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THE GOING AND THE GONE by little city

by Gordon

Released: August 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. Bright Glow [LISTEN]

  2. Rise Up
  3. Hard To See
  4. This In Remembrance
  5. Lincoln Learning French

   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.

Little City promo ver1 from Frances Miller on Vimeo.

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DYE IT BLONDE by smith westerns

by Gordon

 

Pitchfork: 8.4          Rolling Stone: 3.5/5          Metacritic: 83          Spin: 4.5/5

 

Released: January 2011
Tracklisting:
  1. Weekend
  2. Still New
  3. Imagine Pt. 3
  4. All Die Young [LISTEN]

  5. Fallen In Love
  6. End Of The Night
  7. Only One
  8. Smile
  9. Dance Away
  10. 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.

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HIGH VIOLET by the national

by Gordon

 

Pitchfork: 8.7          Rolling Stone: 3.5/5          Metacritic: 85          Spin: 4/5

 

Released: May 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. Terrible Love
  2. Sorrow
  3. Anyone’s Ghost
  4. Little Faith
  5. Afraid of Everyone [LISTEN]

  6. Bloodbuzz Ohio
  7. Lemonworld
  8. Runaway
  9. Conversation 16
  10. England
  11. 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.

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IRM by charlotte gainsbourg

by Gordon

Pitchfork: 8.4         Rolling Stone: 3.5/5         Metacritic: 80         Spin: 3.5/5

 

Released: December 2009
Tracklisting:
  1. Master’s Hands
  2. IRM
  3. Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes
  4. In the End
  5. Heaven Can Wait
  6. Me and Jane Doe
  7. Vanities
  8. Time of the Assassins [LISTEN]

  9. Trick Pony
  10. Greenwich Mean Time
  11. Dandelion
  12. Voyage
  13. La Collectionneuse
  14. 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‘s idiosyncratic 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.

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THE SUBURBS by arcade fire

by Gordon

 

Pitchfork: 8.6          Rolling Stone: 4/5          Metacritic: 86          Spin: 4.5/5

 

Released: August 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. The Suburbs
  2. Ready to Start
  3. Modern Man
  4. Rococo
  5. Empty Room
  6. City With No Children
  7. Half Light I
  8. Half Light II (No Celebration)
  9. Suburban War
  10. Month of May
  11. Wasted Hours
  12. Deep Blue
  13. We Used to Wait [LISTEN]

  14. Sprawl (Flatland)
  15. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
  16. 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):

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THIS IS HAPPENING by lcd soundsystem

by Gordon

 

Pitchfork: 9.2           Rolling Stone: 4/5           Metacritic: 84           Spin: 4/5

 

Released: May 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. Dance Yrself Clean [LISTEN]

  2. Drunk Girls
  3. One Touch
  4. All I Want
  5. I Can Change
  6. You Wanted A Hit
  7. Pow Pow
  8. Somebody’s Calling Me
  9. Home

   Admittedly a late bloomer in terms of LCD Soundsystem appreciation (I’d always heard the references, and always put the listens on hold), the artist’s most recent and purportedly last effort, This is Happening, is a true landmark.

   “Dance Yrself Clean” is the first and quite possibly the most important song on the album. For three minutes, a subdued Murphy sings honest yet almost indifferent lines like, “Talking like a jerk, except you are an actual jerk/ And living proof that sometimes friends are mean”, all atop a simple 2-chord back-and-forth put to the beat of near tribal drumming. It’s then that it jumps, out of nowhere, into an epic, 5-minute-long, potentially speaker-blowing bass-synth solo, Murphy now passionately belting even more honest lines like, “Break me into bigger pieces/ So some of me is home with you/ Wait until the weekend/ And we can make our bad dreams come true.” Without this track alone, This is Happening would feel considerably emptier.

   Follow-up “Drunk Girls” is worth mentioning as a quick, party-inducing pop-rock tune, akin to some of the Beastie Boys’ noisy, in-your-face hits. The video below was directed by Spike Jonze. “One Touch” makes for one of the most dance-happy tunes on the album, with just enough near-spaceship-sounding bells and whistles to make you wanna go on a solo dance groove tangent despite whatever present company you may find yourself in.

   Just as some of Murphy’s catchiest and most memorable tracks derive from the repetition of a singular, timeless hook (for example, “All My Friends’” choppy piano, or “Someone Great’s” synth-y bassline, both from 2007’s Sound of Silver), This is Happening’s  “All I Want” jams off of an incessant but never annoying 3-note lick of distorted guitar, Murphy singing chipper lines like, “All I want is your pity/ All I want are your bitter tears…/ From now on I’m someone different/ ‘Cause it’s no fun to be predicting”, and all I want is more.

   “I Can Change” isn’t quite as spectacular as those already listed, but fortunately contains a funky, high-pitched sound of a head-nodder that still quantifies it as utterly enjoyable. With the album’s remaining tracks, however, Murphy’s confidence has unfortunately translated into overextended track times, “Somebody’s Calling Me” particularly muffled and droning. I’d gladly accept a 3-minute whack off of nearly all of these songs’ runtime if it meant gaining two or three more tracks altogether.

   Is it better than its predecessors? As a whole, probably. But there’s still something timeless about the previously mentioned “All My Friends” and “Someone Great” from Murphy’s Sound of Silver that seem inescapably linked to the artist. And while This is Happening packs a wild punch, there’s no doubt that the listening experience would be amped by one’s surrounding environment, so whip it out at a party (double meaning?), or if you’re lucky enough, go see LCD live. I’ve heard wonderful stories.

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CONGRATULATIONS by mgmt

by Gordon

 

Pitchfork: 6.8           Rolling Stone: 3/5           Metacritic: 70           Spin: 4/5

 

Released: April 2010
Tracklisting:
  1. It’s Working [LISTEN]

  2. Song for Dan Treacy
  3. Someone’s Missing
  4. Flash Delirium
  5. I Found A Whistle
  6. Siberian Breaks
  7. Brian Eno
  8. Lady Dada’s Nightmare
  9. Congratulations

   I, like nearly every other MGMT listener, was first drawn to the band for two simple reasons: “Kids” and “Time To Pretend” (for some it might have been only one of the two reasons and for others a third: “Electric Feel”). And I’m fairly certain that at least half of all MGMT listeners have only ever listened to some combination of those songs, whether through parties, radio, mix CDs, or YouTube.

   When I bought Oracular Spectacular in search of more of these hits, I wasn’t too surprised to discover that it contained no more. Instead, it consisted of zany, genre-bending psychadelia that ranged in intensity from hushed to anthemic. None wooed me with first, second or even third listens. But as I soldiered on in growing acceptance and hopeful pursuit, I became very fond of the sound…not nearly as catchy as those mentioned earlier, but bold and refreshing enough.

   And when their second release, Congratulations, hit stores, I, like nearly every other MGMT listener, was anxiously hoping for another “Kids”, another “Time To Pretend”, just one more party-pleaser. Turns out the band actually tried quite hard to avoid this, not altogether happy with the fame and attention that resulted from the success of their earlier hits. And it kind of pisses me off. I’m not one hundred percent convinced they could write another “Kids” if they tried, and this would have been a great time to try (and make their listeners happy as a result).

   What’s left, then, is an album that sounds 100 percent much what 70 percent of Oracular sounded. Opener “It’s Working” (video here), apparently about the ecstasy they regret not doing earlier in their success, is your standard, chorus-y psych-rock, a little retro in its 60s surf-style bassline. The potential to Track 3, “Someone’s Missing”, is unfortunately revealed only in the song’s last 30 seconds, it taking two droning minutes for singer Andrew VanWyngarden to go into his quiet, high-pitched, almost teasing vocals to get us there.

   “Flash Delirium” is an album standout, Pitchfork Media saying it “features flutes, horns, and about seven different sections that reference doo-wop, old school rock’n’roll, electro balladry, Ariel Pink-style lo-fi, wall-of-Spector pop, and The Beatles at their most high.” While the praise seems a little high to me, when I think about it, I kind of agree. Its final, chorus-y minute and a half make for what I hear as the happiest and catchiest album moment. The video below proves that the band may just have the weirdest videos out there today…I don’t always get it but I dig it. “Siberian Breaks”, at just over 12 minutes, and though musically striking for less than half of those, still pulls off some great moments in its ever-changing audio focus, and should be praised for its ambition any way you look at it.

   And closer / title track “Congratulations” which begins like a modern-day version of The Band’s “The Weight”, while sticking mostly to a slow acoustic ballad with VanWyngarden’s vocals lulling on top, serves as one of the few enjoyably relaxing MGMT listens. Though the band may be a bit cocky in its closing sentiments (“Spread my arms and soak up ‘Congratulations’”), I don’t feel that they don’t deserve at least a healthy dose. And I have a feeling that, while it might take a year or more before I’ve truly soaked up the album, it will be at that point that I may very well have much higher praise for it. But damn if they couldn’t have just included one more radio-friendly pop tune.

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