Bill Orcutt – How the Thing Sings album review

I have, for a long time, had a slight personal issue with the concept of ‘reviewing’ music because of music’s inherent nature of self-expression and my personal belief that no one should be able to tell another that their art is ‘wrong.’  That said, there are some albums; some bands; some genres; etc, which – by their very nature – tend to step outside of what’s considered to be ‘regular music.’  Bill Orcutt, former guitarist of influential experimental group, Harry Pussy, has always existed on the more questionable side of that line.

Free of vocals (save Orcutt’s orgasmic groans) and sounding as though it was recorded using a single microphone in someone’s hallway, his most recent, How the Thing Sings is a standing ovation to the purely expressional, raw approach to music – and more broadly, art.  Sporadically spaced bursts of note clusters in conjunction with vivaciously performed melodic patterns result in an emotional-if-not-frenetic exhibition of Orcutt’s talent.  Here, though, the concept in question is not whether it’s difficult to play in such primal form but rather one of artistic merit vs. purely self-indulgent musical masturbation. And perhaps more importantly, whether or not those two ideas are mutually exclusive.

The answer to that debate – in my opinion – is no.  Though this record is, without a doubt a clear example of self-satisfying musical gluttony, it also exists as a testament to the power of emotion when combined with musical talent.  When examined for it’s underlying emotional themes, there is much to be admired about this album: Nothing is watered down, nothing goes to waste for the sake of general palatability and there’s not a single thought given to ensuring the audience understands the intention at the risk of sacrificing honesty.

I won’t pretend that this is a great artistic feat, nor will I say it’s an essential addition of any music-lover’s collection, but it’s certainly a record worthy of a listen if for no other reason than to hear something different and possibly even find some bizarre fascination with abstract acoustic guitar music.

Kasabian – Velociraptor! review

Coming out of the international post-grunge climate of the late 90’s, British rock group, Kasabian seem to have consistently been on the edge of an identity crisis; though drawing undeniable influence from grunge bands preceding, they have also demonstrated a subtle love for the softer, more ‘accepted’ genres including both British and American pop, folk and even Americana.

Out of this ‘search for self’ they have released four proper studio albums, the most recent of which provides both newfound diversity and impressive continuity.  In November of 2010, the band began work on Velociraptor! (officially released Sept 19th, 2011) along side San Francisco-based producer, Dan Nakamura with whom they also collaborated on 2009 release, West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum.  Known largely for his work within urban genres, Nakamura’s influence seems like a strange choice for an almost-grunge band, however the outcome of the pairing has proved to be nothing short of inspiring.

A band inherently contains within its makeup a certain extent of diversity due to their various influences and in most cases the right producer can extract the more favorable and cohesive of those flavors to provoke a sincerely unique end.  Nakamura’s involvement on the band’s 2009 release yielded an assorted if not slightly frenetic album and the release of Velociraptor! has given us an equally multifarious and eloquent result.

Ranging from album opener, “Let’s Roll Just Like We Used To,” in which the band seems to pay homage to the experimentation of fellow Brits, The Rolling Stones, to the industrial/hip hop vibe of the record’s title track they’ve made it clear there are no boundaries they won’t at least flirt with.  Also present on this record are a slew of nods to The Beatles including direct mention of Lucy in the sky – and her narco-hallucinogenic associations – in “La Fee Verte” as well as Floyd-esque synths throughout the album, most notably on “Switchblade Smiles.”

In contrast to their first two projects – both of which seemed relatively bland – and their release of 2009 which was unfortunately more sporadic than diverse, Velociraptor! is a venerable effort hopefully indicating an end to the career-long identity-related insecurity of a band with a lot of potential.

Wilco – The Whole Love review

Throughout a career-long tendency for lineup and label changes, Chicago-based alt rock band, Wilco have released a wide variety of albums in terms of feel, approach and execution and with their post-A.M catalog ranging from the highly experimental Being There to the surprisingly unthreatening Sky Blue Sky, it would be easy to expect their most recent, The Whole Love to be either characteristically edgy or approachably bland.  Surprisingly, this release is somehow neither.

Out of familiarity and confidence rather than compromise Wilco have managed to release a record that is at once rife with the experimentation of earlier releases and cohesively palatable.  Featuring a track list dominated by effortless and subdued songs interrupted by the occasional attention-grabbing cathartic experiment, The Whole Love is unique.  It contains enough of the old Wilco’s knack for shaking things up to satisfy those bored stiff by the normalcy of the band’s mid-career releases while simultaneously standing as a more cohesive effort than even a ghost is born, successfully placing it on par with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

As silence is ripped apart with the noisy, distorted sound of someone fumbling with a microphone on album-opener, “The Art of Almost,” it seems clear that Wilco have once again returned to the experimental leanings of their past.  But once you endure the 7-minute-long saga of instrumental and vocal indulgence, it also becomes clear that there’s a depth on this album to be appreciated.

Plodding, steel guitar-laced, “Black Moon” and bouncy narrative, “Capitol City” offer two vastly different incarnations for the band, yet neither breaks the overall tone or flow of the album.  That artistic diversity devoid of unfavorable frenetic disorganization is a masterful achievement by what finally sounds like a veteran band.

A commendable effort from a seasoned and accomplished group of musicians, The Whole Love is an indication of a stronger, more resolute Wilco.  Secure in a tenacious lineup and finally on their own label, there’s nothing to keep this band from securing their already lofty spot as one of the greatest bands of this generation.

Tori Amos – Night of Hunters album review

Classical composition and Baroque nuance have been present in her music since before her 1986 label debut, however until now, Tori Amos has limited the presence of that influence to the occasional appearance among a sea of more musically current themes and stylistic attempts.  Now, upon the release of her 12th full-length album, Night of Hunters, it seems as though she has finally found her natural place among its entirely classical body of songs.

Released on German label, Deutsche Grammophon, each song is composed as a variation on a different classical theme with the intention of paying homage to influential composers from the last 400 years.  Standing at 12 tracks and just over 75 minutes long (extensive for most artists though hardly out of the ordinary for Amos) the overall musical work weaves an epic tale of the duality between ‘the hunter’ and ‘the hunted’ while simultaneously exploring themes of personal growth and relational hardship; and it does so solely through the use of a symphonic octet, piano and vocals performed by Amos, daughter, Natashya Hawley and niece, Kelsey Dobyns.

The result is an utterly natural incarnation for Amos and one that effectively places her where she has always threatened to go but has never fully ventured.  Classical music has forever been tailored for showcasing natural talent – both for composer and performer – and for that reason this album provides an exquisite platform to adequately showcase Amos as both an unmatched vocalist and as a tastefully talented pianist.  The aural simplicity laced with musical intricacy is a quality rarely touched by most popular releases and it comes as a much-needed sigh of relief for our society’s ears.

Among this project’s best features are Amos’ piano composition and performance and Hawley’s vocal presence; the former which calls upon the more orchestral of Ludovico Einaudi’s work and the latter which ads a depth and variety without which the album as a whole would suffer greatly.  Of course, that’s not to suggest that the listener overlook the expressly dauntless narrative or breath-taking orchestral arrangements (the contribution of long-time collaborator, John Philip Shenale) both of which lend to the album unyielding power and movement.  Overall a stunning effort, I would encourage anyone to delve into this valiant musical saga.

The Kooks – Junk of the Heart (Happy) album review

For a band that has enjoyed international success due largely to their own brand of British rock characterized by high-energy and uber-catchy melodic and lyrical hooks, their third full-length, Junk of the Heart (Happy) is surprisingly mellow.  Or maybe we’ve sold them short with this expectation.  More and more, bands tend to be pigeonholed within a specific niche while they are, in reality, quite capable of exceeding those boundaries.  And though some fans may look at this album as an indication that this once-angsty group is now settling down and, stated begrudgingly, “finding their more mature side,” I would encourage a more positive perspective.

Though this album is certainly mellower and more mature than past releases, it also serves as a more varied listening experience with more to offer.  I would also argue that energy isn’t lost on this record but rather re-directed.  Both in terms of artistic restraint and lyrical precision this is a luminary release for both this band and this genre.

Take album interlude, “Time Above the Earth” for example.  Comprised solely of an orchestral backdrop and Pritchard’s unmistakable vocal quality, this song steps outside of anything this band has done before. That musical restraint – that patience – mirrors other tracks on the record as well; throughout each of these songs, lack of instrumental distraction and tasteful execution results in a uniquely intimate experience.

Further adding to the refined nature of this release are the lyrics.  Song after song on this record is – stated simply – poetic.  “Rosie,” “Killing Me” and “Eskimo Kiss” are all heartfelt love songs written with a rarely surpassed elegance while “Is It Me” and “Petulia” achieve a similarly profound effect through more poignant and gruesome devices.

I’ll agree that this isn’t the same record they released in ’06 or even ‘08, but instead of indicating decline in terms of both appeal and relevance, I think this is a step towards a more adaptable and enticing band – a band not easily dismissed after one or two weeks – that has the potential to stick around for a long, long time.

The Perms – Sophia Nights extended album review

Perhaps it’s because they enjoy a unique access to the use of human linguistics or perhaps it’s simply because our society has placed immense power on words in general, but vocals – more specifically lyrics – seem to carry an unrivaled weight in a song.  Certainly more central than drum rhythms or bass lines and often drawing more attention than even the catchiest of guitar riffs, the message of a song rarely goes without at least some ounce of recognition.  It’s for this reason that Sophia Nights, the 5th full-length release from Canadian power-pop rockers, The Perms is just a touch short of spectacular.

Long-time fans will site infectious hooks and unmatched energy both on-stage and on their records among the best qualities of this band and on those counts I raise no objection, however I will say that this release contains an abundance of unrealized lyrical potential. Jam-packed with the same intoxicating melodies and pop guitar riffs they’ve been rocking since inception, this album is – on the surface – just as catchy and exciting as ever (well, maybe not quite as catchy as 2009 release, Keeps You Up When You’re Down.)  However, upon deeper and more critical listening we find lyrical composition that tends to disappoint.  It isn’t terrible, it’s not even bad; I just know they can do better.

A perfect example of their potential lies in album closer   “Over and Over.”  Lyrically it’s superior for several reasons. The writing seems well-thought-out, vocal phrases fit the music in an alarmingly attractive way and, most importantly, there isn’t anything that seems compromised for the sake of finishing the song.  Additionally, the delivery of this track seems to artfully combine the heavier feel of this release with the pop-ier vibe of previous works.  Several other tracks seem to take a huge, premature step towards Nirvana (the band, not the state of enlightenment) and while I’m not opposed to any band’s inter-album evolution, I believe a group should be either tasteful in this transition or fully committed.  Save the skillful finesse of “Over and Over” and the balls-to-the-wall approach of “Slipping Away,” this release is neither.

Now, having just read this you’re probably experiencing a bitter taste in your mouth towards this record and for that I apologize.  The reason I focus on the lyrical shortcomings is for lack of constructive criticism concerning the rest of the record.  Sonically a massive improvement from previous releases, Sophia Nights is a high-energy project that is both well constructed and appropriately representative of the band’s veteran musicality.  Album opener and first single, “High School High” is a cohesive if not slightly satirical nod to post-college-aged bands singing about adolescent trial and tribulation that sounds so reminiscent of late 90’s rock (think Good Charlotte and Dookie-era Green Day) that I almost considered spiking my hair again.  Also deserving of mention, production tricks in “Mannheim” draw likeness to Hendrix-esque phase modulations resulting in a swimmy and, for lack of a better word, trippy experience.

To be honest, there are quite a few gems on this record, especially if you can overlook the lyrics.  It’s exciting, catchy and generally fun and I encourage you to direct your attention to not only this album but also this band as a whole.

Bush – The Sea of Memories album review

Following a decade-long hiatus and the subsequent reunion spearheaded by front man, Gavin Rossdale, British rockers, Bush have released a sparkly new album.  The Sea of Memories is not quite what old fans may expect, though it seems to me that it’s the right step towards a hearty and forceful comeback that might actually give them a few more years in the business.

The first indication of discrepancy between this release and those prior is Rossdale’s choice of producer.  This time around, rock and roll legend, Bob Rock (Aerosmith, Metallica) took the helm and the result is a record immensely more palatable to a much larger audience. More grandiose than previous releases, it also seems as though the band have set out to make something new rather than re-hashing old attempts at Sixteen Stone-era success.  Original fans fear not, this is still the same heavy-hitting group of Brits, though it seems they’ve gained a matured sense of perspective in their time apart.

For the first time in the band’s history, Bush – by way of Rock – have given in to their natural tendency for arena rock hooks and catchy (if not slightly cheeky) melodies.  As for their grungier side, it’s still present in impeccable form (as illustrated by disgusting guitar tone on album opener, “The Mirror of the Signs”) only now it’s laced with enticing, guilty pleasure riffs and an ever-so-slightly mellowed attack.  For example, power ballad, “All Night Doctors” opens with piano (?!) and a vocal melody reminiscent of 90’s pop-rock (dare I say Goo Goo Dolls?) that caught even me, a still-in-the-closet pop fanatic off guard.

Is this the next big thing in the world of the grunge rock comeback?  Is it even the next big thing in the world of the UK’s music scene?  Probably not, but it undoubtedly marks a powerful return for a band that’s seen it’s share of success and failure.  A well-crafted effort and an exhibition of a new sound that has the potential to lead a veteran band into a new market, The Sea of Memories is well worth your time and attention.

Roll The Dice – In Dust album review

Music, when executed with acute fervor and subtle restraint has the ability to take a listener on a journey more vivid and efficacious than words or even cinema could ever achieve.  In my opinion, this concept, though unquestionably oldfangled is not antiquated despite an apparently overwhelming consensus and as proof, I call upon the sophomore release from Swedish analog electronic duo, Roll The Dice.  Entitled In Dust, the 11-song full-length reads more like bizarre aural cinema than simple music.

Composed in a span of only a few months, the album meanders through the increasingly common theme of a nearly apocalyptic communion between man and machine.  And though it’s an interesting concept for a music album, the real gold lies in the duo’s meticulous attention to detail.  The way they have used aspects of classical approach by building and recapitulating themes throughout the album to better convey meaning and development is a fresh and welcomed approach.

Prime example lies in album opener as Iron Bridge” drones a patient and hesitant intro leading in to a throbbing and claustrophobic pulse serving to introduce the tone of the narrative.  Further into the song a warm yet cacophonic acoustic piano strikes monotonous singular notes seemingly pointing at some sort of organic life while the original industrial drone and rhythmic pattern soldier on under piles of synths.

Equally representative is “The Way Out” in which a helicopter-esque rendition of the original pulse found in “Iron Bridge” opens the song and leads us to nearly dissonant synth elements evocative of those from both “Maelstrom” and “Cause And Effect.”  As this dissonance builds we’re reintroduced to a double-time electrical-sounding percussive element found in more esoteric form in “Dark Thirty.”  The track thickens and eventually gives way to an airy, major-sounding passage indicative of redemption from the bleak fragility indicated elsewhere on the album.

Consider this review a cinematic trailer – a very brief overview – of an incredible sonic adventure unlike anything I’ve so far encountered.  I urge you to listen with an open mind and be ready for the unexpected.  You won’t be disappointed.

Gotye – Making Mirrors album review

Though the skies stateside remain clear and cloudless, the last several years have seen a storm brewing in the artistic incubator of Melbourne, Australia.  Since 2003, a talented triple-threat producer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter known as Gotye has been gaining impressive momentum and now, with 2011 and his third full-length release entitled, Making Mirrors, it’s clear the world is about to get a taste of something they won’t want to spit out.

Generally speaking, a ‘producer’ will program a track because he or she can’t actually play the instruments, however this is not the case with Gotye; the benefits of his luminary musicality shine on every single track.  Among the most noticeable and infectious of these benefits is the groove and placement of rhythm sections, and as though to further enhance the effect of these elements, real drums were performed in lieu of sampled ones for the first time in the history of this artist.  (Other organic instruments recorded for this album include pedal steel, bass and cello.)  The result is a more natural and more engaging experience between performer and listener – this is music that will make you move, even if you don’t mean to.

Equally alluring is the maturity and power of the songwriting.  Touching on topics both poignant and elated, each of these songs conjures emotion through artful placement of words and musical elements.  Making use of innovative vocal melodies and an inimitable vocal quality (think Sufjan Stevens mixed with Sting), the delivery of already-strong lyrics transforms mere poetry into a force capable of encapsulating true feeling.

Among the best tracks on this album are “Eyes Wide Open” on which a galloping rhythm matches a percussive vocal melodies and sweeping steel passages to yield a balmy summer anthem.  Equally invigorating is “I Feel Better,” a once-sparkly show-tune featuring gritty-sounding vocals and horns evocative of Ferris Bueller’s rendition of “Twist and Shout.”

To be honest, there isn’t a single track on this record unworthy of attention and I urge you to choose your own favorite. This is a well put-together, marvelously written and uniquely crafted album with the potential for massive success.

Southern Shores – Atlantic EP review

Once in a blue moon an artist or band will craft a sound – a sonic experience – that immediately falls effortlessly into an impeccable existence in terms of both form and function.  One such example of this increasingly rare phenomenon is Atlantic, the debut EP release from Canadian duo Southern Shores.  Emanating from the frigid coastline of Halifax, Nova Scotia, this impressive first compilation of disco-infused pop tunes sounds more like it belongs under the sun on some trendy summer beach along southern Europe.

Though every track is well placed and perfectly composed – not a single second goes to waste – Atlantic, an indisputably warm and easy-going record sadly stands at only 6 tracks and a mere 23 minutes long.  And though short and dizzyingly cohesive, the diversity present on this record is intoxicating.

Opening track, “Take Me Anywhere,” is bursting with carefree enthusiasm as ethereal synth sweeps combine with dialog samples from the 1940’s film, “Out of The Past” to set the stage for a nostalgic-yet-innovative throwback to sounds and vibes of old.  Leading us into the middle of the album, “Tangier Winds” is a more relaxed track dripping with the sedation of late-afternoon summer sun; heavily delayed vocal call and response leans towards a less politically inspired Thievery Corporation vibe while purely euphonic soundscapes urge eyelids to repose.

Though this entire album is artfully crafted, the second half of this short release is where Southern Shores truly find their stride.  “Night Is Young” evokes fond memories of Gloria Gaynor as gospel-esque vocals permeate the feel-good simplicity of half-time disco grooves while album closer, “Meridian” lends itself to a regretful departure back to whatever reality you live in.  Its laid-back syncopation of melodic and rhythmic elements spins a coolly fluent conversation between South African-style gang vocals and island melodies proving once and for all that this duo have achieved extreme rarity by releasing a debut incapable of negative review.

The only downside to this EP is that we’ll have to wait for future releases to further indulge our ears in this pleasurable escape from the normal.  Until then, however, I’m sure this will do just fine.