Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween Playlist: 2009

Here's a playlist of some albums/songs from 2009 that aren't explicitly Halloween-themed, but would probably be appropriate for an eerie mix for the more indie-minded. There's a few free downloads in there and links to hear the rest. Happy Halloween!

Artist: AFI
Song: End Transmission
Album: Crash Love

It's AFI - so you know it's gonna be at least a little creepy. "End Transmission" is my favorite off their new album.

Listen on YouTube

Artist: Antlers

Song: Epilogue
Album: Hospice

The most eerie song from an album full of them - genuinely goosebump-inducing.

Listen on YouTube

Artist: The Black Heart Procession

Song: Rats
Album: Six

Considering the name of the band and the song, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that this song deserves a place here.

Download "Rats"

Artist: The Builders and the Butchers

Song: Gold and Green
Album: Salvation is a Deep Dark Well

In a fiery Southern folk album filled with references to the devil, Hell, and places called Vampire Lake, you may be surprised to learn that "Golden and Green" is among the creepiest songs here, but one listen and you'll understand.

Download "Golden and Green" (Zipped MP3)

Artist: Cursive

Song: We're Going to Hell
Album: Mama, I'm Swollen

Cursive has always been a little strange, a bit creepy, but "We're Going to Hell" takes the cake.

Listen on YouTube

Artist: Dead Man's Bones

Song: My Body's a Zombie for You
Album: Dead Man's Bones

Indie newcomers Dead Man's Bones may be notable because of the involvement of one Ryan Gosling, but it's a celebrity music project unlike anything you've heard. Their self-titled debut is a strange, creepy concept album that features a children's choir for an extra kick - and though the entire thing would make a great Halloween listen, "My Body's a Zombie for You" seem especially appropriate.

Listen on MySpace

Artist: The Decemberists

Song: The Rake's Song
Album: The Hazards of Love

A song about a widower who kills all his children? With all the morbid details? *Shudder*

Download "The Rake's Song" (via Stereogum)

Artist: DM Stith
Song: Pity Dance
Album: Heavy Ghost

One of my favorite albums of the year also happens to be one of the most haunting. "Pity Dance" is the record's first single and very, very eerie.

Download "Pity Dance"
(via Asthmatic Kitty)

Artist: Ganglians
Song: Valiant Brave
Album: Monster Head Room

This psychedelic rocker is strange, messy, and just about danceable - complete with occasional evil background laughter.

Listen on MySpace

Artist: Hatcham Social

Song: Murder in the Dark
Album: You Dig The Tunnel, I'll Hide The Soil

Sexy, slinky and with an obviously dark streak, "Murder in the Dark" is enjoyably sinister.

Listen on MySpace

Artist: Marissa Nadler

Song: Ghosts and Lovers
Album: Little Hells

Nadler's soft, whispered voice and simple acoustic style is both beautiful and haunting, and no more so than on "Ghosts and Lovers"

Listen on MySpace

Also, download "River of Dirt" from the same album.

Artist: Sea Wolf
Song: O Maria!
Album: White Water, White Bloom

Sea Wolf's Alex Brown Church makes music for autumn, and though he's rarely outright scary, his music always has a dark tinge to it. "O Maria" is the rockinest tune he's written thus far.

Watch a live version on YouTube

Artist: Soulsavers
Song: Unbalanced Pieces
Album: Broken

Mark Lanegan and production duo Soulsavers have a knack for dark, swirling rock music and "Unbalanced Pieces" is no exception.

Listen on MySpace

Artist: St. Vincent

Song: Marrow
Album: Actor

From her most recent album, "Marrow" is St. Vincent's strangest tune yet, a strange and schizophrenic concoction of chamber pop, hip-hop, and rock that's more than a little disturbing.

Watch/listen on MySpace

Artist: White Lies
Song: To Lose My Life
Album: To Lose My Life

White Lies combine a morbid fascination with death and darkness with anthematic hooks for electrifying results.

Listen on MySpace

Artist: Wildbirds and Peacedrums

Song: There Is No Light
Album: The Snake

Swedish husband and wife duo Wildbirds and Peacedrums are - mostly - not interested in making cutesy love songs, as evidenced by "There Is No Light," which sounds like the work of people possessed with its crashing percussion and primal vocals.

Download "There Is No Light" (MP3)

Three for...Friday: Capybara, Animal Kingdom, Ivan & Alyosha

Capybara -

Earlier this year, Capybara self-released their excellent debut album - Try Brother - and are now planning on a proper release next week on indie label The Record Machine. Hopefully that means more exposure for the band, whose music deserves any attention it receives. Freak-folk might be an appropriate label for the Kansas City group, but they rest on the softer, more melodic side of the genre. Their lo-fi approach - utilizing guitars, banjos, and various percussion - gives their songs a charmingly rustic sound, but its the songwriting that truly shines here. Simple yet arresting melodies, constant harmony, intriguing song structures combine for some truly great moments on their new album - like the shifting, multi-faceted opener "San Francisco, 1906," the strange and perky "The Wimp" and the shimmering "Magpies."The whole album combines to form a truly compelling and captivating experience that actually stacks up well against the best debuts that 2009 has to offer - and that's saying something. Oh, and you're welcome for the tunes - they're both amazing.


Soft (MP3)

Birthday Song (MP3)

Animal Kingdom -

Although they've generated a fair amount of hype recently, I still know almost nothing about the UK's Animal Kingdom. I do know that their debut record - Signs and Wonders - was recorded by uber-producer Phil Ek (who's recent work included albums by Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver) and also that it's quite good, which is the point I suppose. Animal Kingdom often sound something like a smooth blend of early Radiohead, Coldplay, and Band of Horses (there's the Ek connection), but while their music may not be entirely unique in its approach, the songs on their debut still contain a genuine distinctness that makes the album worth exploring. First single "Tin Man" serves as a good introduction, showcasing the high, clear vocals and epic-yet-intimate instrumental interplay that can be found throughout the record. They take the occasional break for an acoustic ballad ("Silence Summons You") or groovy rocker ("Walls of Jericho"), which gives some variety to the 12 tracks, and when they get a little strange, as on the dark "Mephistopheles," they prove they're diverse and interesting enough to hold our attention.


Ivan & Alyosha -

No, that band name isn't the result of some crazy coincidence - the duo recording and performing as Ivan & Alyosha is actually comprised of musicians Tim Wilson and Ryan Carbary. With Wilson on vocals and Carbary on a little bit of everything, the two make music that is refreshingly simple, with no gimmicks, no pretension, just classic pop songwriting and engaging melodies. They have a bit of a retro vibe to them, borrowing from the pop stylings of 60s and 70s at times, and their new EP - The Verse, The Chorus - shows the two artists combining those past influences with a more modern, alt-rock sound. The results won't start any kind of musical revolution, but the songs are genuine, fun, and catchy as can be. And these two are talented enough to avoid simply retreading the territory of those who have gone on before or sticking to just one formula. Opener "Beautiful Lie" features jazzy piano and smooth vocal harmony in an almost Beatlesque style, "Some Friend You Are" is a melancholy ballad, and "Normal People" is a melodic, emotive rock tune. The seven songs of The Verse, The Chorus get these boys off to a great start.

Easy to Love (Zipped MP3)


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: Sea Wolf - White Water, White Bloom (* * * 1/2)

Alex Brown Church, the singer/songwriter behind Sea Wolf, is wise as to the timing of his album releases. 2007's impressive debut - Leaves in the River - dropped in September and was a perfect fit to the fall season, with a broad stylistic range of folk songs that conjured both the last sighs of summer and the eerie approach of winter, using everything from acoustic guitars to accordions to digital percussion. And Church's voice - an unassuming, earthy tenor - just amplified the autumn-ness of the music as he delivered stories with titles like "Black Leaf Falls" and "The Cold, the Dark and the Silence." The band's sophomore effort - White Water, White Bloom - follows suit two years later, both in timing and style, though Sea Wolf seems uninterested in simply repeating themselves, offering a selection of songs that trades the intimacy of the band's previous work for a more consistent and expansive rock sound. The result is a record that surprises less, but provides highlights that easily hold up to and perhaps surpass the band's best on their debut.

On first listen - and perhaps as a the price paid for its cohesiveness - White Water, White Bloom may seem a little homogeneous in its folk-rock approach, but after a few listens the songs begin to distinguish themselves more completely, and it ends up being less of an issue than it first appears. Still, the most interesting songs on the album are those that immediately stand out from the pack. "Orion & Dog" is one, which keeps things stripped-down (relatively) and percussion-free, relying on a strong melody and some striking strings to convey Church's astrological love story. On the opposite end of the spectrum, "O Maria!" (which immediately brings to mind The Decemberists' "O Valencia!") is the hardest-hitting tune of the bunch and of Sea Wolf's short career, with a satisfyingly crunchy guitar riff backed by thumping drums and pounding piano. Most everything else falls somewhere in between, relying on various instrumental embellishments to help Church create differing moods and emotions with his vivid lyricism that combines folklore and nature imagery with modern romantic themes. There are weaker moments, but nothing distracting or even really skip-worthy, and as a whole, White Water, White Bloom is a thoroughly enjoyable 40 minutes that in many ways builds on the strengths of its predecessor.

The link below will take you to Sea Wolf's label page and - for an email address - will allow you to download a vinyl-only bonus track ("Stanislaus") for free. Definitely worth your time.

Stanislaus (MP3 download via Dangerbird Records)


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Three for Tuesday: Spring Tigers, CFCF, Bryan Scary

Spring Tigers -

Learning that upcoming pop-rock band Spring Tigers hail from Athens, Georgia, I was initially a bit confused. Though there's no shortage of U.S. bands seeking to mimic Brit-pop artists even down to their charming accents, Spring Tigers really seemed distinctly and genuinely British. The mystery was solved when I found that singer/songwriter/guitarist Kris Barratt is - in fact - the real deal, though he's spent some time now in the States, where he met the rest of the band that would become Spring Tigers. The band's self-titled debut EP (or mini-LP, as the band calls it) - filled with big vocal hooks, buoyant guitars, and restless keys - has become a new favorite of mine over the past couple weeks. Tracks like "Just Suggesting," with its joyous energy and extremely infectious refrain, and the bouncy 80s-pop rocker "Beep Beep" make this first effort one that is consistently compelling and fun - boding excellent things for this group's future. Definitely check out some links below - I highly recommend these exciting newcomers.

Just Suggesting

New Improved Formula (MP3)



CFCF is one Michael Silver, a twenty-something Canadian electronica artist who has built some impressive hype around his full-length debut album, Continent, which was just released today. Silver has already made something of a name for himself with a contest-wining remix of Crystal Castles' "Air War" as well as official remixes for bands like HEALTH and The Presets. Fortunately, his new album makes good on the promise shown in his earlier material, offering a stylistically diverse set of tunes that borrows from myriad influences yet remains remarkably cohesive. Songs like the imaginative, club-ready Fleetwood Mac cover "Big Love" and the decidedly 80s synth-pop tune "Invitation to Love" showcase Silver's impressive compositional abilities, and while he rarely features himself on vocals, he mentioned to Pitchfork recently that he's reaching out to several artists for more vocal-centric work in the future, which should be amazing. Continent is sometimes contemplative ("You Hear Colours"), frequently danceable ("Monolith") and always captivating. If you haven't yet, you'll be hearing much more about and from CFCF very soon.

Monolith (MP3)


Bryan Scary and the Shredding Tears-

Bryan Scary recorded his first album, The Shredding Tears, almost entirely by himself, but soon formed a full band to work on his second effort, Flight of the Knife, a strange concept album centered around the mission of a fearless airship pilot. Still, even with the release of a new EP - Mad Valentines - Scary and company remain mostly (and criminally) undiscovered. And that's a real shame given the quality of the music on the new record, which mixes glam-rock, psychedelia, and classic pop into a delightfully odd and genuinely fun blend. There's plenty of variation within the six tracks of the EP - opener and first single "Andromeda's Eyes" features hyperactive piano and spastic guitar lines under Scary's earnest tenor voice, while "(It's A) Gambler's Whirl" takes a more deliberate, funkier approach and "Maria Saint Claire" is a Beatlesque pop tune. And everything works well enough that Mad Valentines serves as a good introduction to the band if you haven't heard them before, or a welcome return if you're already a fan.

Andromeda's Eyes
(Zipped MP3)


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Review: Atlas Sound - Logos (* * * *)

For Bradford Cox (known primarily as the frontman for indie heavyweights Deerhunter), albums released under his solo moniker, Atlas Sound, are clearly labors of love. When early versions of the songs that would eventually make up his new album, Logos, accidentally made their way onto his blog (he was, unfortunately, the one responsible), Bradford was so upset he nearly scrapped the entire project. For a man who routinely offers free tunes of all sorts on that same blog, this may have seemed like an overreaction, but it’s obvious that Cox intended for his sophomore solo effort to be more than just a collection of tossed-off experiments, non-album cuts or covers; and now that we get to hear the final and finished product, we should be thankful he decided to complete it. For Logos, Cox takes what was started on Atlas Sound’s debut, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, and expands it, opening the process to collaborators and varying the stylistic approaches to a more intriguing and somehow accessible end. (Continue Reading...)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

@ In Review Online: Unheard Of #2

The second installment for the "Unheard Of" feature I'm doing for In Review Online just went up! There are some bands I've featured before on Chewing Gum for the Ears, and a couple new ones - so check it out! I'll post a shorter version of the feature below, but visit In Review for the full thing - including some free music!

Full article: Unheard Of #2

Featured Artists:

fun. -
Recent Release: Aim and Ignite

"...a record that is exquisitely crafted, consistently surprising, and - of course - very fun indeed."

Shuta Hasunuma -
Recent Release: Pop Ooga

"Each moment feels carefully constructed and beautifully presented, making Pop Ooga a captivating and engaging musical experience for its entire 51 minutes."

Netherfriends -
Recent Release: Calling You Out EP

"contains...plenty of psychedelically-tinged, messy musical and vocal hooks and a refreshingly strange approach to indie rock."

Arms -
Recent Release: Kids Aflame

"It may be a subtle kind of magic that makes Kids Aflame an album worth digging into, and some will likely be underwhelmed by its straightforwardness, but Todd Goldstein’s solo debut is a great way to make an entrance."

Robert Francis -
Recent Release: Before Nightfall

"Though Robert Francis’ youth will certainly turn heads, the music he creates deserves more than just 'he’s good for his age' sorts of comments. "

Three for...Thursday: Old Canes, Wiretree, Parlour Steps

Old Canes -

Chris Crisci, frontman of the Appleseed Cast, is the driving force behind Old Canes - the indie rock band that released their sophomore effort just this week. Feral Harmonic is a noisy blast of folk rock that contrasts that more electric style of Crisci's other project, with the band members using acoustic guitars, drums and all sorts of percussion along with their leader's rough tenor voice. It's a raw and energetic album packed with noisy hooks and bright melodies, usually hitting hard and quick with the 12 songs coming in at just under 40 minutes. My favorites include "Little Bird Courage," with its insistent drum roll and hard-strummed guitar riff, and "I Will Be the Sun," which is even faster and messier yet just as melodic. There are some gentler moments on the album, like the brief, folky ballad "Under," and the upbeat but sparse instrumental "Black Hill Chapel," which are effective as well - but Feral Harmonic thrives on energy, and there's plenty of it on this strong sophomore effort from Old Canes.

Trust (MP3)


Wiretree -

Austin-based folk-pop group Wiretree also have a sophomore effort, Luck, just recently released this week, and by its inclusion on this feature, you know it's worth your time as well. The quartet - led by singer/songwriter Kevin Peroni - make clear, melodic pop music, borrowing bits from groups like The Beatles and Velvet Underground but with a modern indie rock twist. From crisp rockers like "Information" and "Back in Town" to the dark balladry of tracks like "Heart of Hearts," Wiretree sounds confident - and for good reason. The songs are well-written and the instrumentation sharp, with Peroni's smooth voice comfortably fitting into its niche. The album only contains nine original songs (and one demo of "Falling"), but with music this consistently great, 30 minutes is enough time to be satisfied. With Luck, Wiretree has become a band to know - make sure you get introduced as soon as possible.

Back in Town (MP3)

Satellite Song (MP3 via Under the Radar)


Parlour Steps -

Canadian indie-rockers Parlour Steps have been around for a few years, having just released their third album recently, but they've managed to keep an unfortunately low profile thus far. The five-piece band's new record - The Hidden Names - has served as an excellent introduction for me, and now I'm thinking I'll have to give the back catalog a listen. It's a hooky, melodic album filled with boy/girl harmonies, bouncy guitars, and arpeggiated keyboard riffs that balances a sharp wit and a more mature viewpoint admirably, and the band create some outstanding pop moments with this formula. The first half is packed with highlights, like the flowing "Little Steps," the perky, horn-laden "Soft Lies" and the simple acoustic ballad "Sleeping City," each song markedly different than the last but somehow creating a cohesive listening experience all the way through. The back half may lack the strong punch packed in the first, but there's nothing weak or bland anywhere to be found, and The Hidden Names impresses in some way at nearly every turn. Very enjoyable and highly recommended.

Little Pieces (MP3)

Bleeding Hearts (MP3)


Monday, October 19, 2009

This Week @ In Review Online: Flaming Lips, The Mountain Goats and more

Maybe this should read last week at In Review Online, but these review just got posted recently and I think we've got a good haul for you. My Monsters of Folk review I've already posted, but here's the full list:

Flaming Lips - Embryonic ( by Yorgo Douramacos)
3.5 Stars (of 4)

"If all you think of in connection with Wayne Coyne and the boys is sugary, glacial bliss and secular humanist hymns set against stories about weird aliens and superheroes, here comes Embryonic to remind us just who we’re dealing with."

The Mountain Goats - Life of the World to Come (by Jordan Cronk)
2.5 Stars (of 4)

"...The Life of the World to Come is a deeply penetrating, earnestly manifest song cycle applicable to just about anyone willing to open themselves up to Darnielle’s penetrating realizations."

Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk (by Yours Truly)
3 Stars (of 4)

"You probably won’t want any of these talented musicians to quit their day jobs soon, but this album is more than just a fun diversion—it’s an impressive achievement."

Califone - All My Friends are Funeral Singers (by Jordan Cronk)
3 Stars (of 4)

"All My Friends Are Funeral Singers represents yet another unique and deeply rewarding conflation of a variety of classic and modern American rock and folk signifiers."

Wild Beasts - Two Dancers (by Yorgo Douramacos)
3.5 Stars (of 4)

"...Wild Beasts somehow create echo-drenched theatrical lounge music for tomorrow’s sexier rocket ships."

Review: Hockey - Mind Chaos (* * * *)

Portland dance-rock band Hockey may be new to the scene, but they've already covered quite a bit of ground. They've toured on either side of the Atlantic, appearing on both the Jools Holland show and Jimmy Fallon, and created all sorts of well-deserved buzz on early singles like the infectious "Too Fake." After hearing a few tunes from the band, I was excited to get my hands on a copy of their debut album - Mind Chaos - which was recently released and mostly delivers on the sizable amount of hype with a healthy dose of both understated electro-funk and guitar-fueled punk-rock. The two genres blend together smoothly and with some excellent results, showing Hockey as a confident and talented bunch of newcomers that will probably appeal to indie kids and the more radio-friendly crowd as well.

The aforementioned "Too Fake" begins the album on perhaps its highest point. It's the perfect example of how well the band's LCD Soundsystem via The Clash style can work, with some simple digital programming under an equally simple guitar/drum/bass attack and singer Benjamin Grubin's appealingly cocky croon that grabs hold during the song's explosive chorus. Throughout the record, Hockey's frontman remains appropriately in the spotlight, spouting too-cool lines like "I've got too much soul for the world" and "I stole my personality from an anonymous source/and I'm getting paid for it too/I don't feel bad about that" with stylish casualness at times and eager sincerity at others, usually finding the perfect balance between the two. That's not to discredit the band, who keep it mostly straightforward but with the right hooks in all the right places, making tracks like the 80's pop groove of "Song Away" and the gospel-meets-funk of "Preacher" (just to name a couple) so fun, danceable, and impossibly catchy.

The album's more diverse second half doesn't quite coalesce like the first five tracks (which are all great), but even the songs that feel a bit out of place - like the folky "Four Holy Photos" - succeed well enough not to merit a serious complaint, especially considering the general strength of the 11 tunes comprising this solid debut. Hockey is off to a fantastic start with Mind Chaos, a fun and fresh rock album with punk energy and pop intelligence. It almost seems too easy to love, too obvious or simple perhaps, but even after spending some serious time with the album, I can't help but feel that this pleasure is anything but guilty. Definitely expect to be hearing much more about these guys soon.


Review: Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk (* * * *)

If the word “supergroup” makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone—that term has all too often created false hope for bands that should by definition be excellent but almost never fulfill those high expectations. But as jaded as you may be, it’s impossible not to be intrigued by the idea of folk superstars Jim James, Conor Oberst and M. Ward, together with Bright Eyes member and producer Mike Mogis, teaming up to release a collaborative album. And really, Monsters of Folk, or MOF (as it is frequently abbreviated), would probably only qualify themselves as a supergroup with the same kind of faux bravado carried with their appropriate but silly title, an example of the relaxed, high-spirited atmosphere that pervades the band’s music. That’s not to say their self-titled debut, with roots going back as far as 2005, ever feels lazy or tossed off. Quite the opposite, in fact; the 15 tracks onMonsters of Folk combine to make a better album than some of its creators have made recently as solo artists (Oberst and Ward especially). (Continue Reading...)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Three for...Thursday: The Blakes, Beaten Awake, Bear in Heaven

Enjoy an unintentionally B-themed Three for... with lots of free music!

The Blakes -

Garage rockers The Blakes have returned with another helping of DIY rock 'n' roll on what is their second widely-available album, Souvenir, though the Seattle trio have been steadily recording music since their formation in 2001. The new record doesn't really expand much on the band's simple guitar-rock formula, but what they lack in invention they make up for in hook-filled, pop-rock songs with rough, unrefined edges that are impossible to deny. As they work their way through fiery punk songs ("Batista"), lonesome power ballads ("So Easy"), and slinky garage-pop tunes ("Tommy") it's clear that the band is having a great time, and chances are you will too. They may be taking the road well-traveled, but The Blakes have crafted a rock album that's simply too good and too much fun to ignore. Make sure you check out the links below - there's some quality stuff down there.

Basket (Zipped MP3)

Ramshackle Hearse (MP3 via Under the Radar)

Listen to the album on Spinner
(this week only)


Beaten Awake -

The name Beaten Awake may bring to mind some sort of death-metal band from Sweden, but the Ohio-based trio - while definitely a rock band - are more interested in melody and hooks than thundering guitar riffs and screaming. Their sophomore effort, Thunder$troke, features recording assistance from none other than Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, whose label the album was released and with whom Beaten Awake singer Jon Finley plays with in the new rock outfit Drummer. Connections aside, however, Thunder$troke is a solid album with an almost 90's grunge/rock vibe - updated and modernized with indie rock overtones to make songs that sound somewhat familiar but fresh as well. Highlights from the album include the driving "Suite Cheetah," the scuzzy, groovy title track and the brooding "Danger Pins." Check out a complimentary song from the new album below or head to the band's MySpace to hear more.

Coming Home (MP3)


Bear In Heaven -

I'm not sure exactly how to label Bear In Heaven. Psychedelic space rock, maybe? That's probably as close as I can come to describing the way they blend digital and organic elements into a subtly trippy listening experience on their latest album, Beast Rest Forth Mouth. The quartet's unique sound has earned them some well-deserved acclaim though this isn't the kind of music that's likely to win them a large audience, at least not immediately. Songs like openers "Beast in Peace" and "Wholehearted Mess" don't really wear their hooks on their sleeves; instead, the band buries them under layers of synth, programming and droning guitar, which threatens to almost obscure the vocals at times. Still, there's something very "pop" about this album once you dive into it. "You Do You" has a insidiously catchy synth riff, "Lovesick Teenagers" has an almost anthematic chorus, and "Fake Out" includes a funky, danceable drum riff. Definitely not easy listening, but more than worth the time it takes to uncover its charm. Links below:

Lovesick Teenagers (MP3)

Wholehearted Mess


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Thao with the Get Down Stay Down - Know Better Learn Faster (* * * *)

I was introduced to Thao Ngyuen's music at the beginning of last year with the release of her album We Brave Be Stings and All, which I thankfully stumbled upon and quickly fell in love with. Her distinctive but ear-pleasing voice and quirky, enlightening look into relationships was perfectly complemented by the sometimes folky, sometimes funky sound she and her band create - charming, bright, and endlessly catchy. She and the remainder of her band - The Get Down Stay Down (bassist/keyboardist Adam Thompson and drummer Willis Thompson) -are now back with another full-length entitled Know Better Learn Faster, the band's third effort and one that at least matches the quality of its predecessor while moving the band stylistically forward. The formula the band follows is quite similar this time around, but guests such as Eric Earley from Blitzen Trapper and Andrew Bird lend a bit more variance and depth while the band approaches these tunes with groovier, more danceable attitude.

Opening the record is a 30 second gospel stomp called "The Clap" that left me wanting much more upon first listen, that is until the intro guitar lick of "Cool Yourself" met the funky bass line and simply effective drum riff under Thao's welcome first vocal appearance - and when the horns came in for the "whoa whoa whoa" refrain, I was in pop heaven. And so it continued as I made my way through the record, each great moment subsiding into something equally as fantastic and smile-inducing. The band doesn't frequently over-complicate their music - leaving Thao plenty of room in the spotlight, but their attention to instrumental detail gives these songs so much life; Willis Thompson is a wizard on percussion, using a variety of techniques and instruments to create just the right sound at the right time, while Thao's guitar and Adam Thompson's bass twirl nimbly around each other constantly. Also, little extras like Andrew Bird's unmistakable violin work and whistling on the album's title track provide the occasional and pleasant surprise. The music works best when upbeat and cheery (even when the lyrics are decidedly less so - Thao herself labeled this as a breakup album), like the aforementioned "Cool Yourself," the clap-happy, groovy "Fixed It!," and the bouncy closer "Easy." The few ballads are slightly less consistent, but they round out the record's 13 tracks appropriately without disrupting the momentum much.

Thao's energetic and emotional (and usually optimistic) nature is infectious - allowing her to transfer the feeling of each melody and lyric directly to the listener, which makes Know Better Learn Faster a rich and enjoyable experience from any angle. Also, it's unlikely that you'll hear anything quite like it this year or any other, for that matter - the trio have made something both unique and inspired. There are a lot of great rock albums to hear this year, but you'd be a fool not to make time for Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Three for...The Weekend: Meaghan Smith, Mean Creek, Orenda Fink

Meaghan Smith -

I wrote briefly about Meaghan Smith several months ago when she released her debut EP, but I thought she was worth bringing up again as she's just dropped her full-length album - The Cricket's Orchestra. I was initially a bit disappointed to find that all of the songs on her EP are also included on the LP, but I'll admit the new record works remarkably well as a whole. And for most of you, that probably won't be an issue at all anyway. Meaghan's music is reminiscent of classic pop/jazz/swing records from ages ago, but somehow feels remarkably modern as well. Highlights from The Cricket's Orchestra include the deceptively cheery "Heartbroken," the pleading "If You Asked Me" and the sweet ballad "A Little Love." Her beautiful voice gives her selection of 11 love songs (well, love-related anyway) a vibrant emotional color which, when combined with the album's stellar musicianship, makes this a debut you need to hear.


Mean Creek -

Mean Creek is a Boston-based quartet that combines boy/girl vocals and indie pop hooks with a gritty Americana/rock 'n' roll approach, creating a unique sound heard on their recently-released sophomore effort - The Sky (Or the Underground). The new album contains songs with a variety of tempos and dynamics, with noisy rockers, spacey ballads, and the occasional folk tune making up the ten tracks. On the louder side of things are highlights like the dark, swirling title track and the urgent anthem "Face of the Earth" which kick off the album, while tunes like "It's Good to Be Back Again" show the band's more gentle side. Many of the songs throw in a little of everything, switching between moments of contemplative calm and intense emotion - resulting in a consistently interesting and impressive rock record that bodes good things for newcomers Mean Creek.

The Sky (Or the Underground) (Zipped MP3)

Light Into Dark (MP3 via Under The Radar)


Orenda Fink -

For her sophomore album - Ask the Night - Orenda Fink only includes 28 minutes of music, but its certainly a case of quality over quantity. The singer/songwriter's melancholy style has a gothic Americana twinge to it (think a slightly less depressed Marissa Nadler) that I find especially appealing and her new LP has quickly become a new favorite of mine in the folk genre. Though her songs generally focus on her soft, emotional voice and acoustic guitar - banjo, accordion, backing vocals and other instruments subtly accentuate and add depth to her music. Favorites from the album include the heartbreaking opener "Why Is the Night Sad," the fiery duet "High Ground," and the slightly countrified "The Garden," all of which contribute to an especially strong first half, though the back half is solid as well. Definitely recommended listening for folk junkies such as myself.

That Certain-Something Spring (MP3 via Paste)


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Review: Islands - Vapours (* * * 1/2)

Nicholas Thorburn – or Nick Diamonds if you prefer his stage name – seems to have been gifted with an inability to recognize his own limitations or boundaries, a curse as well as a blessing, but probably more often the latter when it comes to making great pop music. He never stays in one place for long, resulting in an involvement in numerous, varied and often significant musical endeavors, only one of which has lasted more than an album or so. His first group, The Unicorns, only released one true LP (the spectacular Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?), his hip-hop side project Th’ Corn Gangg never cut a record at all and his folk rock collaboration with Jim Guthrie, Human Highway, seems to have been put indefinitely on hold after a debut album and some touring. The one exception to this career of short-lived projects, of course, is Islands, who recently released their third effort, Vapours. (Continue Reading...)


Friday, October 9, 2009

@InRO: Discographer #3: The What of Why?

Over at In Review Online we've just posted our third 'Discographer' feature - a look into the albums of Yoni Wolf's band, Why? I only wrote one of the reviews - but the entire feature is worth looking into for a take on this unique musician's notable career:

Discographer: The What of Why?

Reviews -

Oaklandazulasylum (by Jordan Cronk)

Elephant Eyelash (by Chris Nowling)

(by Lukas Suveg)

Eskimo Snow (by Jordan Cronk)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Three for...Thursday: Zoos of Berlin, Netherfriends, Nancy Elizabeth

Zoos of Berlin -

Detroit quartet Zoos of Berlin may only have one full-length album under their belt - Taxis - but they have the sound of a band with much more maturity and experience. Their brand of indie rock has an almost elegant, stately feel to it - incorporating elements of jazz, soul, and classic pop - though the band is more than willing to up the tempo and volume when the occasion calls for it. The boys have a solid debut on their hands that they recorded, produced and released themselves this year - from which I recommend the driving "Black In the Sun Room," the lengthy, multifaceted "Juan Matus" and the disco-esque "Electrical Way" to start. The smooth blend of influences and ideas on Taxis results in an album that's often subtle but quite dynamic and consistently intriguing, with plenty to be discovered upon multiple listens. Definitely give these guys a shot.

Zoos of Berlin, "Black in the Sun Room" from Adam Lonczynski on Vimeo.


Netherfriends -

Also new on the scene are Chicago psych-pop trio Netherfriends, whose new EP, Calling You Out, was released earlier this year. It's difficult to really describe or classify the group, though they touch on elements of freak-folk, noise-pop, and even a little of the Caribbean vibe that's been going around recently. Their six-song EP shows an ambitious and energetic band with the talent to pull off their almost casually experimental sound stuffed with various guitars, percussion and synth under singer Shawn Rosenblatt's off-kilter tenor voice. There are a generous amount of excellent pop moments on the album, including the anti-pervert song "Really?," which bounces between busy guitar and drum attacks and moments relative calm with little more than vocals to propel the song forward (think early Animal Collective). My other recommendations would be the messy, tribal "Nunya" and the especially melodic closer "Don't Invite Me."

Daytrotter Sessions Concert (highly recommended!)


Nancy Elizabeth -

British singer/songwriter Nancy Elizabeth might not be on your radar yet, but I'm thinking it's only a matter of time before we all start hearing much more about her. Her strong, emotional voice and songwriting style put her somewhere between Natasha Khan and Joanna Newsom, though she's certainly got a sound all her own. Her sophomore album, Wrought Iron, was released recently and has given me a welcome introduction to this talented songstress. First single "Feet of Courage" is probably the best showcase of her talent and appeal - a slowly building number that features soft tribal percussion and Elizabeth's haunting voice as the primary instruments while other subtle establishments work their way into the gentle climax. Most of the album follows a similarly restrained pattern that rarely gets loud or complex, but even on the most delicate and sparse of songs ("Ruins," for example), Elizabeth manages to captivate.

Nancy Elizabeth - Feet Of Courage from Leaf Label on Vimeo.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Review: Muse - The Resistance (* * *)

Almost by its very nature, Muse's music inspires drastically different reactions. Even the critical opinion seems to be quite divided , and though most everyone acknowledges the same strengths and weaknesses, how much you enjoy it seems to depend on which attributes of their music you choose to focus your attention. Or maybe, at least recently, it really just boils down to whether or not you love stadium-sized rock 'n' roll that pays homage to classic 80s rock. Because that's what The Resistance is at heart - no more, no less really - a collection of overblown and over-dramatic rock songs that reference everyone from Blondie to Queen, stuffed with anthematic vocals, epic guitars and thunderous drums. The transformation that began with 2006's Black Holes and Revelations continues with their new record, taking Muse into territory quite distant from their Radiohead-emulating origins in 1999.

Personally, I thought Black Holes and Revelations was easily the band's most accomplished work. That it was grandiose to the point of being silly and more than a little pretentious is true, but it's also beside the point. The music was just too good to ignore, with Matthew Bellamy's soaring voice and angst-ridden lyrics delivered over some superb guitar, bass, and drum work. And really, the formula for The Resistance is about the same, though it's got a decidedly more 'rock opera' feel to it this time around. Bellamy is still paranoid, singing about the people's fight and eventual triumph over 'they' (the man, the government, the greedy, the selfish, etc.), who seem intent on keeping him and everyone else hopeless, loveless and downtrodden. His lyrics feel trite at times, more so here than before, but usually he's convincing (or maybe just convinced) enough to get away with it.

The remaining band members stay sharp on bass and drums, but they also compete much of the time with other digital and organic instrumental flourishes that remained mostly absent even from the band's last record. "Undisclosed Desires" floats over a hip-hop beat and emotive string arrangements while "United States of Eurasia" rips off Queen so completely (one of several incidents) you might actually think Brian May was there to provide guitar and backing vocals. It's here that the music begins to feel a little disingenuous - Muse is certainly talented enough to pull it off, and it's mostly fun and occasionally thrilling - but the whole experience feels somewhat tired and borrowed when you'd think Muse should be able to come up with their own ideas by now. When they stick to the basics ("Unnatural Selection," for example) the results are stronger in their simplicity.

The three-song closing suite "Exogenesis," with a string-heavy, symphonic style, takes things in another direction entirely. It doesn't work completely - but it's at least interesting and genuinely beautiful at times. It's yet another disparate element in an obviously ambitious but somewhat confused album that I'll admit I enjoy but only when I'm in certain moods. At it's best, though, The Resistance provides the same high-adrenaline hooks and over-the-top choruses that are difficult to resist. Next time around Muse will likely have to come up with something a bit more convincing to keep our attention, but The Resistance works well enough to satisfy.


Monday, October 5, 2009

Review: Volcano Choir - Unmap (* * 1/2)

Whatever your opinion of his music, you have to admire Justin Vernon, a man determined to push boundaries. When his former band, DeYarmond Edison, fell apart several years ago, Vernon removed himself from society and retreated to the woods of Wisconsin, where with some basic recording equipment, guitars, and very little else he managed to create one of the best albums of 2007 (or 2008 if you count the re-release) and the finest work of his career as Bon Iver. And people noticed – the singer/songwriter, who had before kept an extremely low profile, would suddenly find himself in the indie spotlight amid heaps of critical and popular praise. Not one to simply sit around and bask in his newfound fame, Vernon followed For Emma, Forever Ago with this year’s Blood Bank EP, an experimental four-song set that showed him branching out from his unique brand of melancholy folk in seemingly counterintuitive ways, including an auto-tuned, a capella track (“Woods”) that saw a fairly mixed reception from fans. And now we get Unmap, Vernon’s full-length collaboration with experimental group Collections of Colonies of Bees and another clear indication that he has little inclination to repeat success with a proven formula. (Continue Reading...)


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Review: Basement Jaxx - Scars (* * *)

Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe have, over the course of their ten year career, been consistently adored by fans and critics alike. And they deserve it. The duo, known as Basement Jaxx, made three stellar dance/house albums in a row, and though their 2006 effort, Crazy Itch Radio, didn’t quite earn them the number of accolades they had probably become accustomed to receiving, it seemed nobody gave them too hard a time about it either – but was it a sign of decline or simply a one-time slip? Listening to Scars, the fifth album from the dynamic duo, it would seem unfortunately more like the former, though when measured by its ability to provide a danceable good time, it succeeds well enough to avoid the feeling that Basement Jaxx is really losing their edge. In fact, perhaps the greatest strength and weakness of the album is how closely it follows the star-studded formula the band have been working within since their 2003 breakthrough, Kish Kash. And it’s still entertaining, it just seems that the returns on their approach are diminishing slightly with time.(Continue Reading...)


Friday, October 2, 2009

Three for...Friday: J. Tillman, The Subjects, The Shaky Hands

J. Tillman -

J. Tillman - perhaps best known as the drummer for last year's breakthrough folk group Fleet Foxes - is a remarkably prolific singer/songwriter who has just released his sixth album in only five years. He's been getting significantly more attention since 2008, but I imagine Year In the Kingdom will still fly under the radar of many, which really shouldn't be the case. Tillman uses a simple combination of acoustic guitar, limited percussion, and his soft, stirring voice for the majority of his tunes (though there is the occasional instrumental embellishment as well), crafting beautifully sparse songs that make his new record a brief but captivating musical experience. And as Year In the Kingdom is Tillman's second release this year (Vacilando Territory Blues is the other), it just seems even more impressive. As far as highlights go, it's difficult to pick as the album just sounds so complete when taken in as a whole, but the delicate, strummed title track and the gorgeous "Howling Light" would be my suggestions on where to start.

Heavenly Bodies (MP3 via Pitchfork)


The Subjects -

The Subjects have what I imagine is a fairly unique origin story. The band started in high school, which is pretty standard, of course, but the fact that two of the band members were students and two were teachers at the time is a little more unusual. It's a combination that works well for them, though, as evidenced by the quality of their infectious and smart pop rock music. The quartet already have a full-length album to their name and now they've returned with the New Soft Shoe EP, which I've been loving recently. The boys have a kind of easy confidence to them that makes what they do seem much easier and more natural than you'd think it could actually be, and each of the three songs - the percussion heavy "Winter Vacation," the synth-rocker "Right2Know," and the bouncy piano-pop track "Little Mountaintops" - is delivered with the perfect balance of pop simplicity and indie innovation. You can only find the new EP on, but you can get "Winter Vacation" for free below.

Winter Vacation (MP3 via RCRD LBL)


The Shaky Hands -

Of the three bands featured here, The Shaky Hands adhere most closely to pure rock 'n' roll, though they do much more than simply pay tribute to classic rock. The Portland-based band have recently released their third album in three years and fortunately their prolific schedule hasn't seemed to damped the quality or energy of their music. Let It Die is a solid third effort for the group, one that isn't often flashy or showy - it just focuses on great melodies and songwriting to capture your attention rather than throwing in lengthy jam sessions or fiery guitar solos. That's not to say that this bunch isn't talented - the rolling bass lines, sharp guitar riffs, and steady percussion all add to the experience and make this a rock album worth mentioning in a year full of them. The rough and raw title track, the cruising "Caught In the Storm" and the bouncy "Allison and the Ancient Eyes" are the definite highlights here.

Allison and the Ancient Eyes (MP3 via RCRD LBL)