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Archive for August, 2009

xx

It’s been a pretty smashing start for the xx.  The band, whom all hail from London, received some pretty rabid critical attention when they released some unconventional covers of R&B personalities including the late Aliyah.  What followed was a full-length LP, a tour with Micachu and the Shapes (amongst others), more critical raves, and now they’re gearing up for another tour with the UK’s current “it” girl Florence & the Machine (a favorite here at the Void).  While the praise of the NME and Pitchfork crowds can sometimes be doled out a bit too freely, success still isn’t supposed to come this easily- and with the band’s cumulative age barely cracking the 80’s, it’s also not supposed to come this quickly!  So what gives?  Strangely enough, what gives is that in xx the band has released one of the most subtle and self confident debut albums in recent memory.

For whatever reason, when something is receiving hyperbolic levels of universal acclaim, I tend to approach it with a pretty large dose of trepidation (how bizarre, right?).   So naturally when I had heard about this merry band of young Londoners blazing their way into the hearts of musical fans, I was fully prepared to find myself underwhelmed despite the hype.  All before hearing a single second of music.  Then I pressed play.  If I were to be entirely honest I would have to say that I knew that I was going to dig the xx after just a minute or so of the opening “Intro” track.  The song, aside from some mild humming, features essentially no vocals what-so-ever, just the effective groove of a pulsing drum and a funky guitar line.  This is the opening track on a debut album, and the band chooses their only instrumental song!  And it’s good!  I mean, did I mention they’re barely over twenty?  It’s a ballsy move, and it’s also very reflective of the self-assuredness that is ever so present all throughout xx.

Much of the credit has to be given to the vocals of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Smith.  This makes sense given that, like many twenty year olds, most of the subject matter the band explores is that of the joy and turmoil of relationships.  Many of the tracks on the album feature verses what essentially resembles a dialogue between to the two young vocalists, and they both prove to be very capable of carrying this load despite an often times “less-is-more” approach to musical backing.  For example, towards the middle of “Heart Skipped a Beat” there is a burst where the only vocals is Croft and Smith repeating “sometimes I still need you” back and forth to one another, with only the pulse of the drum mimicking a heart beat behind them.  Thankfully, there’s an undeniable chemistry between the two young singers that makes such moments a joy to listen to rather than a chore.

There are only a couple songs on the album that belong solely to one singer or the other, but when they do arrive, both Smith and Croft prove themselves more than able to keep the pace.  There’s an alluring quality to Romy Madley Croft’s voice in particular that makes her singing seem almost effortless and soothing.  On “Shelter”, where she is the lone vocalist, she is especially on her game.  On the track she bounces between seductive and tender.  At one point she breezily sings “I still want to drown, whenever you leave, please teach me gently, how to breathe.” There’s a heartbreakingly simplistic approach to her words that just seems to resonate throughout her songs.

The first two singles that the band released from the album were “Crystalised” and “Basic Space”, and while both songs were welcomed with open arms by listeners, neither track is something that I would describe as being particularly conventional.  “Crystalised” is a song which basically features a guitar riff as the hook (something that I’ve always been a sucker for), while the latter track is largely defined by its use of hand drums and the bass guitar (also courtesy of Smith).  That’s the beauty of the xx and their music, they posses a deft touch that allows them to create music that simultaneously understated and exciting.

Something that I really enjoyed about xx is that there is a fair amount of variety to the songs.  “VCR” is almost pop, catchy hooks and all, while “Infinity” is more ethereal, featuring exceptional ebbs and flows in tempo.  On “Heart Skipped a Beat” the beat his almost playful, yet  on “Fantasy” the entire first half of the song is almost entirely reliant upon Smith’s vocals and the second half consisting of only murky instrumentals.  The xx manage to do a number of different things, and yet somehow they seem to do all of those things very well.  One moment the music will seem reminiscent of modern R&B, the next it will call upon the swooning emotionalism of post-rock, and the next it will bring to mind the pulsing relaxation of lo-fi.  There’s just a certain excitement as a listener that’s born from not knowing what’s coming next.

I realize I may sound like I’m gushing a bit, and I probably am.  But it’s not very often that I come across a new band that immediately grabs me the way that the xx have.  Sure there are some moments where the band’s youth shows through (for example, I found “Night Time” to be pretty forgettable), but on the whole they’re playing beyond their years.  There are not many debuts that are as promising and skillfully crafted as xx is, and it’s not very often that a young band is deserving of the over-the-top praise being poured upon them.  Fortunately, the xx are not your average band, they’re something else entirely.  I can’t express how much I look forward to hearing more from them in the future and figuring out exactly what that is.

SCORE: 4.3 out of 5.0

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Humbug

Towards the latter half of the latest album from the Arctic Monkeys, lead singer Alex Turner poses the listener with the query; “What came first, the chicken or the dickhead?” A fair question, and also a rare dash of humor in what is a strangely somber and moody release from the rambunctious young band from Sheffield.  From start to finish, Humbug definitely sounds as though there is a distinct and definitive vision for how the band wanted it to play out.  Perhaps it’s a maturity coming from age or a cynicism from fame, but one definitely gets the impression that the Arctic Monkeys aren’t horsing around.

The latest from the Arctic Monkeys was recorded largely in California under the eye of co-producer Josh Homme (Queen’s of the Stone Age), so perhaps it shouldn’t come as much surprise that the tracks contained generally sound a little less urgent but more deliberate, more controlled.  From the opening track “My Propeller”, everything is drenched in a dark moodiness.  Alex Turner’s vocals come in a throaty croon as he laments; “my propeller won’t spin and I can’t get it started on my own.” Even the lead single “Crying Lightning”, which is the closest thing to a “just throw your hands up and rock” kind of jam as there is on the album, sounds very measured in its presentation.  Both songs are actually quite solid, but I did find myself wishing that the band would open up the floodgates a bit more.

There seems to be a continued process of sharpening lyrics that has taken place across the Arctic Monkeys’ first three albums.  This is a progression which is at times very visible here.  For example, as far as I can tell “Dance Little Liar” is one of the most impressive and sophisticated songs that the band has ever written from a lyrical standpoint.  The track is a bit open to interpretation for the specifics, but it is undoubtedly about what it feels like to live trapped within a facade of your own creation, all presented with the trippy flow of guitars and the steady drone of the drums.  It captures the feelings that accompany being caught in a lie perfectly, from the little beads of sweat that come from potentially being found out to the shame that you simultaneously bear.  It’s probably the strongest track on the album.  The final verse beautifully combines the need for absolution with the reality of having dug yourself too deep; “And the clean coming will hurt, and you can never get it spotless, when there’s dirt between the dirt.”

On the whole I would have to say that this is the band’s most impressive albums lyrically, though there are the occasional missteps.  The worst offender is “Dangerous Animals”, which features a hook that plays like a rock band doing their impression of Gwen Stefani.  However, for the most part the album is very consistent in this sense.  This really speaks to how steady of an album the band has crafted on the whole, there really aren’t many bad songs to be found.  Unfortunately, though, there really aren’t to many great one’s to be found either.  While most of the tracks are solid, aside from maybe “Dance Little Liar” there is nothing on Humbug that I would expect to find on a compilation album down the road.  The LP is lacking some of the clear highlights that previous Arctic Monkeys albums have provided.

Something positive that this steadiness provides is the encouragement to pay attention to the details.  While at first glance there may not be too much to separate songs like “Potion Approaching” and “Pretty Visitors”, it’s the little things that ultimately give both tracks their own unique flavor.  On “Potion Approaching” it’s largely Matt Helders’ drums that are the star of the show as he powerfully drives the chorus.  Meanwhile, on “Pretty Visitors” it’s the wild changes in pace that keep the listener off balance and intrigued.    Aspects like these also speak not only just to the deliberate presentation of the material, but also to the band’s continued honing of their craft as they continue to tweak and experiment with their sound a bit.  With the Arctic Monkeys having released three full-length albums in the last four years, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the bandmates are all still in their early twenties.

What it ultimately boils down to is this; on Humbug the band’s greatest attributes are also what limits them somewhat.  The album is undoubtedly solid and very steady, but it becomes tough to differentiate many of the songs from one another.  There is the occasional twist here or there (the band puts a bit of a psychedelic sound on “Secret Door” and tries to marry a bluesy sound with some brit-pop on “Fire and the Thud”), but largely Humbug is an exercise in sameness.  But saves things from getting to be tedious or forgettable is that the band is clearly improving, so while the songs may sound like one another, it undoubtedly plays better than it would had the band released the same album a few years ago.

Listening to Humbug, I found it difficult to either heap too much praise on the album or get too worked up about it.  Something I did very much miss, though, was that patented Arctic Monkeys sense of juvenile humor and their heart-on-the-sleeve raw energy.  Perhaps that’s what, in my eyes, makes Humbug a little bit lesser than Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and Favourite Worst Nightmare.  It just lacks that joyfulness and urgency that was almost tangible in their music previously.  Thankfully, there’s enough improvement in other areas from the band that  the album stays afloat.  Not their finest work, to be sure, but definitely evidence that the Arctic Monkeys are still headed in the right direction.

SCORE: 3.0 out of 5.0

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I’m well aware that of late I’ve been posting a greater than reasonable volume of music videos.  I fully intend to right the ship and level off such excess, however, I really wanted to toss up this video for Taken By Trees’ cover of Animal Collective’s “My Girls”  (sort of).  The song “My Boys” appears on Victoria Bergsman’s upcoming release East of Eden.  The video features a series of extreme close-ups on everyday objects, I can only assume in an attempt to display the wonder present in everyday life.  It’s an interesting choice as the stripped down version of the Animal Collective track displays Bergsman’s ability to mine beauty out of the most complex source material.  East of Eden comes out September 8th, head to the Taken By Trees MySpace page or the official site for even more details.

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Cory Chisel sure knows where to go looking for some good band mates.  Aside from himself, Cory Chisel and The Wandering Sons has members of both the Raconteurs and Band of Horses popping up here and there.  I have to say that based on the video for “Born Again”, the first single off of the upcoming album Death Won’t Send a Letter, it certainly sounds every bit like there’s a bunch of talent involved.  The music is a nice mix of country, blues, and rock, and meanwhile the video is compelling and oddly unsettling in all the right ways.  I especially enjoy how it plays with the vivid religious imagery in the music without being entirely cynical.  Check out the band’s MySpace page or their official website for more details.  Death Won’t Send a Letter is out September 29th.

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Earlier today Ted Kennedy passed away after his long battle with brain cancer.  He was 77 years old.  The Kennedy family name has been something of a brand in American politics, and Teddy was the last of that old guard, and it’s sad to see him gone.

While he was heavily involved in the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960’s, in many ways his lifelong legacy has been his battle over the healthcare system in this country and I would like to think that he was comforted in his final days by the fact that we’re closer to making headway on this issue than we have been for a long time.  His battles in the senate on such issues had long made him the subject of adoration by liberals, just as some of his mistakes and controversies long made him the subject of scorn for conservatives.  However, by the end of his life and career I think it’s safe to say that he was universally respected.

One the things that my mind immediately ran to was how it was Kennedy’s support of Barack Obama during his candidacy that really gave him his first air of old school legitimacy.  It showed foresight and a powerful faith in our system and the American voters.  One of my final enduring memories of the senator will be of the speech below that he delivered at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, despite having recently taken a turn for the worse against cancer.

Edward Moore Kennedy: 1932 – 2009.  He will be missed.

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Chronic City

In my mind, Jonathan Lethem has always been something of an inconsistent enjoyment.  At times his writing seems vital and downright inspired, yet at other times it has felt to me like he’s just going through the motions.  As such, I have both very much enjoyed books like The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn and been thoroughly exasperated by lesser works like You Don’t Love Me Yet.

A review of Lethem’s latest novel Chronic City in New York Magazine seems to suggest that maybe they’ve found the cause behind some of this inconsistency.  The writer’s muse.  What I’m referring to is, of course, Lethem’s home base of New York City (Brooklyn to be exact), where his most successful novels have been set.  There might just be something to that thought.  When Lethem abandoned the streets of New York for Los Angeles, where You Don’t Love Me Yet took place, his writing seemed to lose much of its authenticity and sense of cool.  Perhaps a return to the Big Apple will be exactly what the doctor ordered.

This time around Lethem has flipped the script a bit, though, moving his gaze to Manhattan.  As the review  (which is very positive) notes, the story unfolds between two men, a former child star and an over-the-hill rock critic in a damp and dystopian vision of the borough.  While one positive review isn’t going to be enough to marry me to the concept entirely, I will say that this band of broken-down New York rock and roll types sounds more intriguing to me than the recent batch of Los Angeles ones did.  Also, it doesn’t hurt that the cover art for the novel calls to mind a similar book cover for another tale of broken dreams and power gone bad.

Chronic City comes out October 13th and I can only hope that the novel will mark a revitalization for Lethem and his writing.  It would seem that so far things are looking good, I guess we’ll be finding out one way or the other soon.

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Dan Deacon’s wacky appearance is pretty much the perfect embodiment of the jubilance that’s so readily evident in his music.  Perhaps, that’s why I find it so curious that he so rarely appears in his own music videos, well aside from a puppet version apparently.  I can tell you one thing, though, the video for “Paddling Ghost” is still a ton of fun.  I may not have the same fierce love for Bromst that some listeners seem to have developed, but there is no denying the spirit and love that has been put into the music.  You have to say that’s also bled over into the videos, and this latest one is no exception.  Check out Deacon’s MySpace page and his official site to hear and see more.

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