Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Best Albums of 2010 So Far - Honorable Mentions

It's time to take a look at the best (read: my favorite) albums of 2010 so far. It's been a great year and quite honestly, this list has changed about a dozen times in the last week, but what you see hear should give you a good idea of the best music I've heard this year.

Below are my five honorable mentions and soon I'll give you my top 10.

Honorable Mentions/11-15 (Alphabetical):

Darwin Deez - Darwin Deez

Singer/songwriter Darwin Deez's self-titled debut is a pop-rock album with little in the way of excess, getting by primarily on Deez's gift for great melodies and simply catchy riffs. It's the kind of record that many will dismiss because of its plainness, but these sunny pop tunes are consistently great and all the more admirable for their straightforward compositions. Deez shows how much he can accomplish with just the basics, and the results are both entertaining and impressive.

LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening

James Murphy's supposed last album, This is Happening, leaves things on a high note with a collection of nine diverse and engaging tracks that contains some of the artist's best material. From the introspective cuts "All I Want" and "Home" to the aggressively funky numbers like "Pow Pow," Murphy offers plenty of reasons why it pains us to see him retire from the game (you know, if that indeed is the case). Of course, James Murphy would settle for nothing less than a dramatic and stylish exit.

Maps & Atlases - Perch Patchwork

Perch Patchwork, the first full-length record from talented newcomers Maps & Atlases, is one of those rare albums that manages to successfully marry technically impressive and progressive musicianship with pop accessibility. Even through all the sudden tempo changes and impossibly fast guitar riffs, the band keeps the hooks coming and the melodies memorable. It's a fun mix of pop, folk and prog-rock that shows even the most cerebral indie rock can be enjoyed by all.

Meursault - All Creatures Shall Make Merry

Meursault could probably be counted among the large group of emotionally intense Scottish indie bands that have been so popular lately, but it's clear from All Creatures Shall Make Merry that they are anything but typical of the genre. Blending digital soundscapes and filtered vocals with acoustic guitars, Meursault's latest moves from moments of quiet loneliness to explosive outbursts of anger and noise, using unusual production to create a uniquely stunning experience.

Villagers - Becoming a Jackal

Conor J O'Brien's debut as Villagers is, I must admit, just the kind of thing I'm prone to fall in love with. O'Brien is an Irish singer/songwriter with a decidedly eerie edge to his music, which puts him in league with the likes of DM Stith or Mimicking Birds--good company to keep. But on his first album, Becoming a Jackal, O'Brien proves himself a compelling lyricist and a talented musician whose hauntingly beautiful work stands apart from that of his peers.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Introducing...Hey Marseilles

I'd never heard the term "folkestra" before I saw it on indie band Hey Marseilles' MySpace page, but it's about the perfect way to describe the group's chosen genre. This Seattle collective, seven members strong, seamlessly mixes elements of both traditional folk and orchestral pop (among other things) with consistently gorgeous and melodic results on their upcoming album, To Travels & Trunks, due out June 29th. This appropriately titled debut indeed travels over a variety of musical landscapes during its hour length, ranging from soaring epics to lovely instrumental interludes and utilizing the enormous collective talent of the musicians involved. My favorites include the string-led ode to exploration "Rio," the unbelievably beautiful "Calabasas," and the multifaceted, emotional "Cannonball," which begins as an acoustic ballad before exploding into a catchy rock anthem. However, while these songs with more traditional structures will catch your ear immediately, the intimate beauty found within less usual cuts--like the meandering "Cities"--is what makes To Travels & Trunks a truly absorbing and thoroughly interesting listen.

Hey Marseilles is off to a great start here, and I'll certainly be looking for more from them in the future. Get yourself introduced right away by downloading "Rio" below, then be sure to check out the band's stellar debut as soon as possible.

MP3 Download: Rio


Monday, June 21, 2010

Review: Delta Spirit - History From Below (* * * *)

When Delta Spirit arrived on the scene two years ago, they did so with a sort of fiery retro-rock sound that was about impossible to ignore. Ode to Sunshine, their debut, was as bombastic as it was melodic, with crunchy guitars, clanging piano and singer Matt Vasquez's emphatic wail making for an enjoyably noisy racket. So subtlety wasn't part of the equation, but their lack of restraint is part of what made the record such a great listen. This time around however, with History From Below, Delta Spirit take a decidedly different approach. There are still moments of the brash rock 'n' roll that characterized the band's first effort, but the new album is generally much more subdued than its predecessor, focusing on songwriting and lyricism over instant impact. The results are less immediate, but ultimately more powerful.

Starting the record are a couple tracks that remain relatively more true to the band's initial formula. "911" rolls along with Dr. Dog-esque harmonies and a 70s rock vibe while "Bushwick" rumbles with a smoother edge than before but to a similarly successful end. But then "Salt in the Wind" takes an early detour with a lengthy ballad-style folk aesthetic featuring gentle percussion and arpeggiated piano lines. It's the first of many unusual moves for the band, including a smoldering psych-rock number ("White Table"), a deceptively gentle kidnapping tale ("Ransom Man") and a beautiful goodbye to a friend ("Devil Knows You're Dead"), all of which appear in sequence following "Salt in the Wind." Eventually the band gets back to traditional business with the fantastic rocker "Golden State," but the songs before and after that will surely be received with mixed feelings from Delta Spirit fans given the music's more deliberate pace and restrained nature. After a few listens, however, and after coming to the terms with the fact that History From Below is in no way intended to be Ode to Sunshine part II, the quality of the songwriting and breadth of ideas here ultimately proves worth the changes the band underwent to present them.

Only once does Delta Spirit truly miss the mark (the dragging "Vivian"), but there's no shortage of great tunes on this sophomore effort, and together they form a cohesive and consistent whole that reveals a remarkable amount of maturity from this young crew. The lyrical and musical growth exhibited throughout the record's 11 tracks may only serve to disappoint or frustrate some, and that's a shame not only because it produces some fantastic results, but because it's impossible to deny the good things it bodes for the band's future. History From Below is an album following a blueprint that likely won't be nearly as effective if used a second time around, and I would imagine the band will return to stompin' and hollerin' on disc three, but the risks they've taken here pay off at almost every turn.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

You Should Know: Chris Pureka

A songwriter since 8 and a guitarist at 16, it still took a while for Chris Pureka to get her musical career off the ground. But a little maturity and experience seem to have payed off; since 2004 this talented musician has released three acclaimed albums, and her latest--entitled How I Learned to See in the Dark--has really made an impression on me. Pureka makes gorgeous and often haunting Americana music, relying on her expressive voice and compelling songwriting to stand out from among her many like-minded peers. At times Pureka sounds withdrawn and delicate, but these quiet spells don't last for long before she elevates her voice to a powerful croon that's truly unforgettable. Her songs are not overly earnest and they aren't often focused on traditional (or at least obvious) relationship issues, but her tunes are more compelling because of that, and with a backdrop of slide guitar, violin, and simple percussion, her lyrics are imbued with a gripping emotional energy.

The new record's highlights show Pureka's ability to provide a good deal of variety with a fairly straightforward folk approach, ranging from the dark, weighty "Wrecking Ball" to the uneasy yet beautiful "Landlocked" to the lovely ballad "August 28th" that closes the album. How I Learned to See in the Dark is a thoroughly engrossing Americana album and you should know Chris Pureka.

MP3 Download: Wrecking Ball


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Introducing: Milagres

You may know the band Milagres by their former name, The Secret Life of Sofia, or perhaps--like me--you are just now getting introduced. Either way you would do well to give these guys a listen. The group recently made the name change (which is Portuguese for "Miracles") and just released their debut under the new moniker, Seven Summits, a mature and accomplished album that certainly belies the band's experience and gets them off to a great start with their updated name. The record isn't truly a "concept album," but it does have a unifying theme--mountain climbing, which stems from front man Kyle Wilson's love of all things mountain-related. The press release states the album is "part fact, part historical fiction," and truly there is a wealth of lyrical detail to discover here, but even if you're less inclined to dig into the meaning behind the words, Milagres makes truly beautiful, majestic music that's quite easy to appreciate.

My personal favorites include the epic opener "Fifty Fourteeners," the lovely ballad "Sheet Stealer!" and the intriguing narrative "Nanda Devi," though it's hard to go wrong on Seven Summits. To start, I recommend downloading the single "Outside" below, or checking out the band on MySpace to hear more. Definitely don't pass this album pass you by, it's spectacular stuff.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Live Review: mewithoutYou/Rocky Votolato/Rubik

The Avalon, Salt Lake City
June 5th, 2010

I arrived probably earlier than was necessary at The Avalon to get a close seat for the show, but I had a feeling it would be worth it to see openers Rubik live. Granted, I had no real reason to expect they would be fantastic--I was just betting that was the case. And you know what? I wasn't disappointed in the least. Rubik hail from Finland and definitely had a very distinct sense of fashion and presentation, but there was absolutely no barrier between them and a largely uninitiated crowd when it came to the music. From the moment they began--with an ethereal introduction showcasing frontman Artturi Taira's vocals--everyone in the room seemed instantly drawn to these unusual pop performers. The band's intense energy and their obvious love for making music was infectious, to say the least, and each song drew a more enthusiastic response than the one that preceded it.

Taira led the bunch with some absolutely stellar singing and frenzied dance moves, but everyone on stage seemed to be having the time of their lives, shouting, running, and feverishly pounding their instruments. I counted at least four keyboards, plenty of drums, two trombones, and more that the band used to replicate personal favorites like "Karhu Junassa" and "Goji Berries" with the kind of emotion that can only exist in a live performance. And after a wonderful alternate version of "Wasteland," they exited the stage far sooner than any of us would have preferred to a standing ovation which was received with sincere gratitude. In fact, when Taira came back to take his mic and keyboards down, it drew another enthusiastic cheer. I've rarely seen an opening band win over a crowd with this same sort of impact, it was nothing short of spectacular. (MySpace) (Free EP Available Here)

Rocky Votolato
Rocky Votolato didn't have nearly as much to prove as Rubik certainly must have, but he still gave a remarkable and memorable performance. Being relatively well-versed in his music, it was nice to hear Votolato play music from most of his records, opening even with "Alabaster," one of the best from his breakout album, Suicide Medicine. It was also refreshing to see a musician perform with absolutely no need for a backing band--it was just him, his guitar, and a couple harmonicas. The performance's starkness contrasted sharply with both the other bands playing that evening, but not only was it a nice reprieve from the noise, it was just as captivating. His clear voice was every bit as effective on stage as it is on his recordings, and his simple instrumentation was the compliment to his world-weary tunes.

He played nearly all of my favorites, which was nice, but I felt that the material from his new record, True Devotion, was the most emotionally powerful despite the fact that I don't think the album is one of his best. "Sun Devil" especially was hypnotic, and even the high ceilings of the room couldn't distract from what was a compellingly intimate and touching performance. Of course, career highlights "White Daisy Passing," "Suicide Medicine," and "Portland is Leaving" were the best received as they were the most familiar, but no matter your previous experience with Rocky Votolato's music, his heartfelt, dynamic performance was impossible to deny that night. (MySpace)

I have less to say about mewithoutYou, but not because their performance wasn't great. In fact, they played a lengthy and consistently energetic set that kept about everyone in the audience with their eyes glued to the stage as frontman Aaron Weiss bounded about, twirling and yelling at times and then retreating to the background when the tempo died down. I've never been the band's biggest fan, but I found their show a fun, engaging experience. And, without a doubt, the highlight of the evening was mewithoutYou's encore, during which they played some of their most popular and exciting tunes and even were gracious enough to finish the final song after 20 or so people climbed on stage to provide the band with unexpected backup chanting and dance accompaniment. (MySpace)

It was the perfect ending to a long and consistently fantastic show. If anyone left unsatisfied that night, they had only themselves to blame.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Review: Band of Horses - Infinite Arms (* * * 1/2)

I didn’t see or hear much about Band of Horses moving to a major label for the release of their third effort, Infinite Arms. This kind of news is often received with a heavy dose of skepticism about the effect such a transition will have on the quality of future output, but for Band of Horses it just didn’t seem to cause much of a stir. I suppose that’s probably because this move wasn’t exactly unexpected; Band of Horses seemed almost destined for the kind of post-indie fame enjoyed by the likes of Death Cab for Cutie, due to the accessible nature of the former’s music. Perhaps most figured it just wouldn’t make much of a difference in their sound anyway. In that regard, I guess it’s true that any trepidation on our part would have been unnecessary. An even with all the effort expended (the album took 16 months to complete) and band members exchanged (frontman Ben Bridwell is now the lone original member), Infinite Arms is—in many respects—very similar to the group’s first two releases. Of course, you may or may not consider that good news, and your view on that subject will probably determine your reception of the band’s latest. (Read the rest @ In Review Online)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

You Should Know: Solvent

Producer Jason Amm, or Solvent, isn't flying completely under the radar, but unless you're at all connected to the experimental electronic scene, it's very possible you've not heard his name yet. I only recently discovered him with the release of his new album, Subject to Shift, but it was enough to quickly make me a fan. The record is a spacey collection of electro tunes that blends bright synths, digital percussion and Amm's manipulated vocals in a way that might best be described as synth-pop, just not the kind that is so frequently associate with that term lately. Amm's genius lies in his ability to create music that is at both incredibly odd and completely engaging, so while the songs almost never go where you'd expect, you're always happy to end up where they leave you.

From the dark, club-ready bump of "Formulate" to the glitch-meets-pop swagger of "Don't Forget to Phone," Amm's songs consistently captivate, somehow melding into one another despite the often radically different stylistic approaches used. Sometimes he demands your attention as he croons a haunting electro-glam chorus, then the next moment he lets the focus rest purely on his impressive digital compositions, but whatever tools he uses, Jason Amm offers myriad reasons on Subject to Shift as to why Solvent is a name that deserves mention much more frequently in our conversations about electronic music's most talented artists.

Download: Loss For Words (MP3)