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Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light album review

I honestly feel bad for Jason Pierce, the primary songwriter and only consistent member of Spiritualized. He’s one of those musicians who happen to have the misfortune of having created a landmark, career-defining album. Most of these albums are nearly impossible to live up to. Oh sure, there’s a small amount of people who can do it – your Dylans, your Stones, your Radioheads – but even they tend to only be able to do it for so long, and with a whole lot of ups-and-downs along the way. And the rest of them, the ones that aren’t so lucky? They have to live out the rest of their careers in reaction to that one album, churning out release after release amid the constant disappointing cries of “Yeah it’s good, but it’s no *blank*”; such is the unfortunate situation that Pierce, finds himself in with every Spiritualized record since Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.

After the full-out orchestral craziness of Let It Come Down and the somewhat more subdued Songs in A&E, Spiritualized’s newest record Sweet Heart Sweet Light is something of a return to form. Most of the songs are drone-y, self-indulgent mini-epics, every inch of space filled out with layers of guitars, female back-up vocals, and string sections. The new thing here is that it seems like Pierce has discovered indie rock, so “Hey Jane” thumps around with cool garage rock melodicism, like a White Stripes song stretched out to nine minutes and with layers of stuff piled on top of it; and underneath the screeching guitar noise, “I Am What I Am” is really just a mellow R n’ B track.

These songs lend a sense of experimentation to the record, but it really feels like it’s playing in the same sandbox as earlier Spiritualized material – for the most part, the songs are the same really big-sounding space-rock anthems as before, but with a couple new elements thrown in.  It’s not a reinvention, but it is a solid set of tunes, which lends it to be being a bit of a “grower” – it takes a few listens to really get into.  The problem is that once it clicks, it may not be entirely worth the effort; all of the songs are very pleasant, but none of them match the energy of opener “Hey Jane”.  There’s a sense that Pierce, while still as capable a songwriter as ever, isn’t really taking any risks here; it’s a very safe record.  So instead of being transcendent, it just kind of is what it is; a solid release by a pretty consistent band.  In the end, it’s definitely good – but it’s no Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.

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DJ-Kicks Mixed by Photek review

It’s probably important for me to precede this review by mentioning that I’m not exactly an electronic music aficionado. It’s not that I don’t like the music as a whole – I loves me some Aphex Twin and I thought Submotion Orchestra’s Finest Hour was one of the best albums of last year – but I’m not exactly ingrained in the universe. Case in point – I was unaware of the DJ-Kicks volumes, a long-running series of electronic albums that originated in the mid-90s, each one featuring mixes by a different musician. I also had not heard of Photek, the fairly influential electronic maestro with roots in drum n’ bass music who’s featured on this, the 40th DJ-Kicks mix. A few of these songs are original, but most of them are remixes, all of musicians that, once again, I have not heard of.

All of this is really just a long-winded of saying that I have no idea what kind of genre this type of music falls into, but I like it. The album’s tracks all blend together to create an hour-long mix, making it prime for the club scene or a dance party in your basement. Each track contains some hypnotic beats that clearly make the music danceable, but the whole album is bathed in darkness. There are a few moments of respite – for example, the IDM-tinged sweeps of “Here Come the Dark Lights” – but it mostly all goes for the same gloomy vibe, like it’s the 90s and everyone is wearing fishnets and dancing in a grimy warehouse at 4 in the morning.

Anyways, this stuff is extremely well-crafted – organic synth tones, intricately written tunes, and a fine understanding of dynamics and tension. At just over an hour, it’s rather long, with many of the tracks bleeding into each other and a sense of unintentional numbness pervading the last 20-or-so minutes of the album. You can only listen to so many repetitive, mid-tempo drum beats and oppressive synthesizers for so long, ya know? But it’s good background music, and undoubtedly intelligently made, so it gets a recommendation from me, as long as you’re the kind of person who’s into the dark, clubby electronic music that this Photek fellow seems to excel in.

On Time Spent Waiting 7″ – Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate)

Especially with Snowing having just broken up, Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate) are really one of the only bands out there right now that are playing this 90s-style, Sunny Day Real Estate-inspired emo. Their first, and so far only full-length record, 2009’s What It Takes to Move Forward continues to be a genre high-point, harkening back to a regrettably dead genre, as well as being an incredible release in its own right. The obnoxiously titled On Time Spent Waiting, or Placing the Weight of the World on the Shoulders of Those You Love the Most is the latest in a slew of 7”s since that full-length, and it continues the band’s streak of solid songwriting, while introducing just enough new elements to keep things fresh.

In truth, listeners of Empire! Empire!’s previous material will feel right at home here – you’re getting the same gloriously pretty and emotionally charged rock music as before, complete with the requisite high-pitched vocals and sparkly harmonized guitars that are typical of Keith and Cathy Latinen, the husband-and-wife team who are the focal points of the band.

There’s really only one new dimension that they’ve added to their sound, and it’s something I’d like to hear more of. “When You Are Living On Borrowed Time” adds in a single trumpet player at strategic points, and it works wonders. The tune would have been great without it – it’s just as beautiful and dynamic as any of the others – but the addition of that bright brass sound, which doesn’t seem like it should work at all, pushes the song into mindblowing territory, and makes this too-short EP a must-buy pretty much by itself. In fact, the one flaw of the EP is that it only gets truly transcendental once, with the rest of the songs fitting in admirably with the band’s canon but not quite reaching to the same height. That one trumpet part mixes so well with their sound, and in future releases I’d like to see what Empire! Empire! can do with adding other elements to their classic emo tone.

But I digress; the fact of the matter is that this is a great little release by an overlooked band. If you’re a fan, you may as well go out and buy it right now; you won’t be disappointed. If not, at only five bucks and just over 10 minutes, it’s a wonderful litmus test for whether you’d like the band’s full-length record. Here’s hoping for another one of those soon.

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Jens Lekman – An Argument with Myself EP review

When I sat down to write my review for Swedish indie rocker Jens Lekman’s newest EP, An Argument with Myself, I was all set to give it a negative opinion. The music was nice, sure, but what was up with Lekman’s lisped Morrissey-lite vocal delivery? And what about those semi-pretentious, overly poetic, rambling lyrics?

But then I turned on the record again and something inside my brain just clicked. In truth, this 5-song EP is a diverse, eclectic, and personable record that shows a unique musician at the top of his game, both musically and lyrically. Stylistically, these five songs cover a broad spectrum of sounds, but there’s a pronounced tropical feel to the album that brings to mind the world music experiments of pop stars in the 80s like Peter Gabriel. The titular track, with its borderline-monologue lyrics, bouncy bass guitar and calypso rhythms, feels like the soundtrack of a vacation to an over-Americanized island resort; “Waiting for Kristen” sounds, well, kind of like The Smiths, but with more strings; “New Directions” main trumpet line sounds like a trip to Spain; “A Promise” uses strings and light acoustic guitars to evoke travelling down a countryside of some description; and rounding things off is “So this Guy at my Office” which is based on an upbeat-laden reggae beat.

Tying all of these styles together is Jens Lekman’s unique vocals, which are still a tad off-putting – his accent is distinct, and he sometimes gets to be just a bit too close to the aforementioned Morrissey for comfort – but effective. Special mention also should be given to his lyrics, which show a fluid style that never gets so abstract that you can’t understand what they’re about, as well as dealing with current issues with a high level of wit.

So really, there’s very little to complain about this tight little EP; all of the songs stand up on their own merit while still feeling like part of a more far-reaching whole, and there’s a wide variety of styles and sound combinations throughout that keep the proceedings light and fresh. The EP is a difficult form to master – most bands flounder when faced with the prospect, forgetting that despite the short runtime, an EP should still be a fairly cohesive piece of music with its own identity. But Jens Lekman comes out of it with his head held high – check this album out.

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Oh, Sleeper – Children of Fire review

It’s a metalcore album.

In all seriousness though, when I got assigned to do the newest record by Texas-based metalcore band Oh, Sleeper, I was a little bit worried.  Quite frankly, my ears just aren’t accustomed to the genre and thus every metalcore band sounds really similar to me, which is a probably when you need to give an opinion about it.  And so I took to the internet, and asked around on some message boards to help me out so that I could differentiate between the bands that are more renowned and the ones that are closer to the bottom of the barrel.  See, metalcore gets a bit of a bad rap – a lot of people consider it to be “entry-level” metal, a transitional genre that people get into only until they discover “real” metal.

Speaking from experience, at least a small part of this is true, even though it only applies to the more commercial bands of the genre; it was the likes of Avenged Sevenfold and Lamb of God that got me into thrash and death metal, and after I got to that point, I rarely, if ever looked back.  But in truth metalcore can, at its best, be a unique genre with its own quirks.  At the same time, the overall feel of the genre is pretty much the same across the board – relentlessly aggressive, extremely fast, and supremely technical.  It’s also rather stone-faced; there’s nary a sense of humour to be found just about anywhere in the genre.

Despite the fact that I still don’t really like metalcore, I at least discovered what is more commonly considered “good” and “bad”.  The stuff that’s more objectively good is the stuff that’s more unique, and from what I’ve heard, seems both A) noisier and B) more influenced by traditional metal genres.  The bad stuff is a lot simpler both in composition and general tone, and often comes off as a laundry list of metalcore staples – breakdown after breakdown after breakdown, essentially.  The good bands, like the absolutely excellent group Converge, use much more experimental guitar tones, take a lot of influence from thrash and black metal (among other things), and have much stronger compositions.  They never get into a mindset of “here is the breakdown section; here is the two-step section” and so on – the songs tend to flow from one section to the next in a spastic rage of intensity.

Oh, Sleeper’s newest album Children of Fire  definitely falls into the good category.  All those good things that I just talked about are here – the fluid compositions, the over-the-top technicality, the emotional intensity.  Certainly, one can hear how some of these songs are pretty commercial – take the anthemic chorus of “Claws of a God” for example – but for the most part, the album is full of relatively unique sounds and flows really well over its mercifully brief half-hour runtime.  Oh, it’s also a concept album; apparently their last album concerned itself with some mumbo-jumbo about God fighting the Devil, and this is supposed to be a continuation of that.  The Wikipedia entry states that the album “ends with the destruction of the world that is somehow due to everything that happened”.  I’ll leave it at that.

I’ll admit that I don’t really intend to listen to Children of Fire ever again – I just don’t really like the sound of most metalcore.  So yeah: if you’re not into metalcore, this isn’t going to change your mind in the slightest. But speaking objectively, I can see that this is a well-made album; metalcore aficianados will definitely be into it, so if you’re one of those, check it out.

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Charlotte Gainsbourg – Terrible Angels EP review

I’ve been listening to a lot of David Bowie lately, and the thing that makes him cool, and this is hardly a new opinion, is that he never kept himself into one genre; a new Bowie album was always surprising, and his personality and musical style constantly changed.  A “musical chameleon”, as the term goes.  These days, whenever you see a musician who just uses their actual name as their band name, you pretty much know what you’re getting – more often than not, it’s pretty singer-songwriter folk.  Where have the “name only” artists who can do more than that gone?  French actor and musician Charlotte Gainsbourg tries to answer this with her newest EP entitled Terrible Angels, to mixed results.

The first thing that’s striking about this EP is that it’s not really an EP at all.  It’s probably more accurately defined as a single – yes, there are four songs on it, but only two of them are new tracks, with the other two being live recordings of 1) a song on one of her earlier albums and 2) a Bob Dylan cover.  This is a nitpicky little thing, but it matters – an EP is just a mini-record, and so the same ideas of consistency and singular artistic statement should be there, just on a smaller scale.  Meanwhile, this “EP” just feels like a single, a B-side, and two bonus tracks.

But how’s the music?  Not bad really, but not all that great.  The two new songs are well-written and fairly interesting tunes – the titular first track is, unexpectedly, a dirty synthpop song with a nice driving beat, and the second song “Memoir” is more in line with the typical singer-songwriter sensibility, with hushed vocals and a lightly plucked guitar taking center stage.  And that’s a bit of a letdown, truthfully – after the really surprising opener, having the follow-up be a soft acoustic number is just plain disappointing.

As for the other two tracks, “IRM”, from her 2009 album of the same name, is a noisy, droning song, and “Just Like a Woman” is….well, “Just Like a Woman”.  It’s a classic song, and Gainsbourg does it well, but she doesn’t really bring anything new to it other than replacing the raw, energetic feel of the original with soft vocals and “delicate” guitars.

At the end of the day, it’s obvious that Charlotte Gainsbourg is an artist that can do some interesting things, but Terrible Angels is a bit of a mess.  The four songs don’t match up with each other at all, and it simply doesn’t feel like a complete EP.  That being said, it’s nice to hear a singer-songwriter branching out, even though it only happens on two of the songs, and it’s certainly not bad by any means.  But it is horribly inconsistent, and that really prevents it from becoming anything more than a fairly decent collection of unrelated tracks.

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Tripper – Hella review

I don’t understand how I haven’t taken note of this band until now, because Hella’s newest record Tripper pretty much does everything that I like bands to do.  A virtuosic instrumental guitar and drums duo that deftly weaves through various time signatures with ease?  Check.  An incredibly skilled drummer that always sounds like he’s had one (or two, or three) too many cups of coffee? Check.  An overall mood that can be described as either “spastic”, “chaotic” or just plain ol’ “insane”?  Check check CHECK.

It’s probably important to note that some of my favourite music is stuff that most people find to be pretty annoying – I’ve been a Rush fan since high school and two of my favourite bands are The Aquabats and Bomb the Music Industry!, both of whom have been accused of being too (*ahem*) “peppy”.  So just be warned that most of you who check out this album will probably hate it.  And that’s totally understandable – the guitarist plays chunky, disjointed, oft-incomprehensible chords and licks in odd rhythms, and the few sections within songs that would sound more “normal” are totally offset by the hyperactive drummer, who pretty much rolls really fast all the time.

However, if you’re like me, and you like fast, complicated music, Tripper is an absolute gold mine.  It’s a complete frenzy of weird stuff, whipping around the inside of your head like a hurricane on PCP.  It’s insanely difficult to keep track of, and it’s so quick with musical ideas that it’s impossible to get bored – every ten seconds some new element comes along, whether it be a completely new riff, a variation on an earlier one, or something in the rhythm that completely warps the context of everything that’s going on.    But what’s most important here is that aside from all the insanity, there’s actually some honest-to-goodness songwriting craft – sure, it’s all hidden behind layers of time signature-switching and twitchy ludicrousness, but listen to songs like “Yubacore” or “Kid Life Crisis” and tell me those aren’t stupendously written songs.

Listen, it’s pretty obvious that not a lot of people are going to be into this stuff, but it’s quite seldom that an album leaves me totally breathless once it’s finished, and this is one of those coveted few.  Go into Hella’s Tripper with an open mind and you’ll have an absolute blast.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go give it another spin.

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Big Business – Quadruple Single EP review

This is going to be a quick one.

Stoner metal act Big Business add one more band member to the mix, bringing the total from their original two up to four with their aptly-named EP Quadruple Single.

Quite frankly, whether you like these four songs or not depends on whether or not you can get into stoner metal as a whole. The riffs are chunky, massive, and repetitive, the vocals are barely understandable, and the atmosphere is generally one of mid-tempo heaviness.

It’s quite well done, with some catchy guitar lines and a thickly-layered sound. Also, these guys have a wicked sense of humour, as evident on final song “Guns”, where the only lyrical content is a hilarious group chant of “guns are better than everything else”. That song happens to be the best one on the EP, with a final minute of noisy intensity and some slick-fingered soloing that ends the record on an extreme high note.

That’s about it really; more-than-adequate stoner metal with tasty riffs and a good sense of humour that should please just about anyone that’s into this kind of stuff. Check it out. It’s only four songs!

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Blue October – Any Man in America review

I feel like more so than ever, today’s music is a mish-mash of other forms of music.  This has been true for a long time – “everything is a remix”, as they say – but there’s something about music from the 2000s so far that has been more referential, and consisting of very distinct components of other genres mashed together in a significantly more direct manner.  A rap verse interjecting midway through a folk song?  Cool.  A hip-hop tune with a progressive rock sample as its main beat? Wicked.  Indie rock guitars with a sweeping orchestral arrangement as backup? No problemo.

Blue October, thankfully bored of making overly-commercialized mainstream rock, are the latest band to jump on this trend with their newest record Any Man in America.  Specifically, beats drop and rhymes are thrown down as their radio rock sensibility mixes with an explicit hip-hop/R&B influence.  The question is, do we really want to hear the singer of “Hate Me” spitting verses?

The answer to this really depends on whether you can tolerate the mainstream sound that Blue October have been pushing over the past few years mixing with some decidedly un-funky hip-hop.  Make no mistake – despite the new digs, this is still a slickly-produced package, with synth strings and big anthemic choruses that will make it pretty easy for the average listener to get into.

Luckily, the sound change ends up actually working most of the time.  True, the overall sound is one of commercial hard rock, but this isn’t some 3 Doors Down record; there’s actual ingenuity here, with pretty much every song having at least some sort of neat, out-of-the-box moment.  Check out how the beautifully harmonized verse of “The Getting Over It Part” moves into a sweeping string-laden chorus, or how “The Money Tree” breaks into a half-time hip-hop segment for 10 seconds and then continues like nothing happened.  It’s pretty cool stuff.

The one place the album falters – and it’s something that very nearly negates all the interesting musical choices – is in the lyrics.  Much of the album’s lyrical content deals with guitarist/singer Justin Furstenfeld’s divorce with his wife, and subsequent legal battles for custody of his daughter.  While this does give the album a personal and, most importantly, genuine air, it’s also done in an overly-dramatic way that often makes the initially hard-to-swallow sound experimentation even harder to accept.  I feel for the guy – it’s certainly some rough, emotional stuff to get through, but unfortunate posturing lines like “Please help me understand/why you can’t talk man to man/But you can stand with a dick in your hand/you’re acting like a pussy, man” are hard to excuse.

Still, the lyrics aren’t an absolute deal-breaker, and there’s enough interesting sounds to make Any Man in America come out on top.  This is how you do mainstream rock – it’s a very interesting progression for a band that badly needed one and  lines up with mainstream sensibilities enough to be popular, but it also changes and expands on their sound enough to make us more adventurous music nerds happy just the same.

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Collections of Colonies of Bees – Birds review

The annoyingly-titled post-rock band Collections of Colonies of Bees is the brainchild of two gentlemen, Chris Rosenau and Jon Mueller. Their newest album Birds is a powerful series of four songs, each called “Flocks”, which feel more like a series of movements within a larger suite than individual songs. The six-piece group have one problem that keeps them from taking their place is a post-rock mainstay, but Birds is a confident album that shows a band with mounds of future potential.

See, the thing with post-rock is that it takes what most music is based on – a rinse/repeat system of growing tension, followed by release – and amplifies it, creating long periods of gradual build-up with a subsequent explosion of emotional release. Collections of Colonies of Bees are great at the first part – they put together some really beautiful, often-fragmented and surprisingly calm rising segments that use frequent use of broken phrasing, with each instrument sort of “switching off” on individual notes. What the band doesn’t do as well is the release part; Birds lacks a bit of that emotionally poignant power that makes post-rock what it is, leaving to some segments that feel somewhat empty, especially after several minutes of well-constructed build-up.

At the end of the day, Birds is a very good, if inessential release by a talented band that haven’t quite found their feet yet. They simply don’t have the personality that the big bands of the genre have – they don’t have the sheer intensity of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, or the bombastic, chaotic soundscapes of 65daysofstatic. However, Collections of Colonies of Bees are supremely confident in their sound, and with just a bit more vision, they have the potential to become a real force to be reckoned with in the coming years.