Cody Simpson – Surfers Paradise album review

General industry knowledge and cultural observation suggests a short career for a musician who begins at age eleven. Long term success does not, by any practical reasoning, seem possible with such an early start date. Eleven is formative, an age meant for arcade games and laser tag not technical sound mixing and editing.  The exception, of course, is true motivation—the real stuff, not the brand you see on TV—the kind Cody Simpson appears to be full of.

Simpson’s story is candy coated, it’s the one you tell your parents to convince them that dropping out of high school to, “focus on your music career” is a good idea. In 2009, Simpson was discovered on YouTube and offered a contract with Atlantic Records. Since then, he has run at full speed, head first, with a collection of tours, a Nickelodeon Australia Kids Choice Award, two EPs, and two LPs all in just four years.

The latest album is a saccharine, vocoded rendition of what you’d expect when you think Surfers Paradise—upbeat, tame, Jason Mraz meets Sublime.  It’s eight tracks of precisely summed up teenage summer.  Cody Simpson has certainly found his niche, which is not an easy task for any musician, let alone a sixteen year old one.

In the 2013 pop-land of One Direction and Miley Cyrus, where auto-tune rules and image pays (ahead of perceived talent) the competition is stiff. What might set Cody Simpson apart is the fact that he remembers a time when all there was was a built-in mic and a YouTube account.  It’s that or a Bieber, Simpson, Emblem3 supergroup.

LITE – Installation album review

LITE’s newest album, quite appropriately titled Installation, is precisely what it seems.  Light. By this I mean, bright, radiant, up—something to rouse to.

I must admit that when I think about instrumental music I generally think Bill Evans, piano, saxophone, jazz, classical not Japanese “math rock.” What Nobuyuki, Takeda, Jun and Akinori have produced, however, is lively, unique, and somewhat mind bending. All ten tracks are engagingly spirited—rhythmically complex, textural, and shamelessly weird. They make you want to keep listening.

Take the first track, “Starry Morning” a tinkering, twinkling personification of its title that essentially builds a bridge to musical outer space—i.e. nowhere.  The following track, called ‘Echolocation’ (another tonal embodiment of its name) does not appear to be connected by any rhythmic or timely transition to its predecessor, it simply arrives as track number two.  This is the case throughout Installation, which, for an instrumental album, is yet again the dramatic opposite of what one might expect.

The track titles themselves provide the only typically instrumental quality of the entire project.  ‘Starry Night’ sounds like a collection of winking stars (pinged on a xylophone perhaps), ‘Echolocation’ is bouncy, fuzzy and undeniably (it would seem) linked to bio sonar (think of the dolphins in those grainy high school biology videos), ‘Fog Up’ is thick and murky, and ‘Alter Ego’ switches seamlessly between a glowing, buoyant Dr. Jekyll and a sinister, swampy Mr. Hyde.  With no lyrics it is of course simple (and common) to over-analyze track titles, but regardless—it’s fun, which certainly appears to be a major part of the point for LITE.

Installation is nothing more and nothing less than an instrumental, progressive (or “math”) rock album should be… and the best part is that who knows what an instrumental, progressive (or “math”) rock album should be! All that is known is that LITE has emerged with thirty-five minutes of solid, euphonic entertainment.

Maps – Vicissitude album review

The music genre shoegaze has always been one of great fascination.  As far as I can tell it is named for an action (or inaction really) in which a musician, or group of musicians stands a certain way on stage… still. Thereby gazing, you see, at his or her shoes.  It sounds like a practical joke, in fact, I’m not entirely sure it isn’t. Regardless, over the years (since the early 90’s), shoegaze has morphed into a recognizable sound—one of breathy vocals, echoey effects and desperate melancholy.  To lump Northampton based musician Jason Chapman aka Maps into this category of melodic dusk is accurate, but not quite so simple.

Since 2006, Maps has been cranking out LP after EP after EP.  It’s difficult to tell if he’s had one single moment to relax since his first small project Start Something turned into his first big project We Can Create and broke him into the UK music scene.  Over time the music has changed, as promised.  Where We Can Create cracked the ice, Turning the Mind took a psychedelic auger to the split and pulled every fiber of the listener’s verisimilitude down into a pitch-black, electronica trench. Four years later, enter Vicissitude.

Chapman’s song writing leans toward the dramatic.  Every new project outdoes the next—be it darker, louder, lengthier, softer, scarier, whatever—big changes occur from album to album.  Vicissitude is no exception.  There are more echoes, longer tracks, and extra sappy angst. “I adjusted to the darkness, made my home within the night, the world to me was comfortable, till you dragged me to the light.” Unlike the playful layering of “Don’t Fear” and “I Dream of Crystal,” the tracks this time around land heavy.  They’re familiar in tone and style, but they lack Chapman’s signature buoyancy.

All of this said… given the developmental fluidity of each album, I have no doubt that there is plenty more avant-garde shoegazing ahead for Maps.

Victory Kicks – Rockets for Ghosts album review

They call themselves a “lo-fi rock & roll band” which, once you’ve heard the new EP, sounds a bit like self-deprecation.  This identification is of course no longer an indicator of inferior quality, but a classification that lumps Victory Kicks’ genre in with Elliot Smith, Iron & Wine, The Smiths, and the list goes on.  Still, it is worth mentioning that the quality displayed in style and sentiment on Rockets for Ghosts is anything but low fidelity.

Take the album title for starters, a throwback to the mid-forties Scandinavian ghost rockets—a series of missile-like objects that somewhat inexplicably descended from the sky in remarkable frequency.  It’s the sort of perplexingly shrouded tale that keeps you reading, and peaks your menial interest to up-all-night resolve.  It’s also a suitable EP title for an emerging band whose media presence is, by modern standards, slight.  Mysterious if you will.  A means of letting the music speak for itself perhaps.

Another noteworthy quality to this seven track Extended Play is the fact that it was recorded at home.  Sure it’s becoming more common, and the things you can do these days with ProTools and GarageBand are remarkable, but the discipline, experimentation, and trial and error required to pull it off with the finesse and imagination existent on Rockets for Ghosts is nothing to scoff at.  (Exile on Main Street, perhaps the most famous in-home recording, certainly didn’t come together without a struggle.)

From “Dive, Dive, Dive” to “Exit Industry” the music develops.  It gets louder then softer, then broader then narrower—it twists and shape-shifts and leaves you feeling good.  Yes, good.  There’s a gentle repetition to most tracks that the lyrics uphold and the instruments echo.  It’s standard, yet revitalizing.  Rockets for Ghosts is like an intelligent (think Scarface ’83 not The Karate Kid ’10) remake—you know the story, but you’ve never heard it told quite like this.

Heliotropes – A Constant Sea album review

In the rich realm of the Heliotropes everything is dark and buzzy.  Cici on drums, Nya on bass, Amber on percussion and vocals, Jessica on lead guitar and vocals, the lyrics, the album art (some of which, “I Walked With a Zombie,” was created by Steve Manale of the Scott Pilgrim comic), the attitude, the look, the accolades, even the name (a red and black mineral also known as a bloodstone).

The band’s first LP, A Constant Sea, is a veritable ode to the early nineties.  It’s been said before, but for good reason, these four women will take you back.  Back to the initial days of Hubble, commercial internet service, economic prosperity, and the reign of Seattle grunge.  Listen to their live cover of Nirvana’s “Negative Creep” back-to-back with the real thing, and the essence comes across loud and clear.  Thick, fuzzy guitar, muddled vocals and slightly deranged zest.

A Constant Sea is strong and loud, true it its roots, from top to bottom.  Even the slower, less raucous tracks toward the latter half of the album maintain the spirit of their muddy brand of psychedelic rock.  The lyrics, either screamed or sung in gloomy harmony, provide a satisfying jolt to the shadowy makeup of this debut LP.

From where I sit, the Heliotropes are four Brooklyn women with bona fide chops and a taste for grit that we should all keep an ear on.

The Secret History – Americans Singing in the Dark album review

Americans Singing in the Dark sounds like it was fun to write, fun to play, and fun to sing—like part Broadway musical, part 80’s romantic comedy, part glam tribute.  All eleven tracks are distinct, and lyrics aside, each melody sounds like it’s telling a story.

Songwriter Michael Grace, Jr’s style lends itself to the imagination.  It is possible to spend this entire album (thirty-eight and a half minutes) in a musically induced daydream—within each two to five minute burst is a concise harmony, an energetic baseline or a surprising riff.  Compelling verse, playful refrain, repeat.  The music does so much work that the words sort of fuse themselves into the instrumental background.

This approach is not novel for The Secret History.  Desolation Town and The World That Never Was both contain a musical narrative.  From “Our Lady of Pompei” to “Our Lady of Stalingrad” to “Johnny Panic (Forget Everything)” a thematic motif is prominent.  Even the track titles overlap.  The longstanding notion (Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Simon & Garfunkle) that storytelling is at the cornerstone of good song-writing is clearly in play, and it’s satisfying to hear the whole band get in on it.

It is striking how well the tempo of this album matches the tone.  For the most part, it’s upbeat, like the sort of pop you might want to hear at a beach party, which is certainly consistent with the album’s general imaginative whimsy.  The slower tracks, “Age of Marianna,” “Isabelle & The Music,” and “Ages of Lulu” fill in the gaps to this primarily lighthearted tale with spotless melodic contour.

Americans Singing in the Dark is the sort of album you’ll likely keep in the disc changer (so to speak) for months to come.  It’s wonderful day to day music—delightful going down and probably not what you’re used to.

Surfer Blood – Pythons album review

Since 2009, when ‘Swim’ was released upon the masses Surfer Blood has been tearing through the alt rock world picking up accolade after accolade.  It’s safe to say that this is not always a blessing for a new artist—if you have your whole life to think about, write and re-write your debut, what happens in act two?  NO pressure.

Pythons is, for the most part, a strong subsequent effort.  Thick, muddy guitar and seamless transitions point to the notion that they have evolved as a group.  The songs as a whole are darker, more dramatic, less summer jams-y and come across like the kind of music you’d hear from a band with understanding.  Perhaps they’re finding their stride or maybe the EP in the middle (2011) ignited something, but Pythons is clear proof of musical maturity.  Their instruments even sound different, and all twelve tracks seem markedly deliberate: carefully formed, repeatedly rehearsed, and tonally measured. In fact, at times the album almost sounds like an ideal—as though a leading expert on alternative rock was asked to produce a sample for future students of the form.  This is not a critique of tightness mind you, as mentioned they have done their homework, but some of their distinct, textural weirdness does seem to be missing.  See Astro Coast’s ‘Take it Easy.’

What may be lacking in musical oddity, however, is compensated for in the lyrics, and possibly not in model form. A basic reading yields a few clichés and some bleeding heart storytelling.  They’re all a little bizarre, and in light of last summer’s domestic battery arrest it’s difficult not to read into John Pitt’s lyrics “some secrets you should never tell they’ll feed you to the hounds of hell.”  But, that inclination is somewhat arbitrary as the charges were dropped and there’s really no way to know the whole story.  Plus, it seems like a trap to delve too deeply into the lyrics of pop music.

As (full length) second albums go, Pythons is a successful one.  It’s charged, clean and true to form—a thriving Surfer Blood has emerged.

The Maine – Forever Halloween album review

Set down the smart phone, get off the Face-space, close out that Insta-watt and Relish. The. Analog.

As you cue up the record player, lean back and pop that RC Cola you’ll realize, it’s time for The Maine 1.0.

Gone are the days of the post-Green-Day-Warped-Tour Something Corporate meets Yellowcard pop-rock.  Forever Halloween is as real as the reel-to-reel on which it was recorded, and the finest byproducts of this method are front and center—rich bass, precise tone, and that comfortable, snuggly, sort of just tucked-in feeling.  In general, this album is cleaner and simply more interesting than the previous two.  They tapped in.  As frontman John O’Callaghan states on the band’s website, “We were all meeting her [the tape machine] for the first time, but she already knew everything there was to know about the five of us. In no single way judgmental, but she sniffed out the bullshit and wouldn’t allow us to be anyone we are not.”  Thank you compact cassette!

This album is an obvious measure in musical growth.  By focusing on and putting energy into the instruments, the quality of sound stretched and expanded into a selection of diverse and appealing tracks.  It’s the layered and creative playing that makes Forever Halloween an entertaining listen.  In fact, remnants of the old Pat, Kennedy, Garrett, Jared and John show up only in the lyrics.  That said, this time around there are, thankfully, fewer teenage beauty queens and drawn out memories of crush-related mishaps.  Once again, they have grown up.  For the most part now we’re in a world full of authentic relationships and Millennial dichotomies that are relatable, not whiny.  ‘Love & Drugs’ sings to the twenty-somethings by pushing on the split between culturally nurtured taste and current realistic means while ‘These Four Words’ (my personal favorite) dabbles in ballad with a graceful melody and a sincere sense of heartache, “I… don’t love you.”

The direction these five Arizonans took on Forever Halloween is a step in the right one.  It’s difficult to predict what might come next given the extreme development between this album and the previous ones, but I’m hoping it’s more of the same.

On a side note, I suggest sunlight and pair of headphones when you give this one a listen.

Young Benjamins – Less Argue album review

Neusha, Vaero, Brynn and Kuba have managed to take four standard components of a bluesy-folk band (plus a violin) and texture them in a way that sounds as refreshing as lemon-cucumber water in a sweltering heat wave.

In a world full of electronically pristine vocal tone and calculated, synthetic melody The Young Benjamins emerge as a necessary authenticity.  A sweet, tuneful assembly you probably didn’t even know you needed, but suddenly can’t live without.

Band leader, Neusha Mofazzali, plays guitar and sings with rich vulnerability reminiscent to the natural and ardent vocals on Dr. Dog’s 2007 album, We All Belong.  Violinist, keyboardist, and back-up vocalist Vaero Poulin is the perfect counterpart to Mofazzali’s style.  Where he is down, she is up, and vice versa.  That is to say nothing of her violin…  These four would have been just fine sans strings, but with the grainy, layered character of Poulin’s playing, they are seamless.  Cue up track two, “Out There (In the Wild)” for proof.

Bassist Brynn Krysa, and drummer Kuba Szmigielski deliver what distinctive melody requires, a backbone.  A technically engaging and dialed-in one at that.  Together they provide deep rhythm with a variable groove.  Harmonies sail when they need to sail, and sink when they need to sink.  “Common Thief” is a firm example.

The Young Benjamins are as cohesive and aurally spotless as they are unpredictable—a curious synthesis they’ve managed to pull off beautifully.  When you listen you are transported by the buoyant and most wrenching elements of each track.  Less Argue is so full of wistful sentimentality and lucid sensation, it’s like reaching into a crystal-clear memory.

Thirty Seconds to Mars – Love Lust Faith and Dreams album review

Seventy-eight days before the release of Thirty Seconds to Mars fourth LP, Love Lust Faith and Dreams, a countdown and a blast off debuted the album’s first single “Up in the Air.”  Literally.  On March 1st the Falcon 9 rocket launched a copy of the song, along with precious scientific cargo and goods, to the International Space Station.

Once you’ve listened to the album this brand of fanfare makes sense.  It’s forty-four minutes of giant sound—guitars, keyboards, even a cello and a violin hoisted to astronomical crescendo through heavy, synthesized vibration. At times the amalgamation is reminiscent to the soundtrack of a high-budget science fiction film.  I closed my eyes and saw Darth Vader one minute into “Pyres of Varanasi.”

The album is broken up into four thematic parts.  Love includes “Birth” and “Conquistador” Lust begins with “Up in the Air” then goes to “City of Angels” to “The Race” and concludes with “End of All Days” Faith consists of “Pyres of Varanasi,” “Bright Lights,” and “Do or Die” Dreams is comprised of the final three tracks “Convergence,” “Northern Lights,” and “Depuis Le Début” Each section is introduced by a breathy, female voice.

For the first time on this album Jared Leto, who formed the band with his brother in 1998, took a leading role in production. The collaboration with renowned producer Steven Lilywhite is full of bold experimentation and seasoned cohesion.  All that booming, heavy, symphonic rock is measured and articulated carefully.  Lilywhite’s style is recognizable (think The Killers newest album), and combined with Leto’s enthusiasm for experimentation and larger than life resonance, the music is undeniably affecting.

From the ominous start at “Birth” to the bright strings and synthesized beats in “The Race” to the discernible pop of “Bright Lights” and through the dramatic up and downs of “Depuis Le Début” Love, Lust, Faith and Dreams is a twisty, stentorian ride.