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Archive for the ‘weekly listens’ Category

…I’m hoping to resume frequent posting by writing shorter posts. No more three post extravaganzas. I’ll shoot for well fewer than 500 words and see whether I can post more frequently.

My first in this new lean and mean format will be one of my favorite headphone albums so far of 2015, Picture You, by the Swedish psyche rock band The Amazing. It’s hard to categorize this album as whole, because it shifts around from very dreamy dream pop on the first three songs to aggressive noise pop on the next song. And it keeps varying from there. It all fits together, I think, but it takes a few listens to get used to the way the sound changes throughout.

I first heard about this album when it was profiled on NPR Music a few months before the album was released. They played a very pretty acoustic track called The Headless Boy, which, in fact, is the most atypical song on the album. This is a great song with a timeless feel that made me eager to get the album, but if you think the rest of the album is like this, you’ll be disappointed.

The album starts with three very nice dream pop songs, different from The Headless Boy, but at least in the same general stylistic area. But the real shift comes on the fourth track, Safe Island, which is really fine and exhilarating noise pop, but is a little jarring on the first listen. And when the song ends with three solid minutes of guitar feedback, you may start wondering what’s going on here.

After that four-song exercise in musical whiplash, the rest of the album settles into a groove that works — nowhere near as dreamy or noisy, but at a comfortable equilibrium, best exemplified by the song Fryshusfunk. The song starts with an easy jazzy feel, but then it gradually goes off into a different realm, with a slow to appear but intense guitar solo that goes on for several minutes, reminding me vaguely of something David Gilmour would have come up with.

Lyrically, there’s not a lot notable here — all the lyrics are in English, I think. Sometimes it’s hard to tell through the noise. And several of the songs are completely or mostly instrumental. The Amazing is way more about sound that words. That’s fine. It’s an enjoyable headphone album to get lost in.

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manifestraErin McKeown – Manifestra

…This was one of my most eagerly anticipated releases of 2013 and it’s as good as I hoped/expected. Erin McKeown has built a long career as an independent singer-songwriter out of being bold and fearless, and that really shows on Manifestra. She fills the album up with highly political songs (plus a few personal ones) that are willing to jump around stylistically and are always a joy to listen.

A great example is the opening track, The Politician. In it, she portrays a hypocritical public figure with dark secrets (“if nobody knows, tell me what’s the crime?”) who hides behind religion when he’s caught (“pray pray pray, I’m so sorry…love the drinker, hate the wine”). But it’s easy to forget the lyrics and just enjoy the driving beat with a fun horn solo in the middle. Similarly, she takes on the misdeeds of Wall Street in In God We Trust (“late night government policy/cant make one and one make 3/calculate the size lobby/buy another friend”), which features a brilliant chorus that reworks the words of America the Beautiful and tosses in a nice beefy guitar solo from McKeown herself.

Like several songs here, The Jailer is built around the catchy rhythmic structure created by Marc Dalio’s drums. The title character appears to be a Joe Arpaio-type character (“for every man that jailer keeps, his soul is getting darker”). And Baghdad To The Bayou, co-written with Rachel Maddow, is a funky call to action (“who’s watching the watcher?/whose hand is in the pie?”) with a cast of vocalists that grows and grows from verse to verse.

The heart of Manifestra is its title track — over drums and her guitar plus some strings and a sax solo, McKeown raps her way through her personal philosophy. “I forgot about the water and chased the whale/The myth that the prize is all that ought to be…Every day give me the strength of a thousand beams.” She’s said the word “manifestra” is supposed to echo “manifesto,” “manifest,” and “fenestra.”

To all this, she adds a delightful little duet with Ryan Montbleau called Instant Classic that is the perfect 4-minute pop song — or maybe too perfect? Filled with romantic cliches that appear to be deliberately ironic considering McKeown’s queer identity, the song seems to be skewering the idea of a perfectly packaged pop song or Hollywood love story. But it’s easy to just skip the irony and enjoy the song. But it is also a nice intro to the Ryan Montbleau Band, which I really need to check out.

Next: Frontier Ruckus

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St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

…In listening to a new CD I often find myself fascinated with the decisions made in setting the order of songs. What an artist selects as the first song says a lot about their expectations for how the listener will experience the music. Often, an musician chooses one of the most accessible songs, eager to make a good impression and not wanting the listener to tune out immediately.

Interestingly, St. Vincent (the musical identity of prog-rock guitarist-singer Annie Clark) chooses a very different strategy on Strange Mercy. Rather than the obvious choice of starting with the listener-friendly Cruel, she starts out with the intense and idiosyncratic Chloe in the Afternoon before moving straight on to Cruel. Chloe is a really odd song to start an album — more of a provocation than an invitation (as if saying, “Don’t get too comfortable here”), consisting of a disjointed blend of keyboards, bass, guitars, drums, and an odd chorus that’s just the song title repeated multiple times. It’s an engaging song that seems to be about the sexual adventures of a femme fatale (“No kisses/No real names”), but it certainly knocks you off-balance the first few listens.

But Clark follows with one of the catchiest songs here in Cruel, which blends so many good things into an engaging mix — a catchy melody, an engaging guitar solo, and interesting lyrics about alienation and social expectations (“They could take or leave you/So they took you and they left you/How could they be so casually cruel?”).

Along the same lines as Cruel is Surgeon, which is built around a line from Marilyn Monroe’s diary (“Best finest surgeon/Come cut me open”). As recounted in an interview, Clark takes that line to build a song about longing for an easy fix to all that is broken in yourself.

Northern Lights is probably my favorite song on the album, a perfect showcase of Clark’s guitar talents. I particularly like how her final over-processed guitar solo of the song seems to push closer and closer toward some sort of breaking point and then… rather than turning back at the last moment, it simply breaks across into chaotic euphoria.

Every song on this album is good for a different reason, from the mellow Strange Mercy and Champagne Year to the hyper-kinetic Neutered Fruit to the steamy Dilettante. But I’ll highlight just one more: Year of the Tiger, which ends the album. Starting with a driving drum beat and the great opening lines “When I was young/Coach called me the tiger/I always had/A knack with the danger” the song proceeds to tell a tale of America in recession (“I had to be the best of the bourgeoisie/Now my kingdom for a cup of coffee”). Musically, the song contains many of the elements found in the rest of the CD, shifting between a long stretch with mellow guitar and keyboards and a drum-fueled ending.

This is one of those albums that contain a potent mix of technical skill, artistic imagination, and catchy songsmithing, but that don’t mix them so well that the various elements disappear — like a stew not a melting pot. Reminds me a lot of Sufjan Stevens’ 2010 album The Age of Adz. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.

Next week: Kate Bush

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Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

…Truly awe-inspiring. A 21 year old British singer songwriter who puts out songs that grab your attention and simply don’t let go. Fascinating lyrics, a strong band of musicians, and a voice that seems remarkably intense and grounded — this is an album of jazz-inflected folk pop to marvel at from someone who appears might be this century’s Joni Mitchell.

The emotional core of the album is certainly an aptly-named song called The Beast. It starts slow and intense with Marling singing quietly “Where did our love go?/you will never know,” but it soon shifts to angry catharsis as drums and guitars come in and almost take over the song. Marling sings “he lies/so sweet that I choke/tonight I choose the beast/and tonight he lies with me.” This Beast may just be an aspect of herself — complemented by Sophia, “Goddess of power,” whom she tries to invoke when the beast approaches and who gets her own song near the end of the album. In any case, utterly amazing stuff.

Here’s the best video I could find of Marling performing The Beast in concert.

It would be tempting to just treat the rest of the album as just the songs that introduce The Beast and the songs that follow. Except each of these songs stands on its own so well. On the first track, The Muse, Marling sardonically recounts meeting a man “that talked to me so candidly/more than I’d choose.” But, after the band goes off on some truly catchy banjo and piano riffs, she comes back to introduce the man (and us) to the beast: “Don’t you be scared of me/I’m nothing but the beast/And I’ll call on you when I need to feast.”

This is a very nice live performance of The Muse on Later… with Jools Holland.

The Beast is such an emotional climax that Marling puts the three most subdued songs on the album right after it. The all acoustic solo Night After Night stands out, but even here, she’s outspoken (“I don’t stand for the devil/I don’t whisper in ears/I stand on the mountains/and call people to hear”).

Another highlight near the end of this album is the song Sophia. It starts slow and quiet with just an acoustic guitar and gradually builds as Marling sings, possibly to an ex-lover, “Where I’ve been lately/Is no concern of yours.” The song has a nice country twang to it.

Here’s the official video of Sophia.

I love how emotionally intense this music is and I marvel at how seasoned Marling seems to be for a singer-songwriter of her age. Looking forward to hearing more from her.

Next week: St. Vincent

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WL #29 – Wilco

Wilco – The Whole Love

…This is an extremely impressive and entertaining CD of alt country/rock, consisting of 10 solid and varied songs bookended by two long tracks that really stand out. The first of these is Art of Almost, which starts with about a minute of drums and keyboards slowly building to a crescendo — then the music clears and we are left with Jeff Tweedy’s familiar voice singing: “No!/I froze/I can’t be so/Far away from my wasteland.” But the lyrics seem an afterthought — this song is just lush with layers of sound. Just when we sense the song winding down, Nels Cline’s guitar kicks in for an extended solo that’s simply exhilarating.

Here’s the band performing Art of Almost on David Letterman.

After that extended tour de force, we get ten short tracks that showcase the key elements that make Wilco so good: Tweedy’s enigmatic lyrics, the ways the three guitarists play off against each other, and the combination of pop sensibility plus a willingness to experiment. The songs are varied in style from the fast fury of I Might and Standing O to the quiet and mellow Black Moon and Rising Red Lung. Then there are the songs like Dawned On Me and Born Alone that are a little of both and are among the best here.

Here’s a live performance of Born Alone on the Canadian show Q.

Another fine song is the penultimate title track, which finds Tweedy in about the most romantic mode he reaches. He reflects on how he recognizes he’s not perfect: “And I know that I won’t be the one/To securely know when it’s wrong/But I hope I know when it’s past/And I hope I know when to show you my/Whole love.”

The album is rounded out with One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend), which is based on a real conversation Tweedy had with, yes, novelist Jane Smiley’s boyfriend at a party. The song is from the perspective of the boyfriend, recounting his difficult relationship with his religious father, who disapproved of his son’s lifestyle. Over the course of the song’s twelve minutes, we learn the complex set of feelings the son has after his father’s death — relieved that “now he knows he was wrong,” but also missing “being told how to live” and realizing how he learned from his father “how much more I owe than I can give.” Musically, it’s an incredibly simple song, featuring a basic acoustic guitar riff accented by a few notes on a piano. After the raw musical power on the rest of the album, the power here is all in the emotions of a son talking about his father.

Next week: Laura Marling

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WL #28 – Admiral Fallow

Admiral Fallow – Boots Met My Face

…One of my primary sources for information about new music that I might want to check out right now is NPR Music. Admiral Fallow was mentioned in their SXSW preview and seemed appealing — a Scottish power pop band with a new CD coming out soon. I filed that information away and looked forward to hearing more about them. Their new CD was released only in the UK in April, so I ended up buying it directly from the band — it finally came out in the US in June. This is a really good album and worthy of much more attention than it seems to have gotten. I even had to use a write-in slot to pick it as one of my 10 favorites of 2011 in the NPR Music poll.

Admiral Fallow feels to me like the New Pornographers’ slightly poppier Glasgow cousins — or, for me, this year’s Stornoway. They certainly know how to craft a catchy pop tune with intriguing lyrics and often an interesting complex song structure — plus Sarah Hayes’ backing vocals remind me a little of Neko Case. A great example of their sound is Old Balloons, which contains multiple tempo shifts and may be my favorite song on the album. Here’s a very nice version of this song performed live:

I love how that song starts slow then shifts in high gear, slows down again, and then finally just takes off.

Another thing that impresses me about this album is how they well they mix insightful/witty lyrics, impressive musicianship, and killer pop hooks — it’s really nice to see a new band put all this together into one very catchy package.

And I’ll end by quoting lead singer/song writer Louis Abbott, who sums up this album in the liner notes:

The foundation of these songs is the desire to keep discovering new places and people, but to still keep a wrought iron sense of where you came from and how it’s shaped the person you are.

Next week: Wilco

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Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

…There are albums that take time to get used to — you’re intrigued, but need to struggle a bit to “get” them. Helplessness Blues is absolutely not one of these. From the first moment of the first track of this CD, it just felt great — like putting on a perfectly broken-in shoe. This is hyper-accessible folk rock that aims to please and does so in spades.

I’m working on a theory: For the shrinking numbers of us who still listen to entire albums instead of playlists, the key to the success of a CD is track three. It’s easy (really, necessary) to please the listener with two really strong songs at the start, but the third song is the point where you need to give the listener something to chew on — or else interest fades. This is very much the case with Helplessness Blues. The first two tracks, Montezuma and Bedouin Dress, are really fine songs, featuring the wonderful harmony of lead singer Robin Pecknold and backup vocalists Josh Tillman and Christian Wargo, but the third, Sim Sala Bim, is where the album really begins for me. The song starts with just Pecknold singing with an acoustic guitar about a dream, but he soon is awake from that dream and the song evolves into a thrilling very 60s folk rock jam involving multiple acoustic guitars that lasts just about a minute, but leaves a lasting impression.

From there, the album continues the formula of mixing super-accessible songs like Battery Kinzie and Lorelai with really interesting and complex songs like the multi-song tracks The Plains/Bitter Dancer and The Shrine/An Argument. The Plains/Bitter Dancer begins with a really fascinating two-minute wordless fugue of layered vocals and then switches to what seems like a meditation on death (“Bitter dancer, ever turning/So was the day that you came to town”).

Lyrically, the songs on the CD seem to be uniformly about soul-searching — Pecknold has said that he wrote these songs in the aftermath of the breakup of a five-year long relationship. On the title track, he reflects on having been brought up to believe that he is “somehow unique,” but now he longs to serve a cause larger than himself — he just doesn’t know what that cause is (“I don’t know who to believe/I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see…What good is it to sing helplessness blues?/Why should I wait for anyone else?”). In his confusion he longs for the simplicity of hard work on his own orchard where “I’d work till I’m sore,” but the closing line is a haunting hint that his confusion is simply rooted in not being able to live up to the life he sees on TV: “Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen.”

The Shrine/An Argument is another really amazing and complex multi-movement track that seems to contain the central theme of the album, filled with regret about the ending of a relationship. Starting slowly and quietly with a visit to a coin-filled fountain (“I’m not one to ever pray for mercy/Or to wish on pennies in the fountain or the shrine/But that day you know I left my money/And I thought of you only/All that copper glowing fine”), the song then shifts in tempo and mood to a confrontation, perhaps a final fight before the breakup. But that movement ends quickly and we are left with a final movement with Pecknold alone in his orchard (“Green apples hang from my green apple tree/They belong only to, only to me”), invoking for the second time in the album William Butler Yeats’ utopian ideal of Innisfree. But all is not peaceful — here we get the sole moment of atonality on the entire CD, a raucous Colin Stetsonesque sax solo.

As the album nears its close, I’ve noticed another formula that works well here and was used earlier this year by Bright Eyes — ending an album with a quiet reflective penultimate song followed by something transcendent. Fleet Foxes do that here with Blue Spotted Tail and Grown Ocean. On the first of these, Pecknold sings solo with his acoustic guitar, continuing the title-track theme of wondering about the purpose of everything (“Why is life made only for to end?/Why do I do all this waiting then?”). It’s a quiet and beautiful short song. And then everything shifts with the final song, upbeat and fast, almost celebratory. He sings of a dream of attaining a meaningful life — this seems like Yeats’ Innisfree again (“In that dream I could hardly contain it/All my life I will wait to attain it/There, there, there”). Ultimately, like Bright Eyes found, it’s all about the journey, wherever it leads.

Between the instantly accessible music and the soul-searching lyrics, this is a truly satisfying album and certainly one of my favorites of 2011.

Next week: Admiral Fallow

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