Posted by: Jeff | March 27, 2012

Album Review: The Shins – “Port of Morrow”

The Shins – Port of Morrow [Buy Here]

Columbia Records
Release Date: March 20, 2012
Grade: B+

The Shins – “The Rifle’s Spiral”

Conversations attempting to define ‘indie’ as a genre label are as inevitable as they are pointless, but the one band most frequently named as typifying the genre has to be The Shins.  Their prominent place on the wildly popular soundtrack to ‘Garden State’ ensured that the band is ubiquitous enough to be commonly known (and loved), and the strength of James Mercer’s song-writing and slightly off-kilter pop constructions makes the band appealing to fans of disparate niches.  It’s no wonder then that a release from a band verging on commercial breakthrough from the underground (a la The Black Keys or Vampire Weekend) is highly anticipated.  Add to the fact that this is the first proper release from The Shins since 2007, and it is safe to say that fans were eager for the return.

In the intervening years between today and 2007’s excellent ‘Wincing the Night Away’, Mercer teamed up with Danger Mouse on their critically-tepid but commercially-successful Broken Bells side project, and the remainder of The Shins’ lineup has been shuffled somewhat.  Mercer has always resided alone at the core of the band, but on ‘Port of Morrow’ he stands as the lone remainder of the group that debuted with 2001’s jangly ‘Oh, Inverted World’.  Some change is thus to be expected on ‘Port’, as Mercer goes it alone on much of the writing and absorbs some of the R&B influences at the core of Broken Bells.  The result is a bit of a mixed bag.

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Posted by: Jeff | March 27, 2012

Album Review: Frankie Rose – “Interstellar”

Frankie Rose – Interstellar [Buy Here]

Slumberland Records
Release Date: February 2012
Grade: B+

Frankie Rose – “Interstellar”

If an initial listen to a Frankie Rose album starts to sound vaguely familiar, it is likely due to its shared ambience with the work of two bands that Rose helped found, the Dum Dum Girls and the Vivian Girls, both of whom have found moderate success in the past few years as all-female psych-pop outfits.  Flying solo, Rose uses some familiar sounds but puts them to good use.  With an album title implying the vast cosmos, it is fitting that Rose utilizes her freedom to explore new territory.

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The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea [Buy Here]

Release Date: March 6, 2012
Grade: C

The Magnetic Fields – “Andrew in Drag”

The Magnetic Fields are the brainchild of Stephin Merritt, a lovably curmudgeonly songwriter with a penchant for wry humor and incredibly catchy melody.  Most Magnetic Field records are populated by short pop songs inflected with insightful observations about life and love and delightful wordplay.  On ‘Love at the Bottom of the Sea’, the Fields’ 10th full-length release, the longest track – “The Only Boy in Town” – clocks in at 2:35, a mere interlude on most contemporary records.  On ‘Love’, however, the fifteen tracks are all brief explorations of cheeky humor connected together loosely in theme but more significantly by their brevity.

Recent Fields history has revolved around theme albums – from 1999’s magnificent ode to love songs (the aptly titled ‘69 Love Songs’ was comprised of exactly 69 songs about love) to the synth-less trio of albums that explored, in sequence, self (‘i’), sonic ‘Distortion’, and song-writing ‘Realism’.  ‘Love on the Bottom of the Sea’ is, by contrast, relatively theme-less, allowing the Fields to explore a wider array of subject matter and stylistic palettes without the rigid self-imposed structure of forcing song-writing to adhere to theme.  Though an auspicious start to a new record by a band accused of late of becoming mired down by theme, the result is a rather disjointed record weighed down by its own cleverness and not rooted in any particular direction.

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Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself [Buy Here]

Mom + Pop
Release Date: March 6, 2012
Grade: A-

Andrew Bird – “Danse Caribe”

It’s always a shock that Andrew Bird hasn’t enjoyed the sort of widespread popularity that his natural musical talent might suggest.  With a prolific catalogue (‘Break It Yourself’ is his 7th solo LP, and he recorded three more as Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire) and an invite to jam with Yo Yo Ma, there’s no question that he’s a gifted and innovative musician.  In fact, his ability to carry a tune by whistle earned him a prominent spot on the soundtrack of last year’s The Muppets.

Among the NPR set, he’s a household name, but his popularity hasn’t spread much further than the high-brow and hipster demographics that prefer vinyl record players to iPods.  Admittedly, it does take a certain active engagement with the music to fully appreciate much of Bird’s output, with such emphasis on complex song structures that could never be accurately described as earworms and on lyrical writing that celebrates wordplay and verbosity.  Perhaps one needs to see Bird perform live, where he calmly and masterfully loops violin, percussion, guitar, whistling, and vocals into a seamless mix.  Watching him work, it’s clear that he is something of a craftsman, and the method of innovation is nearly as important as the output.

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Islands – A Sleep & A Forgetting [Buy Here]

Release Date: February 2012
Grade: B

 Islands – “This Is Not A Song”

Islands has flirted with a lot of different styles over the course of their six-year existence, ranging from jangly garage pop to more regrettable experimentations with auto-tune and even rap.  On this, the band’s fourth full-length, the band strips away those flourishes and abandons the trend-following, offering instead an album of soul-baring singer-songwriter fare.

From the opening lines of album opener “In A Dream It Seemed Real”, frontman Nick Thorburn establishes the album as a contemplative reaction to loss and drifting, pleading “open up your door for me / and let me in / oh, can’t you see / how cold I am?”  It’s a fitting start to an album fixed consistently on one theme (the song titles are something of a roadmap here – “Never Go Solo”, “No Crying”, “Can’t Feel My Face”, “Lonely Love”, “Cold Again”).  Song-writing is the focal point, and lyrically it is one of the strongest efforts under the Islands moniker (Thorburn previously fronted the widely-acclaimed The Unicorns).

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Posted by: Jeff | March 14, 2012

Album Review: Grimes – “Visions”

Grimes – Visions [Buy Here]

Release Date: February 2012
Grade: A-

Grimes – “Oblivion”

Grimes – “Skin”

With a name like Grimes and the album art above, the unknowing listener might expect loud, dark sounds befitting a death metal or hardcore punk act.  Yet Grimes is the adopted stage name of 23-year-old Claire Boucher, a Canadian with an ear for pop structures and a do-it-yourself attitude embodied through the release of two albums recorded in her bedroom.  In a generation where young millennials all across the world record music on computer software and upload it to youtube for mass distribution, Grimes stands well above her bedroom studio peers due in large part to the subversion of standard pop motifs through technology.

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Posted by: Jeff | March 7, 2012

Album Review: fun. – “Some Nights”

fun. – Some Nights [Buy Here]

Fueled by Ramen
Release Date: February 21, 2012
Grade: D

fun. – “Some Nights”

fun. (period intentional) is a band that may be born from the ashes of college-rock legends The Format, but from the opening number – a cabaret prelude of sorts – it’s clear that frontman Nate Ruess pays more homage to the memory of Queen than his former band on this, the band’s second full-length album.  Except that in fun.’s world, the only thing that can improve upon the awesomeness of Queen is liberal use of autotune.

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Posted by: Jeff | February 27, 2012

Album Review: Lana del Rey – “Born to Die”

Lana del Rey – Born to Die [Buy Here]

Release Date: January 2012
Grade: D+
Lana del Rey – “Blue Jeans”

Lana del Rey took music blogs by storm this fall in the wake of the sultry earworm “Video Games”, but the controversy she produced far out-paced her musical output.  Lana del Rey (nee Lizzy Grant) may be a manufactured entity, replete with collagen injections and hours of post-production shine, but it’s not like that has barred an artist from becoming a major pop phenomenon (cough Stefani “Lady Gaga” Germanotta).  And the strength of “Video Games” suggested at the very least enough creative germ to outlast the indignation that a struggling artist would transform her identity to manufacture broader appeal.

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Posted by: Jeff | February 27, 2012

Album Review: Todd Terje – “It’s the Arps” EP

Todd Terje – The Arps EP [Buy Here]

Smalltown Supersound
Release Date: January 2012
Grade: B+

Todd Terje – “Inspector Norse”

Norwegian Todd Terje is most commonly affiliated with his fellow Scandinavians in the space disco movement, despite the fact that he didn’t release much beyond re-edits and club-ready remixes of eighties pop tracks and releases by labelmates in the six years following 2005’s breakout ‘Eurodans’ LP.  So it was some surprise when, in the spring of 2011, Terje dropped two singles (“Ragysh” and the epic “Snooze 4 Love”) that surpassed much of what had been released by his peers in the intervening years.  Luckily, his next release didn’t require a waiting period of 6 years – the magnificent ‘It’s the Arps’ EP arrived while the beautiful arpeggios of “Snooze” still echo.

“Inspector Norse” begins in a wash of tuner feedback before dropping an irresistibly groovy disco beat.  Terje composed ‘Arps’ entirely on an ARP2600 synthesizer, and he explores the instrument’s entire range here, from the deliriously wobbly stabs of mid-range noise that sounds like a wobbly saw to the slightly off-kilter melody that exudes a word I never thought I’d use in a disco review: swagger.  “Norse” is wonderful because it’s such a joyous exploration of sound, a perfect soundtrack to a carefree evening of fun.  When the track folds in on itself and begins to swell toward one of those epic drops that is all the rage at the moment in dance music, Terje is there to catch you, cutting the break off at the pass in favor of more groove.  It’s an exultant and cheeky moment, and a listener can’t help but smile.

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Posted by: Jeff | February 24, 2012

Album Review: John Talabot – “ƒIN”

John Talabot – ƒIN

Permanent Vacation
Release Date: January 2012
Grade: A-

John Talabot – “Destiny” ft. Pional

John Talabot may hail from the sunny paradise of Barcelona, but the remix and production work he’s done under the Talabot moniker in advance of his debut full-length is darker and more off-kilter than one might expect to come from a city known for its beach scene.  If Talabot’s music is unexpected it is in part because the man himself is so mysterious – in fact, very few people know his true identity.  It’s a fitting anonymity, as Talabot’s productions are dark and nocturnal, suited for intimate journeys through a night-time city scape as much as for the club.

Though Talabot’s productions may be rooted in the balaeric house of his native Spain, his work on ‘ƒIN’ occupies a logical space between the dance scene and the more intellectual compositions of shimmery indie pop electronicists like Gold Panda, Apparat, and Caribou.  Where Talabot finds particular success is his incorporation of mid-tempo house and nu-disco structure to unique ambient textures and sampling – from tribal drum patterns to the use of jungle frog and bird noises to introduce the sinister opener “Depak Ine.”

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