Thursday, August 26, 2010

The National- High Violet

Much like The Walkmen, The National are a band who never elicited much interest in me based purely on reviews and word of mouth. In this era of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, I've developed something of a mental block against bands who have a timeworn, classicist sound that can't reliably be labelled anything other than rock or indie rock. There's something...plain and uninteresting about them, or so my logic goes. And then I actually listen to them and end up loving them. It may have taken until 2010 for me to get around to The National, but they jumped to the top of my long, long list of bands to explore in further detail. High Violet is simply that good, though you may have to take my recommendation on faith.

That's because on first listen, much of High Violet passes by without making an impression. It feels like eleven versions of the same idea, with a seemingly limited palette of sounds and tempos further compounding the problem. Sticking with the album, however, soon overturns these notions. What hooked me, and what has continually kept me coming back, is the album's sheer sense of craftsmanship and songwriting consistency. The National's last album came out in 2007, and while they didn't spend that entire span of time working on High Violet, you'd believe it if someone told you they had. This is an album that was labored over, every element of sound molded until it was just right. The lyrics brim with interesting, sometimes abstract imagery, avoiding cliché and obvious sentiment but still connecting with the listener.

On High Violet, The National sound like the result of an experiment to combine the emotional resonance and cresting majesties of, say, Arcade Fire with the chilly, atmospheric production of the first Interpol album. 'Anyone's Ghost' could pass for a Turn On The Bright Lights outtake, with its up-front post-punk bass and lyrics about going out at night with headphones on, Matt Berninger's airy baritone aimed as much at his feet as it is the microphone. Album closer 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks', meanwhile, bears the lonesome high melodies and surprisingly solid hooks of a lost Bon Iver track (he may be doing the backing vocals for all I know, since he guests on the album).

The songs of High Violet have an orchestral and cinematic underpinning that feels like a natural development from The National's last album, Boxer. 'Runaway', in fact, is begging to be used in a movie during the post-break up montage sequence of a 20-something romantic lead. This is also a nocturnal album through and through, but more in a “I can't sleep because I've got a lot on my mind” way than a creepy, brooding way. Which is why Massive Attack'sMezzanine and The xx's self titled album kept coming to my mind while listening to High Violet. They all share a certain atmosphere and vibe that goes well with those nights where you can't sleep because of something (or someone) that's on your mind. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to picture Massive Attack's take on the aptly named 'Sorrow', a dour lament about lost love. But no, these songs belong to The National. It's hard to imagine anyone else delivering the stunning middle three songs of this album, 'Afraid Of Everyone', 'Bloodbuzz Ohio', and 'Lemonworld', or the sounds-weird-in-concept-but-is-nowhere-near-that-morose 'Conversation 16', with its dream-like lyrics that somehow encompass romance, zombies, and suicide.

High Violet is not the most immediate, flashy, revolutionary, or controversial release, but it doesn't want to be. Instead it's just a damn fine piece of music, one that may not instantly win you over, but—you'll have to take my word for it—one that is also worth the time and effort to enjoy.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Arcade Fire- The Suburbs

Arcade Fire's Funeral was one of the essential indie rock albums of the 00s; the sort of (sub)cultural event that resonated with a lot of people, while those who found it overblown or simply didn't like it still couldn't deny its popularity and acclaim. There's something dramatic and triumphant about the album, its emotional openness and intensity. I once was moved to describe it to someone as an album where it sounds like every song is in a fight for its very life. Personally, though, I prefer Neon Bible. It's dark, troubled, and borderline bitter, but the songs are so damn good that it's easy to miss what they're about. Anyway, Arcade Fire's first two albums may come off as dense and difficult when you're reading about them, but the expert song craft ensures you take to their music right away.

Ironically, then, I've been struggling with The Suburbs, which is supposed to be their almost-whimsical pop album. It took me about three listens before I was sure I liked the album, which is strange since their first two are much heavier and darker in terms of subject matter and music. My main issue with this album is that it's too long, and this is something compounded by a handful of weak tracks. But yes, I enjoy this album. The Suburbs starts off in fine fashion with the jaunty bounce of the 70s AOR style title track, easily the mellowest and lightest start to any of their albums. Tracks like 'Month Of May' and 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)' even demonstrate some musical growth, with the former a chugging rocker and the latter making the best use of Regine Chassagne's vocals on the album, setting them to a throbbing electro-pop backing which at first seems out of place with this band but quickly wins you over. When Arcade Fire are just sounding like themselves, as on 'Ready To Start and 'We Used To Wait', they still have all the power and energy that they displayed on their first two albums. I'd even go so far as to say that those two songs easily match any of the band's best.

Keep in mind that those albums were a full 15 minutes shorter than The Suburbs. Their greatness would be dulled by three or four more songs, “too much of a good thing” being this album's chief failing. I'm a firm believer in the “less is more” school, since I'd rather pay $15 for an excellent 35 minute album than a bloated, half great 70 minute one. Certainly if it was 70 minutes of fully great it would be another matter, but most of the times I've listened to The Suburbs I get tired of it about halfway through. Again, none of the songs are outright bad, but this album simply lacks the coherency and consistency that made the first two Arcade Fire albums near-perfect. Had they trimmed a few of these tracks, they could have had a totally great album and an EP's worth of pretty good material. For instance, 'Empty Room' seems unfinished, overwhelmed as it is by overloud guitars and errant white noise, while both parts of 'Half Light' could have been an excellent anchor to an EP instead of cluttering up the middle of the album. In many ways The Suburbs reminds me of that mid 90s to early 00s era when bands released albums that sprawled to hour plus lengths simply because CDs could handle more playtime than records. Even Bob Dylan succumbed to this problem: his 1997 single CD album Time Out Of Mind is actually longer than his 1966 double record album Blonde On Blonde!

While clearly the product of the same band, Arcade Fire, much like Wolf Parade, have managed to release three albums that are quite different from each other, tonally and music-wise. There doesn't seem to be a general consensus about any of their albums, either, at least according to the people I talk to.The Suburbs may only be a silver medal winner to me , but I'm sure many people will love it and either see past its flaws or not see them at all.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Okkervil River- Black Sheep Boy

It's strange and beautiful how music can affect you. Hearing the right song at the right time has made me do anything from miss the exit I was supposed to take, tell a complete stranger I think she's beautiful at a concert, or finally get up the wherewithal to shave and do some laundry during one of my depressive phases. Yet I generally find myself resistant to what Bradford Cox of Deerhunter once referred to as “emotionally manipulative” music. The sort of stuff that attempts, purposefully or otherwise, to make you feel something, whether it be despair, euphoria, anger, or what have you. For instance, I was listening to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea the other day at work, and for whatever reason the latter half of it really got to me; meanwhile, I'm dreading finally listening to the new Arcade Fire album because I find their albums draining (in a good way) due to their full force assault on my emotions.

Still, when I stumble on a band who have this kind of effect on me, it's always a welcome thing. The Stage Names was my introduction to Okkervil River, and it was one of the many excellent albums from 2007. My only foreknowledge of the band was a comment by Lou Reed at some kind of MTV awards show, where he was asked what modern bands he liked. I'm pretty sure it was around the time Black Sheep Boy came out, since this was definitely the album that made their name. Anyway, I can see Reed liking this band. There's a classicist, straight-ahead rock 'n roll feel to their music that would appeal to him. Even when they're bringing in stately horns ('A Kind And A Queen'), orchestra players ('In A Radio Song'), or going for acoustic stuff that wouldn't be out of place on a Mountain Goats album (the title track), you still feel that this band is not so much classic rock a la the Rolling Stones as they are a prefix-less version of rock. Akin to the third (and especially) fourth Velvet Underground albums, now that I think about it.

Okkervil River certainly aren't indie rock as most people would define it despite being on an indie label. Frontman Will Sheff even stated, during an interview with Relix about Pavement's reunion, that he actually hated them for awhile because of all the bands who sprung up in their wake, with lazy, sloppy music and mumbled, meaningless lyrics. Sheff, though, is the kind of guy who will put work and time into his albums. Hence Black Sheep Boy, a concept album inspired by a song of the same name by Tim Hardin. Rest assured that, whether or not you try to piece together the story of the monstrous, tragic lead character and the love triangle he becomes involved in (at least, that's what I think is going on), you can still enjoy this album. As someone who enjoyedThe Stage Names but just couldn't quite fall in love with it (I like to call this “four-and-a-half-star-syndrome”), Black Sheep Boy is concrete proof that Okkervil River are a great band. You may not dig Sheff's voice at first, but as with, say, Conor Oberst, once you see his full range and spellbinding power, you understand what a deliberate and emotionally affective weapon it is. During my first listen, when the band hit the peaks on the dramatic 'For Real', I was finally sold on his voice.

As for the album, when the band hit those final peaks on the epic 'So Come Back, I'm Waiting', and he belts out “I'm waiting/I snort and I stamp” and then quiets down for “I'm waiting, you know that I am/
calmly waiting to make you my lamb”, I was fully sold on it. The main reason I like this over The Stage Names is that there's a stronger sense of discovery and songwriting playfulness here. The mellow country-rock of 'A Song Of Our So-Called Friend' could pass for a Bonnie 'Prince' Billy cover, 'A Glow' has a waltz-like lilt and dreamy school dance guitars, and the Spoon-like grooves and falsetto backing vocals on 'The Latest Toughs' make it one of the album's most immediate thrills. This is an album brimming with ideas and hooks, with a palpable feeling of fun to back up and juxtapose with the heavy/dark subject matter and sometimes smarty-pants lyrics. Hands up, how many people had to look up what a “diapason” was?

As with a good number of things in life, Lou Reed was right about Okkervil River, too. They're one of the few indie bands that no genre or buzzwords stick to other than “rock.” Then let me say: Black Sheep Boy is an outstanding album from one of the best (extant) rock bands. Highly recommended.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Caribou- Andorra

2007 was a bumper crop year for music, to the point where otherwise excellent releases by bands like Do Make Say Think and Okkervil River wouldn't crack my top ten list. So it is that I'm still in the process of playing catch up on so much music from that year (not to mention the rest of the last 50ish years of music that I've missed) that something as good as Andorra escaped my notice until now. Caribou, and Dan Snaith's older work as Manitoba, has consistently been one of those artists I see showing up on “best of the year” lists, but I never seem to see copies of his music when I'm browsing through a record store. Still, Andorra won the 2008 Polaris Music Prize (though it came during one of the weakest year-ish eras for Canadian music in some time, judging by its fellow contenders) and there's something infinitely more legit about those awards than our Grammys, so let's dig in.

Andorra's aesthetic is that of 60s psych-pop meets 00s electronic music. This approach sounds like a novelty on paper, but in practice it clicks so smoothly that this music belongs to both decades equally. Not that the 60s and 00s are that out of sorts to begin with. Artists from Boards Of Canada to Fleet Foxes have offered their own unique takes on a vintage/modern mix; in fact, another 2007 release, Panda Bear's Person Pitch is very similar to Andorra in many regards. Yet where Person Pitch plays more like a hip hop, dub, or electronic album, Caribou here hews closer to a song oriented, melodic structure that nonetheless doesn't feel as self consciously retro as similar music from Stereolab.

One of the main touchstones I hear in this music is the Silver Apples. While Andorra does also owe a lot to late 60s/early 70s psych-pop and, especially, krautrock, it is not guitar based like those albums are. Instead it's based on driving, organic, jazzy rhythms and drum beats as well as futuristic keyboards and dreamy vocals. In other words, like the Silver Apples. It is an influence more than a blueprint, though 'Sandy' and the superb 'After Hours' do sound like more fleshed out takes on that cult band's first two albums. Meanwhile, 'Desiree' is one of the album's highlights, sounding like Caribou and no one else. The quiet and introspective first minute is gradually buffeted by orchestral samples that float in from the background, until the song blooms into a gorgeous chorus at 1:24, like an audio approximation of the flowers on the album cover.

'Niobe' is an appropriately lucid and elongated ending to the album, with the repeated refrain of “I fall so far” drifting in and out of the piece as either a statement of love or a resignation of what has been lost. Like all of Andorra, it has an affecting pop immediacy that makes you want to hear it again as soon as it's done, subsequently revealing new layers of sound and detail you hadn't noticed before. Andorra was without a doubt one of 2007's best albums, which is saying a lot considering its company.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5