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Wan Light – Space Canaries album review

Dream pop has been a favorite path for modern rock bands to take since the genre’s mid-eighties inception, and why not? The lush, alien sound of the genre has proven a favorite of indie rock fans for years. Combining it with electronics, as Wan Light do here, also seems to be a popular process. I imagine this is on account of the Soft Bulletin, to which is album owes quite the debt: “Materials” and “Subway Dreams” could have come right off of that album, and [singer]’s voice recalls Wayne Coyne’s.

I’m not sure I’m willing to put this among the elite of electronic-inspired dream pop, but it’s still quite good. One thing’s for sure: Krister Svensson and Magnus Karnock know their craft. They also have their own spin on the genre – whereas many of these symphonic dream pop albums are more on the grandiose side of things (a consequence of being influenced by the Soft Bulletin), this is restrained and highly introspective, which is probably why the first two tracks took a couple of listens to really click with me. I’m now able to appreciate the strong melodies of “Drummers on Trampolines” and “Lifeboats,” but their charms are extremely subtle so it takes a little time. It helps to really listen to this album and work out its idiosyncrasies, instead of putting it on in the background while you do something else. It requires attention, and believe me it deserves it.

There are plenty of immediately rewarding tracks here, though. Most notable among them is the title track, a rich, melancholy tapestry of sound with some gorgeous synthesizers, and “Sunset Park,” which makes for a fine closer – not only does it perfect the hushed, dreamy, introspective sound that this album is all about, it does so with the strongest melody. I don’t know if they sequenced it last to give the listener the sense that it was supposed to be everything the album was building up to, but it sure seems that way to me. I’m also quite fond of “Soapbox Race,” whose slight funk influence reminds me of the Fight Club soundtrack.

There are also four brief songs here that seem to function as interludes, and those kind of frustrate me as many of them present good ideas that I would have liked to see developed. Take “Between” – the acoustic guitar sounds fantastic woven in with all of the airy synthesizers, which would have made it a great full-length song; unfortunately, it wraps up in under a minute. “Pulling My Sleep” is all acoustic and has a nice minor-key melody, and I would’ve loved to hear more of that, too. Ah well.  The point stands that if you’ve got a taste for this sort of thing, you really can’t go wrong here. It’s not the ideal place to start for the genre – too introspective to really be typical of it – but genre connoisseurs should find it a respectable next step.

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The Delta Riggs – Hex.Lover.Killer. album review

Now this is a weird case. If I was asked to sum up what the Delta Riggs did, I’d probably put them on the bluesier side of the garage rock revival. If I were to tell you what I thought the Delta Riggs were best at, I’d say “every time they try something besides bluesy garage rock revival.” This might be the only band I’ve ever heard who might be better with their diversions than with their main sound.

See, they kind of hit the peak as far as that sort of thing goes with “America,” which is a pretty kick-ass song, if you ask me. The melody is pretty top-notch, the retro organ sounds awesome, I love the surprise horns and it’s got a fun, driving beat. They make that basic formula work elsewhere, too: “Rah, Rah Radio” is all sorts of fun (mostly because they up the tempo and upping the tempo works this band wonders), but it’s hard for me to get behind something like “Perfume and Lace,” “Stars,” or “Street Signs and Brake Lights.” It all just sounds much too standard-issue for this kind of thing, because unless you write a song as great as “America,” it’s hard to really distinguish yourself from the pack.

Luckily, the Delta Riggs like to move around a lot. So they’ll give you, say, some sinister cabaret-flavored stuff with “Naked” or a solid piano pop number with “Better,” or maybe they’ll slowly build to retro garage hedonism with the aptly titled “Something Creeping,” or even throw some jazzy chords into the strutting instrumental “Save it ‘til the Morning,” and it’ll sound great! It certainly establishes this record as one with personality, but the band also sounds more confident working outside of garage rock than they do inside it. This is why “Fiend,” despite starting off as generically as they come, takes a turn for the better when it slips into the psychedelia meets free jazz coda, why the  surprisingly piano-driven ending of “Anybody Home” is much more fun than “Anybody Home” itself, and why the psychedelic touches on “Scratch Flower” are so welcome.

So when they’re interestingly off-kilter, the Delta Riggs will definitely deliver the goods. But when they do garage rock, which looks to me like their primary genre, they fail to really distinguish themselves from the pack. The White Stripes set themselves apart with blues, folk, and wild experiments; the Strokes by condensing Television’s sprawling guitar jams and giving them Motown basslines; the Dirtbombs by adding a little soul to their garage rock. If the Delta Riggs want to do the same, I’d advise them to end more of their songs with psychedelic freakouts or piano codas. But hey, it’s a debut. There’s a lot of room for growth here.

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The Dear Hunter – Migrant album review

The Dear Hunter (not to be confused with post-punk/ shoegaze hybrid act Deerhunter, noise pop group Deerhoof, or post-rock band the Dears) are a diverse group of genre-benders that fit quite nicely in line with the recent “throw a bunch of different genres together and see what comes out” school of indie rock pioneered by Broken Social Scene and brought to prominence by Arcade Fire’s Funeral.  If you’re familiar with those groups and others in the same style – the National, the Decemberists, Wolf Parade – you should have a decent idea of what to expect here. Plenty of layered string arrangements, rhythms that sit somewhere re between post-punk and disco, earnest vocals, and a gigantic, widescreen sound.

What sets the Dear Hunter apart is that they love deviating from this format. Yes, there’s a lot here that fits it perfectly – the surging “An Escape” and “Kiss of Life” and almost danceable “Whisper,” all terrifically fun, come to mind – but they also draw on a few rather surprising influences. The biggest departure by far has got to be “Shouting at the Rain,” a ‘70s-style country ballad that reminds me of Okkervil River or maybe the Red House Painters circa Old Ramon, but there are plenty of others, too. One of them, “Girl,” is a clumsy attempt to weld funk, garage blues, and R&B together; needless to say, this is my least favorite on the album. But on the other hand, “This Vicious Place” is a surprisingly effective e shot at trip hop. Granted, it probably won’t lead you to set Massive Attack aside and declare the Dear Hunter the new heroes of the genre, but it’s certainly a lot better than expected.

Elsewhere, this album has two modes. There’s the post-punk/chamber pop/generally sort of Arcade Fire-flavored mode, and the dreamy mode hat takes over to the end.  “Sweet Naiveté,” probably the best song on the album, brings that in spades with its phenomenal piano and spacy vocals; fans of that should also enjoy “Cycles,”  “Let Go,” and “Don’t Look Back.”  Meanwhile, “Bring You Down” and “Shame” are intriguing efforts to mix these styles; they’re not particular favorites of mine (“Shame’s” retro electric piano doesn’t quite get off the ground, although the strings are cool; I do like how “Bring You Down” is dreamy funk, though, because how much dreamy funk exists?), but they’re certainly different, which hooks the listener in effectively.

So it’s a pretty solid album on a whole. Most of it is very good, and on occasion – “An Escape,” “Sweet Naiveté” – this album courts greatness. If you’ve eaten up the more famous eclectic indie rock albums of the past ten or fifteen years, this’ll make for a great next step.

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Quiet Company – A Dead Man on My Back: Shine Honestly Revisited album review

Influences are tricky. On the one hand, what we usually call “originality” isn’t much more than combining old influences in ways they haven’t been combined before. On the other hand, there is such a thing as being too reverent to your influences without adding anything of your own, and this is the trap that Quiet Company skirts around on A Dead Man on My Back: Shine Honestly Revisited.

It’s a solid enough record. But mostly, this album just reminds me of other bands. That’s evident from the very beginning. “How Many Times Do You Want to Be in Love,” the album’s opener, starts off a lot like Wilco’s “Misunderstood.” The vocals, the minimal accompaniment, even the melody. But where Being There announced Wilco as major innovators prepared to reinvent themselves and shape the course of modern indie rock, “How Many Times Do You Want to Be in Love” announces Quiet Company as a band who has heard a lot of albums but doesn’t know what quite to do with them. So you’ve got “Fashionable” sounding like Yo La Tengo’s “Moby Octopad” as performed by Mott the Hoople, you’ve got “…Then Came a Sudden Validation” sounding like a Journey ballad with added strings and horns (it’s the worst song here as a result), you’ve got “Circumstance” sounding like Dinosaur, Jr. covering Patti Smith, but you don’t get a lot of Quiet Company. You mainly just get their record collection.

Still, there’s plenty of likeable stuff here. Nothing exceptional here, but a few real pleasures. Chief among them is “Tie Your Monster Down,” which begins as a placid country song and builds to a full-bore climax packed with horns and crunchy guitars; you’ve got “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History,” which moves through glam rock piano with Wayne Coyne vocals, loping carnival music, well-crafted pop, and a Beach Boys-style pocket symphony (it almost seems like a bit of a post-modern joke at the band’s own expense, and it’s the fun sort of postmodern joke, so I’m about it); you’ve got the surprisingly alternative rock flavored “I Was Humming a New Song to Myself,” and best of all, the genuinely uplifting “We Change Lives.”

Still, the record could use a little more personality, and I mean personality of its own… maybe if this band had a sort of dominant emotional concern or favorite eccentric instrument or more distinctive vocalist, I’d be a bigger fan of theirs. As it stands, the diversity on display is pretty stunning and the melodies mostly connect (although a few songs miss and a lot don’t really do anything for me), but they’ve got to add a little more to the idea pool if they want to really separate themselves from the pack.