Year of the Album — #032
Death Cab for Cutie – “Codes and Keys” (2011, Atlantic Records)
For an album that was recorded in eight different studios, Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys, the band’s seventh studio album, comes off sounding incredibly concise and unburdened by pretension. The album, inspired by Brian Eno’s Another Green World, is very keyboard centered, which makes these songs the band’s most easily digestible confections in years.
The band’s focus on keyboards gives the songs a common musical tone, and Ben Gibbard has jettisoned the dark, self-loathing tone of Narrow Stairs, focusing instead on coming back down to earth and focusing on self redemption. And though many of these songs were reportedly developed first as musical sketches by Chris Walla, with Gibbard adding lyrics and vocals after hearing the original compositions, these don’t sound like square pegs fitted through round holes. Instead, it finally sounds like Death Cab has turned a corner, the band members’ individual contributions merging cohesively to form some of the most hummable songs the band’s yet produced.
Though all the songs are in their own way catchy and memorable, it’s hard to imagine many of the songs heating up radio, which continues to live off of disposable trends rather than solid music. But Codes and Keys is Death Cab for Cutie’s strongest full album since Plans. This is an album which will please long-time fans of the band while building word of mouth support from the newly converted as well. The album proves Death Cab for Cutie is fully capable of surviving in today’s musical climate, continuing to craft interesting melodic pop albums long into the future, come what may. In today’s disposable pop climate, that’s something worth celebrating.
Year of the Album — #010
The Lonely Forest – “Arrows” (2011, Trans Records)
The album’s not out until March 22nd, but you can read all about the Lonely Forest’s major-label debut, Arrows, on the Yahoo Contributor Network:
Van Deusen and the Lonely Forest don’t go for anything “easy” with Arrows, which is by far the most rewarding and adventurous music they’ve produced thus far. The singles are provided a home within the whole of the album, and each additional listen peels away layers of insight into their artistic place in the world of modern pop.
Which makes Arrows a must-hear album for anyone who has been told there’s nothing worthy of praise in today’s pop landscape. If anything, the Lonely Forest proves there’s so much great music bubbling under the surface of that landscape it’s impossible to take it on in a “single serving song” world.
Read the rest of the review on Y!CN! And check out a video of the band with Chris Walla, of Death Cab For Cutie, who signed them to the major-label in the first place, below:
If you haven’t already heard the Lonely Forest’s new EP, you’re really missing out. Hell, the band’s entire back catalog is worth checking out if you’re into challenging indie music from a band willing to take their sound in whatever direction the music leads them. I got the chance to sit down with Tony Ruland, the band’s guitarist, right before the band’s recent show at the Bishop in Bloomington, Ind., touching on their EP, their upcoming full-length album, and their fascination with putting on a great live show for fans of all ages.
I was interested to see you guys are playing with Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s tonight. Have you gotten the chance to hear their new album Buzzard yet?
Actually, this is the last night of a month-long tour with them. I think it’s actually the 25th show in the last 30 days with them, and yeah, I like Buzzard a lot. What’s good about spending that much time on the road with the same bands is you get to know people. You figure out what they like and don’t like and become friends. But it’s weird, because you spend a couple months becoming friends with someone and then you part ways and don’t see them for another year or two.
You’ve mentioned the strong “all ages” scene in Eastern Washington, and I knew you guys won the Experience Music Project’s “Sound Off” competition there. I remember finding it really hard to experience good live music as a teenager, and I wondered if you’ve been seeing more support for giving younger music fans and bands access to that world?
When I was a kid growing up in that area there were next to no all ages shows. They were few and far between. And it always devastated me, because I was an obsessive music listener, so it sucked that all my favorite bands like Mudhoney and all these old-school Seattle bands were always playing 21-and-up. So I would stand outside these venues to hear the band through the doors, and just hope to catch some glimpse of it. So that’s something we’ve been careful to be mindful of, playing all-ages shows whenever it’s possible.
Are there more venues like that out there?
There are a lot more in Washington, yeah.
It seems like a lot of college towns ignore that whole aspect, since most college students are under 21, but all you have are over-21 clubs.
Yeah, I think most people are more concerned about making money off alcohol sales, they don’t really care about who comes to the shows. I’m glad that, at least in the northwest, there’s a whole lot more support for the all-ages scene. It’s something that will always be important to us. There have been plenty of times where we’ve taken less [payment up front] for a show because it was going to be all ages. Even that, keeping ticket prices down, is an issue. Some of the bigger venues want to charge $20 for a show, and I feel kids shouldn’t have to pay that much.
Have you tried doing any online-streaming concerts? I’ve noticed that’s been getting easier to do.
No, actually we haven’t. But that’s not a bad idea. That’s pretty cool that you can do that, but it’s something I’ll definitely look into.
When I first heard your band, I did a search on You-Tube and found the videos from your acoustic show at the Woods. I really liked what you did with the rearrangements of songs like “We Sing In Time,” and the other songs from your earlier albums. Do you enjoy rearranging your songs in that kind of acoustic setting?
We try to be accommodating. For that show we really didn’t know what would be going on. It depends on the setup. Sometimes it’s just an acoustic guitar, other times there’ll be a floor tom, maybe an electric bass, but we always find a way to make it work somehow.
So are you supportive of your fans videotaping you and putting the music up on the web?
Actually I think it’s really fun to see what ends up on the Internet. Sometimes you’re like “ooh … I wish they hadn’t caught that moment,” but other times it’s more “that was cool!” I always joke with the guys and tell them it’s like we’re a football team, and it ends up being like watching the play-by-play after the game in the locker-room. “See, look, you’re leaving a gap right here …”
Do you ever feel you get more out of a live performance than you can in a studio setting?
Honestly, live is my favorite part of it. I like recording and all that, but the energy of a live show is hard to top, really.
The closest I can ever get to that is karaoke. We music fans have to live vicariously through you bands.
I’m terrified of karaoke! That always seems like the scariest thing ever.
You just need to record instrumentals of your own songs, so you can sing them karaoke-style.
Well, one time we got totally tipsy at one of the only bars in the little town we lived in, and there was an open mic night and they always have a bunch of acoustics. So we got, I don’t know, a little “intoxicated,” and played some of our own songs.
Did the crowd buy into it?
Well, everyone in town knows who we are, but they all thought it was hilarious. And hey, we got free beer out of the situation.
Getting back to your EP a little bit … “Live There” really stood out for me. What impressed me is that the instrumentation is so complex, but yet musically it’s easy to digest. The hooks don’t beat you over the head, but they’re there. How do you strike a balance between the creative and commercial aspects of your music?
I don’t think it’s something we really think about. It might sound stupid, but we just play what comes naturally, trying to roll with the punches. That song started out completely different. It didn’t really gel until we had Braden play drums for about twenty minutes until he found the right percussion groove, and then we added instruments until we suddenly had the right feel.
Do you do it differently live in order to build up that layered sound?
We do it a little differently, but we had to learn how to play it to sound like the way it was recorded. That was one of the only songs that was really undecided as to how we’d stage it live versus the way it was done in the studio, so it was fun to flesh that out.
At least you don’t have to take an IPod on stage with you to accomplish that.
Yeah, we like to keep it where we’re actually up there playing the guitars and the drums. Watching bands play with an IPod or a computer just isn’t fun. I’ve seen some bands I really love, and when they’re playing live it’s just a guy at a rack of computer keyboards, hitting a button that says “play.”
I wonder about groups like Owl City … you know the guy recorded all the music alone in his parents’ basement. But how would you ever do that live? You’d have to hire an entire band and start from scratch.
That, or you’d have to play the whole thing on stage by computer. I don’t know, I’m willing to bet that’s the way he has to do it.
I know your band got signed by Chris Walla, and I’m sure that’s all you ever hear about. Do you ever feel pressure to conform to a more “pop” aspect of indie music, or do you have the range to control your sound?
No, Chris really encourages us to just do what we want. Chris loves everything. He honestly has the widest-ranging musical tastes of anyone I’ve ever met. He would literally be showcasing metal bands for us, while we were in the middle of recording. So he encourages us to be as heavy as we want, or as pop-oriented as we want to be. It just happens to be that we like some things that are heavier and loud, while also enjoying three-minute pop songs. There’s something about a pop song that’s catchy, a verse a chorus and a verse. In my mind, Nirvana’s the greatest band of all time, and they also just happen to be the loudest pop band of all time.
That was the thing that freaked Kurt Cobain out the most, realizing that he was actually “becoming” pop.
Yeah, totally … but there shouldn’t be anything wrong with making “pop” music or enjoying it. If you like it, you like it, even if it’s not cool. Hell, what’s “cool” anyway?
Your EP plays out rather quickly, so that makes the wait for Arrows in January a bit tense for fans. I was wondering what we can or should expect from the new album?
I think it’s by far the most diverse record we’ve made. I still love the last record, but I think this new album is going to show a lot more of our influences. On some songs you’ll maybe say we’ve been listening to a lot of R.E.M., but the idea is that as a whole it’s going to be a lot more eclectic. We at least try not to be too obvious with the influences, but we’re putting what comes naturally onto the records, so sometimes you hear what’s coming through our listening filters.
At least you’re not denying that you listen to music. I always hate when bands say they don’t listen to anyone else’s music while they’re recording.
Yeah, I think that’s such a crock of shit when bands say stuff like that, because you know they’re lying. They’re totally lying. The whole point of rock and roll is that you can hear what you like and steal little snippets of it. There’s nothing “original” about pop-rock. It’s all about respecting the music that came before, while finding ways to take from it and build on it.
One of indie-rock’s more interesting acts finally has a label home, thanks to Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie, who signed the Lonely Forest to his Trans imprint. But judging from the songs on the band’s latest EP, a tantalizing hint of what’s to come when their latest full-length drops on January 11, 2011, the band would find its audience regardless. Anyone who’s been enjoying the latest music from Band of Horses is going to be hooked from the start, and with Walla backing the group’s work via his label, they’re almost certain to be getting wider exposure than ever — and rightly so!
The Anacortes, Wash., quartet has always been anchored by the addictive vocals of its leader, John Van Deusen, but the whole group comes out to shine on the eponymous EP. Though the most played song may wind up being “Turn Off The Song,” for the mere novelty that the band dares to encourage us to “turn off the song, you can listen to it later, go outside.” If one were to take that advice, however, you’d miss my favorite track, the ethereal “Live Here,” which is the EP’s true stunner. (see below for a free legal download!) A quiet snare march provides beautiful backdrop to echoes of lightly picked guitar, bass and piano that hides just far enough in the background to taunt your ears as you’re sucked into Van Deusen’s addictive melody. The song develops to a crescendo, then lures listeners into a near trance with the repeated tones and a light vocal chant that fades into the stark piano close. It’s a haunting song which will surely inspire repeat listens from the band’s fans.
“Let It Go” also proves to be worthy of a listen, illustrating Van Deusen’s sense of wordplay, building into a chorus that uses the singer’s strong falsetto to create a hook which will stick in your head: “Let it go, dear, and let your worries fall!” he sings, as a wall of guitar greets us with the full strength of the song’s melody.
There’s not a lot of meat on the bones of this EP, which really features only three fully-functioning songs, a short introductory track and then an acoustic version of “Turn Off The Song,” but if what we have here is indicative of the path the band’s taking on Arrows, its third full-length, this is going to be one of those bands worthy of hearing repeatedly during the long winter months most commonly known as the “good music doldrums.” Considering the tendency of the Lonely Forest to write whatever music they feel like writing at the time (case in point: Nuclear Winter, the band’s debut full-length, a space opera concept album about the end of the world), we’re all likely to be in for a real treat come January.
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Free Legal Download: The Lonely Forest – “Live Here” (MP3)
And check out this great live video of Van Deusen singing the band’s song “We Sing In Time,” from their sophomore album We Sing The Body Electric! (2009) . . . it’s definitely a keeper.