Clues – s/t

clues

Rating: ★★½ · ·

From the ashes we shall rise, or at least the former members of Unicorns, Alden Penner, and Arcade Fire, Brendan Reed, believe this.  They have risen from their past with the formation of a new group, Clues.  Their self-titlted album is out now on Constellation, and while it may not demonstrate the brilliance the two are capable of creating, it has some moments worthy of highlighting in your music catalog.

You see the Unicorns resemblance immediately, as the opening track “Haarp” begins with a quiet little whisper before slowly picking up the pace.  As the pace is quickened to a steady trot, the tension rises, and even the guitar styling is so similar that you would swear that this is a B-Side from Penner’s former mates. This is either a complaint for those who loved that project, or an place worthy of garnering interest among new hordes of fans.

It would be great if we could discard that reference, but unfortunately we cannot; as of this point in time, Penner is being marked by the success of Nic Thorburn. While you can find similarities in the playing styles of the two former Unicorns, it seems that what sets Clues apart from the past is the jaggedness that he seems to hold onto.  “Approach the Throne” is full of just that, as the choppy guitars hammer away.  It’s not the sort of pop sensibility of Islands, but one should be happy is set to making his own mark here. “Cave Mouth” similarly shares the affinity for disjointed melodies and angular guitars, with the lyrics being turned down in the mix so that the music takes the focus.

There are moments that do approach chasing that pop sensibility, or at least the ballad aesthetic.  “You Have My Eyes Now” and “Ledmonton” are just a few songs that show the slower side of things; these songs unfortunately don’t encourage the listener’s attention span, which render them, sadly, as throwaways.  Not throwaways necessarily, but the mellow moments are not very successful here, though “Ledmonton” does sport some chanting choral moments near the songs ending.

Oddly, the Arcade Fire influence is not really here, unless you tie it all in to some of the zany moments that exist throughout.  But it’s clear that Reed’s style of drumming was not the founding influence that broke his previous band.

In the end, you wonder whether it’s fair to judge a band by it’s members former labors. Is such a judgment just?  Probably not, but that is the unforutunate truth in dealing with Clues.  You look at the sparkling moments here, and look back to their past; you look at the dull moments and wonder where this band will go. Truth is, only time will tell.

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

Download: Clues – Perfect Fit [MP3]

Jason Lytle – Yours Truly, The Commuter

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Rating: ★★★★ ·

A few years back, California’s great Grandaddy decided to break up; they cited lack of financial success despite critical acclaim as one of their reasons for going away.  Many heartbroken fans were happy to hear that Anti Records had signed frontman and lead songwriter, Jason Lytle, to a record deal.  His album, Yours Truly, The Commuter, is exactly what you would expect from a man who left California for Montana in search of a new muse and new inspiration.

Opening the album with the title-track immediately brings back all the memories of your old Grandaddy record collection.  Electronic blips and keyboard steadily build before the percussive element joins the fray.  Furthering the song with simple strings (samples possibly) and Lytle’s familiar voice marks this album as the return of one of indie rock’s great voices.

If one were to go on song titles alone then we would be led to believe that Jason came to Montana in seach of new horizons and a return to a different type of focus that would create inspirational songs once again.  In so many ways, he does seem to have regained his form on this album, but it’s that retreading of old tricks in his bag that seem to work the best for him.

“Brand New Sun” discusses the departure for greener pastures, and the simple acoustic song is filled with what one can only assume are laser noise created by martians, or Lytle’s keyboard.  “Birds Encouraged Him” is simply a beautiful song; it’s one of the better songs in the Lytle catalog.  Very light percussion accompanies the acoustic fingerings here, and string arrangements allow for the song to create a more atmospheric element; this is all added by the electronic whizzing of space noises.

Jason even decides to break out the rock element on this album with  “It’s The Weekend.”  Chugging power chords create a bouncing song that begins just as soon as it really ends, closing with Jason mellowing out on piano before zooming out one last time.  But, it’s the softer element on this album that seems to take precedent.

A piano ballad appears courtesy of “This Song is a Mute Button.” It’s one of the simpler songs on this record, but it reminds you of how personal songwriting can be for the likes of Jason Lytle. And it’s followed by another spectacular number in “Rollin Home Alone.”  Using string arrangements really seems to bring out a lot of the vocal melodies in Lytle’s voice, and the arrangement of the song is equally beneficial.  You’d find difficulty not including this as one of your favorite songs of the year.

It’s refreshing to note that not a lot has really changed in the capabilities of Mr. Lytle.  He still fuses guitar and electronic elements as breezily as in his days of Grandaddy, which not only makes you nostalgic for the good old days, but grateful he’s returned with an album as good as Yours Truly, The Commuter.

Jarvis Cocker – Further Complications

furthercomplications

Rating: ★★★★ ·

When legendary producer Steve Albini was rumored to be at the helm of the newest Jarvis Cocker solo outing, Further Complications, many were chomping at the bit, awaiting the arrival of something entirely special.  While the album does have a lot of those elements, it’s difficult to attribute these strictly to the presence of Albini’s magical touch. After all, who can really take control of an piece of work by a man like Jarvis.

Albini’s production influence is most notable in the first half of the album, especially the first four tracks.  Opener, “Angela” hits harder than anything we’ve heard from Jarvis in all his previous work.  It’s a fuzzed rocker of a tune, but one would be difficult to identify this as a track that exhibits Cocker at his best.  These first four songs all fall to the exact same trap; they succeed in be decent rock tunes, but they fail in the way that they are not your atypical Jarvis piece.  With that in mind, we can always be thankful that Jarvis has his usual literary wit in tow, which definitely helps along those early songs.

“Hold Still” serves as the turning point in this novel, as the tone of the album takes a drastic turn, and for the most part, this is for the best.  The song features Jarvis at his best, with his voice taking on the raspy crooning whisper in your ear, begging you to come hither, which was always his best vocal trick in Pulp. Present hand-claps and backing vocals bring this song back to the orchestrated best moments that broke out on Jarvis.

Of course, there is always that whimsical song that hits home with all listeners when Jarvis is rocking the mic. “I Never Said I Was Deep” is this exact song; Jarvis struts his voice in the verses, with that cocky sexual undertone we all know and love. When the chorus comes in, with the character claiming that he isn’t as deep as his lover requests, you are drawn into the magic of the song.  This is Jarvis at his absolute best.

Bookending the album is “You’re In My Eyes (Discosong),” with the title alluding to the more soulful quality of the instrumentation.  Not only his this the longest song on the album, but it’s one where our old friend Jarvis truly returns.  This song has all the swagger you expect from Mr. Cocker, but with the feel of your favorite lounge singer.  It’s hard not to love a man with such talent.  It exemplifies everything that has made Jarvis Cocker one of the more interesting, and vital, musicians of the last two decades. Further Complications is just another notch on his already quite respectable belt.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/i-never-said-i-was-deep.mp3]

Download: Jarvis Cocker – I Never Said I Was Deep [MP3]

My Latest Novel – Deaths and Entrances

latest

Rating: ★★★★ ·

When My Latest Novel released their debut Wolves a few years back many were taken by the forest-folk style, as the band walked a tightrope between organic folk and twee.  On their latest release, Deaths and Entrances, the band seems to have fully realized their sound, which now seems to be strengthened by the maturation of a group constructing ornate songs throughout its duration.

Interestingly, the band spent a great deal of time on this album researching their favorite literature, taking cues from their everyday live, and weaving them into the lyrics of the album.  The title, for instance, takes its name from a Dylan Thomas poem; they also pay homage to writer Alasdair Gray, who hails from the same land, Scotland, as the group.

Using influential literature as a background for constructing songs has a way of informing a band in a certain sense.  In writing this set of songs the band has been able to transform their album into something entirely different than the modern pop album; it reads, rather, like a concisely written piece of prose. There is an elemental flow, not unlike literature, where the pacing of the album slows in parts, waiting for the reader, or listener in this case, to gather his or her thoughts for just a moment before moving on with more details.

The music is like a great deal of the music that is making its way from Scotland at the moment.  Vocals are immediately recognizable, but in the sense that many a Scot has a distinctive dialect.  And we find that the music throughout the album is quite busy, whilst the band utilizes multiple instruments to construct and deconstruct each song.  According to press releases, they wrote a great deal of these songs together, which allowed the songs to blend together as one large piece of music itself; once again this lends itself to the resonance of literature that is evident in their music.

Subject matter varies on the album, with issues of war-mongering seeming to be one of the more noticeable motifs.  The outlook is not quite as bright, or at least not in the eyes of the songwriters, and as the band unites to sing in unison, they encourage us all to move forward, beyond our trivial pursuits as we search for something greater for both humanity and ourselves.

Once again, My Latest Novel have created an album composed of millions of pieces, tightly pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle of aesthetically soothing tunes.  The album exists as a complete composition; its a unified vision of a band sticking together, which inevitably makes it a rewarding listen time and time again.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/06-argument-against-the-man.mp3]

Download: My Latest Novel – Argument Against the Man [MP3]

Jeremy Enigk – OK Bear

okbear

Rating: ★★★½ ·

You’d have to be living in a hole to not have heard of Jeremy Enigk, or at least his legendary band Sunny Day Real Estate; he has since moved on to focus primarily on his solo efforts.  His third LP, OK Bear, has just been released, and it’s a step in a direction that many will be pleased to see him pushing.

The opening tracks, “Mind Idea” and “Late of Camera” set the tone for the entirety of the album, as each song builds upon rising sonic sounds.  Organic songs structures allow Enigk great room for his ever-astonishing voice, which is one of the most recognizable.  As always, his vocals soar, seeming as if they are about to burst through your speakers, yet holding back with enough poise to carry a melody.

While some of the song features full band arrangements, a few of which resemble the sound of How It Feels to Be Something On, this is not the only approach Jeremy takes on the latest effort.  The beautiful “April Storm” reminds us all of why he was so enchanting in the first place.  Acoustic guitar accompanied by quiet percussion plainly bring the song to life, and Enigk carries the song on the back of his voice.  “Just a State of Mind” is another such song, wherein Jeremy lets his voice be your guide throughout the song.  Sure, it’s his voice that comes across as one of the more memorable elements in these songs, but that voice, for many, brings nothing but good memories; for those not accustomed to the vocal quality, it will win you over as well.

“Life’s Too Short” is the song that most recalls Jeremy Enigk playing with his old band; there is a sharpness to the rhythm guitar that creates that bombastic atmosphere.  His voice cuts through the song with a sharpness and a certain ferocity that is not present on the rest of the album.  It might make you tear up just a bit, reminding us all of what it felt like when we first listened to Diary.

One of the more surprising songs on the album is “Make Believe.”  It seems like an entirely different genre, or at least approach to writing than anything he has done before this.  Here you find him doing his best impression of a classic singer/songwriter, a place that he really hadn’t visited too often, despite this being his third LP.  When the song is said and done, you wonder how many more gems he’s got up his sleeve, as you could easily listen to an album’s worth of songs like these.   But, as you have it, the record is a little uneven, alternating back and forth between amazing and standard; once you put nostalgia aside, it’s nice to see Jeremy still writing great tunes.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/10-make-believe.mp3]

Download: Jeremy Enigk – Make Believe [MP3]

Wooden Birds – Magnolia

wood

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Local Austinite Andrew Kenny made waves long ago as the leader of American Analog Set; he returns to Austin after a lengthy absence with a new band in tow, The Wooden Birds.  While you immediately recall his vocal styling, the music definitely takes a different approach on the band’s first proper album, Magnolia.

Musically, this album comes directly at you.  There are no waves of distortion or ambient sounds; this is an album comprised very simply of guitar, vocals and percussion.  Kenny’s gentle guitar plucking will bring to mind some comparisons to Iron and Wine, though Andrew’s been at it longer, so we should give him credit there (not that it’s a competition).

While the approach may be very simple in it’s delivery, you can tell that in the writing process Andrew spent a great amount of time fleshing out the melodies that would accompany the softness of the music he composed.  His voice, at times, seems oddly similar to that of Ben Gibbard, especially when he takes on that bedroom-quiet whisper.

Oddly, a lot of the songs do seem to play off the same set of standards, with only the slightest of variations.  For instance, “Quit You Once” and “Never Know” open in precisely the same way, which also appears to happen with “Hailey” and “Hometown Fantasy.” Despite the lack of change in much of the album, you still take interest in how the songs develop individually; this is all due to the abilities of Andrew as a songwriter.

From start to finish the album is carefully and quietly written.  It’s the type of album that draws you in with its approach to the craft of the song, and such talent allows listeners to look beyond the similarities that might otherwise render the album dull and boring.  Luckily, Mr. Kenny has been at this long enough to know precisely how to rise above such issues, and his success is just another reason why he is regarded with such respect among the musical elite (as you could witness by his recent performance with Broken Social Scene at Bass Concert Hall). Sure, the quietude of this album may not be your precise cup of tea, but it’s great to have one of our local boys back composing such softly wonderful music.

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

Download: The Wooden Birds – Hailey [MP3]

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