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Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros album review

When Rick Ross’s “100 Black Coffins” came flooding through movie theater sound systems during screenings of Django Unchained, drowning us in bravado and grunted foreshadowing, there’s a reason we didn’t laugh. Ross, an ex-correctional officer who reinvented himself as a rapper under an alias lifted from a real life drug trafficker, is able to sell us on a song like the bloody “Coffins” because his character was built to devour any doubt. This is why we rarely call bullshit on his fabrication of reality, and it’s the same reasons we watch action movies: we enjoy all this talk of violence and drug slinging as long as it’s in some alternate reality. When we hear the stomping, outsized western beat on “100 Black Coffins”, we’re reminded of exciting storytelling rather than CNN Headlines. It’s all about playing a good character.

Alex Ebert is playing a similar type of role. Once the frontman of the strung out electrodes in Ima Robot, Ebert found rebirth while in rehab as the character Edward Sharpe. The band he formed around this new creation sold a fan base on the mystery, releasing their debut Up From Below with a cover photo of the group literally jumping into the setting sun. There was a feeling surrounding the album, at least among Ebert fans, that this album could save your soul. Well, not quite, but something like that.

Up From Below ended up being a terrifically self-aware album, with songs like “40 Day Dream” poking fun at the grandeur expected of musical spectacle, even explicitly referencing The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. When you listened to Up From Below, you knew everyone involved was in on the joke, that they knew music alone couldn’t save your soul, but you also knew these dudes believed in the power of their own musical community. Up From Below was essentially just an extremely clever way of nailing down a cliché.

On their third album, however, Alex Ebert has lost himself completely in character, and the result is a festival pandering slog through mostly uninspired sing-alongs. The trouble starts right away with Ebert (as Edward Sharpe, it should be noted) singing “We don’t have to talk/Let’s dance”. He sounds like he’s straining here, and not in the way Dylan used to. This is closer to Sam Waterson on The Newsroom.

The record’s biggest offense is the painfully generic “Let’s Get High”, which seems confused by its own lyrics, especially on awkward lines like “Ain’t we all just Japanese when we’re high/On love?”. This is the type of writing festival organizers salivate over but fans should ignore. It’s just streamlining the process and is also what ends up making the self-titled effort nearly insufferable. In the end, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes is like listening to Rick Ross giving a lecture; it may have been put together with good intentions but makes little sense. It doesn’t give us anything we can’t already get elsewhere. Why play a character if you’re not going to make something worth watching?

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Sick Puppies – Connect album review

Connect, the fourth album from Aussie trio Sick Puppies, which was released stateside on July 16th, might as well be ten years old. I’m not sure if it’s a cultural stop-gap or simply poor taste that transformed the early nu metal incarnation of this band into the lackluster rockers they are today, but even Three Days Grace had some wit to their product. Connect has none.

This might have flown back in 2003, back when Three Days Grace and Smile Empty Soul made industry rock seem inspired, but everything on Connect sounds extremely dated in 2013. Take the album opening “Die to Save You”, a song that leads with a muted metal hook ripped right from the Billy Talent catalogue. When the cribbed intro recedes, treading water with Shim Moore’s platitudes, there’s little structure left to sink your teeth into. This isn’t even radio rock; it’s boardroom metal.

There’s nothing wrong with having stadium-sized ambitions. It’s probably not even worth getting into music at all if you’re not interested in filling a stadium with people who want to hear your music. But there’s a reason Lebron James listens to Imagine Dragons and not Nickelback.

If you want to go stadium big without going completely vanilla, there has to be a twist to the formula. You have to find a new way to package massive hooks. Night Visions, Imagine Dragons’ massive debut, did just that. As a whole, Night Visions is more a great piece of market research than it is a good collection of songs. 2012’s biggest radio rock band won their title by mining EDM tropes (“Radioactive”) and running Mumford-y sing-alongs through a computer program (“Demons”). This makes Night Visions an album you can tell is wagering on stadium success but manages to do a fairly good job of never revealing its hand. You can sense the out-sized ambition, sure, but there are enough brains behind the machine to keep the curtain mostly closed.

Connect is an album that leaves the curtain wide open, forcing the spectacle into a state of constant self-awareness. These type of albums need to, at the very least, feign respect for their audience, but songs like Connect’s “Where Did the Time Go” aren’t just condescending in their banality; they’re also downright cynical. By the time Moore gets to the surprisingly nuanced late-90s nostalgia on the ballad “Healing Now”, you might start to wonder how much he’s been holding back. Don’t worry, that question will pass. You probably didn’t want to know the answer anyway.

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Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana album review

Speedy Ortiz just stepped out of the phone booth, their cape rippling in the wind. No one really saw them go in, but they’re sure as shit making us notice now. Major Arcana is an album that tries to take indie rock off life support. It ends up giving it ten shots of epinephrine.

Right out of the gate, the Massachusetts natives offer up the quasi-melodic stinger “Pioneer Spine”, a song that Pavement could’ve written if they had the mooring restraint of Sadie Dupuis. It’s both urgent and in command, the controlled chaos of a bonfire. The ebb and flow is never predictable. These are songs you have to grapple with.

Dupuis is a tremendous writer, but it’s the sonic structures that let her discourse breathe. Guitarist Matt Robidoux knows when to carry her and when she needs space. The album’s most affecting track is the wound-gazing “No Below”, a song where Robidoux fades mostly into the background, letting Dupuis’s strongest writing on the record have its moment. Then, when Dupuis needs an extra kick to the emotionally dense lines, “I almost forgot/How I once said/I was better off just being dead/Better off just being dead/I didn’t know you yet,” he’s dutiful in his support. Robidoux is the Trent Reznor to Dupuis’s David Fincher.

It’s difficult to write on an album this flawless. It takes the alienating conceit of complex indie-rock and makes it personal, has it mirror Dupuis’s own narrative, and lets her lyrics rattle between the grizzled sounds. Her words end up reading better than they come across in the music, but that’s something to be exciting about. There are so few people writing the way she it here. Lines like, “Oh my face is unable to convey how awful I am doing” are undercut by others like “My psyche, my senses make me so offensive.” Shit is complicated, but it’s also endlessly engrossing. Speedy Ortiz is saving indie rock.

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Mood Rings – VPI Harmony album review

VPI Harmony, the whisper-y and effervescent new album from the genre-less Mood Rings is a great addition to the ephemerist movement. It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly where this influx of ambience-drowning bands began, but the growth itself has produced some great records and even more misused noise. Being successful as an ephemerist is all about finding the structure in the ocean.

For Mood Rings, ephemera was not always the mode, and it wasn’t until their first proper album that they turned down the buzzed over post-punk and waded into the stereophonic abyss. And given the fact that this has been a particularly great year for ephemerists, with Kurt Vile making his listeners go missing inside their iTunes libraries with Wakin On A Pretty Daze and My Bloody Valentine, arguably the greatest ephemerists of all time, returning with the wonderfully disembodied m b v, it should most definitely not be taken lightly that Mood Rings are carving out their own space in a crowded spotlight. It’s not easy to make ephemera compelling.

VPI Harmony is a consistently compelling record, built on small melodies that drift into each other and whispering vocals that lead you in circles. It’s also a good entry point for those trying to understand all these other, more complex ephemerists. Songs like “Pathos y Lagrimas” might take you double-digit listens to parse, but nothing ever gets too dense. This is ephemera lite.

The odd thing about ephemera is that it involves both control and restraint, you have to make sure all the moving parts are under control before you can know when its time to let them go rogue. More importantly, you can never let listener see the strings. It needs to be an environment rather than an arrangement, structured improv rather than scripted comedy. It’s because of this that VPI Harmony’s weakest moments are the more tightened ones, like the riff-y “Hollow Dye”, which sounds like a lower-fi Smith Westerns B-side. Even with that said, the song is still serviceable and doesn’t take things too far off track.

The album closes with a hypnotic back-burner called, “Charles Mansion”, and features just about every different kind of sound Mood Rings is capable of throwing at you. It’s almost like a commentary on the whole experience, pushing ephemera to its limits. Is it earnest or satirical? I’m not sure this album is interested in answering those kinds of questions, but as long as ephemerists keep making music that’s this easy to escape to, there’s no reason to even ask.

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Bell X1 – Chop Chop album review

Bell X1 is done being the “other Irish band”, that much is clear on “Starlings Over Brighton Pier”, the cascading Terrence Malick dream that opens up their sixth studio effort Chop Chop. After the electro-based nonsense of 2011’s Bloodless Coup, an album that was well received but tonally overwrought, this is U2’s only competition crashing back to earth, stripping skyward swelling anthems for spare parts, and cutting out all the bullshit. This is Justin Vernon’s cabin; it’s music as atmosphere.

Chop Chop is built around little piano hooks and subtle drumlines that expand into complete thoughts, like small pebbles thrown into a lake, making waves and waves of ripples as they hit. It’s less formula than clever escalation, successfully drawing every emotion out of singer Paul Noonan’s previously withholding (or underutilized) vocals. Noonan (no relation, by the way) is also a confidently malleable singer, moving between the soaring anthem of “The End is Nigh” and concrete dwelling in “I Will Follow You” with ease. It makes you wonder why he’s never been given this much to do before, and, then, how much more he might still have to offer.

Most of this vocal expansiveness can probably be attributed to co-producers Peter Katis and Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett. Katis is best known for helping The National become every indie band’s favorite indie band by helping them ditch their strummy roots and build the unconventional melodies that fill breakout albums Alligator and Boxer. Bartlett has also spent some time with The National, but a better point of reference might be Sam Amidon’s Bright Sunny South, an album Bartlett produced in 2012 that sounds as organic as a Portland menu. Both of these producers understand the architecture in their singer’s voice, understand the different levels they can reach, and Noonan might just be the most capable singer they’ve worked with.

This isn’t just a showcase for Noonan, though. It’s an impeccably organized work. The whole album is circular, opening with a dream made up of apocalyptic imagery and closing with that prophecy’s fulfillment with “The End Is Nigh”, a bloated anthem that doesn’t seem to fit upon first listen. It’s a stadium-sized song on a basement-built album, a hint at the scale of what waits outside the beautiful dream Chop Chop turned out to be. It’s the end of the world, to be sure, but for Bell X1, the apocalypse is a U2 song.

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The Transplants – In A Warzone album review

There’s a great scene in Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’s genuinely moving documentary The Other F Word where Lars Frederiksen is giving a talking head on being a father and says, “Sometimes you think about, you know, ‘Oh shit, should I have tattooed my forehead?’” He’s talking about his influence on his son, how the life he led, and continues to lead, as the bassist in the California-based punk rock juggernaut Rancid is shaping his parental morals. Despite the way it comes off, the quote isn’t about regret but more along the lines of “What’s next?” After all, punk rock isn’t supposed to live to see 50.

Maybe this is the reason another one of Rancid’s founding members sounds so apathetic on his newest release with hardcore/rap side project The Transplants. The album, In A Warzone, is technically the band’s third but could be more accurately classified as a Tim Armstrong pallet cleanser, something meant to clear his obviously cluttered head.

Once notably a premiere punk tastemaker at Hellcat Records and mastermind behind the Grammy Winning “Trouble” (a song that helped give birth to the snarling, scream-y version of P!nk we’re still stuck with today), Armstrong is working through something a less aware critic might call a midlife crisis. But it’s more of a post-life crisis, one that finds the guy who took the Joe Strummer slur and mangled it beyond recognition, asking, “What’s next?”

In A Warzone doesn’t answer that question. It’s not a step forward or even necessarily a step back. It’s kind of just a sonic deposit; a collection of creatively frustrated tracks Armstrong probably just needed to get off his chest. More cynically, I’d point out that In A Warzone might just be something to tour behind; a mechanism that gives Armstrong back his roving voice without having to meet any legitimate expectations. It’s also a chance for the Grammy-hungry songwriter to work with Bun B and Paul Wall.

So what do you get when you invest in an album like this one? You get “See It To Believe It”, the type of sluggish, sing-along anti-anthem Rancid used to sell on spark alone, but it sounds like an empty nightclub here. You also get “Something’s Different”, a piano-sampling, Bun B featuring rap track that never picks a direction. There are moments that sound brilliantly volatile, like it could explode into the “Romper Stomper” growls of their first record, but then it shoots for a quasi-Jurassic 5 vibe but never quite locates the right pace. And you get “It’s A Problem”, a song that trades in punk’s most inventive drummer for a whirring machine beat so that Paul Wall can wax drugged poetic in a roomy spotlight. While it’s true that Travis Barker is absurdly underutilized throughout the entire record (he’s given the most to do on “Silence”, a song that turns out to be so poorly put together that Tim Armstrong’s voice bottoms out completely near the end), this is Armstrong’s most egregious offense, putting his production sins on par with Kanye’s decision to auto-tune R. Kelly.

All the problems with the record, though, are what ends up making it worth listening to. It’s certainly odd, but there’s something genuinely compelling about witnessing the failed creative leaps of a post-life punk, and seeing what someone who never thought their career would make it here does when they’ve “made it”. On “Back to You”, the album’s most foucused track, Armstrong sings, “One day this’ll be over/And I’m gonna be singin’ the blues/But that day ain’t here yet, no/So I’m gonna be pushin’ through.” Tim Armstrong isn’t dead yet. He’s just a zombie.

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Jesper Munk – For In My Way It Lies album review

Roddy Doyle might just love Jesper Munk. Not his music, necessarily, but the very idea of him as an artist. Munk’s debut, titled somewhat forebodingly For In My Way It Lies, finds itself trying to settle the unfamiliar territory of German Blues, a genre of music that sounds like a throwaway Dwight Schrute joke. In other words, Munk is Germany’s version of The Commitments.

In Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel The Commitments, the then budding Irish author humorously chronicles a group of lower-class Dubliners’ attempt to make it big as a soul band. The joke, or at least what on the surface is a joke, is that the “chaps” get this idea to play soul by watching a drunken singer warble into a microphone at a wedding, drawing brilliant if unsubtle comparison between lower class Irish culture and lower class black American culture. There was a level of repressed pain in 60s soul music that both groups, though never actually interacting, connected with on a powerfully deep level. Doyle used music to finally crack open the Irish consciousness for the world to see.

On For In My Way It Lies, Munk is less interested in drawing on influences to tell his own story than he is in simply paying tribute. There’s nothing wrong with giving a nod to B.B. King, but there’s also nothing particularly imaginative about it. Lies is more an introduction to blues than anything else, a cursory education for those unfamiliar with the genre. You get the feeling that, with a young, marketable blonde dude playing these moody riffs, this might be the first time a lot of Germans will be interacting with blues as a popular genre. If this is the case, he’s definitely not the worst tour guide.

By simply following the blueprint, Munk could end up being the link between German pop culture and John Lee Hooker, but it’s probably more likely that he’ll steer his countrymen towards The Black Keys. His scope is too large to make For In My Way It Lies the nostalgia machine it clearly aims to be. Though clearly recognizing the cathartic aspects of blues arrangements, there’s also a part of Munk that yearns to morph those pristine sounds into something that sells, something like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, something that causes ripples in the lake. In the end, he sounds stuck somewhere in the middle, but songs like “Blood or Redwine”, his most Chili Peppers emulation that borders on Pearl Jam grogginess, ultimately upstage the reserved, unassuming homages like the meticulously paved over “Seventh Street”. For now, Munk should stick to being a tribute act.

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The Front Bottoms – Talon of the Hawk album review

Going into their first label-produced album, Jersey natives The Front Bottoms sat comfortably in the naïve space of indefinable indie-rock. Their most accomplished work before being signed by Bar/None records, the self-released and tremendously titled My Grandma vs. Pneumonia, was an early draft of a Tarantino movie, tearing through genres carelessly from song to song, hoping it became coherent in the end. It’s actually not a bad album, and there are some great songs on it (particularly the opener “Flying Model Rockets), but it does have tremendous room for growth.

Two albums later, The Front Bottoms, a band named after the British slang term for a female sexual organ, are still growing but are exhibiting very little pains with the process. Talon of the Hawk, the bands’ most recent record, sharpens their sense of self, deciding to be a little more definable by committing fully to the indie-punk-folk sound they’d experimented with at times on their self-titled label debut. It takes some of the schizophrenic changes of pace out of the equation, leaving the vertigo-inducing songs like “Father” or “The Beers” that made their last record incessantly dynamic behind in an attempt to build coherency.

Even with this commitment to logically moving songs, The Front Bottoms have held off on diluting their stimulating and endlessly entertaining lyricist Brian Sella. As with everything that’s come before, Sella is the main attraction on Talon of the Hawk. If The Front Bottoms was organized as a jet-stream of consciousness for the snarky frontman to let loose over, then Talon is a series of long-ish drunk texts that you get the feeling Sella might regret sending in a year or two. As a lyricist, he has the same punk-rock honesty complex as Titus Andronicus’s Patrick Stickles, but there’s more hope and tenderness here than on any of Stickles’s gnarly opuses. These are love songs, not songs about love, and Sella is cool with that label, even trying to reclaim it for the awkward, vaguely creepy kid sitting alone at a party.

And it’s all so personal that these songs can actually do some damage. On “Swear to God the Devil Made Me Do It”, as Sella tries to implode a masculinity complex through literal complications (“I know CPR/I know mouth to mouth… Baby I can spit this game all day) and dreams of creating life-changing art, he goes back on his own progress, mourning, “But I am full of shit/I’m a plagiarist/As a liar, I’m a 10”. It all feels in the moment, and you can actually follow his thought patterns here. He sells the performance in a way that few other singers can. This could be a Fiona Apple record.

Then there’s “Twin Sized Mattress”, the one truly transcendent song on this album, a tour-de-force of the formidable songwriter Brian Sella can be. When he sings, “When the floodwater comes it ain’t gonna be clear/It’s gonna look like mud/But I will help you swim/I will help you swim/I’m gonna help you swim”, there’s no mistaking the earnest heart this dude has. This is what is so magnetizing about The Front Bottoms: their ability to distill emotional moments that are usually lost to abstraction in a lesser band’s hands. With all that being said, there also hasn’t been a more beautiful song put to record this year.

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The Almost – Fear Inside Our Bones album review

On May 17th, 30 Seconds to Mars, the Jared Leto-fronted, stadium-colonizing band, released Love, Lust, Faith, and Dreams, their newest and most extravagant album to date. This might seem like an odd fact to open a review of The Almost’s Fear Inside Our Bones, but, as it turns out, dates are key, and The Almost, a Christian rock group lead by former Underoath wailer Aaron Gillepsie, learned this the hard way, releasing their similarly overblown third album one month after Dreams. The thing about melodrama is that too much of it makes you notice it.

See, there’s very little on Fear to convince us that we aren’t just listening to Jared Leto finding Jesus. The problem then becomes that even at its most 30 Seconds to Mars-iest (the album’s title track “Fear Inside Our Bones”), Fear fails to deliver any of the overblown cinematics that make Jared Leto worth paying attention to in the first place. This is why, when the dust is settled on an oddly placed and borderline disrespectful cover of Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy”, you might feel like you’ve sat through After Earth when Man of Steel is playing right next-door. Fear Inside Our Bones is Aaron Gillespie searching for the kind of blockbuster, populist art that could mold Christian platitudes into something more lofty and thrilling, but his emotional beats are far too restrained. To make it work, he’s going to have to go full thespian.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Gillepsie, after all he did come up through a thriving screamo-core scene better known for his drumming than his (ahem) singing. And Christian emo is a hard sell, I would assume, even to his old constituents, so I don’t discount his earnestness here either. I guess what has me baffled is the album’s opener, a bluesy bar-burner called “Ghost” that aspires to White Stripes gadgetry but ends up closer to a screamier Black Keys stomp. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s actually a step in the right direction. It might be improbable, but maybe Christian rock’s only way into populist culture is through the side door, that same entrance The Black Keys used when they went full soul on their breakout Brothers.

This isn’t to say that “Ghost” will conquer the radio anytime soon, but it certainly is a sound to dilate and mine to see what else could be pulled out. Who knows, maybe Aaron Gillepsie could make the Christian rock Little Miss Sunshine.

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Kylesa – Ultraviolet album review

In 2010, with the release of Spiral Shadow, Kylesa made a fairly bold statement: they were going to legitimize sludge-metal. Using suicide highway riffs as a platform rather than a crutch, the Georgia natives made one of the most derivative genres into something completely intoxicating, successfully having water go down like wine. Spiral Shadows was Metallica covering Coheed and Cambria, an album of all excess, hooks removed, making it feel ambitious and pop oriented while being so decidedly in opposition to those things. Kylesa made a name for themselves by locating the beauty in the drone.

On Ultraviolet, Kylesa’s recent release, the band goes back on that promise for most of the album, making it an above average metal record and really nothing more. The changing of the guard is right there on Ultraviolet’s opener “Exhale”, the most generic song Kylesa has ever released. Following the lead of Carl McGinley’s satanic death march drumming, there is really no rest on the track, but you sit there during the assault, waiting on a punchline. It is such a jarring experience simply because of how banal it all feels. By the time Phil Cope, one of the bands two singers, is screaming, “There is no validity/On any actuality”, he might be trying to say this song is intentional subversion of expectations, but he takes too long to get to the point for anyone to care.

The rest of the album isn’t as straightforward, and there are some sneaky-good metal reinventions to be had. “We’re Taking This”, for example, discards the most aggressive and sludge-iest progression on the album for a drowning, vocal swallowing pit of Laura Pleasants madness. It’s really the only moment on the album that pulls the rug out from under you, something Kylesa used to flawlessly pull of two or three times on one track, and it shows they still have some truly inventive chops.

One of the oddest, and oddly appealing, songs on the album is “Steady Breakdown”. Probably the band’s most overt tribute track ever, “Breakdown” is Kylesa kneeling at Black Sabbath’s feet. It never really breaks away from the source material, but there is also no real reason to. By this point, it’s become clear that Ultraviolet is not Kylesa’s follow up to Spiral Shadow. It’s their thank you note to the metal gods who let it happen.