Mar 31, 2011

Now Playing:
Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean (Warner Bros.)

If, for some odd reason, you are checking back in on Sam Beam due to his higher major label profile and haven't paid attention since about, oh, 2003, this record might just come as a bit of a shock. The hushed and hauntingly intimate folk found on his debut record has largely vanished, replaced with a surprisingly playful approach to songwriting and a carefree frolic through multiple genres. In interviews Beam has cited the FM pop radio he used to hear in his mother's car while growing up and it's easy to see why, these songs wouldn't have sounded terribly out of place between Fleetwood Mac and an early Elton John piano ballad - not that either of those serve as specific signifiers for what is heard on Kiss Each Other Clean. But those fans who've followed Beam religiously (a fitting word for much of his recent lyrical content) over the past eight years, particularly through his non-album tracks and the Calexico collaboration, will be less surprised by the jazz and funk-laden diversions. Sure songs like "Godless Brother in Love" don't fall too far from the Creek Drank the Cradle tree, but the horn sections and involved arrangements shed an entirely new light on Beam's talents. And talented he certainly is, because nearly every one of these songs is a surefire winner, even as he drifts further and further away from the sound that made him famous. "Rabbit Will Run" and "Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me" will perk up the ears of many a music fan, even those with little time for Beam's intimate confessionals of old. We knew he could break your heart wish an acoustic guitar and a whisper, but its equally exciting to know just how damn funky he can be when leading a full on band.

Mar 30, 2011

Now Playing:
Destroyer - Kaputt (Merge)

I've listened to this record at least twice a week every single week since it was released which, as of this writing, was just over two months ago now. While that may not seem like an excessive number of listens, there isn't a single other 2011 record that I've returned to as often. And every time I press play, I'm expecting that listen to the be the one where I finally get tired of the thing and need to file it away for a few months. But, like many of my favorite records, I keep pulling something new that I obsess over. Today it was all about the guitar solo in "Savage Night at the Opera", just fabulous. If you've followed any of the online buzz about Bejar's latest, you're already familiar with the "cheesy soft-rock album" shorthand. Which, you know, is completely valid, but also sells Kaputt so incredibly short. Yes, there is wailing saxophone, gratuitous vocal reverb, and a general feeling that Michael Gross could star in every single track's video, but Bejar expertly weaves these into his already established strengths. You've got melodies for days, lyrics that veer between narrative fiction and surreal poetry (often within the same line), and a knack for craftsmanship that mere mortals would kill for. I mean, stripped of the cheese-rock signifiers, tracks like "Chinatown" and "Kaputt" would stand tall on any of the other Destroyer records, so it isn't like Bejar uses these effects as a crutch. It was a brave stylistic decision that could have so easily backfired and sounded like he was trying to ride some vague, faceless retro vibe. Instead Kaputt creates, like Bejar's other best pieces of work (Rubies and Streethawk), a world unto itself that sounds at once like everything you've ever heard before and like a brand new lost genre. Sure, there's more Loggins-Messina than Bowie-Bolan in these songs, but just try and deny how wonderfully executed "Song For America" and "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker" are. And that doesn't even touch on the epic closer, "Bay of Pigs", which is unlike anything else Bejar has ever done, morphing from ambient synths swirls to an eighties synth-pop floor-filler before winding up a triumphant anthem. I can't decide if this thing is the pop album of 1982, 2011, or 2034, which should tell you something about how impressive and unique it is.

(You may have noticed that recently I've been spending a lot of time talking about records from several months ago instead of newer stuff, mostly because I've resolved to write something here about all the albums I hear this year and I'm still playing catch-up. Don't worry, there are plenty of other blogs that will keep you better up to date.)

Mar 27, 2011

Now Playing:
White Lies - Ritual (Fiction/Geffen)

Despite the common accusations from many critics of White Lies being little more than a watered down version of Interpol (themselves in turn accused by many of the same critics of being little more than watered down Joy Division), I found their debut album to be likable, largely in spite of itself. Their slick, grandiose approach to dour pop would have been very easy to screw up, but a fortunate knack for melody and a heightened sense of the dramatic kept things from going sour. I always felt like these guys hit the mark that fellow Brits Editors were always trying, but consistently failing, to hit with everything after their first couple of singles. So when it came time for White Lies album number two, I had medium hopes of the band evolving into something exciting. Instead we got a limp and pale Xeroxed copy of the debut with little of the charm and personality. Lead single, "Bigger Than Us" held some promise, what with the soaring chorus, but it still paled in comparison to pretty much everything on the debut. The remainder of the album fares far worse, finding the band relying on their one-trick time and time again without, crucially, the saving grace of interesting melodies or construction. My hopes weren't quite high enough for this to register as a crushing disappointment, but I was hoping for these guys to do something interesting with their second album.

Mar 24, 2011

Now Playing:
Disappears - Guider (Kranky)

Chicago's Disappears are one of those bands that play what I like to call record store clerk rock. I'm sure you know what I mean by that, they are a band who pillages their, admittedly, really cool record collection and turns it into the kind of "spot the influences" music that is certain to get the "HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!!!!" stamp of approval at your local indie shop. For their second record, Guider, Disappears continues to work the tried and true krautrock formula (always a big hit with the bearded clerk types) but ratchet up the intensity by shifting their focus up a few decades by swirling in the repetitive guitar attack of bands like Loop and Spacemen 3. This 30-minute record is split into two distinct halves - the first finds the band tearing through five songs in fifteen minutes, while the flipside has them locking into one tight motorik groove for the other fifteen. Running time aside, the formula remains pretty much the same throughout - steady, driving drums under tightly compressed, repeating guitar riffs and overprocessed vocals buried in the mud. Its a great sound, particularly for that final fifteen minute jam, it ends up sounding like fifteen minutes pulled from an infinite loop that is circling through some smoky suburban basement. My only complaint would be the lack of texture. Each of the six tracks, long and short alike, are cut from similar cloth with very few variations. While this makes for an intense singular experience, I can't help but think I'd return to it more often if there was a little more exploration involved. But, hey, sometimes there is something to be said for cutting through the crap and getting right to that groove. If you have and love records by Hawkwind, Spacemen 3, or Wooden Shjips, this is going to be right up your alley, even if nothing about it is wholly original.

Mar 23, 2011

Now Playing:
Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 (Southern Lord)

I've long been a fan of expansive, expressive music that evokes distant horizons and wide-open vistas, whether tropical and gorgeous or desolate and haunting. Right now, no band pulls this off better than Earth, particularly with the trio of albums they've released since their return to the scene in the middle of last decade. Both 2005's Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method and 2008's The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull moved the band from the amp-shattering doom drone of the first part of their career to a more visual approach that evoked epic soundtrack work more than anything else. More specifically, those two releases painted vivid images of the American South (the former) and Southwest (the latter), recalling at times the work of Ennio Morricone. Both were gorgeous listens and helped to cement Earth's reputation as one of the most inspiring bands unfairly relegated to the metal "ghetto" in some minds. This year's release, the promisingly titled Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1, builds upon that same sound, but scoots it ever so slightly into new territory. Their sound is, if possible, even more sparse and wide open than on previous excursions, sanding down the instrumentation to the core of Dylan Carlson's guitar, Adrienne Davis' drums, Karl Blau's bass, and, as a new ingredient, the cello of Lori Goldston. Each song slides along at its own easy pace, anchored by Davis' sublime drumming (seriously, I've never heard a drummer play this slowly yet sound so mesmerizing) and Blau's bass. Carlson's guitar becomes much of the focus, poking out in exploratory bursts, creeping and slithering along. The cello gives the proceedings a grander, more classical feel, reaching way back in time and evoking atmospheric sounds of the European Old World.

It all adds up to great mood music, but that also brings me to the album's one not insignificant shortcoming. While its thrilling to hear these guys conjure up a setting with so few instruments, the album starts to run a little long in the tooth with no variation in tempo or intensity. I feel like this is all build-up with no climax, as beautiful as it sounds. With a Neil Young referencing song title like "Old Black", I was hoping for a few unpredictable bursts of feedback that the band fought to control, a little chaos to emphasize the beauty. But maybe that will come with part two when (and if) it comes out next year and this was all the slow build to a huge payoff. I love the tone and mood throughout, I just wish we could catch of few glimpses of the old earth-shattering, speaker-blowing Earth between longing looks into the horizon.