Unknown Mortal Orchestra - “So Good At Being In Trouble”
A Blue Eyed Soul-informed take on R&B, scrubbed down and sanitized the way that only Blue Eyed (read: white) boys tend to do, for better or worse. I should probably be upset about the lack of actual “soul” here, but this trebly, skeletal take on R&B strikes a certain chord with my general feeling of teenage emptiness.
On an actual plus side, it’s all analog. In crafting this single, Unknown Mortal Orchestra ambitiously spurned the dreary synths of the time and constructed a legitimate R&B cut with refreshingly real and very welcome guitars, bass, and live drums. If you ask me, the UMO boys should ditch their psych rock crutch in the future and stick to this aesthetic for a while. It could be interesting.
Stream “So Good At Being In Trouble” above and pick up Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s new record II via Jagjaguwar.
Youth Lagoon - “Dropla”
On the first single from Youth Lagoon's new LP Wondrous Bughouse, Idahoan project mastermind Trevor Powers transcends any of the endearing clichés of his previous record The Year Of Hibernation, courageously opting for a decidedly weirder aesthetic. Jingle bells, acoustic guitar, and psychedelic tremolo characterize “Dropla,” while Powers’ synths and a steady kick drum beat drive it forward. While watching Youth Lagoon’s excellent set at the Pitchfork Music Festival last year, I wondered what a Youth Lagoon record with amplified production values would sound like, and I suppose “Dropla” is the manifestation of that inquiry.
Although it certainly points in a purposefully different direction (as anything on a record called Wondrous Bughouse must), “Dropla” should not seem entirely unfamiliar to Youth Lagoon fans. At the song’s heart, Trevor Powers is still the shy, elfin-voiced wood sprite that he was on The Year Of Hibernation, but his vocals are more centered, less distant. At first, it’s hard to believe the optimistic sentiment of the chorus ("You will never die" ad infinitum), but his effort will win you over by the end. On the new record, it will be interesting to gauge the extent to which Powers commits to the new, self-imposed responsibility that comes with making ‘happier’ music. In that respect, “Dropla” bodes well.
Stream/Download: Madeliene - Adieu EP (2012)
Madeliene is a collaborative project between vocalist Michi Tassey and songwriter Cameron Boucher, who fronts the popular emo revival band Old Gray. Despite the relatively high profile of Boucher’s main group, I can’t help but worry that this collaboration might slip through the cracks or fail to show up on many people’s radar. It’s simply too sweet, too gentle to announce its presence with anything more than quiet, graceful repose.
Thankfully, because of these qualities, Madeliene’s music thoroughly rewards intensive listening. The duo’s debut EP Adieu, released earlier this month, is a breezy 15 minutes of soothing indie folk, displaying Tassey’s delightfully versatile vocals over lush, harmonizing guitars. The release benefits from some solid production, handled by Boucher himself, which melds twinkling pianos and electric guitar swells into the acoustic mix. The bouncy album highlight “Valley Street (Hepsabeth Dudley, 1854)” features a perfectly placed woodwind solo that accentuates Tassey’s skipping vocal melody, while “Je Suis Partir” features extensive vocal layering that evokes Bon Iver. Perhaps the album’s most singular track is “Hartford,” which appeared in a stripped down form on Boucher’s solo EP Set Sail Towards Hell back in April. Madeliene’s version handily outclasses the original, largely thanks to Tassey and Boucher’s complimentary harmonies. All throughout the EP, the songwriting and lyricism stand out for its evocative imagery and central focus on the theme of leaving. I’m not sure what the future holds for this collaboration, but here’s hoping that they stick around for some time.
Stream Adieu above and download it for free via Bandcamp.
Purity Ring - Shrines (2012)
Until very recently, Purity Ring were just another buzz band to me. Their first few singles flew by in a flurry of hype with little lasting impact, and even when I saw them play at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been down a similar road before with countless other bands. And yet, after I compulsively downloaded their debut full length Shrines, released last month on 4AD, I found myself unable to stop listening to it. As I have since found, there is a lot more substance and depth to this album than it might initially suggest.
The concept of purity is a complicated one, and one that has undoubtedly been tainted by centuries of archaic moral standards and practices. If you can ignore all of that, the essence of purity is still a rather beautiful idea; it evokes childlike notions of innocence and clarity that procure a strong feeling of nostalgia from anybody who has experiences the transition from child to adult. It’s culturally understood that every individual must make such a transition at some point in life, and many adults find themselves yearning for that purity of innocence soon afterwards. On Shrines, the aptly named Canadian duo Purity Ring — which comprises two precocious 20-somethings — explores their newly nostalgic adult relationship with innocence, and, perhaps more importantly, they make some pretty damn good pop music while doing it.
The first thing you’ll notice upon listening to Shrines may be the spacey, cacophonous beats or the sweet-sounding vocals — both staples of the 2012 future-pop sound. Musically, this album certainly shines and glistens as much as anything else released this year. Bright, clear production gives Shrines a sweeping gloss, punctuated by dense hip-hop influenced beats and Megan James’ shockingly pretty vocals. Experimental producer Balam Acab seems to be a big touchstone for a lot of the instrumentation, particularly on tracks like “Amenamy” and “Grandloves,” which features a rare vocal performance from Purity Ring’s resident beatmaker Corin Roddick. Nods to post-dubstep producers like James Blake and Burial pop up occasionally as well, most notably when Roddick experiments with vocal manipulation on songs like “Loftcries” and the two-stepping “Saltkin.” It’s a glossy and pretty record that glimmers with sonic sophistication.
That said, what strikes me about this album most when compared to records made by Purity Ring’s immediate peers is how much the lyrics come through. Unlike, for example, Grimes, who manipulates her impish vocals to the point of incomprehensibility, singer Megan James’ vocals are treated with relative sanctity on Shrines. Although her high, reedy voice is occasionally chopped up and transmogrified into the beats, her lead vocals remain effectively pure throughout these eleven songs. Consequently, James’ lyrics stand out, especially thanks to how catchy most of the melodies are. As a lyricist, James’ style is kind of hard to pinpoint, but her penchant for dark imagery and blurred vagueness verges on confessional at points. Certain key phrases and lines tend to stand out amongst the stuttering electronics and earworm hooks on tracks like the creepy opener “Crawlersout” and “Ungirthed,” implanting a sense of darkness into the otherwise almost sickeningly sweet musical mix. “Belispeak,” one of the highlight tracks on Shrines, has such a hummable melody that you won’t even necessarily realize that it describes a life-threatening sickness and potentially an abortion. Meanwhile, the definitive album standout “Fineshrine,” one of the absolute best pop songs I’ve heard all year, bears some disturbingly symbolic sexualized lyrics in its undeniably great chorus hook. There is something that feels enticingly dangerous about hearing dark, eerie lyrics paired with such welcoming melodies, and that contrast speaks to what makes Purity Ring such an interesting project.
Listening to this record gives me the same rush that I used to feel as a child, telling a white lie or stealing something from my parents. It’s a fleeting high, and one that ultimately leads to regret, but making those mistakes and losing that purity is essential to the transition into adulthood. As both nighttime brooding music and party playlist fodder, Shrines provides a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking soundtrack to that inevitable loss of innocence.
Passion Pit - Gossamer (2012)
Full disclosure: I never expected a band like Passion Pit to make a record like this. I wasn’t exactly shocked by the way that Gossamer turned out, but I was surprised. Some credit must be given for the element of surprise, but if 2012 has taught us anything, it’s that surprises in the music biz are rarely as rewarding as they seem. Just last month, for instance, Snoop Dogg ‘shocked’ the world by retiring his longstanding canine moniker and rebranding himself as “Snoop Lion.” It was good for a laugh, but in a matter of months (weeks? days?), nobody is going to care.
Using such a ridiculous example to illustrate a point about a self-evidently ‘serious’ album makes me cringe a little bit, but then again, so does this record. With Gossamer, Massachusetts’ Passion Pit (essentially the one man project of Michael Angelakos), has made the completely illogical transition from a bubbly, post-MGMT synth pop act to an utterly self-lambasting, miserable singer/songwriter project. Although the synthy bounce of their past records (the 2008 Chunk of Change EP and 2009’s Manners) is still there, bubbling away into oblivion, the focus here is on Angelakos’ lyrics. Angelakos, as it turns out, is a poor, wounded soul with lots of problems, and he seems utterly content to divulge all of them on Gossamer. Whether he’s singing about his alcoholism (“Carried Away”), his bipolar disorder (“Cry Like A Ghost”), or his general, vague malaise (“It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy”), Angelakos does so with a complete lack of subtlety and grace. Listening to Angelakos sing his lyrics is like watching a bear accidentally stumble into someone’s backyard, knocking over trashcans and lawn gnomes and generally not having any clue what it’s doing or how to get out. On “Carried Away,” a chiming, 80s-influenced pop song, the bridge is actually built on the line “We all have problems.” Even more embarrassingly, Angelakos delivers the line as if it were some profound revelation about human suffering. This much is clear: on Gossamer, Angelakos is completely and utterly out of his lyrical element.
Worse still, he’s out of touch with the purpose that his project actually serves. At its core, Passion Pit is a pop band, and a very adequate one at that. Their hooks are strong (“I’ll Be Alright” in particular is a highlight in the catchiness department), and the production is thick and sugary enough to invoke a feeling of celebration. But although it might scan like one on the surface, Gossamer is not some kind of revelry in humanity’s ability to surmount difficulties via “the human condition” or whatever. It is, instead, a thoroughly misanthropic, almost solipsistic record with no transcendant statement to be made whatsoever, beyond “I’m sad; help me.” The only thing that Gossamer has going for it is novelty; hearing someone self-loathe over poppy, ebullient instrumentals provides a pleasant and occasionally interesting contrast, but that novelty wears thin quickly. I have no doubt that the issues that Michael Angelakos faces are legitimate, and I’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s not hyperbolizing too much on this record, but it’s impossible for me to appreciate Gossamer as great art when lines like “We’re both so broken!” are delivered with straight-faced sincerity.
Angelakos spends so much time focused on himself on this record that it becomes hard to believe that he even regards the existence of anyone else, save for the multiple faceless female characters named on Gossamer, who only appear to exist to make Angelakos feel better about himself. Perhaps it’s fitting then that the opener “Take A Walk” — the only song in which the focus isn’t on Angelakos — is actually the worst of the bunch: a tactless political anthem that strives for self-aware sarcasm but ends up inducing major cringes. It isn’t helped by the fact that the chorus and beat are unmemorable at best, and occasionally verge into ‘offensively bad’ territory.
Though few and far between, there are moments on Gossamer that hint at some self-awareness, and others that manage to transcend the hampering qualities of the lyrics. The How Do Dress Well-aping “Constant Conversations” is a liquid smooth R&B slow jam that approaches Angelakos’ issues from a much more relaxed perspective, making for an understated standout on an otherwise maximalist record. On the other hand, “Love Is Greed” finds Angelakos urgently wondering, “if we really love ourselves, how do you love somebody else?” It’s an important question to ask, because although he evidently doesn’t love himself, Angelakos is certainly obsessed with himself. Perhaps if he could recognize that, he could begin solving some of the problems that Gossamer so gracelessly addresses.
As a musician myself who creates music within the singer/songwriter tradition, I don’t think I’m stepping out of my bounds when I say that if Passion Pit operated in the realm of folk music, the kind of lyrical tactlessness represented on Gossamer would be inexcusable. Although the interesting sonic palette and occasionally strong hooks work to offset some of the intensely negative feelings I have towards the lyrics on this LP, I can’t get past the fact that it scans like a lengthy, overwrought LiveJournal poetry entry. If you can overlook that, this record might be worth exploring, but if you appreciate graceful or in any way well-executed writing, stay far away.
Gossamer is out now on Columbia Records.
Dum Dum Girls - “Lord Knows”
Back when Dum Dum Girls dropped their 2010 debut I Will Be, it would have been hard to predict that within two years, frontwoman Dee Dee would develop into a remarkably talented and mature singer/songwriter. Tracks like the devastating “Coming Down” from last year’s Only In Dreams established this newfound maturity, and the Dum Dums’ new single “Lord Knows” simply reaffirms it. Though not as lethargic or dark as some of the Dee Dee’s previous ‘mature’ statements, “Lord Knows” still displays an incredible ability to regulate and convey emotion, along with the Dum Dums’ consistently great melodic sense and an instantly memorable chorus. This band’s creativity is so far beyond their peers in the revivalist garage rock scene at this point that I almost wonder why anyone else even tries.
“Lord Knows” will appear on the forthcoming End Of Daze EP, which will be out September 25th on Sub Pop. Stream and download it at the embedded link above.
(originally posted on The Needle Drop HERE)
Stream/Download: Literature - ARAB SPRING (2012)
This little album dropped on Square of Opposition Records on the very first day of 2012, but I slept on it until the beginning of the summer. Thankfully, it seems that I discovered it just in time. This is an album that won’t make much sense in the cold months of winter or autumn, but on these hot summer days, it hits that sweet spot just right.
Excitable indie pop might not be typical fodder of the Pennsylvania punk label Square of Opposition, but that’s all the more reason to pay attention to Literature's debut full length. ARAB SPRING does not provide a captivating or demanding listen, but it certainly provides an enjoyable one that will have you tapping your toe and humming throughout its entire duration. The production is not quite lo-fi, but certainly not polished — rather, the slightly rough edge on the guitars and drums give the record a scrappy feeling that adds character to these otherwise sugary sweet songs. The best immediate comparison I would draw would be to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's self-titled record that dropped in 2009, a similarly delicate pop record with just a hint of shoegazey noise. Literature's frontman Nathaniel Cardaci also has a voice that immediately recalls the Pains' frontman Kip Berman. Whether or not you're a Pains fan, this Literature record should fill you with a sense of nostalgic familiarity that I for one welcome especially during the summer.
The breezy opening track is called “14 SECONDS,” and although it lasts a little over 2 minutes, it still feels true to its name. The record as a whole does too — it breezes by with ten tracks in just over 22 minutes, and seems to end just as quickly as it started. Much like the summer itself, this lovely little summer album will be over before you know it. You might as well start enjoying it while you still can!
Amy Winehouse - Back To Black (2006)
Like I’m sure countless others have done across the globe in light of her death today, I pulled out my copy of Amy Winehouse's multi-platinum selling album Back To Black earlier today and spun it for the first time in at least a year. I suppose that in a way, it’s kind of screwed up that it took Amy Winehouse’s death for me to give this album a fresh listen. Although I’d heard bits of the record everywhere from my parents’ friends houses (ironically, the 40-somethings I know seem to think that it works perfectly as a soundtrack to their suburban dinner parties) to the supermarket, my opinion of Back To Black and Amy Winehouse herself was still largely based on the impressions that I had listening to this album as a child back in 2006, when my father first became obsessed with it. Listening to it now as a more mature individual, appreciative of its cultural significance and aware of its context in the global pop lexicon of the past decade, I think that I understand it (and again, Winehouse herself) a lot more.
Hindsight is also particularly enlightening in the case of Back To Black. As the last official release before her death, and certainly the definitive example of her commercial and critical success, Back To Black will inextricably be tied to her death, not to mention the tumultuous series of events that invariably lead up to it, regardless of what the official cause of death ends up being. Sex, all those drugs, the countless parties, rejected “Rehab”, and yes, love — or whatever her highly publicized marital struggles amounted to — it’s all represented here, sitting squarely in the mix on top of those squawking vintage horns. That absolutely golden soul voice. It’s no wonder why it all sounded so genuine.
But authenticity would be nothing without good tunes to convey it. Most importantly, this record is really, really good. Tragically — although this tragedy is not quite as tragic as her death, but perhaps more surprising — I never appreciated the genius behind the album until today. I’m sure I’m reiterating some 5-Star Rolling Stone review or whatever from back when they first got to feast on this record five years ago, but now is probably as good a time as ever to do so. Certainly, Back To Black would be nothing without the Winehouse character, but it wouldn’t be half the record it ended up being had it not been for the contributions of producer Mark Ronson. Full-sounding and more than a little dirty, the post-modern production perfectly contrasts with the harshly modernistic tone of Winehouse’s lyrics.
Perhaps from another perspective, the production and the lyrics don’t contrast at all. Although the musical sounds and the lyrical references on this album seem to come from different eras, the sentiment that they both express is universal. For instance, the palpable punch of the piano chords that open album’s title track conveys the same unsubtle vulgarity as the song’s first line — “He left no time to regret / Kept his dick wet”. Elsewhere on Back To Black, musical inflections further corroborate lyrical themes. The “humph” of the bass saxophone on “You Know I’m No Good” is particularly notable, as it seems to support the song’s titular statement and the subsequent evidence for it the way a backup singer would never be able to.
Because of her death, Winehouse (and of course, this album) will be looked back on as a key figure in the 21st century pop scene, whether you like it or not. Although her contemporaries Adele and Duffy have been somewhat tight-lipped as to just how much credit they owe Winehouse for their respective successes, other megastars of pop have gone out on a limb in support of her. Most notable of all is Lady Gaga, who has pointedly praised Winehouse for proving that women with unconventional personas can make it big — and not just big, but really huge — in the pop landscape. If this is the legacy of the British soul revival singer, I have no qualms, but I think that’s only half the story.
While Winehouse herself was certainly a unique character in life, the unique nature of Back To Black is much more subtle. Like The White Stripes before her, Winehouse never intended to make a particularly nostalgic record in Back To Black, but invariably started a widespread “revival” movement solely on the sheer strength of the album. In a sense, she did not just prove that unconventional women could be successful in pop; she proved that something as played out and conventional-sounding as soul music could be as fresh and unique as it was in its heyday, as long as someone truly special is behind the mic. Love her or hate her, Amy Winehouse was that truly special someone. She will be missed, even if you don’t know it yet.
Summer Albums Project #4: Eddie Golden III - Grave Jams
Genre: Experimental, Psychedelic rock
Although he is best known as the lead singer and drummer for the Connecticut psychedelic indie rock band The Guru, songwriter Ed Godin composes his own solo pieces as well, which he releases under the name Eddie Golden III.
Although it was released in January 2011, I’m only just now getting around to hearing Grave Jams, the second official Eddie Golden III full-length. Ever since meeting him in April, I’ve always been sort of puzzled by him. In person and onstage, he projects an air of authentic weirdness that I can’t help but be fascinated by, and while that weirdness is definitely conveyed by The Guru’s recordings, it is much more clearly present on his solo material. While his work in The Guru is bombastic and often massive sounding, Grave Jams is far more inwardly focused.
The album is a collection of fourteen songs, the majority of which are under 2 and a half minutes. In a sense, many of these tracks are nothing more than what the album’s title suggests — mere sketches of some bizarre idea culled from Godin’s strange mind; however, the brevity of Grave Jams and the songs therein works on a thematic level. Like postcards from some alternate-reality 1950s America, these spooky jams offer a skewed insight into another musical world. Exploring rockabilly, psychedelic pop, and ’50s rock and roll, Godin channels the music of a past era through a gauzy haze of lo-fi recording quality and otherworldly weird sounds. Heavy reverb and distant chanting define the album’s more subdued points, while Godin’s own maniacal howl permeates the record in all the right places, especially on the bluesy “Can’t Hardly Stand It” and the rockabilly-flavored “Fish Hook Frank”, in which Godin channels Elvis’ iconic voice. Instrumentally, Grave Jams is dominated by noodly organs and punches of surf-rock guitar, supported by blown-out drums and various eccentric sounds provided by what sounds at times like a theremin. At times, Grave Jams recalls the work of Godin’s fellow ’50s pop tributer Dirty Beaches, but Grave Jams is significantly more light-hearted and novel than Dirty Beaches’ dark drones, despite the ghostly subject matter that Grave Jams plays with. When it comes to the “Grave” part of Grave Jams, think “Monster Mash” rather than The Sixth Sense. It’s very easy to get lost in the expansive musical palette of this album, and I highly recommend listening to it with headphones while lying down on your bed with your eyes closed.
Also, Guru fans should take note — “Disco Daughter” from the forthcoming album Native Sun (which will be released tomorrow at their awesome CD release party at The Space) borrows a line from Grave Jams' ”War Chant”, which was a surprising treat, given that I had heard “Disco Daughter” prior to hearing “War Chant”.
Check out previous Summer Albums Project entries HERE