The easy route here would be to categorize things as “eclectic” or “a nice mixture.” Eclectic, however, simply doesn’t do it justice. Rather, the aptly titled New Direction from Maria Rose & The Swiss Kicks is a showcase of an emerging band whose sound is at once distinct and expansive.
Rose more than holds her own throughout the album with songs that showcase her vocal range. No doubt, she is suited for the wide range of tempos and sounds produced from her bandmates throughout the seven tracks.
Lyrically and musically, range is evident throughout the disc. Such is the case with title track “New Direction.” The song includes a rapped interlude that’s melted with soaring vocals mixed with heavy percussion and piano chords to create a pulsating and adventurous track.
In “Gypsy of NYC”, the band moves into more experimental areas with structure and sound, creating a tune that is all at once funky and catchy, while sounding like something that could be categorized as “Mediterranean.” As Rose sings, “She’s so beautiful, but she ain’t pretty” against a backdrop of strumming acoustic guitars, you get the sense that you’re listening to a band that conjures up both the range and quality of Fleetwood Mac.
The lyrics are at times light and playful, as is the case with “Pineapple Wine”. Yet the melodies and beats to such songs are catchy to the point that even the most cynical of anti-romantics will not be able to resist from tapping their feet.
While the blending of vocals, lyrics, and sound is successful in every track, it’s perhaps the song “Wildcard” that is best. “Wildcard” is a sultry tune with clever lyrics that nicely compliment the song’s tempo and mood. A song of this strength helps reiterate the fact that the band’s effort here is a successful showcase of musicianship, talent, and lyrical intelligence that leaves the listener wanting more.
I had the luxury of first hearing the music of Little City a short time ago, and that the up-and-coming six-piece hails from Toronto made it no surprise that their debut EP, The Going and the Gone, displays more than enough craft and promise to take the band to higher and more deserving ground.
Opener “Bright Glow” sets a tone that is not unlike that of the EP itself: the steady and restrained percussion of Joel Dickau, equally inhibiting bass of Dave Clarke, and rhythmic piano of Trevor Kai, which in this first song’s case is kicked off with the old-timey country presence of harmonica intro. Carrying the song’s and often the album’s emotion is singer Frances Miller, whose vocal capacity and maturity show an age of about twice her own. And this engrossing five-minute ballad, also like much of the EP, is speckled with moments of musical intrigue courtesy of brothers Shaun and Jordan Axani, whose guitar, mandolin, banjo and lap steel between them serve up the predominant folk contributions and Southern twang that so well compliment the rest of the music.
Two others that have left lasting impressions are “This in Remembrance”, whose calming guitar plucking and lulling melody have an earthy demeanor that take me anywhere from family winters to log cabin summers (which aren’t even real memories half the time), and “Lincoln Learning French”, a refreshingly upbeat turn with perhaps the catchiest intertwining of nearly all instruments on deck, and harnessing what might be their strongest potential for future exploration and growth. It’s a fine way to end their first effort.
The Going and the Gone is a neat and tidy, and small, package. While EPs by nature serve as a short and sweet sampling of an artist’s work at any given time in their career, I as a listener would have elected to hear more of what this band can do, both in size and scope. And when that time does come, I think Little City would benefit from letting go of some of their neat and tidy to explore their unknown as well.
Though the group is only at the beginning of what looks to be a well-deserved spot in the ever sought after indie folk scene, they seem to have already stumbled onto those elements to the sound that speak to both its lasting mark by some of history’s greats and also its contemporary revival as championed by so many new and not-so-new artists today.
It’s appropriate, then, that an overarching theme for The Going and the Gone, in fact Little City themselves, is “lost and found”. While many may see the phrase as embodying something more tangible, something lingering in the time, spirit and reflection of their music, it may as justly serve as a brief lesson of history, a continuing and welcome history, of the music they create itself.
Pitchfork: 8.4 Rolling Stone: 3.5/5 Metacritic: 83 Spin: 4.5/5
Released: January 2011
Imagine Pt. 3
All Die Young [LISTEN]
Fallen In Love
End Of The Night
Dye The World
For most of my adolescent life, music was something that made me want to be older, feel older, grasp the lyrics and even the sounds in a more mature way than what was then possible. Call it quarter-life crisis, or call it listening to Smith Westerns a month ago, but this mentality has been flipped upside down, and my hunch says it’s the band. The energy and raw enthusiasm at the spine of this, their sophomore effort, belie the album’s near senior sound and craftmanship. That these four Chicagoan rockers (Cullen Omori, singer, guitarist / Cameron Omori, bassist / Max Kakacek, guitar / Colby Hewitt, drums) are barely out of high school should scare off anyone who’d question their talent.
The album is all up, never down, never dull, and first single/album opener “Weekends” is no exception, a catchy synth-guitar ode to any boy who’s ever liked a girl and moreso, wanted to see that girl over the weekend (video below). In “Imagine Pt. 3”, as with much of this album, Kakacek’s guitar plows the whole way through as the driving lifeblood of the song, which in this case is a piano-bass romp on “love and lust”, until exploding mid-chorus: “Oh can’t you see, what you’re doing to me / But you’re always coming, coming back for more.”
“All Die Young”, an album standout, at first pulls things back in pace and octane to accentuate the 80’s-esque power ballad backdrop to the wishful musings of Omori: “I wanna grow old before I grow up / I wanna die with my chin up / I wanna shine before I shut up.” The song’s finale becomes a band, even an album, event, all parts evenly synced behind a giddy, near chorus line vocal performance from the whole group. “Smile” takes a similar approach, slowed down and at times stripped down, the cynical turned hopeful lyrics on love and life just vague enough to connect to any audience. That is, except for the part where Kakacek intercedes with an arching, Harrison-sized guitar solo, or the chorus arrives in an MGMT-style soundscape of epic proportions (it’s no surprise both bands would tour together, or share the stage, video here).
The rest of the album is pure fun. The formula (if there is one?) never grows old or tedious, the band throwing new tricks and experimentation into the safe zone of the tried and true, a practice that Smith Westerns make look all too easy. They sing of Saturday night parties and yearnings on “End of the Night”: “Oh, it’s the end of the night / Are you gonna go home?”, rest-of-the-week yearnings on “Still New”: “I wanna tell you you’re hard to resist / And if this is all that you know / Don’t go in alone”, and the in-between mind games with yourself on “Dye the World”: “Are you a dream? / Or something in-between? / Is this fantasy? / Or am I just lucky?”. It may all sound a bit guy-oriented, and it is, but I have a feeling the girls won’t mind joining the anthems.
It’s a mixed bag of beautiful, near impossible contradictions. A fresh and distinct sound, yet one vaguely rooted in the spirit and artistic process of well-established greats (and comparisons have been made). It’s basements, escape, and underground venues. And somehow it’s pristine studio, MTV, the here and now. Run to Dye It Blonde, you’ll run faster. Party to it, you’ll party harder. Listen to it. You might just get younger.
While not as altogether catchy as their breakthrough Oracular Spectacular, it’s every bit as weird, and ultimately, as daring. Though a letdown on certain levels, you have to give it to the band for their genre-bending approach.
It doesn’t knock you out on first listen. Infinite Arms grows on you, reminding you of what makes Band of Horses a great band, be it the soaring vocals of Ben Bridwell, their undeniable melodies, or, less tangibly, the subtle way the music takes you to a quiet place just between childhood and last night.
This universally acclaimed third and purportedly final album from Murphy serves as an upbeat celebration of the end of a decade, while still encapsulating the sometimes introverted thoughtfulness that’s stood out in the artist’s previous work as well. Let’s hope he has more to say in the years to come.
Proving that the earlier success of these four young New York City lads was no fluke, Contra serves up another dose of of African pop-meets-Western culture, but this time with even more boldness and purpose in direction.
Do I wish Stevens, who for almost a decade has remained one of the most inspiring and sometimes life-changing artists for my generation, had combined the best of Adz and his recent EP All Delighted People to create an even better new release? Yes. But Adz is still undeniably an amazing record, grander in scale, scope and sound than anything yet from the quiet young Michigan native with a banjo.
4. GO by jónsi
Boy Lilikoi [LISTEN]
It’s Sigur Rós on Four Loko. With tighter compositions, fuller soundscapes, and just as much imagination as ever, you need only close your eyes and imagine the other members to ease out of the feeling you’re committing adultery.
It’s hard to believe how simple a song can be, or a band for that matter, and still make music magic. Amidst a broad pallette of pace and emotion, Legrand’s vocals leave the strongest aftertaste…soulful, confident, and even in a pop context, always a bit haunting.
It’s hard not giving this one the top spot. This is the third consecutive album from the band to be music gold, their instrumental style and lyrical intricasies too complex to merely describe on pen and paper. Singer Matt Berninger and the rest of The National continue to fill a void in contemporary music and culture, one that most of us, sadly, wouldn’t have even known even existed.
I’m not surpised Arcade Fire would put out the best album of any year. I’m just surprised there’s a band as consistently good as Arcade Fire. Not every song may do it for you. When do they all? But the album’s strength is in its cohesive theme of the modern day, good and bad. And for modern music, it’s simply great.
Pitchfork: 8.7 Rolling Stone: 3.5/5 Metacritic: 85 Spin: 4/5
Released: May 2010
Afraid of Everyone [LISTEN]
Vnaderlyle Crybaby Geeks
For the band’s most recent, High Violet, to have fared merely comparable with their previous two, Alligator and Boxer, would for myself and most fans have constituted as a great success and more than welcome addition to their increasingly standout discography. And what the album does, apart from merely compare, is build and grow off of their now distinct and confident sound and push it further into the realm of wiser yet somehow more daring. Whether your first listen seeks a taste of the familiar or a glimpse at something new, it’s impossible to end up disappointed.
“Terrible Love” introduces the album with a masterful melody of reverberation, courtesy of the Dessner brothers. It continues into a thundering pile-up of sound, drummer Bryan Devendorf characteristically churning an artful science out of the near chaos of his patterns. Berninger’s final lines resonate amidst a collective backdrop of choral “Oohs” before the opener roars into a crashing finale. Live video here (look out for their friend and sometimes collaborator Sufjan Stevens too).
Perhaps the most structurally simple, “Anyone’s Ghost”, in keeping with a longheld National staple, is with a curious delivery that borders between optimistic and pessimistic. Berninger’s reflections are personal and claustrophobic, both lyrically and audibly, as if we’re hearing them inside our own head. “Afraid Of Everyone” is, above all, haunting, and despite what the title suggests, not without a tone that’s confident and domineering, full of self-aware introspection. Though strumming-driven, it’s the band’s prevailing, ghost-like background “Oohs” that again stand out. As Berninger eventually belts, “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out”, one feels led to agree, regardless of how. And in a frenzy of guitar and drums the song comes to an end.
First single “Bloodbuzz Ohio” sess Berninger melancholic in his delivery despite the overall drive and pace of the music, which is now more noticably piano-led. “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/ The floors are falling out from everybody I know”. The video (below), which Berninger’s wife helped direct, features the lead singer as an awkward and solo city figure.
The short, simple and beautiful “Lemonworld” lives off of measured electric guitar strums, rolling tom-tom percussion, and Berninger’s baritone vocals, accented by a string of “doo-doo-doo-doo-doos” throughout the song. Though most of the band’s source material draws from the experience of close-to-home, tangible city life, Berninger decides to take a quick jab at the more outward state of the world: “I gave my heart to the army/ The only sentimental thing I could think of/ I’ve cousins and cousins somewhere overseas/ But it’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me”.
“Runaway” is the soft and slow ballad of High Violet, the one you let your mom listen to first to see how she likes the band. Guitar plucking and deep strings crescendo into a passionate, memorial-like hymn. “Conversation 16” enters in stark contrast, a fast and thought-hungry tune that feeds on the singer’s troubles. But only Matt Berninger could make the words “I was afraid I’d eat your brains/ ‘Cause I’m evil” sound so unthreatening.
In “England” I hear The National taking on new territory, not entirely, but at just the right pace and direction. Berninger sings of summer and rain, rivers and oceans, angels and cathedrals, all atop the artful placement of a series of beautiful piano chords. All this is accented by strings, guitar, percussion, as well as hints of trumpet that perfectly give rise to the feelings evoked by the country for which the song is named. Its closing minute and a half could not get any fuller.
It’s old. It’s new. It’s slow. It’s fast. It’s sad. It’s happy. It’s shy. It’s aggressive. In short, High Violet, though just short of perfect itself, is still a perfect follow-up for The National, one of the few bands today that has gained much-deserved recognition by going the old-fashioned way: making amazing music.
Pitchfork: 8.4 Rolling Stone: 3.5/5 Metacritic: 80 Spin: 3.5/5
Released: December 2009
Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes
In the End
Heaven Can Wait
Me and Jane Doe
Time of the Assassins [LISTEN]
Greenwich Mean Time
Looking Glass Blues
I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’m struggling to make up my mind about Charlotte Gainsbourg. Is she beautiful, or not at all? Is she a great actress, or hardly average? Is she a brilliant singer-songwriter, or just a good faker? I tend to give her the benefit of the doubt, but just when I find myself taken by one of her songs, I can’t help but question the amount of artistic input Gainsbourg can take credit for. I like her voice…earthy, confident, a bit deep. But I fear most congratulations for the upsides to her third and latest, IRM, belong to Beck, who wrote and produced all but one of the album’s tracks (the other not even belonging to Gainsbourg).
“Master’s Hands” is a smart opener, setting a hushed but itching-to-explode vibe that rings true for much of the album. An airy, acoustic strumming pairs with tribal-esque drumming patterns, a backdrop to Gainsbourg’s bold yet near-whispering vocals until, just after halfway through, she breaks into a haunting escalade of “ooohhs”. Title track “IRM” picks up to a more electronic, chaotic yet vocally subdued tune that doesn’t do much for me melodically but is different enough that it at least shows that originality still resides in Beck’s court.
Gainsbourg returns to her native French roots with “Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes”, a Jean-Pierre Ferland-written track which is notable, perhaps only, for its dark symphonic landscape, with strings reaching high into minor chords and bringing to mind early villain-themed songs to James Bond soundtracks.
“Heaven Can Wait” is the true gem of the album, and features the most vocal help from Beck himself. The pair make a fine duet atop slow-paced but near-ragtime piano, corresponding guitar strums and simple, tambourine-led percussion (and eventually a little help from the brass). The unnervingly offbeat video, featuring a dinosaur in a wig in a bathtub, a giant rat being held up at knife point, and an astronaut with pancakes for a head, to name a few scenes, can be seen below.
“Time of the Assassins” beams for reason only of its chorus, which breaks through from amidst Gainsbourg’s typical lull-you-to-sleep demeanor, the audio spectrum opening wide in all directions, most memorably to include a haunting chorale of “aaahhs” right behind her slightly more optimistic pitch.
But Beck’s studio magic tricks can’t save every song from the sometimes lackluster performances by Gainsbourg. “Greenwich Mean Time”, for example, sees a cacophony of clinks and clacks combine to form an unsuccessful canvas to Gainsbourg’s megaphone-altered exclamations (her lack of tonal energy, which at this point can be expected, doesn’t help either). In perhaps aiming for some combination of wiser, older and more serious, IRM skips on the more optimistic lifts from songs like “Songs That We Sing” (video here) from her previous 5:55, lifts I found myself longing for.
I’m sure Charlotte does at least a semi-solid instrumental effort on the album, this more likely than not including much of the guitar work. But it’s IRM‘sidiosyncratic bells and whistles that help create its almost time-and-place altering effect that allow it to stand out in an otherwise bland market, even for Indie music, and Beck may well take the bulk of that credit. But ultimately IRM falls a little flat, serving better as an accent to a day’s moment, than worthy of being the center of the moment itself.
Pitchfork: 8.6 Rolling Stone: 4/5 Metacritic: 86 Spin: 4.5/5
Released: August 2010
Ready to Start
City With No Children
Half Light I
Half Light II (No Celebration)
Month of May
We Used to Wait [LISTEN]
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
The Suburbs (Continued)
A little premature to be giving a grade to a brand new album by one of the most significant bands to grace my generation? Absolutely. Have I figured out how influential these songs will be on me over the course of my life? Not at all. A little too hard to wait to put a good word in? Yup.
It’s too easy to say and too hard not to say it: “They’ve done it again.” Meaning: They’ve made another Arcade Fire album. They’ve done so little wrong and so much right over their celebrated lifespan that putting it so simply really is all one needs to say, or know. While at least as different from its predecessors as Neon Bible was from Funeral, it still possesses that inescapable air that seems to bind all of their work into the nice, familiar musical gift it is.
Though taking a stab at more than a handful of previously un-tinkered-with sounds and instruments, they’ve somehow managed to infuse it all with that same dark yet curiously happy mix of Arcade Fire energy, their themed frustrations this time directed, not surprisingly, at the cold, mediocrity-inspiring lifestyles and landscapes of your everyday everyman suburbs. Theirs…and ours.
Setting the mood and point at the start with the album’s title track, “The Suburbs” begins with a rollicking piano romp whose playfulness, when one considers the lyrically grave implications confessed by Butler, come off as near sarcastic, especially when coupled with the haunting and more tonally honest string accompaniment. “You always seemed so sure/ That one day we’d be fighting/ In a suburban war/ Your part of town against mine/ I saw you standing on the opposite shore/ But by the time the first bombs fell/ We were already bored.”
“Modern Man” takes a significant turn from the everyday Arcade Fire with a late-80s vibe that includes a steady electric guitar rhythm and some unique spacey distractions throughout, Butler lamenting, “So I wait in line, I’m a modern man/ And the people behind me, they can’t understand/ Makes me feel like something don’t feel right.” “Rococo” instantly took me to old feelings first felt by first impressions of the band…a relatively simple chord progression that’s initially driven by aggressively-strummed acoustic guitar and deep, reverberating bass and strings, until exploding into an instrumental melee of noise, emotion, and distortion, with just the right amount of each.
“We Used to Wait” is a true gem, call me a sucker for your repetitive, choppy piano backbone. The chords, at once that perfect aforementioned mix of dark and happy, make the song, especially when aided with a catchy synth-bassline and eventually, a string crescendo reminiscent of the epic climax to Neon Bible’s “Windowsill.”
And “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” at first listen was quick to become my favorite Régine Chassagne-sung track spanning the band’s career. Sounding vaguely at times like Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, it’s also clearly the band’s danciest tune to date as well, Chassagne’s vocals matching just right in both pitch and attitude. Though it wouldn’t have had any agreeable place on their previous two records, it somehow feels right at home in The Suburbs, and a feel-good closer that makes it harder to think sore thoughts for this most recent endeavor. Like the album’s opener, the upbeat positivity screams a far cry from the truth that they sing: “Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small/ That we can never get away from the sprawl/ Living in the sprawl/ Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/ And there’s no end in sight/ I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights.”
Boasting 16 tracks, I feared from the get go that they might have gone for quantity over quality on this one. Yeah, the album is perhaps without any truly timeless band classics like Funeral’s “Rebellion (Lies)” or Neon Bible’s “No Cars Go”. And yeah, it also boasts a few less-than-satisfying pieces, like “Month of May”, for example, which I’d swear was The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” everytime it starts (nothing against that classic). But they’ve provided us with a [normal] Arcade Fire album’s worth of enjoyment that should easily keep us going for the next few years until they’re ready to do it all over again. With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire has wrestled with and ultimately won the battle over mediocrity: by kicking its ass.
Advert for their upcoming Madison Square Garden gig (webcast to be directed by Terry Gilliam):