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Teen Mom – Mean Tom album review

It’s not every day that you get three grown men unabashedly owning up to the fact that they play fuzz-pop love ballads. So when declaration like this does comes along, as it did with Washington, DC based trio Teen Mom, you had best believe it’s going to spawn something special. Such is the case with the short but sweet six-song EP, Mean Tom.

The debut release from the band is pretty easy to pin down from the start. Operating easily within the genre to which it has been named, each track has a delicate feel, as if its being heard through a screen. Vocals are airy and indiscernible, but still inherently sweet. Instrumentals are unexpectedly heavy at times, as in “Almost Happy” which help to give the band weight and keep the project from becoming too fluffy and insubstantial. As it progresses, you come to realise that Mean Tom is going to play out exactly how you’d expect it to, but it’s such an interesting product that that fact doesn’t necessarily work against them. Quite the opposite of boring, there are enough layers and emotions to make you feel something, even if you have no clue what they’re trying to say.

Perhaps it is this almost-rambling incoherency that makes Mean Tom remarkable in its earnestness. Simple lyrics like “I stay cause I really like staying/I stay cause I’m married to her/You know that I will love you forever/Yeah, I’m sure” (“Gehry”) make each track seem almost tentative and consequently genuine. It is immediately endearing, and undoubtedly a testament to the band’s declaration that they rely primarily on their own experiences when writing music.

It is these elements that make it pretty easy to see the band as they seem to want us to — just three guys playing love songs. After all, the record reads a lot like a shy dude’s first declaration of love — you might not get a lot of length, there might not be very many words, and most of them are likely to be pretty much incomprehensible, but it’s a wonderful thing that you’re sure to remember nevertheless.

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Kid Rock – Rebel Soul album review

With some musicians, you just know — what to see is what you get. Nine records in, this is absolutely true of Kid Rock. Walking into his latest release, Rebel Soul as pretty much a Kid-Rock-virgin, I definitely had my preconceptions of what it would sound like. Having emerged on the other side, I can concretely say that they were absolutely spot on. What’s more, I wasn’t even surprised to find this was the case.

The record is the kind of typical Americana you’d have to expect from an ardent celebrity Republican. Kid Rock sings with a raw, raspy twang that, to be honest, isn’t all that unpleasant to listen to. His melodies are heavily guitar-driven and feature all the typical riffs and runs of the country-rock brand in which he operates. He treats topics like growing up, running free and rock music. His songs are called things like “God Save Rock N Roll”, “Cocaine and Gin” and “Redneck Paradise” and they sound exactly like you’d think they would.

In other words, for an album called Rebel Soul, it’s pretty predictable. There are surprises here and there — the semi-sweet, toned down “Happy New Year” for instance. But even this falls well within the parameters of the image Kid Rock has spent his entire career cultivating. You almost wish he wouldn’t make it about sex or getting shit-faced, just so it might be a little different for a change. Other attempts at depth, namely the politically charged tracks “Let’s Ride” and “3 CATT Boogie” fall flat simply because they are nested so tightly within the rebel soul persona — it’s pretty hard to take someone’s critique of Wall Street seriously when their main charge is that they stir up “sitchee-ations.”

Despite this, purely as a Kid Rock record, Rebel Soul works. Aside from the horrible, otherworldly misstep that is the autotuned “The Mirror,” it’s a solid offering of down and dirty American rabble-rousing. Expecting nothing more makes the listening process virtually painless, which is probably enough.

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Bear Colony – Soft Eyes album review

Bands come in all shapes and sizes. There are big bands, small bands, brass bands, metal bands, bands whose members met in high school and bands whose members met on TV. And then there’s Bear Colony, a self-referential “patchwork artistic collective” hailing from Little Rock, Arkansas. This band by any other name, which features a rotating membership of anywhere from 6 to 12 people with 5 of them permanent, has just released their second album, Soft Eyes.

With the impassioned yet defeated vocals, the cryptic and delicate lyrics, and instrumentals that strike the perfect balance of electric and acoustic influences to ebb and flow as the sentiments require, Soft Eyes has all the trappings of a genuine, early-2000s indie record. Despite this, however, Bear Colony manages to put a little spin on it all, with intricate layering that makes the “collective” nature of the band’s project evident, and the odd burst of electronic synth — either within full-length tracks or as standalone interludes. The result is a sort of new-age Death Cab for Cutie that operates well under the band’s self-labelled genre of ambient.

Generally speaking, it’s quite a nice effect. The layers of each song make them remarkably full and robust — they wrap you up like a blanket, one right after, knit together to create the kind of record that would be able to float you on your back or cradle you to sleep if you’d just let it. At the same time, though, you kind of expect something more from a band that calls itself an artistic collective. Maybe it’s just a technicality, but a label like that seems to imply a certain level of astounding creativity or innovation that Soft Eyes, with its inevitable associations to acts that have come before it, doesn’t yet seem to reach. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really, truly enjoyable and beautiful album; comforting and soothing and safe. Whether that’s enough, however, is up to each individual listener to decide.

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Andy Shauf – The Bearer of Bad News album review

Andy Shauf is a prairie boy, and it shows. From a voice that carries just a hint of a hooser inflection to the simplicity of his style, everything about the Regina-based singer-songwriter’s sound resonates with the homeliness of central Canada. But in spite of the fact that his latest album, the first in four years, is called The Bearer of Bad News, Andy Shauf just might be doing some good for the region’s rep. If there’s one message the album delivers, it’s that even if the prairie terrain is flat, the music doesn’t have to be.

That’s not to say that The Bearer of Bad News is bursting with the kind of energy that will make you get up out of your seat and move — because it’s not. It’s a simple, sleepy record that’s everything you’d expect from someone who hails from Saskatchewan. Shauf, on his website, claims to have recorded it in a basement alone, using only a piano, a guitar and a clarinet for all songs, with the exception of “You’re Out Wasting” which features drums. The resultant intimacy makes it hard not to believe him, and it’s certainly an overwhelming presence on this album. Every instrument, every sound comes cross so whole and pure, you can’t help but feel that Shauf is right up close, that the songs are just for you.

This effect is only heightened by Shauf’s lyrical style. He alternates between narrative ballads that spin tales about characters (“Hometown Hero”) and descriptions of the mundanities of his own life (“I’m Not Falling Asleep”). In either case, the words roll off his tongue as if he has hardly thought about them at all, beautiful in their simplicity and intimate in their honesty. Shauf comes across as a friend, and his fragmented voice singing lines like “I am not a poet, I’m a broken heart” become all the more emotive as a result.

The record is slow and, for the most part, steady, although Shauf has a penchant for incongruously swelling introductions that stand in jarring opposition to the primarily acoustic middles. Regardless, The Bearer of Bad News is proof that the prairies are not all wheat, beef and predictability. Shauf may be single-handedly injecting appeal to the often written-off centre of Canada, one heart-wrenching lyric at a time.

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Luke Lalonde – Rhythymnals album review

I’ve never much liked the idea of the lead singer of a band going solo. It’s always seemed like a selfish move that is guaranteed to irrevocably change the dynamic of the ensemble. Not to mention that it usually ends with a few albums of nothing drastically different before they’re back where they started — with the band that made them. But every once in a while, there’s the odd lead singer who’s genuinely got something different kicking around, something too good to pass up — something like Rhythymnals,  the debut solo offering from Born Ruffians frontman Luke Lalonde.

Lalonde starts the album slow, building up the suspense before a perfectly understated explosion at the two minute mark. But the indiscriminate blips and beeps are enough to clue listeners into the fact that they’re not in Kansas anymore. Where Born Ruffians offers instrumentally-driven smooth alternative rock, Lalonde’s side project occupies a comfortably distanced place on the opposite end of the spectrum. Rhythymnals comes across as a diluted version of Animal Collective, with Lalonde putting the electronic toys to good use. His tracks are simple without being sparse and his voice remains undoctored, leaving it beautifully crisp, earnest and pure.

Perhaps it has something to do with stepping away from the band and striking out on his own, but the record has an incredibly light, airy, youthful feel. Songs like “Undone” and “Red Wagon” are humanistic and easy to relate to. It is a refreshing break from typical electro-pop inspired records that purport tracks that, despite being entertaining, are sometimes frustrating in that they are nearly indiscernible. He presents the best of both worlds — a way for fans of the genre to emotionally connect to tracks and still have beat to dance to. You feel it in your heart as well as your bones. Rhythymnals’s one misstep comes in the third-to-last track, “Calm Down,” — an instrumental interlude that, despite being aptly named, is a distracting break from the flow of the record. But as a lead singer striking out on his own, there are definitely worse mistakes Lalonde could have made. And when he’s managed to deliver as well as he has, it’s easily forgiven.

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Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man album review

In the world we live in today, it’s pretty naive to expect that things are going to stay pigeonholed forever. Things that could previously be easily sorted and distinguished — like cultures or genres or mediums — are increasingly becoming enmeshed in each other; the lines increasingly blurred as experimentation is the new regulation. For some, it’s a huge mess. For others, like Natasha Khan who operates under the stage name Bat For Lashes, back with her third album The Haunted Man, it just kinda works.

The best way I can think to describe The Haunted Man is to equate it to a big gift basket of creative goodies. Tribal beats (“All Your Gold”), classical piano (“Laura”), dubstep-esque clamors (“Lillies”) and even something akin to a Gregorian chant (“The Haunted Man”) can all be heard on the album. They are seamlessly paired with and overlaid onto Khan’s vocals which, despite being delicately haunting, still manages to give off the impression of strength and power. She takes on the role of a supernatural force and displays quite a range, hitting high notes in “Deep Sea Diver” that pierce the air like the most finely tuned woodwind instrument.

Media are mixed too as the album is an extremely visual experience. It moves slowly, suspending the listener in time and space, evoking images with every note. Khan’s background as a visual artist is immediately evident, and it is easy to believe her when she says that writing music takes a visual place in her mind. The Haunted Man is all about crossing boundaries and defying norms, and whether she is mixing and matching genres or forms, Khan manages to pull it off with ease.

And this is perhaps what is most impressive about the album. Despite sampling from such a broad range of cultures, genres and media, the album maintains an air of organicism that keeps it from sounding contrived. Described on Khan’s website as an autobiographical record that heavily influenced by the rediscovery of her roots, The Haunted Man stands, therefore, as a true testament to her talent and her vision—this is evidently not something that can be learned, which makes it all the more rare and admirable a feat.

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Coffee & Wine – From the Ground album review

Like most people, if I had to give a colour to typical Spanish culture, it would be a bright, fiery red. From flags to fiestas to flamencos, everything about the culture screams lively passion. But if typical Spanish music can be characterized by (metaphorical) pops of the most vibrant shades, indie folk Madrid-based outfit coffee&wine, back with their second album From the Ground, is something of a black sheep. If typical Spanish music is tinged with the reds and yellows of fervent energy, coffee&wine are as grey as a lazy October afternoon.

The turn into indie-folk territory is undoubtedly a pretty gutsy move considering the culture the band comes from, but on the other side of the Atlantic, From the Ground is pretty much standard fare. Lead singer Ana Franco has a set of Lana-esque pipes, crooning languorously in a way that is simultaneously sorrowful and soothing. Meanwhile, each track features instrumentals that are wonderfully minimalistic — sparse without being underwhelming. The band is notable in its inclusion of the glockenspiel on tracks such as “Ukelele”, which introduces a quirky take on percussion.

The result is a collection of pleasantly simple, acoustically driven tracks that come together to create a pure and unassuming folk record. There is a sense of real emotion present in each track and a rustic authenticity that many new kids on the indie block can only dream of being able to convey. This is no doubt the mark of a band creating indie music that is true to its name, bringing the genre back to its roots by fostering it in a place where it hasn’t yet become a cultural badge people wear to prove their worth. While From the Ground doesn’t offer much to the indie folk scene in terms of innovation or technique, its earnestness and air of quiet rebellion make it appropriately beautiful and likable all the same.

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of Montreal – Daughter of Cloud album review

It’s hard to know what to say about of Montreal. Having been around since 1996, they’re certainly vets of the industry, and with a discography that boasts shift after shift in style, lyricism and conception, if there’s one thing you can expect of the band, it’s that you’re always going to be surprised. This is undoubtedly a defining characteristic of the band that has come to the fore with the release of their latest, Daughter of Cloud.

Billed as a rarities compilation of songs written across five years (from 2007 to 2012), the album is the band’s second of the year, and is the perfect testament to the band’s variability. Elements of all kinds of acts, from those that predate of Montreal to those that have almost certainly drawn on them for inspiration, can be heard on this record. Animal Collective, Phoenix, Prince, even The Beatles all seem to make appearances in the undercurrents of the album’s 17-track run. At times it really just seems like a whole lot of nonsense, while other moments of traditional indie normalcy (“Our Love is Senile”) can take you by surprise.

As a whole, Daughter of Cloud is impossible to classify under any unifying feature, other than to note that the entire experience of listening to the album is wholly disorienting, like some sort of psychedelic, feverish, raving dream-nightmare sequence. In the best possible way, of course. The sounds are engaging and the band is lyrically solid. While they’re certainly not writing tunes to showcase their deepest and darkest secrets, lines like “Your attitude is impossible to dance to/I hate myself when you touch me” are the perfect blend of loaded and aloof to keep you engaged without being emotionally draining. The bottom line is that Daughter of Cloud is an album that doesn’t seem to be about anything in particular but features a little bit of everything. Whether or not it works is irrelevant — with 16 years in the biz under their belt, the variability is a badge that they’ve earned and wear well.

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Propagandhi – Failed States album review

Musical activism is nothing new. From politically charged records to benefit concerts to collaborative charity singles, it’s a pretty safe to say that as long as things happen in the world, someone’s going to be singing about them. Musical activism can play the part of the quiet antithesis — John Lennon’s soft, wistful coos can still stand up to any war ever mounted — but can also simply fire with fire. One only has to look to bands like Rise Against and Anti Flag, who channel their frustrations into unadulterated musical rage.

It’s in this vein that we find Winnipeg-based hardcore set Propagandhi, and their sixth album, Failed States. On a purely nominal basis, it’s already pretty clear what direction the album is going to take, and it definitely doesn’t disappoint. Tracks are charged with energy and often contain a sense of disillusionment, tackling themes of conformity, anger regarding world issues like climate change and police brutality, and ideas of conscience. Failed States is noise that has something to say and it offers little reprieve — throughout the album’s runtime, there is not one notable change in pace. In some ways this is welcome — the album becomes its own experience, and it is refreshingly easy to get caught up in it. In other ways, however, this is a challenge as it leaves very little time to ponder what exactly the band is trying to get across.

Although Propagandhi does a perfectly adequate job of creating a rager of a social commentary record, that’s all that can really be said of it. Lyrically, it is not particularly inspiring (with the song “Failed States” including a line about strangling goofs on the street) and melodically it is pretty standard as far as hardcore goes. Notable innovations can be seen in the tracks “Things I Like” which features a spoken word overlay in the language of Anishinabe First Nations people and “Unscripted Moment” which the band describes as being about finding meaning in a disheartening world, and thus seems strangely hopeful. Aside from the rare moments, however, Failed States is pretty standard. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it’s just not great if you’re a band like Propagandhi that’s got something important to say.

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Earlimart – System Preferences album review

If you’re asking me, all music is mood music — it just depends on which one you’re going for. Sometime’s its obvious, like Of Monsters and Men’s guitar-driven acoustics for winding down at the end of the day, or Cher Lloyd’s Top 40 shit-pop for a morning boost. But then there are those artists who are a little harder to place — jumping all around the map to build you up and bring you down in 60 minutes or less. If there’s one thing Los Angeles-based outfit Earlimart has proven with their first release in 4 years, System Preferences, it’s that they prefer the latter approach. Whether or not this works in their favour, however, is another story.

A sleepy sound quality (reminiscent of the sound of The Dandy Warhols) is Earlimart’s only consistency on System Preferences. Washing each track in an aural haze, it’s like a kind of rain — having the similar effect of either being nice and refreshing or just there, and a little annoying, depending on how it’s delivered. Aside this this feature, however, the band flips and flops constantly on the album. Moving from instrumentals that sound like they were sampled from the soundtrack of Grease (“Lovely Mary Ann”) to a more contemporary sound, (“Internet Summer”), from tracks with something to grab onto (“97 Heart Attack”) to those that leave you slipping out of consciousness (“A Goodbye”) ends up sounding like synthesized version of either The Beatles or  Death Cab for Cutie, depending on where you pick up the record. Needless to say, Earlimart remains an enigma that is impossible to figure out.

In some ways this is intriguing. After all, albums that are utterly predictable are pretty much pointless, and there’s nothing quite like getting smacked in the face with your new favourite song when you least expect it. But in most ways, it is frustrating. With System Preferences, Earlimart has essentially presented the opposite ends of the spectrum in one compounded offering, and being creature of regularity and consistency, it’s hard to get my head around. Those of you that like surprises, however, by all means — this album’s full of ‘em.