Stellastarr – Civilized

stella

Rating: ★★★ · ·

For their third album, Stellastarr opted to go it on their own and release the record, Civilized, on their terms, and their label, Bloated Wife Records.  However, nothing about the band seems to have changed at all since their previous efforts, which is either a good or bad thing, depending upon which camp you sleep in with regards to your opinion on the band.

Kicking off the album is “Robot,” and Amanda Tannen’s presents the most throbbing bass lines to date for the band.  While the guitars shatter in some other worldly angular atmospherics, Shawn Christensen repeats the lyrics “by design/you’re going to hurt yourself.”  The lyrics appear to have less of an impact than on previous efforts, but the cutting edge guitar riffs show that the band means business.

When track three, “Tokyo Sky” sets off, you’re tossed back into that classic new wave sound, with clean jangling guitars, but just as you get comfortable and nostalgic, they press down on the distortion pedal, they pull out some “Today”-era Smashing Pumpkins guitar miming.  While the guitars continue to swirl about the song, Christensen does his best to fall somewhere between himself and Davey of The Promise Ring.  Oddly, the lyrics refrain of “my Tokyo sky” recall the same refrain of “My Coco” off the group’s first album.

“Graffiti Eyes” probably has the most bounce of this set of songs, which is sad, since the band has been successful with such styles.  However, Tannen’s backing vocals provide a great counterbalance to the jagged yelp of Christensen.  In the chorus we find the band nearing their most straightforward pop approach to date, although the music doesn’t seem to comply necessarily.   Although this is the single for the band, this isn’t necessarily the best song on the album.  That award goes to “Prom Zombie” with its entirely playful singalong moments between Tannen and Christensen.  It’s the one song on this album that just seem like they’ve been rehashing themselves entirely.  And, there are horns! Horns bro.

The latter half of the album is much like the first half, with it all ending in “Sonja Cries,” the one song when you can clearly hear Christensen’s vocals.  Surprisingly, this seems like the exact direction the band should have gone to begin with, or at least built into the album as a whole.  By this point, the airy atmospherics of the guitars have grown weary after listening to them for three straight albums.  In the end, the band has created more enjoyable numbers for you to add to your collection, though they might not be the most memorable moments in the Stellastarr‘s history.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/1-06-prom-zombie.mp3]

Download: Stellastarr – Prom Zombie [MP3]

Bowerbirds – Upper Air

bower

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Last summer we met Fleet Foxes, and their harmonious folk led to much acclaim whilst keeping us warm for the rest of the year.  This summer, we have Bowerbirds.  While they may not share much  in common with last summer’s hit, they do seem to dabble in the folk nostalgia, most likely influenced by their location in Raleigh, North Carolina.  On their new record, Upper Air, you’ll find them quietly strumming instruments while combining the voices of Phil Moore and Beth Tacular in order to warm your soul–though if you’re in Austin, Tx, odds are you don’t need it that much.

Something in Phil Moore’s voice just evokes emotion.  You can tell from the minute he steps in on “House of Diamonds” that he’s got something personal to release, whether truly personal, or as a narrative; you’ll find that his voice warrants repeated listening.  Then combine it with Beth’s voice during the chorus, and you have the recipe for the group’s deeply rich melodious folk productions.

Almost every song stands alone on this album, as if they crafted them out of individual stories, yet they all fit together, standing as a woven basket of an album, full of various tales and combined textures.  In “Teeth,” the usage of accordion provides a new layer with which the group can tie in their shared vocal arrangements.  Crystal clear picking of guitars stand out in the foreground, exfoliating the textured sounds in  a beautiful manner.

When you find yourself in the middle of the album, you meet the longest song on this long player.  “Ghost Life” demonstrates the group at its best, with some of the stronger lyrics this side of 2009. Here, the paired vocals of Moore and Tacular do somewhat resemble Fleet Foxes harmonies, although you clearly won’t mistake this band as anything other than an original.  Such a standout is worthy of being played over and over again on your home stereo, where the pristine sounds of the tune can truly take on a life of their own.

Near the end of the album, you’ll find Moore really pushing himself, in the realm of vocals, on “Crooked Lust.” But, this is just a momentary prelude to the record’s closer, “This Day.”  It’s almost a solo number, until you hit the end of the song, where everyone joins together to bring an end to “This Day,” and in doing so, bring an end to Upper Air.

Much like the artwork on the cover, this is folk music for the clouds.  Temporarily, it will let you float outside of yourself as you escape the a land created by someone else.  It’s a blissful folk journey that the Bowerbirds will encourage you to take, as they took it themselves in completing their best work to date.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/02-teeth-1.mp3]

Download: Bowerbirds – Teeth [MP3]

Discovery – LP

discovery

Rating: ★½ · · ·

When news that Rostam from Vampire Weekend and Wes from Ra Ra Riot would unite to create an album under the name of Discovery, the Internet was afire with fans of both bands, all hoping that they could combine the magic of their individual outfits into something that would supersede both.  LP is the title of said album, and while there are definitely moments that seem worthy of accolades, it’s unclear at this juncture just how far the adoration will carry the group.

Opener “Orange Shirt” hits from the opening with musical beats reminiscent of Passion Pit, except it goes beyond that similarity, as Wes actually has a quality vocal to place atop the beats.  However, the beats just don’t seem to hit too hard, nor do they really go anywhere; it’s sort of a stationary song in itself, and doesn’t quite build.

“Can You Discover” is somewhat of a remix, as the lyrics come from Ra Ra Riot‘s “Can You Tell.”  Unfortunately, once you strip away the textures from the original, the song seems really simple, as if it was sort of an afterthought in its production.  Also, using auto-tune on the vocals seems like a huge injustice, ruining the power of Wes Miles’ voice.

The middle of the album seems to be where you find the meat and potatoes of the album, or maybe it’s just the potatoes.  “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” features Angel from Dirty Projectors, which adds a different touch to the monotony of the album, and it probably has one of the stronger beats on the album, but the keyboard meanderings get a little tiring. “Swing Tree” is in this section of the album, and it probably carries the most interesting production, at least up to this point in the album.  The high pitched electronics don’t sound too basic, though the beat looped in seems to be one of the most common element throughout the album itself.  And here, you also find “Carby” which has vocals from Ezra of Vampire Weekend.  It’s probably one of the gems on the album; probably one of the few songs you could throw into a club mix.

In it’s entirety, the one thing that this album doesn’t have is the catchiness factor, which both members exude in their own right with their main gigs.  Almost every beat seems mundane, as if they just took the samples from the radio, and reran them through some sort of mixer.  It takes the heart out of the music itself, and all the moments of joy that we usually associate with these two artists are rendered useless for the most part.  Overall, the album comes off as a generic stab at taking indie bands to the dance floors of the world, but ultimately, it seems like this might fail.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/07-carby-ft-ezra-koenig.mp3]

Download: Discovery – Carby [MP3]

Spoon – Got Nuffin EP

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Rating: ★★½ · ·

It’s been awhile since Spoon threw Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga our way, but unexpectedly the band has released the new Got Nuffin EP.  It’s a three song excursion, but will mostly be known as a single to tide you over while the band works on their newest album.

“Got Nuffin” is hands down the best track on this EP.  It’s brooding bass line meets guitar hook beats the song into your brain.  Britt’s vocals sound solid, and you find him with a bit of an edge, as his voice occasionally reached the realms of a guttural growl.  It’s a lot less like the Van Morrison stylings of Ga Ga Ga… and it reminds you of the work that came about on Gimme Fiction.

“Tweakers” is a track you can skip as soon as you get your hands on it.  Not trying to be rude or judgmental, but it sounds like someone just decided to go into the studio and see how far they could get with tampering with a drum sample.  Unfortunately, they tampered away for 3 minutes and 39 seconds, which is only good for those listeners who are actually tweakers.

“Stroke Their Brains” is something that might just grow on you.  It begins with guitar work that sounds like Daniels is just flexing his musicianship before it bounds into the song with a steady drum beat.  Once again, you find his vocals straining a bit, which might be disconcerting for some.  The song fills out the empty space much better than you initially suspect, but it doesn’t go much further than that.  Still, it’s not a bad piece of work.

In the end, this seems to taunt the listener a bit.  “Got Nuffin” reminds you of how incredible Spoon can be when they want to do so, but other pieces such as “Tweakers” are things that band might want to ask forgiveness for when they head into church.  Surely it’s worth the $5 you’ll spend on it.

Wilco – Wilco (The Album)

wilco

Rating: ★★½ · ·

Everyone always has Wilco on the mind.  No matter where you go, you find someone you know that adores Wilco, which is acceptable, as they’ve managed to put out some phenomenal records. The question on everyone’s lips will be whether or not Wilco (The Album) will be one of those feats of greatness, or something along the lines of Sky Blue Sky. More than likely, once everyone has listened for an ample amount of time, it will lean more on the side of their later work rather than their earlier strengths. Alas, such is the life for a band of such stature.

One of the strengths of this album is that Jeff Tweedy has his voice way up in the mix, which provides die-hard fans with a chance to get more acquainted with him.  He seems quite a bit more assured here, as if he finally has come to realize that his voice is truly the backbone of the band, and without him they fail.  In all honesty, his voice is the best thing that runs throughout the album; it seems as if he would succeed to greater lengths if he just went it on his own.

This is where the album seemingly misses its mark.  Nels Cline has taken the reigns from Tweedy, and he now has control over the group. It’s much like the presence of Jim O’ Rourke; he has the ability to add greatness to a song, but the power to destroy it in various moments.  His guitar work meanders through the songs, but haphazardly, which decreases his strengths, and that of the band.  Nels, and the band, travel into territory that seemingly adds little to the progression of the songs as a whole, bringing the listener to a point of indifference.

“You and I,” however, is one of the best songs the group has ever written. Sure, the presence of Feist doesn’t ever hurt anyone, aside from being played on various iTunes commercials, but the song itself exemplifies the gifts Tweedy possesses as a songwriter. It’s on of the more straightforward songs, and it demonstrates Tweedy at his best, without the tampering of Nels Cline.  “Solitaire” is another such song where Tweedy seems to go it alone.  You can’t deny the power of his voice in such a song, and you can’t deny the intimacy with which he sings.

But, at the end of the day, the band lacks much of the interesting moments they’ve maintained on previous releases. Their formulaic styling as of late leaves much to be desired, and it seems as if its rendered the band rather mundane.  While they once peaked your interest with various approaches to Americana, they seem to have dwindled far away from those moments, instead settling for the most basic song elements.  So you find the band traversing such territory, dancing with tried and true strategies, while fading away with their modern twists on the genre.  Sadly, it just doesn’t garner much interest for listeners, which is a place Wilco fans never thought the band would go.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/05-you-and-i.mp3]

Dowload: WIlco – You and I [MP3]

Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer

drag

Rating: ★★★½ ·

Let’s face it, Spencer Krug is a prolific guy.  Not only does he have the time to put together hits with his friends in Wolf Parade, but he also has made several records under the Sunset Rubdown moniker. Dragonslayer is his third proper album under the title, and it’s being released by Jagjaguwar Records.

Since the release of his first album, Shut Up I Am Dreaming, Spencer has enlisted various other members to flesh out his sounds.  The most noticeable change on this new album is that Camilla Wynee Ingr plays a more prominent role in singing backing vocals.  Her voice does a great job to compliment the sometimes wavering voice of Krug, providing a solid balance to the sound.

Of course, since the first release, we’ve come to expect that the songs of Sunset Rubdown would be grandiose affairs, almost epic in a sense.  This album gives you much of the same as almost every song sprawls over the five minute mark. Opener “Silver Moons” is your traditional piano driven Krug tune, and the restraint he uses in staying within the boundaries of the song definitely provide the listener with some of the album’s finer moments.

But, the opener is followed up by three raucous numbers, which those in search of a faster pace to accommodate Spencer will enjoy. While “Idiot Heart” slowly builds towards a calamitous ending, “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Oh” takes off from the minute it picks up.  One of the detractors from this period in the album is that at times there seems to be too much going on in the space of the song. Spencer’s softer side seems to be the most fitting for his voice in this setting, and when he goes into other territory, the songs seem a bit strained. “Black Swan” is one of those numbers that seems to struggle with too much going on within the song.

As always, this man can pen some absolutely wonderful songs within the span of an album.  “Paper Lace” is one such song where you realize just how perfect he can be.  Keyboard and guitars seem to just hang in thin air, while his voice never seems to falter one single bit.  If only he could consistently knock out ballads like this every time out. And it also serves as the song that kicks off the best moments of the album.

“You Go On Ahead” and “Nightingale/December Song” are some of the best moments on this album.  Here the band finally has all the pieces of the cryptic puzzle put together.  Tribal drums dully rumble beneath the songs as Ingr’s vocal accompaniment displays the depth of the line-up.  When the sprawling tunes sound this strong it’s hard to see look back and see where the album ever took a misstep.

Then we close it out with “Dragon’s Lair.” It’s the ten minute epic that caps off this record perfectly.  It combines all the elements that you’ve witnessed on the album early on, and it puts them in a one-song extravaganza to encapsulate all the ideas posed by Spencer and the rest of Sunset Rubdown.  It’s a fitting end to a splendid story.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/05-paper-lace.mp3]

Download: Sunset Rubdown – Paper Lace [MP3]

The Mary Onettes – Dare Ep

dare

Rating: ★★★½ ·

Sweden’s The Mary Onettes have long been one of those bands that I wished everyone would get into, as they clearly deserve the recognition I’ve built for them in my brain.  Perhaps some will find them drenched in nostalgia, but their self-titled debut showed that they could rise above and beyond limitations of the past. So here they come with their first release in a few years, the Dare EP.

Right away, you sort of have to knock it down a bit based on the fact that there are only three songs on the EP, which is short, even for EP standards.  In the end, you find that this is possibly the only knock on these exceptional tracks; you’ll find nothing else wrong here.

“Dare” is the opening track, and one I threw your way earlier on in the year.  Opening the song you have a swirling guitar sound reminiscent of the opening moments of “Geraldine” by Glasvegas, though the lyrics here will delve further into true meaning than some of the simpler lyrics by the latter.  Also, as with most current bands, the melodious moments are accompanied by layers of atmospheric guitar screeching and pounding drums.  Everything about this song sums up carefully the abilities of The Mary Onettes when they’re at their best.

Following the opener is “Kicks.”  It’s a far cry from most of their earlier work; it’s clearly more subdued in mood and pacing.  This is one of the first songs in their career that I feel is driven by the vocals and lyrics rather than the beat.  Broodingly gently piano accompaniment continues to push this song into traditional ballad format.

“God Knows I Had Plans” closes the Dare EP with a shimmering wall of guitars and harmonies.  A certain warmth exist on this song, which immediately implies a certain craft leaning towards soundscapes.  This is perhaps a fitting association, though they fill the traditional elements with belting harmonies and pounding drums.

It’s a really short effort, but at its best, it portrays a band pushing beyond the boundaries of their glorious first efforts and bounding forwards towards new horizons.  Expect to continue to hear brilliant moments from this band in the near future.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/02-kicks-1.mp3]

Download: The Mary Onettes – Kicks [MP3]

God Help the Girl – s/t

god

Rating: ★★★★ ·

God Help the Girl is the project of Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian. It’s a fourteen song story created by Murdoch meant to be accompanied by his musical craftwork.  His devotion to the craft of pop writing has expanded greatly as evidenced by this album, which began during his writing for Dear Catastrophe Waitress.

Unlike most Murdoch penned songs, this entire album is fairly void of his soft-spoken voice, instead being replaced by Catherine Ireton on almost every song, aside from “Funny Little Frog” and the two instrumental tracks, “A United Theory” and “The Music Room Window.”

Here we find a remaking of The Life Pursuit’s “Act of the Apostle” opening the album, though it hardly seems recognizable, if any connection at all.  This version comes with Ireton’s vocals accompanied by some appropriate string arrangements.  For all intents and purposes you see this song as the introduction of the story’s narrator.

“God Help the Girl” quickly follows the opener, and it’s one of the most similar to the traditional Murdoch stylings.  Piano backbone and Ireton’s delivery remind you of other Glaswegian band Camera Obscura, which is all the more appropriate seeing as that band, and this project, both travel back in time to 60s pop girl groups. You can just imagine this song coming across with a dance routine and sharply dressed females filling the void in sound.

“Pretty Eve in the Tub” is a track one can possibly dismiss, but it’s going to strike home with most listeners, including the author, for the full use of Murdoch’s voice during the song.  It’s one of the few instances here when he steps in front of the microphone during this project.  However, he also utilizes his voice to trade verses during “Hiding Neath My Umbrella.” Such a song seems fitting in the B&S catalog, though the string arrangements take it further into the musical spectrum.  You’ll find that Murdoch’s arrangements allow for the presentation to go beyond their usual limits.

One of the more developed songs is “Musician, Please Take Heed.” Slowly, for the first minute, it builds with the focus playing upon the vocals, but then the chugging jangly guitars Stuart typically utilizes come into play.  From here the song takes off with a galloping pace as strings are added atop the entire track.  Stuart then returns in the following track with “Perfection as a Helper.”  Backing vocals are so noticeable in this song, which is due to their immediate throwback quality.  At this point, it’s clear just how far he’s really pushed himself in the production of the album.

Every song makes a powerful statement on the album, and there isn’t one that really goes awry when put into the perspective of the album as a story.  Murdoch is at his best with his songwriting, and even the closing moments are spectacular, such as “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie.” Lovers of his pop song writing will see he’s gone beyond his concise tunes and into a whole other world; this album is the better for it.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/02-god-help-the-girl.mp3]

Download: God Help the Girl [MP3]

Liechtenstein – Survival Strategies in a Modern World

liechtensteiner

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Liechtenstein is another band revisiting the musical stylings of the past, and while they claim to take their style from the early 80s, the band seems to owe a lot more to the the days of Motown.  An all girl group with such sweet voices surely can’t stand without looking back into the history of American R&B.  Still, with all debts to the past aside, Survival Strategies in a Modern World succeeds on various levels.

In order to really appreciate this album yourself, you have to realize that the band isn’t holding onto any pretensions; they aren’t claiming to be breaking any new musical ground.  Fun. This is really all the band is aiming to do.  Every piece of this album glistens with droplets of fun and earnestness. Such an attitude carries the album really far for most listeners, when they could have otherwise failed.

Another advantage of the album is it’s brevity.  Before the sugary sounds can wear away the enamel on your teeth, the album is finished.  Not a song goes beyond the 3.5 minute mark, and only nine songs create this work of revisionist art. Sure, you may be looking for more bang for your buck, but you won’t be displeased by this album; it doesn’t give you that chance.

Musically, just imagine listening to the first Concretes record on vinyl, only you decide that you want to speed up the RPMs so that it sounds like the Chipmunks, but instead it sounds precisely like Liechtenstein. Bass lines bubble throughout the album, shaking the speakers.  California guitar chords work together, jangling along the basic skeletal remains of each song.  Stir in some multiple part female harmonies and you have every bit of music you will hear on this album. Each song contains one, if not all, of these elements, with the only song that differs being the closer ‘The End,” only for its odd usage of acoustic guitar. It still kind of jangles.

Listening to this album, you’ll find that there is nothing particular that really jumps out at you.  This isn’t dismissing the band, for the tunes are all quite enjoyable, as you should have gathered, it merely portrays the band in an honest light, just as the band has portrayed themselves.  Their sincerity in creating these tunes surely comes across upon the first listen, which is precisely why you find yourself falling in love with this album, even as you question its merit.  Just give it a chance; thanks to its brevity you have the time!

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/01-all-at-once.mp3]

Download: Liechtenstein – All At Once [MP3]

Malcolm Middleton – Waxing Gibbous

malcolm

Rating: ★★★½ ·

Singer Malcolm Middleton is better known as one half of Scottish band Arab Strap, but as that band has closed its final chapter, he is eager to carry on with his musical career. He’s always been working on the side creating his own tunes, but Waxing Gibbous comes at listeners with a bit more promise and consistency than his previous efforts.

You will find echoes of his past musical musings this time around, as they will surely never fade into the background of his life.  The splendid single “Carry Me” is a soft-spoken number; some might even call it downtrodden.  Middleton’s voice seems to ask for the support of his listener to support him by putting him upon their backs; he breaks his request to give the spoken-word explanation of his desire mid-song.  This approach remains one of the marked remnants of his time spent in Arab Strap.  Regardless, this song belongs on every mix tape you put together for your friends.  Also, you find usage of the electronic touch; this is yet another piece of his past.

Similarly, “Zero” begins with spoken-word before the percussive element kickstarts the rest of the song.  Once that becomes visible, the song takes off in a completely different direction, though his vocals still never seem to be far away from the spoken rather than sung forte.  But, before the song comes to a close, he slows it down to end the song with a gentle acoustic strumming carefully placed atop steady organ work.

Don’t think that he’s suddenly grown into a happier being, with many of these songs lamenting various facets of his life.  In “Ballad of Fuck All” he complains of the complacency in which his life seems to have slipped; his dreams of stardom and travels now disappearing in the rearview of his life.  And, quite frankly, its this element that seems to relate his lyrics to those of the listener; he has mundane problems we can all associate with our own lives.  This sort of connection has always been his specialty, but here he also asks, as he does frequently in the album, for someone to aid in his survival.

Unfortunately, some of the songs on the album drag on for longer than they should, with Middleton afraid to pull back on the reins entirely.  When he holds the songs in he succeeds beyond a doubt, but as other songs meander past the five minute mark it becomes a bit of a labor to listen to the entirety of each song, let alone an album full of such songs.  But, for those with patience you will find that Malcolm Middleton has crafted yet another wonderful piece of bedroom folk tunes we can all appreciate.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/10-made-up-your-mind.mp3]

Download: Malcolm Middleton – Made Up Your Mind [MP3]

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