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Archive for May, 2009

Phoenix

The latest release from Phoenix was the second of two highly anticipated records appearing this week (the other was from Grizzly Bear).  As songs were slowly released by the band, you couldn’t help but be impressed with the craft on display, but with great hype comes even greater expectations.  Now, I’m going to go ahead and tip my hand a little early here, Phoenix delivered on those expectations in a big way.  With their last couple albums, Phoenix has shown themselves to be the kind of band whose popularity would steadily rise as more people heard them, but it wouldn’t even be a little shocking if Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix rockets them to a whole new level of commercial and critical success.

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix opens with a real doozy of a track in “Lisztomania”, if there was any doubt regarding what direction that the band was headed coming into this record, they quickly set you straight with this first song.  This energetic track is catchier than all hell, as a matter of fact, the entire album showcases Phoenix being catchier than you’ve ever heard them before.  This is a good thing.  The music is still complex and rewarding.  It’s almost disorienting when vocalist Thomas Mars sweeps you up in his whirlwind of stormy lyrics, but I’ll be damned if the song doesn’t leave you smiling and tapping your feet.  “1901” is even more of the same on this front, the pace is fast and the sounds is bright, even if the lyrics aren’t particularly sunny themselves.  It’s of absolutely no surprise whatsoever that these tracks were chosen as the lead singles for the album.

After this opening pop explosion, there’s a kind of change of pace for a couple of tracks.  The first is “Fences” which comes off as much more controlled and maybe even a little wistful.  A nice steady drum keeps the pace as Mars wonders aloud “fences in a row, what are they protecting, in a row?”  The song is much more psychedelic than the first two, but it goes down equally smooth.  This track is followed by “Love Is Like A Sunset (Part 1)” which completely ditches Mars vocals in favor of a heavily lacquered on sonic sound.  The track starts slowly, but builds on itself, the synths growing more urgent and the drums getting louder, and just when the things sound like they’re going to erupt at the halfway mark, the bottom falls out and you’re left with an unexpected silence.  It’s pretty exhilarating and is a strong segue into the more rousing and upbeat (although short) “Love Is Like A Sunset (Part 2)”.  I find “Love Is Like A Sunset” to be much more reminiscent of the band’s earlier albums in the sense that Mars seems very much an after-thought, whereas his voice is really the driving force behind the other nine tracks.

Another very impressive track is “Lasso”, the song is the kind of head-bobbing awesomeness that exudes a real sense of effortless cool.  The guitar riffs are insanely infectious, as is Mars’ chorus of “where would you go, where would you go, tied up with a lasso?”  It’s another song that is extremely single-worthy as it should be appealing to both music snobs and mainstream fans alike.  Meanwhile, this pop romp is followed by “Rome”, a track that somehow manages to combine a deep sonic feeling with the sound of plucky indie guitar rock.  The pleasant little guitar riffs that lead you in and out of the song are something of an appetizer for the delicious synth swells that surround the songs chorus.  The song provides a nice little simplification for what the band manages to do across the entire album, they combine various complex musical cues and influences to make simply enjoyable indie-pop songs.

Phoenix close things out with another pair of more subtly enjoyable tracks.  The first of the two songs is “Girlfriend”, the track is a little less upbeat than most of those that came before it, but the chorus is a swelling sing-along affair that dulls most of the lyrical cynicism that the song contains.  This leads into “Armistice”, which is the final song on the over-too-quickly album.  As I was listening to this closing track I noticed that the combination of quick drumming and faint keyboard during the chorus actually recall the melody of “Lisztomania”.  It serves as a kind of interesting bookend to an album which already feels like it was the result of some very good planning.

From top to bottom Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a really fun ride to go on, it’s probably the best outing from the band yet.  At the very least it is the most catchy release they’ve put together, and impressively it is equally dense as anything else they have offered our way.  Will all of their wonderfully contagious songs, there is little doubt that Phoenix is going to be attracting some new fans while continuing to keep the old ones smiling.  We’ve always known that Phoenix was a solid band that was going to continue to grow, but with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix they’re sending a very clear message:  the sky is the limit.

RATING: 4.3 out of 5.0

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If you’re anywhere near the age of thirty (or over) you probably grew up loving Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video which has become a cultural monument of sorts in America.  So you really can’t blame Karen O. and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for getting their Jacko on when it came time to shoot their latest video for the song “Heads Will Roll” (this is 2009, though, so the content is a little darker, but equally fun and campy).  It’s a great video that’s very fitting for a great song.  Check it out, then head over to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ MySpace page or their official site and go out and buy It’s Blitz! (check out my review of it here).

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Trek

A few days ago I posted a link over to Slate where there was a little piece on how Obama and Spock are similar to one another.  The thesis seems to have gained some traction on the internet and the folks over at The New Yorker didn’t want good ol’ James T. Kirk to get left out of the conversation, as they took a look at the mischievous Captain and saw a political comparison of their own.  When they look at the latest film incarnation of Captain Kirk they see a facsimile of John McCain peering back out on them.

Think about it kids; John McCain = maverick, Jim Kirk = maverick, end of story!  Wait, wait, don’t change hit the back button yet, I’m just kidding!  Either way though, be sure to follow the link and check out the blurb, if nothing else it’s kind of funny…  Star Trek and politics, Gene Roddenberry would have been proud .

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Veckatimest

A song toward the end of the latest release from Grizzly Bear contains the lyrics “been gone too long” and “don’t put me on, don’t make me beg”.  This may as well have been directed at the band themselves, because with all of the wild anticipation for Veckatimest, expectations may have been built up to the point where this was the most salivated over unreleased album of the year (with the possible exception of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion).  How would the band be able to live up to such incredible hype and pressure?  Well, as it turns out, better than any reasonable person could have expected.

Perhaps the most compelling thing about Grizzly Bear’s latest is how well it succeeds despite often seeming to be at odds with itself.  Take “Southern Point” for example, the track that opens Veckatimest, layer upon layer of sounds are piled atop one another as the song progresses, the only way that I can possibly describe it is as being the folk equivalent to jazz music.  If you were coming into the sprawling song as a virgin to the band, you could even come away with the impression that the song was the result of a musical free association session of some kind.  However, this is just an illusion, as if you know anything about Grizzly Bear, you realize that they possess an almost inhuman attention to detail and sense of meticulousness.  As such, what you’re really hearing when you listen to “Southern Point” is the very definition of controlled chaos, the purposeful and precise recreation of an improvisational sound.  The fact that the band is ambitious enough to try and pull such strings is impressive, the fact that they’re talented enough to pull it off is nothing short of daunting.  It’s a wonderful microcosm for Veckatimest.

The second track on the albums is of a different variety than the opener, but “Two Weeks” is no less impressive.  The band reaches back to an era of music that’s not been popular for at least sixty or so years for the swooning vocals that provide the backing for the catchy song.  Again, when mixed with their folkier brand of music you would think that there would be some kind of clash of styles, but the combination comes off as though it were always meant to be, and sounds as though it were accomplished almost effortlessly.  This track sets a precedent for the rest of the album, Grizzly Bear is not to be trusted, you’re never going to know exactly where any one song is going, they’re willing to defy expectation and change things up on you at a moments notice.  It creates a sense of anticipation as you are giddily lead by the hand through songs, wondering what you’ll be shown next.  Tracks like “All We Ask”, which suddenly bursts with volume and energy at the halfway mark only before dialing itself down again, and “Fine For Now”, which boasts a razor sharp guitar that pops up during the choruses, not so much just songs so much as musical safaris.  You’re never quite sure what animal is going to jump out at you.

Of course it would be disingenuous to give anybody the impression that the Grizzly Bear’s only trick up their collective sleeve’s was sudden fluctuations in energy and pace.  The album has even more variety than that.  On the pre-released “Cheerleader” the presentation is much more subdued and subtle.  The falsetto of the lyrics are wrapped up by an ethereal haze of light backup vocals and drums in such a pleasing way that I’m almost tempted to call what is actually a pretty dark song “poppy”.  The mood is somewhat similar on “Ready, Able”.  The plucky guitars seem to suggest an impending explosion of sound, but we’re instead presented with the sonic sounding chorus of “They go we go, I want you to know, what I did I did.”  The chorus doesn’t burst, but rather it seems to float, and over the latter half of the song the repetition of it carries the effects of waves washing calmly onto a beach shore.

The band often finds themselves exploring these many sounds by throwing a variety of instruments at them, but they never allow the use of new instruments to overpower any of the music.  On “I Live With You” the chorus has a subtle touch of brass groaning deeply behind its words, it’s so subdued that you’re liable not to notice it your first couple listens through the album.  Meanwhile, the last track of the album “Foreground” opens with a hauntingly beautiful one-two punch of piano and violin, the piano goes on to become the very backbone of the track with a relatively simple combination of notes being played throughout, but it never attracts attention away from the rest of the content.  The way in which the band is able to constantly use added layers to amplify the listeners enjoyment without ever pulling them out of the music is actually pretty staggering.

There are some songs on Veckatimest that comparatively are a little lacking, but only in the sense that after I listened to the album a few times there were five or six tracks that I would hear and think to myself, “that might be my favorite song out of all of them” and five or six where I would merely think “wow, that was pretty good”.  At the same time, though, the album isn’t going to be for everybody.  Pretty much every song on here could be described as sprawling, with most of the twelve tracks on the album flirting with the five minute mark.  People who don’t appreciate the subtle variations in the music or the experimentation that is on display might find a lot of it to be rather dull.  But for those who pay attention to detail, any lack of catchiness will be completely overshadowed by the sheer ambition and level of craft on display throughout.  So while it may not be for everybody, there can be little doubt that Veckatimest is one of the best albums released this year.

SCORE: 4.5 out of 5.0

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This trailer for Werner Herzog’s upcoming remake of “Bad Lieutenant” has been making the rounds and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.  The tone seems to be as bizarre as the cast (Nick Cage, Xzibit, and Val Kilmer?  That’s crazy talk!) and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.  It looks a little more slapsticky (probably not the right description, but it captures the spirit of what I’m trying to convey) than the original, so in that sense the floppy penis scene might even fit better were it in this one!

Herzog still claims to have never seen the original film, he might be lying or he might be telling the truth, honestly, neither would surprise me too much.  If he indeed hasn’t seen the original, that might not be the wort thing in the world as whatever he has come up with here could very well surpass the kind of middling original, either in terms of outrageous greatness, or just pure unsuppressed awfulness.  Take a little peak and see if you can figure out the damn thing.

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Whatever Works

Listen up putzes, if you head over to New York Magazine you’ll discover this little write up from over the weekend about Larry David and Woody Allen (which will be, or is already, gracing the cover of their publication).  The two titans of comedy have conquered television and film respectively, and recently teamed their talents together for Woody Allen’s upcoming film “Whatever Works” starring Larry David.

The piece is essentially about Jewish humor and its history in popular culture through the lens of these two talented entertainers and their canon of work.  The article basically suggests that on a cultural level, this “Jewish humor” isn’t so much something that’s characteristic of Jews, so much as it’s characteristic of urban high-culture.  I enjoy that train of thought because Allen and David’s work has resonated with a much wider array of audiences than the term would seem to suggest.  I mean, how many people do you know who haven’t seen “Annie Hall” or “Seinfeld”?  The second part of this article is essentially saying that this particular brand of humor is dying out, soon to only be a cultural relic to a younger generation with different tastes, and I have to say that makes me a bit sad.  Regardless, it’s interesting stuff.

If you don’t read it for anything else, then you should at least take a peak for some of the info about David and Allen working with one another and some interesting candid moments the two shared.  They’re two masters of their particular craft nearing the twilight of their careers, and it’s likely that it will be a long time before we see anybody like them again, if ever.  The trailer for “Whatever Works” is below, if you haven’t seen it yet.  That David/Allen character looks to be a real mensch (not really).

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Its Frightening

It seems that just about anything written about White Rabbits must contain an obligatory “they sound like The Walkmen” reference.  Seriously, just try getting through a review of their debut Fort Nightly without coming across such a reference, maybe even verbatim.  Perhaps this had something to do with why the six(!) bandmates behind White Rabbits decided to enlist the help of Spoon’s Britt Daniel (and his distinctive sound) as a producer when they set about making their sophomore effort It’s Frightening.

Daniel has helped the band to make It’s Frightening sound a little tighter than its predecessor, it’s less raw but also less straightforward.  With a couple drummers, a pianist, multiple vocalists, and at least three guitars,  Daniel had a lot to work with, and he put it to good use.  One the opening track and lead single “Percussion Gun” the pace is frantic and the mood is rather brooding.  The rapid fire banging of drums that open the song eventually give way to the barking of lyrics and eventually the guitars are piled on top.  The strange thing is that this is probably about as reminiscent of Fort Nightly as this album gets.  A lot of what follows, not shockingly, actually sounds a bit like Spoon.  An excellent example of this is “The Salesman (Tramp Life)”, the song’s sound is a little more reigned in and lighter fare than what we’re used to from White Rabbits, but the content is oddly dark.  With lyrics like “come on, I act like a man but live like a dog, no nothing to see, nothing to keep, nowhere to be” presented with such a pleasing sound, working-class rock hasn’t sounded this good since… well, since Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.

Another nice surprise on the It’s Frightening is that some of the more laid back and deliberately paced tracks were actually some of the stronger ones on the album.  White Rabbits have been a band known largely for their urgent and highly-danceable songs, not so much for their drunken ballad type stuff.  As such, it’s something of an upset that songs like “Company I Keep” and “Leave It At The Door” are as good as they are.  I hate to keep taking the spotlight away from the band, but again I have to talk about Britt Daniel, because with its more laid upbeat acoustic sound and laid back vocals, “Company I Keep” especially seems to have his fingerprints on it.  However, that’s only half the story.  In a sense the producer can only show the band the door, they’re the ones that have to walk through it, and walk through it they did.  Meanwhile, “Leave It At The Door” is as enjoyable a “sitting at your barstool and crying into your beer” kind of track as I’ve heard in a while.  It’s a testament to the band’s growing versatility that they can change things up here and there and not have the album falter a bit.

While the band may experiment with a number of sounds, they never seem to stretch themselves too thin.  The jump between the drum filled and strumming “They Done Wrong / We Done Wrong” and the more piano-driven and wailing “Lioness” may seem like it should be jarring at first glance, but they execute both tracks with enough competence and enthusiasm that you don’t really mind that they bounce from a Spoon-like song to getting their Radiohead on in back to back tracks.  In both cases, White Rabbits really don’t seem to be terribly bashful about what their influences are, but one has to conclude that with their energy and unique makeup, they’re able to make the sounds their own.

If there’s any complaint at all it’s that, with the possible exception of “Percussion Gun”, It’s Frightening lacks any of the particularly obvious single standout “The Plot”-type songs that Fort Nightly had.  In all likelihood, this is largely due to the fact that this is such an even and steady album, with all the songs being pretty solid, so while it doesn’t center attention on a few highlights, it also doesn’t fall into the problem of having too many peaks and valleys.  Besides, at only ten tracks the CD whips right by, and probably should be enjoyed as a whole instead of as a series of smaller, easily digestible pieces.

Credit should be given where credit is due, and White Rabbits have avoided the ever-dreaded sophomore slump.  By enlisting the help of a strong producer and continuing to tweak their sound they’ve managed to create a record that’s every bit as enjoyable as their debut without just trying to make a carbon copy of their original product.  It’s Frightening is an impressive second outing that suggests the band is one that will be sticking around for a while to come.  Lucky for us.

SCORE: 3.8 out of 5.0

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