Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tegan & Sara - "Heartthrob"

Six whole years ago, Tegan and Sara released their sixth studio effort "Sainthood". This album had an updated sound, compared to their previous records. There was slightly less guitar, the edges were softer ad there were more blips and bloops of electronic intervention. The course of their discography from "If it was you" to "Sainthood" is actually a good example of how over the past 5 or so years modern rock has embraced more experimentation, more electronic textures and has broken away from guitar-oriented rock purism. "Heartthrob" takes Tegan and Sara from rockers dabbling in electronics to electro-pop princesses dabbling in rock.  

The songs have a huge, fleshed-out, radio friendly sound to them. Like Canadian band STARS the songs have rock rhythms with dancefloor hooks and pumping synth tones. While technically, the riot grrrl angstiness (from their first 3 albums) is gone, the popification of their music has not cheapened the emotional content one bit. Even a quick glance at the track list reveals that, at least as far as titles go, "Heartthrob" looks like the most melancholy, vulnerable record they've done, to date. 

[for those of you who don't have the album in front of you or on your screen:]
1. Closer
2. Goodbye, Goodbye
3. I Was A Fool
4. I'm Not Your Hero
5. Drove Me Wild <(past tense there)
6. How Come You Don't Want Me
7. I Couldn't Be Your Friend
8. Love They Say
9. Now I'm All Messed Up
10.  Shock To Your System

"I Was A Fool" is the best song on this entire album, hands down. Runner up is "Drove Me Wild". This album succeeds despite going "pop", something fans normally resent. Even longtime fans should appreciate the songwriting, despite the lack of guitar action and the normal tough-girl aesthetic.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Umberto - "Confrontations"

The targeted audience for Umberto's music is a bit hard to imagine. It's too dark and moody to be dance music but it's too structured and hooky to be a soundtrack or mere ambiance. (But, I guess it's simplistic to think of music just in marketing terms (like audience)) Pitchfork compares the music to Italian prog rockers Goblin and other than assorted 80s, horror movie soundtracks (like The Fog), that might be the only easily identifiable influence. As far as contemporaries go, Umberto bears a passing resemblance to Com Truise but other than that, it's hard to compare.

When it hits its sweet spots, "Confrontations" drags the listener into deep, ethereal, gothic soundscapes but at other times, when the synths sound clunkier and the whole product feels a little less organic, it has the feel of a low budget video game soundtrack. "Dead Silent Morning" and "Invasion" come across as amateurish, in comparison to the rest of the album. 

"Night Fantasy" is clearly the album's only real killer track. The song's quiet sine intro is cut to shreds by a bold snare at the one minute mark and from then on, every new beat that appears is compelling, thematic and oh-so catchy. At times, the title track, "Confrontation" returns the listener to the steady driving rush of "Night Fantasy" but at no other time on the record is that original feeling recaptured. The other songs drag too much. There is too much dramatic buildup and not enough release justify that initial buildup. They would make for an ok original soundtrack but as individual specimens, they lack luster. 

"Confrontations" is definitely worth a listen but Umberto needs to try harder to churn out more anthemic material. Tracks "Night Fantasy" and "Confrontations" prove that he is capable.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Western Medication - "Painted World"

As Mulder used to say, "I want to believe". But it's just hard, sometimes. The more contemporary post-punk music we have, the better. Yet, there are a lot of imposters out there who take from post-punk the concepts of danceable tempos and good bass lines but produce music that sounds very trapped in today's shallow indie-rock trends. A good example of this would be Editors: at their best they embody a slight revival of gothic post-punk but at their worst, they're a contrived, over-emotional indie-rock band trying to relive an era before their births. 

Western Medication is more promising and even-keeled than bands like Editors, but this EP has its issues. First of all, why is there an interlude on a five song release? That screams filler, even though filler itself is not always a problem. The perfect example is Black Sabbath's "Paranoid". Penned in a matter of an hour or two, the song went over so beautifully that it fulfilled the need for extra material on the record AND contributed to its success. However, as far as Black Sabbath filler goes, "Interlude" is more like "FX": a clearly superfluous track on Volume 4, that consists of coked up members of the band fooling around with delay effects with no real purpose in mind.

"Big City" is just super-contrived sounding. It sounds like anyone could have recorded it. Really, minus the accents, it sounds like it could have been a Black Lips song. It just doesn't fit that well. And most records include at least one track that doesn't belong as well as the others but on an EP, artists need to be pickier. When it's only five songs, as opposed to ten or twelve, the average quality should be higher. "Big City" makes the whole effort feel a little bit rushed (the same can be said about "Interlude").

Also, in the introduction of "Painted World", (which is my favorite song on here, by far) the kick drum sounds ever-so-slightly off time. It resolves itself during the rest of the song, but in the beginning, it's a bit unnerving.

Overall though, those flaws aside, the EP is indicative of a bright future. Technically, it will take the release of a full LP before anyone can say how promising the band is, but the noisy guitars, back-of-the-mix vocals and thrilling basslines are heartening.  

[Also, post-recording of this EP, they've added a keyboard player. This will only make the future more interesting.]

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

PREVIEW: Heyerdahl - "ØEN"

Heyerdahl's debut kicks off with a crawling bass line that sounds almost like Joy Division's "Dead Souls" before the high, boyish vocals start. "Know one knows what happened to the man who built our homes", muses the vocalist, mysteriously. These lyrics tell a story that we are only partially able to understand, arriving midway through the plot (in media res, as Virgil would say). The track sets the tone for the entire album in the sense that the players and vocals never go above a dull roar, for more than a moment. Even during the song's climax, every note is totally controlled and deliberate. Even though the drum and bass do almost all of the heavy lifting, rhythmically, there is still a steady rocking feel. Heyerdahl is saying a lot with little, here.

The rest of the album is carried out with the same spartan simplicity and melancholy slowness: the antithesis to the typical naive, sunshine-and-daisies-garbage so many other indie-pop styled bands seem to put out. Track "Blood" is written in the same style but with the addition of some synths and vibraphone. But even with the different layers, it all sounds so cohesive and essential to the overall product. No deadwood to be cut out, sonically.

The sombre mood, quiet volume and loping tempo (and hell, even the vibraphone) bring to mind Danish rockers Kashmir: a band that never achieved great commercial success outside of their home country. Hopefully, Heyerdahl will be able to bring the same musical ideas and feelings to the world in a way Kashmir never could. Given the success of similar bands (in a similar region) like Miike Snow and Peter Bjorn and John, the US is ready for Heyerdahl and the focused, restrained songwriting they employ.

"Mirage" is the only single currently available for listening. The full album will drop on January 28th.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Kashmir is one of my all-time-favorite modern bands. I didn't want to distract by saying so in the body of the review, but if you've never listened to Kashmir, they're some of the best music from the mid 90s to early 2000s.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Major Tom returns to Earth

It's pointless for me to repeat the news that I'm sure you already heard from a million different sources, yesterday, but I shall anyway. Yes, it's true, David Bowie is back. Well, at least he's kind of back. Bowie released a brand new song/video called "Where Are We Now?". The true news here is that the song is a single off of an upcoming album, expected to drop in March. Bowie's latest track is a calm, serene piano number complete with a cool, detached, pop-standard delivery. His voice sounds decent and I can't say he looks terribly happy in the video, but he's singing and there's an album. I can work through everything else, given that wonderful news.

The burning question that I have, though, is, whether or not there will be a supporting tour. He suffered a heart-attack in 2003, in the midst of touring, so I certainly won't hold it against him if he decides not to, but just think, he might TOUR again. There are no other living artists I can think of that I would rather cross off my bucket list, than David Bowie.

We need to cross our collective fingers and pray to the glam gods and hope that Mr. Bowie, health permitting, of course, decides to tour again. I have a 9-5 job now, and that includes personal days. I will fly wherever, to see this man perform. This needs to happen.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Triple Hex - "E.P."

What do Prince, Elvis and Ke$ha all have in common? Their music positively oozes sex. The suggestion of sex is a powerful one. It can take a normal musician and make them legendary. It can take a mediocre vocalist and turn her into an international pop-star. But sometimes sex in music is not sexy, sometimes it's just plain perverted. 

The front-man of Triple Hex, Dave Hex, has an unsettling vocal style that makes him sound as if he's snaking his hand slowly down his pants, as he records. Hex's lyrics are delivered with a low baritone register, so low that it sounds as if he is about falter. The result is a sultry delivery half Nick Cave, half Lux Interior

Hex also plays a mean guitar. Like the vocals, the lead playing is also split into two tendencies: either a sauntering, bluesy funk or a droning, doomy punk. Despite the darkness, the record, on the whole, has a vintage, first-wave garage rock feel to it that is only enhanced by the warbling organ. Track one, "Winter", also contains a plunked, repeated, guitar note that sounds suspiciously similar to the single-note piano riff played by John Cale on the Stooges' garage/proto-punk classic, "I Wanna Be Your Dog". 

"Love Song" is extremely entertaining in its crassness. When Hex rumbles, "I don't wanna love song- I just wanna fuck" it kind of sums up the mood of the whole EP: pure ego and sleaze. "Viking Funeral" does this too, as the dead viking in question summarizes his picaresque life and how much of a badass he once was.  

Hex's latest is stylish, catchy and really dirty. It's hard to believe they've been around since 2006 with such little recognition. The EP was released on January 1st.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Heathered Pearls - "Loyal"

"Toe-tapping" and "ambient" are descriptions that rarely go together. The word ambient evokes images of calm and nature while toe-tapping does essentially the opposite. However, the beautifully serene ambient music on "Loyal" actually does both. If another artist threw in a simple kick/snare beat, this would be dance music. It might even be excellent dance music. Hipster-Runoff would call it post-nu-gaze-crunk, or something idiotic like that. 

But there is no kick or snare. There is no backbeat to demarcate one part from another. The music on "Loyal" has more of an ebb/flow binary to it than the usual, unambiguous up beat/down beat we are all used to in most rock and pop music.

Some of the textures are looped while others are "live" (or at least non-repeating). Sometimes the repeating and non-repeating patterns go together to form a recurring but not identical cycle, similar to breaking waves: the general pattern reoccurs but there are definitely variations. "Left Climber" and "Steady Veil" use these techniques, heavily.

"Loyal", taking most of its instrumentation from airy synths, is spacey and alien-sounding but not eerie or uncomfortable. Heathered Pearls' debut bravely straddles the line between rhythmic and arrhythmic while still sounding musical enough: a joy for seasoned experimental-music-lovers and a safe starting point for novices.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Dan Trolley - "Electric Hours"

Channeling Blank Dogs, The Fall and even a little Jesus and Mary Chain, Dan Trolley's Bandcamp debut is dark, moody, and eclectic. It's just a one man affair but sounds no worse for it. A careful arranging of cold synths and brittle guitars makes it sound like Martin Hannett is at the producing helm. But don't let all the allusions I just used fool you: Trolley's music is very much his own.

While the entire album is set to the beat of a drum-machine, it's never distracting. Dan croons from what sounds like the back of a basketball court, perhaps an infernal basketball court. The lyrics often get lost but the pathos remains intact. Still, it would be helpful to have some liner notes to decode some of the less audible lyrics.

Guitar playing is simple and economical. Instead of solos and spotlight-stealing lead playing, Trolley is far more concerned with songwriting craft. The lo-fi rock is truly worthy of being described as DIY. Because, after all, what is more DIY than making rock/punk/post-punk music without a rock/punk/post-punk band? 

Hopefully, there's more to come, and if it does come, may there be a label smart enough to sign Mr. Trolley.

1. Don't feel down
2. Slow reaction
3. Your ways