Buffalo Tales – Roadtrip Confessions album review

I like sad-sack, spare acoustic music… Nick Drake, you know? And it isn’t just spare, sad sack acoustic music, although there’s plenty of that here, and even though they cover sad sack king Leonard Cohen’s great “Take This Waltz,” which I like, but only really because it’s a Leonard Cohen cover. “Amsterdam” sounds like the Decemberists! And “Oh! My Kingdom” kicks the tempo up considerably! So it’s got some variety, which I always appreciate from an album, and it’s in a general style I enjoy.

And, well, I just can’t connect with it. There are individual aspects of it I really enjoy – the vocals are strong and very emotional (“Waiting for You” and “Whispering Willow” are, if nothing else, quite well-sung), and I really like the way the guitars and harmonicas sound here.  I’m not such a big fan of the songs on this album, but at least this band has a cool sort of sound. And they do pull things off every so often. I like the Cohen cover, although that might just be because it’s a Cohen cover. Meanwhile, “In My Time of Dying” is raving, intense, fast-paced country gospel reminiscent of 16 Horsepower; it’sa great song, and this album could’ve used more of those.

Because, as it stands, a lot of it just completely falls flat. Maybe if I listen to it more, I’ll realize that not just “In My Time of Dying” but everything else here bears a gothic country influence and fall under its spell afterwards (and I certainly hope that happens… I mean, I like liking albums, you know? Especially ones that seem as though they were made with me in mind). As it stands, however, this album is more a collection of individual ideas I like than songs I like. I mean, “Please” and “Puppet Strings” have very nice-sounding guitars that don’t really go anywhere, and “Tricks to Magik” and a couple of other songs here have female vocals, and…

Well, I’m repeating myself, because this album doesn’t really give me a lot to say about it. It’s stark and it’s sad, which is a quality I often find myself enjoying, but  I’m more or less indifferent to the songs themselves, because the melodies just aren’t engaging enough or… I don’t know, something like that. I really wish I could give this one the “it’s not you, it’s me” treatment, but all things considered, I wish they’d put as much effort in making the songs good as they had making them sad. If nothing else, now I know how other people must feel when they hear this sort of sad sack music.


Jimmy Eat World – Damage album review

If you’re a fan of ‘90s emo, from those days back before MySpace made it a dirty word, the name Jimmy Eat World might mean something different to you than it would to most music fans. Depending on who you ask, they were either the band behind huge hits like “The Middle,” “Sweetness,” and “Pain,” or the band who gave us 2001’s earnest, stylistically diverse, and surprisingly inventive Clarity.  Now, Jimmy’s hits were kind of killed by virtue of sheer overexposure to me, but I still really enjoy them circa Clarity (“Watch the Fireworks,” man) even though I kind of jump off the bus with them afterwards.

It turns out that their new album sits at a point somewhere in between Clarity’s earnestness and experimentalism and their slick radio hits. There are, after all, a good amount of curveballs here. The acoustic sing-along “You Were Good,” the funk-verse, rock-chorus combo of “No, Never,” and “Book of Love,” which fuses folk guitar and mandolin with a Motown beat and as a result becomes one of the best songs here (you’ll have a great time wallowing in your own misery!) all deviate from this band’s formula significantly, and “Lean” combines jangle pop – a genre a little closer to home for this band – with some decidedly un-Jimmy electronics.

And as for that earnestness, part of me thinks that the slick production compromises that a little. While the jittery “Damaged” sounds like peak-era Jimmy with a little bit of spitshine, and while “How’d You Have Me’s” high-budget production lends its anthemic refrain (to contrast its rollicking verses, of course) pretty nicely and actually makes it seem even more convincingly anthemic,  sometimes they get so slick that they forget what they’re good at. I mean, the aforementioned “Watch the Fireworks” operated on sheer chutzpah, and a song like “Byebyebye” or “Please Say No” could really benefit from some chutzpah.

And hey, I’m willing to concede that those were my two least favorite songs here in the first place: “Byebyebye’s” refrain just wasn’t as cathartic as it wanted to be, while there was a certain insincerity about “Please Say No” that sort of bothered me and is almost painfully at odds with the old-school emo aesthetic. And as someone who really likes the old-school emo aesthetic (seriously, judging emo by Hawthorne Heights or Panic at the Disco is like judging jazz by Kenny G), this gets on my nerves. But even “I Will Steal You Back,” a high-energy gate-crasher, would’ve crashed more gates with a more raw production job.

Still, it’s some good stuff overall, and it’s nice to see this band is capable of recovering from their radio hits, which I found listenable but quite MOR compared to what they had done before. I’d certainly recommend checking out Clarity before this, and you do in some ways have to accept that the band has changed since that album (although I’d be the first to admit that I have trouble with that), but while the slick production occasionally works against it, it’s overall diverse and emotional enough to be well worth your time. This band’s name is still utterly ridiculous, though.


The Courtneys – The Courtneys EP review

I’ve probably mentioned this in passing before, but twee pop has changed a lot over the years. These days, it’s pretty much code for lushly arranged, folksy music that often plays on the contrast between lush, adorable, sugar-sweet melodies and sardonic, frankly sexual, and otherwise decidedly not sugar-sweet subject matter. Stuff that sounds like Belle & Sebastian, in other words.  That’s not the way things used to be, though. When twee began to emerge in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a lot of it had a lo-fi punk sound, particularly if the bands in question were mainly female. Dolly Mixture and Tiger Trap come to mind here.

The Courtneys really remind me of this particular style of twee, which I thought was long extinct.  Well, old-school twee combined with Riot Grrl. I understand that this might seem like a bit of an odd combination, seeing that Riot Grrl is just about the least twee genre of music in history. But that’s what I’m picking up on, and besides, why wouldn’t the two intersect? They both claim a strong punk/garage influence, both embraced the lo-fi, and both have a good deal to say about gender relations, although the twee groups have a little more of a sense of humor about it. And this is a nice combination of Riot Grrl anger and twee cleverness.

And, like the best of both genres (Sleater-Kinney and Dolly Mixture spring into my head here), it’s all sorts of fun. “Manion’s” “mandatory suicide” chorus is the kind that’ll just rattle around in your head all day, and believe me, you’ll really like it that way; the same can be said for the clever “Insufficient Funds,” whose lyrics probably got me going on the “Courtneys are sort of neo garage-twee” thing, and the awesome, sprightly “New Sundae” and the jumpy “Delivery Boy,” where they sound a lot like Sleater-Kinney – if you’ll excuse the winding, slowly building guitar passage that opens it up.

When they change it up a little, they sound good, too. “90210” is far more tense than most of the rest of what’s here, and I like it so much, I’m willing to forgive it for actually rhyming “ocean” with “emotion” and “insane” with “brain.” “Dead Dog” has a dynamic instrumental passage that sort of calls Daydream Nation to mind, if you can imagine Daydream Nation without the dissonance. Which might be hard, but for me, huh? If there’s any downside to this, it’s that there isn’t a single knockout song to be heard – it’s all good, fun riot twee, but nothing exceptional. Still, it is a debut. There’s time for growth.

I understand that Sonic Youth and Sleater-Kinney are some big names to toss around, and I certainly don’t mean to hype this band up to an impossible standard. But they are very, very good at what they do, and I think they have the potential to make something really great if they keep at it. So I’d like to nominate them as arguably the most promising newcomers I’ve heard all year.


Crystal Fighters – Cave Rave album review

Well, this was certainly interesting. Not anywhere near as good as the new Knife album as far as experimental synth pop (which seems to be a bit of a big thing lately) goes, but still, pretty interesting and mostly fun. I have to warn you, though, there is a little downtime. For instance, I confuse “Love Natural” with a Spotify ad every time I hear it, which isn’t a good sign, while “Are We One” tries to switch between calm and aggressive but can’t pull off either (“These Nights” does the same thing to much stronger effect”), and “Everywhere” is a cool synth tone in search of a solid melody.

So no, they’re not the world’s most consistent band. But when they get rolling, they’re very good, occasionally great. “L.A. Calling” and “You & I” are both unique fusions of folk and synth pop. The first earns its keep with one of the best choruses on the record and the second by having an agreeable “(Nothing But) Flowers” vibe about it. Granted, the band’s inconsistency plagues them even then – “No Man” comes off as pro forma after all the unqualified success before it, while “Wave” could use a more solid chorus if it wants to work its way into my good book.

But hey, I give them points just the same.  And why not? For one, these songs are unique.  Folk synth pop certainly isn’t a combination of sounds you hear often, and the fact that Crystal Fighters are willing to do it all is good by me. The fact that they make fun songs out of it when they’re at their best, and are quite listenable with it even at their worst, is definitely worth extra credit. They can do more conventional dance material quite well, too – “Separator” has an awesome rhythm to go along with its great chorus.

The big surprise, though, comes in the form of “Bridge of Bones.” It’s completely unlike anything else here, so much so that it took me by surprise when I first heard it. It starts off as a very simple piano and vocals-type affair, which gives way to a melody which combines, of all things, alternative rock with gospel. It moves through this quite well, only to bust out some hefty emotions come the big, uplifting ending. You know, the sort that shifts in key and melody and is basically the most cliché thing ever but works every time (well, as long as it’s not a power ballad) just the same? Yeah, that sort of ending.

And hey, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the fact that this album’s best song is also its biggest change of pace. All I know is that I like what I’m hearing here for the most part. Yes, they could use a little work in the quality control department, but they’ve got a unique sound and can put a good tune together. Turns out those two things will take you a long way.


New Politics – A Bad Girl in Harlem album review

Argh, what a demanding album. With me, that doesn’t even necessarily have to be a bad thing, but in this case it is because this album demands a lot but doesn’t really have all that much by way of payoff. I mean, you can tell just by looking at the cover that these guys really want this album to be a great time, and if that wasn’t proof enough for you, the day-glow synthesizers, constantly fast pace, and feel-good vocals will do the trick, even though the lyrics tell tales of dysfunction and occasionally despair (see “Goodbye Copenhagen,” which isn’t exactly the Smiths as far as sprightly mope-a-longs go, and “Fall Into These Arms”) because hey, irony’s what the cool kids do anymore, right? And you’ll dance along and shout along and at the appropriate moments laugh along and it’ll be a great, great time for all, right? And hey, I’m not in it to ruin anyone’s good time, but I’m just plain not feeling it. It’s the sort of thing I could definitely see other people enjoying, but for me, it’s almost taxing.

I guess the big problem here is that, for all the big sparkly presentation – the crystal-clear production, the sunny melodies, the breezy tempos, the glistening synthesizers on songs like “Tonight You’re Perfect” and “Goodbye Copenhagen” – the songs themselves are pretty thoroughly forgettable. This renders the whole affair quite frustrating for me, as do all of the attention-getting gimmicks themselves, like the echoing vocals on “Tonight You’re Perfect,” the cheerleader chants on “Harlem,” and the club synthesizers on “Berlin” (which almost pulls off jangly guitars in places and has a cool dissonant bridge). All they really do, at least to me, is call attention to the fact to how forgettable the songs themselves are. This isn’t like Arcade Fire, where the bombast adds to the emotional experience. It just sort of drags things down.

They really pull it off once here, though, and that’s with “Stuck on You.” An aching ballad isn’t exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from such an album, and while it’s just as fluffy as everything else is here, it’s at least emotionally resonant fluff, with a pretty good vocal, a good beat, and a pretty violin line. It’s just as over the top as everything else here, but since it’s got a little more weight than the rest, it comes off a little better. And I do like parts of the above-mentioned “Berlin,” while “Give Me Hope” is kind of fun up until the embarrassing rap, which even then isn’t as embarrassing as the rap on “Overcome”). Maybe next time around, they’ll give us more of “Stuck on You” and less of the annoying Muse knock-off “Die Together.” But until then, I can’t really call myself a fan.


Northcape – Exploration and Ascent album review

Hey, wait a minute! I thought the new Boards of Canada album wasn’t coming out until June! Were they trying to put one over all of us here, taking on the name Northcape and making an album that sounded almost exactly like…

Anyway, I’ve always had a little trouble reviewing electronic. Part of it is because I haven’t been listening to it as long as I have other genres – I only became a fan about two years ago, where I’ve enjoyed rock and jazz since I was very young and hip hop to some degree since high school – but part of it is because the sort of electronic I lean toward, which this fits in line with quite well, tends to be on the abstract side of things. It’s easy for me to really like Aphex Twin and Autechtre and their ilk, but it’s hard for me to put words around the two groups, because I’m basically trying to rationalize impressionism. Northcape fit under the same general genre, but I’m gonna give it a go anyway.

Winding back to my original point, they sound a lot like Boards of Canada, and unfortunately, that’s a little to their detriment. After all, when you’re an electronic group who sounds that much like them, you’ve set the bar very high for yourself. And they use the same blend of dreamy synthesizers and droning electric guitars (although they’re more inclined to them than Boards of Canada are), the beats are set somewhere between electronic and trip hop, the tempos are slow to medium, often slowing down in the middle of a song, and the general feel of it is very chill. And unfortunately, they don’t live up to the standard they set themselves to.

There is an upside to it, though: Exploration and Ascent is such a careful study of such an enjoyable group that it can’t help but be enjoyable itself. I particularly enjoy “The First Crossing of the Watershed,” which unfolds quite nicely over the course of its eight minute length – like a lot of good electronic, it’s based on a series of simple, interlacing melodies that are allowed to build on and play off of each other. Meanwhile, “Arrive Ruttledge Col” nails the dreaminess, and their sci-fi synths – which they use a lot more heavily than Boards of Canada do – come off quite nicely on “Trailhead” and “Potentilla.” It’s also quite warm and relaxing, and nicely ethereal – in other words, the sort of album that does sound quite good while it’s playing.

And hey – at the end of the day, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad way to get into this general style of electronic music. I’ll grant that it would be a bit of an odd starting point, but if you so happen to be curious about the whole “ambient techno” thing, it’s certainly quite representative and well-executed. It’s just that other groups, most notably Boards of Canada, do cast a long shadow over them.

Pretty and Nice – Golden Rules for Golden People

A really hard album to pin down. If you’ve heard the Fiery Furnaces’ Blueberry Boat, there’s a good point of reference. Only while the songs on Blueberry Boat share a taste for eccentric vocals and instruments and sudden changes (“New Czar” has what, three or four parts?) in tempo, mood, melody, etc., their songs tend to be on the longer side. Pretty and Nice’s songs, on the other hand, are maybe three or four minutes. And within those three or four minutes, you’ll flip from straightforward garage rock to bouncy, carnivalesque music to almost psychedelic levels of lunacy. Now, I could see someone really hating this, but I think it’s fun stuff, personally.

Needless to say, this is one goofy album. You can’t go around calling yourself something like “Pretty and Nice” without being goofy, I would suppose. That’s where a song like “Mummy Jets” comes into play. “Mummy Jets,” incidentally, is probably my favorite song here – I really like the off-the-wall falsetto, and the combination of skronky guitars and (intentionally, I’m sure) cheesy keyboards make it a fun time. And if you thought that was a one-off, you were wrong – “Critters” has a garage beat and some of the most absurd-sounding synthesizers I’ve ever heard, as well as vocals that admittedly do call Devo to mind, and “New Czar” has one of the least martial martial beats ever used, as well as keyboards that almost sound like something out of a cartoon.

Of course, it only gets odder as it goes. There’s an accordion in “Q_Q,” which fits in quite well with the general garage rock/carnival feel of the thing. Come to think of it, that might be the main reason why I don’t want to fit them in with these “zolo” bands that everyone else likes to: they’ve got way too much of a garage rock thing going on to fit nicely in there. Even more than the early Flaming Lips, these are the punk rockers taking acid: when they do something like “Yonkers,” which doesn’t add the crazy keyboards (which here sound a little like horns) until about halfway through, it’s downright shocking. Of course, “Yonkers” then settles into that extraordinarily pretty and completely unexpected vocal interlude, which sort of brings their universe back into whatever sort of order it might or might not be able to boast. The electronic-flavored “Gold Fools” and the slower “Money Music” (which could almost make the radio) are real shocks stylistically, but they fit in their own ways.

And hey, it’s a good time. I imagine it’s not really for everyone, but I found it to be a lot of fun, if a little one-dimensional. Still, if you’re up for something off-the-wall, I think you’ll have a fun time with this.


Noah and the Whale – Heart of Nowhere album review

This is about as stereotypically indie as a release can possibly get, but as it turns out, that’s a really good way to get me to like an album. In a lot of ways, this band’s working in the “modern indie sound” – that is to say, disco beats that take more from New Order than anyone probably ever expected, ringing guitars, the occasional violin, and all sorts of great hooks. This is why I say that most of the great pop anymore is indie pop – whereas your Lady Gagas and Rihannas and Nickelbacks and everyone else on the radio seems almost afraid of being branded as pop and constantly falls flat on their faces trying to prove that they’re actually serious artists and who said they weren’t, most of the indie pop groups I’ve heard have been pretty on the level about the fact that they want to give you catchy, fun music. This is much appreciated.

Granted, all the sweetness and light may get to you if you’re not accustomed to indie already, and the fact that this band’s name is Noah and the Whale and that they’ve got one foot in early twee (the kind that was more guitar driven, sort of a jangle pop/noise pop hybrid – “All Through the Night” takes that basic sound and cleans it up quite nicely) might put some listeners off. This is perfectly understandable. However, if you know what to expect, I imagine you’d have a good time with this. I know I did. The fluttering string hook on “Lifetime,” my favorite song here, is terrific, and the title track makes good use of disco beats and chamber pop strings; meanwhile, the Neil Young fan in me loves the “I was looking for Harvest, but I only found Silver and Gold” line from – you guessed it – “Silver and Gold.” Some might find that too cutesy, too clever-clever, but again, that’s all part of the indie pop package. If you like that package, and I very definitely do, you’ll probably like this album. If you don’t, you probably won’t.

Things get a little heftier on side two, although it’s more about prettiness than big emotional Arcade Fire-style catharsis. This also works quite well, as far as I’m concerned – the string interlude on “Not Too Late” was an inspired touch in my opinion, and the slow build of “One More Night” comes off pretty well. “Still After All These Years” is warm and nostalgic, and there’s a lot of great songwriting that went into the probably related duo of “There Will Come a Time” and “Now is Exactly the Time.” So, hey. If you’re a fan of the genre, lap this right up – it was pretty much made with you in mind.


Brass Bed – The Secret Will Keep You album review

Notes on Brass Bed’s the Secret Will Keep You

On paper, I like Brass Bed. It’s not like Brass Bed is a sort of idealized on-paper band for me or anything of that sort, but the idea of a band like Brass Bed is quite appealing to me. After all, I have an appreciation of indie rock spanning from important early genre pioneers like R.E.M. and the Replacements to more contemporary heroes such as Arcade Fire, and Brass Bed is right out of the post-Strokes school of angular guitars, jumpy rhythms, and vocals that radiate detached hipster cool. By all accounts, I should be all over these guys.

And yet… I’m not. I have all of no idea why – it’s not like they do anything wrong, per se – but I just can’t get a lot out of this band. All of the ingredients for something I’d enjoy are there right from the beginning – “Cold Chicory” kicks things off with stabbing guitars and a spacey bridge to change things up – but the execution just doesn’t work for me. I don’t know, maybe it’s because it doesn’t have a very strong hook, or maybe it just feels too perfunctory for my liking, or maybe I feel like too many bands do it better, but there’s something I can’t place about it that doesn’t work for me. “Please Don’t Go” and “I’ll Be There with Bells On” fall in line with this song, and while they’re perfectly decent and perfectly competent, there’s no spark here, I guess. “Bells” is the best of the three, though – the slightly noisy guitars and more-assertive-than-usual vocals do add some life, which I guess is probably what this band is looking for.

Now, let’s give credit where credit is due – this album does get better, or at minimum more varied, as it goes on. There are a couple of nice, retro-flavored surprises here – how “Bullet for You” takes after Pearl Jam’s blues-by-way-of-Hendrix-by-way-of-grunge approach that gave us “Yellow Ledbetter,” how “Back and Forth” translates Brian Wilson’s pocket symphonies to churning guitars (and does so quite nicely – this really is a great song, and I for one would’ve appreciated more like it here) – but there just aren’t enough of these fun detours for my liking, and with the exception of “How to Live in a Bad Dream,” which is a blast, the Strokes-flavored main course isn’t all that exciting to me.

Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that there are two main courses here. See, this is the sort of album where one side is high-energy and the second slows things down a little. “Back and Forth” started this side off nicely, and I can sort of get down with the hazy, trippy, folksy “I Guess I’ll Just Sing,” but things dive right back into pleasant mediocrity with “Suspension of Vision” (cool title aside), and you’d better believe they stay there with “Have to be Fine.”

I have nothing particularly against Brass Bed. They have a generally likeable sound and give off good vibes and all that. Maybe not the potential for greatness, but at least those of pretty-goodness, and there’s plenty of room in this world for pretty-goodness, too. Maybe next time around.


Shooting Stansfield – We Know Not What We Do EP review

As Dr. Gonzo, drug-addled sidekick in Hunter S. Thompson’s classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas once put it, “I need a rising sound.” Granted, I’m not asking you to throw my laptop in my bathtub with me while at the point where “Blue Turns to Black” peaks, but I can definitely identify with the sentiment behind it. The song-long crescendo is a field many recent indie bands have been working on, and it’s something that I just keep finding myself enjoying over and over again.

And I knew I’d like this, and like it a lot. From the start of “Blue Turns to Black,” with those gorgeous chiming guitars and a rolling, propulsive rhythm. That was before it got to building – when it hits its peak, with dramatic drum hits and an arresting vocal, I realize that I’ve found a band who really, really needs to put a full album out. Bands who take the “verbing noun” approach to naming themselves simply don’t have the right to be this good, but as this EP goes on, the band proves that this great, great opener was no fluke. They really know how to run this song-long crescendo thing.

The next two songs, “Greater or Lesser” and “Sign of the Times” are very much in the same mold. They both use chiming, shimmering post-rock guitars (appropriate given the crescendos, no?) to terrific effect – the ending of “Sign of the Times” has them kick in at full force, coupled with droning guitar, and it’s beautiful – combined with acoustic guitars that lend the proceedings a rootsy vibe, and they’re both pretty much great, especially the latter and its fantastic ending. “Blue Turns to Black” is probably the best song here as a whole, but my favorite moment is the best individual moment here.

They change things up considerably with “Satellites,” but the results are as memorable as ever. This one actually doesn’t have any sort of crescendo, instead combining a marching beat, peaceful vocal harmonies, and just a little guitar crunch. If you twist it around a little, you could almost make a great pop song out of it, but it’s also absolutely fine as it is now. “There Are No Greater Truths” is also a little bit of a change, bringing some mysterious sounding guitars to the band’s usual dramatics, and it’s nice to hear them stretch their legs and still come out sounding great.

So in short, this band has a lot of potential and I’d love to see them put a full album out. This already has some of the aspects of a full album: a clearly defined sound, some variety, great sequencing (“Black Turns to Blue” is such a great opener), so if the songs hold this band has good things coming in their future.