectacular and exciting.

With Time to Die the Dodos have expanded to a three piece, filling out their sound with an extra percussionist.  This extra member doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the band, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t change the bands sound.  Gone is the frenetic pace, guitarist/vocalist, Meric Long and drummer Logan Kroeber are no longer scrambling to fill out the space.  They have let themselves relax and in that relaxation came a fuller, more realized sound.  On tracks like ‘Small Deaths’, ‘Fables’, and ‘Acorn Factory’ we find a more mature Dodos, content on letting their songs unfold naturally rather than rushing them.  ‘Troll Nacht’ showcases the newest member, Keaton Snyder on the xylophone, and is probably one of the most well rounded tracks on Time to Die.

I am excited about what the Dodos will do in the future, and if Time to Die is any indication this is a band we should all be excited about.  Check them out at the LiveStrong Stage at ACL on Sunday, October 4th at 12:30 p.m.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/07-Troll-Nacht-1.mp3]

Download: The Dodos – Troll Nacht [MP3]

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