The way I look at it, The Black Keys oeuvre can be split rather definitively into distinct “eras,” if you will. First, you’ve got their first four studio albums, which are largely a collection of shaggy, Midwest-inflected minimalist garage rock with increasingly polished studio sheen and production values. Then, in 2008, they dropped the Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton-produced album, Attack & Release, which represented a giant leap forward in terms of defining just what exactly this band could be. That record was chock-full of on-the-money experimentations, introducing a groovy psychedelia to the band’s basket of tricks, and it just may be their finest work.
Of course, most people will point to the two subsequent records–the commercially gargantuan Brothers and El Camino–as their crowning achievements, and I won’t put up a fight to contest that. Those albums vaulted this band to superstar status for a reason–they’re packed with sleek, retro-soul and biting blues songs that had hooks for days. Their greatness is largely inarguable. Even so, I always felt that Attack & Release offered a deeper experience than either of its successors, as it never fit quite so snugly into the accepted concepts of what “pop” music should sound like (don’t get me wrong, it is still a very accessible, hooky album, but not nearly in the same way that Brothers and El Camino are).
Turn Blue, the band’s eighth studio album, represents in some ways a return to the psychedelic triumphs of Attack & Release. It’s no surprise that it also features co-production duties from Danger Mouse. And while Danger Mouse was involved to varying degrees with the past two records, A&R and Turn Blue are the ones which truly carry the mark of his sound on their souls.
After catching Warpaint’s set at last weekend’s Boston Calling festival (read all about it here), I realized I should review their new self-titled album, from which they drew about half their material that day. Warpaint is certainly an interesting, intriguing band. When I told one of my friends who was going to the show with me how excited I was to see Warpaint, he asked me what kind of music they play…and honestly I couldn’t really give him a good, accurate answer. “Uh, well, they’re an all-girl group who plays kinda 90′s-style indie rock with a lot of experimentation…” was my best attempt at an answer, but it clearly doesn’t speak to everything this band is.
For starters, Warpaint isn’t a heat-seeking, hit-making all-girl group such as Haim (and I’ve got absolutely nothing against those gals, as they’re one of my favorite bands to break big in a long time). And although Warpaint’s brand of indie rock has roots embedded a couple decades deep, their style is all the same of the moment, with the languid, hazy elements that define the modern dream-pop genre. They’re a bit chameolonic in that respect, forever drifting right up to the edge of hooky bliss before submerging once again under waves of ambient sounds and textures.
In just its third iteration, it’s clear the Boston Calling music festival, which takes place on the brick and concrete expanses of Boston’s City Hall Plaza is a festival that could become a staple of the spring and summer festival circuits. (Although given the vagaries of the festival business, you can never be certain which ventures will ultimately succeed.) This spring edition was a three-day affair starting with an abbreviated lineup on Friday night (featuring Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and Jack Johnson) and stretching through Sunday evening (headlined by Modest Mouse). This review will be covering Saturday’s lineup, which, in my personal opinion, was the strongest of the bunch.
Saturday was chock-full of West Coast bands, but the festivities were kicked off at 1:00 by local synth-rock act Magic Man. After meeting up with some friends for lunch right across the street from the fenced-off plaza, we only made it through the gates in time to catch the tail-end of their short 30-minute set, which was punctuated by their radio hit “Paris,” for which they received an enthusiastic, hometown ovation. It was a promising, lively beginning to the day, which would stretch on for the next ten hours, but unfortunately, the lineup featured too little diversity. The homogeneity worked to make the real stars of the day shine even brighter in comparison, but for a bill with ten bands on it, you’d like to see a few more daring stylistic choices. I realize synth-rock and poppy alternative music is all the rage on the airwaves these days, but after hours of it–courtesy of Magic Man, Maximo Park, Walk Off the Earth, The Neighbourhood, and Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls–it quickly starts to blend together. Those five sets were largely easily forgotten, with the possible exception of Walk Off the Earth’s spot-on rendition of their smash hit cover of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” which featured all the bandmates simultaneously playing a single guitar.
But the real highlights of the day were sprinkled in between all the cookie-cutter sounds of the afternoon and then rightfully backloaded for the waning sunlight hours and late evening.
You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better heavy metal concert billing than the one the sold-out crowd in our nation’s capital witnessed on Tuesday night at the 9:30 Club. Mastodon as headliner? Check. Say no more, I’m there already. But wait–Gojira as the second-billed band?! Holy fuck, that right there is insane, and no self-respecting metalhead would have willingly passed on this opportunity. And then to have the much buzzed about Norwegian import Kvelertak opening things up? That’s just the cherry on top of a massively scrumptious show.
Kvelertak kicked things off around 7:30. This is a band that’s received tons of positive press in the metal blogosphere ever since their sophomore album, Meir, was released last year. Intrigued by all the hype, I had to give the music a listen…but honestly, nothing about those studio recordings reached out and grabbed me at the time. Following this show, I may have to revisit them, because, while not outstanding, this set was thoroughly enjoyable. The first sign that something intriguing was about to go down, was the very beginning of the set, as lead singer Erlend Hjelvik walked onstage sporting an amazing, lifelike, fierce owl figure/mask perched upon his head, obscuring his face. He performed the entire first song ensconced by this mysterious and almost demonic owl, which, let’s be honest, is metal as fuck. The band, featuring a beefed up four-guitar attack, plays a rambunctious mix of metal, crusty punk, and straight up rock n’ roll with indecipherable black metal howling screeching over the top of it all. The flow and transitions weren’t always the cleanest, but when these guys hit upon their grooves, it was damn fine to hear and see. Like I said, the studio version of these songs didn’t spark any fire within me, but the live version had an immediacy and power to them that was undeniable. I’ll definitely give these guys another listen, and hopefully they can figure out a way to capture their live energy on record.
Don’t be fooled by the title of Sun Kil Moon’s sixth album, Benji. Although it was titled after the film of the same name, Mark Kozelek hasn’t suddenly started to write songs about cute, furry animals. Instead, Benji may be Sun Kil Moon’s rawest, most unflinching and autobiographical record yet, which is saying something for a guy who generally hasn’t shied away from opening himself up in his music.
Musically, Benji is similar to its predecessor, Among the Leaves. It’s almost entirely a one-man show highlighting Kozelek’s unvarnished, pleading voice and his signature nylon-stringed acoustic guitar playing which lends a timeless quality to the music (it doesn’t approach his neo-classical masterpiece, Admiral Fell Promises, but it’s nevertheless pleasant). The lyrics, however, have taken things to another level of courageousness altogether, and they will likely by the divisive factor determining whether one finds this record enjoyable.
Benji‘s eleven tracks play out like eleven distinct entries from Kozelek’s private journal, torn out and exposed to the public. The main theme coursing through this album is the concept of mortality. It’s explored and sung about not in lofty, philosophical terms as many musicians have done in the past, but through intimately specific, slice-of-life details. Death and dying litter the lyric sheet; seriously, the body count of Benji rivals that of some gangsta rap records. From the very first track, “Carissa,” Kozelek has his eyes trained on deaths he’s experienced–in this case, a second cousin he really didn’t know all that well. But that doesn’t stop Kozelek from mining lyrical–and emotional–gold from an unfortunate tragedy. He sings, “But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t / meant to find some poetry to make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning…She was only my second cousin / But that don’t mean I’m not here for her or that I wasn’t / meant to give her life poetry.” And just like that, he so eloquently and beautifully declares the intentions of this record.
When I first heard the lead single and title track from Ray LaMontagne’s new album, Supernova, I was dubious about the new direction it hinted at. In general, I support musicians experimenting and pressing the limits of their sound, but sometimes, when an artist gets something so right, I’ll admit I selfishly kinda hope they stay squarely in that groove for as long as possible.
Ray LaMontagne was one of the artists I felt that way about–though, as will be explained below, the past tense of that sentiment is crucial. Over the course of LaMontagne’s first four records, he exuded the weary, weathered charm of a sympathetic mountain-man who whiled away the time by sitting in his log cabin in the woods writing soulful, often heartbreakingly spare and wistful odes and lamentations. He tested out the dynamics of full-band accompaniment on his prior album, Gods Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise, which he recorded with the Pariah Dogs. But even that record, for the most part, hewed closely with his past solo work, and didn’t mark some bold new shift into bigger sounds and wilder arrangements.
The song “Supernova,” however, with its instantly toe-tapping beat and abundantly sunny outlook seemed like something new. Was this going to be the bright, cheery record no one knew LaMontagne had in him? Would anyone even want that? At first, I didn’t think that I did, but thankfully, the rest of the record isn’t one big exclamation of joy. And yet it still manages to be something identifiably unique amongst all his previous work. The secret weapon, it turns out, was the addition of Dan Auerbach (he of Black Keys fame) as producer.
Sevendust are about as consistent a metal band as you can find. Over the course of nine albums, these southern gents have never turned in a bad record. Of course, their consistency extends beyond quality and into style as well. Sevendust’s nine studio albums may all be enjoyable listens, but not one of them really differs all that greatly from any of its brethren.
That’s why it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the band’s tenth studio album would be an acoustic affair. Now, unplugging from the amps isn’t anything new for Sevendust. A decade ago, they released the well-received Southside Double-Wide, but that was a collection of live acoustic cuts. Time Travelers & Bonfires is their first collection of studio-recorded acoustic songs. That by itself offered the exciting prospect of finally hearing a new twist on the Sevendust formula.
But one glance at the track list shows that while TT&B represents a relatively new approach to the music, like the rest of the band’s catalog, it will be plenty familiar to fans. That’s because of the dozen tracks here, six are reworkings of past hits. A majority of the re-recorded tracks hail from the band’s first four albums, but thankfully only one is a repeat from Southside (“Black”, because let’s be honest, that song is mandatory to include). The first six songs from TT&B, however, are new creations, crafted specifically for the acoustic treatment, rather than being reinterpretations of electric jams.
Last weekend was Record Store Day, the annual celebration of independent record stores that sees tons of bands and artists contribute special releases to be sold exclusively in local independent brick and mortar shops. It’s important to support these awesome, vital outlets! Personally, I was able to snag my local store’s last remaining copies of Bruce Springsteen’s American Beauty 12″ vinyl and Green Day’s Demolicious CD, the latter of which I’m here to talk about today.
If you thought Green Day had already far oversaturated the market recently with their 2012 album trilogy (¡Uno!, ¡Dos, and ¡Tré!) and 2013′s video-album follow-up, ¡Cuatro!, fret not–Demolicious, as the name suggests, is not another standard studio album; rather, it’s a collection of 16 demos of songs taken from the aforementioned album trilogy, along with an acoustic cut (“Stay the Night”) and an unreleased song that was recorded during the trilogy sessions (“State of Shock”). Like almost every demo collection, this is a for-fans-only kind of release, but there’s enough here to satisfy hardcore Green Day fans.
Despite what has become regular mini-cycles of teasings and subsequent denials of new Tool music over the years, most of us fans have resigned ourselves to the likelihood that we probably aren’t going to hear new Tool music any time soon, so we had best learn to live with that fact and be content with the notion that the band at the very least intends to put out new music at some point on an increasingly distant horizon. Tool is one of the most influential, groundbreaking metal bands of all time. But in the 22 (!) years since they released their debut EP, Opiate, they’ve put out a mere four (!) records. In fact, next week marks the eighth anniversary of the release of Tool’s last album, 10,000 Days. There’s obviously something to be said for quality over quantity–and each of Tool’s records is indeed a gem unto itself–but dammit, can they be just a tad more prolific, please?
So why am I talking so much about Tool in a review for a brand new band, Lesser Key, which just put out its debut self-titled EP? Because Paul D’Amour, Tool’s original bassist who played in that band for five years, until departing in 1995 after the release of Undertow, is now the bassist and keyboardist for Lesser Key, and his Tool-like influence is clearly heard. Not only did D’Amour help write Undertow classics like “Sober” and “Prison Sex,” but he was involved in the writing process for some AEnima‘s best songs as well, like “Stinkfist” and “Eulogy,” even though he didn’t play on the latter record.
Lake Street Dive, a previously little known pop-jazz-soul throwback schooled at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, got the vaunted “Colbert bump” in a big way in early February. At first, what was so unique about that appearance was that it marked the band’s television debut (and several weeks before this album, Bad Self Portraits, had even come out, no less). That in and of itself showed that Colbert and his staff were endorsing this music in a huge way by giving them such a big stage without any prior TV exposure. The second thing that jumped out about the performance was far more obvious–this band’s sound is amazing! (thus proving that Colbert was absolutely on the money by giving them the spotlight)
Fronted by the not-so-secret weapon of Rachael Price and her gigantic, golden voice, Lake Street Dive lay down classic throwbacks to 1960′s era soul music, punctuated by pop-jazz inflections with some Motown and swing thrown in for good measure. The end product is so genuinely and earnestly retro, you’d be hard-pressed to peg this as a modern band.