When I first put on the new Moon Duo record, I expected drones, grooves, and fuzz. It’s those things that I love about their previous two albums (and numerous EPs) so they felt like reasonable expectations. With Circles, I got all of those and a surprising bit more. Guitarist Ripley Johnson (Wooden Shjips) and keyboardist Sanae Yamada, have crafted groovy, shadowy, pop songs from their signature elements and the results hang together in a strong, engaging, album.
The record kicks off with “Sleepwalker” (check it out below in the amusing official video.) Bright, yet distorted, ribbons of guitar wash through the sharp buzzsaw synth while the groove drives straight into space. There’s clear overtones of 60’s garage pop here; filtered, perhaps, through Spacemen 3. “I Can See” is dark and creepy with its kraut-like rhythm and spiraling, spidery, guitar solo. By contrast, the title track might be the least dark of the nine tracks here. These aren’t just instrumental grooves, either. These are songs and, while the lyrics don’t always pop through the mix, they drive the changes and contain memorable hooks. Continue reading →
I know you can’t help
That your smile is the brightest
It’s hard to look away
That (almost) haiku that opens Big Inner, the debut release for Richmond, VA band leader, composer, and beard enthusiast, Matthew E. White. The beard thing is, of course, a joke, but the rest is serious business. Founder and composer for the Richmond collective, Fight The Big Bull, Smith has stepped out in front with this album and may find that people won’t want him to simply direct from behind anymore.
My Copy of Big Inner
Those lyrics kick off the slow swaying opening cut, “One Of These Days” which seems, at first, to be a simple soul number. When White begins humming what may be the second half of the verse, one might mistakenly think he’s already out of ideas. But then the horns swell into the mix, the refrain comes along and dammit if there isn’t a haunting choir on the bridge. Before the tune ends there’s even some strings.
Deceptively simple might be the trademark of this album. Judicious mixing keeps so much at bay that would probably overwhelm a listener if White simply pushed up the faders. This is true of many albums but, on Big Inner, many of the tracks are busting at the seams with horns, strings, an excellent rhythm section, straight ahead soul backing vocals, a full on choir and more. “Big Love” pushes more of these out front as the driving tempo is built to carry the bombast. It starts with a (baritone?) sax bleating in the distance before the groove engages and is followed by White’s soft spoken vocals. Two minutes in, the cut reaches the feverish pitch of backing vocals, strings, and hand claps that is the refrain. Then comes the break down. White is smooth and convincing as he declares:
Girl, I am a barracuda
I am a hurricane
I believe this sort of thing used to be called “blue-eyed soul”. I don’t know what color White’s eyes may be but he’s definitely got some soul. His voice breaks slightly as he sings “Darkness can’t drive out darkness. Only love can do that,” on Jimmy Cliff’s “Will You Love Me.” And, as the band rises up behind him, you know that the vocals are sincere. Continue reading →
Another year, another great Woods album. What a delightful thing it is to be able to write that sentence. Without doing my journalistic due diligence I’ll venture that this is the sixth year in a row that Woods has delivered a full length album worthy of my attention. The Brooklyn-founded psychedelic folk group continue to meld charming pop hooks into guitar-based soundscapes that alternately jangle into spacey oblivion or stand firmly rooted in the time honored tradition of folk balladry.
If there’s a catch to this group it’s guitarist/vocalist Jeremy Earl’s earnest falsetto vocals. For some, perhaps, that could be a deal breaker. For my part, I love his singing. It just works beautifully with the songs and the instrumentation, driven by Jarvis Taveniere (guitars & more) and bassist Kevin Morby is, perhaps better crafted on this release than any prior. Tape-effects wizard G. Lucas Crane seems to have a diminished roll on this more polished release but this time the songs are pushed further to the front.
Those who have listened to their earlier records (and I do mean records as they release everything on vinyl through their own label, Woodsist) might be concerned that they have stepped away from the extended kraut-esque cuts as found on Sun And Shade. Fear not! Though a bit shorter, the title track contains a stunning distillation of the snarling live beast that floored me at last year’s Richmond show. In less than half the time of a live version they capture the tension, give a dose of the jamming, and deliver the striking lyrics. “Bend Beyond” itself is a stunner but to follow it with the first single, “Cali In A Cup”, whose sun bleached wistfulness makes me long for a Summer that I never had, is as strong a 1-2 punch opener as I’ve heard in a while.
The rest of the record rolls on like this; with the brutally direct “Is It Honest?” (Which caught me off guard on my first spin because the kids were in the room when Earl dropped the F-bomb in the refrain… But I don’t censor music for language too often in my house so I let it spin) followed by the emotional “It Ain’t Easy”. It seems as if the clarity and development of the songs is a deliberate effort to allow them to speak for themselves without the washes of distortion distracting from the point at hand.
What a year 2011 has been. So much great music has come out that I’ve been completely unable to process and write about it on the regular (at all) on this pathetic excuse for a blog. For myself, 2011 has been the year psyche came home to roost. You’ll notice a distinct leaning in the list toward certain sounds while several long-time favorite artists make strong showings.
2011 has also been a heavy year for my record collection. If you follow my tumblr, you’ve seen a lot of new records come in and get a spin. For reasons of state, I can’t say precisely how many I acquired this year but I’m happy with the results. Lots of new and classic music at my fingertips. In fact, I own nine of this year’s top ten albums on vinyl and the tenth is simply not available on lp (yet!?)
Let’s jump in with a quick and dirty chunk of the list (#22-#11) then we’ll spend a little more time on the top ten. Why 22? Why not? If you don’t like it, you can start your own damned blog (which you probably have done in the time it’s taken me to update mine this year.)
22. Jovontaes – Things Are Different Here (Hello Sunshine)
Psychedelic, guitar-driven, kraut-flavored, space rock
21. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
A strong follow-up record that distills the best of folk rock seasoned with stunning vocals.
20. Danger Mouse & Daniel Luppi – Rome (Parlophone/EMI)
Danger Mouse goes to Italy and captures Ennio Morriconi in a bottle.
19. Eternal Tapestry & Sun Araw – Night Gallery (Thrill Jockey)
Live, improvised, psychedelic dreaminess.
18. Woodsman – Rare Forms (101 Distribution)
Trippy “songs” in short, inspired bursts. See also: their Mystic Places EP from this Nov.
17. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key (Saddle Creek)
Great collection of songs that over burdened with bizarre narration…
16. White Denim – D (Downtown Records)
This is the kind of record that guitar-driven jam bands wish they could make.
15. Tinariwen – Tassili (Anti)
North African guitar trances… Another awesome record from these guys.
14. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)
An expanded band and enriched sound. Beautiful, honest, and dreamy.
13. Radiohead – King Of Limbs (Ticker Tape Ltd.)
Not the best Radiohead effort yet still a great album.
12. Moon Duo – Mazes (Sacred Bones)
A side project from Ripley Johnson (Wooden Shjips) geared to blow minds.
11. Real Estate – Days (Domino)
Dreamy pop songs with a wistful nostalgic sadness.
It’s been a while, but I guess it’s time I got off my ass and de-mothballed this site and started posting again. What can I say? My blogging-self likes to hibernate. Actually, that’s a bunch of bullshit. I’m just a lazy writer. I’m not, however a lazy listener. I have been rocking a ton of great new (or new-to-me) music in the past couple months and I thought I’d kick off 2011 (little late!) with some quick and dirty reviews of some of the highlights of 2011 so far.
The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
With a splash of harmonica, The Decemberists open their latest effort, The King is Dead, and leave behind the prog tinged epics of recent years. I was worried about this group. After their explorations of heavy prog and album-spanning epic tales it seemed possible that they had painted themselves into a corner. Where does a group go from there? Do they dare to write an even better concept album? Expectations can be the ruination of a band.
Not to be daunted, The Decemberists took their time and, this time out, they’ve delivered American folk-rock at its finest. The King Is Dead is a collection of four-minute songs that tell of our lives and the world around with jangling guitars, infectious beats and, yes, Colin Meloy’s penchant for English-Major vocabulary words. While there is no single story or evident concept holding these songs together, they cohere beautifully in what make for a delightful listen. Songs of love, songs of war, and even songs about gardening (sounds lame when I say it that way but it’s cool), weave together with steel guitar, harmony vocals, and just enough rock and roll to make me want to leap from my seat.
If you’ve ever liked The Decemberists, seek out this record.
Akron/Family – ST II: The Cosmic Birth And Journey of Shinju TNT
When I saw these guys last year, it was clear that they were well past the “freak-folk” genre that I and others had saddled them with back in the Love Is Simple days. Extended explorations of noise ripped through the room and demolished preconceptions. Yes, they can do quiet meditations (and still do) but this band had a direction that it felt compelled to follow. After that tour, the group set to recording what would become Shinju TNT and struck a balance between noise and melody. Like a wrangler breaking a wild mustang, they have tempered the wild abandon, corralled it, and given it purpose and direction.
Each of these songs detail movement and/or destination with lyrics evoking the both metaphysical and the concrete taking the listener along on an amazing journey that spans four sides of vinyl. And so, we find ourselves moving from the dreamscapes of “Island” to the raw, rock riffs of “So It Goes” (a nod to Vonnegut) to the rapid fire, noisy, guitar licks of “Another Sky” to the soaring beauty of “Canopy”. The heavily layered progression of “Light Emerges” reminds me a bit of Animal Collective in a sort of intangible way but it’s followed by the pastoral harmonies of “Cast A Net” that could only be Akron/Family. It’s this many-headed-beast nature that defines Akron/Family as a leading voice in modern, psychedelic, music and this voice that makes Shinju TNT one of my favorite albums in some time.
“Bloom” opens the album with a synth space and off-kilter drum beat that take me right back (in my twisted mind) to where In Rainbows left off. The track builds, layering elements until Thom Yorke’s languid vocal oozes from the speakers. With that, Radiohead is back.
Out of nowhere, we got word that Radiohead would be releasing a new album. Pre-order now, get digital on the weekend and vinyl in a month or two… Sounds good to me. How could I not bite on that offer? I jumped a day later and a couple days after that we all had our digital copies and last.fm seemed to think there was only one band in the digital world for a day or two. It was nearly true. As with any Radiohead release, The King Of Limbs will probably take months to fully digest and longer to grok if such a thing is even possible but I felt compelled to include it here because I can’t stop going back to it.
Don’t mistake my opening sentence; this is no continuation of In Rainbows. It inhabits a darker, almost creepy space. When you hear the hand claps in “Lotus Flower” it’s striking to hear such an terrestrial noise within this realm. This space that they create feels familiar, though. It is undeniably Radiohead music and some will mark that down as a negative, saying that they’re not moving forward, but I find myself compelled to listen as they explore their own sound- pushing out new corners in that vast world of theirs.