September 28, 2009
This Frontier Needs Heroes
This Frontier Needs Heroes
2009 | Self-Released
Brooklyn-based brother-sister duo This Frontier Needs Heroes do not sound like city folk. Their self-titled debut LP is all open air, broken hearts, and quaint countryside. It’s the Old West by way of Williamsburg; it’s more Bonnie and Clyde than Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger. But their outer borough address sabotages the whole thing.
Their Myspace page rattles off a list of “authentic” American influences (Townes Van Zandt, Woody Guthrie, and Roy Orbison, to name a few) but namedropping can’t stand in for sincerity.
Lead singer Brad Lauretti’s vocals are touching – his voice seems to crack at just the right moments – but his simple lyrics and predictable rhymes (“Something’s gonna strike you down/ Something’s gonna turn you around/ Something’s gonna make you feel like everyone’s around”) are just disappointing. The album’s centerpiece, “I Can’t Do It All By Myself,” suits the limp lyrics, but only because it sounds like a lullaby.
This Frontier Needs Heroes just seem a little disingenuous, like two kids playing pretend. They label themselves as outlaws and revolutionaries, but aside from occasionally featuring the flute, their songs are pretty safe. “Long Gone” tries to swagger like a lone ranger, but it’s sung by a gentleman.
Opening track “Firefly” is a fitting introduction to the album: brother Brad wonders when he’ll have a hate-free heart while sister Jessica harmonizes over simple guitar-picking and tense strings. It’s pretty, but it’s all presentation. And for one moment, Brad’s lyrics don’t need any polishing: “I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that I’m right.”
by Kyle McGovern
September 21, 2009
Elizabeth & The Catapult
2009 | Verve Forecast
It’s inspiring to think that a group of three friends in a basement with Pro Tools can pick a catchy band name, get a Twitter account, and eventually, a record deal with Verve. And on another, more hedonistic level, it’s inspiring that said three friends can go on to hear their album’s first track played ad nauseum in Victoria’s Secret dressing rooms nationwide. No, this isn’t a CMJ Cinderella story; it’s what actually happened to Elizabeth Ziman, Danny Molad and Peter Lalish of Elizabeth & The Catapult. Their debut full-length Taller Children is a whirlwind of hop-scotch pop, sassy girl-power marches, and sexy lounge grooves. At best, the more insightful ballads are downright moving; at worst, the overly-tampered-with tracks could be underscoring a Jennifer-Aniston-is-feeling-great-today montage in Love Happens.
To her credit, Frontwoman Elizabeth Ziman has a wide range of influences – Aimee Mann, Shawn Colvin, Imogen Heap, Fiona Apple, Goapele – and she manages to write without aping. Her unfiltered, cool-as-ice vocals and sweet, honest delivery are a breath of fresh air among elaborate orchestrations and drum gimmicks. Mike Mogis, a Saddle Creek staple and collaborator with Bright Eyes, The Faint, M. Ward, and Jenny Lewis, among others, helped The Catapult usher their barebones compositions into the studio stratosphere. At times, the kernel of Ziman’s initial ideas becomes hard to find in an overly-harvested field. At others, Mogis’s production is a much needed life raft on the rapids. For example, take “Right Next To You”: through it’s duration, it shows no interesting melodies or variations, and Ziman manages to co-opt and plunder one of the greatest opening lines in the history of pop music (“I read the news today, oh boy/ What a time this is”). Yet due to its cohesively voiced soundscape, the song is definitely one of the album’s most listenable tracks, and a testament to Mogis’s ear and Ziman’s skill as an arranger.
More on Elizabeth & The Catapult | Taller Children
September 8, 2009
Everything Goes Wrong
2009 | In the Red
You know that Christopher Walken sketch? from SNL? The one that spawned a thousand t-shirts and drunken frat-boy recitations, where he proclaims loudly, with his trademark accentuation, that he has a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell? Hilarious.
The reason I mention this is that I have a feeling Christopher-Walken-as-Bruce-Dickinson produced Everything Goes Wrong. Only he wasn’t asking for more cowbell. He was asking for more fuzz. “I gotta have more distortion!”
I mean, he’s a man who puts his pants on one leg at a time. Only he also makes gold records, so we should trust him, right?
The Vivian Girls: Cassie Ramone, Kickball Katy, and Ali Koehler, have been receiving a lot of hype lately. The Brooklyn trio are getting exponential amounts of press, and have been touring all over to promote Everything Goes Wrong, their sophomore effort, following their 2008 self-titled debut. They’re indie darlings who will probably be the Next Big Thing. But is it entirely warranted?
To return to an earlier theme, although Walken/Dickinson loved it, the cowbell was distracting. If you take SNL sketches as gospel truth like I do, it almost broke up Blue Oyster Cult. But this distortion? It’s just boring.
If you’ve heard one Vivian Girls song, you’ve pretty much heard them all.
More on Vivian Girls | Everything Goes Wrong
August 1, 2009
HATE TO ADMIT IT, BUT…
“I’m Like a Bird”
2000 | DreamWorks
I have, in the past, laid blame on Alanis Morissette’s hugely successful Jagged Little Pill for sounding the death knell of the early 90s “alternative” rock wave. And, yes, Jagged Little Pill (which holds the distinction of being the best-selling debut album by a female artist) certainly changed the climate of the music industry. Here was an “alternative” rock singer who hadn’t come up through DIY touring and rock clubs; she’d been manufactured and primped for mass consumption. The little window in which credibility was paramount to payola, where Daniel Johnston got signed, Mazzy Star, Pavement, and the Flaming Lips had radio hits, had closed irrevocably. Things got totally (not just mostly) calculated again.
That calculation, however, was cleverly masked in a new, subtler way. For at least the next five years, all new female singers seemed like Alanis clones, each one a sort of 90s era update on Stevie Nicks. Think about it: Meredith Brooks, Tracy Bonham, Macy Gray. Even Jewel’s debut Pieces Of You – which was released the same summer as Jagged Little Pill, but didn’t become a hit for nearly two years – wouldn’t have been the hit it was without Alanis’ earlier young “Earth Mother” posturing. Though, to be fair, Jewel’s “I lived in my van” schtick gives her waaaaay more hippie cred than Alanis’ “I was on You Can’t Do That On Television” bragging rights. Each one of these women, came, had their one hit (except Alanis and Jewel, of course), and went, most of them never heard from again.
More on Nelly Furtado | “I’m Like A Bird”
July 22, 2009
Wilco (the album)
2009 | Nonesuch
Wilco used to seem to me to the be epitome of cool. Jeff Tweedy spun anesthetized tales of despondence and woe, made pretty through the cleverest/most absurd wordplay, and Jay Bennett layered orchestras of sonic dissonance over the top, simultaneously burying and magnifying the dark subject matter of the lyrics. Summerteeth, which eschewed the last remaining threads of Wilco’s (and earlier, Uncle Tupelo’s) country rock roots, sounds like an updated White Album: as if everything down to the tambourine had been so meticulously considered that the album’s mix was truly perfect. Ken Coomer and John Stirratt hold down the rhythm a la Paul and Ringo: simple and tight as fuck. Summerteeth was the closest thing to a perfect album I’d heard yet, and the promise within the hype surrounding Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made me truly believe that the rest of the world was about to get on the bandwagon, and Wilco was about to be elevated to legit household name status.
And Yankee Hotel Foxtrot finally came out, and it did blow its predecessors out of the water, and it did elevate the band to greater fame, and the whole story is documented in the tepid book Learning How to Die and the killer documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. But Wilco wasn’t my Wilco anymore. Ken Coomer and Jay Bennett were ousted from the band, replaced by Glenn Kotche (arguably the most outside-of-the-box drummer since Stewart Copeland) and a series of other ringers, including former Geraldine Fibbers member, Nels Cline. Cline’s idiosyncratic, jazzy approach to electric guitar helped to make 2007′s Sky Blue Sky an improvement upon the boring, self-indulgent A Ghost Is Born, sure. But, for all their idiosyncrasies, Cline, Kotche, Stirratt (the band’s only remaining founding member, Tweedy excepted), et al., are still yes men, and without the turmoil involved in making YHF and Summerteeth, the last few Wilco albums have sounded to me like Jeff Tweedy solo albums, wrapped up in a pretty package.
More on Wilco | Wilco (the album)
June 23, 2009
2008 | Self-Released
C (but A- potential)
And what a strange little album hath Xylos wrought; an album that agitates the embers of that perennial question: what happens when incomparably gifted musicians decide to pursue shamelessly derivative pop music? What would that fabled amalgamation between The National and LFO sound like? Or Sufjan Stevens and Smash Mouth? Or Grizzly Bear and Sublime? Or, god-willing, Yeasayer and Hoobastank? It’s a complicated but endlessly enticing paradox: can the most effusively un-cool music in the world be honestly performed by the most immaculately and devastatingly cool Brooklynites? And will it sound good?
So here’s Xylos, and they do their damndest to offer an album that answers our desperate curiosity. Is it successful? Not really. Is it interesting? Sure. Basically, what we’re given is an impeccably crafted and performed EP of, at best, almost-interesting, rarely good songs. I want to be perfectly clear here: these songs sound amazing. They are incredibly produced – incredibly produced – and flawlessly performed. They’re lush and grandiose without sounding showy; organic and instrumentally complex. This is true Asthmatic Kitty territory. And they often eclipse that prodigal son of symphonic pop music in their own degree of artistic and compositional expertise and innovation.
More on Xylos | Bedrooms
May 21, 2009
Iron and Wine
Around the Well
2009 | Sub Pop
So, the thing is this: Around the Well is a collection of Iron and Wine rarities. And a lot of people are going to be pretty excited about that and, in many ways, I don’t really blame them. I’ll admit outright that The Creek Drank the Cradle is one of my touchstone albums, one of those monumental albums that people like me, like us, anchor the fabric of our lives and memories around. And I’ll also say that nothing Sam Beam has done since has felt, to me, even remotely as inspired or effortlessly executed. Further, I’ll outright state that I thought The Shepherd’s Dog was a pretty abysmal effort in any regard, especially for somebody who had so consistently – even throughout some inconsistent albums – shown the colors of his brilliance.
The basic problem with Around the Well, in my mind anyway, is that Beam’s back-canon is so decidedly unlike that of most singer-songwriters. The Creek Drank the Cradle was infamously delivered to Sub Pop in a form significantly greater than that in which it was released: as “two full-length albums” (or at least enough songs to comprise two full albums), that were eventually pared down into what we would come to know as Iron and Wine’s debut. Beam effectively delivered a mythology that mirrored those of the old-world blues and folk musicians (Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, etc.), but with his music so giftedly updated. He seemed somebody who played and wrote with the singular intention of playing and writing, somebody who happened to have been “discovered” and thrown into the light against his own intentions.
More on Iron and Wine | Around the Well
May 14, 2009
This Note’s For You
1988 | Reprise Records
Having written the man off as a low-rent Bob Dylan (mostly per his on-again, off-again association with Crosby, Nash and everything that’s wrong with the 60s, er… Stephen Stills), and unimpressed by the “Godfather of Grunge” tag, I’ve become something of a late-in-the-game Neil Young completist over the last six months. I’ve been wrong before, people, and I will be wrong again.
I was snuck into Neil Young fandom through Johnny Cash’s cover of “Pocahontas,” leading me to dig up Rust Never Sleeps, and slowly make my way through the rest of his back catalog. All the classics aside, and considering the fact that I don’t care to check out anything by ANY classic rock artist after 1990, I’ve found myself hitting the bottom of the barrel as far as what’s considered “essential.”
Now, the fun part. I’ve made it my mission to develop opinions about the “weird” Neil Young records. Specifically, the 1980s albums that have been deemed by sane individuals to be “unlistenable.” Hence, This Note’s For You.
More on Neil Young | This Note’s For You