Articles posted in May 2009

St. Vincent and the Seven Dwarves

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If you’ve read any recent interviews with Annie Clark, chances are you already know that Actor, her second album under the St. Vincent moniker, was inspired by the scores to animated Disney features such as Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast. So it’s not entirely surprising when “The Strangers,” the album’s opening track, begins with ten seconds of gently purring woodwinds and haunting swells of choral harmonies. (Close your eyes and you can almost see the enchanted forest, with magical creatures emerging from the undergrowth.) The album is full of moments such as this, most notably on “The Party,” a sweeping baroque pop masterpiece that makes a compelling case for the best song of 2009. It begins as a restrained piano pop song, with dreamy vocals and seductive lyrics (“I sit transfixed by a hole in your t-shirt”); then, just when you think it’s over, it explodes into a stunning coda of majestic strings and thundering timpani drums, sounding like Sufjan Stevens at his most ambitious.

But despite the new influences, Actor isn’t too much of a departure from 2007′s Marry Me. As on that album, any moments of beauty come interspersed between abrasive noise rock experiments and frightening imagery (just look at the title of “Laughing Through a Mouthful of Blood”). Lead single and sort-of title track “Actor Out of Work” is a punkish stomper, with riffing so distorted, it’s impossible to tell what instruments are being played. “Black Rainbow” beings with piano and gently pulsing strings, gradually getting more and more distorted throughout its four-minute runtime.

Actor is less immediate and pop-friendly than Marry Me—it scarcely even has any choruses, never mind ones as catchy as “Apocalypse Song.” Consequently, it’s a more challenging listen, especially due to the sudden shifts in tone. But it’s also more rewarding, as it becomes easier to follow Annie Clark on her emotional roller coaster with repeated listens.

Actor is out today via 4AD.
 
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You can slouch on the futon instead

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I very rarely listen to hip-hop, which explains how I managed to go almost two years before hearing The Old Prince, the Polaris-nominated album by London, Ontario-based rapper Shad. But now that I have, I’ve become completely addicted to the single “The Old Prince Still Lives at Home.”

The song could scarcely be more different from the materialistic excess and hyper-masculine bravado of most mainstream rap. As the title suggests, it’s about living with your parents, and gives Shad the opportunity to offers plenty of money-saving tips: “Why’s a brother need a dentist? It’s expensive!” It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious, and pretty much every word is instantly quotable. It’s even kind of sweet, with Shad’s boasts about penny pinching tempered by self-deprecation: “Like students do, ‘cept I’m grown and it’s not dorms, so it’s a bit more pathetic—okay, a lot more.” The song finishes with an a cappella verse, after Shad claims that the royalties made the beat too expensive to use for the entire song.

The beat—before it’s cut off—is upbeat and funky, accented with keyboard blips and sampled horns. It sounds a bit like mainstream ’80s rap, evoking the feel good grooves of DJ Jazzy Jeff, so it’s only appropriate that the video is a recreation of the classic opening to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Shad plays the role of Will Smith, getting tossed around the basketball court and yelled at by his mom. It manages to be funny without needing to change much—they have some fun with the credits at the bottom of the screen, but it’s mostly a pretty faithful recreation.

Watch the video here.

The Old Prince was released in 2007 via Black Box Recordings.
 
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DRMHLLR is PRTTY KWL

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When I first listened to DRMHLLR‘s Demo, I was preoccupied with one question: where’s the vocalist? The Vancouver four-piece doesn’t have a singer, and this is disorienting since it doesn’t conform to my preconceptions of instrumental music; the group doesn’t play electronica or experimental post rock, nor does it indulge in loose, improvised jamming or noodling solos. Rather, it sounds similar to a lot of contemporary indie rock bands—Plants and Animals, Broken Social Scene—minus the vocalist.

In lieu of vocal melodies, the DRMHLLR’s two guitarists keep their playing melody-driven, opting for lyrical, minimalist leads instead of powerchord bombast. “Baby Tooth Tiger” begins as a sparse guitar riff, before the rhythm section propels it to a seemingly endless, cinematic crescendo (movie producers, take note: you’ve found your theme song). As well as delivering triumphant rock outs, DRMHLLR also has a knack for hypnotic, repetitive grooves. “c41″ is a six-minute, two-chord dirge, beginning with a haunting bass keyboard riff before giving over to chiming surf guitar licks. On “Ice Age,” the rhythm section sits out for over two minutes while the guitarists harmonize over gently purring feedback.

Despite delivering the occasional glorious crescendo, Demo is a sombre listen, more suited to a mellow evening at home than a wild Saturday night. It’s never challenging but always interesting, delivering soothing atmosphere without demanding your full attention.

Demo is only five songs long, and is billed as a demo (duh) EP. But at 35 minutes, it’s actually longer than some full-length releases. It’s self-released, and is currently only available for purchase at shows.
 
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“The best unsigned band in Canada” no more

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When I bought the Rural Alberta Advantage‘s Hometowns back in November, I had to order it from the band’s website, since it wasn’t yet available in stores, or even on iTunes. When it arrived a week or so later, it was a home-burned CD slipped inside a floppy plastic sleeve.

But these once-humble resources are about to change. Yesterday, the group announced that it had signed to the American indie powerhouse Saddle Creek, who will rerelease Hometowns in July. The band has been on a steady upward swing over the last few months, so this announcement doesn’t come as a huge surprise. And if anyone in Canada deserves a little more exposure, it’s the RAA.

Hometowns is a gorgeously nostalgic love letter to the band’s home province of Alberta, resembling a Canadian version of Sufjan Stevens‘s (evidently aborted) 50 states project (song titles include “Frank, AB” and “Edmonton”). But unlike Stevens’s academic approach to regional history, the RAA is emotional and autobiographical. The album begins with “The Ballad of the RAA,” which documents the band’s relocation from Alberta to Toronto (where all the members now live). The first line—”We unbearably left the prairies”—sets the album’s pining tone, which is filled with every bit as much longing and regret as any romantic confessional (Blood on the Tracks, Sea Change, 808s & Heartbreak, etc.).

Musically, the band most closely recalls Neutral Milk Hotel, mainly because singer Nils Edenloff sounds a whole heck of a lot like Jeff Mangum—he has the same nasal drawl, and, like the legendary NMH frontman, doesn’t allow himself to be constrained by a limited vocal range. He writes singing parts with seemingly no regard for his technical ability, and almost pops a blood vessel as he hollers out the high notes in “The Deathbridge in Lethbridge.” This might sound like an insult, but it isn’t at all—Edenloff’s impassioned vocals are the crux of the RAA’s sound, giving urgency to what otherwise might be considered slightly repetitive subject matter.

The arrangements on Hometowns centre around Edenloff’s furiously strummed acoustic guitars, offset against the sombre synth drones of keyboardist Amy Cole. But the real star is drummer Paul Banwatt, whose creative and off-kilter rhythms ensure that the band sounds like no one else—check out the dense syncopation of “Sleep All Day,” or the clattering dance beat of “The Deadroads.”

Ultimately, though, the appeal of the RAA all comes back to the lyrics. The band’s homesickness is contagious (pandemic level 5!), and Hometowns is the kind of album that makes you nostalgic for a life that isn’t even yours. If you haven’t heard it, be sure to pick up the album now—this could be your last chance to say “Yeah, I was into them before they were famous.”
 
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