Matchbox 20 – North album review

10 Good Things about the new Matchbox 20 album North:

1)      The four band members are visible on the cover. When you get bored listening to this record (probably in the first few measures of the first track, the single “She’s So Mean”), you can revel in their nice ties. And are those French doors? Splendid!

2)      Nicki Minaj does not sing or rap on this record. (In fairness, her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” is unequivocally great.)

3)      Robert Thomas, the lead singer for MB20, has successfully abandoned the mannered style of singing he employed early in his career, which makes me wonder if Alanis Morrisette has a future after all.

4)      There are no standout songs on this record; they all sound equally mediocre. This means you will likely be spared the pain of hearing them in regular FM rotation, if you’re one of those people who listen to FM radio for non-ironic purposes. My boyfriend compared listening to these songs to being a on a bland diet. Well done, Wellhung! I knew you had a simile or two in you!

5)      If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if MB20 spent 10 years studiously avoiding  listening to any new music and then recorded an album, you can now find out the answer in real life, because I’m fairly convinced that’s what’s been going on here.

6)      All of these songs are suitable for mixed company. There is nothing here to offend anyone except music critics.

7)      There are only twelve songs on it. Though far from the desired number of zero, keep in mind that at any moment MB20 could drop a double album on us.

8)      It peaked at number one on the US Billboard 200, providing further evidence that there is a link between intelligence and the ability to pirate music successfully from the Internet.  This is why Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti will never peak at number one on the US Billboard 200.

9)      It makes the last Goo Goo Dolls’ album sound like The Flowers of Romance.

10)   It makes me appreciate the music of the Free Credit Report Dot Com band.

Let the hate mail begin.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes album review

I have a friend who throws the word genius around like she’s throwing bread at ducks. Everyone’s a goddamn genius. Tom Yorke, Gary Wilson, the Of Montreal dude, geniuses, all. With that many geniuses running around it’s a miracle we’ve haven’t wiped out cancer and the GOP. I’m much more cautious about applying that label to people, but when it comes to Ariel Pink, I’m considering slapping one on. Ariel Pink, born Ariel Rosenberg, is what music critics like to call an outsider artist, one of those loons who can’t help wandering beyond the pale of cultural acceptability. What separates an Ariel Pink from a Wesley Willis or Daniel Johnston (both of whom are geniuses, according to my friend) is the level of sophistication at which he is operating.

It is now widely known how Animal Collective introduced Mr. Pink to the world when their Paw Tracks label released The Doldrums in 2003, an album which he had recorded on his own in 1999. It was not until 2010’s Before Today, which features his band Haunted Graffiti, that Mr. Pink truly broke through into our insider world. Ariel Pink and his band attack all musical definitions: definitions of genre, timbre, song structure (i.e. verse vs. chorus), but they do so always within a pop context. This isn’t John Cage, it’s a whirlwind of the old and the new confounding your expectations at every checkpoint that makes many of Mr. Pink’s peers seem positively reactionary by comparison. Mature Themes is only the latest entry in an oeuvre that collectively deconstructs our assumptions about music.

“Kinski Assassin,” the opening track on Mature Themes, evokes the world-weary wanderlust of Bowie’s Lodger both lyrically and in the chameleonic Mr. Pink’s vocalizations, in which he trades off ascending melodies with guitars and keys;  however, like Mr. Zappa and Ween, Mr. Pink enjoys undercutting the complexity of his music with absurdly sexual and scatological content such as, she-males hopped up on meth and testicle bombs, as he puts it. The next song, “Is This The Best Spot?” makes the G-spot a metaphor for an atomic ground zero, or perhaps vice versa, over a fucked-up electro-dance track that sounds like it was played at the Continental in Buffalo in 1980. And suddenly we are thrust into two of the album’s highlights, first the title track and then the first single from the album, “Only In My Dreams,” two beautiful, beautiful pop songs that lyrically play upon the respective unrealities of the singer’s personae – “I’m not real, I won’t call you – ” – but in the most exalted possible manner, with the purest pop sensibilities. I’m hearing the Zombies, the Byrds, and the whole lo-fi spectrum of American AM radio musicalia –  it’s all here.

There’s no true genre I could assign to this record. Expansive electric freak synth rock, perhaps? Like the lord of phagocytes it ingests all definitions: what is a chorus or a verse? What’s serious and what’s not? What’s making that sound? Even on songs like “Schnitzel Boogie” and “Symphony of the Nymph,” in which an excess of the mundane and comically crude threaten to tip the whole boat over, the music is so damn interesting it works perfectly. Mr. Pink has a splendid ear for chord progressions and melodies; he’s easily the best songwriter working in popular music today. I don’t know why anyone calls these songs inaccessible or challenging – it’s far more challenging to sit through a more conventional record (fill in your favorite target here) when such succulent creativities such as those on Mature Themes are available! Other highlights on the record include the long ambient piece “Nostradamus and Me –” it’s long, repetitive, and cryptic, all of which register highly on the Kelloggometer – and the sole cover, an earnest rendition of the Emerson Brothers’ “Baby” (the original being found on the brother’s record Dreamin’ Wild, enjoying a  well-deserved resurgence).  This is one record we’ll be listening to for decades, genius or no. I’m thinking definitely maybe on the genius thing. Table for two, please.

Poliça – Give Up The Ghost album review

Minneapolis’ Poliça are a band from the future, but not a distant one: 2014, maybe? By that time the predominant trend in music will be, from our point of view, a synthesis of electric instruments and electronic ones, in which rock and dance music are wed. Give Up The Ghost is a near-perfect artifact of this imminent synthesis.  

Fans of Purity Ring will find company in Polica, but where Purity Ring is purely electronic, Poiica blends bass and drums with synths and effects, over which vocalist Channy Leaneagher croons her haunting R&B anthems, all of which is a pretty excellent aesthetic approach (even if one falls flat on their collective face in its execution), but I’ll be damned if every song on here doesn’t sound like a hit to me – I had to keep checking my iPod to see if I really was listening to yet another remarkable hook or vocal melody. What is this, Dare II?

Real standouts include “Violent Games,” which owes something to Kanye West’s 808’s and Heartbreak, but it’s trippy as hell, as my roommate put it, wandering by my room on his way to bed, and I’ll be remembering it for a long time. “Leading to Death” is similarly memorable – it’s one of the strongest closers I’ve encountered lately. One of Polica’s techniques is to wax frenetic  at the ends of songs – the drums explode into double-time fills while the bass, which noodles its way darkly through the whole record, takes off in majestic flights of fancy, and it works. I suppose my only objection was that the lyrics didn’t stand out to me – I don’t recall any of them off hand, without checking.

I’m no fan of lyrics but I noticed them even less than usual this time. Don’t make too much of that – GUTG is an amazing album. Allegedly Polica is Justin Vernon’s favorite band, but please don’t let that keep you from enjoying them. I doubt anything could.

Joshua Gabriel – The Book of Gemini album review

Let’s be clear: there are at least two Joshua Gabriels out there. One is the inventor of the Mixman and former member of the group Gabriel and Dresden; the other is the Brooklyn painter and musician who has just released The Book of Gemini, which is the subject of this review. I haven’t been able to find out much about this latter Mr. Gabriel but unfortunately I can’t recommend his album to you. It begins promisingly enough with “House of Cards” and its Indian drums and sitar sounds, during which time I thought I was about to listen to a nifty instrumental album, but then at 40 seconds in, Mr. Gabriel started singing and ruined it. Mr. Gabriel (henceforth referred to as JG) has a voice that is distinctly flat and whiny with much of the tonelessness of Michael Gira’s solo work but without that artist’s vocal potencies.

His voice is supremely uninteresting. The music is a blend of affected K Records style lo-fi rock minimalism and some hiphop elements of sampling and scratching but the combination doesn’t work well for me. Additionally, some of the samples appear to be from the Beatles’ back catalog. Licensing issues aside, the overall effect is disturbing. Picture a very diluted Old Time Relijun cover band (minus a singer) stuck on Duck Rock and the Fab Four and you’ll start to feel me here.  Were it up to me, I would have asked Mr. Gabriel to eschew the temptation to sing over these tracks and also to remove some of the more gratuitous samples : I never need to hear those forking lovable moptops again, ever. Lyrics like “One more year, time to die” don’t do much for me, sung or whispered, or both, as on “5 Verses of Truth.” I prefer JG’s talking to his singing as on the song “Climbing Out of His Laundry Pit,” on which he sounds more like Lou Reed than a failed Bob Dylan, but again, lines such as “choking on his splintered soul” wipe out any gains that might be made here. JG commits the aesthetic sin of trying to sound profound armed only with the shallowest of rhetorical platitudes/ bromides/ etc.

On a positive note, I did enjoy the meandering organ playing and some of the guitar solos, but as a whole, the record comes across as rather dull, uninspired, and derivative of its influences in the most obvious (that is, uncreative) possible ways. I don’t think I’ll be returning to this album for another listen. Nice job on playing all the instruments, though, JG. Perhaps next time you could just leave it at that?

Call The Doctor – Hands Will Shake album review

Call the Doctor are one of those bands that I probably should like less than I do. They’re not particularly original but they are very good at what they do, which is writing catchy, tight, immaculately-produced pop songs. Don’t let their name fool you: listening to their debut LP, I’m reminded more of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs than I am Sleater-Kinney, fans of whom are likely to find this project too polished for their tastes. Somebody once wrote that they thought Coldplay sounded like Radiohead with all the prickly, spiky interesting parts removed, and one could write something similar (o look, I’m doing it) about a band like Call the Doctor compared to, say, Helium. This band plays their instruments masterfully and they’re excellent songwriters  but there aren’t a lot of risks taken here and sometimes the whole project feels a little antiseptic. There are no notes here that don’t belong, and those are always the most important ones! For instance, though the tone of some of the lead guitar lines echo Carrie Brownstein’s SK work (q.v. “Seventeen”), the notes here are always the ones you might expect, rather than being of the angular and surprising nature in which Brownstein excels.

The best songs on the album are the ones that sound more hesitant – “Follow the Ribbons” and “Stood Beside Her”  being good examples of these – as opposed to the rockers, which are a little too radio-friendly, or would be if indie bands were actually played on the radio instead of streamed on the Internut; however, there’s no denying the appeal of songs like “Closer to Home” and “Take It Out,” which are Big Riff songs that work very well – the latter’s verses remind me of Pat Benatar’s “Love Is A Battlefield,” of all things, and that’s fine with me. The singer’s voice is very emotive and fluid – it’s beautiful – and the band, again, plays and sounds fantastic: the guitars sound like they’re exploding out of the amplifiers and I can hear every drum fill perfectly, but do I want to? As in romance, I prefer a bit of mystery! I return to my first sentence if it sounds like I’m being too critical of this band: I did enjoy this very much. I would like to hear a little more experimentation and taking of chances on the band’s next album, but as far as rock albums go these days, it’s tough to find much to complain about here. Is excessive safety a vice? More importantly, how do they get the guitars to sound so perfect? Call the Doctor: pretty predictable, maybe, but not merely pretty. There is something worthwhile here, if familiar.

Purity Ring – Shrines album review

When I first saw the Blair Witch Project, I felt more empowered than scared (although it was a close contest). I had a similar reaction upon hearing Purity Ring’s dark and lovely debut Shrines. The music of the Montreal duo Purity Ring is characterized by two primary elements:  firstly, an exquisite, maximalist attention to production that draws on deep wells of R&B and electronica;  secondly, the vocal expression of the chthonic, or earthly, elements of the natural existence in all their mutable, violent glory. Compunded, the effect is rather like a watching a coven in a forest cathedral. Putting aside the question of whether witch house is a viable genre, Purity Ring sounds as though the phrase were invented to describe them alone. Transformation, body parts, and nature red in tooth and claw all figure prominently in singer/lyricist Megan James’ worldview but the unifying theme is the reemergence of the divine feminine, expressed in various satisfyingly frightening ways. Although her voice is heavily processed by Autotune and other effects, James is a vocalist who is has already mastered her craft at the tender age of 24. Her voice is fey and elfin and beautiful and threatening all at the same time, like Artemis as reimagined by Tolkien.

Corin Roddick, who is responsible for the instrumental production, has a shimmery, elegant aesthetic on Shrines ; the synths are wrapped around one another in ascending helicies over sparse R&B drums and there’s a terrible, brilliant clarity to the whole record, like blood on fresh snow. This is gorgeous electronic music that sometimes reminds me of the band the Knife, but it’s darker – and slower.  I’ve listened to this record many times now and damn if the thing isn’t remarkably consistent from beginning to end. My roommate commented that the songs sound alike, but I don’t think that’s accurate –  it’s the consistency he’s noticing. For example, Roddick likes to drop the synths out every time the electronic bass drum sounds, and he does this throughout the album. The timbres and production approaches are similar from song to song but the melodies are relentlessly subtle and complex. Fans of James Blake, the Knife, and Burial, will find something to love about this very strong debut from Purity Ring. It’s ironic though, that the prophetic voice of the natural world would set up camp in such a synthetic environment, isn’t it? Too slow to dance to, too digital to strum, Shrines will be on many critics’ 2012 top ten lists. Hell, it’ll probably be in my top five. “There’s a cult, there’s a cult inside of me,” James sings. Where do I sign up?

Twin Shadow – Confess album review

Twin Shadow’s album Confess is one of the best new records I’ve heard in months. Confess features eleven (including the hidden track) eminently danceable tunes steeped in the aesthetic of 80’s synth pop. Twin Shadow is the name under which the photogenic George Lewis Jr. has performed since 2006; on Confess he reveals himself to be a songwriter and producer of remarkable talent. If his voice reminds me of anyone in particular, it’s Babatunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio, but there are echoes of the venerable Peter Gabriel and Sting here as well.

The debut track “Golden Light” begins with a lovely little synth line that quickly gives way to the chorus: “Some people say there’s a golden light you’re the golden light/ And if I chase after you it doesn’t mean that it’s true.” “Golden Light” is a good touchstone for the album in that it is sophisticated and complex without ever sounding pretentious. Although Lewis’ production employs analog-sounding synths and drum machines, there are bursts of guitar here and there (as on “Patient”) that complement things very well, much like in St. Vincent’s recent work. You can hear the influence of the Cure on songs like “The One” but I also hear traces of 80’s soft rock radio here- Richard Marx, anyone?

Although Confess is very much a dance record, the songwriting is so strong that these songs could be performed on an acoustic guitar by a campfire and remain intact. The hooks are big enough to catch whales. If you, like me, are a fan of New Wave as well as of Ariel Pink and Neon Indian, you’ll find a lot here for your listening pleasure. Mr. Lewis’ approach is more electronic than that of Mr. Pink, and more melancholy than the relatively upbeat Neon Indian, but he shares a certain aesthetic with them in that he steals from his influences generously and then melts them together in exactly the correct proportions so that the resulting musical alloys are stronger than their inputs. I’m planning on revisiting Mr. Lewis’ debut record but in the meantime I’m already looking forward to his next one. Don’t be fooled by Mr. Lewis’ detractors: to reach the future one always begins by pillaging the past.

If you hate the childish lyrics please remember: lyrics are for suckers. Usually. Be bop a lula, tutti frutti.

Linkin Park – Living Things album review??

The editors at MVRemix are messing with me, I know it. Do they truly expect me to review the new Linkin Park record? What on earth can I possibly say about such a product? Linkin Park is a band specializing in the deservedly maligned genre of rap-rock, of course, and their new album LIVING THINGS is another tired contribution to the same. The problem isn’t necessarily that records like this sound as though the entirety of Mitt Romney’s campaign war chest was lavished upon their production, resulting in what sounds like the purest essence of corporate rock America, expertly distilled from the most benign of FM radio wavelengths, but rather concerns the utter predictability with which projects of this nature unfold.

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel, reviewing this sort of thing. The music itself isn’t awful, at least not in the way Vogon poetry is awful – it’s merely dull and inoffensive in a manner well-suited to ads for telecoms. When the vocals enter, however, Vogon poetry sounds splendid by comparison. There’s a rapper and a singer and they take turns with the microphone and it’s all sublimely terrible in a way that congenital diseases and drone missiles are terrible. What the hell are they singing about in these songs anyway? Women? World peace? Who cares? This is the sonic equivalent of an item on the hyper-laminated Denny’s menu. I can’t really critique this any more than I can a Moon-Over-My-Hammy or whatever the fuck it’s called. I can’t even make it all the way through any of these wretched tracks without experiencing a sharp pain somewhere deep in my musculature, at the very root of experience. If the editors at MVRemix continue to toy with me in this manner, I’ll resign. This isn’t good for either of us, this sort of thing. This is the sound of a bloated corporate beast slouching its sleepy way toward the apocalypse. I’ll pass. Why can’t I review Clams Casino or something? What did I do to deserve this

The Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania album review

In 1977, the youth of England allegedly raised their voices in unison, shouting, “No more Beatles, Stones, or Who in 1977!” Keep in mind that those hoary acts were, at the time, only 15 or so years removed from their public debuts. The Smashing Pumpkins have, of course, been part of the musical dialogue since the early 1990’s, when a kid from Aberdeen blew the palace doors of the record industry wide open, allowing all the freaks to walk inside unmolested. By 2001, of course, the Pumpkins had broken up. The young fuck-yous of London in 1977 would have been immensely pleased, I suspect. When Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin made the decision to revive the band and its moniker in 2005 (minus D’arcy and Iha, of course), not many people were paying attention, I suspect. I certainly wasn’t.

The new Smashing Pumpkins released the underwhelming Zeitgeist in 2007 and Chamberlin departed two years later, leaving Mr. Corgan the only remaining original member of the band. At this time Mr. Corgan announced that he and his hired guns were working on a 44-track concept album called Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, to be released for free, a song at a time, via the Internet. If you were not aware of this, fear not – your humble critic never heard of it either – hell, I was listening to 808s and Heartbreak on repeat that whole year. For unexplained reasons, the SP have changed their minds and decided now to release a portion of Teargarden by Kaleidyscope in a more traditional manner (i.e., for profit) , called Oceania. Caught up yet?

So how is the damn thing? Well, the short answer is: not bad. Mr. Corgan’s lyrics are still obvious and sentimental but he’s abandoned that whining-screaming thing that I thought ruined many of their better songs, opting instead for a kind of nuanced pop crooning. The album is too damn long, with 13 songs clocking in at just over 60 minutes, but hey – at least it’s not 44 tracks long! The band sounds great, like – and I know I’m going to get it for writing this –  a little like Tool if they were into unicorns. Things start off poorly with the first song, “Quasar,” which is all dressed up with nowhere to go in its generic hard rock riffs and dull melodies, but the second track, “Panopticon,” made me take notice, and it’s more representative of the rest of the album: carefully combined guitar and synth timbres, consistent and creative chord progressions, good melodies, and so on. Corgan and friends obviously worked their pale asses off recording these songs, and though there’s nothing here of the caliber of “Today” or the epic “1979,” there’s not a lot of deadwood either. I thought the title track, with its Joy Division-meets-Berlin Trilogy introduction and the soaring guitar pyrotechnics in its finale, was a real standout, and there are gems scattered all through this psychedelic landscape. For some reason the record reminds me of the otherworldly phosphorescent mosses of James Cameron’s Avatar: it’s a very colorful record that uses every crayon in the big box to establish itself. By the end of the album the songs have begun to blur together (too long, remember?) but it doesn’t detract from the highlights. So: nice job, Mr. Corgan. I’ve always had a soft spot for your guitar solos, anyway, but now that you’ve stopped whining, I think maybe we can be friends.

The Tallest Man on Earth – No One’s Leaving Now album review

Kristian Matsson does one thing and he does it very well. He’s a Swedish fellow who has been performing since 2006 under the name The Tallest Man on Earth, which makes him sound more like a member of a traveling freak troupe than a singer-songwriter, but maybe that’s the point, I don’t know. Frustrating this record There’s No Leaving Now is, young Jedis: it’s a collection of ten original songs performed with mostly acoustic instruments supporting Mr. Matsson’s stunning voice, and what a voice it is! If you removed the qualities of Bob Dylan’s voice that are loathed by his ignorant detractors, but retained that bard’s soaring melodic raspiness, you would wind up with something like Mr. Matsson’s golden pipes. Each melody has about a thousand notes and each is sung so perfectly I would not be at all surprised to learn KM is not a Swede at all but is instead some kind of genetically enhanced songbird.

The songs themselves are immediately likable as well; “To Just Grow Away” sucked me in at once with a quality I can describe only as rollicking; if you’re familiar with Harry Nilsson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” you know what I mean. He is a consummate guitar player whether finger-picking or strumming and his song composition is strongly reliant on his masterful technique. There is a lot going on in these pieces. This top-end singer-songwriter merchandise, folks, and I can’t imagine KM has many rivals in the department. No one of whom I know rollicks better. These are very well written songs that are performed and recorded beautifully. I have no idea what he’s singing about but the lyrics that I can discern sound original and are certainly compelling.

So why is it frustrating, as I mentioned earlier? Well, readers, this particular songbird has staked out a territory in the forest in which he is the undisputed master but he doesn’t ever fly anywhere else, not on this record at least. The songs are beautiful, as I mentioned, but they’re fairly interchangeable in spite of such strong melodies and the rollicking and all that. It’s like an art exhibit of ten exquisitely rendered landscapes, each lovely in its own right but feeling a little inconsequential when viewed in the context of the others. There is no doubt that KM has mastered this style of music, but it makes me wonder what he’s planning next. By the last song I was ready for the album to end. Too much beauty is a little inhuman, don’t you think? Perhaps he really is a songbird after all.