Articles posted in March 2009

He’s got a twelve-sided die

You’ve got to give the Decemberists credit for not caving to major label pressure. The group’s Capitol debut, 2006′s The Crane Wife, was far from radio friendly, including a 12-minute prog epic and a multi-song suite about a bird disguised as a human.

But The Crane Wife sounds positively tame compared to the Decemberists’ latest, The Hazards of Love, which is a full-blown rock opera about a woman named Margaret, her lover, and the jealous forest queen who attempts to derail their romance. The story is a bit like a Dungeons & Dragons game set to music, with different singers voicing each character—Lavender Diamond‘s Becky Stark plays Margaret, while My Brightest Diamond‘s Shana Worden is the queen. Dungeon Master Meloy acts as narrator, as well as voicing the character of “the rake.”

But even better than the story is the music itself, which includes recurring melodic themes and unexpected stylistic turns. In keeping with the group’s increasing pomp-rock influence, the album is heavier than anything they’ve done before; with its Sabbath-sized riffing and Worden’s massive, tremulous voice, “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” could pass for a Black Mountain song. Similarly, “The Rake’s Song” features choppy powerchords and an ominous fuzz bassline befitting the tracks’s ugly subject matter (an infanticidal maniac). As well as making forays into noise pop and metal, The Hazards of Love also features some of the gentlest, prettiest songs the band has ever written (and that’s saying something). These sudden shifts in mood can make for an overwhelming listening experience, especially considering that each track segues into the next without pause.

The Decemberists’ theatricality has always been tempered by self-awareness, and The Hazards of Love is no different. As overblown as the album is, it comes off as funny, rather than self-important. It’s the kind of grandiose absurdity that made Sufjan Stevens‘s Illinois so bafflingly brilliant. Cynics need not apply, but if you’re willing to play along, The Hazards of Love is about as good as musical escapism gets.

Stream: The Hazards of Love

The album is available on March 24 via Capitol.
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A back-to-school gift (six months belated)

Prairie Cat writes cutesy, twee pop songs, but his deadpan delivery prevents them from ever sounding silly or disposable. Even when singing quirky tunes like “Grumpy Forever” and “Trust Don’t Rust,” Prairie Cat (whose real name is Cary Pratt – get it?) always comes off like the straight man. I was a big fan of his debut EP, 2007’s Attacks!, but I hadn’t heard much of him since then, given his limited touring schedule.

I’m not sure how I missed it, but Prairie Cat released a free back-to-school EP last fall, bundling two new songs from his forthcoming album. The mini-collection is called Summer’s Done, and it includes the bouncy piano pop ditty “Just Cuz” and the shimmering, synth-driven “It Began/Ended with Sparks.” Both songs concern a break-up, but neither one sounds too bummed out about it; “It Began/Ended with Sparks” in particular features a campy but surprisingly sweet dialogue between a boy and girl as they bring their relationship to an amicable conclusion (“I never wanted to leave you”).

mp3: Summer’s Done

There’s also a slightly creepy video for “Just Cuz,” featuring a many-limbed Cary Pratt playing piano, drums, and trumpet at the same time, while still having a hand free to feed himself what looks like a Twinkie.

There are no concrete details about the upcoming album other than that it will be released this fall via Fuzzy Logic Recordings, and a Canadian tour will follow.
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Plants and Animals @ the Biltmore Cabaret, 3/18/09

Plants and Animals have a lush, anthemic sound, thanks in part to the many guests the band enlisted to flesh out its latest album, 2008′s Polaris-nominated Parc Avenue. Going in to Wednesday night’s show at the Biltmore, I had expected the trio to be accompanied by backing musicians to help replicate its studio sound. Only the three original members were present, however, meaning the group’s sound was stripped down to its basic parts.

The band turned up the gain to compensate for the sparse set-up, and the result was a chaotic set that transformed the lush arrangements of Parc Avenue into muscular blasts of noise. Unlike its choppy, vaguely funky recorded form, “Good Friend” was lumbering and punkish, with the low end turned up high to accommodate for the lack of a bassist. “Feedback in the Field” ended with a gleefully noisy solo by guitarist Warren Spicer, with swells of guitar feedback and muted strumming over drummer Matthew Woodley’s steady backbeat. Nicolas Basque switched between guitar, bass, and keyboards, also providing some awkward banter about “sensual dinosaurs.”

Amazingly, the minimalist arrangements were no less powerful than their grandiose studio incarnations.”Bye Bye Bye” was soaring and majestic, with hollered vocals and cascading drum fills. “Fairie Dance” was drawn out to epic proportions, prompting an audience sing-along in its sped-up final movement. Best of all was “Mercy,” which evoked the jammy dance-party atmosphere of a Phish concert without any of the unfortunate hippie-stoner connotations.

Local four-piece DRMHLLR opened up the show with a solid set of instrumentals, resembling Broken Social Scene at its most easy-going (think “Pacific Theme”). Unfortunately, the band isn’t likely to get far without a vocalist, but that’s beside the point, since the catchy guitar riffs and danceable jazz-funk grooves provided enough to capture the audience’s interest.
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Robots need love too

It’s an old adage: you have your whole life to write your first album and six months to write your second. Except in the case of Dan Mangan, that’s not strictly true. His first album, Postcards and Daydreaming, came out in 2005, meaning that he’s taken four years to produce the follow-up, Nice, Nice, Very Nice, which will be released in August. In preparation for the release of the full-length, Dan released Roboteering on March 10th, a teaser EP featuring three tracks from the upcoming album, plus two outtakes.

The core of Dan’s sound remains the same as it ever was, with bittersweet acoustic folk songs that showcase his gruff baritone voice. But Roboteering takes that familiar sound and improves upon it in every conceivable way: the songwriting is better, the production is richer, and the arrangements are more diverse. Best of all is the sort-of title track, “Robots.” It’s the pop single Postcards and Daydreaming never had, with a lush instrumental arrangement (including slide guitar, banjo, and piano) to support the song’s upbeat acoustic guitar-and-drums groove. The lyrics glorify emotional detachment, but Dan offers a twist in song’s repeated coda: “Robots need love too / They want to be loved by you.” It’s an absolutely massive hook, and ends in a big group sing-along replete with handclaps and crescendoing trumpets.

mp3: “Robots”

The other songs on the collection are more subtle than “Robots,” but no less memorable. “The Indie Queens Are Waiting” is a percussion-less ballad with harmonies sung by Veda Hille, whose poignant vocal performance humanizes the song’s title characters (the cooler-than-thou “indie queens”). “Sold” is the simplest in terms of production, but its rootsy two-step outstrips anything off Postcards and Daydreaming in terms of sheer energy. The EP-only songs are a nice addition to the collection, but their stark minimalism makes it easy to see why Dan chose to leave them off the full-length. The closing track, “Tragic Tun of Events/Move Pen Move,” is especially sombre, a nine-minute music/poetry collaboration with Shane Koyczan.

It may have taken Dan four years to write his second album, but Roboteering shows that the time was well spent. There’s just one problem—thanks to this teaser, the wait for Nice, Nice, Very Nice is going to seem that much longer. The EP is out now via File Under: Music, with the LP following in August.
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Pop goes punk

When Pop Levi released his debut full-length, The Return to Form Black Magick Party, in 2007, he was a mop-topped retro-rocker with a penchant for T. Rex and psychedelic backmasking. Then, just a year later, he reinvented his sound with the funk-infused follow-up Never Never Love, coming off a bit like Prince by way of Scissor Sisters.

Clearly not one to stay stagnant for long, Pop Levi is issuing a new double A-side single, bundling “Police $ign” and “Terrifying (for Kenneth Anger).” Predictably, the single is nothing like anything he’s done before, this time drawing on the scuzzy garage blues of MC5 and the Stooges. The punkish sneer of “Police $ign” makes it the obvious choice for radio, with its slashing guitar chords and Casablancas-inspired vocal distortion. “Terrifying” is only marginally less vitriolic, with a lumbering, Zeppelinesque riff and high, yelping vocals.

Even through it’s new territory for Levi personally, it’s nevertheless a very familiar sound, especially in the wake of the garage rock revival of the early ’00s. Still, you’ve got to admire an artist as restless as Levi—by the time he gets around to his third LP, he’ll probably have gone through another stylistic overhaul.

The single is due out on Counter Records, although no release date has been confirmed. In the meantime, you can listen to both tracks on Pop Levi’s MySpace.
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Spend a week in a dusty library

Camera Obscura will probably never top the genius that was “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken.” It’s a near-impossible precedent to live up to, but the group’s new single, “French Nevy,” isn’t far off. It’s everything that Glaswegian twee-pop should be, with dewey-eyed strings, shimmering guitars, and wistfully romantic lyrics (“You with your dietary restriction / Said you loved with me a load of conviction”). Like the best moments of 2006′s Let’s Get Out of This Country, the song is pounding and anthemic, but its grandeur is kept in check by Tracyanne Campell’s ever-restrained vocals.

What really cements the song’s brilliance is the music video, which hit the net today via Pitchfork. Interspersed with band performance clips, the video portrays a whirlwind holiday romance with quick-cut clips, coming off like a series of idyllic holiday snapshots. The video follows the couple from first kiss to last, and despite having only three minutes to show the full romantic arc, it’s surprisingly understated; there’s no big blow-out, just subtle body language to show the lovers’ emotions. In terms of sheer poignancy, “French Navy” takes the medium of the three-minute music video about as far as it can go.

Check out the video here courtesy of Pitchfork.

“French Navy” will be released on 7″ and CD single on April 13. The full-length, My Maudlin Career, will follow a week later (April 20/21) via 4AD.
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Hollerado’s new album is free, and it kicks ass

When Hollerado first began giving away demos at shows, the band couldn’t afford proper packaging, so they simply placed a CD-R in a Ziploc bag and called it Demo in a Bag. Now, the quartet has recorded a full-length, but its humble means have remained the same – hence the album’s goofy-but-appropriate title, Record in a Bag.

If there’s one lesson you can take away from the album’s title, it’s this: Hollerado takes itself less seriously than any band in the entire world. Look no further than the opening track, a ridiculous little ditty called “Hollerado Land,” written and performed by the band’s friend Sam. It was recorded in what sounds like a noisy room full of people, and features slurred vocals and badly botched guitar riffs; in short, it’s the sloppiest recording to be made public since Beck’s earliest releases (think Golden Feelings). As weird as it is that the band doesn’t even appear on the opening track of its debut album, it’s the perfect introduction to Record in a Bag, setting a relaxed party vibe that resonates throughout the entire 12-track collection, even during the band’s tightest, most focused songs.

Hollerado plays noisy garage rock, but the group sets itself apart from the majority of today’s indie landscape by drawing heavily from ’70s riff-rock. Of course, the only way to get away with ’70s bombast these days is to do it with a sense of irony, and Hollerado has a knack for being humourous without making the music sound frivolous or disposable. Consider a song such as “Got to Lose,” which pairs serious teachings (“You’ve got to lose love if you want to find love”) with hilariously sordid imagery (“There was a man with a monocle eating pineapple outside / He offered me to trade his bike for head…what?”)

In that sense, the most apt comparison when describing Hollerado is Weezer, more in terms of the groups’ shared spirit than a stylistic similarity. Like Rivers Cuomo, Hollerado sounds like it was weaned on a diet of KISS and Cheap Trick, but the band’s unflagging wit and self-awareness prevents it from ever sounding like a lame ’70s retread. And while Record in a Bag delivers plenty of moments of power-pop perfection (see the gorgeous chorus harmonies in “Fake Drugs”), Hollerado’s roots influence ensures that the group will never be pinned as a Weezer knock-off. “Hard Love” could easily be a full-fledged country song if only the guitars weren’t so noisy, and “On My Own” is classic roadtrip-folk (“You bring granola bars / I’ll bring some bags to put the wrappers in”). Vocalist Menno Versteeg has the ability to sound simultaneously tuneful and totally unhinged, and his husky shout falls somewhere in between Jeff Tweedy and Joe Strummer.

Saying that Record in a Bag sounds like a party is not a metaphor – the album contains interludes of drunken, group-sung a cappella (“Reno Chunk”), as well as background noises that suggest the group might have held an in-studio kegger during its recording sessions. It’s always a pleasure to listen to a band that’s having this much fun, but what really sets Hollerado apart is the sharpness and complexity of its songwriting. Songs don’t just have one hook, but several, meaning that each track sounds like its bursting at the seams with ideas. “Walking on the Sea” begins with a Pixies-inspired surf riff, and its verses contain three separate sections, any of which would be catchy enough to serve as a chorus for a lesser band; then, just when you think its all over, it finishes with 30 seconds of crashing waves, whistling, and Hawaiian guitar. “Do the Doot Da Doot Doo” has such a intricate structure that it’s almost exhausting to listen to; it feels like it lasts much longer than its 4:44 runtime, not because its boring, but because you can’t believe they fit so much into less than five minutes.

All this, and I haven’t even told you the best part – the band is offering Record in a Bag as a free download from its website. Screw the Radiohead model – it’s absolutely insane that a record this good can be given away for nothing. Hollerado’s feel-good vibes will only sound better come summer, so this is going to be one to watch out for in the coming months.

mp3: Record in a Bag
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Toffee with your Vicodin

For all of the fuzzed-out guitar noise, there’s something delightfully twee about the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Part of it is the band name, which has a wounded religiosity pulled straight from the Belle & Sebastian book of tricks (If You’re Feeling Sinister anyone?). And part of it is the track-listing to the group’s self-titled debut album, which contains schlocky puns (“The Tenure Itch”) and ’50s doo-wop send-ups (“A Teenager in Love”). But mostly, it’s the music itself that makes the New York four-piece so damn cute. Case in point: the new single “Young Adult Friction.” Unlike the fuzzy shoegaze of much of the band’s material, this song is pure Britpop jangle; with its dreamy reverb and sugary melodies, it could almost be “There She Goes” by the La’s. Like everything the group does, the tune has a hazy, nostalgic quality, so here’s hoping the band makes a sun-bleached Super 8 video to go along with it.

mp3: “Young Adult Friction”

“Young Adult Friction” will be released on 7″ on March 31 via Slumberland. It can also be found on the group’s self-titled album, which was released last month.
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I think it’s German for “The Wanderlust”

I don’t recall ever being so genuinely terrified of a singer as I am of Laura Simmons from the group Das Wanderlust. Hailing from Middlesborough, England, her voice is high and girlish, and inflected with a thick northern accent. During low-key moments she sounds pleasant and tuneful, with just the slightest trace of tension to upset the prettiness. But when the band erupts – as it does on nearly every song – her voice becomes suddenly manic, with squeals and yelps that sound genuinely unhinged. Rather than releasing the tension, these screams have a quivering anxiety that only builds the sense of uneasiness. What makes it so truly frightening is that no matter how crazy she gets, Simmons never loses that girlish quality in her voice. It’s the same thing that makes young children so effective in horror movies – nothing is more sinister than tainted innocence.

The band’s instrumental arrangements are fittingly twisted, with goofy keyboards set against jagged guitars and explosions of drums. It’s a juxtaposition of cutesiness and abrasiveness that is something like the auditory equivalent to Happy Tree Friends.

The single “Puzzle” is a noisy highlight, beginning with dissonant pounding and wordless hollering that sets an ominous tone for the song’s (comparatively) quiet middle movement. But in the song’s final moments, it becomes unexpectedly tuneful, with a propulsive beat and upward-reaching keyboard arpeggios that are as close as the band ever gets to catharsis.

“Turn to Grey” is the band’s gentlest moment, and despite its chorus of “I’m filled with disappointment,” it’s genuinely beautiful. Based around piano and glockenspiel, it features no guitar and only minimal percussion. Given the rest of the band’s material, it sounds like it could blow up at any moment; it never does however, settling for an sped-up version of the chorus as its understated climax.

The band has released several 7″ singles (including “Puzzle”), some of which are available digitally through iTunes. The group’s debut full-length, Horses for Courses, will be officially released on May 18 (although it will be sold at shows prior to that).
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Because one supergroup is not enough

Both of Jack White’s bands have experienced a decline in quality on recent albums – Icky Thump (the White Stripes) and Consolers of the Lonely (the Raconteurs) lacked the fire of White’s early work, with hyper-compressed guitars and gimmicky arrangements. But you’ve got to admire him for not beating a dead horse. Less than three weeks after the White Stripes reunited to perform on the final episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Jack White has announced his new band, the Dead Weather. This time around, White is playing drums, forfeiting lead vocal duties to Alison Moshart of the Kills. Jack Lawrence of the Raconteurs and the Greenhornes is the bassist, while Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age rounds out the lineup on guitar.

The band debuted at a private party in Nashville, where guests were handed a limited edition 7″ of the single “Hang You From the Heavens.” It’s not exactly a song for the ages, and it can’t quite match when the Raconteurs stormed out of the gate with “Steady, As She Goes.” Still, it’s a rocking tune, with fuzzed-out bass and a jolting stop-start chorus. Even though Jack White is ostensibly taking a back seat in the Dead Weather, it’s hard not to hear his mark all over this one—especially since it bears a strong similarity to the Raconteurs’ “These Stones Will Shout.”

For us plebs not cool enough to be at the performance, the single can be purchased on iTunes along with the B-side, a cover of Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric?” The band will release its debut full-length, Horehound, in June via White’s own Third Man Records. (Incidentally, horehound is a type of plant, not to be confused with whorehound.)
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