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Future Islands – Singles Album Review

5 AprilComments Off
Author: 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
Author: 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
Author: 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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The Gaslight Anthem – The B-Sides Album Review

3 MarchComments Off
Author: Sam

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
Author: 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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Bille Joe + Norah – Foreverly Album Review

23 FebruaryComments Off
Author: Sam

What appeared at the time to be a quirky, nostalgic tribute to The Everly Brothers, Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones’ collaboration on Foreverly unfortunately proved to be somewhat eulogistic as Phil Everly passed away little more than a month after its release.

Foreverly, at first just a quaint little passion project, now becomes a fitting, final tribute to one of the great singers in American history.

Now don’t get me wrong. This record doesn’t come close to approaching the angelic, harmonized perfection of Phil and Don, but I can guarantee it introduced the brothers to a new generation of young listeners who likely never would have stumbled over them on their own or given them a chance. As a gateway record, and as a lesson in music history, this album fills an important role.

Foreverly is Billie Joe and Norah’s reinterpretation of a single Everly Brothers’ album–1958′s Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. It’s a really interesting choice of albums because the songs themselves are not Everly Brothers songs. As the original title noted, these were traditional songs that the boys had learned from their dad. But the Brothers interpretations, and their presentation of these twelve songs in a unified package, is what made many of them famous, and it served as the inspiration for this modern reexamination.

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Cage the Elephant – Melophobia Album Review

17 FebruaryComments Off
Author: Sam

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.

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Childish Gambino – Because the Internet Album Review

16 FebruaryComments Off
Author: Sam

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.

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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.

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