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Maya’s Moving Castle – Maya’s Moving Castle album review

The artist biography for Belgian musician, Maya’s Moving Castle, on the Unday Records page touts MMC as a solo artist by stating: Maya’s Moving Castle is the creation of a girl who grew up on a small farm, digging up insects and collecting butterflies. However upon inspecting the credits given to musicians involved in the project, it seems that Maya had some help from at least a trio of people to make her vision come to fruition.

Regardless of who’s at the helm of this mobile fortress, what a vision the album is. Perhaps inspired by the 2004 Japanese anime fantasy film, Howl’s Moving Castle, its musical counterpart, Maya’s Moving Castle isn’t populated by wizards and curses. Instead, it’s set in a phantasmagorical world of heartbreak, sadness, and violence. During the span of thirty five minutes, MMC sets the listener adrift on a vast, ever changing sea lorded over by a blustery and electrically charged sky. Whipping the current about ferociously, we experience all the highs and lows of such a situation.

Bolstered by guitars, keyboards, a cello, various percussive tools, and even a gong – used on one of the more memorable songs, “To the Stairs,” a haunting and menacing piece with a Far East flavor – Maya’s Moving Castle takes the best elements of the rock, techno, and classical genre’s and fuses them in a gloriously dark way. It’s all buoyed by mournful, wispy vocals that call to mind the best efforts of both Bjork and Blonde Redhead.

Many times, the somber, melancholy sounds and melodies contrast in such a way that they harmoniously unite the signature and, normally, unrelated elements of bands like The Cinematic Orchestra and Stabbing Westward.

The engrossing first single, “Next Life,” is a broken yet sweetly, and perhaps, naively hopeful track. Employing a drum ‘n’ bass inspired beat and slick dark electro synths, the song is tempered by the earnestly sung lyrics thematically concerned with meeting loved ones in the afterlife.

Each song crashes with muted lighting and thunder, precariously walking the tightrope strung up between whispered intimacy and overwrought orchestral overindulgence. Perhaps the “Moving” in the title of the album is less about a runaway building and instead more about the stirring, beautiful music contained within the walls of a damaged and wistful palace.

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Gary Clark Jr. – Blak and Blu album review

Austin’s Gary Clark Jr. has impressed all the right people.

He can count amongst his friends and collaborators, Alicia Keys, Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews, Jimmie Vaughn, and Eric Clapton, just to name a very stellar few. In fact, it was Rock and Roll hall of famer, Clapton that brought Clark into the national spotlight by selecting him to play the Crossroads Guitar Festival with the likes of B.B. King and John Mayer. Because of that appearance, Clark secured a record deal with Warner Bros.

Although his friends in high places helped him along, the two factors that have truly brought Clark to this point are his undeniable talent and his relentless touring. Over the last year, Clark has played a variety of festivals including Lollapalooza, Osheaga, Made In America, Summerfest, Sasquatch, and Coachella. He’s also played dozens of solo shows both in North America and across the globe.

But how does this affect anything he lays down on a recording?

Clark’s major label debut, Blak and Blu, is bursting with the energy of a live show and the guitar chops of a seasoned blues musician. And a genuine blues musician at heart, Clark is. The hazy, squealing riffs coupled with ballsy, chunky strums propel this churner of an album.

Clark combines Texas flavored electric blues with just the right splashes of rockabilly, hip-hop, R&B, and soul on Blak and Blu. It is abundantly clear that all the time spent on the road has helped hone Clark’s in-studio persona. In addition to his brilliant guitar work, Clark’s voice is honey sweet, silky smooth able to emote and confess when necessary or kick back and just be cool.

Blak and Blu is steeped in knowledge of what works well in songwriting. For example, the opening notes of “Numb” emulate The Beatles’ “Come Together” before descending into a more ragged number reminiscent of The Black Keys; “The Life” is a head bobber that could easily have appeared on a Wiz Khalifa mixtape or the b-side of a John Legend single; and “Travis County” is the rollicking grandson of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode.”

And so, although Clark has some influential people supporting him and championing his music, the evidence presented by Blak and Blu undoubtedly states that he is a product of his own making: an incredibly talented musician and songwriter whose reach will extend far beyond his famous acquaintances to the hearts and souls of music fans everywhere.

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Tame Impala – Lonerism album review

Western Australia’s Tame Impala offer the following opening line on their website’s bio page: “Tame Impala is the movement in Orion’s nebula and the slime from a snail journeying across a footpath.” With that nugget of information in mind, it should come as no surprise that 2012’s Loverism seems to operate on a completely different wavelength than many other modern rock bands.

Having already supported the likes of The Black Keys and MGMT on tours and successfully placing high on the ARIA charts with their 2010 debut, Innerspeaker, Tame Impala are poised to spread their influence across the Pacific and beyond with an excellent sophomore album.

Brandishing tracks bearing titles such as “Apocalypse Dreams” and “Mind Mischief,” Tame Impala accompany their neo-psychedelic pop rock with lofty ideals and colorful landscapes of noise. Lonerism combines the glory of the Wall of Sound first pioneered by Phil Spector in the 1960’s with the quirky video games noises of The Flaming Lips circa 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The result is a kaleidoscopic orgy of sonic sensations that is experimental, yet still as accessible as anything The Jimi Hendrix Experience ever released.

The band’s frequency shifts and alternates throughout; at times they’re laid back and mellow before speeding up the proceedings with a rebellious energy that creates lively arcs in the tone of record, from one song to the next.

For example, the first single, “Elephant,” is a chunky piece of gloom rock perfect for a motorcycle gang joyride. Meanwhile, on “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” one of the standout tracks and the next upcoming single, Tame Impala have created a summery, melodic jewel of a pop song that simultaneously hums and haunts its way into the listener’s heart.

By the time the final song, the solemn, piano driven “Sun’s Coming Up,” signals the close of the Lonerism, it has become clear that the band with the antelope name have created something special. Although steeped in the nostalgic sound of bygone eras inhabited by vibrant characters such as the Beat Poets and Andy Warhol, Lonerism is actually a sign of a highly talented band ready to move forward and make their mark in the present.

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Nelly Furtado – The Spirit Indestructible album review

After a successful foray into the Spanish language market, where she won a Latin Grammy, Nelly Furtado returns to mid-tempo, Timbaland-like club pop on 2012’s The Spirit Indestructible. Unfortunately, eardrums aren’t indestructible and like nails on chalkboard, Furtado’s latest is painful to listen to.

Before The Spirit Indestructible was released, Furtado stated she was looking back to the alternative influences that helped shape her debut, Whoa Nelly! by listening to modern bands such as The xx and Florence +The Machine…kind of like the rest of world. Taking that inspiration and combining it with her experiences on the bass heavy Loose and her vocally passionate, Mi Plan, it seemed that Furtado planned on creating one big, Super Nelly, blockbuster of an album. This clearly has not transpired.

What really buoyed her previous English language albums were perennial radio hits; whether it was the oddly additive, saccharine pop of “I’m Like a Bird” or the sexy, hook heavy “Promiscuous,” there was always a fun single to lead the way. Nothing on The Spirit Indestructible qualifies as such.

The Michael Angelakos penned and produced “Circles” is one of the only highlights of the album. It, of course, has the tarnished soul of a Passion Pit song, but more than that, Furtado’s vocals during the chorus are enchanting and smooth.  This song is in the minority however.

For example, at one point on the album’s first single, “Big Hoops,” she interrupts, saying she thought the song was over, only to be mildly surprised that it isn’t. Mercifully it only lasts another thirty seconds or so before it finally wraps. She physically sports the features of a small bird, which can be cute. The problem becomes that her voice resembles a high pitched chirp for the majority of the record. Somehow, in 2012, her voice seems more obnoxious and more nasally than usual.

Probably the song that sums up the atrocity that is The Spirit Indestructible is “Hold Up.” It features a lazy dance beat, Furtado at her whiniest, and an industrial rock guitar riff that’s completely out of place on the record. Oh, and AutoTune. As if the song wasn’t awful enough, they throw that in there too just for fun.

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The Presets – Pacifica album review

When first hearing the band name The Presets, and before listening to a single note of their music, one could be forgiven for immediately making certain assumptions. For example: perhaps they’re a forgotten, early 90’s, one-hit-wonder that toured with adult alternative stalwarts, The Rembrandts and The Proclaimers. A ridiculous leap maybe, however, after spinning any of The Presets’ records a few times, it turns out the guess on the time period was off by only a few years.

Although The Presets don’t play intellectual, college radio pop rock, they’re still a band out of time. Owing plenty to their predecessors – Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys, and even Rick Astley – The Presets are one of the latest groups attempting to transport us back to the days of acid washed jeans and feathered back locks held in place by hairspray.

Sprinkling in modern electronica tricks similarly employed by the likes of Avicii and Deadmau5, the Australian duo, Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes, combine a sharp pop sensibility for what works on a dance track; this was evidenced on the ARIA winning 2008 effort, Apocalypso, which became the first dance album to win the honour.

On their return, Pacifica, the driving synths and club beats are still there, but they’re padded with some more intimate numbers that could almost be classified as love songs. One of the better, catchier, tracks on the album, “Promises,” manages to encompass both elements, finding a home on the dance floor yet warming the hearts of listeners in addition to just getting them thumping.

Then there are songs like the first single, “Youth In Trouble” that misrepresents the whole of Pacifica. It pumps for almost six and a half minutes sans vocals aside from intermittent shouts. It’s a more lighthearted version of Planet Funk’s “Static” building and taking off like a fighter jet, encouraging the crowd to do the same. On the other hand, their second single, “Ghosts,” is a heartfelt lamentation on days gone by and time wasted.

This back and forth game permeates Pacifica thankfully because, instead of creating unevenness as might be expected, this balances an album that lights the nocturne of both the disco and the soul.

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Deerhoof – Breakup Song album review

They’re a wild cacophony of wild often contrasting blips, beats, and breakdowns. They’re easily one of the most influential rock bands of the last ten years. They’re Deerhoof and they have a message to share with the world.

Although it might take some digging to uncover what that message is.

On 2012’s Breakup Song, the San Francisco natives bundle another hodgepodge of abstract yet completely accessible noises and riffs into an endearing package of pure musical joy. Having influenced bands such as Sleigh Bells, The Flaming Lips, and Sufjan Stevens, Deerhoof’s impact is far reaching and it isn’t difficult to see why.

For example, “To Fly or Not To Fly” starts off like some generic dubstep production from yet another bedroom DJ. About a minute into the track however, it diverges, plunging headlong into some different path previously unknown musical path.

As it turns out, “To Fly or Not To Fly” signals the start of the second half of Breakup Song. It’s as if the record has been flipped over and the grooves on the vinyl materialize only seconds before the needle hits the next note. Such is the nature of Deerhoof’s latest: each song is a journey of discovery.

Side A of Breakup Song is funkier, more experimental whereas side B is somewhat more straightforward indie pop (or as straightforward as Deerhoof get.)

On side B we have “The Trouble With Candyhands,” a cross between a flirty bossa nova number and a toned version of sexy My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult song.

We also have the first single off the album, “Fête D’adieu” (translated as “Farewell Feast” in English.) It’s an absolutely precious masterwork of pop music that declares “I declare the war over,” swung sweetly by the ever charming vocals of Satomi Matsuzaki.

The last time Deerhoof released an album that didn’t receive exemplary marks from critics was over a decade ago and even those releases saw restrained praise from reviewers. Perhaps the message Deerhoof has delivered, whether it was deliberate or not, is that since their inception, they’ve been on the cusp of what’s new, what’s different, and what’s invigorating in music. They’re the German car engineering of rock music, but with the insanity of Italian supercars – reliable, but thankfully, completely unpredictable.

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Owl City – The Midsummer Station album review

Owl City’s 2012 effort, The Midsummer Station, picks up where the band left off on its previous LP’s: interweaving nauseatingly saccharine emo pop with nauseatingly saccharine electro-pop. The main difference on this album as opposed to say, 2009’s breakout, Ocean Eyes, is the rise of thumping techno beats. Don’t worry, it doesn’t make the music any more digestible.

The hyper sappiness of The Midsummer Station is so sincere, that even at its most cloying, it can never be accused of being smarmy. It’s chock full of obvious metaphors and lazy symbolism torn from the pages of a lovelorn high school student’s English composition book. Somewhere, even Hanson is cringing.

The ever inventive lead singer and man-behind-the-curtain, Adam Young, makes the sound of some sort of siren on “I’m Coming After You,” singing, “Whoo, whoo, whoo! I’m coming after you.” This metaphor of love being a high speed chase is thin to begin with, but quickly gains traction as one of the most obnoxiously cheesy songs you’ve ever heard. It gets worse. He treats us to not one, but two songs comparing cars with love. On “Speed of Love,” he declares, “everyone’s racing at the speed of love.” Are they now?

“Shooting Star” sounds like the theme for a new Pepsi commercial or an amusement park advertisement populated by shiny, happy families. The Black Eyed Peas are jealous they didn’t think of this gem first. Not even Kylie Minogue, at the height of her disco dance pop days, gleamed like this.

Owl City recruits two interesting partners on The Midsummer Station: “it” girl Carly Rae Jepsen and Mark Hoppus, who, in another lifetime, fronted a halfway decent pop punk band – that was a long time ago. These guest artists don’t provide much aside from proving that more than one person thought this album was a good idea.

Perhaps Owl City is attempting to unite the emo rock audiences of Fall Out Boy and Dashboard Confessional with fans of bubblegum pop like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber; instead The Midsummer Station is a congealed, sickly mess comprising the worst of both those genres and winds up stubbornly sticking to the bottom of our shoes.

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The Heavy – The Glorious Dead album review

Falling into the same category as their neo soul contemporaries, Fitz and the Tantrums and Raphael Saddiq, The Heavy garnered national attention in 2009 with their cool and cocky ubiquitous single “How You Like Me Now?” With their 2012 effort, The Glorious Dead, hope to recapture the magic and, subsequently, the attention from three years ago.

At times, The Heavy expands on their stylish take of soul by making it both grittier and slicker. Fashioning their sound on a James Brown crafted recipe of swagger, horn heavy backdrops, and sexy electric guitar riffs, they’ve made themselves into something special. They’re the house band of a seedy bar owned by Danny Ocean, purchased with the money from his last heist.

For example, the lead single, “What Makes a Good Man,” is a track from a Curtis Mayfield inspired gospel, action film that never was. It stomps and claps and bleeds blaxploitation much like their last LP.

Then, we have songs like “Can’t Play Dead.” It teeters between the desert, horror rock of Rob Zombie and the dark, kitschy funk of My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. It’s a strange combination that works. Mostly.

The problem is that The Heavy occasionally descends into a silly, cartoonish parody of their music. “Big Bad Wolf” is a prime example. With lyrics like, “I’m gonna huff and puff and blow your house down” sung maniacally and followed up with goofy howling wolf impressions, this could very well have been culled from an early seventies Scooby Doo episode. Just imagine: Scooby and the gang are being chased around, Benny Hill style, by the Wolfman, who is later revealed to be Old Man Wickles – all while The Heavy play in the background.

Perhaps it was all the accolades that The Heavy received for The House That Dirt Built that aroused the bands experimental side because The Glorious Dead is a decidedly uneven album. It dips its toes repeatedly into the sizzling waters of a hot tub then into a freezing pool and back in the heat again, never fully settling or getting comfortable in its own skin.

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Spider Bags – Shake My Head album review

The opening track of the Spider Bags’ newest album, “Keys to the City,” powers and rollicks with an effervescent, childlike punk quality; it’s a Detroit garage band channeling a Saturday morning cartoon of years past.

2012’s Shake My Head is equal parts The Clash, The Specials, and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists minus the ska influence and any British accents. Instead, like their American counterpart, the aforementioned Ted Leo, Spider Bags hail from New Jersey (via North Carolina.) This, their third LP, is a collection of self effacing stories of love, relationships, and the hard scrabble existence of a blue neck, middle class life.

Principal songwriters and longtime friends, Dan McGee and Gregg Levy, didn’t follow any traditional path to forming Spider Bags. Having played together initially as teenagers, they formed a bond over weed and Jimi Hendrix. McGee and Levy were soon partying in a world were drug abuse was common. Fortunately, while some of their peers succumbed to addiction, the pair emerged relatively unscathed and proceeded to grow up. Their lives consisted of nine to five jobs, marriage, and parenthood. Rock ‘n’ roll was relegated to a hobby.

On “I’ll Go Crazy,” McGee, in a fuzzy, Dinosaur Jr. deadpan delivery, pleads “If you leave me, I’ll go crazy / If you quit me, I’ll go crazy / Because I love you too much,” but then paradoxically advises the listener, “You gotta live for yourself and nobody else” a direct contradiction of begging someone to do something for you they may not want to. If this is an autobiographical anecdote wrapped up in fatherly concern, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Their past and indeed the world they inhabit now, go beyond just fodder for the lyrics in their songs. They are very much the impetus for this thing, playing music and rocking out, that they do. There is an everyman quality to Shake My Head, as is the case for most garage and punk music and rehab programs in New Jersey.

However, the difference here is that as an alternative to just rallying against the military industrial complex or even rattling off some cryptic, garbled nonsense on religion, Spider Bags are introspective story tellers turning drunken stories of heartache into philosophical explorations on the state of being.

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The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – Between The Ditches album review

The title of The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band’s eighth studio album, Between the Ditches, is meant to be a description of a certain type of lifestyle the country blues band is familiar with.

A ditch is where this LP should’ve been left.

Between the Ditches is a boring, plodding waste of a recording. It beats the listener relentlessly with a repetitive, monotonous sound. The same effect could be achieved by a mentally deranged orangutan beating on a cast iron pot with a wooden spoon.

The opening track, “Devils Look Like Angels,” offers very little aside from a menial blues riff and Reverend J. Peyton grunting something about devils, angels, and hell; he sounds like a drunk Baptist preacher falling ass first off the wagon. What’s worse, the Reverend channels fat Elvis’ voice when it was at its most garish and overdone.

The second track, “Something for Nothing,” is promising, perhaps hinting that the rest of Between the Ditches is going to be a fun, boozy, rollicking party at a local dive bar. Unfortunately, by the next song, the tediousness resumes. The same lonely, middle-aged woman is drinking alone again and the beer is stale.

It feels as if there’s a damn good Big Damn Band lurking somewhere in the shadows of this album. Speaking in reference to Between the Ditches, the band’s official website reads, “With a reputation for their incendiary live shows well established, The Big Damn Band set out to make the album that would finally capture the same heat.” It also claims that Reverend Peyton and his cohorts play two hundred and fifty shows a year, nationwide. Clearly, this is a band with chops, experience, and a passion for what they do. And although their live shows may very well be fiery revelries, this attempt to bottle that intensity is instead an embarrassing garbage pile that won’t catch fire and only farts wisps of smoke.

With music available from country, bluegrass, and folk bands such as Drive-By Truckers, Trampled By Turtles, and Mumford and Sons, as well as blues icons Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, and Charley Patton, there are far better alternatives to this middling, muddled mess.