Author Archives: Sean

HEAVEN IS WHENEVER by the hold steady

by Sean

Pitchfork: 6.2            Rolling Stone: 4/5            Metacritic: 75            Spin: 3/5

 

Released: May 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. The Sweet Part of the City
  2. Soft in the Center
  3. The Weekenders [LISTEN]

  4. The Smidge
  5. Rock Problems
  6. We Can Get Together
  7. Hurricane J
  8. Barely Breathing
  9. Our Whole Lives
  10. A Slight Discomfort

   I wanted to wait on giving my opinion on The Hold Steady’s latest effort because I wanted to love it and I was hoping the love would grow with time. While I have come to enjoy Heaven is Whenever, I’ve also come to the realization that it doesn’t live up to the expectations I had and will continue to bestow upon each Hold Steady release.

   “The Sweet Part of the City” is, on first listen, perhaps the most disappointing opening track of any of The Hold Steady’s albums. It may have been better served towards the end or middle, as it is definitely a good song and just as nostalgic as the rest of their catalog, but doesn’t get your blood flowing the way every other opener has. “Soft in the Center” leans more to the expected and loved Hold Steady sound we’re all used to until the chorus. “You can’t get every girl/ You get the ones you love the best/ You won’t get every girl/ You love the ones you get the best”. Thankfully, Tad Kubler saves the song with his guitar solo.

   “The Weekenders” is supposedly the sequel to a track from my favorite Hold Steady album, Boys and Girls in America’s “Chips Ahoy”. Certainly one of the stronger tracks on Heaven is Whenever, and once again ignoring the chorus, it includes some of Craig Finn’s best lyrics, including one of my favorites: “She said the theme of this party’s the industrial age/ And you came in dressed like a train wreck”.

   I actually really enjoy the slower songs including “We Can Get Together” and the closer, “A Slight Discomfort”. The synth-y background vocals of the former are a bit corny, but it gives us some of the best lyrics on the album. The latter may not be as good as other Hold Steady album closers, and by other I mean all of them, except maybe “Southtown Girls”, but I kinda liked the epic sound of the drums and the string fanfare to end the record.

   Other songs of note: “Hurricane J” sounds a lot like “Stacy’s Mom”, though the end is a highlight. “Barely Breathing” is one of the best songs, but the end is a lowlight. “Our Whole Lives” sounds like a classic Hold Steady tune, just not good enough to be called a classic. Same goes for “Rock Problems” and “The Smidge”. Well, I think that covers the whole album.

   Now I remember why I didn’t want to write about Heaven is Whenever. There just isn’t a whole lot to say. Its a decent album but I pray this isn’t the beginning of the end of the studio greatness of one of my favorite bands, The Hold Steady. I hope Finn and company remember how a resurrection really feels on their next attempt.

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TRIPLE PLAY: spoon. local natives. the tallest man on earth

by Sean
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TRANSFERENCE by spoon

Released: January 2010
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I’m afraid Spoon’s consistent run of fantastic records has ended. With Transference, Spoon releases another Spoon record, just not as good as the group’s previous efforts. Opener, “Before Destruction”, lacks the immediate power of “Don’t Make Me a Target”, “Beast and Dragon Adored”, etc. The first single, “Written in Reverse” is the definitive highlight here, however there is nothing else that jumps out right away. Due to high anticipation I was initially extremely let down with Transference, but after several listens I can certainly say that this is a good album, just not as good as the high standards Spoon has set for themselves.

Best of Transference – “Written in Reverse” [LISTEN], “Is Love Forever”, “I Saw the Light”
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GORILLA MANOR by local natives

Released: February 2010
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Local Natives’ debut album has been compared to Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes. I wouldn’t look too far into those comparisons except for maybe the harmonies. Gorilla Manor is much busier and less folky than Fleet Foxes, but more accessible than Grizzly Bear. The scattering percussion is what sets Local Natives the most apart from these comparisons, building up to chanting choruses and transitions. With Gorilla Manor, Local Natives have begun what could be a very promising career ahead.

Best of Gorilla Manor – “Wide Eyes” [LISTEN], “Camera Talk”, “Stranger Things”
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THE WILD HUNT by the tallest man on earth

Released: April 2010
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The Wild Hunt is the second album from Swede Kristian Matsson’s moniker, The Tallest Man on Earth. Consisting of 10, almost all-acoustic tunes, The Wild Hunt is my personal introduction to The Tallest Man on Earth and I’m wondering why it took me so long to listen to this guy. Honestly there is not a weak track on this album. Listen to it now.

Best of The Wild Hunt – “The Wild Hunt”, “King of Spain” [LISTEN], “The Drying of the Lawns”, “Kids on the Run”, every other song

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AMERICAN ARCHETYPES by jimmy o’keefe and friends

by Sean




Released: 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. The Devil Speaks to Mary 3 [LISTEN]

  2. The Insomniacs Song 1 [LISTEN]

  3. The Sleep Fairy [LISTEN]

  4. Mugged Blues 2 [LISTEN]

  5. Property Lines [LISTEN]

  6. Blue Highway [LISTEN]

  7. What She Said to Her Teacher [LISTEN]

  8. Sunny Babe [LISTEN]

  9. Alleyway Monologue [LISTEN]

  10. Prescriptions 3 [LISTEN]

  11. The Old Days 4 [LISTEN]

   Do you like folk music, America, and/or whiskey? Good, then you’ll love this album. There’s a good chance that you have no idea who Jimmy O’Keefe is, but this 20 year old from the county, in the middle of Maryland, has produced one of the most mature, and best folk albums you will hear this year. Borrowing from the Dylans, Youngs, Cashs, and even Neutral Milks of the past, Jimmy O’Keefe has molded the tried and true formulas into something of his own.

   American Archetypes starts with the fingerpicking introduction of “The Devil Speaks to Mary 3”. O’Keefe sings, “I had a conscience that lingered in the air and I ran from it everyday/ I’d hear my father’s voice calling from somewhere but his wisdom had nothing good to say/ And between Albany and Houston the snow turned into rain/ Starry eyed before the storm I pledged allegiance to my pain”. This is only the beginning of the words from what sounds like a man looking back on his life in a prison-like state, wanting to retreat from not only his physical location, but also from his own head. The song ends “Now do you think they’ll end me swiftly off the books before the dawn?/ And maybe you can’t see them but my chains are never gone”. This chilling finale is the start of the haunting stamps to be placed on many of the works of American Archetypes.

   So you wanna talk about whiskey? Okay. “But if you smell the roses on his teeth/ Then meet the sterile whiskey on his breath/ You know all the words you would sober speak/ But not the things he’d say about his death”. What would Americana folk music be without whiskey? Probably non-existant. “The Sleep Fairy” introduces America’s favorite drink along with a chorus aided by keyboard-laden strings. “And if your father’s blessed with shame”… “Now the devil’s drinking whiskey like its turpentine/ While the Saints pour all their blood into their fickle-bellied wine/ Well maybe they could all drink to my memories/ While I do what I do best, drinking ’til I can’t see”. Along with the themes of alcoholism, we start to see father issues akin to those with another talented modern-day folk artist, Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve Earle. And as you continue reading, and hopefully listening, you’ll realize a theme in this review: These lyrics are really fucking good and almost unbelievably mature from this Southern Maryland college student.

   “Property Lines” is one of the staples of American Archetypes, while repeating only two chords throughout the entire song. These two chords are accompanied by atmospheric background guitar work along with appealing lyricism with every line ending in “visions of heaven and hell”. My personal favorite run, written as follows: “Don’t you go confiscating my cocaine lines/ You don’t need me to tell you these are some trying times/ And if you wanna know what really sells/ Then you’d give us something to numb as of our visions of heaven and hell/ And don’t you go cuttin’ in those customs lines/ What’s mine will be mine and what’s yours will be mine/ And if you have a memory then you go and tell/ Your leaders to adopt their visions of heaven and hell/ And don’t you go crossing no church and state lines/ My Christian country is just about to reach its prime/ And if you wanna know how the Romans fell well, just examine their visions of heaven and hell”. This is an example of a song that may not catch your attention right away musically, but the lyrics are enough to keep you intently interested for multiple listens.

   “What She Said to Her Teacher” is the only song on the album which gives drums and bass a prominent piece of the action, and this is a well-placed change. This tune features a quick pace, upbeat bass line, and sprawling sporadic guitar solos. Just as soon as you get into this change of pace, the song is over and leads right into the much slower love song, “Sunny Babe”.

   Perhaps the best two-song run on American Archetypes are its two closers, “Prescriptions 3” and “The Old Days 4”. The beginning of “Prescriptions” has a very 60’s-soul feel to it, which is a prelude to the upcoming questions the troubled speaker asks about Otis Redding and “why he left so soon”. About halfway through the guitar and bass soulful-quiet, O’Keefe’s solemn vocals are joined with pounding drums and reverb-drenched backing vocals, adding to the angst and desperation. “Prescriptions 3” ends, “And angels danced upon electric lines in a bright and calmly dim/ And Jesus laid my bed upon the train tracks, so I laid down for him”. This man has finally had enough, succumbing to the drugs and thoughts haunting his own mind. If there were an “epic” song on American Archetypes, this would be it.

   At first I thought “Prescriptions” would be the best way to end this record, but its hard not to want a little something more, and “The Old Days 4” is almost like a bonus track, or second closer. At 7 minutes, 46 seconds, “The Old Days” is calming, but not tiring. I would compare it to Iron and Wine’s “The Trapeze Singer”, in that it is simple, long, and repetitive, but captivating the whole way through. Once again, the lyrics and Jimmy’s gruff vocals are at the forefront, which is the only way American Archetypes should end: “Dancing with the indians, dancing with the devil/ And dancing with a face full of dried-up tears”.

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CONTRA by vampire weekend

by Sean

Pitchfork: 8.6            Rolling Stone: 4/5            Metacritic: 80            Spin: 4/5

 

Released: January 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. Horchata [LISTEN]

  2. White Sky
  3. Holiday
  4. California English
  5. Taxi Cab
  6. Run
  7. Cousins
  8. Giving Up The Gun
  9. Diplomat’s Son
  10. I Think Ur A Contra

   Vampire Weekend is back with their sophomore release, Contra. By now I think everybody has heard of these “afro-pop”-playing Columbia University grads, for better or for worse. Understandably, there are many that are either sick of hearing about Vampire Weekend, or are just not buying into them. As for Contra, it’s pretty simple. If you liked their debut, you’ll like this. If you think Vampire Weekend are spoiled and talentless, and don’t deserve the praise they’ve been given, well then, I’m not sure why you’re even reading this.

   I was a fan of Vampire Weekend’s debut, although I, like others, grew rather weary of it after awhile. But I had to hand it to them, even if they were borrowing from other genres and artists, this didn’t exactly sound like anything else out today, and it was pretty good. Although I would’ve bet that their next record would be a huge letdown compared to the first, after several listens I’ve gotta say that Contra is equal to, if not better than the self-titled debut. The only problem is, now that we’ve heard Vampire Weekend, we’re not getting the feeling of hearing something different or brand new, and I think this will eventually hurt them.

   Contra opens with “Horchata”, and the lines “In December drinking Horchata/ I’d look psychotic in a Balaclava/ Winter’s cold is too much to handle”. My first thoughts were, “Oh this song sounds perfect for the city winter I’m currently in the middle of”, and “What the hell is Horchata, or a Balaclava”. Thankfully wikipedia helped me decipher Ezra Koenig’s complicated lyrics, but I was not surprised by them, as these type of terms have become typical of Vampire Weekend. “Horchata” builds to a climax of strings and tribal-like drumming, reminiscent of Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown”. The Kanye/Vampire Weekend comparisons don’t stop there, but this may be a good thing.

   Auto-tune. I fucking hate auto-tune. As if I didn’t hate most of popular hip hop already, rappers decide to sing over auto-tune, and even ruin what could be decent R&B singers’ voices with this “technology”. Well, Vampire Weekend decide it would be a good idea to make an entire song with auto-tune, “California English”, and you know what, it’s actually not that bad. I wouldn’t call it one of the best songs on the album, but it isn’t the worst either.

   “Cousins” picks up where “A-Punk” left off as the upbeat surf-rock song of Contra. This would be a sure-fire highlight if it wasn’t for the annoyingly idiotic chorus, “Me and my cousins and you and your cousins/ It’s a line thats always running/ Me and my cousins and you and your cousins/ I can feel it coming”. “Cousins” is preceded by “Run”, one of my favorite tracks. Heavy on the synths, which turns out to be maybe the only theme of Contra that differs greatly from the self-titled, “Run” builds up to a strong chorus, and what may even be called a synth jam, which I would compare to some of Beirut’s recent work as Realpeople.

   Contra finishes strong with “Giving Up the Gun”, “Diplomat’s Son”, and “I Think Ur a Contra”. The first of the three-song-run, “Giving Up the Gun”, actually sounds unlike Vampire Weekend’s previous work, and works perfectly in this slot. The self-titled’s closer, “The Kid’s Don’t Stand a Chance” ended up being one of the best from that album. “Diplomat’s Son” and “I think Ur a Contra” don’t quite match it, but they come close, and were definitely solid choices to close Contra.

   Vampire Weekend seems to attract much critical acclaim, while also accumulating a large amount of hate. I would put myself in the middle. They may not deserve the heaps of praise they’ve gotten from the Pitchforks and Rollingstones of the world, but they certainly don’t deserve all of the shit they’ve taken either. If you are one of those haters, at least look past their physical appearance and scholarly history and give the music a chance on its own.

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top ten albums of 2009

by Sean
10. WILCO (THE ALBUM) by wilco

Wilco (The Song) [LISTEN]

One of my all-time favorite bands releases a decent Wilco record. But, a decent Wilco record is good enough to be top 10 of the year for me.

9. DRAGONSLAYER by sunset rubdown

You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II) [LISTEN]

I was once a Wolf Parade fan and am now a fan of pretty much anything Spencer Krug does. This was a pleasant surprise for me.

8. I AND LOVE AND YOU by the avett brothers

I And Love And You [LISTEN]

Nothing I can really rock to like Emotionalism’s “Die, Die, Die”, but, the title track is great and this is a consistently good record all the way through.

7. WHY THERE ARE MOUNTAINS by cymbals eat guitars

Wind Phoenix (Proper Name) [LISTEN]

My favorite debut of the year and they’re only 20 years old. Can’t wait to see what the future holds for these guys.

6. BITTE ORCA by dirty projectors

Cannibal Resource [LISTEN]

Hadn’t even heard of them until this was released, and after seeing them live I will definitely be keeping my ear out for whatever else they have to offer.

5. MANNERS by passion pit

Sleepyhead [LISTEN]

After hearing Manners for the first time I was sure Passion Pit would be the MGMT of 2009. I’m not sure if they’ve quite reached that point but there are some great dance party tunes on this one.

4. NOBLE BEAST by andrew bird

Oh No [LISTEN]

At this point I don’t believe Andrew Bird is capable of putting out a bad record.

3. WOLFGANG AMADEUS PHOENIX by phoenix

Lisztomania [LISTEN]

When an album begins with possibly 2 of the top 5 songs released all year (“Lisztomania”,”1901″) its pretty hard for it to be topped. Gets a little muddled down in the middle but finishes strong.

2. VECKATIMEST by grizzly bear

Two Weeks [LISTEN]

Grizzly Bear finally receives their critical due with Veckatimest. You may have to be in a certain mood to listen to this all the way through, but if you do you will be rewarded with a beautiful record.

1. MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION by animal collective

Summertime Clothes [LISTEN]

AC’s most accessible album to date, while still sticking to form. Named after a venue I have visited many times, MPP is proof that these guys from Baltimore may end up being one of the best of our generation.

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TEEN DREAM by beach house

by Sean

Pitchfork: 9.0          Rolling Stone: 3.5/5          Metacritic: 82          Spin: 4/5

 

Released: January 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. Zebra [LISTEN]

  2. Silver Soul
  3. Norway
  4. Walk in the Park
  5. Used to Be
  6. Lover of Mine
  7. Better Times
  8. 10 Mile Stereo
  9. Real Love
  10. Take Care

   Are you ready for the next album to be crowned a top 10 album of the year before we even count down the new year? Like Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear in latter ’08, the leak of Beach House’s Teen Dream is garnering incredible praise well before its intended release year has started, but after several listens it is hard to deny the possibility that this may very well be one of my favorite albums of “2010” just as Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear ended up being premature favorites of 2009.

   Born and raised in (and/or near) Baltimore, I may be slightly biased heading into hearing the newest from an acclaimed Baltimore band, but to be honest I was not a huge fan of Beach House until listening to Teen Dream. I was impressed, but not incredibly so, after seeing them open for Grizzly Bear in Philadelphia. I enjoyed, but didn’t love, their first two records. And really, what could be so exciting about a duo featuring a guy and girl with most songs favoring heavy keyboard instrumentation? Apparently, a lot more than I expected, because I can not get enough of this album.

   The opener, “Zebra” opens with a single guitar followed by harmonized “Ahhh’s” and a continuous thumping bass. As Victoria Legrand’s vocals kick in, along with the full drum kit, to the chorus, you can tell that Beach House has not abandoned the ambience they have become known for, but have added a constant sense of melody that will keep you coming back to every song Teen Dream has to offer.

   The first single, “Norway”, proves just how powerful Beach House can be with just a few instruments and a single word, “Norway”, as the chorus. The next song, “Walk in the Park”, may be one of the catchiest (if you can call a Beach House song catchy) that I have heard from this band. The piano rhythm recalls that of Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks”, which Legrand lent backing vocals to. She sings, “In a matter of time/It would slip from my mind/In and out of my life”, each line followed by effect-laden tremolo guitar picking. Continuing the desolation theme of past albums, Legrand lets go of a past lover, or friend, in impressive fashion.

   You know an album is a great complete piece of work when you can listen straight through without leaving any songs behind, and I have now heard Teen Dream over 15 times without ever feeling the need to skip a single tune.  Beach House basically keep the same formula throughout the album as they have in their first two, but they have done so almost to perfection this time around. They haven’t tried to thoroughly expand their sound, but have simply honed in on the craft they have chosen. Being a huge fan of live music, and having seen Beach House (in an opening slot) before, I’m not sure I would recommend dropping a huge lump of cash if you’re looking for an exciting live show, but as far as records go, Teen Dream far surpassed my expectations of this band.

   It may be a little early to start predicting the best albums of 2010, but I am excited to see how people react to the next big thing to come out of Baltimore. It feels great to live in a city that can be seen as more than just a dramatic yet depressing setting for one of the best television shows of all time (The Wire), the murder capital of the world, or home to one of the most pathetic baseball teams of the new millennium. I have Animal Collective, Dan Deacon, and now, Beach House, to give me hope for a future of inspiring music to come out of my hometown.

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ALLIGATOR by the national

by Sean

Pitchfork: 7.9            Rolling Stone: 3/5            Metacritic: 81            Spin: N/A

 

Released: April 2005
Tracklisting:
  1. Secret Meeting
  2. Karen
  3. Lit Up
  4. Looking for Astronauts
  5. Daughters of the SoHo Riots
  6. Baby, We’ll Be Fine
  7. Friend of Mine
  8. Val Jester
  9. All The Wine [LISTEN]

  10. Abel
  11. The Geese of Beverly Road
  12. City Middle
  13. Mr. November

   The National first started to get national recognition with the release of 2007’s Boxer.  I was introduced to them with Alligator, one of the best unknown records of 2005. It took awhile for me to get used to Matt Berninger’s scruffy baritone vocals along with melodies lacking quick-hitting hooks, but I can honestly say that after listening to these two releases The National is one of the best bands in America today.

   I knew that I wanted to write about the National but I needed to be in a certain frame of mind to do so . With a few shots of whiskey and a somewhat obstructed view of nighttime city streets, I think I am there. Alligator offers a variety of songs that can appeal to almost any mood possible. My preference is dark, cold, and buzzed, but don’t let that deter you from enjoying at any time. Berninger’s often quirky lyrics deal with lost friendships, lost love, and yearning to keep those relationships from spiralling into distant memories. He is apologetic, paranoid, and (maybe sarcastically) narcissistic. This may just make Alligator sound like another sad bastard record, but in actuality, it is not.

   Alligator begins with a simultaneous strike of a snare and cymbal crash followed by the simple yet unmistakable riff of “Secret Meeting”. Berninger sings, “I think this place is full of spies/I think they’re on to me/Didn’t anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?… And now I’m sorry I’ve missed you/I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain”. The first track climaxes with Berninger singing, “It went the dull and wicked ordinary way” while his bandmates chant an indecipherable phrase over and over, which Berninger himself has said he would never reveal. Some have suggested “Just drop the dice and roll it” or “Never draw an ace and fold it”. Either of these would suggest a lyrical dichotomy that many could relate to. The carpe diem mindset, or lack thereof, oftentimes ends in a “dull and wicked ordinary way” no matter how the cards are played.

   (I have now switched from whiskey to gin. I’m right back to where I was two years ago in College Park, MD, when I fell in love with this band. This is good. Well…maybe not.)

   Alligator’s centerpiece and perhaps one of The National’s best songs is “All the Wine”. This song is a perfect example of how beautiful and melodic this band can sound with two interwoven electric guitars and a simple but unorthodox drumbeat. The aforementioned narcissistic lyrics are on full display in this song. It opens, “I’m put together beautifully/big wet bottle in my fist, big wet rose in my teeth/I’m a perfect piece of ass, like every Californian”, and continues with lines like, “I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls” and “I’m so sorry but the motorcade can go around me this time”. Berninger is not afraid to dive into sensitive subjects to get his points across, but after reading a few of his interviews it’s easy to see that these aren’t his actual views of himself or the band. However, even as he puts himself on top of the world he is still concerned about those he cares about, singing, “All safe and sound, I won’t let the psychos around…I’m in a state where nothing can touch us, my love”. Because, shit, what’s the fun in feeling power and perfection if it can’t be used to share with and help those we love?

   I’d like to shortly address some of the critics that call The National “soft” or “dull” by calling attention to the songs “Abel” and “Mr. November”. I’m not usually the type that gets off by hearing grown men scream in songs but I’ll be damned if Matt Berninger screaming “My mind’s not RIGHT!” in “Abel”, and “I won’t fuck us over/I’m Mr. November” doesn’t make me a little moist in the pants. This band can rock the fuck out with the best of them when they want, and if you’re one of these critics, at least give these two songs a listen.

   I could probably write a twenty page paper on this album, describing the brilliance of every song, but that would bore 99% of the readers, and I’m not sure I have enough patience (or liquor) to do that. If you’ve only heard a few songs or brushed off The National due to the (actually not so) “monotone” vocals of Matt Berninger, or some other lame excuse, I beg you to give Alligator at least a few more complete listens. I promise you will connect with much more then you initially expected, both musically and emotionally. This album, and this band, is the real deal.

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