Cage the Elephant, a band known for its raucous eclecticism, continues its trend of sonic diversity on its third album, Melophobia. This Kentucky crew may have ditched most of the acoustic, meandering highlights that squeezed their way in amongst all the garage and classic rock revivalism of their last record. But in their place, the band has seemingly discovered the Beatles (“Take It or Leave It” and “Hypocrite”), and, more importantly, they’ve devoted themselves to melody above all else…almost.
The growth from Cage’s self-titled debut to Thank You, Happy Birthday was noticeable; it was clear the band was moving away from its initial punk-lite thrashing towards a more mainstream sound. But as of that second record, they still hadn’t quite finished the transformation. Well, on Melophobia, it’s not quite done yet either, but they’ve made it abundantly clear that’s the direction they are charging, full steam ahead.
Melophobia is a tasty melange of scraggly garage rock and 90′s alt-rock (nothing new in that respect), but whereas on previous records the songs had a tendency to derail themselves in the pursuit of scatterbrained, often atonal experimentation, the songwriting here is the most straightforward and melodically accessible of their career. Though the overlong and spastic “Teeth” is an example of their former unbridled sloppiness, it’s the only glaring misstep on the record. If nothing else, it reminds the listener that Cage has made a wise decision by placing a sharper focus on songcraft.
Donald Glover, aka Troy Barnes from the insanely awesome TV show Community, sailed away from that medium at the end of this season’s fifth episode on a boat named the Childish Tycoon, a winking nod to Glover’s rap moniker, Childish Gambino. It was a fitting departure, as Glover had announced his intentions to step away from the small screen in order to focus on his music career.
His new studio album, Because the Internet–his second to date, amongst a slew of mixtapes–represents his first foray as a more or less full-time musician. In some respects, the record comes across like a rebirth of his rap career. It almost completely abandons the hook-laden, rage and humor-laced bangers of his debut, Camp, in favor of a messy, sprawling, at times incomprehensible concept album about the internet age.
Glover has never been one to languish or overstay his welcome in any of the myriad formats in which he’s seemingly immediately excelled. From a stint writing for 30 Rock, to a successful standup career, to Community–all critical darlings and all of which he voluntarily stepped away from–Glover has never seemed at home with success. Perhaps then, it makes sense that as Gambino he’s carved out a place as one of the most unflinching and emotionally searching MCs out there. Like Camp, Because the Internet is full of half-boasts that collapse into self-doubt and criticism. He can play the cocksure braggart with the best of them, but it’s always fleeting. Before long, Gambino always ends up back in his mansion alone, stewing over his solitude and failures to relate to those around him.
What better album to review in the wake of Valentine’s Day–the holiday that smothers more feelings of romance than it stokes–than the one that spawned music’s most undeniable tearjerker since Adele’s “Someone Like You.”
I’m talking, of course, about “Say Something,” the centerpiece of New York pop duo A Great Big World’s debut album, Is There Anybody Out There?
Technically, A Great Big World got its first big break when their song “This Is The New Year” appeared in an episode of Glee. But come on. Anyone who’s heard “Say Something” (with or without Christina Aguilera)–which I imagine by now has to include everyone with a working set of ears–knows that was the song, the moment, which truly blasted these guys off into stardom. (I mean, it even landed them a coveted spot on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which turned out to be one of the oddest and most puzzling–but still sexiest–combinations you could think of. I mean, were viewers supposed to be crying or drooling?)
“Say Something” is one of those colossal, immediately timeless songs that raises the hair on the nape of your neck every single time you hear it. It’s something everybody can relate to from either or both sides of the lyrical equation, and it’s presented in such an elegantly simple fashion–from its stripped down, repetitive, pleading refrains to the soft piano chords that build into gigantic hammering blows before fading out into quiet desperation–that it couldn’t possibly stumble over its own feet. It’s a perfect song. Personally, though I admit the addition of Aguilera to the track (the duet version is tacked onto the end of the record) adds a powerful new dynamic, I still prefer the solo version which is tucked warmly away in the middle of the album. At its core, “Say Something” is a song of emptiness and loss. It’s about the heartrending process by which a pair becomes two single units. And that singular personal tragedy is, in my humble opinion, presented best when Ian Axel sings it by himself.
I quite enjoyed The Avett Brothers’ 2012 album, The Carpenter (review here), and given that its successor, Magpie and the Dandelion, was written and recorded at those very same sessions–helmed by Rick Rubin–it’s no surprise that this record is similarly enjoyable.
The flavor and sound of both albums is largely the same–polished Americana, folk, country, and pop delivered in soft, swinging ballads and energetic romps. The band themselves have described the new album as more “youthful” than The Carpenter, and I can buy that to some degree. Whereas The Carpenter was sung from more of a stationary lyrical perspective–examining the past or present–Magpie spends much of its time on regret and looking forward to redemptive opportunities.
While Magpie doesn’t necessarily feel like a collection of B-sides, it does very much feel like a second course of the same dish served in quick succession, after the hunger has already been sated and the new offering has cooled down some since coming out of the oven.
Diane Birch, a talented singer-songwriter with a voice that oozes sophistication and nuance, released a little gem of a debut album back in 2009. I’m sure she didn’t intend for its followup to be this long in the making, but Speak a Little Louder is finally here, after more than a four year wait.
While there’s something to be said for striking while the iron is hot, her sophomore effort goes down just as smoothly as the first. The time off between releases allowed Birch to grow as a musician and this album reflects that. It takes more chances musically, but it is still very much centered around the special beauty that is her voice.
Her desire to spread her stylistic wings is evident from the get-go, as the title track kicks in on a bed of gentle synths. That’s followed by the drum-driven march of “Lighthouse.” Even the Roots’ ?uestlove adds some snappy soul drumming to “All the Love You Got.” It’s a subtle, but noticeable change from Bible Belt, on which Birch’s voice was always at the top of the mix, and the instrumentation was less varied–sticking mainly to piano and airy, laid-back horn arrangements. Synths weren’t a part of the equation, and the instrumentation wasn’t given equal billing with the vocals.
A band faces a tough decision after taking home a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, especially if it’s won in such a supposedly “surprise” fashion as Arcade Fire’s 2011 win for their stupendous The Suburbs. I put “surprise” in quotes because that record far and away deserved that honor, even though Arcade Fire’s commercial popularity paled in comparison to its fellow nominees. I know more than a few people who stayed up to the end of that broadcast, rooting for Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, and letting out a disappointed and confused “Who the hell is Arcade Fire?” after the announcement.
Anyways, as I was saying–the decision is this: do you try to dig deeper into the formula and process that netted you such a prestigious accolade, all the while knowing that it would be a near impossibility to top its predecessor? Or, do you essentially burn everything to the ground and indulge in your farthest flung inspirations?
This being Arcade Fire–hardly the most conventional major rock act going today–it wasn’t hard to guess which direction they’d go on their fourth album, Reflektor. What is surprising, however, is how effortlessly they pulled off such a major transformation, while somehow not alienating their fans.
Amos Lee is one of the many gentle folk troubadours who has carved out a career diligently plying his craft over the years, garnering modest but never overwhelming acclaim and buoyed by placements in movies and TV shows. His last record, Mission Bell–which actually nabbed the top spot on the Billboard chart when it was released–wasn’t fated to be any kind of springboard for a grand career transformation.
That isn’t how Lee rolls. Instead, on his fifth album, Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song, he delivers another solid, familiar batch of folk, roots, and country songs. Like the log cabin artwork that adorns the album cover, these songs are solidly constructed, and not necessarily crafted with any intentions to awe.
Mountains of Sorrow differentiates itself from Lee’s previous records by fully embracing a band mentality. In the past, his work has been largely defined by its solo intimacy. But here, he’s joined by his touring band, who really bulk up his sound and take the music down a variety of different stylistic paths.
Mazzy Star’s new album, Seasons Of Your Day, is the band’s first in 17 years. However, despite the almost two decades long layoff, the record sounds right at home in today’s musical landscape. That’s because the sound that Mazzy Star perfected in the mid-90s–a slow-burning, moody, dreamy, psychedelic rock that may have been slightly ahead of its time back then–has now been studied and appropriated by a whole new breed of young, hip rock and pop acts. It’s rather easy to find the connective tissue linking Mazzy Star’s smoky icon, Hope Sandoval, to Beach House or Best Coast.
A lot can happen in 17 years. Some bands can reinvent themselves many times over in that span. But Seasons Of Your Day is not a dramatic departure from its predecessors, nor is it even much of a progressive growth from Among My Swan or So Tonight That I Might See. A large part of that can be attributed to the fact that this record wasn’t completely written and recorded just within the last year or two. Rather, the tracks on this album (or some of the elements of them) span as far back as the early 90′s–before some of Mazzy Star’s previous albums had even been released!
The band’s roots are evident in these songs precisely because they were recorded as those roots were still taking shape.
I held off on listening to and reviewing this album, the soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis, until I was actually able to see the film in theaters. I didn’t want any of the musical moments to be spoiled for me. While I’m happy to say the movie finally opened up in a theater near me and I was able to see it this past weekend, I must comment on how ridiculous it is that movies of this caliber (see Her for another example) have to endure lengthy limited releases (aka unless you live in New York City or LA, you’re shit out of luck) until enough glowing, award-buzzing press has been generated to spark nationwide roll-outs. I get that it all comes down to business and the almighty dollar, but it’s frankly embarrassing that 47 Ronin was probably in every major theater shitting the bed and taking up screen space while a film like Inside Llewyn Davis had to bide its time and wait its turn.
Get your head out of your asses, America!
Anyway, let’s talk about this little gem of American folk music. Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of a single week in the life of a struggling folk singer (based in part on Dave Van Ronk) in early 1961 in New York City. With a winking nod to James Joyce, the titular protagonist is united with a cat which he later learns is named Ulysses, which of course was another slice of life portrait of a searching Irishman. Davis’ story, however, is told largely through song instead of prose, and the movie (directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen) is as much a live folk concert film as it is a conventional drama. The Cohens, along with executive music producer T Bone Burnett, have quite the soundtrack credentials, having helmed O Brother, Where Art Thou?, one of the most successful soundtracks ever.