ALBUM REVIEW: Anamanaguchi – Endless Fantasy

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Album Review
Anamanaguchi – “Endless Fantasy” (2013, dream.hax)

Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin

So… Most of you are probably asking yourselves – What exactly is “chiptune” music?

Remember 8-bit soundtracks to games on the original NES and the Super Nintendo? Well, chiptune music integrates these vintage sounds with real, modern instrumentation to create a very amicable conglomeration. It’s generally instrumental, though some bands have vocalists that accompany their chiptune music.

Anamanaguchi (ah•nuh•ma•nuh•goo•chee) are the current kings of chiptune. One of their older pieces, “Jetpack Blues, Sunset Hues,” has been used as the intro music for the well-known Nerdist podcast for a couple of years now. The band also just launched and successfully funded a $50,000 Kickstarter project in order to spread the word about their latest record, Endless Fantasy.

Endless Fantasy has 22 (yes, twenty-two) brilliant little chiptune compositions. The energetic vibes that the quartet exude begin immediately with the introductory title track, and do not stop or even begin to slow down until the record is long over. Early album track “John Hughes” is an easy jumping-off point – Its nonstop melody runs are not only instantly catchier than you would ever believe, but are strengthened in full force by the metal-level charge of the drums. If you’re not moving in time in less than a minute, than you might want to check your pulse to see if you’re still breathing.

The following track is the dancentric and light-heartedly seductive “Prom Night.” Vocalist Bianca Raquel lends her fitting talent to the track, dueting in an unorthodox-yet-suiting fashion with the 8-bit cartridge sounds. It’s something that fans of the Drive soundtrack would really get a kick out of – In a less dark sort of way, obviously.

Other great pieces like the atmospheric first single “Meow,” the overcast anthem “In the Basement,” and the whimsical frenzy “Space Wax America” will set your melodic sweet tooth on fire like nothing that you’ve ever heard. And electronic music is not usually in my wheelhouse, either.

If you dig fun, way uptempo instrumental music that appeals to the 80’s/90’s child in you, Endless Fantasy is the key to your Delorean. The digital and CD versions are already available, and the vinyl version releases later in the month. Definitely an album and genre worth checking out!

ALBUM REVIEW: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Album Review
Vampire Weekend – “Modern Vampires of the City” (2013, XL)

Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin

(Available now on iTunes/Amazon)

A third album can really define a band’s past, present, and future. U2’s War. The Smith’s The Queen is Dead. Radiohead’s OK Computer. The third album really can make a case for a band, revealing if they are truly “in it” for the long run.

On Vampire Weekend’s third album, the band fully and finally realizes and defines themselves. While the quirky, afro-pop nature of their sound is still largely present, a newfound seriousness abounds. In stark contrast to previous and frivolous frolics like “Oxford Comma” and “One (Blake’s Got a New Face),” Ezra Koenig and his companions build much darker soundscapes and overall tones. Lyrically, Koenig reveals his religious distaste in “Unbelievers” and “Ya Hey,” shocking the system of fans who are used to hearing him sing about more obscure matters, like mansard roofs and diplomat’s sons. This maturity is actually quite natural and fitting, and showcases Koenig’s versatility and eagerness to grow.

Musically, the band experiments readily. Even from the first sounds of the opening track (“Obvious Bicycle”), the listener is showered with striking and intriguing sounds that perfectly texture the memorable melodies and fitting lyrics. “Everlasting Arms,” one of the many highlights of the album, displays this same experimental mindset by filtering the vocals through expansive reverb, creating vivid sonic washes and a colorful sound palette.

In all, Modern Vampires of the City is a great victory for a still-young band, and one of the year’s greatest accomplishments. If you didn’t care for the band’s work on Vampire Weekend and Contra, give this album a chance – You’ll be more than pleasantly surprised.

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ALBUM REVIEW: David Bowie – The Next Day

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Album Review
David Bowie – “The Next Day” (2013, Columbia)

Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin

“Where are we now? The moment you know, you know.”

Many decades ago, a man who was not merely a man gave music some of its most odd and memorable pop moments. His career was a literal roller-coaster – He reinvented himself album to album, like a chameleon moving from tree to tree. He didn’t just blend – He redefined his surroundings to fit his own work, and he did it routinely, like a beautiful bad habit.

After many lackluster attempts to regain his former glory, the man went into a sort of hiding. No one heard from him for several years, and he appeared to have disappeared altogether.

Just when hope of the man returning was all but gone, he came back. He didn’t just name-drop his own name to make a profit or to hold his place in line. He reminded the world that he, David Bowie, was the very same man who crafted Hunky Dory, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. He was the David Bowie who pioneered pop music and brought the worlds of music, art, fashion, and ideology into an avant-garde stew, with originality exuding from every nook and cranny.

He tears into his latest creation, The Next Day, with vigor and unparalleled fervor – The title track proclaiming zealously, “Here I am! Not quite dying! My body left to rot in a hollow tree / Its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me.” He then pushes forward, with a controlled confidence, little embers of fizzing jazz trumpets lighting the walkway behind him. “I will buy a feather hat / I will steal a cricket bat,” he growls, grinning slyly. “Smash some windows, make a noise / We will run with Dirty Boys.”

He recounts stories, new ones, like he used to in the golden era. He tells of an “icy heart” on Valentine’s Day, he tells of “a love of violence, and a dread of sighs.” He loudly condemns the violence and greed of shallow religions, and incites riots with his hatred for war. He howls, he hisses, his bark still has a bite.

He then takes a momentary break, a brief sabbatical. He reminisces about younger years and about the path he’s taken to bring him to where he is today. “Who’d have ever thought of it? / Who’d have ever dreamed? / That a small town girl like you / Could be the boss of me,” he muses with a knowing smile, an immediate groove hooking musically around his statements.

He then retreats back into his solitude; but this time, he invites us with him into his lonesome world. He takes us dancing in space. “You’ve got stars upon your head / You’ve got my name and number / You’ve got to take the floor,” he says. Further into the depths of his world we go — “I’ll bet you’ll feel so lonely, you could die,” he diagnoses keenly.

And then, at the absolute core of his universe, he openly and abruptly breaks the fourth wall. He’s shown you his world, he’s given you the tour of his home — and then he passes the key to you. His self-doubt, his insecurities, they are now fully present and utterly public. With a tear escaping down his cheek, he confesses — “And I tell myself, ‘I don’t know who I am’ … And I tell myself, ‘I don’t know who I am.'” He continues. “My father ran the prison / My father ran the prison / I can only love you by hating him more / That’s not the truth, it’s too big a word.” His innermost grief and sorrow pouring out now, streaming through — “But I am a seer / I am a liar / I am a seer / but I am a liar.” He says it twice more. “My father ran the prison. My father ran the prison.”

And then, this perfectly long voyage comes to a close. The man who reappeared so suddenly disappears just as quickly. But he leaves behind a modern treasure, a piece of dark art that speaks on many levels and reestablishes his valuable name. Today, tomorrow, and The Next Day – David Bowie will be this man. As long as there’s fire, as long as there’s rain. As long as there’s you, as long as there’s me.

Long live David Bowie!

ALBUM REVIEW: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II

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Album Review
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “II” (2013, Jagjaguwar)

Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin

There are albums that can be and should be played at maximum volume on loud speakers for full appreciation. Other albums are the quiet-but-lush type, and need a great set of headphones for complete understanding. And then there are albums that are just great no matter how you listen to them.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s highly-anticipated second album (II), is somehow both a “car stereo” album and a “headphones” album at the same time. The album starts off quite quietly, like an entry from a hippie’s diary (“From the Sun”) – Hushed harmonies melt naturally over gentle acoustic guitar picking, and little bass bubbles and drum gusts float by as the song progresses. This, of course, is the subdued side.

And then there are tracks like “No Need for a Leader.” The metallic electric guitar scratches steadily build a violet and red undercurrent, and the punky drums and serious bass bleed black and blue. And then, about 4 and a half minutes in, the band shifts comfortably into a brief jam session, chugging ferociously like a psychedelic Clash.

The band’s appetite for blending savory blues chords and 60’s rock rhythmic structures is the main key to their success on II. Influences as far-reaching as George Harrison, Pink Floyd, and even Jimi Hendrix marinate the already flavorful, lo-fi sound-scape with fitting synths or fuzzy electric guitar tones.

If “magical” wasn’t an already-overused (and often humorously-applied) adjective, I’d be tempted to deem II as such. Whatever word fits best, it is dreamy, layered, and absolutely entrancing. This is without a doubt one of the year’s best albums thus far. Try “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” and “Faded in the Morning,” and let the rest follow from there.

ALBUM REVIEW: True Hallucinations — Ex Cops

Ex Cops - True Hallucinations

Album Review
Ex Cops – “True Hallucinations” (2013, Other Music)

Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin

Debut albums are tricky. Too much emphasis on a particular “sound” can leave a young band’s first album hollow and pretentious, and not enough emphasis can lead to the band being instantly discarded for lack of originality.

The members of Ex Cops seem to know this, and have somehow found a perfect balance between a unique sound and quality songwriting for their debut, True Hallucinations.

While the band’s overarching influences range from My Bloody Valentine to the Smiths, the variety they offer track to track is surprising and impressive. Early-album, late-night sprawler “Ken” kicks off like a Pains of Being Pure at Heart anthem on steroids — buzzing and bubbling, building and bursting — Though, it is then immediately followed by a pillowy romp through Loveless territory (“James”) — effortlessly moving into a blissful 3rd gear, and seamlessly finding traction in an up-tempo trot that will arrest your heartbeat and refuse to let go for its 3 minute entirety.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Mid-album home runs like the dream-inducing “Separator” and the jangly, blues-infused “Spring Break (Birthday Song)” further solidify the band’s knack for colorful melodies and mesmerizing textures with elegant ease. Best of all are late-album secret weapons “The Millionaire” and “Billy Pressly.” The harmonies melt over the arrangements like powdered sugar into light cream in the former, and the percussion rattles like a truck motor on a sweltering summer day in the latter. Together, this pair of stellar compositions officially authenticates Ex Cops’s well-built initial collection of songs.

Admittedly, the album does hit a few dull notes toward the very end of its run; but overall, True Hallucinations is a very promising first album from a very talented new band. May the perfect balance find you once again in many years and albums to come.

ALBUM REVIEW: …Little Broken Hearts — Norah Jones

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Album Review
Norah Jones – “…Little Broken Hearts” (2012, Blue Note)

Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin

28 total awards, 4 platinum albums, universal critical acclaim — If you are still unfamiliar with the work of Norah Jones, the bandwagon still has plenty of room.

…Little Broken Hearts, Jones’s fifth studio release, is a more confident, refined version of The Fall-era Norah Jones sound. While jazz still has a nice foothold near the core of Jones’s influences, …Little Broken Hearts ventures boldly into colourful and continually creative domains that even The Fall didn’t quite reach.

Producer Brian Burton (more commonly known as Danger Mouse, as well as 50% of both Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells) is a masterful guide in the overseer’s seat for ...Little Broken Hearts. Not only does he perfectly balance vintage sounds with modern arrangements (which creates a fully textured, yet still timeless sonic atmosphere), but his co-composing contributions are invaluable and turn Jones’s already strong pieces into fully-blossemed roses of the beautiful and blemished sides of a romantic relationship.

While each of the twelve incredible tunes deserves a large paragraph of detailed, commendatory attention, the best of the best tracks include the groovy, defiant “Say Goodbye;” the melodically-lush and instrumentally-mellifluous “After the Fall,” the aching, poignant “Travelin’ On;” and the mid-tempo, mellow, road anthem “On the Road.” Each boasts classy and classic lyrics, satiable melodies, and arrangements that cannot be denied on any level.

The crowning jewel (amongst the many prime gems) of the record, though, is the sinister “Miriam.” Jones’s passionate loathing for her ex-boyfriend’s mistress is furious and focused, and her convincing narration exacts a perfect revenge on a personal, yet understandable level. Simple-but-effective lyrical phrases (backed by slightly-flat piano, eerie percussion, and appropriately creepy vocal harmony) such as “Miriam / When you were having fun / In my big, pretty house / Did you think twice?” and “Miriam / That’s such a pretty name / I’m gonna say it when / I make you cry” are complimented perfectly and poetically by a twisted resolve at the song’s end. It’s easily Jones’s most ambitious and rewarding composition to date, and arguably one of the best tracks of the decade to boot.

Jones and Burton, along with the other stellar studio musicians who contributed to the record, have crafted something really special here. The album is available on 180-gram, white vinyl, and sounds beyond excellent in this audiophile-approved format — This is a record you must own, and production appreciation (by way of vinyl or lossless audio) is strongly advised, in this scenario. Norah Jones — The modern, female champion of the “Vocal” genre — will certainly be remembered for an outstanding album such as this.

ALBUM REVIEW: Out of the Game — Rufus Wainwright

Album Review
Rufus Wainright – “Out of the Game” (2012, Decca)

Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin

Out of the Game.” I see self-referencialism isn’t dead these days…

Rufus Wainwright, flamboyant son of legendary musicians Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle, really has been a bit out of the game lately. Before 2010’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, Wainwright’s last studio album was the unfocused Release the Stars in 2007, which garnered an average critical response (a resting 72/100 on Metacritic) and even less enthusiastic fan feedback. And while Songs for Lulu was quietly beautiful, it was a stark departure from the radiant baroque pop Wainwright has become known for.

2012’s Out of the Game sees a nearly-fully revived Wainwright returning to the studio with vibrant energy and unhindered creativity, by way of Poses-era orchestral sounds and trademark baroque-pop melodies. The title track single even recalls Wainright’s folk-pop influences from his early, self-titled days, with its chilled tempo and squawking guitar counterpart.

Bigger and better still are the orchestrally-escorted pieces that arrive early in the tracklist, including the Elton John-influenced “Jericho” and the lavish “Welcome to the Ball.” Where strings and trumpets (respectively) are absent, a newly-discovered love for synth sounds is largely present — Take for example, the Queen-esque “Bitter Tears.” The sunny synth initially launches the track, building a complex mid-ground layer, perfectly designed for Wainwright’s instantly-memorable melodies to arrive shortly thereafter. Later in the track — As the vocal harmony swirls begin to expand in size and volume, so does the synth rise in dynamic and drive, giving the arrangement strong texture and forceful melodic charge.

“Perfect Man,” another synth-driven masterpiece, is a characteristic display of Wainwright’s skillful melodic strengths — And while the synth is less prevalent on this track, this lessened emphasis allows more room for Wainwright’s scaling melodies to shine. Within the first 30 seconds, Wainwright’s unforgettable melodies will have the right side of your brain doing summersaults in pure, joyous ecstasy.

Not all of the tunes are as successful as the aforementioned highlights. “Barbara,” while groovy and still gratifying, is slightly weakened by substantial segments of melodic drone and a somewhat lengthy duration (“Respectable Dive” suffers from similar ailments, with the addition of a sleepy tempo). “Song of You” is somewhat lacking as well; stellar lyrics, but a fairly stale melody and a stifling tempo to counter.

Still, Wainwright’s work on Out of the Game is undeniably admirable. Enough of the tunes here shine in their creative skin that the album is worth owning in entirety (as opposed to a partial selection), and these successes should also restore any faith lost in the high-caliber songwriting of one Rufus Wainwright.