Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Under Thinking the Last 3 Months of 2013 Music...

So it looks like I will be doing quarterly summaries of new music this year. Fair enough.

April, May, and June, or Q2 as the experts call it (that's right experts -  I know experts), had some pretty heavy hitters land in every one's headphones. Like last quarter, I have tried to capture and highlight 10 musical releases I found interesting and ones I played with fairly consistent frequency. A couple exclusion notes. Music nerd and passive listener camps seem mostly split on the new records by Phoenix and Daft Punk (the France connection here is purely coincidence). I actually love both albums, but neither are among my favourite offerings from these respective artists. Hence there are albums I played much more listed below with commentary. Not to mention everyone else has talked these ones to death by now, so I'll try to venture elsewhere. Also, one of my favourite records in Q2 was Synesthesia by Asif Illyas, for which I already scratched out a seperate review here.

Miles Kane - Don't Forget Who You Are

This kid's history pre-dates my knowledge, as everything you read points to his friendship and collaboration with Arctic Monkeys front man Alex Turner. The influence of that friendship is audible on this record, but perhaps as much or more so is a general north western English vibe perhaps resident in the works of The La's and Cast. Regardless of influence or his current darling status, this is a solid pop record, with bits of measured muscle and punch in all the right spots.

The Knife - Shaking The Habitual

The anticipation for this record leading up to release was deafening. When I step back from The Knife objectively and fairly, it is not something I can listen to every day. There is nothing background about this band or this record. They manage to stretch with every album, without there being any doubt you are in fact hearing The Knife. Their influence has started to filter into younger more accessible bands, which is cool, but there is not a single other group right now doing anything quite like this. Call it contrived in spots if you must, but this mix of sounds speaks for itself, but is fairly not going to be every one's cup of tea, especially as background listening.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark (OMD) - English Electric

There are a number of classic 80's synth type bands who have found their footing once again recently, and not just for novel reunions and derivative sounding new records, but with quality new songs and a fresh take on the sounds that made them famous. This was an absolute pleasant surprise to my ears. OMD have not vanished since their 80's heydays, but their output has been respectfully pretty inconsistent. This might be the best material they have written in twenty seven years. Very much embracing the strengths of albums The Pacific Age, Architecture & Morality and Dazzle Ships, while sitting nicely alongside current day electro pop contemporaries. This is a well crafted and super clever pop record.

The National - Trouble Will Find Me

I heard someone say a while back that The National were for "old people". I'm assuming by late 20's or early 30's standards dudes in their early 40's qualify as old people. I submit, as a contrary position that The National are for smart people. None of their records have strayed too far from a method of subdued tones and baritone lead vocals, with high calibre non flashy playing. It does however take an attentive interested listener with a reasonable attention span to listen to an album like Trouble Will Find Me and then hear the subtle bits that make each album by The National distinctly different from another. I also had a friend suggest that these guys are the best band in the United States currently. I thought about it, and can find no reason or alternative option to dispute this idea. Maybe it's because they could pass as British :)

Junip - Junip

I am not aware of any, or certainly very many, artists or bands from Sweden, past or present who suck. It is as if starting perhaps with Abba, they created and mastered the aesthetic for what acceptably slick modern melody should sound like. Junip seem to borrow more, deliberately or accidentally, from the Beta Band than say Miike Snow or Peter,Bjorn and John, but much of this record is rooted in textbook catchiness, then layered over with rolling bass and quirky percussion. "Your Life Your Call" will land in my top twenty favourite songs this year without question. 

Empire of The Sun - Ice On The Dune

The long awaited follow-up to 2009's Walking On A Dream finally arrived and lump me into the group of folks who think it was worth the wait. This record should be the bench mark for electro pop in 2013. I mentioned the consistency of Swedish pop earlier. There has also been something in the Australian water over the last few years. Bands like Cut/Copy, The Presets, The Bag Raiders, Van She, Midnight Juggernauts, and Pnau (related of course to Empire) epitomize everything good about synth based pop music in the 00's. For my money, this sophomore release is actually more focused than the debut. The back half of their first suffers at times, where this record just settles into its skin as a fun dance album. The blend of vocals from Littlemore and Steele continues to be uniquely complimentary. I dare anyone to try and turn off the title track once you hit play.

Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of The City

If people spent as much time listening to this band's music as they did worrying about whether they're wearing boat shoes or not, they might actually give them a much more fair critique. I liked their debut, even with way too much Graceland stuff happening. I was luke warm on their second record, but this is easily the most solid material they have written yet. Some of the Simon-esque bits are still there, but VW have emerged here with a much more clear and comfortable sense of self. In the past there was always an inkling of hipster posturing, likely perpetuating some of their own image challenges. Personally I love their nouveau prep style and campus literature references. Forced literary name dropping from smart kids is refreshing next to so much of the mainstream dribble littered across the Internet, where somehow dumb is celebrated. Smart songs by smart young lads? Yes please.

Sigur Ros - Kveikur

There is a parallel here with my comments on the new record from The Knife. One does not just throw on a Sigur Ros album. However, if one was so inclined, this release might be the closest one could get to active background listening. Without a proper study, there seems to be SR fans who prefer their hushed dirge like output and those who enjoy their slightly more upbeat and melodic stuff. I fall into the latter (not to suggest I dislike the former by any means), which means this is a Sigur Ros album I immediately gravitated towards even after one listen. They have still yet to make the same recording twice. Kveikur even with some of their most brief and structured songs, still manages to flex on their prog and musician first based tendencies. "Stormur" is basically a pop song. I am always happy to invest time in whatever art these little weirdos come up with, but this is my favourite record they have made since Takk (my fave by them as a rule) and it has a perfect balance of listener challenge and listenability. It sticks at nine tracks too, which means it's not trying to say too much.

Sulk - Graceless

My feeling is this will be the least original, yet most endearing record I listen to this year. Three notes into a first listen my wife says "Holy Stone Roses!" Another friend suggested they could actually be a Stone Roses cover band, and every review I have read essentially covers the same ground. Regardless, there has always been a place for bands who unabashedly embrace and project their influences without prejudice. My attraction to this record stems from the same shameless place. I liked how the Stone Roses sounded in their prime and I think it is fantastic that a young band who were barely born at that time see fit to rekindle their version of that magic. I used to say things like so and so is ripping band x off. These days, if the odd band wants to sound almost exactly like Stone Roses rather than a tired version of Coldplay, then I will take the Roses rip off band please and thank you. This album is fun and familiar and ultimately disposable, but your head will bob and you will want to strut and dance lankly like you are from Manchester in 1989.

!!! (Chk Chk Chk) - Thr!!!er

You know how so much is made of Red Hot Chili Peppers being funky? Yeah, well they're not. Maybe it's the lack of exclamation marks in their name, but by current standard, they really don't rate. Also, I think the word or connotation with "funky" has lost all sense of proper Parliament and James Brown referencing. Chk Chk Chk have always been funky, and then some. What works best here and on their strongest material is an absolute comfort in repetition. The beat and bass on a track like "Get That Rhythm Right" varies almost not at all throughout. the rhythm sets up a solid foundation for horns and other bits to be thrown against. Bands that do organic / non-mixed / instrumented type dance music well, are not afraid to stay in the core song even if it is simple and overlapped. "One Girl / One Boy" may not have Niles Rodgers as a guest like Daft Punk's "Get Lucky", but the guitar and Chic inspired disco fundamentals are all there. This is another group that take chances on every album without abandoning their key strengths. The key strength for this band as far as I can tell is always getting you to shake so so so much ass.

Honourable Mention:
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Phoenix - Bankrupt!
Little Boots - Nocturnes
Asif Illyas - Synesthesia
Tricky - False Idols
Surfer Blood - Pythons
Primal Scream - More Light