Saturday, August 23, 2014

5 Best Albums in July 2014

Summer months tend to be quiet, at least in terms of the volume of new music releases compared to other months, but this past July was an incredibly efficient month for new music, with some surprisingly strong records from old farts and exciting sounds from new kids on the block.

Morrissey - World Peace is None of Your Business

I had planned to be very much disappointed by this album. Contrary to popular belief, I do not fall into the blind following obsessive category of Morrissey fandom. I will say, time off serves him well. Much like after the five plus year layoff ahead of You Are The Quarry, Moz sounds refreshed and full of well earned signature pomposity. He still turns a phrase better than just about any young working lyricist, and has managed to infuse these songs with musical sounds not strictly explored on previous works. It feels like maybe it should be a swan song effort, but if one watches the daily press, he is still happy to run his mouth with unpopular opinions, perhaps in the strict interest of trying to remain relevant. So it seems unlikely he is done just yet. Morrissey makes it hard for a lot of people to like him, but this record is very hard to hate. As a friend said to me recently, "what else is he going to do? It's not like he would have any friends."

Army Navy - The Wilderness Inside

This is the third album by Army Navy. Like the previous two efforts, there is absolutely no incentive here to make anything weird, contrived, pretentious, or trendy. This is a guitar pop record. Army Navy make the best kind of guitar pop records. They stay in the song and they do not apologize for not kicking in any muscle or distortion to distract from their sincerity. Ironically, no matter how familiar these songs feel, there is nothing the least bit derivative about what these lads do, and against the current landscape of bands, there is not a single other relatively well known band doing anything like this. "The Mistakes" will inevitably end up in the top five part of my 100 favourite songs this year. No one makes this kind of music to get rich. They make this kind of music because they care about writing wonderful timeless pop songs, for people like me who care more than we should about bands who write wonderful timeless pop songs.  

Jungle - Jungle

I never feel strictly qualified to write thoughts on records like this, even though I do not even really write proper publication style music reviews. I think it has something to do with a perceived need for cred and legitimacy and for really knowing your electronic/club/dance/dj stuff. I feel on the periphery of most music like Jungle, so my angle with stuff like this is much more simplistic. For a couple Brit dudes who seem to know their way around a production board, they also seem to have a profound sense for how to pull in 70's inflected soul and funk vocals and grooves. This is unquestionably an album that belongs in 2014, but anyone with Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye or Earth Wind & Fire albums can throw this on and feel not only like they belong here, but that were part of the experiences that went into these songs sounding the way they do. A tremendously consistent recording, with razor sharp focus yet it never feels anything short of organic and hand crafted.

Eugene McGuinness - Chroma

Apparently this bloke has made three records prior to this one. Based on how much this one resides smack dab in the middle of my power pop wheel house, it is sort of embarrassing to never have heard of him. Better late than never though as they say. A comparison to Halifax legends and Sub Pop signees, Hardship Post, would be lost on most, but the opening track unknowingly channels that very band along with equal parts Day Tripper and saucier Costello songs. This is a compact set of songs, full of hooks and bouncy bits. Occasionally it feels like he still has untapped potential, but keeping these songs on a proper even scale without the temptation to pump them full of dumb stadium rock swagger keeps this recording grounded in all the right stuff for the type of sound it initially promises up. 

The Acid - Liminal

In the circles where bands like The Acid get talked about, they have been described a number of ways, but "shadowy" is the one description that sticks with me when I listen to Liminal. This is a complex set of songs that engage with the listener for sure, but require effort and investment well beyond some of the other albums I am highlighting this month. There are some surprisingly soulful moments here, mostly in the vocal lines. There are not a lot of spikes in the style between tracks, yet not one of these songs is remotely similar. A song like "Fame" carries with it such a profound warm sadness, while something like "Red" feels much more vast and expansive with soaring synths and gorgeously blended vocals. This is a fascinating record. Perhaps not for everyone, but completely rewarding if you stick with it.

La Roux - Trouble In Paradise
Monomyth - Saturnalia Regalia!
The Raveonettes - Pe'ahi
Slow Club - Complete Surrender

Monday, July 21, 2014

5 Best Albums in June 2014

Another month passes and another bunch of wonderful albums get released to much or very little fan fare. The five I enjoyed most in June were mostly under the radar, except one, which kind of not surprisingly blew up the radar.

GusGus - Mexico

Over the last couple years, the electro pop type music space has seemingly become a bit cluttered with more mediocrity than previously. Lately though, it seems the proverbial cream is rising to the top a bit more. I have been only mildly familiar with GusGus over the years, so this is the first record where I have invested any proper listening time. I gather their shift to more straightforward electronic based pop songs has been recent, so Mexico feels like them getting very comfortable in that skin. The songs work well as headphone listening, but are very dance floor ready as well, as evidenced by the gem "Another Life." Electronic pop music made by real professionals.

A Sunny Day In Glasgow - Sea When Absent

This is the fourth album by this band, and for my money it is their best. I have always loved their fearlessness, but it always felt like they might be hedging on melody and covering things sometimes excessively and unnecessarily in reverb and warm sludge. It sounds like they tried some different things in terms of band member duties during the recording process, as well as taking a more studio based approach to production. What it means is a record that is far more engaging and focused, without completely losing their overarching fuzzed out dreaminess. The band sounds much more comfortable with the idea of songs with harmonies and verse chorus structures (nothing over 6 minutes this time) without abandoning any of their inherent need to be adventurous. 

Lust For Youth - International

To this brief point, Lust For Youth has been a prolific project for Hannes Norrvide, but for International, he has added two players, filling out the sound quite a bit. There is still very much a dark synth feel throughout, but it gets balanced with some wonderful pop hooks. Songs like "Illume" reside on the record as classic pop numbers with brooding vocals, rather than some of the post-punk influenced music out there, where the pop is sprinkled sparingly on top of the seriousness. A song such as "New Boys" sounds like the type of song Depeche Mode wish they could still write so effortlessly. A very consistent outing from start to finish, from an artist who is clearly charting a much more mature and deliberate path for where he wants to take his music. 

Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence

I am still not entirely sure I know what to do with LDR. It feels redundant to try and write anything briefly about her or even this record, which has not been written fifty different ways to the same ambiguous end. If you step away from all the hype, the press and worry less about what her angle is as someone in the celebrity eye, this becomes a pretty fantastic recording which stands completely on its own musically, artistically and aesthetically. I find the songs here far more rich and engaging than on her debut, of which I was only a lukewarm fan. Like the debut however, you would be hard pressed to find another record in 2014 so that sounds anything quite like Ultraviolence. This is a sum of its parts type record, where some songs stand out, but nothing strays far from a straight line of lovely moodiness. It will be interesting to see where her music takes her next, but any way you slice it, this is a quality recording for an artist of any tenure or motivation.

White Hex = Gold Nights

The post punk and dark synth descriptions are fair and obvious for GoldNights, but I would take it a step further and say there are elements of legitimate goth running through these songs. The guitar work brightens things up and pulls White Hex closer to the XX than Sisters of Mercy, but there is a level of angst and despair in these songs that keep them from being full on catchy pop songs with sombre vocals. "Paradise" is likely an accidental trick from the Cold Cave play book, and a song that balances the more wonderfully dreary tracks on the record. Compact at eight songs, this is a solid outing by a young Aussie duo who are doing a wonderful job at trying some things, borrowing some things, and finding their ways as an interesting new band.


How To Dress Well - What Is This Heart?
Lust For Youth - International
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Only Run

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Canada Day: A Random Coast to Coast Musical Shuffle

This feels like a piece I have written before, but a quick scan through the archives seemed to indicate no, so there you go. In honour of Canada Day 2104, this week I started contemplating a lot of "CanCon" artists and songs from the last 40 years or so. The forgotten, overshadowed, or underrated mostly.

I am not much for classic rock, but I wanted to give some thought to artists and songs that have stuck with me or made an impression for any number of reasons, at various points of life and listening maturity. The idea was to cover all ten Canadian provinces (sorry territories), east to west, and to try and highlight a great or favourite song from each province, while balancing the choices across the time span of the 70's right through current day.

Unlike everything else we post here at RBTR, there was no exact science used here and some of the choices could change before I hit publish, but I feel like this is mostly on the mark.


Hey Rosetta! - "Red Heart"

This is a more than just a really great song for CBC to cart out during every winter olympics (Canada has heart - red heart - get it?). For my money this is the best song ever recorded by a band from Newfoundland, but to be fair, that is partly because The Hardship Post had relocated to Halifax by the time they released "Watchin' You". This always sounded like a Broken Social Scene influenced song to me. Regardless, it is as strong as anything the mighty BSS have written. The build ups and drops are flawless, and the hooks are ridiculous.

Prince Edward Island

Haywire - "Standing In Line"

Based on size and population it is no one's fault that PEI has not produced a greater number of well known rock bands, but that by no means makes this a default pick for me. I was always struck by how much fun Haywire were having on their songs, in their videos, and on stage. If a trendy indie synth band recorded "Standing In Line" today, no one would question if it was a good song. All the elements of a great pop song are here, and by any measure his is a fantastic pop song.

Nova Scotia

Sloan - "Snowsuit Sound"

Halifax owned Canadian indie rock for a few years in the 90's. Ask Toronto. They started the rumour. Well at least until they got tired of us having all the best bands. If you strip out all the fiddles and bagpipes, this is a guitar pop town, and the highest profile band of them all wrote the greatest song of them all. This song is flawless, and then the handclaps drop and it somehow gets even better than flawless.

New Brunswick

Eric's Trip - "Girlfriend"

The 90's was a great decade for music not only in Halifax, and even though they sometimes got lumped in with their friends in Hali, Eric's Trip was very much a Moncton band, and this song is very much everything honest lo-fi indie rock should aspire to in any decade in any province or country. One of about four bands from this region who ended up signing with Sub Pop, I lied "Girlfriend" because it was less muddled in feedback and you actually got to hear Rick sing a pop song.


The Stills - "Lola Stars and Stripes"

As you move through central Canada and the population gets more dense, the likelihood of accidentally just bumping into cool bands increases. Quebec has perhaps the most interesting cross section of artists, especially in the last 15 years, but my faves were The Stills (still really bummed they had to call it  day) and this song is them at their new wave of post punk best.


Chalk Circle - "This Mourning"

Ontario is tricky. Especially across about four or five decades. The easy choice for me would be "Limelight" by Rush. Interestingly, I saw Chalk Circle open for Rush in 1987. It was not an especially life altering opener set, but I was left with the impression they were a special band with solid chops and quality songs. This song always really stuck with me and when it is playing I feel badly that more people have not heard this lovely 80's band from Newcastle, Ontario.


The Weakerthans - "Plea From A Cat Named Virtue"

These guys are one of my two or three favourite Canadian bands of the last 15 years, but it still took everything in me to not go with the nostalgic pick of "Innocence" by Winnipeg's Harlequin. There is probably no greater modern lyricist in this country than John K. Sampson and this song captures just about everything a modern rock song should be. I don't even know how you write a catchy song about being scolded by your rescue cat for self loathing. Amazing song.


Northern Pikes - "Wait For Me"

I heard this song on the radio when I was in high school. I was familiar with Northern Pikes, but had never really paid much attention prior. The melody here was completely engaging. I ran out and bought the Secrets of The Alibi tape. I played this song over and over (a lot of rewinding - trust me). I have never grown tired of it, and I think it holds up wonderfully.


Zuckerbaby - "Andromeda"

We were visiting family in Toronto when I first heard "Andromeda" (and first heard of Zuckerbaby). It immediately caught my ear and I proceeded to buy their self titled debut disc at HMV within the hour. This is a band and record that is probably forgotten amidst too many brief stints in the 90's where labels were signing so many interesting alt sounding bands and discarding them just as quickly when they could not produce the next top 10 Semi-Charmed nonsense. This is a lovely world class song.

British Columbia

Nick Gilder - "Hot Child In The City"

When you give all of this some thought, as a music nerd, you come to realize how much great music has proportionately come out of BC over the years. Probably the best pound for pound output if there was math that could prove it. Like many, as a kid I was convinced the vocalist was female (same with Gilder's vox on Sweeney Todd's "Roxy Roller"). Turns out it was a British dude raised in Vancouver who produced one of the sweetest glam rock gems of all time. I love this song more than life itself. Unlike so much truly overplayed classic rock stuff, I have never grown tired of this song. Not for one minute.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

5 Best Albums in May 2014

Still catching up. May was a quiet month for new music releases, but there were still a few bands making some interesting noise.

The Horrors - Luminous

Knowing this album was due to be released in 2014, it was one of my most anticipated records for the year, well in advance of the start of the new music season. I listen to this album a lot and The Horrors have become one of my five favourite active bands currently making new music. I don't think it is as strong as their last effort, Skying, but it is still a fantastic mix of psych, dream pop, post-punk and like Skying, continues to unabashedly highlight Simple Minds and Bunnymen influences. The songs here have tremendous confidence and swagger, while being counter balanced with a clever aloofness that never slips into faked disinterest. A song like "Change Your Mind" shows they can still push their luck and do things that seem outside their core compliment.

Little Dragon - Nabuam Rubberband

I was aware of and had even sampled music by Little Dragon prior to this record, but honestly did not know they had made four albums previously. Even without a solid reference point, Nabuam Rubberband is one of those albums that sounds like a band coming into their own. Interesting that fellow Swedish country person Neneh Cherry released an album this year for the first time in years, since the album's opener "Mirror", and other tracks, show a respectful similarity in sound and possible influence. I would say the band's strong pop sensibilities flavour all the songs here, without this being a strict pop album. At times a challenging, yet amazingly rewarding listen, that never strays into unlistenable and feels very much like a culmination of all the things they have tried before, but with flawless execution now. This is nice work right here.

Her Name Is Calla - Navigator

There are a number of things that make this album a perfect fit for my ears, and some aspects that make it a stretch. Some of the troubadour-esque type more folk offerings like the album's opener, "I Was On The Back of A Nightingale" are generally well outside my typical listening wheelhouse. Each and every track here though, regardless of it's musical slant is completely and absolutely engaging. "The Roots Run Deep" brings in more electronic and layered production elements, so the complete sound juxtaposition even between the first two tracks is fascinating. There is a care taken though with every detail on this record which makes it truly a powerful listen. It is almost like the band has no idea they should not be able to get away with grandiose compositions, yet they are doing it with ease here.

Echo & The Bunnymen - Meteorites

Former Killing Joke bassist Youth has been busy this year, producing not only this record, but Peter Murphy's Lion as well (this former with to much more positive effect). I have heard some say the end result is a record that sits nicely alongside the band's epic run of albums in the 80's. I would suggest not quite, but it is nonetheless an album that many bands from that era who are still active, would love to be able to make in 2014. Echo & The Bunnymen have steadily released music since their heyday, and have never really made any bad records. They also have not made anything quite as brilliant as Ocean Rain or their self titled record from '87. Meteorites captures the essence of a band sounding like they should sound for their age. McCulloch's vocals are as timeless as ever. They still feel like the most successful yet underrated UK alternative band of the 80's, even after all these years. Much like Siberia from 2005, this record feels like the band reminding everyone they can still do what they do way better than all the young bands who have quietly gotten away with ripping them off for years. 

Robyn & Royksopp - Do It Again

For no real good reason, I tend not to include mini albums or e.p.'s when I make best of lists. Similarly, there was no good for not highlighting the new mini album project with fellow Swedes, Royksopp and Robyn. There are so many reasons I love this recording. The highly polished and competent work of Royksopp as top tier electronic musicians. The awe inspiring ability of Robyn to move seamlessly from clever bubble gum pop recordings to an album like this with limited commercial appeal and electronic and synth chops worthy of the most hidden away underground dance clubs. These are pros, doing whatever they want, because they can. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

5 Best Albums in April 2014

I am clearly running almost three months behind on these monthly bits. That was probably inevitable, but I am committed to highlighting five great records that were released each month for the balance of 2014, so here are some from April. Given my propensity to lag behind and get wrapped up in real life matters of far lesser consequence than music, this challenge may prove the ultimate lever for forcing a greater sense of brevity in these reviews on my part.

School Of Language - Old Fears

The regular gig for David Brewis is with his mates in the Brit art rock outfit, Field Music. The similarities start and overlap with his vocals obviously, but a solo project like School of Language has proven, as it does for so many other artists requiring an additional outlet, to be just the trick for Brewis to release some slightly quirkier and off kilter art pop. His voice reminds me at times of Brian Eno in his pre-ambient 70's pop period. This is a very listenable record, with wonderful melody flow, but there is nothing standard about how all the pieces have been put together. I expect Old Fears will be heavily overlooked this year, which is really too bad.

Fear of Men - Loom

I have seen Fear of Men described commonly as dream pop. That is not entirely unfair, nor are the shoegaze references. Just the same, there is a tweeness just as reminiscent of early days Belle & Sebastien, but with a bit more punch. Loom is the type of recording that could easily get lost in the shuffle of a recent barrage of soft female double tone vocal outfits, with jangly minor based chording. Like Frankie Rose and few others however, there is a depth to these songs that pull them away from standard gloomy lo-fi meandering. There is also a lyrical sincerity here that also elevates their charming simplicity of song structure. Lovely album this one.

Sweet Apple - The Golden Age of Glitter

The first Sweet Apple record went largely unnoticed, especially compared to the modest attention this year's The Golden Age of Glitter has garnered. To be fair, this attention mostly seems to have been from fans of Guided by Voices, Dinosaur Jr. and other bands whose members make up the ranks of Sweet Apple. I would suggest this album is a classically power pop tinged rocker with bits of hard rock, compared to the debut which was likely the other way around. Lots of hooks and solos, without any wank or gratuitous feedback. Fans of Cheap Trick, Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, Bad Finger, and any number of other power pop big hitters should enjoy this one. Mommy's alright, daddy's alright, and this record is really friggin fun.

Todd Terje - It's About Time

A now approximate ten year veteran of the Scandinavian electronic music scene, this is the long awaited full length, self penned debut offering from Terje, and it is a fabulous manic mess of wonderfulness. Most discussions for this record talk about the seamless shift from style to style, from track to track. There is salsa, lounge, dance floor, and even some shit that sounds like the Knight Rider opening theme. This is an ambitious project that feels more like a record Terje has had dancing around in his own head for ten years, but was finally able to map it all out in a way that should never work, but absolutely works in every way.

Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots

It is hard to know what type of record fans from his various projects (Blur, Gorillaz, etc) were expecting from Albarn for his first proper solo release. For my part this sounds like the record he always wanted to release, but he needed to have gone through and captured certain life experiences for the timing to be right. Much has been (fairly) made of the lyrical subject matter on some tracks, and Albarn's candour with respect to things like substance abuse. To me what makes this a special project is his unwillingness to venture into previous sound territories that would have been safe and diehard fan appeasing. Every song on this record has a unique sonic approach, all bringing an interesting level of listener engagement, blended brilliantly with a respectful standoffishness which challenges the listener to spend some non casual time with these songs. Brilliant album.

EMA - The Future's Void
Kelis - Food
The Both - The Both

Friday, April 4, 2014

5 Best Albums in March 2014

March may not have been as backloaded with high profile heavy hitters as February, but there are a couple records here that will likely end up on a number of year end best of lists. These were the five I thought lead the league last month. All very different recordings, each with their own own charms and loveable ugliness.

Elbow - The Take Off and Landing Of Everything

In some ways it is hard to believe this is the sixth album from these gentlemen. It is also maybe hard to believe that their debut was released within the same twelve months as Coldplay's debut back in '00-01. Sadly, but maybe not surprisingly, Elbow have clearly never achieved even close to the same level of international success or notoriety. Emerging from the same era of bands as Doves, Travis, and company, Elbow have never wavered from what makes them such solid song craftsmen. People have fairly described them as one of the most dependable active bands. This new record not only has them sticking to their strengths, but there is an ease with their place in the current music game, that perhaps could make this their strongest effort to date.

The songscapes as usual are gorgeously composed and the mature themes and above average musicianship really shine on this record. Guy Harvey's voice still echoes unapologetically of Peter Gabriel, and his words continue to be thought provoking and engaging for listeners. This is a world class band, who are beyond comfortable in their skin and with their place among younger bands getting much more attention. I am so thrilled with how this album turned out. For people who love Coldplay, but have never heard Elbow, that is really too bad, but it is never too late.

Trust - Joyland

This second record from Toronto's Trust, is largely the solo work of main dude Robert Alfons. This album, as with the last, continues to see Trust discussed in circles with the likes of other Canadian electronic artists such as Grimes, Austra, Purity Ring, and Crystal Castles. Understandable, but for anyone who spends even a few minutes with Joyland, it should be obvious this is a pretty different animal from that very respectable company Alfons has been thrown in with. On tracks like "Geryon" you can hear the thumpy weirdness of Swedish synth gods, the Knife, but this record has an unmistakable listenable quality more akin to early 80's and late 70's synth. This is a synth album with modern elements of electronic music thrown in, and not the other way around.

On this album, Alfons seems more comfortable vocally, with natural pieces of falsetto incorporated over his more staple gothish delivery. Some dark synth stuff these days gets lost in posturing. This record carries an eeriness throughout, no question, but never shies away from melody. The synth track isolation midway through the title song, for instance, perfectly highlights the deliberate breeziness of the album. "Are We Arc?" even has moments where it could be OMD, but with Bauhaus-esque vocals. Joyland is a very 2014 sounding electronic album, and epitomizes perfectly what a dark synthesizer album should sound like. One where you can actually press play, bob your head quite a bit, and sink into the inherent sadness without needing to throw yourself into a pit of fire. Unless you are really into that sort of thing, in which case have at it.

Liars - Mess

Liars have never made the same record twice. Not even close. They may also be philosophically the same band as they were in 2001 on their debut, but Mess is about 180 degrees removed from how they sounded then. Admittedly, I have never been a huge Liars fan, nor have have I ever disliked them. I have found some of their output challenging beyond being enjoyable to me, but always kind of respected them for trying things that may or may not work. 2014 appears to be the year they decided to release a record that absolutely works for these ears of mine in every way. The increased use of electronic layers on their last album, WIXIW, was clearly, in retrospect, a sign of where they were looking to go next. Make no mistake though, this is still not for everyone, and I am not sure they will be opening for Mumford and Sons or their ilk on the strength of this one.

Mess feels like a band standing on a mountain proclaiming that this is where electronic music should be heading. As with just about every Liars recording, listenability is not the first consideration with these songs. Many of them are played from down in the mud or a scary factory basement, but there is a haunting repetition in rhythm and flow on songs like "Boyzone" that create, if nothing, an illusion that the band is interested to engage in a bit more of a friendly way with listeners. I am not sure Mess will make these guys a household name (I'm also pretty sure they don't give a fuck), but if my reaction is any indication, there will be those who have similarly sat on the fence, appreciating and respecting what these guys have been doing, and we are now finally able to participate a bit more. This is a fearless record from a fearless band.

Eagulls - Eagulls

Over the years it has become increasingly tricky to know whether Joy Division influenced post-punk type sounding bands are from the US or the UK. When I first heard the self titled debut from Eagulls however, I had to check, and found out they were from Leeds. Perhaps it is because the vocals have a bit more English affection, but regardless, there is still something aesthetically appealing to me with bands that sound more like UK post-punk than US punk. I recognize it is a bit of a silly hair splitting exercise really, since bands in this category who have recently brought solid energy and upbeat in your face type riffing, have tended to be North American. I think of Metz from Toronto for instance, but I digress.

There is a complexity in the songs here, even if they are framed in simple focused furious attacks of upbeat vocal blasts and tempo runs. Unlike a band like Metz though, there is clear effort to give these songs corners and hooks that pre-empt and sit on top of the fuzzy wall of noise. The playing is loose enough that these songs could never reside up on a shelf with so many pretty things, but the deliberateness of their approach to make compact songs means they also have no interest to be seen as just another silly sloppy punk band. "Tough Luck" is a great choice for a single. It has licks and riffs that pull from the standard New Order and Cure trough, but the singer's vocals maintain the same urgency that never wavers throughout the record. These are ten tight, potent, and listenable post-punk songs that never veer into tripe anthemic whoa whoa sing along stuff. I love this record more every time I listen. Likely to be a real sleeper favourite in 2014 for music nerds.

Future Islands - Singles

This is the fourth recording by Future Islands. Thanks in part to a superb and well shared online performance on Letterman, it could also very well be the record where larger numbers of people start paying attention to these lads. I was aware of the band prior to Singles, but sadly had never spent much time with their catalogue. Irrespective of the semi-viral late night clip, this album stands on its own as a tremendous collection of songs, but also as the sign of a band who are clearly hitting their stride quite nicely. They get described as an electro pop or a synth pop band, but that label feels a bit unfair to these guys. Sure there are synthy pop sounds, and maybe it is the exceptional vocal work of Samuel T. Herring that sets them apart from other bands in that crowd, but these are exquisite pop songs that just happen to have synths. Plain and simple.

As with the performance that has recently put them on a wider radar for folks, I find Herring's singing occasionally a bit forced, but I think it is more a case of adjusting to such a prominent vocal approach juxtaposed against classically simple pop song structures. It is unusual, wonderful and refreshing to hear a singer singing modern pop songs who sounds more like Al Green than Bernard Sumner. Whenever voice and lyrics become the focal point of three minute pop songs, it takes a pretty special singer to pull it off seamlessly. Many reviews have been and will continue to be focused on Herring. The playing here is extremely competent, and the songs are top tier, but there are just few other pop bands right now with their words being delivered so passionately and sincerely. There is not one bad song on Singles. Ten perfectly crafted and executed pop songs. Lovely melodies, interesting yet familiar chords and notes. This record should have appeal to every kind of music listener, regardless of their typical stripes.


Tycho - Awake
We Are Scientists - Tv En Francais
La Dispute - Rooms Of The House

Monday, March 3, 2014

5 Best Albums in February 2014

Now that we are into March, time to reflect on the month past, which had some really great releases. Probably stronger than January, but also heavily back loaded in the final week of new releases. For my ears, there were a number of artists who re-surfaced, refreshed to get back at it, and in some cases, challenging themselves to produce music that may sound a bit different than they ever have, or certainly in a while. These were the standout releases I spent a lot of time with in February 2014

Beck - Morning Phase

Colour me guilty of generally preferring Beck's sexy disco style parties to his dirty hippy acoustic gatherings. At least until now. Many would disagree, but my feeling is even when Beck has missed the mark on certain albums, his will to be weird has always carried and commanded a level of respect and admiration compared to so many other artists. The last 3-4 albums since 2002's Sea Change, now sort of blend together potentially into a forgettable sameyness. If there was any question however, as to whether he "still had it", Morning Phase should largely answer that for fans of all types and stripes.

At the time of Sea Change,  I was admittedly still in the whole "Odelay rules" head space, and never really gave the record as fair a shot as it deserved. There have been many comparisons made between the new record and Sea Change, for obvious reasons. He has his acoustic guitar out again. These compositions are masterful at marrying simplistic songwriting with ambitious spacious string and studio treatments. He also keeps the harmonica to a dull roar, which is good new for this guy, because I fucking hate harmonicas. Unlike Sea Change, there is a warmer optimism in its melancholia (not being a break-up record may have a bit to do with that). The single "Blue Moon" straddles that mix of sentiment on this record nicely. More upbeat and singable than other tracks, yet a far cry from the ass shaking on the last few outings. This is exactly the record Beck needed to make not only in 2014, but for where he sits as an artist today. A sincere and well considered offering from one of the most interesting and important artists of the last twenty years.

Breton - War Room Stories

War Room Stories is the sophomore full length recording from London's Breton, and even though the work they have done to date may not have been highly visible, it is pretty easy to hear that these guys have been together since 2007. The members create short films, as well as directing videos and remixing tracks for other artists. There is a vastness to the songs that captures this penchant for collaboration and experimentation, but not one track on this record compromises focus or flow. The tightness in playing speaks to their confidence as a collective, and the sound layers prevent the songs from becoming too anthemic or bloated. 

Breton to my ears nestle in nicely with other Brit acts of similar tenure like Foals, Everything Everything, or Alt-J, but there is no clear influence point on this record, despite sounding so familiar. They do not shy away from grooves and hooks, but the closing track, "Fifteen Minutes", shows their ability to build a song to crescendo in less than four minutes, with some clever ping pong in sound along the way. A very mature and accomplished record for a still reasonably young band. One of the most pleasant surprises I have heard in my listening travels so far this year.

Neneh Cherry - Blank Project

It has been eighteen years since Neneh Cherry's last solo album. With reasonable buzz leading up to the release of Blank Project, it feels like there is still an unfortunate tendency for many to largely reduce her career to the mammoth hit, "Buffalo Stance," from her 1989 debut record Raw Like Sushi. Fair enough, but what is striking as you listen to this album is how so much of what Cherry was doing twenty five years ago, in retrospect, was very much ahead of its time. Artistically and critically, she has always been known for melding elements of jazz, hip-hop, electronic and pop music into mainstream sounds quite seamlessly. Blank Project follows this path, but with freeness and abandonment that may have been less evident when Neneh had the pressure of writing the next Buffalo Stance. 

Her voice is absolutely gorgeous here, aging in a way that shows hints of a diva with nothing to prove, and that you can project legitimate female strength in words and sound without vocal gymnastics or high priced studio trickery. Looking back, Neneh Cherry has not actually made as much music as her critical darling status might suggest. On tracks like "Naked," "Weightless," and "Cynical" she confirms what many have been preaching from the beginning. "Buffalo Stance" was (and is still) a great song, but this is an artist with pure intentions and vast sonic and emotional capability. I am so pleased to be hearing new music from her this year, and even more pleased at what an amazing record this has proven to be.

Black Submarine - New Shores

Not unlike Neneh Cherry, The Verve are a band who are sometimes reduced en masse to the net effect of their commercially successful output. Most people who have invested in Urban Hymns, know it is a near perfect affair, but still there would be the folks who are familiar with "Bittersweet Symphony," but have no idea who recorded it. What perhaps works best about the Black Submarine project, is enough time has passed that Nick McCabe and Simon Jones are not burdened with any residual baggage from The Verve, yet they can benefit somewhat from the modest celebrity and attention it brings to this album. Because these two gents are heavily involved, you can certainly go looking for and find traces of their former band here, but make no mistake, this is not a Verve record. It is very much a 2014 record. 

The cast includes musicians who have worked with Goldfrapp, Coldplay, and Portishead. There are elements of shoe gaze, psychedelia, trip-hop and britpop throughout, with tracks ranging from under three minutes to upwards of eight minutes. To this point, throughout the whole record there is a clear vision of taking as long on each song as is needed to tell the story the way they want it told. It is occasionally and harmlessly bloated, but thematically New Shores  flows beautifully. Headphones showcase the subtleties of both craft and production, and it is definitely best heard in full either as background or a seated invested listen, rather than in bits on the fly. Comparisons to The Verve will be inevitable, but this record navigates that territory in the best possible way. A fresh recording that could have gone a number of different directions without the right patience and comfort among the players. This one is a keeper.

Wild Beasts - Present Tense

The steady evolution of Wild Beasts over four albums has been a beautiful thing to witness. Each recording maintains core elements of their theatrical foundation, while allowing the band to become increasingly more comfortable with listenability and matters of order. The vocal trade-off between Hayden Thorpe's falsetto and Tom Flemming's more sombre voice has always made their music intriguing, juxtaposing their sense of airiness and aloofness with heaviness and melancholy. Present Tense pulls in more bits of electronic instrumentation than its predecessors perhaps, and the influence of Bjork and Eno production alumni also seems makes this record a bit less manic. 

If you acknowledge how hard it is to make truly original music in this day and age, then perhaps the next best thing a band can hope for is to sound completely different than everyone else across the current landscape. That is what makes Wild Beasts a special band for me, and this record firmly plants them into the space where their following will grow, while commercial success is clearly and refreshingly not a priority. There are tracks like the single "Sweet Spot" that do not repel a listener like songs from their first album might, and in fact there is more gravitational pull and lustre on these songs than they have ever shown. This is the most comfortable the band has ever sounded in their seemingly haughty skin. A song like "Past Perfect" almost sounds the groove came first, and the bassline, as with other tracks, isn't necessarily an after thought.

All of this said, these guys are not for everyone. Thorpe's vocals alone are the stuff crinkled eyebrow looks are made for. For the adventurous listener however, Wild Beasts have made another record of such depth, beauty and complexity that its initial rewards are only surpassed by its ability to keep giving across multiple listens. There is a lot to soak in here, but now more than ever, we are catching the lads at a time when they can tighten things up into a compact set of songs that work brilliantly together and on their own, without compromising any of the things that have always made them such a special and interesting band. Subject to change, I would currently suggest this is their strongest, most focused and consistent album to date, and my favourite record I have heard this year (sorry Dum Dum Girls - you're number two now).


Nina Persson - Animal Heart
Bombay Bicycle Club - So Long, See You Tomorrow
Neil Finn - Dizzy Heights