The new release by Sunset Rubdown is as epic as the title Dragonslayer might suggest, but it’s a new kind of epic, one that isn’t necessarily “soaring” or “sleek” like that kind of fantastic endeavor implies; and thank goodness for that, since part of Spencer Krug’s appeal is the scruffy, ramshackle charm of his songwriting (you’ll recognize that fretful singing voice from his other band, Wolf Parade). This knight rides off to fight dragons wearing cardboard armor and a wooden sword. Each song averages 5-6 minutes in length — the longest clocks in at over ten — so even at a trim track-listing of only nine songs, diving into Dragonslayer can be a little daunting at first. Fear not; these off-kilter mini-rock operas flourish within their extra time and space with very few slack moments.
The most out-and-out rock opera on the new record is “Black Swan,” something of a centerpiece, a slow-burner with sporadic outbreaks of frantic rock and layers of chanting that build to a climax. Camilla Wynne Ingr’s assured backing vocals add a nice heft and balance whenever the album threatens to veer too much into pure quirk, and also contributes to some of the more sing-along moments, like the end of “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!” The second track, “Idiot Heart,” is the most immediately gratifying. It starts with a chug-chug of the electric guitar that threatens to explode into rawk, and although the song does indeed rock pretty hard, Krug and co. exercise a measure of restraint that keeps tension bubbling just under the surface throughout. Even the chiming, shredded guitar solos float in the background like a dream while the percussion and Krug’s yelping vocals take first position. The song ends with a plaintive call-and-response kiss-off: “I hope you die/ in a decent pair of shoes,/ you’ve got a lot of long walking to do / where you’re going to.” What would any good epic be without a trip to the underworld?
Not surprisingly, the most straightforward song here, “Paper Lace,” is also the weakest; Krug’s songwriting is best when he steers away from more conventional pop structures. The album makes a strong comeback immediately after with “You Go On Ahead,” a rival against “Idiot Heart” for the strongest cut. Ending with the excessively long “Dragon’s Lair” might have been too ambitious; the band didn’t quite up the ante enough to get through ten and a half minutes unscathed. It’s not a bad closer, but for an album full of highlights, Dragonslayer ends on a relatively low note. But considering that this is also an album full of songs that grow in the mind over time, you might want to give that last track a fair chance, too.
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Annie Clark’s singing has always been the calm little center of the storm, and that’s especially true on the new St. Vincent album, Actor, where her serene vocals work in direct contrast to the dark and sometimes aggressive musical arrangements. This trick is only successful on a cerebral level, however, and many of the songs could have used some more lung-power to give them the edge they really needed. The lead single “Actor out of Work” begs for your attention, but “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood” is the track that actually deserves repeat listens despite its slightly limp execution. The 90s electronica-tinged “Save Me from What I Want” and “Marrow” are essentially the same song — and both songs are essentially Bjork’s “Alarm Call” from Homogenic. Actor is more focused and consistent than Marry Me, but Clark could have used a little more of her debut’s daring streak.
While everyone else (read: Pitchfork) is going ga-ga for “Stillness is the Move” from the new Dirty Projectors release Bitte Orca, I find the first track, “Cannibal Resource” to be more satisfying with its tripping rhythms and sleek choral arrangements. Also, as much as people make a big deal over Longstreth’s “divisive” singing voice, I’m far more interested in the insistent, sometimes unnerving harmonies of the female vocalists. The gorgeous, folksy “Two Doves” is a highlight, although it sounds like a transplant from an entirely different album. The first five or six songs make a strong argument for Bitte Orca as a great record, but the final three aren’t nearly as distinctive as everything that comes before.
There isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been said about Jason Lytle’s solo debut, Yours Truly, the Commuter: it sounds exactly like Lytle’s former band Grandaddy, and there aren’t any surprises from song to song, etc. All of the familiar sounds are here — hushed vocals over hazy strumming and warm fuzzed-out bass lines. Those complaints aside, for anyone who likes Grandaddy’s sound, this is a pretty solid piece of work from top to bottom. Highlights include the opening/title track and “Brand New Sun,” which is as lovely a pop song as Lytle’s ever produced, and the slightly more upbeat “It’s the Weekend.” It’s hard to imagine this album making any sort of impact in the long-run, but for now, it creates a good atmosphere.
From the scant information I could find regarding Detroit-based act Deastro (mostly the work of 22-year-old Randolph Chabot Jr., now joined by a full band), it all seems kind of mysterious, yet not mysterious at all. On the one hand, we have the fact that Chabot doesn’t appear to have a widespread following, which is a shame considering that he’s made one of the most pleasurable records released so far this year. He also has one of those almost-too-good-to-be-true background stories: making bedroom recordings since the age of 12, he finally whittled his prolific catalogue down to the ten best songs for debut internet-released “album” Keepers a few years back. By all accounts, he is an energetic young man with a zest for life (his band blogspot is littered with overuse of the exclamation point) and a quest to spread joy through his work. It has all the makings of a starry-eyed mess, but, fortunately, the manic dodge and whirl of Moondagger never gets cloying.
Each song on the album is a lavishly textured work of techno-pop, like an ornate and tightly-woven tapestry full of color and painstaking detail. Chabot has an interesting and versatile singing voice that is usually buried low in the mix, driving home the point that vocals are just another thread in the tapestry and not to be treated as an instrument of confession (Deastro is human, but not necessarily personal). Chabot is still young, so it can be forgiven if the record sometimes evokes a too-familiar melody or a strong hint of New Wave swagger, but unlike a lot of electro-pop acts that dutifully rehash old trends, this collection feels fresh and alive. His obvious enthusiasm makes the synthesized blips and sputters feel warm and full-blooded, instead of falling into the glacial trap of some electronic song-crafting. These are the kinds of songs that force reviewers to use words like “shimmering,” “effervescent,” etc.
The album’s sense of wide-eyed naivete is best captured in the whimsically titled “Daniel Johnston Was Stabbed in the Heart with the Moondagger by the King of Darkness and His Ghost Is Writing This Song as a Warning to All of Us,” with its infectious, sock-hop-inspired melody charging through the song at breakneck speed. The stellar single “Vermillion Plaza” creates a mesmerizing whirlpool of notes that cascade down the scales, which is exhilarating — until the jarring bridge kicks in and becomes more of a vortex. “Plaza” is the best part of a sagging home stretch that doesn’t quite live up to the album’s first two-thirds. The first eight tracks make a solid run, from the echoing arpeggios and pulsing chorus of opening track “Biophelia,” to the previously mentioned “Daniel Johnston…” and some of the songs in between are pretty sweet, too, like the tense-sounding “Tone Adventure #3” and instrumental track “Pyramid Builders.”
My only (small) complaint is that Moondagger rarely switches gears or changes pace from song to song — the tempo and level of density is consistent throughout, only a few brief moments creating some open space in the landscape. “Pyramid Builders,” (one of those rare successful instrumentals on an otherwise song-driven collection) lets in a little air at the record’s halfway point, and “Greens, Grays, and Nordics” has a few sparse fake-outs before getting back to frantic business. Although each song is full of hooks, it never comes across as a gimmick, engineered to churn out potential singles — Chabot’s just constantly in search of the perfect piece of pop bliss. Because of this, it might be recommended to take the album in four-song increments lest you get overloaded. After awhile, all those little details and melodic shifts become just so much noise. For the most part, though, Deastro has succeeded in making an album that is listenable from start to finish, and that’s no small feat in a time when attention spans (read: mine) are shrinking.
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Because my friend and I mistakenly assumed that 8:00 pm meant “Doors Open,” we stumbled into the Tabernacle’s vestibule at 8:20 to find that Grizzly Bear was already a minute into “Southern Point,” the first song of the set. We hadn’t missed much, but I was disoriented. There’s something satisfying about seeing a band take the stage after waiting and letting anticipation build. Apparently we weren’t alone, though, since the venue didn’t really fill up for another hour.
Grizzly Bear sounded crisp and the tracks they played from Veckatimest still retained their sense of dream-like space even in the live format. After “Southern Point” they played “Cheerleader,” and the bass-line thumped aggressively through the song — sometimes I get fooled into thinking that Grizzly Bear makes polite music — and then they tore into the electric version of “Little Brother.” Beyond that, my memory for the setlist order gets a little hazy, but they played most of the tracks from the new album except for “Dory” and a few others, (I was disappointed by the absence of “Foreground”) and from Yellow House they also played “Lullaby,” “Knife,” and “On a Neck, On a Spit,” with which they closed their set.
I have to admit that walking into the show, my knowledge of the band (beyond the music itself) was pretty nonexistent, so I apologize if what I’m about to say is deadly obvious. Watching them play, I was impressed by their very “band-ness,” not just playing their parts but actually working together as musicians. I knew already that all band members could sing; live vocals can be very hit-or-miss but everyone’s delivery was pretty much flawless that night. The group’s solidarity was highlighted by the stage set-up, too. Each member was lined up at the front of the stage, instead of the usual drummer-in-back, bass-player-hanging-behind sort of arrangement. Droste and Rossen might be the chief songwriters, but onstage, nobody is the star. It makes sense for the music as well, in the way the guitar often spikes and the bass jabs in unison with the drums to punctuate certain notes.
By the time TV on the Radio took the stage a little after 10:00, the venue had filled up (and heated up, sweet Jesus!) and we were all crushed forward. The drums had been a little loud on the Grizzly Bear set, but for TVOTR both the drums and the feedback overwhelmed everything else. For a few songs, especially early on, it took me a while to make sense of the noise and pin down exactly which song I was supposed to be hearing. I was shocked that “Blues from Down Here,” which is naturally a chaotic track, actually came together well and sounded very sharp in the live performance. “Golden Age” and “Dancing Choose” sounded good, but unfortunately “Halfway Home” and “Dirtywhirl,” two of my favorites, suffered a little in the translation. They played a tight and energetic version of “Wolf Like Me” that had the whole crowd jumping around like Tunde Adebimpe himself, and had me very worried about the integrity of the flooring. They played a few older tunes like “The Wrong Way,” “Staring at the Sun,” and “Young Liars.” “A Method” from Return to Cookie Mountain made a surprisingly effective closer — to me, it had always seemed like sort of a tossed-off track on record — which was extended and given extra percussion by Ed Droste and a few stagehands who were spontaneously enlisted by the band.
Grizzly Bear played the stronger set by far, but what TV on the Radio lacked in sound quality, they made up for with enthusiasm.
What is with this compulsion to write about music? What is my endgame? At least when I studied literature, I knew it was because I wanted to write, so I read from the point of view of someone on the inside, someone who wanted to understand the craft and apply it to my own writing. I don’t know how to examine music as an outsider. It feels somewhat exploitative to look at music and the “scene” from a purely academic perspective. I don’t necessarily wish to write songs or join a band (although I wouldn’t rule it out). I’ve become acutely aware of the gaps in my musical knowledge and feel the need to “study up,” like I’m cramming for the huge test. But that’s just it, isn’t it? There will be no final exam — unless called upon to prove my “cred.” At what point does this all just become the masturbatory utterances of the intellectually curious? I think I started this endeavor to escape from that kind of experience.
The other problem: trying to take a well-rounded look at music, even a subgenre like indie (which in turn contains a multitude of subgenres), is a mighty overwhelming task. Music is readily available on the internet, but where do you start, and when do you find the time to listen to it all, much less absorb it? Much has been said by greater critics about the curse of so much access, how it destroys the idea of “the album,” how it makes new music more disposable and fleeting and, therefore, less meaningful for the listeners. The blessing, on the flip side, is that the access creates a niche for more adventurous artists and provides exposure to a world-wide audience without the traditional gatekeepers. This overabundance of music is forcing critics and audiences alike to specialize just so they can keep up. That, or you resign yourself to the fact that your knowledge will never be more than a random sampling. The student/teacher in me gets bogged down in the need to cover all my bases.
So this is my personal wish-list:
1) I would like to re-educate myself on classics I’ve missed or ignored (let the list-making commence!)
2) The same goes for more contemporary “classics”
3) I would like to discover at least one new artist per week
4) Catch up on all the as-yet un-listened-to music on my iPod (fat chance)
5) Make a stab at keeping up with new releases each week.
Ay, ay, ay, I’m gonna need a bigger hard drive.