Articles posted in September 2009

A new sound for YSP!WSD!

You Say Party! We Say Die! - XXXX
Until now, You Say Party! We Say Die! was a band defined by the exclamation marks in its name. The five members had plenty of energy but not much in the way of subtlety, specializing in frenetic dance punk and leftist political idealism. Even when playing a ballad, the group lacked a delicate touch. “You’re Almost There,” from the 2007 album Lose All Time, was a solo piano ballad—a pretty tune, but it suggested that the only way the band knew how to quiet down was to stop playing completely.

XXXX is the group’s third album, and within the first few bars, it’s clear that everything is different. Opening track “There Is XXXX (Within My Heart)” begins with a chiming electric paino and singer Becky Ninkovic’s dark, dramatic vocals. The instruments enter gradually as the song eases into a mid-tempo dance groove that doesn’t properly break out until the two minute mark. This slow burner sets the the tone for the album, which emphasizes dynamic, carefully-constructed arrangements over mindless energy. When Ninkovic sings “Sex, drugs, boring” on “Glory,” it sounds like a mission statement—this time, the band is taking it seriously.

As well as undergoing a stylistic makeover, YSP!WSD! has shifted its lyrical focus away from politics to more personal matters. The title XXXX is a code for L-O-V-E, and it provides the thematic focus for the entire album: three songs feature the word “love” (or, rather, “XXXX”) in the title, and even those that don’t usually feature the word at some point during the lyrics. The honeyed 80′s ballad “Laura Palmer’s Prom” (based on a character from Twin Peaks) has a refrain of “My heart needs a love dance.” The Bat for Lashes-style dance rocker “Dark Days” contains the line “I love your love light” in its chorus.

mp3: “Laura Palmer’s Prom”

Equally as important a difference in the group’s sound is the improved production. Unlike previous albums, which sounded raw and hurried, XXXX is sonically gorgeous. Recorded over several months with producer Howard Redekopp (Tegan and Sara, the New Pornographers), the crystalline electronics and thundering drums finally do justice to the band’s potential.

XXXX is so much better than YSP!WSD!’s previous albums that it almost sounds like a different band entirely. There are still glimmers of the band’s previous style: the gang vocals during the breakdown of “Cosmic War Avengers” or Ninkovic’s “One! Two! Three! Four!” yells on “Make XXXX.” But for the most part, the band sounds nothing like the one that demanded listeners to Hit the Floor! on its 2005 debut. A lush synth pop gem, XXXX is a must-listen.
 
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Pink Mountaintops @ the Rickshaw Theatre, 9/27/09

Pink Mountaintops @ the Rickshaw Theatre, 9/27/09
Fucking badass. That’s the only way to describe blues duo the Pack A.D., who opened up for fellow Vancouverites Pink Moutaintops last night at the Rickshaw Theatre. The pair might sound suspiciously similar to an all-female version of the White Stripes, but with the distortion cranked and energy dialed up to the maximum, it didn’t seem to matter.

“We’re gonna play something that’s a similar tempo and just as loud” joked drummer Maya Miller between songs. She and her bandmate, singer/guitarist Becky Black, didn’t disappoint, as every song was as vitriolic and noisy as the next. Black’s voice is impressive on record, but live, it’s stunning—she’s clearly in possession of vocal chords of steel, as she howled and screamed like a banshee without ever losing her tunefulness. Her jeans were so tight that they looked painted on, and as she stood on top of Miller’s kick drum during a particularly thundering crescendo, her tall, slender frame made her look every bit as intimidating as any male rock icon. Hollering her way through “Making Gestures,” it was a little hard to believe her when she sang the lines “I should strike up a conversation / But I’m too afraid.” With the entire room held in the palm of her hand, it was impossible to imagine her ever having cause to feel social anxiety.

The Pack A.D. clearly upstaged Pink Mountaintops, whose repetitive stoner rock jams seemed a little tame by comparison. This wasn’t entirely the band’s fault—the PA system wasn’t adequate for six musicians, meaning that the sound was a sludgy mess. It was difficult to discern any sounds other than the dull roar of bass and distortion, with the occasional deafening squeal of feedback cutting through the mix. Still, Pink Mountaintops had no one but themselves to blame for their mopey stage presence—compared to the charismatic and affable ladies of the Pack A.D., the headliners came off as curt and disinterested.

Despite the technical difficulties and weak stage presence, Pink Mountaintops’ performance wasn’t a complete bust. The group is coming off one of the year’s best albums, Outside Love, meaning that the songs that managed to emerge through the murky mix were excellent. “Vampire” and “Closer to Heaven” didn’t quite capture the lush grandeur of the studio cuts, but they were enough to remind listeners of just how good the album is. It was also a treat to hear some of Pink Mountaintops’ old material given the full-band treatment. While early recordings usually featured only frontman Stephen McBean playing along to lo-fi electro backing tracks, the six-piece transformed “I (F*ck) Mountains” into a hypnotic, psychedelic waltz with spacy guitar leads and droning violin.

Pink Mountaintops’ next show is at the Commodore Ballroom on November 10th, when they will open up for Dinosaur Jr. Presumably, that venue will be better suited to deal with the group’s dense sound.
 
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Sufjan’s latest experiment

Sufjan Stevens
Ever since releasing his masterpiece Illinois in 2005, Sufjan Stevens has been attempting to distance himself from his signature baroque folk sound. From the robotic electro ballads of Songs for Christmas Vol. VIII to the mangled, glitchy epic “You Are the Blood” (released on the charity compilation Dark Was the Night), the singer-songwriter refuses to cave to popular demand and record new material along the lines of “Chicago” or “Casimir Pulaski Day.”

This October, Sufjan will be continuing the trend with two new symphonic instrumental albums: The BQE is a orchestral ode to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, while Run Rabbit Run is a reworking of his 2001 disc Enjoy Your Rabbit, arranged by a collection of New York composers.

The most recent in Stevens’s outlandish stylistic forays is “There’s Too Much Love,” an electro-epic performed at a recent gig in Ithaca, New York. With a bouncy hip-hop beat, tricky rhythmic hiccups and glorious bubblegum chorus, it bears a vague similarity to Dirty Projectors‘ latest, Bitte Orca. Halfway through, it descends into a tuneless noise rock cacophony that gradually transforms into squiggly free jazz with dueling trombone and trumpet solos. The weirdness feels a little forced, but the radio-friendly dance pop of the first half is perhaps the most natural-sounding of any of Stevens’s recent endeavors.

The only recording currently available is a fan-shot video, although it’s a surprisingly high quality clip: the sound is clear, and the camera is steady.


 
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Occasional greatness from Girls

Girls - Album
In the lead up to Girls‘ debut, Album, the San Francisco group released two singles: the rollicking non-Iggy cover “Lust for Life” and the woozy epic “Hellhole Ratrace.” Both songs were absolutely gorgeous, matching blissful pop oblivion with poignant lyrics and singer Christopher Owens’ wounded, gulping vocals. With such a precedent, it was almost inevitable that the full-length will disappoint.

mp3: “Hellhole Ratrace”

To be sure, the two already-released singles are the best two tracks on the album. Elsewhere, Girls’ retro rock style has a tendency to stray a little too close to pastiche. “Big Bad Mean Mother Fucker” is a rockabilly send-up with a “Johnny B. Goode”-style guitar break and a refrain that contains the lyric “I’m gonna rock like no one ever told me to stop.” “Headache” and “Lauren Marie” are both vaguely tropical crooners, and they are a little too drippy to be taken seriously.

Despite its flaws, Album still has several worthy tracks that make it an enjoyable, if inconsistent, listen. “Laura” is a bouncy rocker, and its impassioned plea of “Reach out and touch me, I’m right here / And I don’t wanna fight anymore” captures an adolescent romanticism that Rivers Cuomo has spent the past decade trying to recreate. Halfway into the pattering “Summertime,” a huge whooshing guitar enters and nearly engulfs the track—it’s barely even recognizable as a guitar, sounding almost like crashing cymbals or just a synthesizer, and it makes for a moment of brilliant shoegaze dreaminess. “Morning Light” is another shoegaze throwback that’s a little more traditional in its approach—it just cranks the distortion up all the way—but is just as effective.

As the shoegaze-influenced tracks show, Girls have the talent to take on a variety on styles—it’s only when they descend into parody that they trip up. Album may not be stunning from front to back, but its highlights show that a masterpiece may be in the group’s future.

Album is out now via True Panther.
 
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2009′s most consistent rock band

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Higher than the Stars
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart‘s self-titled debut, released in February, is one of the year’s best albums by virtue of its consistency. Any one of its ten songs would have made a strong single, mixing lo-fi guitar grit with soft, whispered vocals and sugary pop melodies.

Now, seven months later, the Brooklyn quartet is releasing a follow-up EP that is equally stunning. Unlike the album, Higher than the Stars has a clear standout track that singlehandedly makes the collection required listening. The title track is a shimmering pop masterpiece, with bright, jangling guitars and dreamy keyboards melodies. The lyrics are somewhat ambiguous, but appear to describe a failed high school romance, with repeated references to “the back of her mother’s car.” It’s a gorgeous teen anthem that would have worked perfectly as the theme song to a John Hughes movie.

“Higher than the Stars” may be the best track, but this isn’t to suggest that the other three songs are weak. “Falling Over” is a soft-hitting acoustic strummer with Morrissey-style vocals and glitzy keyboard leads. “103″ and “Twins” are both fuzzed-out dream pop, striking a perfect balance between noisy abrasion and bubblegum bliss.

Tacked onto the end of the CD version is a remix of “Higher than the Stars” by British electropop trio Saint Etienne. It sounds a lot more like Saint Etienne than it does the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and the dark, percussion heavy arrangement doesn’t quite capture the widescreen beauty of the original track. But despite this underwhelming finale, Higher than the Stars recaptures the pop perfection of the group’s debut and suggests than we’ll be hearing plenty more great things from the Pains in the coming years.
 
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Chad VanGaalen opens the vault

Chad VanGaalen
Last night, Fucked Up‘s The Chemistry of Common Life won the Polaris Prize. It wasn’t an entirely surprising choice, although I was rooting for Chad VanGaalen. His album, Soft Airplane, came out last September, and its seamless blend of experimental electronica and Neil Young-indebted folk pop made it both sonically adventurous and immediately accessible. It covered a broad range of styles, but seemed cohesive nonetheless, largely thanks to its structure. The songs were loosely arranged into three movements: it began with catchy pop rock, moved into heavier-hitting electro rock, and wrapped up with a series of mellow acoustic strummers (followed by a dissonant sound collage).

Last week, VanGaalen released Soft Airplane – B-Sides EP, a free download that compiles 9 outtakes from the album. It sounds more or less as you’d expect a collection of b-sides to sound, with sloppy arrangements are bizarre stylistic forays. Opening track “Stuffed Animal” features a glitch beat, warped vocals and sampled dog barks, coming off like VanGaalen’s own “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” (Radiohead‘s oddball electro track from Amnesiac). Track two, “Are You Sleeping?” pairs lo-fi keyboard blips with ramshackle acoustic guitars and lyrics cribbed from Modest Mouse‘s “Satin in a Coffin” (“Are you dead or are you sleeping?”).

After the first two tracks, however, things get more straightforward. “Soak in Visions” is based around simple blues guitar groove and high, quavering falsetto. “Twisting Magic Up” is a mid-tempo rocker that could have fit comfortably on Soft Airplane alongside “Old Man + the Sea” and “City of Electric Light.” “I Wish I Was a Dog” is a rumination on reincarnation that includes the lyric “I wish I was a poltergeist / Moving through solids and spying on lesbians.”

Although it’s usually clear why the songs were relegated to B-sides, the EP is nevertheless an effective reminder of the qualities that made Soft Airplane one of the best album of 2008. Head over to VanGaalen’s website to download it for free.
 
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Arctic Monkeys @ the Malkin Bowl, 9/20/09

Arctic Monkeys
No matter what they do, Arctic Monkeys are probably doomed to be remembered for their first album and nothing else. Not to suggest that Humbug, the group’s latest, is bad—it isn’t. But it and its predecessor, 2007′s Favourite Worst Nightmare, lack the punkish fury and biting lyrical wit that made Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not the fastest-selling debut in British history (at the time—that record has since been beaten by Leona Lewis‘s Spirit).

During their Sunday evening show at Stanley Park’s Malkin Bowl, Arctic Monkeys seemed eager to escape being pigeonholed as one-album wonders. They only played three tracks off their debut—”Still Take You Home,” “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “The View from the Afternoon”—which was a shame, since they were the best three songs of the night, both in terms of performance and audience response. The band cut loose during these songs, firing off riffs and thundering fills that whipped up the crowd into a moshing, crowd-surfing frenzy.

The majority of the set was made up of material from the past two albums, plus the occasional B-side and cover (they played a version of “Red Right Hand” that sounded a lot closer to typical Monkeys than it did the Nick Cave original). The band had a fifth member in tow, who provided keyboards and guitar. This allowed the band to recreate Humbug‘s lush arrangements, and also offered frontman Alex Turner the opportunity to set aside his guitar for a few songs. Unfortunately, he looked uncomfortable without an instrument strapped to his chest, and wandered around awkwardly during a take on “Pretty Visitors.”

The newer songs seemed a little lifeless compared to the early cuts, and despite the impressive instrumentation—guitarist Jamie Cook used different effects pedals on seemingly every tune—they mostly just highlighted how much better Arctic Monkeys are when they keep it simple. The set ended with the slow-building, organ-drenched “505.” It was a strong finale, but I couldn’t help but wish they would have played “When the Sun Goes Down” or “A Certain Romance” instead.
 
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Starfucker seeks a new name

Starfucker
Band names are hard. As anyone who’s tried to come up with one knows, it’s damn near impossible to find one that’s memorable, meaningful, and hasn’t already been taken by some other band in the past 50 years. Portland’s Starfucker is evidently stumped, as the band is currently seeking fan suggestions for a new name. According to a post on the group’s MySpace, the name was only ever intended to be temporary, and “we never thought we’d make it this far with Starfucker.”

While fans wait for band to come up with a new name—or, rather, while the band waits around for the fans to come up with a new name—let’s pause to remember Starfucker’s finest recorded moment. “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second” is the lead single off the group’s self-titled album, released last year via Badman. The song is a perfect distillation of the group’s sugary synth pop style, featuring an unfathomably catchy guitar groove and warm, layered vocals. Based around a simple drum loop, it’s simultaneously danceable and laid back, recalling Air at its most upbeat.

The accompanying video is a psychedelic animation that takes the viewer to outer space, beneath the ocean, through the countryside and inside of someone’s mouth. Think of it as the cosmic, electropop version of Yellow Submarine.


 
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Rah Rah @ the WISE Hall, 9/17/09

Rah Rah
When Rah Rah is on top form, the group’s live show is a revelation. Unfortunately, last night at the WISE Hall, the six-piece battled muddy sound and a persistent, annoying feedback buzz from the PA. The band members seemed understandably thrown off by the technical difficulties, as the show didn’t have the same euphoric energy as when I saw the group a few months back.

Despite a lackluster start, the mood picked up a few songs in with the propulsive boroque rocker “Betrayal Pt. 1,” its thundering rhythm section and wailing violin evoking the swirling grandeur of Arcade Fire. A few songs later, multi-instrumentalist Erin Passmore took over lead vocals for “Duet for Emmylou and the Grievous Angel,” a gorgeous, countrified tribute to the band’s hometown of Regina.

The set ended with a series of new songs, one of which featured a party canon wielded by violinist/accordionist Kristina Hedlund. As she sprayed confetti into the crowd, it was an instant of pure, unrestrained joy. Although such moments were in shorter supply than usual, the musicians still earned a chant of “Rah Rah! Rah Rah!” as they filed off the stage.

The show was stolen by the opener, psychedelic rock four-piece Yukon Blonde. The group recently relocated to Vancouver from Kelowna, and this performance was the band’s first on a six week cross-Canada tour. Clad in all white, the band members tore through a brief but memorable set of gritty dual guitar jams and melodic California folk rock (think CSNY or the Byrds). The guitars crunched and jangled in equal measure, and the three-part vocal harmonies were pure Summer of Love. With a brand new EP just released and a LP on the way next year, look for Yukon Blonde’s profile to rise over the next few months.

Also on the bill was Red Cedar, who delivered a solid set of southern-fried rock. Drawing on the whiskey-soaked jams of My Morning Jacket as well as Rust Never Sleeps-era Neil Young, the band delivered a satisfyingly raucous performance, although you had to ignore the bassist’s ridiculous facial expressions in order to enjoy it.
 

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Major Tom returns home

Firs - Man in Space
David Bowie released the breakthrough single “Space Oddity” in 1969, meaning that it’s been 40 years since Major Tom lost contact with Ground Control and was stranded in space. In 1980, Bowie revisited the character on “Ashes to Ashes,” but only as a metaphor for drug use (in which astronaut = junkie).

Firs is a synth pop duo from Cincinnati, made up of Pomegranates frontman Joey Cook and vocalist Sophia Cunningham. Man in Space, the pair’s debut album, is loosely based around a lost astronaut’s miraculous return to earth after decades of orbiting the planet without radio contact. It’s not clear if Firs’ spaceman is the same character as Bowie’s, but it’s tough the deny the similarities: Man in Space‘s opening track,”The Descent,” begins with the lyric “40 years / I’ve been circling / Ringing ’round the earth.” On the next song, “Welcome Home,” Cunningham takes on the voice of the stunned onlookers, singing “Oh my God / Could it be? / 40 years since he left home / Such a long time to be alone.”

mp3: “Welcome Home”

Not every song on the album follows the narrative as closely as the first two tracks: it’s difficult to interpret “Day at the Beach” as being about anything other than what the title suggests. But despite these variations in subject matter, the collection is tied together by the arrangements—each song segues seamlessly into the next, and every track is a wash of dreamy synth pads and buzzy keyboards. Occasionally, thundering percussion and fuzzed-out bass enter the mix, as on the dancefloor-ready “Realizing the Meaning.” Typically, however, the collection favours new age-y mellowness over noisy rock-outs. Cook and Cunningham split vocal duties evenly, but their high, breathy voices sound so similar that it’s difficult to tell them apart—this is especially noticeable when they harmonize, their voices blending into a single, androgynous purr.

The album ends with “Now I Understand,” a gentle Cunningham-fronted ballad. Rather than the cosmic revelation you might expect from the title, it’s actually heart-wrenchingly romantic, featuring the lyric “Please take it on blind faith / I will love you always.” Placed as the album’s finale, it suggests that the spaceman storyline may have been an allegory for love all along. Whether it’s intended as a continuation of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” narrative, or if it represents the disorientation of falling in love, Man in Space is a gorgeous album with enough lyrical intrigue to merit repeated listens.

Man in Space is out now via Lujo.
 
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