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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nada Surf – “The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy” (2012, Barsuk)
Reviewer: Matt Sanderlin
They say, “The seventh time is a just as wonderfully charming as the last three or four or six times.” Or something to that effect.
Nada Surf, the unsung heros of indie pop/rock, have been cranking out magnificently well-crafted tunes since 1992. With charting singles across their now expansive discography (such as “The Inside of Love,” “See These Bones” and “Always Love”), Nada Surf has never failed to satisfy their fans. And who are their fans? Listeners who love melodic, introspective, Sunday-colored tunes.
The band’s seventh release, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, is a fierce renewal of energy, hope, peace, and understanding. Where Let Godoubted the darkness, Stars embraces the dawning light of hope, and seizes it with youthful vigor.
Take for example: the album’s opening piece, “Clear Eye Clouded Mind.” The racing pitter-patter of the drums instantly pillars the busy sonic atmosphere, which is then shaded in by a dark, woodsy, jade, guitar pigment – As the bass swoops in with deep blues and wild rose tints. Leader Matthew Caws’s distinct voice fuses prominently with the textures — ”The stars are indifferent to astronomy / And all that we think we know.” Amongst the “transition,” and “clouded”-ness, Caws is able to preach passionately and profoundly and acknowledge how small we are in even our own universe.
“The Future,” the album’s final track, is a parallel track in a way — Boasting relevant observations (“The future has long lines / The future looks like a screen”) while still admitting human inability of universal control (“I cannot believe / The future’s happening to me”). Wise words to a stellar melody – What more could one ask for?
The album’s eight other tracks are equally as energetic and magical — “Waiting for Something” is instantly memorable and infinitely artistic; “The Moon is Calling” is a cascade of belt-out-loud melodies and a page of discussion-ready lyrics; and “Jules and Jim” is a majestic, acoustic-based opus with plenty of great melodies to go around. There is literally something for everyone here, and the pacing of the track-listing doesn’t hesitate much throughout the record in the meantime.
The arrangements are impeccable, the production is perfectly balanced (mostly raw, with a hint of timeless hi-fi), and the tunes are well-constructed. Should you buy this album? Yes (x10).
Ryan Adams – “Ashes and Fire” (2011, Capitol)
Reviewer: Matthew Sanderlin
Ryan Adams has never played the “safe” card a single time throughout his endlessly interesting (and still somewhat budding) career. Even when his original record label (Lost Highway) forced him to swap in Gold for The Suicide Handbook or Rock N Roll for Love is Hell, the man sprang for “unpredictable,” “wild,” and “rebellious.” Even after he stopped doing (ridiculous amounts of) drugs, Adams launched his own record label and began releasing things as unexpected as Orion— His sci-fi, metal-influenced concept album.
Ashes & Fire, Adams’ latest opus, presents a completely different Ryan Adams. “I don’t remember, were we wild and young?” Adams reflects back in Ashes & Fire‘s late-album track “Lucky Now.” “The lights will draw you in / And the dark will bring you down / And the night will break your heart / But only if you’re lucky now,” he wisely cautions.
Mysteriously absent are the sometimes scarce, sometimes predominant lyrical expletives of Adams’ earlier years. He hardly even touches an electric guitar, for goodness’ sake! In fact, most of these tracks are very simple in arrangement— Usually no more than four or five tracks on each song, led by Adams on acoustic guitar. The great victory of this approach, however, is Glyn Jones’ thoughtful and masterful production (on analogue, I might add), and how comfortably it matches Adams’ writing style. The stunning “Chains of Love” melodically conjures memories of Easy Tiger-era Adams, while Jones’ sonic precision moves the timestamp back into an undetermined-yet-ageless sound.
Norah Jones again joins Adams, along with Heartbreakers (as in, “Tom Petty and the…”) keyboardist Benmont Tench— And the quiet beauty of the eleven Ashes & Fire tracks are effortlessly revealed through this strong collaboration of Adams and his team. In other words; Adams has made his leap into maturity, and this grown-up approach dresses his fine new tunes aptly.
Lyrically, Adams is again quite simple and straight-forward. While his poetic literary voice is still strong, prevalent, and colorful, Adams seems to have trimmed the fat to the point where general accessibility is fluent and natural, and where listener comprehension is a pleasant ease. All of this careful revision leads to a refreshingly classic-caliber lyrical form from the already very talented Adams.
Adams then sneaks in a wedding/honeymoon ballad at the album’s close. (Adams recently wed to famed actress Mandy Moore, who also features on Ashes & Fire.) After all of these years of Adams defying the unkindness of love and rebuking the injustice and cruelty of life, “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say” is a breathtaking and joyous resolve— Almost as a period after a long series of question marks on the pages of a lovelorn songwriter. It is incredible.
Ashes & Fire is Ryan Adams at his calmest, strongest, and most mature. What more could one want? This album is easily one of 2011′s best, and unshakeable proof that Adams is still one of the most powerful, adaptive, and timeless songwriters of our generation.
Bon Iver – “Bon Iver” (2011, Jagjaguwar)
Reviewer: Matthew Sanderlin
Justin Vernon, founder and leader of indie-rock team Bon Iver, has never taken the easy route. The man had spearheaded several other independent bands before his success with Bon Iver, each previous group being critically lauded, but sadly unsuccessful commercially. Vernon fell especially hard after the disintegration of his long-time group, DeYarmond Edison, and took the breakup as a sign to seek seclusion in an isolated cabin.
For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s unsuspectingly gorgeous and additionally enduring debut album, took refuge in Vernon’s prior defeats, only to raise them from the dead and bolster them towards new heights with dignity.
Bon Iver, the eponymous second and latest Bon Iver project, is no safe bet either. Where For Emma was uninhibited and raw, Bon Iver is careful and clean. Rusty guitar strings and nearly-primal vocal outbursts are swapped for shimmering guitar strands and meticulous harmonic structures. No safe points here.
It’s not like it would be that difficult to spot the instant contrast on even the album’s opener, “Perth,” but “Holocene” is the clearest example of the “new” Bon Iver sound. The guitar picking is coated in a harp-like essence, engulfing its neighboring sounds with sincerity and serenity. The unorthodox percussion arrives late in the track; dropping subtle hints at first, and then following it with a controlled charge.
Lead single “Calgary” also displays sonic innovation, with its foggy synth padding, stirring guitar slides and methodical drum arrangement. The difference here is that the melody truly shines above even the carefully-constructed soundscape with a gripping and memorable formulation.
And that’s the true trick when it comes to Vernon’s second Bon Iver endeavor. Surely, there are some magnificent melodies aboard the Bon Iver vessel. “Perth” is a truly spectacular anthem, followed by the overwhelmingly gorgeous declaration “Minnesota, WI,” and resolved by the strikingly winsome vintage-tinged finale “Beth/Rest.” But not all are quite as charming.
“Wash.,” a close relative of previously-released tune “Beach,” is not an irredeemable piece, but it is far from immediate with its seemingly unfocused melody and off-putting, simple piano patter. Additionally, “Lisbon, OH” is purely filler material, and “Hinnom, TX” pushes the limit in the “nasally voice” department.
I will admit that repeated listens to Bon Iver are highly encouraged if one is to extract the succulent juices surrounding its coveted core. Still, it’s not wholly accessible, and not generally as immediate as For Emma. If you’re already a fan and can handle a substantial shift in sound, then definitely go for it. Otherwise, I’d listen to the album beforehand to see if you’re up for the “repeated listens in order to crack this coconut” type of ordeal.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – “Belong” (2011, Slumberland Records)
Reviewer: Matthew Sanderlin
This review is republished with permission. It originally
appeared at Headphone Transmissions.
Through the grit of fuzz and the heat of nostalgic fervency, a strand of simple (yet substantial) melody graciously coats a set of poignant lyrics in the presence of rich synth. The drums thunder with focused and forceful dynamic and the bass sinks into its low frequency with a satisfied sigh.
This, dear reader, is sound of Belong, the second full-length release from lo-fi, shoegaze kings The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
Their first, self-titled album introduced us to ten memorable melodies and their ten sets of humourous and quirky (and sometimes racy) lyrics— all accented with sound remnants of classic indie acts such as The Smiths and My Bloody Valentine. Pop gems like “Come Saturday,” “Young Adult Friction,” and “Everything with You” quickly built and solidified the group’s budding sound and stature in the messy world of indie pop/rock.
Belong finds our beloved Pains in a bigger and more accessible atmosphere. Percussionist Kurt Feldman is guided by the legendary producer Flood in the anthemic expansion of the drums, and Alex Naidus’s always-faithful bass matches this progression with a melodic interpretation of the low end of things. Especially on early album track “The Body,” Feldman and Naidus’s rhythm section really flows together and eventually launches the already full and dreamy arrangement into an explosion of energetic bliss.
Song structures are simple enough (and in one case, too simple; the predictable execution of the I, V, vi, IV chord progression in “My Terrible Friend” is indeed disappointing), but leaders Kip Berman and Peggy Wang vary things up appropriately with distinct vocal melodies and starry-eyed synth movements, respectively. The two masterfully blend their talents in nearly all of the tunes, but “Even in Dreams,” “Strange,” and “My Terrible Friend” are the best showcases of their vocal/guitar/synth conglomeration.
Lyrics are also intriguing in the world of Belong. In “Anne with an E,” Berman tells a rueful tale of adolescent love-making and heart-breaking, pillowing airy, U2-esque guitar proclamations with lyrical phrases like—
“We’ll call in sick tomorrow and shake ’til we can’t speak,
And know it won’t get better, but still you wanna see
Our bodies fall apart and lose the will to breathe,
And fall asleep forever in perfect harmony.”
In lead single “Heart in Your Heartbreak,” Berman’s lyrics shift smoothly from lucid and nostalgic to clever and learned. Smart expressions like, “She was the ‘heart’ in your ‘heartbreak’ / She was the ‘miss’ in your ‘mistake,’” and “She was the tear in a rainstorm / She was the promise that you would’ve sworn” bring an already great tune to a level of unmistakeable genius and shoegaze-tinted charm.
In conclusion, these ten new songs reveal a blossoming, confident band with plenty of outstanding musical ideas, effortlessly finding their groove, advancing towards a common, creative goal. Belong is a trophy record, one of 2011′s best, and possibly even better than the Pains’ debut LP.
A record like this indubitably belongs in your record collection (pun intended).