Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pomegranates want you to Come Outside

I only came across Pomegranates recently, several months after their most recent release and a couple years after their debut EP. I was surprised after listening to their delightful brand of indie rock that I hadn't heard more about them before. I've seen the band described as dream pop, but I found their sound to be slightly more substantial, with sharp guitar lines and bursts of joyful noise interspersed between the mellower, more ambient moments. Their sophomore album, Everybody, Come Outside!, is an offbeat and somewhat experimental pop record with enough hooks to keep just about anyone satisfied, and Pomegranates are a band you should be keeping an ear on.

This is, in most ways, a sunny day record, with bright vocal melodies, an incessantly upbeat tempo, and a charming sense of exploration filling the 48 minutes. The opening title track gives the listener an immediate idea of the group's infectious sound, with crashing percussion, constantly moving guitar, and eager, sometimes shouted tenor vocals, with many of the songs following a similar template. Among the best are the triumphant "Corriander" and the continually expanding "Jerusalem Had a Bad Day," though the band throws in a few low-key gems like the pleading "Sail (Away With Me)" and the slow wash of noise that is the 13-minute epic closer "I Feel Like I'm a Million Years Old," adding to an already diverse album.

Everybody, Come Outside! may not be everyone's cup of tea, but indie pop junkies such as myself will find plenty to love about it. You can find the band on MySpace to hear and learn more.


Ghostbird is an indie rock duo comprised of Trent Hancock (guitar/vocals) and Mike Cooper (Drums) who just released their debut self-titled EP. I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to the group and have enjoyed working my way through the album's six songs, simple, melodic pop tunes that are catchy and emotionally charged. Though the band's sound often has a familiar tinge to it, the boys show some genuine talent and manage to craft a unique enough spin on classic indie pop to make their music very much worth your time.

Hancock and guest singer Joy Bishop float gently over shimmering guitar lines one moment and compete with a distortion and drum attack the next, though the feeling of the record is generally more wistful and lonely than angry or intense. My favorites include the gorgeous opener "Toy Soldier" and the bouncy alt-rock tune "Caroline," the latter of which features some excellent piano work. It's interesting that Hancock shares his best songs with another singer, but he has some notable moments of his own, particularly "Night Kills Day." Ghostbird serves as an early showcase of a band with ideas and ambition working on finding their sound while creating some great songs in the process.

Check out the band on MySpace and/or download "Toy Soldiers" below.

Toy Soldiers (MP3 download)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Tortoise - Beacons of Ancestorship (* * * 1/2)

A post-rock staple for years, it's remarkable that Tortoise has continued to be a relevant instrumental band until this, their sixth proper full-length release (or eighth depending on what you're counting). Beacons of Ancestorship is another strange and compelling addition to their catalog, blending a wealth of genres such as Jazz, rock, and electronica into a complex and experimental whole, and will no doubt feel like a welcome return to form for some. Their formless, shifting songs consistently surprise and take a few spins to truly begin to understand, making this an album that may require some patience to fully comprehend. The songs on Beacons never become so obtuse that they become impossible to enjoy, they just deserve more than a cursory listen to be appreciated.

Early in the record the pace is kept fast and the intensity high, especially the synth-driven opener, "High Class Slim Came Floatin' In," an eight-minute rock number that sets the stage for the following "Prepare Your Coffin," which feels very much like the second half to the story. From there, the record subtly transitions from these louder, synthetic moments into slightly more organic, acoustic territory and back again. "Gigantes" and "The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One" are highlights from earthier side of the album, the former a sharp, rhythm-heavy track filled with hyper percussion and spiky guitar lines, the latter a mellower, jazzier tune. Both stylistic sides of the album are equally fascinating, but it's the band's ability to build the record in such a way that it functions so well as one work that makes Beacons of Ancestorship special.

Even after some heavy rotation for the review, I'm a bit at a loss as to how to accurately describe this album, though I suppose any good experimental rock record would cause that same issue. Tortoise's use of disparate musical techniques and theory is as impressive as it can be baffling, and once the songs are allowed to soak in, Beacons of Ancestorship becomes a adventure worth returning to for further exploration and discovery even if you can't explain exactly what it is that draws you in. To get a taste of the record, you can download "Prepare Your Coffin" below as well as check out the artistic video for the song.

Prepare Your Coffin (MP3)

Tortoise - Prepare Your Coffin from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

Review: Regina Spektor - Far (* * * 1/2)

Regina Spektor has always been difficult to pigeonhole, creating quirky pop music that falls somewhere between radio-friendly piano rock and avant-garde anti-folk depending on the album and the song. Her latest, Far, feels like a step toward the former genre, but the thirteen tracks contain more than a few moments of grin-inducing weirdness that give the album the dose of Spektor's unique character so endearing to her fans. Far isn't especially consistent, but there's enough solid material here to warrant at least a few listens to find it.

The opening three-song set has the album's most approachable and perhaps best material, led by the bouncy "The Calculation," a sugary pop tune that relies more on hooks than kookiness. Following are "Eet" and "Blue Lips" which slow things down perhaps too early in the record, but both are such excellent songs it doesn't matter much. The ballads shifts smoothly between tempos and intensity as Spektor unfolds her strangely beautiful narratives while still maintaining a relatively restrained, 'less is more' attitude.

The remaining ten songs are slightly more mixed in their success but also a great deal of fun, making up for the lack of weirdness exhibited in the early tracks by adding dolphin noises ("Folding Chair"), stories of kids watching each other eat ("Dance Anthem of the '80s"), and an appropriately goofy mechanical approach to " Machine." Still, Spektor is a strong songwriter at her best when she leaves the songs in their simplicity, allowing her mix of emotion and wit to shine without distraction.

Far is something of a grower which may be a frustrating concept to some, but though it doesn't quite reach the heights of Begin to Hope, it at least maintains Regina Spektor's unique spot in the singer/songwriter genre. Check her out on MySpace and/or watch the video from "Man of a Thousand Faces: below.

Man of a Thousand Faces

Friday, June 26, 2009

Gifts From Enola explore the depths with 'From Fathoms'

Gifts From Enola are an instrumental post-rock outfit from Virginia comprised of five or six members (depending on who's counting) who specialize in intricately arranged, guitar-heavy rock ranging from chugging metal climaxes to delicate, spacey interludes. The band created some buzz with 2006's Loyal Eyes Betrayed the Mind and now they're back with From Fathoms, an eight-song, 57-minute odyssey that should have fans of the genre enraptured with carefully constructed and skillfully executed movements constantly shifting and evolving in both style and intensity. Though music of this type isn't usually my 'thing,' I found From Fathoms to be a thoroughly fascinating and very listenable album that maintains my interest throughout its nearly hour-long duration.

Much of Gifts from Enola's appeal lies in their ability to create such a gargantuan and complex piece of music that maintains its accessibility while simultaneously providing a stimulating and occasionally challenging listening experience. The band's arrangements on From Fathoms are often noisy and dense, but rarely feel oppressive or heavy-handed, and the slower, more delicate sections of the album serve as both a respite from the din and as genuinely fascinating musical movements by their own merit. The album's centerpiece, the 12-minute epic "Trieste," best encapsulates the band's ability to deliver moments of thundering cacophony, while follower "Resurface" showcases the boys at their most hauntingly beautiful. It's a strange, engrossing ride all the way through the appropriately placed "Aves," the most emotionally triumphant tune of the bunch.

The more I listen to this record, the more I enjoy it, and I suppose with most instrumental albums that should be the case, but I've been pleasantly surprised to find how much I like listening to From Fathoms from beginning to end even after some intensive time with it prior to this review. I realize there's a good chance that I haven't properly described their sound, so check out the band on MySpace where you can hear a good chunk of the new album.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review: Rock Plaza Central - ...at the Moment of our Most Needing (* * * *)

Folk collective Rock Plaza Central's quick rise to relative prominence with their previous album, Are We Not Horses, is both a comforting reassurance that good music truly can prevail and a reminder of Pitchfork.com's absurdly powerful status as a source of musical guidance in the indie rock circle. I say that partly in jest, but an 8.4 rating certainly didn't hurt their situation (hey, Wikipedia agrees with me!) and the band's concept record about a mechanical horse and his fight against evil became something of a surprise hit in 2006 and 2007. Their new album, the recently released ...at the Moment of our Most Needing, takes a slightly less structured approach than Horses, though the band claims the William Faulkner novel Light in August as a major source of inspiration for the material which indeed carries a strong central theme.

Once again, frontman Chris Eaton's slightly manic tenor voice takes center stage, spinning poetic lyrics over beautifully rough and twisted folk instrumentation. His narratives and musings are filled with thoughtful and genuinely insightful phrases, with his cracked, weary delivery only adding to his lyrical sincerity. Songs like the pleading prayer "O Lord, How Many Are My Foes" and the darkly gorgeous "Them That Are Good and Them That Are Bad" are excellent examples of his songwriting prowess, songs that are uncomplicated in their presentation but of an obvious quality and depth. As literary as his style can seem at times, though, Eaton is rarely wordy, preferring to focus on specific phrases or ideas (see the slowly building opener "Oh I Can"), and with three instrumental tracks on the record, the total word count of ...at the Moment of our Most Needing is almost surprisingly low.

Consequently, it isn't just Eaton that shines on the album; the band deserves high praise for their ability to provide nearly perfect backdrops to each section of the story, sometimes carrying it entirely. The blaring horns, delicate strings, gritty guitar, etc. are played expertly but never intrusively, and more often than not, the sextet finds a good balance between musical art and emotional impact which keeps the album consistently both intriguing and enjoyable. Many of the tunes, like the twangy "(The World Is) Good Enough" or the pleasant instrumental cut "Country C" are of a more down-tempo nature, but when the group kicks up the pace with the likes of the deranged "Holy Rider," the results are equally impressive (especially the superb, quirky percussion).

There are moments on this record that I enjoy less than others, but it's difficult to label anything as a true misstep or weak spot when the entire experience feels so complete and satisfying. I'm a perpetual sucker for Americana and folk records and I can easily say that ...at the Moment of our Most Needing is the among the most enjoyable albums of its type that I've heard in quite some time. Emotional, intelligent, and wholly absorbing, this record is further reason to laud Rock Plaza Central as one of indie folk music's quickly rising stars.

Check out the band on MySpace or click here to download the album's first single, "(Don't You Believe the Words of ) Handsome Men."

Review: Deer Tick - Born on Flag Day (* * * 1/2)

A couple years ago, John J. McCauley III was the sole voice behind alt-folk band Deer Tick, recording and releasing the band's first record, War Elephant, almost entirely by himself. He wrote the music and played all the instruments; not completely uncommon, but a remarkable feat considering the quality of his gravelly folk-rock tunes. Blatantly influenced by a slew of classic folk musicians, McCauley's debut is nevertheless engaging and compelling, introducing us to a young man with a world-weary voice and downtrodden spirit that belies his age at the time. Now, with the release of Deer Tick's second album, Born on Flag Day, McCauley records with a full band that includes Andy Tobiassen and Dennis and Chris Ryan. This fleshed out incarnation of Deer Tick produce ten songs that continue the emotional and personal writing style so prominent on McCauley's debut, but with a fuller, more realized sound.

Throughout the record, McCauley seeks to take advantage of the talents of his band-mates, which both helps and occasionally hampers the album's songs. On cuts like the earnest opener and first single "Easy" as well as the guitar-heavy "Straight Into a Storm," the busier sound works to the group's advantage, strengthening stories of broken hearts and cold nights with backing vocals and sharp rhythms. On a few tracks, however, the additional noise simply detracts from the proceedings, like the over-busy chorus of "Smith Hill," which just piles on the instrumentation in an unnecessarily noisy climax. There are still a few moments of sparse calm on Flag Day, like the thoughtful “Song About a Man,” which recall the simplicity of much of Deer Tick’s debut. However, as enjoyable as the more familiar cuts are, the noisier and more erratic songs can seem like a step in the right direction for McCauley and company, even if the material doesn’t impress as consistently as on his debut.

The songwriting on Flag Day is about on par with McCauley’s earlier material, which is to say generally strong but not without pretense when penning material that would seem to require wisdom beyond that of a man his age. A little older, and perhaps wiser, he sounds more confident and honest this time around, and tracks like “Houston, TX” and “Easy” rank with McCauley's best work. Another pleasant and convincing development manifests on “Friday XIII,” an old-school western duet with Liz Isenberg, whose sweet vocal seems oddly appropriate paired with McCauley’s rough yowl. The collaboration works well enough to serve as more than just a novelty, making for one of the album’s more memorable tunes.

Born On Flag Day
sees a band with growing pains, cautiously feeling out new territory while keeping one foot firmly in the past. And that’s not entirely meant as a criticism; the ten tracks actually coalesce quite well, into a solid forty minutes of indie Americana. But it seems obvious, to me at least, that the boys still have a ways to go before they create the kind of record they seem capable of producing. Fortunately, the material here confirms that Deer Tick is a band determined to improve, and one with no shortage of ideas on how to do just that.

Last Word: A necessary if slightly awkward move in the right direction for an ambitious young band with plenty of time to fulfill the potential they've already shown.

Download: Easy (MP3)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

New and Notable: Red Collar

Durham, NC rockers Red Collar are the latest and greatest in a long line of hard-working, hard-rocking bands channeling the energy of classic rock with a DIY punk attitude. Comparisons range from Bruce Springsteen to Fugazi to The Hold Steady, but these boys have carved out their own niche in the genre with a gritty, fiery style that has caught the ear of many a music blog over the last few months. Their debut full-length album, Pilgrim, was produced by Brian Paulson (Wilco, Superchunk) and was released in March after a healthy dose of touring and several EPs. The record is an excellent showcase of the band's rough and rocky yet compelling musical style, borrowing from the best of their earlier material but providing plenty of even better, newer songs as well.

At the most aggressive end of the group's stylistic spectrum are tunes like "Rust Belt Heart" and "Hands Up," both filled with noisy guitar lines and driving percussion under singer Jason Kutchma's barked vocals. The band treads the line between infectious energy and reckless abandoned with precision, never completely losing themselves in their angst but still maintaining a welcome frantic pace throughout the album. Many of the songs follow a similar pattern, but the boys shake it up with tracks like the slowly builder opener "The Commuter" and gentler, more melodic cuts like "Tonight" and "Catch A Ride." Everything on the album works well and Red Collar prove themselves adept at each twist and turn, but when the band hit the perfect combination of grit and pop sensibility on songs like the album's title track, the results are especially fantastic.

I've yet to see these guys live, but it's easy to hear why they're known for putting on an amazing performance. Pilgrim is a no-frills rock 'n' roll record by a no-frills rock 'n' roll band, honest, emotional, and meant to be played loud and often. Check out the band on MySpace and download The Astronaut from the record below.

The Astronaut (MP3)

*Photo by Brian Shaffer

Review: Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer (* * * *)

Spencer Krug remains one of the most prolific of rockstars, following the Wolf Parade and Frog Eyes family tradition of joining enough bands that you can release multiple albums per year while somehow keeping the quality level respectably high for almost everything you do. While not everyone loved this year's Swan Lake release, Krug's work stood out as the brightest of the three musicians ( the other two being Carey Mercer and Daniel Bejar) and continued his exceptional musical streak which includes 2008's fantastic Wolf Parade record, At Mount Zoomer. Now, back at the helm of what can hardly be considered his side project, Sunset Rubdown, Krug and his band have created a monstrously great rock 'n' roll album that marks the group's best work to date and showcases some of Krug's best material produced from any of his notable indie music collectives.

Dragonslayer is the perfect title for and introduction to the kind of epic, grandiose collection of eight songs that makes up the record's 48 minutes. Everything here is expansive, overblown, and endlessly entertaining, but somehow focused and refined in a way that Random Spirit Lover was not. Krug has never been one for understatement, but this time around everything is bigger, bolder, and louder - and the results are excellent. Perfectly representative of the record's character is the infectious first single, "Idiot Heart," in which Krug does his best Bowie impersonation over a danceable two-guitar riff and stomping percussion. The song, like many a Sunset Rubdown tune, never stays in one place for very long, but its energetic immediacy is retained throughout the six minutes while each member of the band is allowed some room to shine. It may be the best cut on the album and is certainly among my favorite rock songs released this year.

Elsewhere, Krug and company keep the tempo and style somewhat varied on Dragonslayer and the energy stays in high gear. The bizarrely titled "Apollo And The Buffalo And Anna Anna Anna Oh!" and the lovely "Paper Lace," which Krug borrowed and rerecorded from Enemy Mine, are relatively light and nimble, while "Black Swan" features a more dramatic and heavy-handed approach, but the high-quality musicianship and Krug's improved vocal delivery stay constant. Most of the songs are long and complex, featuring several movements and breaking up verses and choruses with interjected guitar solos and funky keyboard flourishes, but songs like the fantastic and accessible "You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)" keep the record grounded and enjoyable without having to dig too deep into the material. That's not to say that Dragonslayer is easy listening, but the album's combination of guitar-heavy rock with Krug's quirky, signature pop style is both exciting and genuinely entertaining.

The record's final, ten-minute power ballad, "Dragon's Lair" may cross the line into overindulgent noodling, but - once again - it's Sunset Rubdown's sharp delivery and gleeful ignorance of boundaries that helps the record to succeed so completely. And as Krug croons lines like "You're such a champion" with all the fervor he possesses, you'll be glad for the dose of triumphant absurdity that made rock 'n' roll music such fun in the first place. With a few listens and a little patience, Dragonslayer reveals itself to be an exceptional record from one of indie rock's stalwart stars.

Check out Pitchfork to download "Idiot Heart"

Review: Deastro - Moondagger (* * * *)

Spiritual space-rock may be an awkward musical term, but it's perhaps the best way to describe Randolph Chabot's unique brand of electronic pop. The 22 year-old prodigy recording under the Deastro moniker draws inspiration from singing in church choirs, eighties synth-pop and any electronic or organic instrument he can get his hands on. A collection of his earliest material was released last year as Keepers and became something of a surprise hit on eMusic, which released the compilation. Now, Chabot returns with a proper debut in Moondagger, a feverishly upbeat and effortlessly enjoyable blast of catchy pop music with an endearingly geeky sci-fi edge.

What's immediately striking about the music on Moondagger is the way Chabot squeezes so much beauty and warmth out of a palette consisting primarily of cheesy synthesizers and weird electronic noises mixed with more organic guitar and drum riffs. Instead of cold, calculated beats, songs like openers "Biophelia" and "Parallelogram" hum with emotion in the midst of crashing percussion and spacey keyboard riffs. Though the record certainly has a very outlandish theme with song titles like "Toxic Crusaders" and "Pyramid Builders," it's obvious that Chabot enjoys adding a very human element to his music which keeps the subjects more relatable and personal while still providing an inimitable listening experience. Especially great are the shifting, bizarre "Greens, Grays, And Nordics" and the epic second single "Vermillion Plaza," both of which show Deastro at their quirky, explosive best.

Moondagger has a restless feel that keeps the listener alert and expecting the unexpected, and the record is better for it. Chabot's positive and seemingly endless energy compliment his strong melodies and wealth of ideas and the album keeps a full head of steam until the end of the lonely "Kurgan Wave Number One." Quite simply, Moondagger is among the better debut's I've heard this year and is a welcome and unique addition to the burgeoning electronica movement that has brought so many talented artists to the forefront of indie rock. Expect to be hearing much more from Randolph Chabot in the near future.

For some additional info on Deastro, check out this Rolling Stone piece (make sure to watch the video).

Deastro on MySpace

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Royal City's lovely odds 'n' ends

Although unknown to me until recently, Canadian musical collective Royal City has included some very notable names during its brief lifespan from 1999 to 2004. Primarily a songwriting vehicle for Aaron Riches, the band also featured Jim Guthrie as a member and collaborated with Leslie Feist, Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy), and Bobby Wiseman (Blue Rodeo) at one time or another. The band has garnered more than their fair share of critical acclaim and what appears to be a solid following despite only having lasted five years. I'm wondering now how it's possible for me to have overlooked this supergroup (of sorts), but I'm awfully glad for the late introduction that came with their recently released, self-titled b-sides and rarities collection.

Royal City, the album, is exactly what you'd expect from a record of its type, an uneven but generally strong collection of tunes that covers a wide range of stylistic territory. The first half of the album is especially great, with the brash opener, "Here Comes Success," the plaintive "Can't You Hear Me Calling," and the melancholy "Postcards" providing an excellent start. I'm sure there are plenty of gems here to be found by those more familiar with the band's work (like the pleasant waltz cover of the Strokes' "Is This It?"), but even the uninitiated will be able to appreciate the songwriting and musical craft that fills much of the 40 minutes.

You can download "Can't You Hear Me Calling" and "A Belly Was Made For Wine" from the new record below. Both should give you a good idea of Royal City's endearing folk-rock sound that makes even their b-sides collection an album worth exploring. The record is out today on Asthmatic Kitty.

Can't You Hear Me Calling (MP3)

A Belly Was Made For Wine (MP3)

The Dodos to release "Time To Die" Sep 15!

The Dodos back with a quick follow-up to last year's excellent Visiter, a nine-song record entitled Time To Die. Though the original duo of singer/guitarist Meric Long and drummer Logan Kroeber have added a new member, vibraphonist Keaton Snyder, the band have promised that the record retains their punchy, raw sound - just with a slightly different spin.

As Long puts it: “I’m glad that we were able to keep things simple on this record, because when your band gets a little popular, there’s this tendency to say things like, ‘Let’s add an orchestra on this one!” That works for some people, but it would detract from this band.”

You can read an interview that Pitchfork did with the band while they were still early in the recording process here.

I'm pumped, and as soon as I get word on a single I'll be sure to pass it along. Meanwhile, here's the tracklist:

Time To Die:
1. Small Deaths
2. Longform
3. Fables
4. The Strums
5. This Is A Business
6. Two Medicines
7. Troll Nacht
8. Acorn Factory
9. Time To Die

Anna Ternheim set to release new LP in August

Swedish songstress Anna Ternheim will be releasing a new record, her second U.S. album, on August 11. Leaving on a mayday was produced by Bjorn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn & John fame) and has already made quite the impression in Ternheim's home country, earning her Best Female Artist and Album of the Year at the Swedish Grammys. The first single from the album, "What Have I Done," is available for download on iTunes here, or you can check it out on Anna's MySpace page. The song's quirky beats and sinister string arrangements are striking, but the live acoustic version which you can see below is quite excellent as well, so give it a listen.

Rock Central Plaza releases new LP, offers first single and Van Halen cover

Unfortunately, I missed the release of Rock Plaza Central's new record, ...at the Moment of our Most Needing or If Only They Could Turn Around, They Would Know They Weren't Alone, while I was on vacation these past couple weeks. The folk-rock quintet are offering the first single from the record, "(Don't You Believe the Words of ) Handsome Men" along with a cover of Van Halen's "Panama," both of which you can download below. The group's gritty, earthy style and strong songwriting make them a band worth checking out, so download the songs and stay tuned for an album review coming up soon!

(Don't You Believe the Words of) Handsome Men

Panama [Van Halen Cover] (MP3)

Monday, June 22, 2009

MP3 Monday: Trevor Giuliani, The Skygreen Leopards

To celebrate my return, I figured I would resurrect my short-lived 'MP3 Monday' spot with a couple tunes from two artists that I've been introduced to recently. Enjoy!

Trevor Giuliani - "Wasting Your Town"

Mr. Giuliani is a singer/songwriter who is set to release his debut album, Subcontrario (In Stereo), on July 21st. His style is difficult to describe but easy to love, incorporating various pop and folk elements into an infectious and enjoyable blend that is at times upbeat and fun and occasionally lonely and delicate. Get a taste of the upcoming record by downloading the breezy "Wasting Your Town" below, which uses bright piano and guitar riffs to compliment Giuliani's clear tenor voice.

Wasting Your Town (MP3)

The Skygreen Leopards - "Dixie Cups in the Dead Grass"

Though Skygreen Leopards have been around for some time, I hadn't heard a thing about them until I received word about their upcoming album, Gorgeous Johnny, which will also be released on July 21st. The folksy first single from the record, "Dixie Cups in the Dead Grass," is a lovely tune with a touch of psychedelia giving the track a bit of a retro pop feel. I can't wait to hear the rest of the record and I'll be posting more about these guys soon, but for now, download the song and give it a listen immediately.

Dixie Cups in the Dead Grass (MP3)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A little vacay time

I'm leaving the country for a while and I won't be making much time to blog, so you won't be getting much (if anything) from me for the next two weeks. I know, I know, you'll miss me terribly and I feel the same way about you, but perhaps a little time apart will give us some perspective and room to breathe. After all, absence does make the heart grow fonder...right? Don't cry...please...just don't...alright, this is getting embarrassing; here's a Kleenex, clean yourself up.

Anyway, please feel free to continue writing me emails, alerting me to great new bands, or commenting on my posts to let me know how you REALLY feel about the music that gets posted here. A couple weeks and I'll be back and better than ever. Be. Strong...Goodbye my LOOOOOOVE!


Review: Passion Pit - Manners (* * * 1/2)

I can’t say this with the appropriate perspective, but I would agree that quite often, youth is indeed wasted on the young. Not so for Michael Angelakos, however; he seems to be determined to make the most of his. The talented 21 year-old musician and frontman of electro-rock outfit Passion Pit is not only enjoying early critical and (relative) commercial success, but he is – apparently - having a great time doing it. Last year’s Chunk of Change EP introduced us to a fresh-faced, high-voiced kid with a love for gooey sentiments and danceable synth-pop, making music for his girlfriend and gaining a legion of followers in the process, then hooking a record deal and releasing a well-received debut album that is sure to be the soundtrack to many a youthful summer. It all sounds like the plot to a bad teen comedy, but Manners is the kind of record that should be taken seriously, not only for its startling popularity, but because it’s quite good.

I imagine it’s easy to get noticed, for good or ill, when you’ve got pipes like Angelakos, who carries an almost shrill, child-like voice falling somewhere in the ‘impossibly high’ tier of vocal performances. His earnestly delivered wail will be an immediate deal-breaker for some and even fans may have a tough time sitting through an entire album’s worth, but his bright, sunny voice is unique and can be strangely addicting if you give it much of a chance. Also, Angelakos knows how to vary his tone from song to song, tempering it when necessary and only occasionally stretching himself too far. Openers “Make a Light” and “Little Secrets” are decent tracks that could do with less high-pitched yearning, but later on the record, as with “Eyes as Candles” and “To Kingdom Come,” the vocal delivery is much less explosive and more palatable as a result.

Though his voice is certainly the most unique aspect of Passion Pit’s exuberant pop style, it’s Angelakos’ gift for writing catchy melodies and talent with electronic arrangements and samples that make Manners a record worth exploring. Lead single “The Reeling” is an excellent example of the band’s appeal, full of both synthesized and organic percussion, horn samples, and layers of electronic riffs that come and go, constantly and pleasurably churning under the appropriately wide-eyed lyrics. Similarly, the excellent, climactic “Moth’s Wings” and the eighties-esque pop tune “Eyes as Candles” meld what should be a distracting amount of somewhat disparate influences into an entertaining musical backdrop that occasionally threatens to compete with the lyrics for attention. Angelakos and company may be offering a heavier dose of tooth-decaying musical gooiness than some would prefer, but their skill and energetic presentation makes it difficult to dislike.

There are some missteps here, like the previously mentioned “Make Light” and the plodding “Swimming in the Flood,” but they’re few and far enough between that the momentum of the album never really flags. The decision to include “Sleepyhead” may have been a poor one considering how out of place it feels among the new material, but given its popularity around the blogosphere, it’s tough to blame the band for its appearance here. Also, for every weak spot, there’s a more impressive tune to follow, literally. “Fold In Your Hands” picks things up with its funky swagger and harmony-heavy production while closer “Seaweed Song” ends things on a high note, with an irresistibly catchy chorus and pleasantly sappy lyrics.

Ultimately, Manners is an album that wears out its welcome by the end of its 45 minutes, but is an absolute blast when digested in smaller pieces. Mostly, it solidifies Passion Pit and especially Michael Angelakos as legitimately exciting and unique newcomers to an electro-pop genre in the midst of an absolute explosion. Uplifting and grin-inspiring while simultaneously well produced and presented, this is music that bodes great things for this young band’s future and nearly lives up to the amount of hype surrounding it – an accomplishment in and of itself.

Last Word: Passion Pit’s debut LP, Manners, is a slightly uneven, but enjoyable set of tunes that showcases the band’s talents and shows marked improvement over last year’s Chunk of Change EP.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Review: Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (* * * *)

With a few notable exceptions, France hasn’t served as the steady source of musical imports that the U.K. and Sweden have for so long, but pop-rockers Phoenix are one of a few bands that have consistently been trying to change that. Their impact on The States has always been on the lighter side, but with their latest release, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the boys have raised the bar, crafting an exciting, fresh, and generally remarkable album that may have come too late in the band’s career to be anything of a breakthrough, but still deserves more attention than it will likely receive. Four albums and ten years into their career, it sounds as if Phoenix has hit their stride; turns out it was worth the wait.

Nothing on the new record belies the group’s over-thirty age average; each tune is packed with sugary pop hooks and an infectious, youthful energy that gives the music the ability to smash through any resistance you may put up. At the roots, Phoenix’s formula is so simple, there seems to be little to distinguish it from the approach used by myriad other pop-rock bands making decidedly less impressive music. The magic, however, lies in the details of both the construction and presentation of an all-killer, no-filler album that is as genuinely fun as any released this year so far.

The songs feel carefully constructed but never over-worked, with just enough variety and experimentation to compliment the record’s general immediacy. The band uses spiky guitars, fuzzy synths, and excellently placed percussion under the eager tenor vocals of frontman Thomas Mars; never missing an opportunity to slip in another subtle flourish or quick hook. Opener “Lisztomania” begins with a simple, two-note piano line and bouncy guitar riff and slowly adds instrumental layers, but it never gets complicated enough to distract from the great melody that drives it. The same principle applies to many of the record’s tracks, like album highlights “1901” and “Lasso,” both quite uncomplicated in their aspirations of pop perfection and both among the catchiest tunes I’ve heard recently.

As I mentioned, Phoenix offers a few twists and turns throughout the record’s ten tracks; “Fences” is a groovy, falsetto-laden pop-rock tune while “Countdown (Sick for the Big Sun)” explodes in crashing synths and drums before subsiding into moments of relative calm. Both serve to shake things up a bit, as does the less direct, seven-minute duo of “Love Like a Sunset” parts one and two, the first of which is an electro-rock instrumental number, the latter of which dissolves into a spacey folk tune. It’s an interesting way to break up an album that is mostly preoccupied with danceable, bite-sized pop songs – but it’s an appropriate and welcome diversion from the other eight tracks that follow much more conventional song structures.

Lyrically, Mars stays just sharp enough to keep things interesting when you can understand what he’s saying, but it’s not exactly fine prose, and it’s just as well – that isn’t what you came here for anyway. What you came for was perfectly executed pop music with a big heart and even bigger choruses, and in providing that, the record succeeds completely. A modest aim perhaps, but one that doesn’t get accomplished nearly as often as it should, and Phoenix should be recognized for creating a pop-rock album against which other records of the genre, this year at least, can be compared.

Last Word: Phoenix’s latest, the provocatively titled Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is the best of the band’s career, a record full of fun hooks and captivating melodies that is among the year’s best pop albums so far.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

New and Notable: The Cubists

The Cubists are an experimental rock group from Augusta, Georgia set to release their debut record, Mechanical Advantage, on Tuesday. After years of touring while refining and sculpting their sound, the boys have compiled a solid first record that combines punk-rock urgency with hazy psychedelia and spacey electronica. The five-piece, led by singer-songwriter Noel Brown, show both ambition and promise on on the new album, which sacrifices some cohesiveness for a showcase of the group's diversity and wealth of ideas, a trade-off that works to The Cubists' advantage more often than not.

Many of the songs on the record are long and complex, twisting around common themes with shifting tempos and styles. The strong opening duo of "Fire In The Back Yard" and "The Orchestra Breathes" best capture the group's strengths, the former a driving, energetic alt-rock piece, the latter a spacier, slow-burning track. Much of the remaining material fits somewhere between the two, adding influences from folk ("Best Friends"), metal ("Mechanical Advantage") and ambient rock (Redux). The group cover quite a bit of territory over nine tracks and 50 minutes, and as I mentioned earlier, the very broad scope of the album makes for a surprising but perhaps uneven ride. However, The Cubists are talented enough to succeed in their eclectic endeavors and Mechanical Advantage is thoroughly entertaining and fascinating, suggesting even better things to come from this talented young band.

These guys are off to a great start and deserve your immediate attention, so download "She's Got Blood" from the new album (below) and head over to the band's MySpace page where you can hear more tunes. Oh, and if you ARE interested, Mechanical Advantage is already available digitally right now on iTunes, Amazon, etc.

She's Got Blood (MP3)

Adam Arcuragi's road to Joy

Adam Arcuragi is a talented folk singer-songwriter from Philadelphia that I was given the heads-up on recently. I'm passing on the good word to you because I've been impressed by Mr. Arcuragi's new album I Am Become Joy, set for release next week. He's got an endearingly rough and sincere edge to his poetic musings that immediately caught and kept my attention for the last couple weeks. His musical style is simple and follows a well-traveled path, with his acoustic guitar as his most common companion, but Arcuragi's music is a more than worthy addition to the folk genre. Joy is his second release, but if you - like me - haven't heard him before, it will serve as an excellent introduction.

The title of the new record might imply a sunny and well...joyful musical disposition, but the songs seem to be dealing more with the process of finding happiness and redemption than the achievement or possession of those same qualities. Arcuragi's tunes are sometimes lonely and melancholy, occasionally upbeat and optimistic, and most often some compelling combination of the two. Though the focus here is squarely on the storytelling, Arcuragi compliments his world-weary voice with some subtle, but welcome, instrumental flourishes like slide guitar, backing vocals, and the occasional horn selection. Both the simple, guitar/vocal numbers and the more fleshed out arrangements are enjoyable, and the small amount of variety goes a long way to providing some depth and overall listenability.

It's difficult to pick favorites from I Am Become Joy, but I recommend the earnest opener "She Comes To Me," the jangly, upbeat "People & Private Music," and the more subdued "The Guns that Bring the Morning Home." Check out MySpace to hear some tunes, or head over to laBlogotheque to see Adam and company perform several songs live and acoustic - which is really a treat. I'll post one below to get you started, the excellent "Bottom of the River" from the new album:

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Today on In Review Online:

As I've mentioned and as you can see on the sidebar, I write for a site called In Review Online that puts out a weekly selection of movie and music reviews written, for the most part, by people much more talented than myself. This week has a 'double-issue' theme to it and there's all kinds of great material which you should check out including four reviews that I posted here previously. In the future, I'll be including links to InRO from material I write that gets posted there.

WIR #37-38 (Double-Issue)
(includes some fantastic movie reviews along with a review of the new Grizzly Bear album which I love but am too lazy to write about on the site)

My contributions this week:

St. Vincent - Actor [Full Review]

, Annie Clark’s sophomore effort as St. Vincent, is a mature, complex and remarkably gripping blend of intriguing experimentation and beautiful melodies.

White Rabbits - It's Frightening [Full Review]

It’s Frightening is a solid sophomore effort from White Rabbits that shows the band taking a more adventurous and less direct approach to crafting a unique and exciting indie rock album.

John Vanderslice - Romanian Names [Full Review]

John Vanderslice’s seventh record, Romanian Names, doesn’t live up to his own self-established standard, but there’s enough good material to be worth our attention.

Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career [Full Review]

My Maudlin Career contains a few of Camera Obscura’s best tunes but is ultimately hampered by too much uninspired and dreary songwriting.

Shuta Hasunuma's Pop Ooga

My descent into the realm of the more avant-garde side of electronic music has been a slow one and only really started six or seven months ago, so I surprised myself when I fell in love with Shuta Hasunuma's latest record and third overall effort, Pop Ooga. Hasunuma makes music I've heard described as 'glitch-pop,' and although I'm fairly new to the term, the label seems fitting. The album is full of bursts of synth along with scattered piano and acoustic guitar riffs thrown into loops under the occasional whispered vocals. The fractured melodies are strangely inviting and thoroughly fascinating, with each of the 58 minutes carefully crafted and beautifully presented.

An attempt at describing the music in any more detail than I have already would be a mistake as I no real frame of reference here, but I will point you to one of my favorite tunes which you can download below, the expressive, bright "Power Osci," which falls on the relatively more approachable side of Pop Ooga's thirteen tracks. Granted, this is the kind of music that should truly be heard the context of the entire project, but the song should give you a good idea of Hasunuma's uniquely compelling electronic style.

The record is being released in the U.S. on double vinyl through Western Vinyl next week and will include a bonus track, "Go Pacific." You can also purchase the album digitally already through iTunes, Amazon, etc. if you prefer not to wait. Either way, take the time to familiarize yourself with the music of Shuta Hasunuma.

Power Osci (MP3)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Portland Cello Project welcomes Thao and Justin Power

I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to the music of the Portland Cello Project, the appropriately named musical collective consisting of a shifting lineup of 18 cellists that play everything from Bach to Britney Spears. While that may sound like the recipe for one of those awful 'string tribute to" albums, the band are getting ready to release a surprising and gorgeous record entitled The Thao and Justin Power Sessions, featuring selections from both musicians as well as some PCP instrumental covers from unrelated sources. Thao, who's quirky vocal style has caught my attention before, and Justin Power, who I've never had the pleasure of hearing, both perform previously written and recorded songs given new life from the collective's beautiful and appropriate string arrangements, resulting in some thoroughly impressive moments on the new album.

Though it would seem Sessions might appeal most to those familiar with either of the two artists mentioned in the album's title, I found the music immediately engaging despite my relative unfamiliarity with the material. After one listen, I was hooked. Power's offerings revolve around his acoustic guitar and slightly rough tenor voice which are wisely allowed to shine through the swirl of strings. Both the delicate, lonely "Hungry Liars" and the somewhat haunting closer "Travel" are excellent. Thao's tunes have a more theatrical edge to them, like the aching "Tallymarks" and the whimsical "Violet," but they stay fairly relaxed as well. PCP's arrangements add a measure of poignancy to her lyrics but they stop short of completely reinterpreting the songs.

The instrumental covers are nice enough and they tie the record together, but it's the guests that shine brightest, which is just as it should be. Effectively blending the talents of these singer/songwriters with the cellist's exceptional musicanship, The Thao and Justin Power Sessions is an album that should hopefully push this group further into the spotlight, so I suggest you check out Portland Cello Project as soon as possible. To hear some of the band's older music, check them out on MySpace, and be sure to download "Tallymarks" below.

Tallymarks (MP3)

Review: Joan of Arc - Flowers (* * * 1/2)

In one form or another, Tim Kinsella has been making music with his band, Joan of Arc, for over ten years now. The only truly permanent member, Kinsella is as prolific as he is restless, constantly crafting music that stands apart not only from other indie rock acts, but from his own catalog as well. His latest release with Joan of Arc, Flowers, finds him on an especially experimental kick, mashing together abstract instrumentals with more approachable pop song structures in a consistently surprising batch of tunes that never quite coalesces as an album but includes some impressive musical exploration just the same.

With a great deal of help from his friends, Kinsella brings his songs to life using an almost innumerable amount of instruments including strings, synths, guitars, piano, and others I probably don't recognize. Songs range fr0m the subtle electro-rock of opener "Fogbow" to sparse orchestral mood pieces like "Fable of the Elements" and often incorporate several styles in one track. Though I usually prefer my indie rock to be of a slightly more straightforward nature, the best tunes on Flowers are those that are less immediate. The meandering instrumental title track is simultaneously intriguing and enjoyable and the equally lengthy and abstract "Tsunshine" similarly impresses with some fantastic guitar work and Kinsella's quavering vocals. Even the brief and seemingly less consequential tunes like the unfortunately-titled "Delicious Herbal Laxative" and the lovely closer "The Sun Rose" sound inspired and expressive.

When the songs ARE more direct, the results are mixed - not because the songs themselves are of poor quality, but because they occasionally distract from the record's subtle energy. Still, despite a couple of less than spectacular pop tunes, Flowers is another delightfully odd journey through Kinsella's unique and ever-changing musical world. The musicianship and the wealth of ideas here make this an album suited to those who prefer their music on the more 'artistic' side or anybody just looking for a pleasant trip off the beaten path.

Hear some tunes on the band's MySpace

Monday, June 1, 2009

Review: Manchester Orchestra - Mean Everything To Nothing (* * * *)

I was first introduced to Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull's music last year, though it was through his solo moniker - Right Away, Great Captain! - an acoustic, folk-based project. With his previously established band, Hull explores a louder, more bombastic rock 'n' roll style on Mean Everything To Nothing with a kind of unhinged energy that sometimes rubs up against emo rock but generally avoids falling into the genre's less desirable conventions. Hull is still quite young (22 years old) and his high, strained tenor vocals and earnest lyrics sometimes show it, but his musical ability and songwriting talent point to a remarkable amount of maturity that in some ways compliments and other ways contrasts his youthfulness. The result is a rock album that is genuinely interesting and contains more than enough solid tunes to keep Hull's stock rising steadily.

The first five tracks of Mean Everything To Nothing stick to high-energy rock, with Hull spitting eager lines out in a barely restrained howl, occasionally lapsing into a primal scream on the end of the catchy "Shake It Out" and the metal-tinged "Pride." Though he does come across as a bit over-dramatic at times, his charisma and sincerity are hard to deny, and when the pop hooks shine through the noise as on "I've Got Friends," the results are very compelling. The second half of the disc holds a couple lighter, gentler moments - the melancholy ballad "I Can Feel a Hot One" and the dreary acoustic hidden track on the end of closer "The River." Both add some welcome variety to the record, but the heavier presentation still provide the more interesting tunes on the back half of the album as well as the top.

Mean Everything To Nothing's success is, in large measure, due to the fact that the record never wears you out with its intensity or overstays it's welcome, and that the band skillfully walk the line between progressive song structures and dynamics without sacrificing their alt-rock immediacy. The only obnoxious thing here is that we still have to deal with the annoying hidden-track-on-the-end-of-the-last-song gimmick (though if you buy it digitally, you get them separated), but that's nitpicking. Overall, a strong effort by a very talented band led by a songwriter who's prolific nature thankfully hasn't diminished his ability to make consistently great music. Quantity AND quality, who says you can't have it both ways?

See the boys' rockin' performance of "I've Got Friends" on Letterman and get to their MySpace page to hear more.

The Dimes take a trip to New England

The Dimes are an up-and-coming folk-rock group from Portland, Oregon who have just released an EP in preparation for their sophomore effort due out in August of this year. New England is more than just a single and collection of album rejects, however, with three of the four tracks inspired by real events from around the Boston, Massachusetts area and the fourth a beautiful cover of John Lennon's "Watching the Wheels." The four tunes play cohesively as a pleasant thirteen-minute collection of melodic indie folk that should serve as a good introduction to the band if you, like me, have missed out so far.

The formula behind the music is fairly familiar, but the execution on New England is excellent. "The Liberator" rambles along over acoustic guitar and percussion with dashes of accordion and mandolin while "Ballad of Winslow Homer" includes banjo and beautiful vocal harmony. "Clara" you can hear for yourself by downloading it below, a melancholy ballad that should make you eager to hear the remaining tracks from the record. The EP bodes great things for The Dimes' upcoming full-length, which I will be sure to write more about closer to the release date.

Check the boys out on MySpace for more.

Clara (MP3)

Hoots & Hellmouth share their Secret

Alt-country trio Hoots & Hellmouth are set to release their second disc, The Holy Open Secret, this Tuesday, June 2nd. This is the first I've heard of these three and I imagine I'm not the only one as they seem to have flown fairly well below the radar after the release of their self-titled debut in 2007. I think their name needs mentioning now, however, because their new effort is worth a listen for its infectious and modern pop take on classic Americana. The boys use a combination of bass, guitar, and mandolin along with some stomping percussion to compliment their constantly harmonizing voices which convey equal parts politically charged and social conscious lyrics.

What's best about the whirlwind of countrified folk tunes on The Holy Open Secret is that it stays fun and light throughout, despite dealing with the aforementioned topics which could certainly be handled in a more heavy-handed manner. The result is an album that's easy to listen to and enjoy while simultaneously providing more to think about than you might find on a typical pop country record. Also, these guys have some serious musical chops and impressive pipes with which to deliver the good time they seem to be quite intent on presenting. On the upbeat side, highlights include the fiery opener "Roots of the Industry" and the soulful, aggressive "What Good Are Plowshares If We Use Them Like Swords." The band also provide several great ballads, especially the gentle "Ne'er Do Well" and the lovely closer, "Roll, Brandywine, Roll."

Hoots & Hellmouth's mix of blues, country, funk, and good, old-fashioned rock 'n' roll is something you won't want to miss out on, so take some time to give these guys a listen by downloading the track "Known For Possession" below or check out the band on MySpace to hear more.

Known For Possession (MP3)

I'm guess these guys put on a great live show, so be sure to take a look and see if they're heading your way soon!

Jun 3*The Square Room*Knoxville, TN
Jun 4*Levitt Shell @ Overton Park*Memphis, TN
Jun 5*Vernon Lanes*Louisville, KY
Jun 6*Off Broadway Nightclub*St. Louis, MO
Jun 7*Wakarusa Festival*Ozark, AK
Jun 7*George’s Majestic Lounge - Wakarusa afterparty!*Fayetteville, AK
Jun 9*The Redstone Room*Davenport, IA
Jun 10*7th Street Entry*Minneapolis, MA
Jun 11*Shank Hall*Milwaukee, WI
Jun 13*Ribfest Chicago - North Stage*Chicago, IL
Jun 18*Joe’s Pub*New York, NY
Jul 11*StageOne*Fairfield, CT
Jul 16*The Basement*Nashville, TN
Jul 19*Unplugged in the Park @ Park Tavern*Atlanta, GA
Jul 25*WXPN All About the Music Festival*Camden, NJ
Aug 5*Musikfest - Liederplatz Stage*Bethlehem, PA
Aug 6*Iron Horse*Northampton, MA
Aug 7*Infinity Hall*Norfolk, CT
Sept 11*The Ark*Ann Arbor, MI
Sept 18-19*Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion*Bristol, VA