Much unlike their namesake, California’s Cold War Kids are an example of having a goal and setting out to get ‘er done. Following the departure of original guitarist Jonnie Russell and addition of former Modest Mouse member Dann Galluci, the band, who, as they put it, “strive to make albums about the human experience” are back with a fourth studio album, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts that does just that.
A concept album inspired by Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts is certainly roller-coaster — ups and downs that explore various emotions in a way that is quite indicative of the human experience, indeed. It opens with the explosive single, “Miracle Mile,” which has a racing desperation that very nicely compliments the urgent, repeated cry to “come up for air, come up for air.” This then settles into a generally more mellow sound. New recruit Galluci, who co-produced the album with Lars Stalfors, describes it as “spacious and audacious” which is pretty accurate. Lead singer Nathan Willet’s vocal performance is characterized by drawn out wails, that deliver passion and drama to each song. This is a trend held constant throughout the album, although instrumentals provide enough variation to keep it from being repetitive. “Bottled Affection,” in particular, has an interesting and attention-grabbing opening that features Willet singing over a very sparse percussion-based instrumental track.
That being said, the album does get a bit slow at times. The burst of energy from “Miracle Mile” makes the slowdown that characterizes the rest of the album even more marked — we keep waiting for it to pick back up again but it never does. Its passionate, yes, and emotional, sure, but it doesn’t have quite the same draw. Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that Cold War Kids know what they’re doing. They’ve set out to make an album about the human experience, to create factual feelings from a work of fiction, and for all intents and purposes, they appear to have accomplished their goal. It’s certainly not perfect but that, if anything, just adds to the authenticity of it all.
Some artists will use their words and their instruments to steer your feelings in a certain direction. Others will make the sounds and leave it up to you to paint the emotional picture all on your own. As you might expect with a stage name like Soosh, Soroosh Khavari, and his album Colour is Breathe, fall firmly into the latter category.
Colour is Breathe is an 11 track effort of what might be best described as soundscapes, under the self-identified genre of “electronic dream hop.” The human presence is, for the most part, pretty sparse — Soosh or frequent guest vocalist Carmel Khavari might make an appearance one line at a time, often simply repeating the song title in a vaguely melodic fashion. This is then overlaid on an instrumental track that is rich and layered — wholly synthetic, but nevertheless sonically full and deeply emotive. The “hop” part of “electronic dream hop” comes out best in tracks like “The Way You” which takes an unexpected turn into R&B that it manages to work quite well, giving Soosh a certain uniqueness when it comes to his brand of music.
Evidently, the album relies heavily on listeners to ascribe meaning to what it offers, but Soosh seems to know what he’s doing when it comes to setting that kind of interaction up. Each track seems capable of enveloping you and carrying you away, as they all share the kind of cool mellow vibe that is the epitome of ephemerality. They probably all have a certain meaning or implication to Soosh himself, but this is in no way impressed upon the listener. In this way, Colour is Breathe functions almost like a toolbox or an artist’s kit — poised for listeners to turn it into what they will, ready to be anything to anyone, from fodder for the inevitable club remixes to the perfect study soundtrack.
Two things Bowie’s first album in 13 years has confirmed: first, that the category of aged British rock acts trying to make albums for today’s music scene has apparently become a thing; second, that the ability to pull it off successfully is a distinction pretty much reserved for him. Good news for enthusiasts of the man behind hits like “Space Oddity,” but perhaps a rather unfortunate revelation for bands like The Wonder Stuff whose 9th album, Oh No…It’s The Wonder Stuff, just doesn’t stack up.
Sonically, the album is pleasing enough. It has a good energy that is kept up throughout, proving that with age does not come an erosion of musicianship. To keep things interesting, there are some unexpected touches — for example, surprise fiddles in the background on tracks like “Friendly Company.” Moreover, no one can fault it for straying from its genre. The band stays true to its brit-rock roots — bratty and ratty through and through, from its ostentatious length (21 tracks, clocking in at just under 75 minutes) to its lyrical style, which bemoan trivialities such as having to get out of bed in the morning. (“Oh No!”)
None of this is really problematic until you take into consideration the fact that the band’s members are in their 40s. Perhaps The Wonder Stuff is attempting to operate in the punk rock tradition of never wanting to grow up, but the album’s sound falls flat on this front. Tinny, diluted vocals and lyrics that are angry for all the wrong reasons make Oh No… simply too tame to carry this vibe effectively. Instead, it just comes across as entitled, confused, and a little pathetic. Lines like, “Where vanity prevails over the rest of the hood” only further this — sentiments that are clunky in their philosophizing and misplaced slang give off the impression of an out-of-date band trying too hard to be return to relevancy. A valiant effort, Oh No…It’s the Wonder Stuff’s ultimate flaw is not that it suffers from a severe case of nostalgia, but rather that it acts on it.
They say it’s all in the name, an adage that Chicago-based indie outfit Campfires seems to have taken to heart. Their debut full-length album, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, with its self-tagged lo-fi noise-pop billing, screams rusticity with every note and flickers as warm and balmy as the namesake of the band who created it.
The album’s sound is fairly consistent — something that band member Jeff Walls readily owns up to as a deliberate move, describing the album as having a new kind of cohesion. Each track on the album is tied together in the same fashion, featuring a backbone of peppy percussion and light, twangy guitars overlaid with sharp, squeaking riffs. They come together with vocals that are uninvolved and understated — there is a definite sense of distance, as carefree “la la las” fade out until they are barely audible and lyrics are, at times, indiscernible as simple melodies overpower them completely. The whole thing in general has a very home-grown feel, as if it has been recorded on subpar equipment and slapped together in someone’s basement — but the band pulls it off almost by virtue of their name alone.
The resulting album is quite charming and homely. Even more impressive is the fact that, despite its simplicity, despite the fact that it is not particularly complex in its structure or varied in its instrumentals, nor is it heartbreaking in its lyricism, Tomorrow, Tomorrow is still far from boring. There is something about the throwback to rusticity that seems to be near infallible when it comes to music. Unpolished and imperfect, Tomorrow, Tomorrow seems above all ready for an adventure. It comes off as the perfect soundtrack to a lazy summer evening or a long drive through an expanse of unremarkable scenery — in other words, it’s music for the outdoors.
Robert Frost once wrote that nothing gold can stay, but he obviously never encountered David Bowie. In the face of a music scene rife with neon-haired starlets and robotic voices over beats that may as well be alien greetings for all the musicality they embody, Bowie has managed to emerge, some 10 years after his last foray into the musical ring, indubitably victorious. But really, is anyone surprised?
The Next Day is Bowie’s 24th studio album and it shows in the best possible way. Where other established artists trying to make a comeback tend to work too hard to reinvent themselves within the confines of an industry that has moved on without them, Bowie sticks to what he knows how to do best — be himself. From its sound to its style to its pace, The Next Day definitely constitutes a blast from the past. It glides along without hiccup, even as Bowie alternates between the quiet philosophies and loud theatrics, opposite ends of the spectrum that somehow worked together to make him famous. A standout track in this respect would have to be “If You Can See Me,” which is rolled off in a style akin to the rock opera or musical theatre genres, essentially narrating a string of events through song.
Bowie’s voice has aged nicely, taking on a worn, hollow quality that lends a certain level of experience and authority to his more musing tracks. He takes on the persona of a wise mentee, someone who has been places and seen things — which of course, at age 66 with a career spanning 40 years, he very much is. As if Bowie’s denial to tour The Next Day weren’t indication enough, one listen to the record makes it evident that Bowie’s so-called comeback is not about giving his career a kick in the pants or trying to join a scene that, if we’re being frank, no longer cares the way it used to. Instead, The Next Day is David Bowie making music because he wants to, because he is a musician, because that’s what he does. The fact that it is doing well on the charts, earning him his first number 1 record in 20 years, is just a happy side-effect, and a testament to his indisputable talent at that.
Forget breaking up — it’s growing up that’s hard to do, and some bands will stop at nothing to avoid it. After all, that desire is pretty much what the entire punk movement was founded on. Although They Might Be Giants doesn’t exactly fit the bill of the punk scene, they, too, have exhibited a reluctance to grow up over their 16-album run, most recently by making their living with albums aimed at children. And although their latest album, Nanobots, is being billed as their first adult offering in recent memory, one listen makes it evident that they haven’t quite let go of the children’s music scene.
While some might welcome adult listeners might welcome the change of pace, for the most part, the direction the album takes is somewhat off-putting. Yes, the tracks do an amazing job of embodying youth — they are lively, energetic and at time silly. And yes, the musicianship is up to snuff — with songs that are lyrically diverse and interesting instrumentally, although at 16 albums in, this shouldn’t even be a question for the band. Nanobots certainly has all the makings of an excellent children’s album. The problem is that it isn’t billing itself as such.
Taking that into consideration, the album becomes immediately problematic. The youthful sound starts to grate, coming off mostly as immature. Songs such as “Tesla,” literally a musical biography of inventor Nikola Tesla, serve to confound rather than educate with their subject matter. Even the album’s structure itself, a 25-track compilation that runs only 45 minutes, becomes irritating — the 15 second songs seem better suited to a child’s capricious attention span than an adult looking to indulge in some alternative rock.
Objectively, then, the album is not bad. But the fact that it cannot seem to make up its mind as to whether or not it wants to be an album targeted at children or adults definitely serves to harm rather than help it — just like any person caught in the same predicament, it can’t be taken seriously until it makes a choice once and for all.
Pop-punk had a great life in the early 2000s and its back, with a twist, courtesy of Canadian-born indie-rock Hollerado. The band’s third album, White Paint, combines a carefree, bittersweet lyrical style with an intriguing and comfortably indie level of musicianship to create a revival of pop-punk that is friendly today’s most disaffected of hipsters.
With a sound reminiscent of fellow Canadian indie staples Tokyo Police Club, Hollerado’s White Paint is young, loud and fun. Tracks are energetically led by lead singer Menno Versteeg, and filled out with exuberant echoing chants, supplied by remaining members of the band. Evidently, the band is aptly named — there is plenty of hollering abound. Meanwhile, lyrical stylings range from the curiously philosophical, (“At the end of time and space/who will remember the human race” from “Don’t Think”) to the almost-laughably adolescent (“Desire, it’s just a chemical/it comes and goes it comes and goes” from “Desire 126”). In this respect, the band is largely reminiscent of pop-punk heavyweights of the previous decade — one can just as easily imagine Joel Madden of Good Charlotte posing the same questions or bemoaning the same emotions.
It might be trivial and tiresome if it weren’t done so creatively. Hollerado manages to put a spin on the same tired tropes of this brand of music by pairing them with instrumentals that do not disappoint. They come fast and hard, loud and perfectly timed, seeming to serve as a reminder not to take the band so seriously. Even when the band slows down halfway through the record, it does not lose steam. This lends to a certain level of self-awareness that I don’t think pop-punk ever really had, which probably led to its downfall. Hollerado is saved from this fate, combining the sentiments of pop-punk with the musicianship that is evermore valued today. As such, White Paint is a record that just might end up filling the Simple-Plan-shaped hole in every current 20-something’s heart — from one Canadian music staple to a band that may one day become another.
The great thing about indie music is that anything goes. Sometimes this means it’s dressed up with all the latest technological innovations of noise creation. Other times, however, it’s conceived of with tradition in mind, synthesizing elements of the ancient and the modern to create a sound that works. Such is the case with Scottish indie-rockers Frightened Rabbit and their fourth studio album, Pedestrian Verse.
The album starts on shaky ground, literally, with vocalist Scott Hutchinson venturing into a higher register that can only be described as grating at best. But the band’s sound soon swells into a wonderful, gloriously full momentum that it maintains for the rest of the album. The instrumentals of Pedestrian Verse are abound with fast-paced guitar riffs, supported by a peppering of odd synthetic sounds to keep things interesting as well as clear Celtic undertones that act as a homage to the band’s Scottish origins. Arrangements are halting and intermittent, rising and falling, starting and stopping exactly as you might expect — but given the overall nostalgic vibe of the record, it’s something of a comfort. The album has been described by the band as having a “worn-in feel” and this is definitely accurate. The tracks feel a little fuzzy around the edges and Hutchinson’s vocals, when they reach their peak, compliment this perfectly, with his charmingly inconsistent pitch, slight edge, and clearly discernible accent. What results from all these features is a solid, good old indie rock record, plain and simple.
As mentioned above, Frightened Rabbit’s strength seems to lie in its ability to pander to the familiar and the traditional. While this might seem kind of counter-intuitive for a genre like indie rock, which is often founded on experimentation, the fact that they have been able to make this sound relevant to today’s music scene is a testament to the innovation involved in taking cues from established conventions. While all the elements of Pedestrian Verse tend to harken back to the idea of roots, it provides a listening experience that is both comfortable and intriguing, making for a very charming and likeable record indeed.
Dirty blues rock is in the process of a modern revival movement. If acts like The Black Keys and The White Stripes represent its cool, collected champions while a band like Cage the Elephant is a somewhat punk-infused subversive force, The Stone Foxes, back with their third album Small Fires, can be found somewhere in between.
The album starts off strong with the track “Everybody Knows,” a song that immediately ups the band’s cool factor and is impossible not to groove along to. It is as slick as the criminal it tells of — slipping and sliding along, offering up a careful and haunting chord progression as its backbone and opening with a shrill whine to grab your attention. Lead singer Aaron Mort’s voice is perfectly suited to the role — it is rough and powerful, at time strained to the point of bursting. He appears to be giving each line all his breath and all his heart. The result is something that is wonderfully grating and grungy, unrefined but nevertheless worthy of indulgence.
This is a trend that continues readily through the band’s more upbeat offerings. “Cotto” is a display of tremendous instrumental prowess, with the outro culminating in a whole lot of beautiful noise that is so easy to get lost in. Tracks like this make it easy to see why the album was named Small Fires — the energy of each song, with the overwhelming sound and air of sheer audacity, kind of makes you picture the band playing against a backdrop of a raging inferno.
Unfortunately, these songs only comprise about half the album. The rest of the tracks are more toned down, slower in pace and, ultimately, disappointing. The ironically named “So Much Better” seems to go on forever, while a track like “Battles, Blades & Bones” delivers fine as a standalone but pales in comparison when considering the raw energy of its louder counterparts. While no one can say The Stone Foxes aren’t cool, it’s missteps like this that prevent the album from reaching its potential, proving that even the coolest of kids are entitled to their off days.
Scandinavian Rebekka Karijord started out making music for movies, and it shows. With her second album, We Become Ourselves, the vastly experienced musician and composer seems committed to painting pictures with the sounds she creates on her computer and beyond, offering up a collection of tracks that is highly sensory and uniquely visceral.
Whether she is punctuating the air with a careful, crisply articulated acapella lyric or howling carnally against a tribal beat, Karijord’s songs are nothing if not evocative. Each track is dramatic enough to provide the background to any film, yet they all still manage to feel organic — perhaps a testament to the fact that the album was recorded live over 8 days in December 2011. Tending to swell and shrink in the most natural of ways, the sounds Karijord creates really do paint pictures in the mind’s eye. “We Become Ourselves” draws up images of a kind of serene woodland setting, full of fairies and nymphs, while “Use My Body While It’s Still Young” sets up a scene as carnal and vivid as its name.
Though Karijord’s style is reminiscent of her more mainstream counterparts like Florence + The Machine, the visuality of her music is a characteristic all her own. The record is a demonstration of a remarkable talent that Karijord obviously possesses. With We Become Ourselves, she has accomplished the seemingly impossible — capturing something as intangible as feeling in a way that is truly representative. It is a feat most musicians aspire to achieve, but few ever actually do. The effect is like the best kind of 2-for-1 deal in that the music, which itself is beautiful in its powerful and haunting quality, leads to something even greater if you let it. With We Become Ourselves, listening goes from being a passive exercise to an active and creative one in its own right.