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Lesser Key – Lesser Key EP Review

26 AprilComments Off
By Sam

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.

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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.

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With another album from instrumental progressive metallers, Animals as Leaders, comes another lineup change–and more proof that as long as guitarist Tosin Abasi is the glue holding everything together, fans won’t have to worry about the band’s sound changing all that much. After the self-titled debut, which was largely a solo project by Abasi (he played both guitar and bass, with programmed drums provided by Periphery’s Misha Mansoor), Abasi expanded his project into a bona fide trio, enlisting the help of rhythm guitarist Javier Reyes and drummer Navene Koperweis. Here, on AaL’s third album, The Joy of Motion, Koperweis is out, and Matt Garstka is now manning the drum kit.

It’s a fluid transition, as Abasi seems to have a pretty firm grip on how he wants this band to sound, and a new member isn’t going to alter that. While The Joy of Motion isn’t a huge departure from either of its predecessors, it is, without a doubt, the most focused, and, perhaps surprisingly, laid back. The album is still constructed on a bedrock of heavy djenty guitar rhythms, densely packed textural dynamics, and electronic flourishes. But Abasi’s guitar playing is decidedly less aggressive, less consistently forward-lurching, and much more content to hang back and explore the band’s long-standing jazzy-prog influences.

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Aloe Blacc – Lift Your Spirit Album Review

6 AprilComments Off
By Sam

I had an extremely difficult time making it all the way through Aloe Blacc’s new album, Lift Your Spirit, in order to write this review. Actually, let me rephrase that to be a bit more specific: I had an extremely difficult time making it past track one.

You’re all probably wondering how an album can be that terrible, right? No! That’s not what I meant. It’s just that the leadoff hitter on this record, “The Man,” is so colossally amazing that I must have hit repeat on it about 50 times before letting the record naturally proceed to track two. Seriously, if this album title is a mission statement, it succeeds in spades based on that song alone. Play it while you’re cruising in your car on a nice day with the windows down and try not to feel like a fuckin’ boss.

You’ve probably all heard “The Man” by now. It was the soundtrack to the awesome Colin Kaepernick/Beats headphones commercial that ran during the NFL playoffs (and which made Seahawks fans look like unhinged sociopaths), and has now shown up in several similar sports-themed Beats ads. It’s the rare song that portrays such a cool, confident swagger without coming off as garish or overcompensating.

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Future Islands – Singles Album Review

5 AprilComments Off
By Sam

You can’t write a review of Future Islands’ new album, Singles, without talking about “the performance.” What kind of performance could be so all-encompassing as to force itself into every mention of this record? It was your standard late night gig–on Letterman no less–that turned out to be anything but standard. I’ve posted the video below for your viewing pleasure (and I do emphasize pleasure). If by some chance you haven’t had the instant-joy experience of watching this yet, stop reading now and scroll down and click play. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

See? You don’t have to thank me for putting that gigantic smile on your face. Thank Future Islands.

That performance encapsulates much of what makes this band and this album special. The fearlessness, the emotional honesty, the complete lack of all pretension…and the dance moves. THOSE MOVES! Singles has plenty of the silkiest grooves to have you doing the shake and shuffle all day and all night long. And I have to give extra special props to that Letterman gig, because, honestly without it, this band and this album probably never would have landed on my radar. You just never know when you’re going to hit on that next golden musical nugget.

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Junius – Days of the Fallen Sun EP Review

30 MarchComments Off
By Sam

Boston post-rock band Junius release more EPs than they do full-lengths, with Days of the Fallen Sun serving as the latest short-player in the band’s catalog.

This EP may have eight tracks, but it’s essentially four proper songs, broken up by four sub-one minute ambient preludes to each. Honestly, the four interludes could be removed and the record would not be affected in the slightest; I actually might prefer it that way. What’s left is about 22 minutes of majestic, grandiose post-rock with a true focus on song structure. A lot of post-rock bands–especially instrumental ones–take the path of exploration rather than employing identifiable structure.

But Junius has the secret weapon of vocalist/guitarist/synth player Joseph E. Martinez, whose crystal clear, strong, clean baritone demands to be showcased in powerful choruses and tight, cascading verses. Junius is a metal-ish band, primarily because Martinez’s lush voice makes them so much more accessible than your average post-metal troupe. On the record’s heaviest track, “Battle in the Sky,” Martinez briefly veers away from the clean singing to bust out some ferocious screaming and join in on some vigorously chanted gang exhortations. In the context of the rest of the record, the rarity of this screaming makes its presence all the more powerful.

The gorgeous mix of soaring, reverb-soaked guitars and persistent synths, aided by a bang-up production job from Will Benoit, create one of the more instantly intoxicating post-rock records you’ll hear. The shame is that it’s over just as it really starts to hit its stride. I’d love to hear what an entire full-length would have sounded like.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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-Sam

Deafheaven – Sunbather Album Review

29 MarchComments Off
By Sam

I’ll admit right up front that I completely missed the boat on Deafheaven’s monumental album, Sunbather, when it was released last year. But I don’t think I’m the only one. As the critical year-end lists rolled out, and this album that many people had never heard of before started showing up at or near the top of every single one of them, we were forced to take notice. Thank the music gods for that, because this is legitimately one of the finest albums I have ever heard.

Now, I didn’t feel that way after my first listen–or even my second, or third. Sunbather is a difficult, complex album, that challenges you every step of the way. Most people will give up on it after one listen, if they even make it that far. But it’s a grower, revealing itself sliver by sliver, listen by listen, until this intricately beautiful and cathartic masterpiece is revealed.

The individual elements that comprise Sunbather are not new, in and of themselves. It’s essentially post-rock, shoe-gazey instrumental rock, and–of all things–black fuckin’ metal all thrown in a mixing bowl and churned together. It’s the resulting creation that is new and transcendent. Think Explosions in the Sky meets Russian Circles meets your favorite Scandinavian corpse-painted crew. I understand if that sounds like a train wreck to you. Black metal is not a genre normally accessible to outsiders, and it’s those influences that make this such a challenging, but also ultimately rewarding, album.

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B-sides collections are generally fan-only affairs–that is, already established listeners will find joy in discovering overlooked gems and reinterpretations from the vaults of their favorite bands, while new listeners might struggle to find an accessible entrance. While that’s generally the case with the new matter-of-factly titled, The B-Sides, from Garden State rockers The Gaslight Anthem, it’s still got more to offer than most.

From the get-go, fans of all stripes will find something to enjoy about this odds-and-sods collection. The first song is the emotionally devastating “She Loves You” which was written during the American Slang sessions. It’s about a guy who stays up at night with a “burning mind,” pouring blood into “sermons” to try to convince his Juliet to “dare to belong to” him. Like most of The B-Sides, aside from a rugged live cut of Pearl Jam’s “State Of Love And Trust,” the song is a slow burning display of quiet desperation. That’s different for a band known for its rocking intensity. Sure, they’ve done ballads and weepers before, but in these largely unvarnished live and acoustic cuts, the songs expose a new rawness.

Brian Fallon, always the front-and-center leader of the band, takes on an even more prominent position here, as the acoustic cuts–culled largely from American Slang and The ’59 Sound–are essentially boiled down to just him and a guitar. These are tonal reinterpretations; they aren’t trying to hit the soaring heights on the record-version of those albums’ title tracks or to provide note-for-note emulations of the cover songs (their take on the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” is particularly notable). Rather they dig deeper into the sadness and longing that were already evident, but which were previously projected through electric guitars and quickened paces. If it wasn’t already apparent, Fallon proves here that he can quiet and tenderly emote as well as he can shout to the heavens.

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Broken Bells – After the Disco Album Review

2 MarchComments Off
By Sam

Broken Bells–the duo comprised of the Shins’ frontman James Mercer and super-producer Brian Burton (Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, the Black Keys)–serendipitously formed in 2009, and their debut self-titled release that came a year later was an absolute treat. No one could have imagined these two guys getting together to form a band, nevertheless putting out an album of such effortlessly cool pop songs. But that’s just what they did, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting its follow-up ever since.

Unfortunately, After the Disco leaves me wanting. It’s far from a bad record, but it doesn’t approach the ingenuity of its predecessor. Perhaps some of this disappointment stems from overheated expectations, but I think what it ultimately boils down to is the direction the guys decided to take on their sophomore effort.

Broken Bells explored a wide stylistic palette, ranging from modern mellow pop perfection to folky balladry to pastoral dream-pop musings. And it was all rooted in an exciting cohesion of synthetic and organic sounds, with plenty of Gorillaz-esque analog synth influences pointing to the future. To some it was the product of a new band without a clear idea of its identity; to others it was a joyful modern jaunt through the pop landscape. On After the Disco, however, Mercer and Burton have decidedly chosen a singular path to follow, at least for this one record.

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I’ve sung the praises of Meg Myers–an up-and-coming LA-by-way-of-Tennessee singer-songwriter–before, and now seems like a good time to do so again, seeing as how she just dropped her second EP, Make A Shadow. But since I never gave her debut EP, Daughter In The Choir, a true write-up, and because both EPs together don’t exceed 45 minutes of music, I’m just going to review them both. Two for the price of one!

Myers has described her sound as “modern 90′s” music in the style of Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette, and I think that nails it on the head. She blends pop with grungy flairs, moody instrumentation, and raw emotion, the latter courtesy of barbed lyrics and a dextrous voice that flows from Apple’s huskiness to Morissette’s distressed yelps.

Daughter In The Choir is a seven-song collection (including a remix) filled with ruminations, both furious and gentle, on pined-for love and broken relationships. These relationships, by the way, include the one she has with her adopted hometown of LA, which she skewers on the hipster-bashing “Tennessee.” But the big kahuna relationship song is “Monster,” which features one of the most gut-wrenching vocal performances you’ll hear (amplified even more by its rawness in this live acoustic take). Over gentle cello swooning courtesy of Ken Oak (who deserves a special shout-out for his work across these two EPs), Myers digs deep to expose what it feels like to do something so indescribably wretched to the one you love that they’re stunned into inaction, left with no choice but to lay there next to the person who just emotionally destroyed them and loathing themselves every second for doing so. It’s extremely powerful stuff, sung with real pathos. Myers has said that she wrote “Monster” at the end of a rough three-year relationship, and that it’s about wanting so strongly to be with someone, but their (or her, given the way she excoriates herself in the chorus) actions make the other person feel absolute loneliness when they are together. I’d wager more than a few people can intimately relate to the feelings Myers is dredging up on this track (I sure as hell can), and that’s a key ingredient for any songwriter.

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