Articles posted in November 2009

The Flaming Lips get messy

The Flaming Lips - Embryonic
Call it heresy, but I’ve never been a big fan of the Flaming Lips‘ work over the past ten years. Ever since The Soft Bulletin, the Oklahoma group has watered down its weirdness with glossy synths and dreamy production tricks. It may have sounded petty, but it had the unfortunate effect of making Wayne Coyne’s thin vocals and quirky lyrics sound a bit too whimsical for their own good.

The Flaming Lips’ latest album, the double-disc opus Embryonic, avoids that problem by stripping down the arrangements to their bare essentials. The few instruments that remain ragged and distorted: the drums are shrouded in fuzz and reverb, while the bass sounds like it might explode out of the speakers at any moment. The first minute of “Aquarius Sabotage” is a mangled jazz-metal freakout, a trumpet squealing angrily over a cacophonous rhythm section. But this discord is off-set by unexpected harp flourishes that cut through the murky mix like rays of sunlight. The nursery rhyme-style lyrics of “I Can Be a Frog” would have probably sounded insufferably cute on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots; here, the song is a chilling minor key ballad, with Karen O providing animal noises that sound like they were recorded on an answering machine.

The band’s transformation on Embryonic runs deeper than production alone. Of the album’s eighteen tracks, not one of them is a full-blown pop song. Rather, most of the collection is reserved for quietly looming grooves like opener “Convinced of the Hex,” which rides a robotic vocal line for four minutes without offering anything that even remotely resembles a chorus. The closest the album comes to a traditionally-structured pop song is on the final track, “Watching the Planets.” It’s distorted and jarring as hell, but the “yes, yes, yes” hook is guaranteed to rattle around your skull long after the record is over. Karen O even makes a return, yelping during the triumphant instrumental passages. It’s a moment of glorious catharsis, perfectly placed at the end of a psychedelic mindfuck of an album.

Embryonic is out now via Warner Bros.
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Julian Casablancas indulges his whims

Julian Casablancas - Phrazes for the Young
Initially, I had Julian Casablancas pinned as one of those frontmen who probably couldn’t play an instrument and had little involvement in the songwriting process; I imagined the Strokes‘ singer showing up to the studio on the day of the recording session, listening to his bandmates’ completed songs and throwing some bratty vocals on top. He sounded so lazy and disaffected that it was hard to imagine him investing much in the composition. Closer inspection of the liner notes, however, proved me wrong: Casablancas is the sole writer of nearly every song the Strokes have ever released, including all of their hits.

So with that in mind, it’s really not that much of a leap for Casablancas to go solo for his latest album. In fact, it’s a little surprising that it’s taken him this long, especially considering that three of his fellow Strokes have already unveiled side projects.

Phrazes for the Young is being billed as Casablancas’s foray into synth pop, but that description is only accurate insofar as the majority of the instruments on the album are electronic. Stylistically, Phrazes for the Young sounds much older than its ’80s-infused keyboards would suggest: “Ludlow St.” is an old-timey country waltz, while “4 Chords of the Apocalypse” is a bluesy lounge ballad that gives the singer an opportunity to croon about taking his girl dancing and giving her diamonds. The guitar-heavy opener “Out of the Blue” is the most familiar territory for Casablancas, but it sounds closer rootsy bar blues than the Strokes’ usual garage rock mayhem.

Unfortunately, Phrazes of the Young is unfocused and overlong, something that’s especially problematic considering that it’s only eight songs long. Every song has its hooks, but they don’t come fast or often enough; most of the tracks clock in at around five minutes, but they probably shouldn’t be longer than three. The obvious exception to this criticism is the single “11th Dimension,” which piles on mindlessly catchy keyboard riffs and Street Fighter-style breakdowns without wasting a second. “Left & Right in the Dark” is similarly catchy, although the gap between choruses drags on a little.

With some editing, the album could have been the triumphant reinvention Casablancas was doubtless looking for. As it is, “11th Dimension” deserves a place on any “Best of 2009″ playlist, but the rest isn’t likely to hold many people’s attention for long.

Phrazes of the Young is out now via Cult/RCA.
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Most things are microwaveable

Language-Arts - Where Were You in the Wild?
Language-Arts‘ 2007 debut, the bafflingly-titled “”, was a mixed bag. A stylistic hodgepodge that ranged from folk to hip-hop to jazz, it contained one song that stood clearly out above the rest: “Running at Sunset in a Moonlit Town” was haunting chamber pop, its droning guitars and electric piano flourishes more effective than any amount of kitschy genre-mashing.

The band appears to have followed the blueprint of that song when crafting its second album, and the result is a much more consistent and enjoyable effort. Where Were You In the Wild? is eerie mood-piece, featuring more strings and synthy atmospherics than its predecessor. Frontwoman Kristen Cudmore retreats behind a layer of reverb, placing a greater emphasis on melody in both her singing and guitar playing. This is most apparent on “White Socks in Birkenstocks,” which places hummable guitar leads and a wordless vocal hook over a purring bed of keyboards and cello.

Despite this newfound focus, the band hasn’t completely abandoned its genre-hopping ways. Cudmore raps on the woozy “Grandfather of the Buffalo,” while the title track veers between a steadily chugging chorus and jazzy, syncopated verses. And the lyrics are just as whimsical as they were on the debut; opening track “Cavity” begins with the line “Did you know most things are microwaveable? / Have a fine time on the frontier dunging out the stable.” This time around, however, the quirkiness serves to offset the chilly atmospherics, and rarely comes off as cloying.

mp3: “Where Were You in the Wild?”

“Wild” it definitely isn’t, but Where Were You in the Wild? is a confident step forward for Language-Arts.
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That’s my man, that’s my brother

Aidan Knight
Earlier this year, I wrote about Aidan Knight‘s Pre-Release EP, a teaser previewing tracks from his then-untitled debut full-length. Although it only contained two songs, it gave good reason to get excited about the LP; the timeless acoustic strummer “Jasper” was especially compelling, its delicate folk arrangement as uplifting as its baptismal lyrics.

Pre-Release EP has since been taken down, but details about the album have finally emerged. It’s called Versicolour, and is due out early next year via the imprint Adventure Boys Club. “Jasper” is the first single, and as well as receiving a sparkling new mix, the song now has an accompanying video. It’s mostly stop motion animation, showing a ball of string swirling around a bowl of cereal. It ends with a party scene, young and old coming together over drinks and homemade pizza. It’s a heart-warming clip, befitting the song’s communal vibe.

For more, head over to Aidan Knight’s website, where, in exchange for your e-mail address, you can download “Jasper” plus one other unreleased track from Versicolour (the horn-laden “Fighting Against Your Lungs”). Alternatively, you can download “Jasper” below.

mp3: “Jasper”
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Lotus Child’s child

The Zolas - Tic Toc Tic
The Zolas are a duo consisting of singer/guitarist Zachary Gray and pianist Tom Dobrzanski. This is the same songwriting team that made up the core of the now-defunct piano pop band Lotus Child, who released an EP and album earlier this decade. Considering that Gray and Dobrzanski chose to disband their former group and reform under a new name, it might be fair to expect them to change their sound; after all, why bother restarting from scratch if not in search of artistic transformation?

It’s therefore a little surprising that the Zolas’ debut album, Tic Toc Tic, isn’t a huge departure from the bouncy piano rock that Lotus Child was once known for. Not to say that Gray and Dobrzanski have stagnated—rather, Tic Toc Tic sounds like a logical follow-up to Lotus Child’s Gossip Diet. “The Great Collapse” is a straight-forward rocker, its upbeat verses giving way to a quiet, fatalistic refrain of “Free what you love ’cause it’s gonna die anyway.” “These Days” is a bittersweet serenade, its swaying groove laying the foundation for a stunning chorus that sounds like it was made for audience clap-alongs.

As well as offering these easily-digestible pleasures, the Zolas have a knack for eclectic song structures, frequently making sudden changes in tone and style. “Cab Driver” starts as a dark, looming pulse before exploding into a manic barroom outro, a honky tonk hoedown that gives Dobrzanski a chance to show off his piano chops. “You’re Too Cool” is a shapeshifting epic, beginning with spiky, angular verses before giving way to a gentle R&B refrain, later followed by a pounding, arena-sized breakdown.

mp3: “You’re Too Cool”

It’s a hell of an achievement for a debut record, but, then again, maybe it shouldn’t really be considered a debut record after all. Whatever the case, Tic Toc Tic is well worth your time (pun!).

The album is out tomorrow via Lotus Child Music Inc./Universal.
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