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
October 8, 2009
2009 | Unicorn Sounds
Toby Goodshank is the kind of performer who is so clever, so charming, and so talented that you can’t help but wonder why he isn’t as famous as his former bandmates in the antifolk supergroup The Moldy Peaches. Then you remember that the opening (untitled) track from his newest (untitled) album is a largely homoerotic fantasy about the 2008 presidential and vice-presidential candidates that climaxes with an image of Sarah Palin defecating into Goodshank’s mouth, topped off with the lyric: “I’m voting for 2 Girls/ I’m voting for 1 Cup.”
Okay, so maybe he’s not for everybody, but hey, Frank Zappa had songs about sex robots and enema-giving bandits, and a lot of folks still think he’s pretty great.
Plus, Goodshank’s musical approach is so off-the-wall that it would be wrong to pin him down as a half-assed cheap-joke-maker. Often eschewing the standard verse-chorus-verse structure, many of Goodshank’s songs instead feature a stream-of-consciousness lyrical litany, punctuated and ornamented by Goodshank’s intricate acoustic guitar work. Goodshank also tends to multi-track his voice in both high and low registers, which gives the recordings an immediately striking sound that highlights the unique power of his voice. While most of Goodshank’s work could be characterized as acoustic singer-songwriter fare, he does like to occasionally delve into some whiteboy hip-hop and synthy dance-pop.
More on Toby Goodshank | Untitled
September 23, 2009
Atlantic City Expressway EP
2009 | Self-Released
It’s too bad New Jersey natives Real Estate can’t tack “Sunny Day” onto their name without facing a lawsuit. Their Atlantic City Expressway EP (released as a tour CD back in March) is all about summers in the suburbs. Drowsy Saturday mornings, sun-kissed strolls through sprinklers, going to the beach with your best friends because there’s nothing better to do – the kinds of scorched summers that seem tedious while they’re happening and glorious when they’re not.
Real Estate focuses more on their sound than lead vocalist Martin Courtney’s singing, which sets the mood successfully. Three out of the five tracks on Expressway are hazy instrumentals that somehow make Atlantic City seem like it could be a tropical place, while the chiming guitars, sleepy drumming, and vaguely fuzzy production do more to induce nostalgia than any attempt at a teenage anthem could.
Relying on lo-fi can be tricky, especially since it’s become so trendy. Some bands [Editor’s Note: Kyle’s call; not ours] use it as a crutch to make up for lackluster songwriting; Real Estate uses it to enhance theirs. These songs sound like memories: faded, though still glowing.
More on Real Estate | Atlantic City Expressway EP
September 22, 2009
Golden Triangle EP
2009 | Kemado/Mexican Summer
Garage punk guitar riffs, pounding drums, distortion, male/female vocals, songs referencing ghosts…am I listening to Thee Oh Sees?
Oh wait, there’s not enough shrieking. Hmm, okay. Golden Triangle. I can dig it.
All joking aside, this EP is a strong showing from the Brooklyn-based sixsome, who were signed to Sub Pop junior label Hardly Art in early May. It’s not the most varied garage-punk record a person could buy, but sometimes you just need some stompers. And this EP has them aplenty.
Channeling some group-girl vocal-age on the opening track, over some deeper male mumble/moaning, “Prize Fighter” is an upbeat number that acts as a good introduction to the EP. A climax of “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey” is simple, but certainly gets the point across. The motorcycle noises in the background are a nice touch, too.
“Ghosts,” track two of seven, on an EP that is less than 15 minutes long, is the most slowed-down (and longest, at over 3 minutes! Gasp!) track on the album, not that that’s saying very much. Here the female vocals, singers Vashti Windish and Carly Rabalais, take on a more Vivian Girls-esque drone, and the words all blend together, but the effect is still engaging. It, and “Red Coats,” the next track, are certainly not standouts on the album, but they help it maintain a cohesive feel throughout.
More on Golden Triangle | Golden Triangle EP
August 25, 2009
Midlife: A Beginner’s Guide to Blur
2009 | Virgin Records
To help introduce Blur to a wider audience, Virgin brings us Midlife: A Beginner’s Guide to Blur, which earns its scholarly name by being a curious best of compilation. If you’re looking to be blindsided by a pack of hits, this disc isn’t for you (2000’s The Best of Blur would be more fitting). Instead, Midlife attempts to give a general feel of the band, and tries to display Blur’s knack for albums more than their knack for singles. This isn’t to imply a lack of hits – most of the band’s biggest songs are here – but thrown in with them are deeper album cuts that gain more admiration from avid fans than from singles charts.
Hearing songs like the lush “Blue Jeans” or the foreboding “Death of a Party” helps show that the band is more than the razor sharp, cheeky pop they became famous for, and to the uninitiated (namely Americans), it hints at some of the depth and daring that makes them such a great band. But being a best of, there is still quite a display of the blessed hand they have for pop, and unlike the previous best of, it actually documents how Blur came into their own, spending more time on their breakthrough LP Modern Life is Rubbish. Songs such as “Girl and Boys” or “The Universal” are fine examples of why they are Brit-pop masters, while others like “Chemical World” or the elusive “Popscene” show how they got there.
The album’s approach isn’t perfect, however, and even though it keeps a more organic feel by supplying some left turns, it strays from its purpose by bewilderingly having some weak tracks, at least comparatively. In particular, the songs from the disappointing Think Tank never hold up, and to have three tracks from an album that didn’t even have Graham Coxon (a vital member) in the band is an undeniable mistake. Also there are some bizarre choices such as the frantic “Bug Man” and the spacey “Strange News from Another Star,” which are fine songs, but even as deeper album cuts lack focus, and in no way should have replaced greats such as “Country House” or “End of a Century,” both of which are sorely missed. It’s these oversights that make Midlife a better introduction than representation. Fans will undoubtedly see gaping holes in the collection, but with its abundance of quality, first-timers will hopefully see Midlife as a reason to get into one of the greatest bands Britain has to offer.
by Geoff Anstey
August 20, 2009
Eban and Charley (The Soundtrack)
2002 | Merge
Stephin Merritt, creative force behind The Magnetic Fields and Future Bible Heroes (among others), couldn’t possibly be hurting for a creative outlet. Between 1999, with the release of The Magnetic Fields’ critical and commercial breakthrough 69 Love Songs and the 2003 release of the Pieces of April soundtrack, the songwriter has released a staggering 125 unique recordings into the atmosphere. Since 69 Love Songs challenged listeners with its sprawling, genre-hopping and disconnected narrative, everything Merritt touches has turned to gold, though his subject matter remains largely (dare I say, entirely) focused on yearning and/or broken hearts.
It is this unrelenting focus on love that makes Merritt an apt choice to compose the score for Eban and Charley. I’ve never seen the film, nor have I heard much about it besides its producers hyping Eban and Charley as the “Gay Romeo and Juliet.” Its plot synopsis on IMDB indicates that 15-year-old Charley meets and falls in love with 29 year-old Eban, to the chagrin of each of their fathers. I imagine a lot of rain (the film is set in Seaside, OR, not far from Astoria, which is where The Goonies was set), interspersed with a lot of long, pregnant pauses, dashed with a few screaming matches, and even fewer homosexual embraces. Largely ambient and instrumental, Merritt’s score is not exactly engaging, but also does not exactly encourage passive listening. Musically, Eban and Charley bears an awful lot in common with the more experimental tracks on 69 Love Songs: the arrhythmic meandering of “Experimental Music Love,” the troglodytic rhythm section on “Underwear,” and the crappy synth orchestra on “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” are all echoed here. My one complaint about 69 Love Songs has always been that it’s an amazing single-disc album, presented on 3 discs; there’s just too much there to avoid letting most of it go by unnoticed. Eban and Charley, then, is 69 Love Songs in chewable form, albeit a pill skewed toward the more self-indulgent aspect of Merritt’s sound.
More on Stephin Merritt | Eban and Charley
August 11, 2009
No One’s First and You’re Next
2009 | Epic
No One’s First and You’re Next is much in the vein of Modest Mouse’s previous (and fantastic) compilation Building Nothing Out of Something. It is a collection of b-sides and singles from the Good News and We Were Already Dead sessions that didn’t quite make it onto an LP. But the songs aren’t just mere outtakes. Included with a couple of new tracks are full re-recordings of the previously shelved tracks, making the album feel far from a group of oddities thrown together. The extra effort in production might indicate the same level-headed polish found on the band’s last two LPs, but this isn’t the case. And, in a good way, No One’s First retains some of the rough edges that characterized the spirit of Modest Mouse’s early work.
The songwriting, however, is very much like the sessions these songs sprang from. So while “Satellite Skin” has some of the ratty distorted guitar from the Modest Mouse of old, it keeps a solid composure that resembles the band’s recent brand of cross-eyed pop. The start of “Guilty Cocker Spaniels” even has a similar shuffle to Modest Mouse’s breakthrough single, “Float On.” But what makes this compilation most like the band’s recent output is its dabbling in bluegrass and Americana. While these genres have always found their way into the music of Modest Mouse, No One’s First finds the band drawing on their even more traditional aspects.
More on Modest Mouse | No One’s First and You’re Next
July 30, 2009
Gather, Form & Fly
2009 | Hometapes
So my advanced enthusiasm for Gather, Form & Fly was pretty unwarranted. Which is my fault, because I misunderstood and overestimated the relationship between Megafaun and Bon Iver and Bowerbirds. And because I’d heard their absolutely incredible song “The Fade,” and thought, “Well, here’s another North Carolina folk-rock band that’s going to make a perfect record out of the gate and generally be all awesome.” Which isn’t really the case, as Gather, Form & Fly is imperfect and as Megafaun doesn’t actually sound anything like Bowerbirds or Bon Iver. I mean, Megafaun is a really interesting band that has made a really interesting album. And it’s an album that begs comparison and contrast to other albums. But, in its quiet ways, it consistently circumvents any attempt contextualize it.
Gather, Form & Fly is probably best described as some sort of revisionist folk album, albeit a maniacal and schizophrenic one. It segues thoughtlessly from the spectrally beautiful instrumental opener (“Belle Marie”) through its two sun-baked folk-rock jewels (“Kaufman’s Ballad” and the truly inspired “The Fade”), into “Impressions of the Past,” which itself is a restless and not-quite-seamless blend of quiet folk, propulsive and rhythmic distorted improvisation, orchestral pop, and even – dare I say it? – barbershop quartet. All of which are in fact quite lovely genres. And then it continues right on into “Worried Mind,” the first of the album’s true downturns, a near-gorgeous classic folk tune that’s weighed down by a shamefully underperformed lead vocal track. “Solid Ground” is a repetitive basic blues riff that has no right following the fascinatingly raucous, hell-raising “The Process.” “Gather, Form & Fly” is a stunning (mostly) instrumental piece, all scratchy guitar and banjo, the kind bound inextricably to nostalgic reminiscences of summer, front porches, starlit country nights, the creak and howl of the forest. And that’s followed up with the awful a cappella opening of “Columns” (which never betters its embarrassing first moments), which is itself followed by “The Longest Day,” with Christy Smith, one of the finest true male-female country duets of this or any other year.
So one can see what the problem is here: Gather, Form & Fly is one of those records. It’s the kind of record that’s near-brimming with fantastic material, inspired performances, and interesting ideas, and yet weighed down at every turn by surprisingly sour efforts. What is made of an album like that? Disappointed expectation? Imperiled or defeated potential? Or a promise of hope? There’s so much good there, so much energy and enthusiasm, that it virtually guarantees Megafaun’s success, if only for their quite apparent capabilities, if only for the consistence of perfection they might someday give to the world.
by Chris Kiehne