Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

bitte

Rating: ★★★★½

Dirty Projectors last effort, Rise Above, saw the band reconstructing Black Flag’s Damaged;  then they worked with David Byrne on the Dark Was the Night Compilation. How would their new album, Bitte Orca, transpire?  Let’s just say that the band uses elements of all their past work in the last few years and creates one of the most interesting records that has been released this year, if not THE most interesting.

As the album opens, you can tell that there will be more than enough going on in this album.  “Cannibal Resource” has a song that relies less upon the musical instruments and more upon the diverse collaboration of vocal harmonies of Longstreth, Coffman, and Deradoorian.  Still, a lot goes into this song; it’s the texturizing that makes the listening process so intoxicating. For some, you might find that the meandering seems pointless, as guitars twist and turn, often being dropped momentarily, then picked right back up.  At times it seems as if the songs aren’t going anywhere at all, yet as the move on, you can discern the band’s direction.

“Stillness is the Move” uses a predominantly female vocal, which at times resembles some of the work of The Knife.  Still, the guitar sounds as if it were sampled, and the percussion seems more electronic as well.  All in all, the vocal harmonies give the song a bit of urgency that moves the song along; then it completely changes in the middle of the song, as one of the ladies sings in a more traditional approach.  Once again, the band exhibits their willingness to deconstruct modern songwriting techniques, creating fresh sounds.

“Two Doves” is probably the group’s most straightforward song. Gentle guitar plucking, backed by crafty string arrangements created the perfect mood for which the female vocal has no choice but to soar.  It’s one of the most beautiful songs on the album, which owes more to the care taken to craft the perfect song, as the vocals never seem too forced, and the accompaniment of the music is extremely fitting to the overall tone of the song.

Then you come across the montage that is “Useful Chamber,” which is constructed like a modern symphonic piece.   There are some many different pieces to this song, it’s as if the band compiled several pieces in to one ornate song.  The pacing is irregular at first, and sort of fragmented, which is to be expected from such a song, but it peaks with Longstreth shouting out the album title, before the girls chime in with their high-pitched “oohs” and “aahhs.”  You won’t find a better crafted song this year.

And so the album goes, carefully constructed from the beginning until the end. The infectious melodies drive the album, but beneath it lies the clever craftwork of a band who is at the top of their game.  It seems like Dirty Projectors have climbed atop the world yet again.

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

Download: Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca [MP3]

Sonic Youth – The Eternal

theeternal

Rating: ★★★★ ·

In the musical landscape today, many bands have now begun to focus on the more ornate aspect of musical creation, choosing to spend their time carefully constructing harmonies and explosions of sonic noise.  Still, when it comes to combining both, none have done it better in the recent history than Sonic Youth.  They return again to give us The Eternal, which holds some of the more explosively brooding moments recorded this year.

Kim Gordon opens the slaughter by groaning over the enthusiastic barrage of guitars on “Sacred Trickster.” As an opening statement, you’d be hard-pressed to find one as passionate as this, with Kim sounding younger than she has in years.  It’s a vibrance and enthusiasm that the group sometimes seemed to lack in their previous efforts.

Here, you find the band reverting to a more classical sense of songwriting, much as they did on Rather Ripped, at times pandering to the hordes of fans that still hold nineties guitar rock as the ultimate god.  “Little Lifeboat” is the perfect example, with Gordon and Moore trading vocal duties, often overriding one another.  Guitar work throughout the song is exceptional, as we always expect, but the fact that there exists a melodious balance as well showcases the band’s growth through the last two decades whilst still holding tightly to their experimental roots.  Even so, with songs like “Antenna,” their experimentation has been honed such that they seem more like an arty version of Pavement rather than a sporadic noise band that occasionally conjures up a tune with pop sensibility.

Let us not forget though, that this is still Sonic Youth, and they still have the capacity to unleash the fury upon listeners with walls of noise meant to shatter your ears in an instant.  “Calming the Snake” is anything but calming; rather it is a raucous number with Gordon providing the vocal ammunition that most punk-singers crave, even to this day.  Clearly, this is a band still very much on top of their game.

In closing the album, the group chose to pull back on the reins just a bit, so as to not go overboard with their monstrous power.  “Walkin Blue” is one of the more straight forward songs the group has composed, and while it comes off as simple, a close listen to the musicianship reveals that this song, as with all their songs, is anything but simple.  Of course, they completely end the album with the sprawling number “Massage the History.”  Musically, this song covers a vast expanse of territory, ranging from noise experimentation to bedroom guitar strumming, all the while Gordon softly moans.  It’s a closing statement just as strong as the beginning, exemplifying the balance of the group.  The Eternal benefits greatly from the varying musical approaches, and once again make Sonic Youth a band to be reckoned with in the modern age.

Blank Dogs – Under and Under

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Rating: ★★★ · ·

Currently, the music scene is filled with waves upon waves of bands who are forging ahead with music under the lo-fi moniker, creating tunes shrouded in disguise. It’s as divisive a topic as whether or not to like Grizzly Bear or Animal Collective; clearly the jury is out, but Blank Dogs is yet another band opting to use a barrage of noisy atmospherics in order to compose the music on Under and Under.  Of course, you’ll find that the man behind the project Mike Sniper is familiar with other leading acts in the scene such as Crystal Stilts or Dum Dum Girls.

Musically, all listeners will have to admit that the skeleton of the album itself is quite interesting, and would normally garner huge popularity in another format.  Take the lead track “No Compass” with the bouncing rhythm and angular guitar cutting through the song.  Even when the tracks come across fueled with electronic elements such as keyboards on tracks like “Blue Lights” you can catch melodies that otherwise one would typically enjoy.

However, the presentation of these skeletons is what leads to a discourse on whether or not this music can be deemed as such.  Has the deconstruction of pop sensibility gone so far that we can accept as a listener lyrics run through some sort of effect machine, creating nothing more than what appears echoes of noise?  It’s actually a deeply haunting effect that pervades the entirety of Under and Under, but it takes a certain breed of listener to endure this for long periods of time.

Taking the album fragment by fragment, you have what looks to be the construction of a very basic pop album; the guitar work that is present is not super difficult, and not far off from what  is currently on the market.  An issue with many listeners will be that the recording and the creation of all these fragments has been marred for the most part by these elements of noise that coat both the music and the vocals.

Still, you can’t deny that there is magic in this album.  Standout track “Tin Birds” would easily be on any best of compilation from the eighties, even with the foggy vocoder effect on the song.  Mike Sniper has created some really intriguing music as Blank Dogs, and a lot of it is worthy of the praise that has been heaped upon him.  But, wouldn’t it be great to see if one could create such sublime music without all the frills of making it a deconstructionist lo-fi album?  Surely it would, and only the man behind the music can lead us there, so for now we’ll have to stick for the marginally great tunes we have.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/10-tin-birds.mp3]

Download: Blank Dogs – Tin Birds [MP3]

The Sounds – Crossing the Rubicon

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Rating: ★★ · · ·

When The Sounds first crossed the Atlantic, everyone was abuzz with the rehashing of eighties synthesizers and guitars.  Glittery punk-pop took the hipsters (and hipspanics) by storm; you all liked The Killers at first, and you probably liked The Sounds too.  Now on their third album, Crossing the Rubicon, the question remains as to where the band can possibly go musically without treading water in the same spot they’ve lived in for years.

From the moment the first single “No One Sleeps When I’m Awake” crashes into your speakers, it’s clear that the band have stepped up their game, at least with regards to their approach.  Long gone are the sexy days in the tiny clubs, as this song represents a louder, more brash, band destined to carry out their shows in larger arenas.  Songs like these are perfect for radio play; they’re everything a good pop song should be: catchy melody and singable elements.

However, the band still maintains a firm grip on their club attitude. The presence of songs like “Beatbox” and “My Lover” show that the band is very much still enthralled with creating a club hit with that punk attitude.  Maja always seemed like the heir to Debbie Harry, and perhaps crossover songs such as these will provide the platform from which she can finally jump into mainstream stardom.  But, it is precisely this element where the band has lost what made them so ferocious and dangerous when they first hit took to the stage.  Releasing such songs has also led to forays into other musical genres, some which are not quite as forgivable as creating a club hit.

Let’s take “Midnight Sun” and use this as our point of discussion.  Guitar work is drowned out for the most part, despite the cheesy solo in the middle that does nothing more than mimic a number of solos on Guitar Hero.  You combine that with the vocals and you have the band doing their first take on what we will refer to as Kelly Clarkson pop.  Everything about this song feels contrived and heartless.

Unfortunately, that is where you find The Sounds at the end of the day on this album.  Those killer guitar parts that led you to believe you were still listening to a band with some sort of punk sensibility have been exchanged on the market for more polished sounds.  Polished is the perfect word for this album.  What once made the group come off as edgy and exciting has been dumbed down to reach a new audience entirely.  They created Crossing the Rubicon and threw everything out the window entirely.  We expected them to change, just not into this.

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

Download: The Sounds – Underground [MP3]

Eels – Hombre Lobo

hombrelobo

Rating: ★★★ · ·

According to the group’s web site, or to the words of Mark Oliver Everett, this album attempts to hint at the idea of coming to terms with realizing that despite one’s best intentions, it’s difficult to live the life of a loner, or a lone wolfman; this is where the Spanish title comes into play.  Hombre Lobo literally means wolfman, so it’s no surprise that the Eels would tackle such issues on their latest release.

Really, when you pull away the layers, the album’s lyrical content comes across pretty straightforward.  You find the narrator in said songs chasing after his muse, turning to said love time and time again, despite his/her desire flee and go elsewhere.  In “Ordinary Man,” our narrator willingly gives into his love, realizing that this is where he wants to be in the end, ordinary man or not.  Let’s face it, it’s hard to be a lone wolf sometimes.

Musically, the album, is pretty much all over the place; it’s rather scatterbrained. It jumps from the opening barn-stomper of a tune in “Prizefighter” to “That Look You Gave That Guy.”  Opening the album you have the wild man at heart, playing his soul, and banging out blues-fueled riffs for the listener.  How quickly it turns, however, as “That Look..” is a much more somber affair, with the narrator begging for that same look.  This is is one of the more solid tracks on the album, and an illustration of the dichotomy that is Eels records.

One thing that always jumps out during the listening process is the similarity to a Beck song.  Take one listen “Lilac Breeze” and you will swear that you are listening to a brand new track by the hyperactive troubadour. Even the shifts in vocals and the usage of electronics mark it as eerily similar.  It’s always been hard to escape this comparison, and with songs like this one, it surely won’t go away.

While there are some up-tempo tracks scattered here and there on the album, it is generally the slower elements that bring about the more soulful moments in Everett’s voice. Keeping in mind the subject matter, he seems so much more fragile when you listen to songs like “The Longing,” and you can almost experience the sentiment just by listening to the emotional quality of the song. Faster, guitar-laden tracks just don’t connect in the same manner, which does tend to weigh down the album in parts.  If listeners could stick to the simpler songs, then this would surely be a wondrous album to spin over and over again on the record player.  Unfortunately, the Eels include their diversity as usual, leading some listeners to turn a deaf ear to Hombre Lobo.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/09-my-timing-is-off.mp3]

Download: Eels – My Timing is Off [MP3]

Patrick Wolf – The Bachelor

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Rating: ★★★★½

Patrick Wolf entered the consciousness of music when his album Wind in the Wires propelled his angelic voice and his music into media outlets everywhere.  Since then, he’s carefully moved about in the industry, claiming to want to walk away at times, and then branching out musically by adding electronic elements with The Magic Position.  Now, he comes back to us with the first battle of a two part concept album, this one being titled The Bachelor; the battle imagery goes beyond the album art’s computer gaming appearance.

When the first real song appears on the album, it’s precisely what one would expect of Patrick Wolf at this point in his career.  String instruments are added to the brooding imagery, which is accompanied by the darker undertones of his vocals, but this all dissipates once the first part of the chorus chimes in with Wolf operatically screaming for “resolution,” which is juxtaposed by his calming request for “revolution.” Perhaps it’s these contradicting figures with whom Patrick is constantly battling himself; he’s mapped out his battlefield perfectly.

This album’s title track is perhaps one of the more interesting tracks that the young man has created to date.  While there is a sense of the folk inspiration that lay about his early work, there is something entirely haunting here, which is reinforced by the presence of Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot. Sure, it’s an odd pairing, but nothing Patrick has touched has ever been of the mundane sort; he rises above such things, just at “The Bachelor” rises above many of his previous songs.

Of course, the presence of various guests on this album alludes to some strange experimentation, which is usually prone to throwing some of Patrick’s albums off track.  On “Count of Casualty” Patrick seems to throw everything into the mix, including a recipe of chanting, strings, digital effects and his vocals.  It’s a song of cluttered, but ornate, noise.  However, it’s balanced perfectly by “Who Will,” the track that follows.  Here Wolf opens with an organ and his voice, just before a chorale comes chiming in with accompaniment.  It’s the perfect balance between songs, demonstrating the range he has asked us to grow accustomed to with his music.

“Vulture” hits hard, just as you would expect.  It’s the most electronic piece on the album, and you can definitely see the influence of Alec Empire in this song, which may or may not be a good thing, depending upon who you choose to ask.  In the chorus, Wolf’s vocals don’t feel nearly as strong as they do on previous tracks, but the pulsating track still manages to stay inside your head.

The Bachelor is the most successful string of songs that Patrick Wolf has managed to put together, if you exclude “Battle” from the tracklist.  His prior works have always teetered off after unbelievably song starts, but this album succeeds by making it to the end without losing your interest in any manner.  As he has grown up, his confidence and his abilities to blend multiple genres with his unique voice have provided Mr. Wolf with a greatness few will achieve.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/02-hard-times.mp3]

Download: Patrick Wolf – Hard Times [MP3]

Viva Voce – Rose City

roses

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Portland, Oregon duo Viva Voce spent the past few years building, creating new things.  First, they created their own backyard studio, perfect for the husband/wife combo to record new tracks.  They continued the building process by adding two permanent members to their line-up, solidifying the group for the recording of an entirely new album.  That new album is titled Rose City, and it demonstrates a band experimenting with their proven recipe for tunes, as the band travel to sonic regions not explored in the past.

Once the album opens with the lead track “Devotion” it becomes rather clear that this isn’t the same group you came across back in the day.  Distortion billows from the guitar this round, and the percussion has this permanent beating echo that seems ominously powerful.  For the first time, Kevin Robinson sounds like someone other than himself, as his voice comes across like a man covering Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.  It’s fitting to the music, which explains the change in delivery, as the sound has clearly changed.

“Die a Little” seems a tad bit like what you would expect from this band. It’s rather catchy, and the bobbing bass lines that go throughout keep you tapping your foot at the base of your chair.  Also, vocal duties are split between Kevin and Anita Robinson, so it approaches the aesthetics of the male/female vocal a bit more. Even so, there exists a boundary of sound and feedback the band has yet to explore.

Once you come across a song like “Midnight Sun” you can imagine what the songwriting process was like; the band seems to be painting sounds upon a blank canvas, filling empty space with various elements so that the album sounds full, yet not repetitive in the least bit, allowing for the empty space to resonate with a sound all its own.  But, you can juxtapose that with “Good as Gold,” which seems to take a line or two from the Pixies closet of bass lines, not that anyone could get upset by that.  This song takes on a more traditional Viva Voce feel since it doesn’t seem to have as much of the sonic exploration even though some of the guitar parts have a new sharpness to them.  Just make sure you save yourself for “Flora,” a song that comes at the butt of the album.  There is something spectacular about this song that just yanks at your emotions.  It’s one of the moments that really makes this album worth listening to for repeated listens.

There are some misguided moments here and there throughout this album, which one owes to the band’s desire to explore new sonic elements.  You have to respect that, and you have to hope that the promise that clearly exists on this album will only be pushed further with future recordings, as this album clearly has great moments worthy of your ears.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/09-flora-1.mp3]

Download: Viva Voce – Flora [MP3]

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

phoenix

Rating: ★★★★ ·

Phoenix is a Frecnh pop group.  That being said, it seems more likely that their success lies in the United States, far away from their homeland.  Their third album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is sure to tie the band into your consciousness for the duration of the upcoming months, if not for the rest of the year.

The best one-two punch of the year comes via the band’s first two opening tracks, “Lisztomania” and “1901.” “Lisztomania” has a stomping affect that likely entails itself to handclap moments amongst your friends as you dance in the living room.  That is until the keyboard comes in for the chorus, and the impending crescendo have you all flailing your arms about.  “1901” is just one of the most solid tracks to come around in a long time.  Finding a beat this good is hard to do, and they combine it all with the catchiness of the chorus as singer Thomas Mars shouts “fallen” over and over again.  You won’t find two tracks back to back that sound this good on another record this year.

But then the band step it back a bit, so as not to blow you away too quickly.  They toy with a little bit of sensuality in “Fences and the lengthy slow-jam “Love Like a Sunset,” which quite possibly gets a bit over indulgent.  Still, at this point, the band seem to just want to show their range, demonstrating to us all that they are more than just a one-dimensional band of singles and such.

And then we’re right back into it.  Slow jams are gone, and the pace returns with “Lasso.” This song, like those before it and those after it exemplifies everything in which the group succeeds; their songs build and build, seemingly increasing the pace as the song, along with Mars’ vocals, races to the end.  It’s as if their formulaic songwriting allows the band to push for the optimal amount of punch and pop sensibility.  Even when they find themselves in the middle-ground, such as on “Girlfriend” you can still see the skeletal remains of their capabilities.

While some may wish that the band could go beyond their normal stylings and push for even more in the dance-pop spectrum, such as their massive single “1901,” it’s still nice to see the band sticking to what they do best. Although they’ve yet to write a complete album where every song is perfect, this is the closest that they’ve come; Phoenix continues to write great songs and progress as they move forward.

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

Download: Phoenix – Lasso [MP3]

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

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Rating: ★★★★★

At this point in the year, it seems pretty redundant to discuss this album, especially considering all the accolades it has received during the time in which the album leaked onto the Internet.  But, be that as it may, one really has to take a look at this album; you would be doing yourself an injustice to ignore Grizzly Bear at this point, and your record collection would be worse off for not adding Veckatimest to your catalog.

Even on the first track, it is hard to find negative commentary on the album, no matter how you wish to label this band and their hype.  “Southern Point” has various elements to the entirety of the song, be it ornate guitar picking or the back and forth piano work.  You’ll come to find that the various layers that were present during Yellow House have now been polished, to the benefit of every minute of the album.

Then comes the first single, “Two Weeks.” You could count this song as one of the best songs of the year, based merely upon the multiple layer harmonies that go throughout, but that probably wouldn’t do the song any justice.  Each layer of sound just seems to compile more melody as the song inches along like a caterpillar; the song builds with “ooh oooh oooh oohs” until the end, and when it’s complete, you feel a little bit worn out.

You find yourself two songs into the album, which most will prematurely title as best of the year.  From this point on, you cannot go back into the past; you cannot look back into the music of this year, for nothing will seem as complete as this album. Songwriter Daniel Rossen, who also fronts Department of Eagles, definitely has left his mark on this album, or at least you can see his maturity throughout the evolution of this album. What once seemed like quiet bedroom songs now have blossomed into full compositions, each worthy of standing on their own.

“Dory” seems like a simplistic enough song, but the magic in the vocal harmonies carry it above your average tune, into a new level of greatness few bands have yet to achieve.  “Ready, Able” has this brooding rhythm beneath the surface of the song, but with the intricate additions to the song, the tension is released, and the song courses on into one of the albums more beautiful moments.  “About Face” is the perfect song, with subdued percussion backing the song; the band has paid attention to the most minute detail, which, of course, makes each song stronger than the one before it.

You can hide behind the hype, declaring that the band is just riding the waves of popularity by the Internet popularity they’ve garnered, but listening to Veckatimest, you will truly see that Grizzly Bear deserves every kind word that was written about them.  Very few people will find that there is anything negative to say, and in that statement, you have the best album of the year.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/08-about-face.mp3]

Download: Grizzly Bear – About Face [MP3]

Electric Owls – Ain’t Too Bright

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Rating: ★★★½ ·

When The Comas decided that it would be best to call it quits, at least for the day, I knew that I would miss their fuzzed-out space pop.  Ever since their first break on Dawson’s Creek, I was absolutely in love.  Luckily, leader of the bunch, Andy Herod, opted to take on the Electric Owls moniker and release Ain’t Too Bright on Vagrant Records.

As soon as this album kicks off, the fuzz begins, coating the acoustic strumming before Herod’s distinctive voice jumps into song.  For a fan of this man, it’s good to hear these familiar vocals, and the return of that space-age pop sound that Herod and friends perfected with Spells.

It’s great to see that Herod and his new posse haven’t neglected that quirkiness that made his old band so interesting, using electronic samples and other sounds to add an atmospheric background to the scope of each song.  But still, they maintain the feel of all the current bands. “Halloween Mask” easily fits in the modern pop landscape, dancing not far away from the works of Rogue Wave.  This song reminds us of Herod at his best, crafting careful cool hits with a hint of futuristic hipsterdom.

Reading notes about his return, it would seem that Herod needed this return to music.  His first foray had left him and his mates exhausted, but as all great writers do, he got the itch to write again.  That personality breaks through the surface of this album, as more traditional songs have been penned.  Songs like “Darken Me” with it’s folk leanings and foot stomping percussion remind listeners of the personal touch that music can bring. “Two Stories” has that similar personal stretch, with the song being drawn gently from personal experience of the narrator, presumably Herod himself.

This outing is less intense than the past efforts that have involved Herod, but this is not entirely a bad thing, as he first warmed his way into my heart with A Def Needle In Tomorrow long ago, which seemed to be a stripped down affair in comparison to his later work.  Still, it’s great to have the voice of an old friend bringing back memories of simple pop tunes with a space-age edge.  You never know how much you miss a particular songwriter until they make their way back into the music industry; we gladly welcome back Andy Herod and Electric Owls to the foray.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/04-darken-me.mp3]

Download: Electric Owls – Darken Me [MP3]

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