Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: Anberlin - New Surrender (* * 1/2)

Anberlin has been something of a guilty pleasure for me over the last few years. Their sophomore album Never Take Friendship Personal and last year's Cities didn't exactly revolutionize music or expand my horizons, but they provided a healthy dose of singable melodies and catchy songwriting that stood out from a host of other pop/rock/punk albums. There is something about the band's balance of thunderous cries for rebellion and strings-laced songs of love and loss that gets me.

Either Anberlin are running out of new ideas, or I'm just losing interest in the band altogether. I think it's probably both. New Surrender is not a bad album, it just doesn't cover much territory that Anberlin hasn't been all over previously. The sound is slightly bigger, bolder, and more arena-ready this time around, but essentially the album plays like Cities, with a similar mix of ballads and anthems using familiar subject matter. The real shame, though, is "Feel Good Drag," a song lifted directly from Never Take Friendship Personal and tweaked just slightly. An unnecessary revisiting of a decent song that now lacks the same punch of the original.

If I listen to the album with a less critical ear, I find myself reminded of why I liked the band so much in the first place. The opening three tracks are exciting and catchy, and the triumphant choruses of "Burn Out Brighter (Northern Lights)" and "Haight St." showcase Stephen Christian's (how's that for the name of a CCM singer?) impressive vocal abilities, but too often I find myself unsatisfied. I guess I knew from the beginning that the relationship might not last, that this was only a fling. Thanks for the memories, Anberlin, but we both need to start seeing other people.

Favorite Tracks: "The Resistance," "Breaking," "Burn Out Brighter (Northern Lights)"

Listen to the album this week at AOL Music.

Review: Ben Folds - Way To Normal (* * *)

Some people never grow up; Ben Folds is one of them. Now over the hill, Folds shows no signs of maturing musically or otherwise, preferring to stick with his unique brand of high-energy, sometimes expletive-filled, piano pop. That in itself is not a bad thing; in fact, it's one of his greatest strengths. The ability to explain the world in simple, creative, and unapologetic terms has gained him a legion of very loyal fans across a wide range of ages. Combine that with overflowing musical talent, and Ben Folds' appeal becomes apparent.

You have to wonder, though, whether Folds is pushing his luck this time around with Way To Normal. With Rockin' The Suburbs and Songs For Silverman, he managed to balance sincerity with sarcasm, sweetness with bitterness. On his latest album, Folds rarely lets us see his sensitive side, instead presenting a series of angry social and emotional rants. "The Frown Song" takes a jab a fashion-conscious yuppies spreading their misery, "Bitch Went Nuts" tells the story of a crazy girlfriend, and "Brainwascht" apparently was written in response to a song slamming Ben (no details yet; I'm looking into it). It's all done with his usual dramatic piano style and sense of melody, but it's also a little juvenile and unflattering.

Elsewhere, Folds deals with empty relationships, small-town struggles, and loneliness. It's a wild, fun ride throughout, despite the subject matter, and he certainly seems to be having a good time, especially during rave-ups like "Dr. Yang," where Folds delivers a fantastic pounding piano solo. While there are a few disposable tracks ("Errant Dog," "Free Coffee"), most of the songs are at least decent, and he even gets sentimental in his own way with the album's two ballads, "Cologne" and "Kylie From Connecticut." In many ways it's classic Ben Folds, and fans will certainly find plenty to love.

Maybe it's my problem then, that I can't see the charm and appeal in Way To Normal that I did in Rockin' The Suburbs and earlier projects. But I can't help feeling that Ben Folds now sounds almost like a parody of himself; having a good time at the expense of creating something a little more meaningful, relevant, and...mature. I really do hate to say it, but sometimes I wish he'd just grow up.

Favorite Tracks: "Dr. Yang," "The Frown Song," "You Don't Know Me"

As mentioned earlier, the album is available to stream this week at Spinner.com

Monday, September 29, 2008

This Week: Spinner Full CD Listening Party

I've said it before, and I'll continue to praise Spinner.com for their Full CD Listening Party that streams full albums the week they're released. There are always at least a few gems to be found, and this week is no exception. Here's what I recommend:

Ben Folds - Way To Normal
Folds is back to his irreverent, piano-pop ways with his latest release. It's a bit of a mixed bag, but there are some great tunes. I'll have a review up soon.

Black Gold - Tragedy & Legacy
An interesting EP release from Eric Ronick of Panic At The Disco and Than Luu. Sounds like an experiment worth paying attention to.

Dear And The Headlights - Drunk Like Bible Times
I saw this band live a while ago and was impressed. I had forgotten about them until today when I saw them on Spinner. It's complex, yet melodic indie rock that gives a great first impression.

Dungen - 4
I don't know much about Scandinavian musician Gustav Ejstes, but I'm intrigued but his new album recorded under the name Dungen. He mixes a variety of sounds and instruments to create a hazy psych-rock sound unlike anything I've heard.

Joseph Arthur And The Lonely Astronauts - Temporary People
I've never really gotten into Joseph Arthur, but I know he's been around for a while. At first listen, Temporary People appears to be a solid low-key rock album.

Angus and Julia Stone - Just A Boy EP
Quaint boy/girl indie rock. Nothing spectacular, but worth a listen.

There are another dozen albums this week, so check it out!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Review: Blitzen Trapper - Furr (* * * *)

Disclaimer: I LOVE late sixties/early seventies folk rock music. And when it comes to bands that emulate that classic sound well, it becomes difficult for me to resist. So it should come as no surprise that I am really digging the latest effort by Oregon-based indie band Blitzen Trapper. Full of acoustic guitars, pounding piano, and old-school vocal harmonies, Furr plays something like ablast from the past, and is a more consistent and enjoyable album than the band's 2007 release Wild Mountain Nation.

While Blitzen Trapper were previously concerned with exploring every aspect of their favorite genres or perhaps seeking to create a new one, Furr finds the band attempting to narrow down their past influences to find a sound to call their own. The eclecticism is still there, but slightly muted, giving the album diversity with fewer head-spinning stylistic transitions. In fact, the best moments are those that embrace a more relaxed folk style. "Furr," the story of a boy becoming a wolf and "Black River Killer," a truly creepy song about a spiritually tormented murderer, are two simple, quirky gems that rely on melody and writing rather than pushing the experimental envelope.

Elsewhere on the album Blitzen Trapper gets a little groovy ("Saturday Nite"), twangy ("Stolen Shoes & a Rifle"), and even make time for a ballad ("Not Your Lover'). It all works better than one would expect, mostly thanks to front man Eric Earley's ability to make the whole project seem effortless. Only on the atrocious "Love U" does the band take things too far, throwing melody and taste right out the window. It's a confusing misstep in an otherwise strong album, but I suppose they just had to get it out of their system.

To say that Blitzen Trapper is not at least a little derivative is probably giving the band more credit than they're due. Neil Young, James Taylor and a dozen other influences spring to mind as the album progresses, but Furr combines them with the band's own kooky style, resulting in a fun and engaging listen.

Favorite Tracks: "Furr," "God & Suicide," "Black River Killer"

You still have a few days to catch the full album at Spinner.com

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Cold War Kids - Loyalty To Loyalty (* * * 1/2)

When Cold War Kids stormed onto the scene a couple years ago, they brought all that comes with an extreme amount of blogger buzz. Some praised the Kids for their jangly, bluesy retro-rock sound, others dismissed them as nothing more than overhyped copycats. This time around, the band seek to avoid the sophomore slump and qualify themselves as a legitimate indie rock act.

Loyalty To Loyalty, released on Tuesday, shows a softer, more experimental, and more thoughtful side of Cold War Kids. Where they previously loaded the album with plenty of noise and bombast, the band now uses dynamics with more caution and, frequently, greater effectiveness. The slow-burning opener "Against Piracy" meanders through some hazy guitar lines before building into an instrumental climax, leading into the catchier, brighter "Mexican Dogs" and "Every Valley Is Not A Lake," the latter of which includes a piano line reminiscent of Carol King's "I Feel The Earth Move." Some highlights include the first single "Something Is Not Right With Me" and "I've Seen Enough."

The lyrics on Loyalty To Loyalty are strong throughout, and often exceptional. The storytelling on "Dreams Old Men Dream" and "Every Man I Fall For" is vivid and gripping, while lines like "I tried to call you collect/You said you would not accept/your friends are laughin' 'cause nobody uses payphones" almost force a sing-along the second time through. What ultimately keeps the album from achieving lift-off are too many sluggish tunes, especially near the end of the record. The last few tracks are extremely dense and offer little in the way of hooks, and the album is disrupted halfway through by the downright obnoxious "Avalanche In B." It's almost as if Loyalty To Loyalty wasn't made to be listened to all at once. Actually, I would submit that the album would have been stronger at just a trim ten songs.

The effort is easy to appreciate, the talent aparent, and you have to admire Cold War Kids for refusing to take the easy way out, but sometimes I found myself wishing they wouldn't try so hard. Loyalty To Loyalty has too many great moments to dismiss it, but too few to reach its lofty goals.

Favorite Tracks: "Dreams Old Men Dream," "Something Is Not Right With Me," "I've Seen Enough"


I'm trying out some new looks for the blog. Nothing major, just changing the colors around a little. If you like/hate what you see, let me know.

I'll be switching thing around for a while, so I apologize in advance for any confusion, distress, or anguish this causes anyone.

Right now I'm trying to decide if I like this accidental "fall" theme, I think maybe it's a bit much...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

This Week at Spinner

Spinner.com has become one of my favorite music sites because of their "Full CD Listening Party," a weekly updated collection of new streaming albums. They often have a nice selection, and I've made some excellent discoveries there from time to time.

Here are some favorites from this week:

Cold War Kids - Loyalty To Loyalty
I know I already posted a link about this album being streamed elsewhere, but I think it's worth mentioning again. Review forthcoming.

Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue
From what I've heard so far, Acid Tongue is another standout album from the Rilo Kiley front woman.

These United States - Crimes
An interesting alt-rock album with folk and Americana influences. Much stronger than their previous effort.

Blitzen Trapper - Furr
A blast back to the past filled with Neil Young-style folk rock songs and strange stories. Review forthcoming.

Ed Laurie - Meanwhile In The Park

I don't know much about Ed Laurie, but his seven song debut album immediately caught my attention. For fans of folk music in the vein of Nick Drake.

Mason Proper - Olly Oxen Free
An album reminiscent of 90's indie rock. Subtle, melodic, and well-written.

Gay Blades - Ghosts
An odd mix of punk, folk, and alt-rock from this guitar and drum duo determined to shake things up.

Take some time and check these new albums (and others) out this week.

Review: TV On The Radio - Dear Science, (* * * * *)

In 2006, TV On The Radio exploded in a big way with their critically (and I would imagine somewhat commercially) successful Return To Cookie Mountain. It was deemed an instant classic, an album to which all other albums were measured against that year. It was unique, fascinating, visionary, and I didn’t really like it. I know, I know. Maybe it was just beyond my capacity to understand and appreciate. Whatever the reason, the album didn’t do it for me. I decide to give TV On The Radio another shot with Dear Science (I'm going to leave the comma out of the album name for punctuation's sake), one of the most anticipated releases of the year and an impossible one to ignore. It completely blew me away and has immediately become one of my favorite albums this year.

Dear Science marks TV On The Radio’s foray into modern pop music territory. I realize that might sound scary to some, but with the plethora of ideas and amount of experience the band brings to the table, nobody should be worried. While borrowing from a variety of bands and styles (“Golden Age” sounds like it was co-produced by Beck; “Crying” has all the funk and falsetto of Prince), TV On The Radio never sound derivative, providing their unique signature to each song. Credit should go to multi-instrumentalist and producer David Sitek for giving the album a warm, full sound and finding the balance between familiarity and experimentation. The menacing horns on “Red Dress” make for a danceable apocalyptic party tune, strings and keys add to the poignancy of “Family Tree,” and “DLZ”s distant thundering percussion is gripping and intense.

Of course, the true test of any album is not the production, but the songwriting, and Dear Science passes with flying colors. Lyricists and singers Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone are in fine form here; using their melodic and emotional voices to great effect. The beautiful harmonies and catchy choruses often belie very serious lyrical undertones dealing with death, change, and fighting the powers (Bush, probably) that be. Even if the tracks are easy to enjoy on a more superficial level, the depth of the writing makes the album truly special. The songs are both immediately accessible, and immensely rewarding upon subsequent listens.

Blending an eclectic mix of styles, cultures, and sounds, TV On The Radio have created what should once again serve as a measure for albums made not only this year, but well into the future. Dear Science is a triumphant testament to the vitality of pop music.

Favorite Tracks: “Golden Age,” “Red Dress,” “Crying”

Hear the full album on their MySpace Page

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Review: Johnny Foreigner - Waited Up Til It Was Light (* * * 1/2)

Johnny Foreigner's debut full-length album, Waited Up Til It Was Light plays something like Bloc Party's Silent Alarm and Los Campesinos' Hold On Now Youngster... if they were somehow combined and played at 2x speed. When Alexei Berrow starts to sing, you might mistake him for Kele Okereke actually having a good time, which is a weird experience. Johnny Foreigner have a unique and exciting sound, though, and are sure to develop a loyal following among the indie crowd with this energetic debut which drops in the States Tuesday.

Waited Up Til It Was Light is a punk record at heart; a head-spinning mess of shouted vocals, spastic guitar lines, and frenetic drumming. Berrow and bandmate ­­­ Kelly Southern don’t as much harmonize as they yell in unison, swap phrases, and occasionally test the limits of what human ears can withstand. It’s noisy and sloppy, but the melody usually manages to shine through, like on the catchy “Eyes Wide Terrified” and “Our Bipolar Friends.” It’s a fun experience throughout, occasionally silly and often exhilarating

By the end of the album, though, the energy isn’t enough to keep the music from becoming a little uninteresting. “Sometimes, In The Bullring” and “Yr All Just Jealous” suffer from their placement at the end of the record, providing nothing that hasn’t been heard in the previous nine songs. One of the best moments of the record is the delicate “DJ’s Get Doubts,” when acoustic guitars and strings are the only background for the two vocalists. I enjoyed it so much I found myself disappointed when the next track sprang back into the same frantic pace of the first half.

Though the album may wear out its welcome before it’s over, Waited Up Til It Was Light is an enjoyable and exciting burst of energy that should certainly make some waves. I look forward to hearing what Johnny Foreigner comes up with next.

Favorite Tracks: “Our Bipolar Friends,” “The End and Everything After,” “DJ’s Get Doubts”

Johnny Foreigner's MySpace

Friday, September 19, 2008

Review: Kings of Leon - Only By The Night (* * *)

Just last year, Kings of Leon released their fantastic third album Because Of The Times, one of my favorite rock records of 2007. Though they alienated a portion of their fan base (just read the iTunes reviews) with their smoother, arena-rock sound, it seems they had no trouble in gaining new followers. With their upcoming release Only By The Night, Kings of Leon continue to separate themselves from the gritty, dirty sound of their older material, opting for U2-esque guitars, polished production, and more ballads than you can shake a stick at. This time around I think I might be among the disillusioned.

That's not to say that Only By The Night is a terrible album, because it's not. Nor am I referring only to the stylistic changes, though that's part of my frustration. The real problem here is the uneven nature of the songwriting. Singer Caleb Followill, one of three brothers in the band along with their paternal cousin, turns in some of his finest vocal performances, but they seem wasted on the weaker material. In earlier albums, the lyrics were passable because they were simple and second to the music. Here, the lyrics get a chance to shine front-and-center and occasionally it's a problem. For instance, it’s possible to get away with lines like "So we dance all night, and dance all day, I say!” or “yeah, your sex is on fire!” but when sung with such fervor they become impossible to ignore.

Musically, when the band turns up the volume and brings the heat, the smoother new sound works. "Crawl," "Be Somebody," and "Sex On Fire" are solid rock songs which might not have the edge of the band's best, but the soaring vocals and big guitars are hard to resist. Unfortunately, the amplifiers don't get turned to '11' all that often, and when the pace slows, some of the songs seem tedious. The bland "Use Somebody," and the creepy, cowbell-heavy (thanks Bruce!) "I Want You" are the worst offenders. Though not all of the ballads are unsuccessful ("Notion" is fantastic), most of the remaining songs fall into the good-but-not-great category. Only By The Night just doesn’t reach frequently enough the standard set by its predecessors.

Kings of Leon are a talented band with great ambition, and Only By The Night is a decent album, especially if heard without referencing their previous work. It’s hard not to feel disappointed, though, when you know the band is capable of much more.

Favorite Tracks: “Crawl,” “Sex On Fire,” “Notion”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Listen: Cold War Kids - Loyalty to Loyalty

The Cold War Kids are streaming their upcoming album Loyalty to Loyalty at MTV The Leak. So far I haven't seen anything popping up on the torrent sites, so this is your best bet for an early listen.

I like what I hear so far; I'll post a full review soon.

Album Preview - Loyalty to Loyalty

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Review: Mother Mother - O My Heart (* * * 1/2)

You should never judge a book by its cover nor an album by its sleeve; we all know that. But sometimes you might have an idea of what you're getting yourself into. With a band named Mother Mother, a CD entitled O My Heart (the shape, not the word), and a fish with a hook through its lip on the cover, you might think you're in for an strange experience. You would be correct.

That's because Mother Mother is an odd band. And by odd I do not mean "experimental," I mean "comprised of a bunch of weirdos." At least that's what I've inferred after listening to their sophomore effort. That's hardly a bad thing. Eccentricities and personality are what propel many bands, Mother Mother included, up from being one of a thousand indie acts making albums this year that won't be worth your time. O My Heart is a compelling listen because it was made by quirky, interesting people with obvious musical talent who focused on making an album, not an experiment.

The music is at times reminiscent of indie-pop legends Arcade Fire or The New Pornographers; melodic, harmonious, and catchy. Each track is packed with earnest male/female/female vocals, guitar hooks, and repetitive choruses. Having three strong singers in a band that harmonize so well together is a weapon Mother Mother uses to great effect, making already catchy tracks such as "Body of Years," and the spastic "Hayloft," even more fascinating. The lyrics incorporate strange metaphors and unusual phrases, best showcased on "Wrecking Ball," a deceptively pleasant song about anger.

O My Heart does drag at times when the tempo slows and the songs become less fun. "Try to Change" and "Miles," seem blasé in comparison to the album's high points. Also, the record feels a bit light on substance; even at 12 tracks and 42 minutes it borders on being overlong considering the material. Still, O My Heart is an indie rock album that should certainly garner some well-deserved attention for its fresh, fun sound. It might not provide much beyond its initial impression, but that impression is very much worth having.

Favorite Tracks: "Wrecking Ball," "Body of Years," "Arms Tonight"

Mother Mother's MySpace page.

Hear the full album this week at Spinner.com

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Interview Alert: Delta Spirit

The Captain has an excellent and exclusive interview with Kelly Winrish of Delta Spirit over at Captain Melody. Delta Spirit just recently re-released their fine debut album Ode To Sunshine and I have to admit I'm a little jealous of The Captain's ability to snag this interview.

For fans of retro-rockers like Dr. Dog and Cold War Kids, Ode To Sunshine is very much required listening. Check out my review here.

Delta Spirit's MySpace (and homepage)

New Music: The Streets - Everything Is Borrowed

The Streets, aka, Mike Skinner, is back with another set of narrative pop-rap tunes. It's a slightly more mature and interesting effort than some of his previous material, and even those who aren't so keen on rap music (like myself) will find much to enjoy. I'm not going to write a review on this one, but you should check out Snob's Music for an album review that I very much agree with.

Also, go to Spinner.com this week to listen to the complete album.

Unfortunately for those of us in the States, Everything Is Borrowed is not available in the U.S. until October 7.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Review: Portugal. The Man - Censored Colors (* * *)

I should confess before I start this review that I became a fan of Portugal. The Man after their strangely awesome 2007 release Church Mouth. It was an unexpectedly great album produced by some very unusual songwriting methods. Apparently, the band showed up to the studio with a collection of jams and riffs and then pieced together songs while writing lyrics on the spot. Not exactly songwriting 101, but it worked; the Alaskan trio managed to craft some impressive tunes. Back after only a year (seems like this has happened quite a bit recently), the band return with another generous helping of psychedelic rock.

Portugal. The Man have toned the noise level down this time around, but the progressive nature of the music is even more extreme. Using a wider variety of instruments and vocal effects, the band float from one hazy tune to the next, exploring 70s psychedelia through a modern lens. Starting strong with the piano rock of "Lay Me Down," and the orchestra-heavy "Colors" makes for a good first impression, but halfway through the album the frustration sets in.

While Church Mouth was comprised generally of songs with recognizable structures, Censored Colors seems more like an explosion of ideas that never made their way to completion. I'm sure that was intentional, but it sometimes sounds like an unfinished art project. Some of my favorite moments are just that, moments. Like "Our Way," and "Sit Back And Dream," two brief tracks that sound great but go nowhere. "Intermission" is an unnecessary diversion amid diversions, and "Our Times" is just the second half of "Hard Times." Even some of the full length songs sound half-baked. Censored Colors seems to suffer not from content, but from execution, resulting in an uneven experience.

Fortunately, Portugal. The Man have enough talent to make the album at least interesting. The quality of the sound and the wealth of fascinating ideas might just distract you from the senselessness of it all. The a capella harmony on "All Mine" and the quaint folk of "Created" are a couple of reasons to give the album another shot, and I imagine everyone will find gems here if they stick around long enough to dig them up. It's ambitious and pretentious, exciting and frustrating, and unlike anything you'll hear all year.

Favorite Tracks: "Lay Me Down," "Colors," "Created"

Listen to the album at Spinner.com

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Review: Bound Stems - The Family Afloat (* * * *)

I don't have the time or energy to write one of my longer reviews here, but I wanted to at least mention a band that has impressed me this last week with their latest release. I've heard Bound Stems refered to as a "math-rock" band, though I have to be honest and say I've never been 100% clear on what "math rock" is. So, I'll classify it as classic indie rock with some punk and folk influences, though labeling these guys is tough. Whatever you call it, The Family Afloat is an impressive and unique collection of tunes that covers quite a bit of territory in ten tracks.

Starting with "Taking Tips From the Gallery Gang," a song that doesn't have a verse/chorus structure as much as three distinct sections, you'll know that you're in for a ride. Beginning with a mess of guitars, keys, and earnest vocals, the track eventually evolves into a chanted chorus with a joyous horn arrangement. It's weird, wonderful, and unexpected. As the album progresses, Bound Stems slow things down, speed them back up, briefly introduce a choir of children, and manage to keep the whole project somehow connected and relevant. Whether playing folk-rock on the banjo-led "Winston" or raw punk on "Passing Bell," the band sounds comfortable and proficient.

Bottom line; The Family Afloat is a showcase for a talented band with a remarkable ability to combine their influences and ideas into something exciting and fun.

Favorite Tracks: "Taking Tips From the Gallery Gang," "Palace Flophouse Grill," "Winston"

Listen to: "Happens To Us All Otherwise"

Friday, September 12, 2008

Debate: Metallica - Return To Form or Still Lost?

Metallica releases their new album, Death Magnetic, today! It's bigger, badder, and heavier than anything they've done in a long time. At least that's my opinion; read my review here.

I've obviously posted my feelings on the subject, but I'm curious to know what other people think about the new album. Is Metallica back to their old selves, or are they still missing the mark?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Review: Horse Feathers - House With No Home (* * * * 1/2)

I'm not sure what the deal is with all of these amazing folk albums being released this year. Maybe I'm just paying more attention, or perhaps the folk music movement is gaining momentum, or maybe the muses have been working overtime to bring us such an impressive array of quality tunes. Whatever the reason, 2008 has been a great year so far, and with this new release by Horse Feathers it gets even better.

Justin Ringle, the singing/songwriting force behind Horse Feathers, sings and writes in a style reminiscent of many past and present folk artists, including Bon Iver and Iron & Wine. Like them, Ringle is primarily concerned with creating mood and atmosphere to make impressions. However, instead of completely embracing music in loneliness and isolation like so many of his peers, he works closely with people like multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick to arrange and fill out his otherwise sparse acoustic songs with violin, cello and banjo, enhancing the gorgeous melodies and haunting vocals.

The resulting bittersweet sound pervades the album's 11 tracks. Sadness, anger and frustration all take their turn, but never depression. While a few songs, like "Heathen's Kiss," the album's most tense track, sound genuinely dark, somehow Ringle allows the feeling of peace to distill the more disquieting moments, as on the gentle "Helen" and the rollicking "This Is What. The songs swell gently, building momentum and then subsiding as if being exhaled. Ringle's soft tenor voice is just strong enough to carry emotional weight, and at times he almost fades into the background with his songs. Occasionally, cellist Heather Broderick brings further beauty with some well-placed vocal harmony, as on "Working Poor," a definite highlight.

House With No Home requires a certain amount of attention to be fully enjoyed, but with each careful listen the songs appreciate. Horse Feathers have created a truly unique and stunning experience; a quiet triumph that should not be overlooked.

Favorite Tracks: "Rude to Rile, "Working Poor," "This Is What"

Music and Politics: Obama and McCain reveal top 10 tunes

Blender magazine has published John McCain's and Barack Obama's favorite songs lists. Many of you have probably seen this already; I know it's not exactly "news" at this point, but I just recently ran into it. At first I thought this might be a joke. "Dancing Queen," John? Seriously?

So if you haven't made up your mind, maybe this will push you in one direction or the other.

Barack Obama:

1. Fugees - 'Ready Or Not'
2. Marvin Gaye - 'What's Going On'
3. Bruce Springsteen - 'I'm On Fire'
4. The Rolling Stones - 'Gimme Shelter'
5. Nina Simone - 'Sinnerman'
6. Kanye West - 'Touch The Sky'
7. Frank Sinatra - 'You'd Be So Easy To Love'
8. Aretha Franklin - 'Think'
9. U2 - 'City of Blinding Lights'
10. will.i.am - 'Yes We Can'

John McCain:

1. ABBA - 'Dancing Queen'
2. Roy Orbison - 'Blue Bayou'
3. ABBA - 'Take A Chance On Me'
4. Merle Haggard - 'If We Make It Through December'
5. Dooley Wilson - 'As Time Goes By'
6. The Beach Boys - 'Good Vibrations'
7. Louis Armstrong - 'What A Wonderful World'
8. Frank Sinatra - 'I've Got You Under My Skin'
9. Neil Diamond - 'Sweet Caroline'
10. The Platters - 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes'

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

New Artist: Brooke Waggoner

With the recent explosion of female singer-songwriters out on the music market today, it would be easy for Brooke Waggoner to get lost in the shuffle. After hearing her debut EP and snippets from her new full-length album (available on iTunes), I'm hoping that doesn't happen. With a beautiful voice, well-written lyrics, and a love for complex piano and string arrangements, Waggoner deserves better.

The best part about this post is this sentence, where I tell you that her EP is available for FREE on her website. All you have to do is sign up for her news letter (a small price to pay) and you'll receive a link to download Fresh Pair Of Eyes; a promising set of unique baroque-style pop.

Check out www.brookewaggoner.com and click on the "music" link. I'll post an album review of her full-length album Heal for the Honey when I get the chance.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Review: Calexico - Carried To Dust (* * * * 1/2)

After releasing what most critics considered a slight "misstep" with Garden Ruin, Calexico are back to their old selves (at least that's what I'm told), creating another collection of slightly odd, Latin-influenced, indie folk music. As a relatively new Calexico listener, I can't very well compare Carried To Dust with their older material, but I can appreciate the stunning quality of this album.

I think it's safe to say that no one does it quite like Calexico. Seamlessly blending a variety of musical styles, languages, and song formats, you never know quite what to expect from track to track, though their sound is instantly recognizable. The band is comprised primarily of two members who truly form the backbone of the band. Other instruments come and go throughout the album, but the strength lies in guitarist Joey Burns' soft-yet-menacing voice and John Convertino's talented drumming.

The album starts with three strong tracks (especially "Victor Jara's hands") before pausing for a brief instrumental interlude. Unlike some bands, the instrumental tracks (three of them) are used to great effect, expanding the scope of the album without disrupting the flow. The album takes a bit of a detour on the Spanish "Inspiracion," a song that I find a little unnecessary, but it's one of Calexico's staples and it acts as a sort of intermission between the two halves of Carried To Dust. The following two tracks are arguably the record's strongest. "The House of Valparaiso," a smooth, groovy song featuring Sam Beam, and "Slowness," a beautiful duet with Pieta Brown. Calexico has always worked well with others, but here their collaborations steal the show. After that, it's mostly business as usual (good business, that is) before the slow, shimmering "Contention City"

I could go on about all of my favorite tunes, but I want to focus on the true strengths of Carried To Dust, which are variation and consistency enough to make an interesting, but focused album. Not many bands succeed in finding the balance between their wealth of ideas and the need to make a cohesive record, but Calexico have mastered the art. The pace changes just enough, the style shifts subtly, and the musicianship is excellent. Calexico provide a set of 15 tracks meant to be heard as a whole, yet enjoyable in pieces; short stories ranging in topic from political activism to lost love. While not every song is a tremendous success, no moment feels wasted or forced.

Carried To dust combines sounds from both sides of the Southern border in a slightly experimental and thoroughly enjoyable blend.

Favorite Tracks: "Victor Jara's Hands," "The House of Valparaiso," "Slowness"

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Review: Metallica - Death Magnetic (* * * *)

"We die hard!" James Hetfield growls during "Broken, Beat, and Scarred," the third track on Metallica's new album, Death Magnetic. Nothing could be more true. Despite the bad career moves, drug addictions, and internal conflict, Metallica seem to refuse to fade into has-been metal gods territory, slowly turning out material, searching for redemption. Has it paid off this time around? Most definitely.

It's been a long time since anyone had positive things to say about Metallica. After setting the gold standard of metal records in 1991 with "The Black Album," the road has seemed bumpy to say the least. It's almost as if Metallica refused to make a record that wouldn't alienate their fans, choosing instead to evolve into a rock band that barely resembled their former selves. It all came to a head with their last album, St. Anger, which barely made it to completion and got a lukewarm reception.

Somewhere in the last few years, Metallica finally decided to give the people what they want. And by "the people" I mean everyone who has waited with crossed fingers and whispered prayers for 17 long years for their still-favorite band to release something worthy of their back catalog. I'll admit I'm not a die-hard fan, but I imagine this album is going to impress a great deal of disillusioned metal fanatics.

Death Magnetic isn't a return to the band's melodic, yet brutal, sound on Metallica, but looks even further back to what some would say is the only time the band made "real" metal music. Less singing, more growling, fewer anthems, more bludgeoning guitar attacks. The album is ten tracks and measures in at just under 75 minutes, pausing only once (during the horn and string intro of "The Unforgiven III) to take a break from the assault of guitars, drums, and bass. It's almost too much, but if metal is your thing you'll likely not be able to get enough of the pounding riffs of "All Nightmare Long," or the constant tempo changes of "The Day That Never Comes." Metallica even throw in a ten minute, a-grade instrumental , "Suicide and Redemption" for old times sake.

Death Magnetic won't revolutionize metal and it doesn't attempt to make a statement, it just rocks, and that's for the best. It's ferocious, relentless, and exciting (not to mention full of guitar solos), though it's so dense it can be a chore to listen to as a whole. True, James Hetfield's voice isn't what it once was, and the lyrics are...well, they aren't what you came for anyway. But Metallica have come back home, and that's reason enough for killing the fatted calf.

Favorite Tracks: "The End of the Line," "Broken, Beat and Scarred," "The Day That Never Comes"

Review: Okkervil River - The Stand Ins (* * * 1/2)

It's a rare occurrence for a band to release a concept sequel to a previous concept album only a year old. It's even more rare when people actually get excited about it. But when it comes to Okkervil River, it doesn't really matter what the circumstances are; any release from this consistently impressive band will be met with enthusiasm and applause, and the buzz has been all over the blogs.

The Stand Ins, with 11 songs, three of which are brief interludes, and a 40 minute run time sometimes feels like the second half of a movie rather than a feature-length "part 2." In context of the first album, this new set continues the themes of The Stage Names but expands the musical palate just a bit, including the jaunty, sing-a-long pop tune, "Pop Lies." Sheff is in fine songwriting form here for the majority of the songs, especially "Lost Coastlines" and "Calling And Not Calling My Ex." It's a tight, compact continuation of an already impressive first movement, but as a stand-alone album it leaves me wanting more.

Like The Stage Names, The Stand Ins includes some standout tunes, which I've already mentioned, along with a couple that don't completely hold up. While Sheff is a fantastic story teller, he occasionally forgets to bring the melody along, as on "Blue Tulip," an overlong ballad that bogs down the middle portion of the album. Granted, this weak moment isn't enough to completely derail the entire project, but when there are so few remaining songs, it is especially frustrating. The brilliant moments on the album just don't end up justifying so little material.

The concept of The Stand Ins is intentional. The two albums blend well together, and as two parts of one whole they feel complete. Apparently, Sheff specifically chose not to release a double album for fear of appearing pretentious, but releasing two halves of an album a year apart seems to me to be even more so. I don't want to be misunderstood here; the music is mostly great, the musicianship is incredible, and "Lost Coastlines" might end up on my "songs of the year" list for 2008, but without its predecessor, The Stand Ins doesn't feel substantial enough to stand on its own.

Favorite Tracks: "Lost Coastlines," "Calling And Not Calling My Ex," "Pop Lies"

Friday, September 5, 2008

New Track: Fall Out Boy - I Don't Care

I just heard Fall Out Boy's new track,"I Don't Care," the first single from their upcoming album, and it rocks. Sure, it's derivative, repetitive, and we'll all be sick of it in a week, but it's a pop song with all the right ingredients. It's got big, shiny guitars, a stomping, danceable beat, and Patrick Stump wailing like a one-man gospel choir. I'm interested to hear what else they came up with for the new CD, Folie A Deux.

Anyway, don't take MY word for it, check it out on their MySpace page.

New Artist: Horse Feathers

As I was browsing music blogs recently, I came across a single by this new singer/songwriter calling himself Horse Feathers. "Curs In The Weeds," the lead single from the upcoming album House With No Home, is a startlingly beautiful and captivating folk song, bringing to mind Iron & Wine and Bon Iver. With haunting vocals and raw guitar and violin, the track has a quiet intensity that makes for quite a first impression.

Obscure Sound has a review of House With No Home (out on 9/9) on their website. It has three tracks from the new album available for streaming; I highly recommend checking it out.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Review: Noah And The Whale - Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down (* * * 1/2)

It's unfortunate that America has to wait until mid September for the arrival of an album so seemingly made for summer as "Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down." You might have heard the single "5 Years Time," during the past few months, a smile-inducing tune with a catchy chorus and beautiful harmonies. If you haven't already, you should check out their quaint music video for the song on their Myspace page. You should also check out uber-talented Noah and the Whale band member Laura Marling's recent solo debut, Alas I Cannot Swim. 18 years old and already an amazing folk songwriter.

Marling might be Noah And The Whale's biggest claim to fame at the moment, but the band is led by another talented singer/songwriter, Charlie Fink. Fink is obsessed with love (finding it, losing it, enjoying it, etc), not exactly a novel subject, but lyrics like "If you don't believe in God, how can you believe in love, when we're all just matter, that will one day scatter," followed by musings of evolution and the meaning of life prove him to be a decent wordsmith when he cares to be. His droopy voice can take some getting used to, but it has a unique beauty which adds sincerity to the often bittersweet lyrics.

The music on Peaceful is mostly delicate and sparse, using hand claps, violin, ukulele, and piano with restraint and moderation to avoid complicating songs unnecessarily or filling them with too much noise. It's a welcome change of pace from so many overactive indie bands out there, even if the music sometimes seems too simple. The album works best when it moves along at a quicker pace, as on "Rocks And Daggers," and "2 Atoms In A Molecule," the former of which has Marling stealing the show with some beautiful backing vocals. When things slow down, I find the songs to be less compelling, with the exception of "Mary," which has an oddly charming quality.

Unfortunately, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down suffers from too many good-but-not-great songs that weigh the album down a little, keeping it from being a thoroughly exciting experience. Tracks like "Do What I Do," and "Second Lover" both feel like they would benefit from a more upbeat approach; they create too much down time and make the more potent slow tracks like "Mary" and the closer "Hold My Hand As I'm Lowered" more taxing than they should be. My second or third time through the album, I had a hard time staying interested through the end of the record despite the overall strong material.

All-in-all, Noah And The Whale have created a folk album that is fresh and fun, with enough talent and ideas to make them a band worth watching. I'm hoping they have a successful U.S. debut, and that they make it out to Utah sometime soon; I bet they put on a fine show.

Favorite Tracks: "2 Atoms In A Molecule," "Rocks And Daggers," "Mary"

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Review: Apollo Sunshine - Shall Noise Upon (* * * )

Apollo Sunshine make music for the kind of people who can't or won't sit through a normal album. A loosely connected collection of psychedelic folk-rock songs, Shall Noise Upon is unique, ambitious, and, at times, challenging. If you frequently find yourself growing restless of CDs after only a few songs or becoming tired of all those "boring" rock bands out there, Shall Noise Upon's eclecticism will be a welcome breath of fresh air. For those that prefer more consistency, however, the album might be more trouble than it's worth.

I find myself somewhere in the middle. There are some definite high points. The beatlesque "Money," and "The Mermaid Angeline" are some of the better tracks on the album; simple, low-key, and enjoyable, "Singing to the Earth" is a beautiful pop-folk song that rolls along with male/female harmony and a variety of well-placed instruments, and Apollo Sunshine prove themselves competent when they turn the guitars up a bit and experiment with 60s-style psych-rock on "666."

While Shall Noise Upon delivers some great songs, it is inconsistent, and the album as a whole has an uneven feel that makes it seem longer than the 38 minute running time. A slew of brief, weird interludes and some go-nowhere tracks like "Light of the World," add little to the overall experience and only lengthened the time between the album's strongest tunes. While I appreciate that this record is meant to be digested as a whole, the parts don't completely hold the project together.

Overall, Shall Noise Upon is a fun album and an enjoyable one if you're in the mood for something a little bit more experimental. The ambition and talent of Apollo Sunshine are to be admired, and when they succeed, the results are worth hearing. Though I'm sure some will love this album for its inconsistencies and quirks, the rest of us will browse through it to get to the good stuff.

Favorite Tracks: "Singing to the Earth," "Money," "The Mermaid Angeline"

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Favorite Album(s) of 2008?

I know there is still plenty of time until the end of the year "best of" album and song lists, but I'm curious to know what people are considering the best music of 2008 so far.

I can never pick just one, so I'll suggest three of my favorites albums:

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer

What albums are your early contenders for best of the year?