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Archive for September, 2009

Girls “Lust For Life”

Add Girls debut album, entitled Album, to the list of albums that I wanted to review but did not find the time to do so (they got edged out by the Avett Brothers, whose new album I should be getting a review up for tomorrow).  The album really kicks ass, and while this video for “Lust For Life” has been around for a few weeks, I really wanted to get something Girls-related up.  Now, normally I don’t jump into band’s backstory either, but this one is too incredible to ignore.  Additionally, since I am so very infatuated with my own words, I typically would never use somebody else’s in a situation like this when mine would suffice, but the following from Pitchfork just describes the band history too briefly and accurately to ignore;

“Girls frontman Christopher Owens grew up in the Children of God cult. His older brother died as a baby because the cult didn’t believe in medical attention. His dad left. He and his mother lived around the world, and the cult sometimes forced his mother to prostitute herself. As a teenager, Owens fled and lived as a Texas gutter-punk for a while. Then a local millionaire took Owens under his wing, and Owens moved to San Francisco. There, he and Chet “JR” White formed Girls, and recorded Album, their debut album, under the influence of just about every kind of pill they could find.”

Now that, my friends, is the stuff that rock legends are made of.  I love this music.  In any event, head over to the band’s MySpace page and here’s what the band links to on their page as their official site.  Like I said, my kind of music.  Enjoy.

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The Dirty Projectors rocked my world and unveiled an entirely new track, called “When the World Comes to an End,” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.  Before you say or think it, no the track is not on the soon to be released Temecula Sunrise EP (which I’m also very excited for), which is a shame, because the song is awesome.  So not only does the band now have what might be my favorite album of the year and one of the best videos of the year, but they also boast one of the best live television performances I’ve ever seen.  Holy hyperbole Batman!  Seriously though, the performance is unusually great.  You know the drill; MySpace page, page on their label, more information.  Enjoy.

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The fine folks over at New York Magazine have noticed a trend amongst novelists this season.  They’re publishing memoirs.  As such, Boris Kachka has done the only responsible thing there is to do after making such an observation, he chose six of them and created a table cross referencing their work.

Now, there were two things in particular which I found to be striking when grazing over the list.  The first was that even on a list of just six authors, there was a real degree of diversity between the men.  Everybody from the young Brooklynite Jonathan Safran Foer and the accomplished Michael Chabon to Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe.  It’s really quite a bunch.

The second thing I was struck by was how boring most of the books sounded.  I certainly don’t claim to how good any of the books are (I haven’t read any of them), or to hold the ability to determine what qualifies tangible value in the written word, but in the same breath, I’m not exactly darting over to Amazon for the opportunity to read about Foer’s veganism or Chabon’s musings on fatherhood.  It’s striking to me that, at least on the surface, even the most talented of writer is ultimately just a man like any other.  Devoid of extreme circumstances or outlandish personality (think James Ellroy’s My Dark Places), their story might not be all that much more interesting than yours or mine.  They most often are graced with the skill of articulating that story better, though.  And that makes a whole world of difference.  Food for thought.

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The Dodos “Fables”

Even by today’s standards, four albums in five years is a pretty prolific amount of recording from a band.  Somehow, the Dodos have not only managed to do just that, but they’ve also managed to release four albums of actual quality.  This, for your viewing pleasure, is the video for the first single “Fables” off their latest album Time To Die.  The video is pretty straight-forward, the band performs the song, but the track is really top notch.  Watch it, then head to the Dodo’s MySpace page and their official website to learn more and buy Time To Die all for your very own.

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Unmap

As far as consistently heartfelt and sincere sounding music goes, Justin Vernon seems to have today’s market pretty much cornered.  His two Bon Iver releases, last year’s For Emma, Forever Ago and this year’s Blood Bank EP, were both subtle and understated sets of music that are right up there with any of the finest debuts of the last decade.  Perhaps then, there isn’t any more natural a pairing for Vernon than with the post-rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees, as the two have come together to record some music under the moniker of Volcano Choir.  While the heavily electronic and effects-laden tendencies of post-rock pose a stark contrast to Bon Iver’s stripped down aesthetic, both artists share a fondness for a sense sweeping emotionalism in their music.  In that regard, when both parties are clicking, Volcano Choir sounds as though everybody has fit right into their niche, despite the fact that everybody is actually stretching their experimental legs across the majority of Unmap.

While For Emma, Forever Ago pretty strictly adhered to Vernon’s more acoustic tendencies, his vocoder enriched voice on “Woods” off the Blood Bank EP suggested that there was a more experimental side to the artist.  In fact, I might even be inclined to suggest that given “Woods” as well as Vernon’s work on Volcano Choir, perhaps his stripped-down style on For Emma, Forever Ago was largely even due more to necessity than anything else.  Given his friendship with the Collections of Colonies of Bees crew (they’re all Wisconsin boys), and the fact that with the release of last year’s Birds the band also seems to be locked into a musical groove, expectations for Volcano Choir were naturally going to be pretty high, experimental or no.  But in the same breathe, you have to remember that the band is really an opportunity for everybody involved to try some new things musically, that’s the whole point.  So perhaps it shouldn’t be at all surprising that the results are often a bit mixed.

I’m of the impression that the two strongest tracks on the album are without a doubt “Islands, IS” and “Still”.  The reason for this is because each track takes some of what we like best about both acts and combine them in a way so that the listener is presented with an intriguing fusion of the two.  Different from what we’ve heard from any of the musicians before but highly rewarding to listen to.  “Islands, IS” takes Vernon’s very distinctive voice and combines it with pulsing and energetic instrumentation.  The track almost sounds like it could have come off of Merriweather Post Pavilion with the layered music that slowly builds on itself as the song progresses.  Meanwhile, “Still” is essentially a re-imagined version of “Woods”, except it’s more fully fleshed out by the swelling instrumentation of Vernon’s new-post rock partners.  What we are treated to is a track more richly realized version of an already wonderful song, you can really hear how Vernon and Collections of Colonies of Bees saw something of kindred spirits in one-another.

However, just as often Volcano Choir seems to chuck out this foundation of emotional sentiment in favor of more pure experimentation, and that’s where things occasionally start to falter.  “Mbira in the Morass” is an example of a song that falls a little flat.  The song is a genre-bending foray into experimental ambience, but it comes off as being too indulgent of some of both parties more pretentious tendencies.  The song starts out as a curiosity but slowly becomes almost grating to listen to.  The closing track “Youlogy” is similarly atmospheric, but it’s also lacking any degree of emotional grounding, so ultimately, it feels similarly meandering.  It’s not all bad, however; “Cool Knowledge” could have gone down a similar path, but somehow the track is funky enough, and brief enough, that it never is in danger of overstaying its welcome.

Getting a bit tangental for a moment, I’ve always been intrigued by the cold visuals that Justin Vernon uses to adorn his albums.  For Emma featured a leafless tree viewed through a frost covered window, Blood Bank had a snow-covered car, and Unmap presents us with a powder filled forrest.  I find it striking because these cold visuals are a direct contrast to Vernon’s music itself, which often sounds very warm, regardless of how depressing the subject matter may sometimes be.  That warmth is present on much of Unmap, and the album is always better for that presence.  “Husks and Shells” is such a track.  With its plucky acoustics, it’s the most Bon Iver sounding song on the album, and I can understand why the band chose to lead with the track as something of an introduction.  However, Volcano Choir also manages to convey the warm tone at times even if Vernon isn’t singing a word.  “Dote”, for example, is very light on vocals.  However, the song has an earthy natural feel to it, there are layers of ocean sound across much of the middle portion of the track, and even the instrumentation that bookends the track is very ethereal and soothing.  It conveys that warm feeling of Vernon’s music as well as the ebbs and flows of Collections of Colonies of Bees instrumentation all at once.  That’s pretty impressive.  Yet, at other times, such as on “Sleepymouth”, the music becomes more traditionally reminiscent of American post-rock, and in doing so I found that it left me a little cold.  The song isn’t bad, by any means, it just sounds more cerebral and manufactured, less organic, than either of the two perviously mentioned tracks.

My biggest complaint with Unmap is that it’s often times more interesting than it is enjoyable.  When novelty of hearing the two acts perform together wears off, some of the songs lose their sheen pretty quickly.  Despite this, on some of the tracks the combined talent of everybody involved is enough to make the music compulsively listenable.  Besides, the flip-side of that statement is that at least the album is always interesting, and that’s not a terrible thing.

SCORE: 3.2 out of 5.0

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Carter

Oh Charlie Crist, why do you think I care what you have to say?  Well, I don’t, and neither should you.  However, if you are a glutton for punishment, take a gander at the CNN Political Ticker and you’ll see that the Florida Governor has been running his mouth a bit about the potential for Obama to be ousted come the next Presidential election.  In making this suggestion, he calls to mind the administration of former President Jimmy Carter in an attempt to somehow scare the American public.  The exact quote that CNN provides is as follows;

“They wanted a change back in 1976. You remember? Richard Nixon had been president. That ended. Gerald Ford took over. The people decided they wanted a change. They got one-Jimmy Carter. Four years later, they took care of business-Ronald Reagan.”

“It may happen again,” Crist went on. “I believe that the people have seen that they wanted a change but not this much. Not this kind, and not this way. America is awake and we’re coming back.”

Now, of course we have to take all of this with a grain of salt, with Republicans still reeling and Crist himself running for Senate in 2011, it’s not difficult to decode what his motivations might have been behind such a statement.  However, what I really take from this is that just when you think that the Republican party can’t prove itself to be any more out of touch, they go and drop another doozy on you.

Sure, the President’s approval ratings have been dropping a bit (from previous historic highs), but it’s really not as though Republican approval ratings have been sky rocketing.  As a matter of fact, there are still very few people who are all too pleased with the job that Republicans are doing.  According to the most recent Gallup poll, 51% of people still hold a favorable view of the Democratic party (down from 53%), whereas only 40% of respondents hold a favorable view of the Republican party.  Remember, this is with the battle for universal healthcare raging and the economy still in the toilet.  This is as good as it’s going to get for the Republican party!  Can you imagine when the healthcare debate is resolved and more Americans than ever find themselves insured?  How about when the economy actually starts to improve?  How low will the approval rating of Republicans fall then?

Perhaps the most hilarious part about all this is that Crist is really typifying the Republican strategy in the face of all this scorn and derision.  The strategy is not that they should try to more accurately reflect the concerns and needs of the American voters as a party.  No, their plan is to stay the course and hope that this whole wacky “change” thing runs its course.  Just like in ’76!  Like I said, talk about a party that’s out of touch.

There are a couple more problems plaguing Crist’s reasoning here.  Let’s put aside for a moment that he thinks comparing the ambitions behind the Obama and Carter presidency is a bad thing and focus on the fact that President Obama hasn’t even been in office for a whole year yet!  I mean, the President inherited a country that was reeling, the economy is failing, we’re in an unpopular war, and we’ve been developing a nasty habit of ignoring and violating the rights of citizens.  It’s funny that Crist is raising the specter of Richard Nixon, because after the eight years that we had with George W. Bush at the helm, another Nixon presidency suddenly isn’t looking all too bad!  So things were a compete mess and because President Obama didn’t solve everything inside ten months he’s suddenly Jimmy Carter?  I’m sorry, was there not a stimulus that helped stabilize the economy?  Are we not seeing much more openness and transparency in government?  Are we not working to pass historic healthcare reform?  Sorry Charlie, but I’m not buying it.  I would say that the President is doing a pretty damn good job, and as things continue to improve, that’s something that will only become more clear and he will only become more popular.

As for my second point, I find it interesting that Crist mentions the Presidency of the enduringly popular (the argument over the merits of that popularity are for another day) former President Ronald Reagan.  Well, let me tell you Governor Crist, I know Ronald Reagan when I see him, and you’re no Ronald Reagan.  In fact, when take a look at the faces in the Republican party, I’m not seeing another Reagan anywhere!  What I do see is a former Vice-Presidential candidate and onetime rising star who is no longer even a politician and a series of also-rans who will be cannibalistically feasting on one another in three years as they jockey for position atop the party (think the Democrats it ’72).  You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t think that sounds like a winning formula.

For Charlie Crist and the Republican party, none of this is at all troublesome.  Reason doesn’t matter and you can just forget about what the voter wants.  No, their plan is to compare Obama to Jimmy Carter and talk about Reagan until the Democrats and all of their scary new ideas go away.  Well I applaud them, hell, I encourage them.  My message is this; keep it up guys, and we’ll see how that works out for you.

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MOF

“Even your mama said she don’t wanna see you spent at twenty-five.”

You want a super-group?  Well, I’ll show you a damned super-group full of the best young folk and indie artists out there!  Conor Oberst, Jim James (or Yim Yames, whatever, I’ll call the dude whatever he wants), M. Ward, and Mike Mogis are Monsters of Folk, and on they’re self-titled album, they’re out to prove that folk musicians can be rock stars.  As if their respective careers to date haven’t already been exemplary proof of that all in themselves.  So there Crooked Vultures, put that in your pipe and smoke it!

In what must come as a big surprise to absolutely nobody, Ward, James (Yames), and Oberst handle the brunt of the vocal work.  “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)” kicks the album off with Jim James primarily on vocal duty.  The song foreshadows a couple of patterns that are present across the album.  The first is the fact that’s a song about faith and spirituality, not surprisingly, this is something that’s a reoccurring theme with Monsters of Folk, this is folk music after all.  From a lyrical standpoint, the track actually really reminded me of John Legend’s “Show Me”, another song that was about a man struggling for faith, albeit in an entirely different genre.  From a musical standpoint, with it’s kind of funky groove mixed with the folky aspects made it so “Dear God” actually sounded like a cut off of My Morning Jacket’s last album, Evil Urges.  Of course, this was compounded by the fact that James was primary vocalist.  Which leads us to the second trend, Jim James consistent excellence.

As earlier noted, three of the musicians swap vocal duties back and forth, but it’s Mr. Yames who delivers the most consistently solid performances.  Perhaps equally impressive, with the possible exception of the afore-mentioned “Dear God”, none of the Jim James tracks sound much like any of his previous solo work or his work with MMJ.  On “The Right Place” James delivers a very upbeat and much more traditionally folky track.  Meanwhile, James is also the vocalist on the album’s last track, “His Master’s Voice”, and with this tender spiritual ballad he proves just as skillful ushering us out the door as he was ushering us in.  However, James probably saves his best work for “Losin Yo Head”, a track that’s probably the closest thing to a throw-your-hands-up-and-dance folk song as I’ve ever heard.  At it’s core, the song is really just a funky party track, with James singing; “It don’t matter what I’m doing, as long as I’m losing my head.”  It’s probably the most fun song of the entire bunch.

As I said, the results for the songs that are primarily Conor Oberst or M. Ward tracks see some more mixed results.  That’s not to say that both musicians don’t have their moments in the sun, though.  Oberst, in particular, has some ups and downs on the album.  “Ahead of the Curve”, for example, could be considered something of a “down” track.  The song could pass for any number of lesser Bright Eyes songs, and Oberst, seemingly aware of this, pretty much sounds like he’s just going through motions.  However, returns are far more positive on “Man Named Truth”, a dark and lyrical song that’s classic Oberst.  The track features a mean guitar and sinister little lyrical moments such as; “With oregano oil and a morphine drip, pain was hunting me down, but I gave him the slip.”  That’s my kind of tune.

M. Ward’s tunes are a little more consistent than Oberst’s, but he doesn’t wow the way that James does.  As you’ve come to expect from Ward, most of the tracks that he fronts are warm, almost old-timey, jams, and for the most part they’re pretty good.  “Goodway” is probably the best of the bunch, and it might just have my favorite hook on the album from a lyrical perspective with; “You taught me everything I know about taking other people for a ride, and I just wanted to take the time to thank you for that gift tonight.”  I love it, cynical yet syrupy, I hope all the young pop musicians are out there taking notes!  And while there are some lesser tracks, such as “Sandman, the Brakeman, and Me” (a ballad that falls a bit flat), for the most part M. Ward does more than enough on the whole to leave a nice mark.

Now, I would be remiss if I went this entire review without mentioning the contributions from Mike Mogis.  If Jim James is Monsters of Folk’s MVP, Mogis is almost certainly the team captain.  The instrumental work and contributing vocals that he delivers are often what quietly seal the deal on some of the band’s very best tracks.  Songs like “Dear G0d”, “Losin Yo Head”, and “Magic Marker” would be far less impressive without the work that Mogis does.  It’s just the way things work that every band needs to have a Ringo, and this is magnified considering the popularity and notoriety of this supergroup, but Mogis does the job admirably.

Overall, I would certainly not call the album a disappointment.  Yes, it’s a bit inconsistent, but really all that means is that instead of being a great album, it has to instead settle for merely being a very good one.  It’s no surprise that the songs are well crafted, Obest, Mogis, Ward, and James are all very accomplished musicians.  What gives Monsters of Folk their soul is the fact that the band sounds like they’re just having an absolute blast playing together.  Of course, it’s not too bad to listen to, either.

SCORE: 3.6 out of 5.0

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