Army Navy – The Last Place review

A band’s sophomore album is what really tests their meddle, especially within the indie-pop genre, where hip new bands and fresh sounds seemingly pop up at every corner, only to quickly fizzle away into nothingness. See The Strokes, who revolutionized the power-pop genre and then couldn’t quite find a way to capture the magic of Is This It?, or Vampire Weekend, who released one of the most infectious debut albums of all time, but then quickly devolved into obnoxious sounds and stale melodies on their follow-up Contra.

Luckily, Army Navy, a little-known but critically well-received band from LA deftly avoid the dreaded sophomore slump with their second release The Last Place. Certainly, it helps that their first album wasn’t much more than a fun little pop record, but it was a good piece of easily-digestible indie music with a light tone that never overstayed its welcome.

The Last Place is darker than their self-titled debut, with lyrics that delve deeper into heartbreak and whiffed relationships but it still deals in the same simple and energetic hooks as their first. Many of the tracks are emotional mid-tempo numbers that add some rare piano into the mix to very nice effect. However, it’s the rip-roaring songs that fare the best: “Last Legs” opens the album marvellously with a sea-faring riff that just begs to be played loudly in a car with the windows rolled down, and others like “I Think It’s Going To Happen” and “A Circus” follow suit. These songs have a punk-y energy, sort of in the same vein as Tokyo Police Club, that really kicks the album into full gear whenever they show up. The record is also produced really well, with an organic sound that never gets in the way of the rawness of the instruments – indeed, with so many bands turning to keyboards and synths these days, it’s nice to get one that keeps itself relegated to some good old rock n’ roll instrumentation.

Overall, The Last Place should satisfy fans of Army Navy’s first record, and maybe gain some new ones on the way. Admittedly, it’s not a particularly unique or overwhelmingly fantastic release – not every song is a winner, and while it’s got some good hooks, none of the songs particularly stick with me. But it’s a fun, breezy, well-crafted indie-pop record, so if you’re into that sort of thing, you should be more than pleased with it.

Talking to My Heroes: an interview with Jeff Rosenstock of Bomb the Music Industry!

Jeff Rosenstock is a regular guy.  That’s the best part about him, and the part that makes him so relatable to the people who listen to his band, Bomb the Music Industry!.  As I caught up with him outside Sneaky Dee’s on Saturday, where the band was to play later that night, he was decked out in jean shorts and a band t-shirt, nonchalantly munching down a street hot dog.  Most importantly, he’s extremely nice; he gave me a longer interview than I’ve done with anyone else thus far, and though I had already paid for my ticket, told me he’d put me on the guestlist for the show – and I didn’t even ask.  Just by looking at him, you wouldn’t be able to tell that this is the man who’s been pushing punk music forward for the past few years.

Giving a new meaning to the term DIY, Rosenstock has released all of Bomb the Music Industry’s six full-lengths, one EP, and two split EPs for free, legally, through his self-run, entirely donation-based record label, Quote Unquote Records.  To date, the label has now put out fifty-one albums since its inception in 2005, including stuff by Laura Stevenson and the Cans, The Wild, O Pioneers!!, and a whole bunch of other fantastic, unique bands.  And he just started a physical record label with Dave Garwacke of online punk ‘zine If You Make It.
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3 Doors Down – Time of My Life review

I feel like I’m getting out of touch with the mainstream music listener.  Can I ask you people something?  Do any of you actually want this album?   Are people twitching their fingers, anxiously waiting at their computer screens with bated breath to hear just a teensy-tiny morsel of new 3 Doors Down material?  Because as far as I’m aware, nobody really asked for this record, and to be honest, I can’t really see any reason that anybody would.

You probably know 3 Doors Down from their two really big singles “Kryptonite” and “Here Without You”, two songs that are obviously radio-ready, but not all that bad; boring, certainly, but at least they’ve got hooks.  You may notice that “Here Without You” is from almost a decade ago, and if you’re extremely perceptive, you may also realize that their newest album, Time of My Life, is the third full-length since the one that was on.

Let’s get this out of the way: for lack of a better term, Time of My Life just plain sucks.  It’s boring, faceless, shamelessly corporate radio rock, and it’s no wonder that the band haven’t exactly been lighting up the charts since a decade ago, because they’ve shown zero growth in their sound.  As such, it comes off as supremely lazy, and an album that I simply can’t imagine anyone over the age of 14 enjoying.

Honestly, there’s very little to talk about here, because there’s very little of interest.  “When You’re Young”, “Heaven”, and “What’s Left” all pretty much sound like “Here Without You”, with the same arpeggiated guitar intro and oh-so-pained vocal approach.  Everything else is just a big mess of obvious chord changes, flaccid melodies and terrible 13-year-old-girl-but-written-by-a-30-year-old-man lyrics.  The best part of the album is when it ends – and I mean that literally, because the only thing on Time of My Life that is even remotely unique is at the end of the final track “Believer”, which ends abruptly with a neat little record scratch noise.

Listen, I’m not saying that every piece of music needs to be an absolute work of art, or push the boundaries of the medium, but if it’s not going to do those things, the least it can be is fun.  3 Doors Down have always been a band aimed towards the lowest common denominator, but at least songs like “Kryptonite” have catchy choruses or slick guitar lines that get begrudgingly stuck in your head.  They’re easy to sing along with when listening to the radio, no matter how ironically it may be.  Time of My Life has nothing; when it’s over, not a single piece of it will stay with you.  3 Doors Down might be having the time of their lives, but if it’s going to be like this, maybe they should just do it in private next time.

Some words with Aaron Barett of Reel Big Fish

Aaron Barett is the singer, guitar player, main songwriter, and founder of third-wave ska legends Reel Big Fish.  As a huge fan of Reel Big Fish for many years, being able to interview him was an absolute treat, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that his hilariously sarcastic on-stage persona isn’t really a persona at all – it’s really just him.  To be honest, reading his quotes in the form of a text interview doesn’t really do justice to his comedic energy, but I did the best that I could.  Enjoy!
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The Naked and Famous – Passive Me, Aggressive You album review

The newest in a long line of bands taking the sounds of the 80s and create something seemingly new out of them, The Naked and Famous are a five-piece group from New Zealand, specializing in synthesizer-drenched pop music.

Their debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You is a fairly strong release, but it’s also pretty faceless. The band don’t carve out much of an identity for themselves over these 13 tracks, and in a time where virtually every indie band has at least a tinge of 80s influence – whether it be a retro keyboard, arena-rock guitars, or reverb-heavy drums – that’s a real problem.

But let’s talk about the album itself. The Naked and Famous typically have three speeds – drone-y shoegaze with synths in lieu of guitars, sort of like if the genre had been discovered and shot into the mainstream about a decade before it actually was; bubbly, pretty synthpop; and dark, aggressive quasi-industrial heaviness. It’s actually surprising how well these various elements fit together – the stylistic shifts can be jarring at times, but for the most part, the album miraculously works as a whole.

The problem is that while the songwriting is solid overall, with some thick, beautiful textures and catchy hooks, they don’t really have much of an identity, and a lot of that comes down to their inability to pin themselves to one specific genre. Generally, artists branching out and trying different styles is a good thing, but that only works if the artist in question already has a highly individual sound – something that The Naked and the Famous simply haven’t acquired yet. This leads to a lot of the material sounding like tributes to other bands – the synthpop songs like “Punching in a Dream” and “Young Blood”, with their lush keyboard tones, pulsating beats, and high-pitched vocals, sound so much like Passion Pit that I actually had to check my iPod to make sure it hadn’t pulled a switcheroo on me. Songs like “Frayed” and “Jilted Lovers” are like My Bloody Valentine but with the heavy guitar effects eschewed in favour of acid-washed synth tones. And “A Wolf in Geek’s Clothing” sees the band channelling Nine Inch Nails-aggression out of absolutely nowhere.

It doesn’t help that the lyrics contain the same vague, pseudo-intellectual platitudes that riddle the genre. Take this example, from opener “All of This”: “as the plans turn into compromise/the promises all turn to lies/the spite builds up and it can’t get through/passive me aggressive you.” Pretty empty, right? The whole album is like that.

That being said, there are a couple moments on the record that are breathtaking – “Spank” absolutely rips it up, electronic tension-building perfectly melding with a positively massive stadium rock groove, and “The Sun” uses a simple drum beat, subdued feel, and really interesting vocal layering to fantastic effect.
To be honest, Passive Me, Aggressive You, like a lot of albums with an 80s-style aesthetic, really polarizes me.

Sometimes, I listen to it and I’m totally with the band and the sound that they’re bringing, but other times I’m actually repulsed by it, in that it literally makes my stomach turn. In fact, I’ve had the two opposite opinions alternating with each listen of this album. So at the end of the day, I’ll give this a tentative recommendation. It’s well-crafted and has some catchy tunes, but The Naked and Famous are a long ways off from attaining the unique sound that they hint at on some of their better songs, and if you hate the sound of 80s pop, or are getting sick of this whole retro thing, you’d best stay far, far away from this debut. Otherwise, go ahead and dig in.

Emmy the Great – Virtue album review

You know when you listen to an album, and everything about it seems to line up, but it just doesn’t quite connect with you?  Emmy the Great’s sophomore album, Virtue, is one of those records.

On the surface, Virtue is really quite enjoyable; it’s an indie-folk breakup album, with Emmy-Lee Moss herself serving as the heartbroken protagonist after her fiancée recently left her for religion.  Moss’s voice is unique and relaxed, with a husky lower range that’s a welcome departure from the higher pitches of some of her contemporaries, and she frequently experiments with strings, auxiliary percussion, synths, and slide guitars, among other lush instrumentation.

In fact, it’s really just the poor timing of this release that hurts it.  Virtue has the unfortunate task of following up on a half-year that has seen similar indie-folk stalwarts like Timber Timbre, Bon Iver, Laura Stevenson and the Cans, and Fleet Foxes all release amazing albums, and it’s neither as emotionally satisfying, extraordinarily unique, or musically adventurous as any of them.  It’s also rather predictable; from the first moments of the sweeping opener “Dinosaur Sex”, it’s easy to tell where the album’s going to go, promptly hitting all of the indie-folk bases in quick succession.  “Sylvia” sounds like a spaghetti Western theme, “Iris” has a driving country twang, and “Trellick Tower” is a sparse piano ballad.  Same old, same old.

It’s a bit of a shame that Virtue was released when it was; by all the counts, it’s really not bad, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it other than a sense of familiarity that runs throughout.  If you’ve heard the big folk releases of this year and you want more, by all means check this out, because even though it’s not great, it’s certainly nowhere near terrible; I`m just a little bit burnt out on the indie-folk thing at this point.

Bon Iver – Bon Iver album review

Justin Vernon, AKA Bon Iver, is a very different man now than he used to be.  Certainly, the tv-show featured, Kanye West-guesting folk musician of today is a far cry from the self-exiled mononucleosis-inflicted Vernon of two years back.  So it’s no wonder that Bon Iver’s newest eponymous release is a different beast than his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago.

Luckily, with this album Vernon establishes himself as much more than a simple flash-in-the-pan, using his new status not as a crutch, but as an opportunity to expand his sound.  Whereas For Emma was somewhat simplistic in approach – most of it consisted of Vernon’s layered vocals, acoustic guitar, and some soft drums – Bon Iver, Bon Iver brings in a wealth of guest musicians, giving the album more of a full band feel.  Musically, the album is more layered, complex, and varied than Vernon’s ever been: opener “Perth” is, in the words of the man himself, a “Civil War-sounding heavy metal song”; “Beth/Rest” pretty much does away with the usual Bon Iver sound entirely, reverb-laden electric guitars and shimmering synths replacing the more common acoustics; and the album in general just has more expansive instrumentation, whether that be the use of distortion, synths, or saxophones.  This doesn’t always work; the aforementioned “Beth/Rest” is a too close to the typical indie “80s-retro” aesthetic for comfort, and the album as a whole feels just a bit less personal than For Emma.

But what does makes the album work is that despite all the changes, this is still Justin Vernon through and through – his overdubbed harmonized vocals are present as always, and his general approach to songwriting hasn’t really changed.  It’s an album that is at once different and entirely similar, displaying a growth in Vernon’s sound while still remaining as emotionally breathtaking as the first time out.  More than anything, Bon Iver, Bon Iver proves something immensely important – that Justin Vernon is one of those few musicians that can do pretty much whatever they want and still somehow sound like themselves.

North by Northeast: Final Day (June 19)

Alright, last night of NXNE 2011!  How’d it go?  To be honest, a little anti-climactically.

I got there just in time to catch the end of D-Sisive’s, which seemed fine.  Not really much else for me to say about that, as I wasn’t there for most of the set.

The group I was really going to see was Digable Planets, a funky alternative hip-hop group from the 90s who have reformed various times throughout the past few years.  You may know them from that Tide commercial that came out a year or two ago; it’s that one that keeps going “I’m cool like ‘dat”.  Anyways, their set was solid, but a tad disappointing.  They had a full band, which was pretty cool, including two guitar players, a drummer, a bass player, and a DJ, and their voices were in good form.  But there were weird little quirks throughout the set that lessened their impact.  The first of which is that Ladybug, their super-skilled female MC, isn’t with the band any longer; this isn’t that big of an issue though, as the replacement they found for her (whose name I unfortunately couldn’t find out) did a very good job covering her verses.  The big problem was that for some reason, one of the members of the group, Butterfly, was totally slack for the entire set, relegated to popping in with backup lyrics occasionally and spitting a grand total of one verse.  I have no idea why Doodlebug took over his verses, but it was rather jarring and diminished from the fun of the set quite a bit.

Following Digable Planets was another hip-hop group from the same era, The Pharcyde.  I’ll admit that I’m not exactly familiar with their material, but their set fared better overall than Digable Planets’, with more energy and some really talented MCs.  I guess the problem for me is simply that neither of the acts held a candle to last year’s hip-hop headliner De La Soul, who put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

Regardless, it was still a fun night, but as the final show of a fantastic festival, it seemed a little bit half-baked, and it was probably the worst of the four nights.  It would have fared better had it not been on the final night; perhaps if it swapped places with the punk-leaning Thursday night?

Either way, overall, this year’s NXNE festival was pretty great.  The headliners perfectly straddled the line between being totally alternative, and still having a big enough following for a nicely-sized audience.  For the record, Devo easily put on the best set of the festival.  I already can’t wait for next year’s lineup to be announced!

North by Northeast: Day 4 (June 18)

Sorry for the lateness today folks; Father’s Day lunches were afoot!

Alright, so last night presented a new wave theme, with Men Without Hats opening up for Devo.  Also, it being the first (and only) weekend night I could actually stay out for, I managed to finally check out one non-headliner show afterwards.

After picking up a burrito from Big Fat Burrito, my downtown food of choice pretty much all the time, I made my way to the main stage just in time to catch Men Without Hats, who have returned from a 5-year-plus hiatus.  The first thing I noticed was how packed the “venue” was; people spilled out from the main square into the streets and sidewalks surrounding it, and the crowd in general seemed to have more older people than the Day 2 did – unsurprising really, but I certainly wasn’t expecting such a big crowd.  Anyways, the band was fine; typical new wave stuff, nothing particularly special.  We all know that “Safety Dance” is pretty much the only reason anyone’s going to see these guys, right?  They’re not bad, but not great.

Luckily, Devo was absolutely incredible; definitely my favourite set of the festival.  With a full hour and a half to play, they went through their entire career minus all of their bad albums in backwards order, starting with material from their latest, surprisingly awesome record Something for Everybody and going back progressively earlier until their debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, and then mixing it up a little bit towards the end, finishing with a song from their second, darker album Duty Now For the Future.  It was a really neat little idea, with them changing their costumes to reflect the album they were on, and using their whole concept of “de-evolution” that the band was originally based on within their own stage show.  There are a few things that made the set work really well: 1) the band still play extremely energetically, sounding way younger than they actually are; 2) their new material is some of their best work in 20 years, translates fantastically to a live setting, and gels marvellously with their older material; and 3) the setlist felt extremely complete, with representatives from all of their good albums and zero bad songs.  The only bad part of the set was that there wasn’t an encore.  Also, I was hoping they would play “Space Junk” and they didn’t, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

So after this, my friends and I wanted to take advantage of the weekend and go see another band.  We were thinking about going to see Shad, but that was sold out; I really wanted to check out superhero-punk band Peelander-Z, but my friends weren’t really feeling it.  We ended up checking out a band at the Bread and Circus from Montreal called Bent By Elephants; this was a very good choice.  The band is really unique, running the gamut from more basic but beautiful indie stuff to restrained folk jams.  I’d strongly suggest our readers to check them out.

Tonight ends the festival with a hip-hop theme, with Digable Planets opening up for the The Pharcyde.  Check back tomorrow night for a full report.

North by Northeast: Day 2 (June 16)

Hello again!  Tonight was the second night of North by Northeast; let’s get right into it shall we?

I got to the main stage at Yonge and Dundas Square just in time to see the first band I wanted to see, Fucked Up, and man, these guys put on a crazy show.  Frontman and vocalist Damian Abraham (AKA Pink Eyes) steals the show; he’s like a giant bear. Overweight, hairy, bald, and with these insane eyes that dart around maniacally, he’s an intimidating figure, and yet whenever he opens his mouth to talk, he seems like the nicest guy in the world.  He spent the first half of the show singing from within the audience, and he wasn’t merely staying close to the stage – he was walking around the entire floor, a stream of moshers following him wherever he went, singing along and even so much as jumping on his back.  It’s pretty thrilling.  Aside from this, Fucked Up are still the kings of modern punk, with really interesting, intense, and most importantly, intelligent hardcore punk.  With only a 40 minute set, they mostly played songs from their latest album, David Comes to Life, with a few older songs mixed in.  The band was in great form for their short set, and I wish I could have gone to their headlining set later on in the night at Wrongbar.

Following them was punk supergroup OFF! containing members from Black Flag, Burning Brides and Rocket From the Krypt.  These guys are a really energetic hardcore band, but following on Fucked Up is a pretty tall order; I got the impression that OFF! should have been before them, not after.  Regardless, it was a fun set.

Finally, the band that I was really going to see, hardcore/pop-punk legends Descendents, took to the stage.  I’m not exactly a fan of all of Descendents’ material, but as a punk music enthusiast, I am a fan of their first record Milo Goes to College, which is still one of the best punk albums of all time more than 25 years after the fact.  These guys have been around for a long time, breaking up and reforming quite a lot over the years, but the age doesn’t really show all that much.  Vocalist Milo Aukerman doesn’t quite sound like he used to; as a man now pushing his 50, it’s no wonder that he doesn’t have the same youthful yell that he did in the 80s.  He sort of sounds like Greg Gaffin of Bad Religion now – other than that though, the band was in top form.  They played a lot of material spanning pretty much all of their albums, with a bit of a focus on the new material.  It was solid; their newer stuff is more like pop-punk than hardcore, so it’s a little bit same-y, and at times a little boring, but not bad by any means.  Descendents are a huge influence on modern pop-punk, so it’s no wonder that it’s what they grew into.  It’s not terrible, but I prefer their hardcore stuff.  They sounded really energetic, but even more so when they were doing Milo Goes to College material, a change that you could see pretty heavily in the audience, who sang along to most everything they played but really went crazy on the older songs. All I’m saying is that with a 40 minute set, they could have played literally all of Milo Goes to College, and still had 20 minutes of newer stuff.  Just sayin’.  Overall though, the show was great, if not exactly what I was hoping for.

Tomorrow night I won’t be going to any shows, as I’m playing one of my own with my band New Stems (plug: www.facebook.com/newstems).  Check back here Sunday morning for a report on Day 4!