Stereolab – Chemical Chords

Rating: ★★★ · ·

When listening to Stereolab, my mind always travels back to that great moment when Caroline Fordis walks into the record store in High Fidelity to interview Rob Gordon.  That brief snippet of sound highlighted their electronic influences, as well as their abilities to capitalize on fans of pop music, despite using inaudible, or non-English–if you will–, lyrics.

Years later, I still hold onto that purest of moments when I realized that their music had somehow become easily accessible to the masses.  For me, this was not a knock, but a step in the direction you felt that they were going.  Popularity on the brink, they kind of suck back a bit, coming back from time to time for their adoring fans.

On this new record, their first LP since 2006, they come back with the same formula.  Their complex structure melding electronic pop gems with simple string arrangements and cloudy vocals is still completely intact, which may or may not be such a positive thing.  I’m not the ultimate collector of Stereolab LPs, but I swear that I’ve heard all these songs a million times over. There are absolutely some special moments, like the opener, “Neon Beanbag,” with its spectacular electric organ work, not to mention its use of English.  “Silver Sands” is equally as beautiful, with its marching beats and usage of horn work.

Still, one of the issues I’ve always had with the band is that they vocals are never really clear enough to capture your mind. This time around, they use a lot more English, but the vocals are almost secondary, seemingly meant to match every single one of their harmonies.  It works, but it leaves those searching for a connection to the lyrics without much to hold onto.

By the end of the album, the music sort of blends into the back of your brain, as the formula grows to be overly repetitive.  Some of the songs even appear as if they were mere copies of the previous tracks, leaving the listener with the feeling that they’ve been listening to a collection of demos for the same song over and over.

Ups and downs.  That is the secret to this entire album.  You go up with some highlights, then return to the Earth with a sense that its all been done before.  At the end of the day, it is undeniably a Stereolab record, but that is what you were expecting in the first place.  Those of you looking for that moment of twee pop will find places to reside, while others will just pass by on a brief vacation through Chemical Chords.

New Single from Land of Talk

Saddle Creek Records has offered up a new single from Montreal band Land of Talk, off their upcoming album Some Are Lakes due out October 7th. They will be touring in support of the new album this fall, but unfortunately won’t be making a stop in the Lone Star State. Enjoy the music this fine Friday afternoon.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/somearelakes.mp3]

Download: Land of Talk – Some Are Lakes [MP3]

Power Pop Festival @ Mohawk/Beerland

All weekend long–that means tonight!–the cool cats from Transmission Entertainment will be bringing the glory of Power Pop to Austin, Texas.  Day shows will be going on over at Beerland, in case you have nothing to do; night shows will kick off at the Mohawk.  Personally, I am stoked to get to see the present-day lineup of Pointed Sticks play Friday night.  Other scheduled acts such as Ugly Beats, Boss Martians, Gentlemen Jesse and his Men and The Boys are included.  If you like your pop with a touch of power, hit up the Wild West Power Pop Festival!

Check out The Mohawk for complete list of bands. 

New Music from Benoit Pioulard

Since it is a remarkably sunny day here in Austin, I figured I bring some clouds your way with a touch of tuneage from Benoit Pioulard–not that I necessarily wish you a cloudy day.  Pioulard, which is just a moniker, is everything you want in an emotional songwriter; he yanks at your emotions, often with the instruementation alone.  Here is “Brown Bess”. Buen Proveche.

 

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/benoit-pioulard-brown-bess.mp3]

Download: Benoit Pioulard – Brown Bess [MP3]

Pop Levi – Never Never Love

Rating: ★★★½ ·

It’s hard not to be a fan of really good pop music, especially with the output of independent artists bringing great pop to our ear; Pop Levi is just another such character in a long line of pop musicians leaving good bands (Ladytron) to go it their own in the pop world.

Now on his second album, I’ve come to expect great things from this character, despite his tendency to look like a side-show Shakespearean actor.  However, the output here is too similar to the debut album to substantially increase his value in the pop lexicon of the music industry.

His voice is quite unique, which makes it hard to distinguish changes in pitch from song to song, as his falsetto reverberates in the caverns of my mind. Even here, it seems like more effects are being used to help shape is voice, although more of that is owed to the various samples and instrumentation that weighs this album down.

There are some exceptional tracks present throughout this record, and the spacing is appropriate so as to keep our interest from start to finish.  “Semi-babe” slows it down just enough to mimic an Albert Hammond Jr. ballad.  It’s a different spin on his tried and true formula, immediately creating one of the more memorable moments on Never Never Love. “Mai Space” also has a similar magic to it, even though I feel as if the samples here were directly rooted in Flaming Lips Yoshimi nostalgia.

There are some missteps here too, which keeps this album from rising to the surface of a pleasant breakthrough album in 2008. Pop Levi‘s desire to imitate such greats as Prince tend to show him at his weakest moments, and frankly, his most unoriginal.  Similarly, “Calling Me Down” represents a change in direction from traditional stylings, for this artist at least.  When he slows it down this slow, he loses ground with his audience, which is fair enough considering the album should probably stop before the closing song, “Fountain Of Lies;” the greatest mistake I noticed.

Throughout the record, I hoped and prayed, that he could hold onto the strength of the opening bit of this album.  I admire his efforts to go beyond his comfort level into new areas of pop where he was yet to traverse, but in doing so, he loses what grabbed me during his debut.  What I expected to be extremely experimental in the pop vein of things, ended up retracing the steps of his past glories; when he steps off this path, he falls too far off, leaving us waiting for him back on the trail to pop glory.

Final Fantasy Goes to “The Butcher”

Legendary, sort of, if you consider the Arcade Fire to be famous, orchestral genius. Owen Pallett has decided to give us a brand new song for our listening enjoyment. “The Butcher” seems a lot more like an old Disney musical score then his previous works, but I’ll let you decide.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/final-fantasy-the-butcher.mp3]

Download: Final Fantasy – The Butcher [MP3]

Human Highway – Moody Motorcycle

Rating: ★★★★½

This album didn’t receive too much press, nor did the band, but this is definitely an ex-Unicorns side project worth noticing.  Human Highway consists of former UnicornIslands front man Nick Thorburn and singer-songwriter Jim Guthrie–it’s about as Canadian as you can get.

Opening track, “The Sound,” will probably make a cut for many singles of the year lists, and probably mine.  It’s got sort of an island feel to it–by that I am referencing the volcanic ocean formations rather than Thorburn’s band, though that is there too.  Guthrie closely resembles Patrick Wolf here, but the overall feel pushes you for a little beach time.  It’s probably the most upbeat song on the album.

From here they go on to pursue their original intentions in creating this record, that of chasing after the harmonies of 50s/60s R&B groups.  They can achieve this fairly easily considering Thorburn’s abilities to tie harmonies in twisted knots, and they do this throughout the record.  In fact, this really is the record for the most part.  It’s a stripped down affair full of matching harmonies with accompanying guitars and minimalist percussion.

Those of you searching for the awkward catchiness of the Unicorns and Islandswill probably have a momentary lapse of judgment when you listen to this album.  Immediately, it won’t be accessible to your ears, but I beg you to go on for a few more listens.  This album resembles all those bands and projects you love from Thorburn, but in a more traditional singer/songwriter vein.  It’s like an acoustic Islands album, which probably garners it more longevity than Arm’s Way–the album by the aforementioned band that came out this year.

You’ll find all the great harmonies you’ve come to love, and you will find Thorburn’s vocal styling all over the place–he frequently goes from casual crooner to that soft whisper we’ve come to know so well in his productive career.  I don’t want to take away from Guthrie’s presence here either–his heavier voice, though gentle, definitely adds a sublime contrast to the higher pitched Nick T.  And of course, you will find that the lyrics, though a bit more personal, still have that hint of absurdity.

At the end of the day you will come to find that this album is hard to put away.  Each song continuously unfolds for me, turning me into fans of different songs throughout the day, only coming back to revisit the album in its entirety.  I might be on an island all by myself listening to this, but damned if I don’t enjoy every instant.

Jaguar Love – Take Me to the Sea

Rating: ★★★½ ·

When I first head about the union of former Pretty Girls Make Graves member, Jay Clark, with two of the Blood Brothers, I was salivating in wake for the release of a full length.  The potential for this combination could reach no bounds in my imagination, but come to find out, there are some boundaries for this band.

The opening track, “Highways of Gold,” fails to let me down.  Each time I play this song I’m invigorated by the rise and fall of the guitar work, as it approaches the angular tour de force that I anticipated. Had they reined it in about thirty seconds, then this could be a front runner for one of my favorites of the year.

I suppose that at this point, I should let you know that singer Johnny Whitney’s voice can be grating.  Personally, I’ve adapted to it after settling in to several Blood Brothers’ albums, but I can foresee this as a problem for many listeners.  If you can’t look past it in the first song, then you can’t get through this album.

Still, the next three songs are solid tracks.  In particular, “Georgia” won me over with its proximity to a modern indie ballad done in the post-punk way.  Lyrically, these songs set the face, from the doomsday homages in “Jaguar Pirates” to the personal pain that comes with “Georgia,” which still kind of deals with the effects of living in the modern world.

However, the album starts to get repetitive at this point.  The musicianship is exactly what you expect, with tight drumming and throbbing bass, piled upon razor-sharp guitars, but at this point it kind of blends into itself.  There isn’t any differentiation in the vocals, and the music, like a Blood Brothers album, or the later Pretty Girls Make Graves records for that fact.  It’s not that the music is uninteresting, but the pace and power disappear.

Then comes the eighth track on the record, “Bone Trees and a Broken Heart,” which is another slow song for the group.  Strangely, their slower songs are just as intriguing to my ears as their louder material.  For me, it represents the talent this group possesses, not to mention their abilities to go pretty much anywhere on this record.  It’s just too bad that they don’t really go anywhere, aside from the expected barrage of noise I predicted in my earlier fantasies of this band.

Once you get away from Whitney’s vocals, you’ll find–those of you that like to rock–that this record has a lot of redeemable qualities about it.  It’s listenable all the way through, at least for those of this ilk. It might not be anything that takes you out of this world, but then again, it meets almost all of my expectations.  Good start fellas, now hit the showers.

The Walkmen – You & Me

Rating: ★★ · · ·

A few years back The Walkmen released an amazing sophomore album in Bows and Arrows, but as time has gone the by and by, the band has found it difficult to reclaim the strength of that album. Now, a few albums later, they were supposed to come back at us with everything back in place. Unfortunately for us, and more so for them, You & Me doesn’t get anywhere near that point.

In reading promotional information on their label’s web site, it said they wanted to approach the similar styling of bands such as The Modern Lovers, featuring Jonathon Richman. Upon listening to this album, you can tell that they did indeed approach that style, with the vocals put in the front of the mix, meant to carry along the songs.

The sad part is that Richman has a voice, that although not the greatest, still has the ability to carry his entire band along through his vocals. The Walkmen, in their attempt to take a similar approach, don’t quite achieve, which falls upon Hamilton Leithauser. His Dyalnesque leanings just don’t quite hold up to the songs, rendering the majority of this effort kind of pointless. It’s one thing to reference Orbison, Holly and Elvis in a press release, but it’s an entirely different thing to pull it off.

For me, the fault of the band is not so much their reliance upon Hamilton’s vocals, but their lackluster performance as his backing band. The music on this album just doesn’t seem to have a great deal of enthusiasm, nor does it get anymore creative than their previous efforts. In all honesty, their just isn’t a lot to hold on to musically, which does achieve the purpose of making us listen closer to Leithauser. I just don’t understand how there isn’t any effort in the music.

The one redeeming factor for this album could be in the song “In The New Year,” which was one of the first songs that they released to the public. It’s jangling guitar lines do add to this song, and the percussion is pretty solid, but they misstep when they claim “its going to be a good year.” I can’t imagine how putting out a record like this will make it a good year, but I’ve been wrong before.

For those of you who have never strayed away from the band during their tenure, you will probably find some redeeming qualities to this album, especially when it comes to some of their reference points. But, the majority of us, who have stood in the stands watching the band with skepticism, will continue to watch from afar in hopes that they one day recapture their long-lost magic.

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