Monthly Archives: October 2009

FUNERAL by arcade fire

by Gordon
arcadefire.funeral
Pitchfork: 9.7           Rolling Stone: 4/5           Metacritic: 90           Spin: N/A

 

Released: September 2004
Tracklisting:
  1. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) [LISTEN]

  2. Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
  3. Une Annee Sans Lumiere
  4. Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
  5. Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)
  6. Crown of Love
  7.  Wake Up
  8. Haiti
  9. Rebellion (Lies)
  10. In the Backseat

   Arcade Fire…one of the most influential artists on my taste in music after what I would call a late introduction in 2007. I knew I had heard tidbits from the band here or there prior, but I brushed the listenings off as coming from a weird group of musicians that tried too hard to make weird music (not so). Upon suggestion from a friend, I soaked up the album multiple times during our long studio hours. It changed me forever, not just because I was being turned on to a great new artist, but because I was being turned on to something much bigger…a new sound, a new attitude behind the instruments and the industry itself (and fashion). And i dug it.

   “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” opens the album with a piano-string combination that is both calming and urgent as Win Butler’s trembling voice begins to take over. Calculated guitar riffs and drum fills start to add to the anthem as the other instruments pick up in intensity. Butler’s emotion runs from reserved and innocent to loud and defiant (a characteristic trait) until the song ends in a frenzy of playing and “oohh-oohh-oohh-oohh-ooohhing” from the singer. Another powerhouse of a song is “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”, whose blaring guitars and excited percussion keep a fast pace from start to finish.

   “Une Annee Sans Lumiere” turns it back to a more relaxed pace (though still not slow by any means). The song, sung half in French, never gets Butler worked up enough to raise his voice too much, though before ending it can’t help but leave a minute of pace-changing guitar rocking. In the same vein, “Crown of Love” begins as a lovely piano and string ballad with Butler backed by wife and fellow bandmate Régine Chassagne. Halfway through, however, Butler’s intensity grows until he transfers the energy over to the drums and strings as they lead the song to a close in a choppy, almost dance-like beat.

   “Wake Up”, most likely the favorite of many, is an epic five and a half minutes of passionate vocals from Butler and anthemic  “Oooohhhs” to an inspiring tune from the entire band. It ends with a whimsical piano ditty and more shared vocals. The second to last song, “Rebellion (Lies)” IS my favorite song of all time. I can’t pinpoint exactly what did it for me, but it was probably a number of formulas I’ve come to love, all rolled into one. To begin with, it constantly builds on itself, constantly ups the ante, starting first with a steady drumbeat and bass line. Next comes a holding back Butler, accompained by a hard-hitting piano key that doesn’t let up for the duration of the song. Then the chorus, bringing with it guitars, strings and background vocals, at first in a catchy, positive tune, then switching to a minor and darker mood. It closes with a minute and a half of more instrument pounding and an occasional vocal reminder from Butler. If a song can make you feel alive, here we have audible proof. Singing along to the line “Sleeping is giving in” after 2 in the morning always gives you another good hour of awakeness.

   There are only a few songs on Funeral that I don’t give much attention to. Maybe I will when I’ve exhausted the others, though I fear that day may never come. This album will forever be monumental in my growth as a music listener and appreciator. Arcade Fire has opened up my ears to sounds and musical styles (and emotions) that will never leave me. Had they released an album with only one or two life-changing songs on it, the effect may not have been so great. But they released Funeral.

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HOPES AND FEARS by keane

by Gordon

keane.hopesandfears

Pitchfork: 2.8          Rolling Stone: 3.5/5          Metacritic: 61          Spin: N/A

 

Released: May 2004
Tracklisting:
  1. Somewhere Only We Know
  2. This is the Last Time
  3. Bend and Break
  4. We Might As Well Be Strangers
  5. Everybody’s Changing
  6. Your Eyes Open
  7. She Has No Time [LISTEN]

  8. Can’t Stop Now
  9. Sunshine
  10. Untitled 1
  11. Bedshaped

   I understand that I may be one of the few in my friend group who thinks Keane is a great band, but come on, if nothing else, we can all agree that Hopes and Fears is a GREAT album. After hearing “Somewhere Only We Know” on TV when the album was just released, I was personally joyous that there was a new piano-rocking band I could potentially get into (and by the sound of the song, the potential was high). I was attracted by the song’s catchy chord-banging, great melody, and the singer’s above average voice (the fact that they hailed from England didn’t hurt either).

   Upon buying the album, I was ecstatic to find that it had a lot more great songs to boast…at first a few, by a week’s time almost all. “Everybody’s Changing” was the other instant single, what with its über-catchy piano riff, synth backgrounds and upbeat percussion. Its crowd-relatable lyrics probably helped too (“Everybody’s changing and I don’t feel the same”). The formula played (and worked) throughout the bulk of the album. “This is the Last Time” and “Bend and Break” displayed more great piano engineering from Tim Rice-Oxley and a Freddie Mercury-type knack for hitting those high notes while still sounding manly on singer Tom Chaplin’s part.

   For me, “We Might As Well Be Strangers” also stood out. One of the rarer songs to be composed on primarily more minor chords and a slower pace, the melody is still a catchy one. After the second chorus rolls around, it climaxes into piano-pounding, voice-belting and drum-smashing until ending on a quiet final note. “Bedshaped”, the last track, is another gem. Beginning with eery, spacey synth background (which re-emerges later), it becomes a more electric keyboard-sounding anthem, switching back and forth between a quiet, reserved verse and a thunderous and powerful chorus. Rice-Oxley’s playing leads into an instrumental and funky bridge, the boom of which continues into a final word from Chaplin, and an end to the album.

   The tracks in-between all grow on you, too. They tend to be a bit more free in their experimentation with different sounds and background effects. I haven’t been disappointed by the band’s follow-up albums, but their debut release is through and through their biggest accomplishment, a CD that ran rampant on repeat in my car on long trips a few years ago. To naysayers of the band, or those who grew bored of the singles, give this album a thorough listen and see if you don’t change your mind.

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ROCKIN’ THE SUBURBS by ben folds

by Gordon

benfolds.rockinthesuburbs

Pitchfork: 6.3          Rolling Stone: 3/5          Metacritic: 75          Spin: 3.5/5

 

 

Released: September 2001
Tracklisting:
  1. Annie Waits
  2. Zak and Sara
  3. Still Fighting It
  4. Gone
  5. Fred Jones Part 2
  6. The Ascent of Stan
  7. Losing Lisa
  8. Carrying Cathy
  9. Not the Same [LISTEN]

  10. Rockin’ The Suburbs
  11. Fired
  12. The Luckiest

   This is an album that in some respects is old news, but of all of Folds’ releases, it is by its own merit the most deserving of a review. As a piano player and fan for most of my life, certain songs or artists who make great use of the instrument have always stood out to me. Some time in high school, I remembered an old music video I’d seen on MTV years earlier. It had a beautiful melody and piano riff to it. The song was “Brick” by Ben Folds Five, and upon realizing this, I went to the store and bought all three of their studio releases. I gradually came to really love their music and Folds’ carefree lyrical attitude. When I found out Folds had gone solo and had just released an album, I grabbed it right away…good thing too.

   The album as a whole is spectacular, almost every song instantly enjoyable. And seeing as Folds himself played almost every part himself (including drums and guitar), only makes it more commendable. The opening track, “Annie Waits”, introduces the album with a great thumping chord progression, then gradually layers itself with increasingly intensifying vocals, strings and claps in a symphonic finish. The pace barrels on as “Zak and Sara” immediately begins showing off Folds’ speedy finger talents in a four-chord, upbeat narrative of a boy named Zak and a girl named Sara.

   The next track, “Still Fighting It”, though at times aggressive, takes you back to the “Brick”-like formula, with a tenderly sung story of father and son and how growing up “sucks”. “Gone” then brings you right back to banging keys and crashing cymbals with the ultra-catchy unfolding of a breakup story (“I know that you went straight to someone else/while I work through all this shit here by myself”), a commonly told story stretching through most of Folds’ work. The next track, “Fred Jones Part 2”, settles you into an emotional piano ballad of a retired newspaper man where either the strings or lyrics cause a tug at the heart.

   A few other standout tracks: “Not The Same” is a personal favorite. A steady drumbeat and some great piano chords are the backdrop for the story of change in people. The track becomes increasingly powerful as more layers of Folds’ vocals pile on, mostly in the form of oohs and ahhs. “Rockin’ the Suburbs” and “Fired” are great upbeat tracks with Folds’ energy released through music and voice (they also both utilize great uses of “fuck”). The final track, The Luckiest, is both one of the most beautiful piano AND love songs I’ve ever heard. Through poignant hypotheticals (“What if I’d been born 50 years before you in a house on a street where you lived/Maybe I’d be outside as you passed on your bike/Would I know?”) and honest heart-driven lyrics (“I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you”), it’s a lovely way to end Folds’ freshman debut as a solo artist.

   All in all, the album, ripe with all the same reasons you loved Ben Folds and fresh with new ones, is an emotional up-and-down thrill to hear. Sadly, I haven’t seen either of his two more recent albums live up to it (though they certainly don’t entirely miss the mark). But for the curious or those looking to rekindle their Folds affection, you need not look further than Rockin’ the Suburbs.

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COME ON FEEL THE ILLINOISE by sufjan stevens

by Gordon

sufjanstevens.comeonfeeltheillinoise

Pitchfork: 9.2             Rolling Stone: 4/5             Metacritic: 90             Spin: 91

 

Released: July 2005
Tracklisting:
  1. Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
  2. The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!
  3. Come On! Feel the Illinoise!
  4. John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
  5. Jacksonville
  6. A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons
  7. Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!
  8. One Last ‘Whoo-Hoo!’ for the Pullman
  9. Chicago
  10. Casimir Pulaski Day [LISTEN]

  11. To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament
  12. The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts
  13. Prairie Fire That Wanders About
  14. A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze
  15. The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!
  16. They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!
  17. Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell
  18. In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth
  19. The Seer’s Tower
  20. The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders
  21. Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few
  22. Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run

   If you haven’t discovered Sufjan Stevens, you have the pleasure of knowing the experience lies ahead of you. If you have, you already know what it’s like. Whereas some newly-discovered artists creep into your life and take over your itunes for a month or two, maybe even a season, Sufjan tends to take over for an entire year, maybe two for some. My experience probably mirrors that of half the rest of his fans: I was in college. I heard the song “Chicago”. The rest was and still is a magical journey (that I’ve had the luxury of sharing with other friends who’ve been  journeying too).

   Come on Feel the Illinoise, the second of Stevens’ Fifty States Project (whereby the songwriter plans to release a themed album for every U.S. state), was the best reviewed album of 2005 according to Metacritic. A few things stand out about the album, perhaps the most obvious being that it boasts both a lengthy tracklist, and that most of those tracks boast lengthy titles, a subtle yet revealing indicator that you’ve discovered something “else”.

   “Chicago” may be many’s favorite, perhaps favorite of all of Stevens’ songs, and though perhaps cliché, still justifiably so. Restrained at times, Stevens’ voice (arguably the best instrument he owns) is the primary focus, accompanied with strings or keyboard bits. Otherwise the track, as is many times the case, teems with all the sounds of nearly every family of musical instruments, even a chorus of background singers.

   Upon my first listen, the first track, “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”, told me any doubts I had about this new (now no longer) musician could be erased. It displays some of the prettiest piano chords (in a style all its own), atop Stevens’ characteristic innocent singing. If the first track is a bit sad and serious-sounding (indeed many will continue to be), track three, “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” brings back happier melodies (one of the benefits of longer songs is multiple melodies) again full of layered instrumentation.

   “Decatur” (short title) strips down to mostly just a banjo-strumming Stevens, singing along with his brother, Marzuki. Melancholy tunes like this, neither too peppy nor too lyrically serious, are some of what Sufjan does best. Though the same effect can be seen in “Casimir Pulaski Day” (a personal favorite), it is achieved instead through a mix of more personal, emotional lyrics countered with light chords and instrument arrangements.

   One could give all twenty-two songs equal mention, but there’s something so personal about these songs, about all of Stevens’ discography, personal in a listener kind of way, that doing so might only muddle what he’s trying to do, or doing without trying. Admittedly, a  number of Stevens’ songs, on this album and not, don’t always do it for me. But they remain beautiful pieces of an entire collection nonetheless, maybe because of how special Stevens himself, and what he does with his music, seem to be. That is why, while I cannot say he is my favorite musician, he remains my favorite artist.

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I AND LOVE AND YOU by the avett brothers

by Gordon

theavettbrothers.iandloveandyou

Pitchfork: 5.8         Rolling Stone: 3.5/5         Metacritic: 77         Spin: 3.5/5

 

Released: September 2009
Tracklisting:
  1. I And Love And You
  2. January Wedding
  3. Head Full Of Doubt / Road Full Of Promise
  4. And It Spread
  5. The Perfect Space
  6. Ten Thousand Words
  7. Kick Drum Heart
  8. Laundry Room [LISTEN]

  9. Ill With Want
  10. Tin Man
  11. Slight Figure Of Speech
  12. It Goes On And On
  13. Incomplete And Insecure

   Rolling Stone magazine dubbed The Avett Brothers “the Artist to Watch of 2009”. Unfortunately I didn’t get the memo until late in the year, and since then I’ve been trying to catch up. As with most bands that you fall in love with, it first started with falling in love with one of their songs (the song was from Emotionalism, their previous studio album…review to follow). This, at least, signified that the band could “wow” me, but how many more times would it happen? By the time I got to listening to the new I and Love and You, it had happened enough to solidify their place as a favorite.

   The album opens with the title track, a song that quickly became my most played song of Fall ’09. It’s a beautiful piano and string ballad with a great melody made more great by spot-on harmonizing by both brothers (and there’s also something really amazing about the words “i and love and you” together). “Laundry Room” is another mostly soft gem, the first three and a half minutes of which again showcase great harmonies and lyrics (Scott pleads, “teach me how to use the love that people say you make”). The last minute and a half showcase the other side to the band as they bang away on their banjo and guitar in a country-style folk rockout.

   The “double treatment” shown to some songs is also evident in “The Perfect Space”, another track that is one part slow ballad, one part fast and fun rock piece. Other songs like “Ten Thousand Words” stick to the safe, acoustic formula, where organ or strings sometimes compliment, and the solos come in the form of intense guitar- or banjo-picking. Then a catchy piano-driven song like “Kick Drum Heart” will come around with upbeat percussion and harder, sometimes even screaming vocals.

   It’s hard to argue that any of the album’s thirteen songs are bad, although a handful certainly seem stronger than the rest. And you’re bound to find at least one song that alone makes it worth paying full price for the real thing at a store. Looking at the Avetts’ progression from album to album, it’s easy to see that they’re consistently growing, yet consistently maintaining their sound, and far from going in any wrong directions. I can only wait for the next, but in the meantime, they’ve given me a large discography to wrap my head around first.

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LEAVES IN THE RIVER by sea wolf

by Gordon

seawolf.leavesintheriver

Pitchfork: 5.2          Rolling Stone: N/A          Metacritic: N/A          Spin: N/A

 

Released: September 2007
Tracklisting:
  1. Leaves In the River
  2. Winter Windows
  3. Black Dirt [LISTEN]

  4. The Rose Captain
  5. Middle Distance Runner
  6. You’re A Wolf
  7. Song For The Dead
  8. Black Leaf Falls
  9. The Cold, The Dark And The Silence
  10. Neutral Ground

   It was late Winter. I was leaving the architecture building at the University of MD on a cold, dark night. It was late and I was very tired. I got in my car for the routine five-minute drive back home. I turned on the radio, picked up some Indie local channel. Thank God. This song was half-through. I was hearing this great rhythm on acoustic guitar…good chords. And a young, confident male voice. Then this catchy electric guitar lick…and strings! The strings got more ferocius towards the end as the singer is now singing “You’re a wolf, boy, get out of this town.” The song was “You’re A Wolf”, and it’s rare that I hear such great new songs…especially on the radio.

   What followed was a determination to find out who was responsible for the song and whether by some chance it wasn’t the only decent thing they’d recorded and released. Turns out the band was Sea Wolf (I was sensing a theme), and although a band, was really just a moniker used by Alex Brown Church, the creative force behind the sound. I quickly downloaded the album, and was joyous over an album that start to finish proved to be a more than enjoyable listen.

   The album starts with the dreamlike, beautifully simple “Leaves in the River”, growing from acoustic guitar to light percussion, to simple piano, keyboard and electric guitar fills, a pleasant background to a vivid boy-and-girl narrative recount. The next song to leave an impression for me was “Black Dirt”, again starting with simple acoustic chords and promising vocals (“Black dirt will stain your feet and when you walk you’ll leave black dirt in the street.”). That’s when strings, percussion and electric guitar come crashing in for the remainder of the song, building up towards the end with a fervor and attitude reminiscent of the great Arcade Fire.

   “The Rose Captain” andMiddle Distance Runner” act as pleasantly-paced, melodically impressive in-betweens until you get to the arguable star of the show, “You’re A Wolf”. A later standout is second-to-last track “The Cold, The Dark & The Silence”, a faster-paced, guitar-heavy piece, intensifying further with commanding vocals and strings. The last track, “Neutral Ground”, comes at you in the same vein as that of the opening track…a light, melancholy goodbye to match that of its hello.

   Many of the songs from Leaves in the River seem to stick to the same formula…a certain pace, guitar rhythm, vocal style or string accompaniment…but never does one song sound similar to another. The formula works. And after the ten songs are over, you want more of it. With the recent release of second album White Water, White Bloom, and a hopeful, anxious listen to the first track through, it’s safe to say there’s more to look forward to.

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FLEET FOXES by fleet foxes

by Gordon

fleetfoxes.fleetfoxes

Pitchfork: 9.0            Rolling Stone: 4/5            Metacritic: 87            Spin: 4/5

 

Released: June 2008
Tracklisting:
  1. Sun It Rises
  2. White Winter Hymnal
  3. Ragged Wood
  4. Tiger Mountain Peasant Song
  5. Quiet Houses
  6. He Doesn’t Know Why [LISTEN]

  7. Heard Them Stirring
  8. Your Protector
  9. Meadowlarks
  10. Blue Ridge Mountains
  11. Oliver James

   In the summer of 2008, the Indie scene across the country was stirred with the growing buzz (generated mostly by word of mouth) about a relatively new band with a unique sound dominated by folk, rock and harmonies that could rival The Beach Boys. Also drawing comparisons to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Animal Collective, the 5-piece from Seattle, fronted by long-haired and big-bearded Robin Pecknold, have become one of the most celebrated Independent bands almost overnight.

   The band’s first full-length album, Fleet Foxes, showcases a wide array of musical styles and talents. At times, the songs creep in with promising melody and pace and then make good on the promise in an explosion of rhythm and complimenting instrumentation and singing, like “White Winter Hymnal”, “He Doesn’t Know Why” and “Blue Ridge Mountains” (or, as in the case of “Ragged Wood”, begin with the explosion). At others, things slow down as most instruments are stripped away to allow Pecknold’s emotional vocals, at once both optimistic and haunting, take precedence, such as in “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”, “Meadowlarks” and “Oliver James”. The rest tend to be in-between, all beautifully crafted, and all exhibiting a sound uniquely profound from the next.

   Similar to their Sun Giant EP, It’s an album best served with a sweeping listen, every track worthy of a seat at the table. It never goes anywhere too dark, or yes, too bright, without bringing you back to a beautiful neutral ground that almost puts everything in some kind of personal, listener-created perspective. It’s a perspective that is rich both audibly and also visually, as Pecknold’s lyrics stir up earthy memories of things like dusty photographs on your grandfather’s old wooden table, or the first time you went camping and really experienced a sunrise, or any kind of forest creature snug in its den in a snow-covered field.

   Whether the second album takes to following a similar sound and framework, or abandoning it for something new altogether, this band has earned enough trust for us to say, “We don’t care. Do What feels right.”

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