The Shins – Port of Morrow

Rating: ★★★★ ·

If you seriously still don’t know who The Shins are and call yourself a person interested in music I would have to call you a liar! Well, not exactly, but if you’ve been anywhere close to the indie scene since the turn of the 21st century, you should recognize James Mercer’s usually scruffy face as the front man of this band. Whether you’ve known about it or not, the Shins made indie pop classic, releasing three albums that gained them a cult following that has been dying for some new tunes since their five year hiatus. With such a long period between the last release, you walk a tightrope. Stay with what you know and be labeled boring, or move into sacred, fragile new ground and run the risk of not sounding like yourself?

Yes, it’s the fourth album from the The Shins, but it feels the most youthful with respect to energy. Mercer’s voice is louder; it’s in your face, whereas it used to blend so tightly with the guitars. The guitars are more active, exploring twists and there’s an element of jangly that you just can’t really find on prior releases. Take songs like opener “The Rifle’s Spiral,” the single “Simple Song,” and “No Way Down” as testaments to this heightened energy. Each one explores a new and different level of bursting brightness. “The Rifle’s Spiral” gives you layer upon layer of guitar hooks and tinkling high notes embedded into the synth noise. “Simple Song” goes for the prominence of Mercer’s voice that commands the song as it moves through at its confident and collected pace that is expected of this band. “No Way Down” explores a faster pace, with less synth noises and a reliance on sharp-witted lyrics as its champion. All of these songs explore the old Shins style in an updated and fresher filter.

But it’s not all sunshine and daises—there are slower, subdued moments. For me, I feel nods of nostalgia for the older albums of this band on a song like “September,” whose simplicity is well placed and crafted amidst a sharper than expected grouping of songs on the primary half of the album. Another slower number, but by no means boring track is “Port of Morrow,” on which a falsetto’d Mercer leads you twisting through the tale he has crafted.

And in the end, Port of Morrow is a tightrope walked fairly well. Mercer doesn’t fall into the pressures of being anything he is not, he just pulls more quirky yet insightful material from his past and weaves them together with a brighter overall tone, which may stir mixed feelings from past fans and newcomers. It’s unfair to expect “New Slang” Shins after all this time; things have changed. However, you can still expect a relevant and resounding collection of classic indie pop tunes on this album.

Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing

Rating: ★★½ · ·

It’s strange; sometimes, bands that have been around for a while often don’t change their sound, be it for fear that they will lose those who became enraptured by their original sound, or that they just don’t see themselves as anything else than what they were before. This seems to be the case with Blitzen Trapper on this album, as their only shift seems to be to a bit more of a bluesy spin on their Americana craft.

American Goldwing is one of those albums that just don’t have enough chutzpah to keep me focused and interested in for more than five songs. It starts out fairly strong, even though nothing novel, but progressively ceases to retain my interest as the songs drag on and on to its close. The first song, “Might Find It Cheap,” sums up this phenomenon in a single swoop. Yea, it’s a good song and I can get down with those fuzzy guitars and the traditionally tangy vocals, I just feel like I’ve heard it from Blitzen Trapper before. Their distinct crookedly country Americana rock sound works against them in that the sound from previous albums resonates deeper and makes it hard to listen to these tracks when I know there are astoundingly better renditions on Furr or other prior albums.

My favorite track on this record comes third, at a time where I’m looking for something to spice up this album. “Love the Way You Walk Away,” takes a new stance that I’ve been longing for this band to take. Even though it is of a country note, which I don’t often find myself enjoying, there is new territory to be covered at last. Bluesy undertones patter in the background while harmonies swoon in the foreground. If you listen carefully, you can hear deep bass drums at some points and of course there is that steel pedal guitar that pushes the song around in dominance. Late in the track, this band slows things down with a little harmonica and it’s easy to find yourself singing right alongside Eric Earley and the rest of the gang. It’s simply the song with the most redeeming and interesting qualities to be found on American Goldwing.

By all means, if you are a Blitzen Trapper addict, you’ll love this album. It has everything that you’ve already been shown, perhaps with one or two tracks that take a new direction. As for me, and I’m sure others, I’m in need of something a little bit fresher to keep me intrigued in this band’s sound. Perhaps it is coming on their next release, or perhaps I just need to revisit those old gems in the catalog of this band.

A.A. Bondy – Believers

Rating: ★★★½ ·

For years now, A.A Bondy has been riding the waves of undiscovered artist; while garnering some devoted fans, he hasn’t exactly achieved instant fame and success of the independent world. However, as per the intrigue of his last album and the original detailed work of his very first effort, this hasn’t seemed to hurt Bondy in the slightest; he is still a master at his folksy craft.

There isn’t a song on this album more dauntingly beautiful than “Skull and Bones,” which crops up third in the listening experience. From the moment it begins, there is a foreboding feeling instilled by the effervescent bass and guitar combo. It’s an unsettling sound that gives a sense of instability and then A.A himself jumps in with those cautionary vocals that add to the darkness of this twisting song.  At a little over three minutes long, it jumps right in and grabs your focus right from the start, and then pulls you further and further in, and by the time the looped vocals of the chorus flood your ears, you can’t help but notice the elegant poignancy that the track dangles out there for you to snatch up on repeated listens. A.A Bondy knows this, and includes a short, cleansing song after it, as to break away from its quiet resonance and move back to his more traditional folk style.

This is a lovely change for Bondy, and though it’s unparalleled on this album, it is certainly not the extent of good songs to be found on Believers. You have late stunners such as “The Twist,” that is just dripping in delectable folk elements and yet it still has a quick pace that doesn’t allow it to be as heavy as earlier songs. This pacing allows it to sink in slower, and not become a bogged down album. By no means is it fluffy pop fuzz, but it is not so thick that it becomes a drag to listen to.

For a third release, this album is very consistent, at least at first glance. It seems that Bondy is just destined to remain under the radar in his work, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as he is currently a man with three solid albums, each of which with its golden moments. This being said, I can definitely see Believers becoming more with time as it ripens in the minds of listeners. Regardless, it’s still worth a good listening to; time will tell if it will be something extraordinary.

New Music from War on Drugs

I’m pretty sure we raved about War on Drugs with their Future Weather release, a record that turned time and time again around my house.  The band is preparing their new release, Slave Ambient, on August 16th, and I can already tell that it’s going to cause some problems in my daily musical rotation.  There’s something about the way they craft the songs, using distant vocals in order to allow for the guitar lines to spin and swirl around them.  It creates a great effect, and one that endlessly begs to be put on again and again.  I think more people should write songs like this, but hey, that’s just like, my opinion, man.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Come-To-The-City.mp3]

Download: War on Drugs – Come To The City [MP3]

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong

Rating: ★★★★ ·

After the release of their highly acclaimed first album, and then the release of an intriguing and excellent EP shortly following, the whole of the indie music scene has been anxiously awaiting The Pains of Being Pure at Heart to grace their ears with more fuzzy pop tunes. But now that the wait is over, and this buzzband from 2009 is back with their sophomore effort, will it live up to the first?

Belong, starts off immediately different from its predecessor on the title track. You can feel a thicker buzz in the guitar, a grungier sounding bass and a less bubbly, groovier feel to the track right off the bat. It may feel a bit disappointing to some at first, who wonder where their fluffy twee pop sound went. However, after repeated listens, or even toward the end of the four-minute song, it is easy to see and admire the growth of the sound. If this band produced a record that sounded exactly like the first, it would be mediocre and the spontaneity of said excellent poppy tunes would be banal. Even though it is not a completely drastic change, it is certainly a step towards a mellower album.

Oh, but not to worry, the bounce from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is certainly not gone: the very next song, “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” kicks away the hazy start and busts in with the sweet pop goodness you’ve come to know so well. Rolling drums are accompanied by the vocals of Kip Berman and Peggy Wang that are sure to melt your heart into a dreamy puddle; the same goes for “Heart in Your Heartbreak.” While these are both classic moves from this band, the real superstar track comes your way on “The Body.” High synthesizer spins from the beginning and it is probably one of the hardest songs to not move your feet to. Kip’s lyrics are as earnest and catchy as ever, urging you to “tell [him] again what the body’s for!” It’s a dance jam of pure exuberance, ready made for any party, be it in your head or with actual people.

Belong continues on, going to similar places as the first album, with songs like “My Terrible Friend,” that resembles “This Love is F*****g Right!” However, it hasn’t become monotonous in the way that I thought this album might. The group has matured in that they wandered a little in places, keeping things fresh, but not so far that it is unrecognizable to listeners. This effort, while just not quite as good as the first release, is everything that I was looking for: the flair of youthful energy and springtime freshness paired with the feeling of a step towards a new direction that often follows these sentiments.

New Music from Pete and the Pirates

It’s been two years since Pete and the Pirates released Little Death, so personally, I’ve been waiting for them to hook us up with something new. As a Christmas special, the band have leaked a track from their forthcoming album, which is untitled, yet slated for a May 2011 release.  The rhythm in the single, “Winter 1,” definitely has a solid driving beat to it, giving the track a hell of a kick.  Vocals sound a touch like the Mystery Jets, which doesn’t bother me by any means.  It seems they’ve definitely been honing their chops in the absence, and I can’t wait to hear more of the soaring melodies from the group as we get closer to the release date.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/01-Winter-1-1.mp3]

Download: Pete and the Pirates – Winter 1 [MP3]