Gogol Bordello – Pura Vida Conspiracy album review

The difference between disliking a band and respecting a band is an important one. If there is sufficient evidence that a certain group is a bunch of talentless hacks, than there’s nothing wrong with saying so. Being second-rate, by the way, has nothing to do with character and everything to do with artistry. Criticism need not be personal.  Over the last decade or so, Gogol Bordello has built up a reputation as an eccentric group of gypsy punks who are very talented at the stirring the pop cultural pot. Their name comes from the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, who introduced Ukrainian culture to Russian culture. The band’s goal of bringing popular music from Eastern Europe to the English-speaking world has succeeded fairly well, and this is why, as mentioned earlier, it is easier to respect Gogol Bordello than to like their music.

Pura Vida Conspiracy has all of the pomp, spontaneity and sense of humor that is to be expected from the band at this point. Frontman Eugene Hütz gargles and stammers through the album with furious apathy. His idiosyncratic, yet consistent vocals matched with the accompanying rock band, accordions, and violins creates a homogenous feel to the tracks, and during some moments it feels gimmicky. Yet, Hütz is actually from Ukraine, and as a result, the synthesis sounds authentic. Thus, Vampire Weekend syndrome, whereby rich white males appropriate world music in a quixotic attempt to appear cosmopolitan (put on some yacht rock, dude), is, thankfully, avoided.  The band sounds best when they change paces on tracks like “I Just Realized,” or the sweeping finale “We Shall Sail.”

Blurring pop genres is a very difficult thing to do, and it is often said that the best artists accomplish this mighty task. Though I have not seen Gogol live, I’ve heard that they’re great performers. This may explain my relative disinterest with their recordings. Despite what School of Rock may have wanted us to believe, a great rock n’ roll show does not change the world, but it may prompt you to be more enthused about a band and, in turn, appreciate their recordings more than you would have. Pura Vida Conspiracy sounds consistent with the rest of their discography, and diehard fans will be pleased.

Lightning Dust – Fantasy album review

Fantasy does not wait to tantalize and seduce.  Amber Webber has the poppy, sensationalistic voice that goes well with this sort of minimalist, trance-inducing, dream pop. From the start, you get the sense that the band will not go on any self-indulgent tangents, a very promising sign for a full-length listening session. In an era where the hip way to musically masturbate is via Macbooks, Lightning Dust do not overstay their welcome or go on long monologues about trivial events in their day. They satisfy the listener with standard indie electronic music that sounds really nice.

If a lot of this kind of stuff (electronic indie pop, however vague that genre tag may be) tends to be like listening to an acquaintance tell you a ten minute story about how at the grocery store the cashier made a snide remark to them as they were leaving and that it made them upset, i.e. it’s repetitive, glib and boring, Fantasy is like drinking tea with your friend that you don’t see that much who writes pretty poetry.  The interaction is terse and pleasant. It knows when to amp up or shift directions, so that the listener does not have to make up excuses about other pressing social obligations.

Allegories to human relationships aside, Fantasy is a trustworthy record of the kind that will appear on best-of-the-year lists of bloggers and music nerds. It won’t become a sensation, appear in a Twilight movie, or be played at Urban Outfitters. It is a quaint album for relaxation and for purging away the excess of the day. There’s nothing really innovative, exhilarating or game changing on here, but without records like this one- a dependable, reliable record- to instill a sense of sanity, I would argue, you might go crazy.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Northern Lights album review

When you’re young and you have recently discovered vulgarity, you jump at any chance to exclaim swift and stern judgments concerned with taste in popular culture. Like Cartman in South Park who, during an episode modeled after Lord of the Rings, asks another group of kids, “What are you guys playing?” your lack of nuance is a source of endless humor. When they respond, “Harry Potter,” without missing a beat, Cartman says, “Ha! Fags,” a moment that the twelve year in all of us relates to. In a country that allows its young to grow up at leisurely pace compared to the rest of the world, a lot of these habits stick around long after the typical years of adolescence. That being said, it’s tempting to say “Northern Lights sucks,” but I will try, rather, to provide a more complex description of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ album.

Gentlemen Prefer Lights’ vocals are more preening than passionate, with a parade of lyrics that you’ve heard before. A few examples of this: “Oh, death ya came knockin’ at my-ee door,” “Slipping through a new dimension,” or “So, great destroyer take me home.” Death, no matter in what fashion it attempts it’s grisly task, always seems to be bothering hard rock bands. But they shouldn’t be too worried. It is, after all, the great equalizer. On the last track, “Love (Off the Floor),” in which they remind us that love is the solution (a line, overdone as it may be, that I must say I enjoyed), a gnarly drum solo catapults into an aggressive, bluesy jam that is the most impressive moment on the album.  On this last song the band shows that they have some gusto. Too much Mountain Dew isn’t good for you, and while the rest of the album may be the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon filled with the energy-boosting soft drink, the ending of the final track suggests that, sometimes, something that is bad for you can be really good.

But the real failure (No, it’s not just that they “suck”) is that all of these songs sound as though they’ve been done before and, at least for this writer, it wasn’t an interesting sound to begin with. They sound like an Audioslave cover band that decided they could be better than Audioslave since, of course, supergroups never work. Who would’ve ever guessed that Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Tom Petty playing music together would sound so boring? And just as the clash of too many egos makes for dull, convoluted tunes, trying to imitate such quixotic efforts fares no better.

Cuttooth – Cuttooth album review

A friend of mine, who just so happens to be a world-renowned tobacco connoisseur, introduced to me to the pleasures of trip-hop, IDM, and downtempo artists off of labels like Warp and Ninja Tune. Though a lot of this music might induce sensual feelings or contribute to the swanky atmosphere of a romantic rendezvous, Cuttooth, who sound like many of those bands, are also ideal for other activities, like smoking hookah. A great deal of chilled out electronic artists like this are instrumental, however, Cuttooth features three different female vocalists throughout his self-titled second album. Maybe this is where the sexuality comes from. It also depends how much of a Freudian you are, or in other words, how much of a creep you are. Soothing beats and airy sonic textures contribute heady grooves to the overall sensual feelings. Don Juan would be pleased.

Two common critiques of downtempo music are that it sounds like porno music, and that it is sleep-inducing. In a clichéd embodiment of the what-are-the-kids-listening-to-these-days sort of moment, an older relative once remarked, as I was listening to Kinobe, that whatever I was playing sounded like elevator music (I’m not sure what kind of place would play that kind of stuff in their own elevators). There are traces of a Massive Attack or a Portishead here as well, with haunting vocals that sound as though they are from another planet, a dive bar Han Solo frequents besides the one where he shot Greedo. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s a track titled “All of Salem,” a sly reference, perhaps, to the witch trials of the colonial New England city. A staggering number of women were killed as a result of this historical monstrosity, and in some ways the voices here sound like “the return of the repressed” that those familiar with postcolonial studies will know. I will stop with the theorizing now as I hear angry replies from “the curtains were fucking blue” school of thought brewing.

England’s youth culture always seems to be one step ahead; the Huxleyian aberration known as dupstep emerged out of London, though its nascent form was much more tolerable. And once again, on Cuttooth, high-quality electronic music created by an English artist proves that the U.K. never misses a beat. If you’re looking for some new music to play in your brothel, or you just want to relax with some friends and enjoy tobacco or other mind-altering substances (like coffee), Cuttooth is a worthy choice.

Various Artists – Arts & Crafts: X album review

Arts and Crafts: X is a collection of collaborative efforts from various artists off of the Toronto-based Arts and Crafts label. With a combination of covers and originals, the LP still has a cohesive feel to it. Moody, reflective, and somber tracks fill this record, remaining, for the most part, within the realm of indie rock, pop and folk. Some tracks are much stronger than others, as is to be expected on a release of this type. The slow tempo throughout increases the always present urge, on repeated listens, to just play the songs that really connected to you while eschewing the ones that seemed to lack the same intangible quality. Elsewhere, that temptation might be a mistake, but there are not enough quality tracks on this release to make it worth multiple start-to-finish listens. It’s to be expected from a compilation LP.

Highlights include a collaboration between the always enthralling ensemble Broken Social Scene and Years on “Day of the Kid,” as well as the dream pop extravaganza of “Lady Bird,” a track by Gold & Youth and Trust. There’s a real Beach House feel to the latter cut- it’s mostly the vocals, I think, that draws out this similarity- but I don’t think it is too insightful to point out similarities in bands with similar aesthetics playing during the same epoch. Imitators, sometimes, are even better than the original.

Maybe supergroups don’t always work out for the best (see the Traveling Wilburys). Though the age of becoming a true rock n’ roll star may be long gone, musicians with, ostensibly, more integrity will still be tempted to flaunt their innate superiority as rock stars of the past once did. Nothing of this sort is really going on in Arts and Crafts: X. There’s less ego and more yearning. ‘Indie rock’ stars are not exactly the binge-drinking, ass-grabbing types anyway. Amy Millan and Dan Mangan perform together on a track titled “Chances Are,” another one of the more memorable moments on the release. I must admit that I am a sucker for the good old male-female duet, but they do it real well; it’s the sound of a gut-wrenching farewell between two lovers. It’s as though that terribly attractive couple wearing beanies across from you on the train finally had the courage to move on. Nevertheless, chances are that a few of these other ballads will be remembered, and the rest will drift away into the vague, ethereal space that they came from.

Queens of the Stone Age – … Like Clockwork album review

Though their sound may remind you of the Clinton Administration, on … Like Clockwork, Queens of the Stone Age deliver a quality album that entertains without gimmicks or tricks. Music critics, in their heroic efforts to dissect music, often go astray. As they crucify or exalt or shrug at the music that they are reviewing, they often forget that, at the end of the day, what they are writing about is entertainment. And while pop musicians may provide us with important messages, enhance our livelihoods with their musical genius, create music that resonates deep within our psyches, or inspire homicides (shame on you, Metallica), they are, in the end, entertainers. If the music critic forgets this then the results may be detrimental. A lack of self-awareness is often the father of pretentious babble.

So then, what does this have to do with … Like Clockwork? Like much of the band’s previous music, the album wreaks of nineties alternative rock. Frontman Josh Homme’s vocals are reminiscent of Chris Cornell. The band’s earnest hard rock sounds similar to popular rock groups of the mid to late nineties, from the Smashing Pumpkins to Rage Against the Machine.

But what separates Queens of the Stone Age from the more party friendly sound of these latter groups is the clear psych and funk influences in their music. These influences give it a strange (almost industrial) danceability that sets them apart from a music industry that sees the more conventional ‘rock’ sound fading away. Bands like Queens are becoming more rare. For fans of traditional metal and rock, in their most general sense, the album will be a knarly time. As the popularity of these genres fades, the album’s position within the current climate of pop music is more intriguing than what it sounds like. … Like Clockwork does not disappoint- it is a nice collection of stoner rock tunes- but it’s release in today’s day and age is a clear reminder of how popular music taste has shifted, and the meaning of this change may provide insights into wider changes in the American pop-cultural psyche. In some circles, nostalgia for the glory days of rock continues to thrive. And while rock fans may appreciate the constant flow of bravado, the more interesting question is why the genre still remains popular and what the future holds for it.

The Chameleons – Dreams in Celluloid: A Collection of Rare Recordings album review

For fans of the cult film Donnie Darko, this release may be a pleasant surprise. Richard Kelly’s 2001 film uses the music of many bands that sound like The Chameleons, but who received more commercial success: Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Church. A lot of these bands are British, and there’s a Thatcher era gloom to them that still resonates, thanks to the continuation of neoliberal financialization. But the current economic climate is not the only reason that this release still sounds good today. There is a violent desperation in vocalist Mark Burgess’ voice that is, simply put, human. And, after all, one of Kelly’s main artistic achievements with Darko is his accurate depiction of the way that suburban life alienates many of its young inhabitants.

With rustic riffs, atonal yelps, and a distinct, period aesthetic that exudes originality rather than imitation, The Chameleons are an appropriate soundtrack to the frustrations and grievances induced by the constrictive conformity of suburbia. Nevertheless, the group emerged from Manchester, a working class, postindustrial city, and while they may satisfy a certain aesthetic familiar to many arty, middle class Gen Xers who aspired to escape their provincial upbringings, their wider appeal may be attributed to the most prevailing them of their music, that is, a constant appeal to triumph and cheer in the often grim face of social reality.

Though there are plenty of great tracks on this release- there’s the nonchalant urgency of “Things I Wish I’d Said,” the space synth excursion of “Prisoners of the Sun,” and the jovial cruise of “Nostalgia” (the titles of their tracks, as you can see, often match the content)- it doesn’t scream originality or innovation. The Chameleons sound a lot like the Replacements- who were known for being wasted all the time- if they were just buzzed. Many well-known British indie bands of the era were more angst-ridden than the Chameleons, making their style of dreamy garage rock rare and endearing. Casual fans will be content with The Smiths and The Replacements, but for assorted music nerds, Anglophiles, record collectors, and eighties enthusiasts, The Chameleons’ unassuming post-punk in the collection delivers a fine contribution to an era of music that underwent the earlier stages of punk’s commodification, a process that has been completed for some time now, despite what your local scene kids will tell you. Oedipal rage might be universal, but it is still possible to quell, in order to transcend the mediocre stage of late adolescence. The Chameleons might not have been there just yet, but they made some laudable progress, and if an experience changes you, what else can you ask for?

The Airborne Toxic Event – Such Hot Blood album review

At various times throughout their third studio album Such Hot Blood, The Airborne Toxic Event sound similar to other contemporary bands. At times, vocalist Mike Jollet groans like Matt Berninger of The National, shouts with unrequited passion like Win Butler of Arcade Fire, or mimics the anthemic cries of folk-pop groups like Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes or Mumford & Suns. But most of the time, their sound resembles the latter two groups, with their sweeping, elated crescendoes that could move you to go on a long road trip somewhere or to buy a new car. Airborne’s sound fits better, for the inevitable categorization that all music critics make, next to a Coldplay or a U2, who is, apparently, a major influence.

Folk music, which has become popular amongst young, American bands in recent years, has no noticeable influence on the band. Whereas a Mumford & Suns play off of the nostalgia of a richer, more prosperous U.S., Airborne subsists in the present moment. The fact that they don’t seem to be reviving any genre in particular, during an age that is filled with music revivals from dream pop to post-punk, may explain why their accesible, non-confrontational sound has brought them modest success, but not the same level of success as the aforementioned neo-folk groups.

For a band named after a line from a Don DeLillo novel, their music is, surprisingly, light and sentimental. A reoccurring theme in DeLillo’s fiction is the influence of mass culture on personal identity. Characters obsessed with finding authenticity in a heavily mediated, postmodern world often go to tremendous lengths to gain a sense of individuality. Struggle, while it may be unpleasant, is the only way to change yourself. The album, for this listener, too often eschewed visceral experience, remaining in a cozier realm of contemplation.

But Airborne’s most notable flaw is that their music stands out in no particular way. Their sound is contemporary, but is mostly a bland collage of other groups. There’s often a superiority and an ostensibly left position that emanates from a critique of a pop group as commercial, but there are not many other words that describe them better. “Karma Police,” a Radiohead track off of OK Computer, has a line that goes “He buzzes like a fridge/He’s like a de-tuned radio.” In an interview, Thom Yorke said that this line described how the alternative stations in America sounded to him; that the music buzzed like a fridge; nothing about it stood out or resonated within you. Such Hot Blood matches this description.

Kisses – Kids in LA album review

Residents of Northern California are known, from time to time, to belittle their neighbors to the south. Los Angeles, the city that intellectuals love to hate, is an emblem of the stereotypical, vapid SoCal lifestyle. There’s an old joke about the difference between New York and Los Angeles, the two most populated U.S. cities. When its seventy degrees in LA, the joke goes, its two degrees in New York. But if you meet seventy interesting people in New York, you meet two in LA. Kids in LA, the second LP of the indie-pop dance duo Kisses, stays true to this stereotype. The sun is shining and there’s a lot of beautiful people around, but the bookshelves are dusty.

While their attempts at being genuine amid insipid glamour may be praiseworthy, Kids in LA lacks originality. The album has a few decent moments on it, like the cool detachment of Jesse Kivel’s vocals on “The Hardest Part,” or the gooey pop-philosophical contemplation of “Bruins,” but for the most part, it falls short. Even the few memorable moments become tiresome after a few listens.

Nevertheless, Kisses make some fun (I’m using this liberally), light music that may please some indie pop-fans or fans of dance music in general. Their tracks sound like they were created in a parallel universe, a universe absorbed in a nineteen eighties culture that is trying, however slight the effort may be, to be more earnest; to be less vapid. There’s whimsical tales of summer romance and moments of introspection that are washed away by groovy beats. Jesse Kivel’s vocals are conventional and sleek enough to fit the melodramatic moments of broken hearts and mix drinks by the pool that most of the lyrics are concerned with. His subdued delivery resembles so many of the fashionable, young bands today that equate coolness with apathy. Zizi Edmundson, the other half of the duo, makes her first and only vocal appearance on the final track of the album, “Adjust Glasses.” Her conflicted optimism presents a needed change from the monotony of Kivel’s croons, but it’s hard to take her seriously when she sings a line like, “adjust your glasses before you start/find love in the Western world.” Comments about the ‘Western world’ are amusing when they are uttered from the self-righteous mouths of liberal arts undergraduates, but the irony, like elsewhere on the album, seems lost on Kisses.