December 16, 2009
2009 | Gigantic Records
Kids Aflame, the debut record from Brooklyn group Arms, is an upbeat, shiny slice of capital-lettered Indie Rock, and reminds the listener of this fact with every note. While its lyrics treat a range of subjects, not all of which sparkle with the good-time haze of the album’s music, the overall impression is of a forced smile—technically flawless, if spiritually flaccid.
The cleverly-titled but mostly non-musical opener “Sabretooth Typist” is merely a prelude to “Whirring,” which sets a pattern that will prove difficult to break for the rest of the album. Cheery pop instrumentation (complete, on this song, with a quiet guitar/jingle bell interlude) is the rule, while singer Todd Goldstein’s voice glides smoothly over the top like a young lounge singer’s, delivering ever-so-slightly sneering social commentary packaged with a retinue of ooh’s and aah’s. The guitar riffs that drive the song are pleasant and catchy enough, if ultimately not too memorable, and the percussion stays politely in the background, offering only the slightest of kicks when necessary to keep the song moving.
The vocals start inducing motion sickness on “Construction,” where Goldstein’s nasal delivery slides languidly from end to end of the major scale while quiet guitars and near-nonexistent percussion shuffle around trying to look busy. The jingle bells are still here, now joined by a few hand-claps. It’s enough to almost make you want to pinch the song’s cheeks, until the vocals slimily chime back in.
The title track continues in the nauseatingly precious vein, with strummed ukulele echoing over warm harmonica-like programming and Goldstein’s whiny, unctuous lilt interrupted by sunny arpeggiated nonsense syllables. This song has some staying power, with its catchy melody and general unrelenting cheer, but repeated listening induces tooth-grinding unless you’re prepared to throw yourself headlong into the album’s grating, near-senseless positivity.
More on Arms | Kids Aflame
December 11, 2009
2009 | Rare Book Room
The first word that pops into my head listening to Sugarland, the first full-length from Brooklyn duo Talk Normal, is “industrial.” I’m hesitant to use the word, because I think it dredges up sonic images of the band Ministry and early Nine Inch Nails, and Sugarland definitely has none of the amped-up speed of those folks. (Yet, despite its ambient leanings, Sugarland isn’t a snooze either.) The “industrial” sound I’m referring to above most closely resembles the sonic landscape of the film Eraserhead by David Lynch.
The second and possibly strongest track of the album, “In a Strange Land,” features a start-stop guitar crunch punctuated by percussive crashes that sound like being stuck in a stylized assembly line or a particularly antiquated elevator. Layered on top of this foundation is a frantic, almost tribal drumbeat, and intermingling vocals by guitarist Sarah Register and drummer Andrya Ambro that shriek, pant and float serenely, delivering lyrics like “Help me/ I’m a stranger/ In a strange land/ Don’t push me away.”
The band’s Downtown New York/No Wave influences are pretty apparent (they’re even named after a Laurie Anderson song, for gosh sakes), and the comparisons to Lydia Lunch and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O that are frequently lobbed at them seem fair enough, but the band is far from hamstrung by their predecessors. Register and Ambro are equally inventive as performers and writers, easily distinguishing themselves and defining their sounds as their own. Ambro’s drumming is primal without being primitive, and it maintains much of the forward momentum of many of the tracks. Register, for her part, very rarely gets into conventional guitar heroics, instead preferring dirge-y guitar squalls, which, on most of the tracks, are layered into soundscapes of fuzzed-out tones.
More on Talk Normal | Sugarland
December 10, 2009
2009 | Dedpop
A newer band’s initial EPs are tasting plates, of sorts; ideally, they’ve created a sampling of their style and potential, of which they’ll elaborate the better parts in their subsequent, more comprehensive LPs. Connecticut’s Bluebird Handwriting claims the usual suspects as influences (their MySpace account lists Radiohead and Sonic Youth), but it’s with Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, M83, and My Bloody Valentine that they share the most in common. Though these comparisons are lofty and divergent, Bluebird manages to meet them.
They have the spastic rhythmic flourishes of Aphex Twin; the subdued industrial simplicity of Boards of Canada; the brash keyboards of M83, with all of their romantic undertones; and the static dreamscape of My Bloody Valentine. Some of it holds up, and some of it doesn’t; one can’t really fault a band too much for this so early in their career.
The Tortulous EP is at its best during its more ruminative, ambient moments. It’s at its weakest when it attempts Aphex Twin and the louder side of M83; these sounds are dated, and can’t be sustained by any amount of revision or nostalgia. Considering what they get right, though, Bluebird Handwriting manages the rare ability of making the most simple arrangements resonate, with little need to dress up their sound in overwrought production or theatrics.
Bluebird Handwriting’s best moment is at the end of “It Is Broken Soon:” the song hardly moves beyond its simple theme and metronomic beat, before the rhythm drops out and we have just the keyboard hook. It’s a great moment, conveying the bittersweet sound of an orchestra leaving the stage after a beautiful performance, or the temporal escape from the shortest day of winter. They’re most definitely a band to check out.
You can download Tortulous for free here.
Bluebird Handwriting – “It is Broken Soon”
by Joe Veix
December 4, 2009
Total Slacker Demo
2009 | fmly rcrds
N/A (Disqualified: Too Young)
What am I supposed to do with this debut demo from Brooklyn’s Total Slacker, which, from what I gather, is one of the first recordings from any band heavily inspired by 2009 buzz bands. The demo, just five songs, are rough, home recordings of fuzzed out, slowed down Wavves songs. And by Wavves, I mean WAVVES, not WAVVVES (the preceding sentence is composed almost exclusively of homonyms – this is why I’m growing excited about Nathan Williams’ ongoing career).
If Waaves is lo-fi surf rock, then Total Slacker, as they stand right now, is the closest we’ll get to lo-fi jam rock; they replace the sped up distorted scales found on “So Bored” with the lazily distorted blues riffs of “Taco People.” They take the same Nathan Williams amateur drawing stylings that crafted such wonderful images as stoned Garfield, and draw a little skateboarder. They do away with Wavves’ constant lyrical references to drugs and boredom instead referencing something called a “Psychic Mesa,” and seem to hold some kind of belief in err…uhh…taco people. I don’t know what it means, just like I don’t know what Phish means when they express a desire to run like an antelope, out of control. Antelope are fairly orderly creatures, just as human beings are not meat filled tortillas.
But, all kidding aside, there is something simple and endearing about Total Slacker, even as they are obviously a little amateur – this is a demo, what do we expect? The three-some sounds confident about the languid pace of their music, the swimmingly buried bass lines, and the comedic, seemingly improvised lyrics. The hooks and riffs are written to put smiles on people’s faces, and the band makes no attempt a trying to take that higher. “These Condos Don’t Belong,” the second track of the demo, has a blown out chorus, screeching female vocals, and a solid stream of “ooo ooo”’s, which is as cute as it is awesome. Will they change the world? Not with these songs. Are they a fairly fresh, fun Brooklyn garage band? Hell yeah.
More on Total Slacker | Total Slacker Demo
November 25, 2009
Journal of Ardency
2009 | Terrible Records
Brooklyn group Class Actress’ debut album opens with an inviting electronic shimmer, drawing listeners into the polished pop of “Careful What You Say,” a perky dance track strewn with keyboard riffs mined from familiar ’80s territory. Fortunately, instead of a computerized drone at the controls, there’s Elizabeth Harper and her stunning voice, which soars breathily over the 808 handclaps and retro bleeps, smoothing out the rough bits for a mix of harmonies that sits comfortably above cheap imitators. Harper is also the band’s songwriter, and the seamless interplay of voice and instrument is no accident.
The title track is the album’s best, all ominous synthesizer bubbling and agile lyrical delivery full of defiant emotions from Harper that would otherwise be lost in translation if merely read off a lyrics sheet. The surging keyboard chords behind the chorus hint at a power that she’s only controlling with her voice because she doesn’t want to hurt you yet – like a cat toying with her prey, she’s simply waiting with infinite patience for the right moment to strike. In between verses, juicy keyboard interludes swell lushly in the speakers. What exactly is a “journal of ardency”? Just a pretty metaphor, but hearing her say the words conveys a spine-tingling thrill amid the icy beats and predatory sweetness.
“Let Me Take You Out” is a breezy, smooth ride, upbeat and poppy, but the breathy vocals start to grate quickly, especially during the chorus. Harper sings sweetly, but there’s no edge at all – the seductive whispers have turned sedative. Overproduction turns her blissed-out “oohs” into yawns, and the next track, “Adolescent Heart,” continues the downward slide. Pleasant, woozy lyrics and twinkly synth swirls are anchored by only the most minimal percussion track, with more elongated vowels piled on like shovelfuls of Ambien.
More on Class Actress | Journal of Ardency
November 19, 2009
Spit In the Face of People Who Don’t Want to Be Cool
2009 | Captured Tracks
Listening to The Beets’ debut album, my initial crotchety-old-man reaction is, “Who wants to sound like that?”
Drenched in reverb, the 12 songs on Spit In The Face of People Who Don’t Want to Be Cool can be lazily referred to as garage rock, but they are actually more reminiscent both of The Velvet Underground’s first couple of albums and of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound recordings – that is, if Spector allowed his let-all-the-instruments-bleed-together approach apply to the vocals too.
I’m frankly baffled by this choice to bury the vocals and make it all sound like a murmuring radio on the opposite side of the room. After all, if you can spare enough dough to have someone put your album out on vinyl, why can’t you spare a little bit more to have someone mix the recordings so they don’t sound like they were made with a tape player stuck in a burlap sack?
Granted, that was my initial reaction. I’ve listened to the album about 4 or 5 times now (it clocks in at less than a half-hour, so that’s not hard to do), and the songs themselves are memorable enough to make me respect The Beets as a band. Heck, I’ll probably keep this album in regular listening rotation.
More on The Beets | Spit In the Face of People Who Don’t Want to Be Cool
November 16, 2009
All of the Fire
2009 | Terrible Records
Acrylics are pleasant. The Brooklyn quintet’s debut EP, All of the Fire (released October 28 on Terrible Records) features clean production, charming boy-girl harmonies, and light songwriting. Characters cross county lines, sail across oceans, and miss their subway stops, all in the name of adventure and introspection. The adorably cathartic opener, “Lil Ivy,” rides a gentle guitar line, a careful drum roll, and near-spoken verses about a female protagonist who heads out to California and whose interests include “skinny dipping with a bottle of wine.” It’s sort of like that Shawn Mullins song from 1998 (please pardon the awful advertisement.)
While their lyrics may rely on tried-and-true topics, Acrylics’ (for the most part) understated delivery keeps the songs catchy. On “Lil Ivy,” guitarist/vocalist Jason Klauber rhymes “messenger sack” with “never looked back” and it actually works. But when he belts it out over a wobbly guitar and plodding drums on “Conselyea,” Klauber no longer sounds modest; he comes off as desperate and self-pitying. Listening feels like the sort of chore that Lil Ivy ran away from home to avoid.
The band’s other guitarist/vocalist, Molly Shea, sounds best when she isn’t singing backup. Her slight drawl on the title track is so confident it doesn’t matter that what she’s saying doesn’t really mean anything (“He who sails the ocean/ Is he who fails to drown”).
Acrylics do manage to move out of their comfort zone on the closing track, “Honest Aims.” The messy garage jam is a much-needed release to a pretty prim record. Not that there’s anything wrong with a band being polite; it doesn’t stop Acrylics from being enjoyable. But it does get in the way of them being memorable.
You can stream “Honest Aims” below, and read our interview with Acrylics here.
by Kyle McGovern
November 13, 2009
It Will Be OK
2009 | Etch n Sketch
Brooklyn band Home Video released the follow-up to their first record, No Certain Night Or Morning, last January. The EP is called It Will Be OK, and continues the electronica/rock sound that they helped establish in the early 2000s, long after other bands with lighter stomachs abandoned the genre for newer trends.
It Will Be OK is softer than their previous LP, and aims for subtler electronic beats. It’s possible that the band is more confident in their sound, and feels less of a need to pound out a heavy backbeat to get a crowd on their feet at live shows. Despite the somewhat softer sound, the EP is very much danceable, and will likely be a joy to hear live [Editor’s Note: It was. Look forward to our write-up of Home Video playing the JM Monthly Feature Show].
The standout track on the EP is “Every Love That Ever Was,” which begins with what sounds like a nod to the sequencer in the Who’s “Eminence Front,” before snapping into an inspiring take on M83. Certainly, one cannot avoid making a comparison to Radiohead; the vocals are deeply and unashamedly in debt to Thom Yorke. And at this point, more than a decade after Radiohead’s first groundbreaking release (1997’s OK Computer), comparisons to the band should only be used to describe what another band is doing right, rather than to demonstrate a lack of originality, as was previously the case with these comparisons.
Overall, the EP is worth a listen, perfectly suitable for the slowly approaching winter malaise.
by Joe Veix
Home Video is our November Feature Artist. Read our interview with them here.