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Mother Falcon – You Knew album review

Mother Falcon began as an outlet for a group of orchestra students from Austin, Texas to break from classical formalities and experiment. Defying the loftiness of conventional orchestra, the band has continued past college graduation and solidified as a serious endeavor with their 2011 debut album. Being a full-time project hasn’t made Mother Falcon any less outgoing, and their new album You Knew exemplifies their continued youthful exuberance. One need only watch the music video of the album’s song “Dirty Summer,” which features band-wide roughhousing, to understand that Mother Falcon is still a bunch of college kids at heart.

You Knew challenges a chamber rock classification by featuring cryptic lyrics and eliciting a wider range of emotions familiar to the genre. While a fusion of classical and pop remain at the core, other influences have seeped into the margins. The album edges towards pop on “Pink Stallion,” and tentatively leans toward shoe-gaze on the slow-paced “Sleep,” and a background in jazz is evident throughout. Songs like “What’s the Matter” – in which insistent horns and eerie vocals blend into a chaotic swarm of strings – discard any reliance on simple song structures.

There are enough disappointments to make the listening experience less than great. The male-female back-on-forth doesn’t always proceed cleanly, and at times the vocals are drowned out by instrumentals, as with “Marigold.” The symphony-sized ensemble sometimes layers strings, horns and percussion in a garbled clutter. There are even missteps at the other extreme, when not enough is brought to the table, as in the awkwardly shy “Porcelain,” which aims at fragility but accomplishes weakness.

While there are a few weak spots, there are some tracks on the album which represent the coherent, finished quality that Mother Falcon needs to pursue. “When it Was Good” and “Marfa” have moments of greatness, and several others are nearby. You Knew is evidence that, with a more unified orchestration and continued dedication, Mother Falcon can soar to greatness.

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Paramore – Paramore album review

There’s no enemy like an old friend, and the bitter departure of brothers Josh and Zac Farro from Paramore in 2010, which tore apart a band formed in the formative years of its members, was a far from smooth transition. Although the announcement of the split on the band’s website was relatively neutral, Josh Farro made his own (and presumably his brother’s) sentiments clear on his blog, accusing his former band of being “a manufactured product of a major-label,” and criticizing lead singer Hayley Williams for being controlled by Atlantic Records.

It took the remaining members of Paramore – vocalist Hayley Williams, guitarist Taylor York and bassist Jeremy Davis – just under three years to release a new album, and the result is a clear change in style. The album is self-titled, which is perhaps a hidden insult, implying that the Farro brothers’ exit allows Paramore to be its authentic self. Instrumentally and lyrically the band has moved further into the pop genre. The decidedly adolescent “Still Into You” is one of the few tracks on the album where Williams is genuinely cheerful – it is clear that she’s also still repairing the gaps left by their two lost members – and anger, bitterness, and confusion are the most prominent emotions throughout. On the funky “Ain’t it Fun,” Williams sarcastically asks questions like, “So what are you gonna do when the world don’t orbit around you?” and “Ain’t it fun livin’ in the real world?” There is little doubt to whom these barbs are directed, and while one diss track can’t spoil an album, her continual jabs at the Farro brothers throughout many of the songs ensure the topic becomes stale quickly. On album’s single, “Now,” Williams suggests she can let this go, singing, “There’s a time and a place to die. This ain’t it.” We can only hope this means she won’t still be complaining next album.

While somewhat lyrically repetitive, Paramore features more instrumental experimentation than the band’s previous work. This is partly due to some new factors, including Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s production and Ilan Rubin’s drumming, but it also reveals the sincere desire of the Williams, York and Davis to continue expanding Paramore’s limits. The 17-track collection draws on everything from shoegaze (“Future”) to ska (“Now), and is packed with a heavy sampling of synth and other electronic elements. Unfortunately the stylistic combinations don’t also always work, and given that Williams’s vocals are generally mediocre throughout, the songs tend to succeed or fail based on the instrumentals. There are even times when the former drags the the latter down with it. This is best expressed by Youtube commentator Denxien when he caustically says of “Ain’t it Fun,” that “there are few songs with added soul roots as soulless as this.”

Whether or not Paramore is better or worse than Paramore’s previous music will depend as much on the listener’s opinion of the pre-Farro-departure stuff as it will on what they think of this album. Now freed of its intra-band tension, Paramore has an opportunity to venture into completely new territory. If they insist on continuing their feud with the Farro brothers, and cannot synthesize their varied influences into a coherent style, this opportunity will be lost.

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Edwyn Collins – Understated album review

The speed with which Edwyn Collins returned to music after he suffered two brain haemorrhages and underwent cranial surgery in 2005 astonished many. Although somewhat of a one hit wonder in the US, Collins’s continued influence within the UK and among various indie groups meant that he had plenty of fans eager for new releases. In his newest album, Understated, Collins tells us that his renewed energy was not merely a symptom of his recovery, but rather a contributing factor, singing on “Baby Jean” that, “I got music too see me through/I got art to ease the pain.”

Pop and rock are still the driving forces behind Collins’s music, but his habit of combining apparently conflicting styles is taken to new levels here. Reggae guitar melodies, rock-n-roll drums and choir-like background vocals meet in “Dilemna” to create an overwhelming feeling of rejuvenation, a sensation common throughout the album. Some songs are more conventional, like the title track, which uses electric guitar, piano chords and punk-style percussion to create a sound familiar to fans of Collins’s earlier work.

Collins’s medical crisis undoubtedly impacted his singing, but by no means for the worse.  According to the musician himself, he believes he’s actually improved – he told the UK newspaper Metro that “I actually think I sing a lot better now than I did on the early Orange Juice singles.” There’s less inflection in his voice and his lyrics are simpler and more repetitive than before, but this lends a raw, emotional vocality to his stylistic experimentation that was previously lacking in his music. On tracks like “Too Bad” and “Carry On, Carry On” Collins’s soulful voice is complemented effectively by an ensemble of background singers.

Seeing Collins will likely stay active for many years to come, Understated is an accurate indicator of the trajectory of his future work. Collins has proven his vigor, and the persistent broadening of his own musical boundaries demonstrated on Understated will hopefully continue in his next album. Collins’s singing has changed permanently, but whether or not this change was beneficial or not will depend on the listener’s perspective. Different is not always better; however, it would be best if his next album explores what would be then stale ideas. As his hell-and-back experience begins to haunt Collins less, his thematic focus may (and should) shift into new territory.

Understated will leave many listeners ambivalent, but it should also invite optimism as a sign of what is to come. Some songs on the album show improvement on even his most famous single, “A Girl Like You,” and there is a good chance Collins is only going to get better from now on.

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Rachel Zeffira – The Deserters album review

That the first solo release of Rachel Zeffira was subdued and gentle is somewhat less surprising given her work as half of Cat’s Eyes. She’s already demonstrated significant vocal restraint relative to the ornateness typically distinctive of opera singers, but some of her fans must have suspected that once she had complete control she would break away into what for her would be previously uncharted terrority. The Deserters is in many ways a one-woman show: Zeffira wrote the lyrics, composed the instrumentals, and produced the album. Despite this – or perhaps, considering the amount of work involved with a project such as this, because of it – Zeffira’s singing stays more or less within familiar boundaries.

Fortunately the instrumentals are a different story. Exquisitely crafted piano, strings, and the occasional synth and organ combine for powerful effect, and well balanced melodies guide the listener throughout the album’s ten tracks. Given Zeffira’s vocal fragility, her compositions often dominate the sound, and at times her voice melts completely in the instrumentals. This is particularly true in “Break The Spell,” which features an unusual degree of percussion, which concludes with a seamless transition from singing into harp chords.

The Deserters is relatively consistent, and while it lacks many noteable virtues it steers clear of any fatal flaws as well. A somewhat dissappointing vocal range and an unremarkable array of lyrics are saved by varied and thoughtfully composed instrumentals. Only one song on the album, “Front Doors,” is completely forgettable, and even it has a saving grace (although it is a petty one), because its title neatly symbolizes the central theme of exits.

By no means excellent, The Deserters is a solid collection of orchestra pop that proves Zeffira can stand on her own two feet and create something worthy of listening. If Zeffira can take the next step and bring her vocals on par with her instrumentals, the result would be a fantastic second album worthy of the singer’s main influence, Trish Keenan of Broadcast. A little more gusto could go a long way.

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Raine Maida – We All Get Lighter album review

Around the time an artist reaches their forties, it usually becomes clear whether they are going to continue to push the limits of their art or recycle a formula. With the release of his second album, We All Get Lighter, Raine Maida has proven himself to be among those who do the former. Maida’s first full length album, The Hunter’s Lullaby, made it clear that his solo career was going to be something significantly different from his work with Old Lady Peace, in especially vocally – there was spoken word and even a rap verse. Maida’s recent second release, We All Get Lighter, is a more consolidated and concentrated update, the finished product of the original album’s experimentation.

Instrumentally, guitar melodies play the main role, and percussion is unusually restrained, often appearing in forms unfamiliar to Maida’s music. Militaristic snare rolls on “This is Gonna Hurt,” and “Not Done Yet,” add an air of ritual and officiality to the laid-back acoustics. A full drum set only features on the more conventional tracks. The tunes are all well composed and catchy, and different instruments complement each other powerfully, as with the guitar and piano combination on “How to Kill A Man.”

Maida’s distinctive falsetto is present throughout and is one of the few aspects of the music which reminds us this is the same musician of Our Lady Peace. His vocals are perhaps best one the album’s single, “Montreal,” an effective city anthem which, despite not being the best song about Montreal, is catchy and evocative. Unfortunately the single is also a good example of the lyrical weaknesses of the album. Indeed, if one pays attention, unlike the upbeat instrumentals, Maida’s best efforts of praising the city clearly fall short. Part of the chorus reassures of that Montreal won’t kill us – Maida sings, “The cold winds of Montreal/This winter can take its toll/But it can’t take our lives.” Another example of the impotency of the album’s songwriting is on the whiny “Numbers,” a simplistic, cookie-cutter critique of modern technology.

Overall Maida’s new solo addition isn’t as refined and thoroughly enjoyable as that of Old Lady Peace, but it comes close. We All Get Lighter shows promise, and a few of its tracks, like the poignant “Drink of You,” deserve to be on any OLP fan’s playlist.

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Leif Vollebekk – North Americana album review

Despite being young and a relative unknown, it was surprising that Leif Vollebekk didn’t receive more attention than he did from his debut album, Inland, which was released independently in 2008. Among Montreal’s thriving music scene, Vollebekk easily ranks as one of the city’s most skilled songwriters. His new release, North Americana, a ten-track homage to seventies music, should give listeners a second chance to recognize that.

A vinyl fan whose influences include Bob Dylan and Ray Charles as well as newer artists like Gillian Welch and Ryan Adams, Vollebekk successfully fuses a broad spectrum of music in large part by vocal versatility. On the intensely country-inspired “Southern United States,” the lyrics and instrumentals achieve a nostalgia mixed with optimism reminiscent of a Springsteen track. Other songs are harder to pin down. The equally narrative “When a Fire Took Down Rosenburg” diverges from Vollebekk’s usual mid-tempo country rock feel and gives us slow, soul-style vocals – at times you can detect a sort of male Adele – with a haunting piano accompaniment.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the album is its ability to stay strong to its stylistic origins without sounding stuck in the past. Leif Vollebekk’s process is very old school. Aside from the occasional overdubbing, his tracks are recorded the purist way, favouring a raw analog feel over modern production techniques. This artistic choice may have been motivated to some extent by financial reasons, and it will be interesting to see whether Vollebekk’s next album will differ in that regard.

At the same time, the album’s lyrical themes reveal a world much different, and much less provincial, from that of Vollebekk’s major influences. “When the Subway Comes Above the Ground” features a distinctive, upbeat swing and makes trips to Canada, America, and Iceland in a sort of globalization of the countryside. That being said, it wouldn’t be too hard to mistake some of the songs on North Americana for tracks from the 60s and 70s. “Old gas station hasn’t changed in decades/Cashier checks the time around her,” Vollebekk sings on “Off the Main Drag,” pointing out that some things stay essentially the same.

Vollebekk will spend much of 2013 touring throughout Canada and the United States to promote North Americana. Considering Vollebekk’s talent as a performer, he should have no trouble attracting attention, particularly in the regions whose music he draws on – I have a feeling that “The Southern United States” will be popular in the Southern United States.

Because of Vollebekk’s perfectionist ethos – the recording of the album involved four studios and several takes – North Americana has the rare quality of being equally good throughout. A wonderful addition to the world of music, it’s hard not to find something to like in this album.