NEW MUSIC MONDAY: Schizophrenic melodies, synths unite adventurous singles from Ninetails, Arum Rae and Sleep Thieves
Ninetails – “An Aria”
Album: Quiet Confidence
Release Date: March 10, 2014
A trippy exercise in merging a dense yet adventurously free-wheeling arrangement, this second single from Ninetails’ upcoming album Quiet Confidence showcases a band with music perfect for close headphone listening. The vocals hide hauntingly out of reach, as the ears focus on the ornately schizophrenic melody, with bells and horns competing amid a constantly shifting aural backdrop. Definitely music worth savoring.
Arum Rae – “2001”
Album: Warranted Queen EP
Release Date: April 22, 2014
The backdrop of this endlessly addictive single which Spin dubbed “Auto-Tuned soul” is awash in synths and electronic dub elements, but Arum Rae’s distinct vocals delve into 808s and Heartbreak-esque territory while making subtle shifts which belie her advanced study of jazz vocals at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. What sets the song apart is that constant shifting between the worlds of hip-hop, pop and electronic, with a minimal use of instruments allowing Arum Rae’s voice to really twist and turn. There are moments where her voice, heard through this chaotic prism, takes on a vaguely middle-eastern touch, as though blending human voice and synth strings.
Sleep Thieves – “City Of Hearts”
Album: You Want The Night
Release Date: Spring 2014
The intro at first sounds like come of Enya’s more twisted synth tracks, but once the drums kick in this single quickly falls into a groove more akin to the sound of the Knife, as filtered through the more poppy nature of early Tegan and Sara. It’s a sound both modern and retro, which is sure to give Sleep Thieves plenty of potential appeal. Their debut You Want The Night, which as a full-length follows their successful 2012 EP Islands, is due out this spring and should quickly assert the Dublin band’s global status among synth-pop taste-makers. It doesn’t hurt that the song is instantly ear-catching and repeatable, which makes you want to blast it from your speakers to anyone who will listen.
Scott Carney and Jacob Heustis of Wax Fang have spent the last decade proving to be the perfect comparison to the region’s weather patterns — if you don’t like one album, or it fails to resonate with you instantly, you’re almost certain to like something about what comes next. Each album they’ve released has taken a different twist on the most progressive elements of psychedelic experimental rock, proving you can craft songs of impressive scope and infinite replayability. They’ve proved repeatedly that the current “single first” mentality need not apply to every band or artist — that, Bob Lefsetz’s constant diatribes nonwithstanding, album rock is not dead. The album is not an art-form to be relegated to discussions of Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Yes, or any of their ilk.
Wax Fang’s latest album, The Astronaut, is a revelation, a five-song suite which does as much to tell a story through its inventive instrumental arrangement just as much as it does through Carney’s vocals. The main character becomes untethered from his ship, careens through a black hole and is transformed into a God, all-knowing and far from human. Imagine Gravity and 2001 filtered through the musical mind of the man who brought us that positively delicious animated rendition of “The Majestic” on American Dad and you’ve got at least a taste of how great this album is.
This isn’t an album which requires multiple listens to enjoy. It requires multiple listens merely because it’s so immediately enjoyable. The key, however, is to listen to the suite uninterrupted. The tone shifts relentlessly throughout, as the story is told through every bit of instrumentation. Carney’s voice is in top form as well, but blasting this album through a good pair of headphones is its own reward — you’ll feel the story being told as though the experience were your own. And unlike albums like Thick As A Brick, which occasionally drowned in their own artistic pretensions, Carney’s vision is allowed to fully develop through this forty-minute arrangement. To hear this chopped into easy-to-swallow “singles” would be a disservice to what is the band’s artistic masterpiece.
More important, the same aural themes continue to crop up throughout the album, twisted and electrified by the same outside forces which are transforming the titular astronaut from man to super-being. The album rewards patience and continued listening by focusing our attention on subtle shifts in mood. So while the album’s quality is evident even on first listen, it becomes better and better the more you experience the telling.
You can hear the first fifteen-minute segment of The Astronaut via NPR’s “All Songs Considered” blog, but be assured you’ll be wanting this album in full the moment you can get your hands on it on January 28th. And while there are pleasures in playing the album in high-quality digital format, this is one of those albums for which the vinyl treatment proves just as tantalizing. I’ve listened to the album on repeat while walking through snowy small-town Hoosier landscapes. But I’m just as excited to sit down in a dark room and let the record spin.
That’s why albums aren’t dead.
That’s why Wax Fang is the best band you’re not listening to.
The Astronaut will change that.
Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave pushes the boundaries of audacious art-rock, the year’s first outright stunner
When I first heard Alt-J’s genre-slaughtering blend of dubstep, alternative pop and infectious art-rock, I didn’t believe my ears. I searched for these songs in as many iterations as possible, reaching for what made them so damned explosive. Clearly there’s a reason the album An Awesome Wave is a front-runner for England’s prestigious Mercury Prize — these college students turned alt-music saviors don’t care about the lines they’re about to obliterate. They’re simply out to make music that makes you feel something.
The album plays best as a whole, letting the art-rock through-line electrify the circuit. Still, for such a high-concept piece of experimentation, An Awesome Wave brims full of staggeringly infectious melodies. “Fitzpleasure” on its own serves as their ultimate example, almost Jethro Tull-ish in its ability to morph through countless genres and mini-songs in the course of a four minute pop jam. It also benefits from the dirtiest lyric ever to sneak its way into an otherwise radio-worthy hook. This is Dark Side of the Moon meets Hot Chip, and the mad juxtapositions stack the deck. You cannot listen to this and not want to move! It’s an unimpeachable imperative.
Music fans willing to subvert their expectations and delve into an album which is as much pop as artful, daring genre exploration will find much to savor about Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave. By decimating the line between art-rock and the mainstream, the band creates new horizons for every listener who confesses to give a shit about music as a creative art-form. Google around every corner, layers upon layers make this the year’s most surprising outright stunner.
Year of the Album — #071
The Darcys – “The Darcys” (2011, Arts & Crafts)
This isn’t sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs music, but the melodies of these songs are perfectly matched to the intended mood, and the resulting mix is an inspiring blend of polished pop and more avant garde experimentation.
This is definitely a discovery I would not have made had I not been writing for PopMatters, as this album came through one of their connections. But I must say, despite the fact that the band has to date done little to build a name for itself here in the States, the Darcys have stumbled on a sound which is likely to make them household names if they can get their blend of pop and experimentation into our collective headphones. You can read the full review at PopMatters.
Year of the Album — #002
Plain White T’s – “The Wonders of the Younger”
Hollywood Records (2010)
Similar Albums: Fall Out Boy – “Folie a Deux” (Island, 2008)
Vandeveer – “Grace & Speed” (Gypsy Eyes Records, 2007)
Plain White T’s latest album may be the weirdest, most interesting and innovative pop album of 2010 that no one seems to be talking about. These guys refuse to rest on their laurels after their huge hits “Hey There, Delilah” and “1, 2, 3, 4,” instead choosing to go the route of Fall Out Boy’s Folie a Deux, only minus the overwhelming sense of pretentiousness which permeated that album. Where Fall Out Boy failed – in actually sounding like they were having some fun with their experimentation – Plain White T’s, and lead isnger Tom Higgenson in particular, seem to be loving every minute of this idiosyncratic album.
And fans will too, if they’re willing to listen to the album a few times to let the odder songs fully sink in. There’s nothing on here that gets repetitive, and there are more winning songs than you’re going to be able to absorb all at once. “Boomerang” sounds like the closest thing to a straightforward single: “You tell me to go and beg me to stay, I keep coming back like a boomerang … round and round and round and back again!” It’s infectious and will take over your mind like the plague.
But rather than sit back and say “hey, we’ve got the single!” the band jumps forward leaps and bounds on “Welcome to Mystery,” which hearkens back to the odd-ball folk stylings of Vandeveer, whose album Grace & Speed is another you’re likely to have missed out on. The song opens with acoustic guitars and grand Beatlesque harmonies, adds some synth and then slams home with crunching guitars that lead into the hook-filled chorus. “This is a town with no history,” Higgenson sings, “welcome to mystery,” before delving into a ridiculously awesome fantasy sequence in the second verse. “Blue treetops and velvet skies, here ready to blow your mind. This is a place where your mind can escape all the problems of today and go far far away” Indeed.
But why stop there? They follow that up with “Rhythm of Love,” the best song Jack Johnson didn’t write, which actually manages to be low key, smooth and – above all – fun, without being cloying. It’s also mindbendingly catchy, and by that point on the album the whole thing’s in full-tilt awesome territory. “Map of the World” adds creepy bell chimes to a hand-clap drum track and harmonized vocals before jumping into a full-speed synth-pop experience. “Am I a dot on the map of the world?” Higgenson asks. “When I imagine the whole universe, where do I fit in?” Fitting, considering their young audience will be studying this album note by note wondering both how it fits into what they’ve heard before from the band and where they’re going to be heading in the future. Where do Plain White T’s fit into the pop landscape?
Even at this point we’re only halfway through the album, and the remainder manages to continuously up the artistic and creative ante while mainting momentum and avoiding what would seem like an inevitable dip in quality by the end. Pop albums that encourage you to listen straight through for full appreciation of the sound are rare, which makes this one all the more worthy of praise.
Judging by the rest of this brilliant album, a leap forward creatively for a band many had written off as two-hit wonders, they will fit in just fine. Higgenson is setting the band up to be pop outlaws in the sense that they’re willing to experiment stylistically rather than leaping from trend to trend, and The Wonders of the Younger will win over many potential fans who distrusted the band’s credibility after “Hey There, Delilah” turned them into teenage sex objects. If you’re a fan of pop music that pushes the envelope without being overly pretentious or self-aware, this is the album you owe it to yourself to give a listen or two. Or ten. Why not? There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure if it’s this energizing to listen to.