Archive for March, 2010

For a band that hails from the snowy hills of Burlington, Vermont, there’s something intriguingly sunny about Happy Birthday’s music.  The band’s rise to success was one of those that was notoriously meteoric, as within the span of a year they found themselves snapped up by Sub Pop records and on their way to putting out a debut album.  While such an origin may produce leave some listeners skeptical and nearly all struggling bands jealous, this groups debut actually does a pretty good job of justifying that quick success.  The self-titled LP is full of breezily light DIY sounding pop music that, while it may not be the most wholly original sounding stuff on the planet, is pretty tough to dislike.

The band is fronted by Kyle Thomas, who spends most of the album leading the charge on the kind of fuzzy, beach-pop that has become increasingly popular over the last couple years.  On opening track, “Girls FM” (which is also the first single off the album), Thomas doesn’t seem terribly concerned with making any kind of huge splash or saying a whole lot of anything, but rather seems content just churning out a fun and catchy pop song.  There’s a lack of pretentiousness to a lyric like; “Baby, baby, just please change your mind, maybe we’ll understand love at the end of time, and answer won’t be hard to find, when it’s gone now baby, gone now baby” that makes it not only fun to listen to, but pretty easy on the tongue as well.  For the most part, this is the trend that Happy Birthday follows across their debut album, and it proves to be a wise choice.

The band is able to blend that haze with a funny kind of weirdness to songs like “Perverted Girl” and “Maxine the Teenage Eskimo” that give them a bit more immediacy than their simple premises would initially suggest.  Don’t get me wrong, the music is still lo-fi at its core, but even still, there’s a bit of poppy sentiment lurking here that makes these songs stand out from the barrage of similar music that so many young bands have been spewing out over the last couple years.  I mean, lets’ face it, there’s a certain visceral simplicity to somebody singing “now I wanna break shit” that you can’t help but appreciate.  Happy Birthday is able to tap into that simplicity, often in humorous and inventive (even if somewhat sophomoric) ways.  Putting aside the super-infectious “Girls FM,” my next favorite track on the album might just be “Subliminal Message” which is able to combine laid-back vocals, whining hums, and a smatter of drums into one deliciously listenable package. The song isn’t intricate, but it’s enjoyable.

Something else that I was struck by was what seemed like an almost retro quality to some of the bands music. “Pink Strawberry Shake,” for example, seemed to possess some spirit of rock and roll past that I couldn’t quite put my finger on amidst all the haze and distortion.  The song is full of winking innuendo that suggests (gasp!) Thomas might not just be singing about a strawberry shake.  This wry humor is another theme that keeps creeping up across the album, but what’s most impressive about it is that this sense of humor is continuously applied in fun and inventive ways that consistently help to elevate the music past its slight subject matter.  Not that this should come as much of a surprise on an album that boasts song titles like “Zit,” “Perverted Girl,” and “Fun.”

As I said at the outset, the band has not been together for a whole ton of time, and while having a lack of polish is what most of the music is meant to display, there are moments where things feel less than fleshed out.  “2 Shy,” for example, strikes me as being a bit more bland than most of the songs on the album. It keeps all of the simplicity of the stronger tracks, but dials back the urgency, and as such, a lot of the charm. Meanwhile, “Eyes Music” sounds a bit too scattered, almost as though the band were trying to throw too many less than complimentary pieces all into the same track.  It’s moments like these where the album tends to stumble, but fortunately, such missteps are almost certainly due to a lack of experience, and are the kind of thing that you would expect the band to start ironing out as long as band continues to play together.  Besides, on an album that is more obviously reliant on raw energy than it is on carefully measured craft, this is the kind of defect that the listener is likely going to be willing to overlook.

It’s going to be very interesting to watch Happy Birthday continue to grow and mature, and I can’t  help but wonder what path their sound will take.  Based on the raw ingredients on display here, the band (and Thomas in particular) clearly possesses all the tools that suggest a potentially bright musical future.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt one bit that the music is just poppy enough to have some of the songs (i.e. “Girls FM” and “Subliminal Message”) break through to a larger and more mainstream audience than many lo-fi bands could reasonably hope for.  None of this, though, should distract from the fact that whatever the future may hold, Happy Birthday has crafted a very self-assured debut, that is both unique and very enjoyable.  Any way that you shake it, that ain’t bad.

SCORE: 3.6 out of 5.0


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I’m going to admit something; I was not exactly over the moon for All Hour Cymbals.  I liked it, and could appreciate what other people seemed to really love about it, but the album just didn’t seem to resonate with me like it did some listeners.  This being the case, I put off actually listening to Odd Blood for quite a while when it was released.  I kept meaning to get around to giving it a spin, but it seemed like I never quite had the motivation to do so.  That was a mistake because this album flat out kicks ass.  As enjoyable as the ambient and folky elements of the band’s debut may have been, the album veers completely off that path and right into what is my musical wheel-house.  To put it simply, Odd Blood takes everything that I enjoy about 80’s pop music and combines it with everything that I really enjoy in the modern indie and electronic genres.

The lead single should have been plenty of evidence that Yeasayer was going to go running in a slightly different direction with Odd Blood.  “Ambling Alp” with its booming hook of “stick up for yourself son, never mind what anybody else done,” was obviously meant to be more chorus driven than anything on the first album.  Yet, somehow, this managed to go right over my head.  Upon my first listen to the LP I found myself similarly tapping my foot along with the heavy drums of “Madder Red.”  Then I was completely taken in by the woozy synths of “I Remember,” as by the song’s end I found myself singing along to the chorus of “you’re stuck in my mind, all the time.”  But it was probably somewhere toward the middle of the maddeningly catchy “O.N.E.” – during which I kept finding my arm reached outward, turning up the volume – that it first started dawning on me that I was listening to something pretty special.  All in all, while I would quickly discover that the entire album was pretty damn solid, the stretch between “Ambling Alp” and “Rome,” in particular, mark one of the strongest six song sets that I have heard in years.  At this point I have probably played the grooves right off this CD, and not a single one of the songs in that group have even started to lose any of the charms that I heard on the very first listen.

Out of that group of standouts, it’s probably “O.N.E.” (which is marked to be the second single) that is probably my very favorite out of the bunch.  The song packs a serious punch, and boasts a chorus that grabs hold of your brain and simply refuses to unleash it, and at the end of the track (at about the four and a half minute mark) there is an almost Jackson-esque set of backing vocals that almost sent me spilling from my chair in excitement.  The song also provides a nice setup for “Love Me Girl,” where the bottom almost drops out from pace the album seems to be on, and throws you the perfect curveball of electronic weirdness that not only recalls their previous album but perhaps a bit of Depeche Mode for good measure.

It’s probably no small secret to anybody who has read any tangent that I have gone on regarding music in the eighties that I am a fan of David Byrne and the Talking Heads.  In fact, I probably get a bit too carried away at times using the Talking Heads as a measuring stick for bands that I like or as a basis for comparison.  However, having said that, there were numerous points across Odd Blood where I heard much of what I really loved about the Talking Heads music in Yeasayer’s songs.  This was especially true on “Rome,” where I felt like I could have been listening to a Talking Heads track, the sound was just that fucking dead on.  And believe me, while I’m probably doing Yeasayers a disservice by almost suggesting that this song was completely aping another band’s style, I really do say this with utmost of love, and consider it some pretty high praise.

While it is the middle stretch of Odd Blood that marks the album’s sweet spot, it really bears saying that the whole thing is pretty damned consistent.  The energy that the band bursts out of the gate with really doesn’t dissipate at all until the last track fades out.  “Mondegreen,” for example, seems to possess all the nervous tics and spazzy jerks of a classroom full of kindergardeners with ADHD, but it all seems strangely cohesive under the band’s watchful guidance.  The song also segues beautifully into the fuzzy blips and hums of the closing track “Grizelda,” which, similarly to “Love Me Girl,” recalls All Hour Cymbals a bit more than the rest of the album.

Really it’s pretty astonishing how drastic a change Yeasayer made in their sound between this sophomore album and their debut, which was pretty acclaimed in its own right.  It was an extremely ballsy move which could have backfired gloriously, but instead paid off with some serious dividends.  It’s nothing short of incredible how seamlessly this group of youngsters was able to shift gears and completely master a new sound after so impressively bursting onto the scene with a debut that, despite my lack of passion for it, displayed a mastery beyond their years.  It really lends even more credence to the idea that right now that Brooklyn is ground zero for the best new experimental music.  While Odd Blood comes a year after the explosion of some other Brooklyn bands (i.e. Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and the Dirty Projectors) into the mainstream, Yeasayer makes sure that you know that it was worth the wait.

SCORE: 4.6 out of 5.0

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Frightened Rabbit’s 2008 album The Midnight Organ Fight seemed to catch most folks off-guard.  There was just something raw and emotionally honest about this little Scottish band that listeners could really connect with.  For me personally, it happened when I first heard the stellar song, “The Modern Leper,” which was enough to cause me to do a double-take.  I had to hear more music from this band.  Well, the thing about first impressions is that you can only make them once, and while there were probably a bunch of listeners who had caught Frightened Rabbit’s first album, Sing the Grey, I would be willing to wager that there were an equal number who had their introductions made by that great sophomore album.  This being the case, The Winter of Mixed Drinks is an important album for the band, where they  have the burden of proving that the excitement generated from that first impression wasn’t just a flash in the pan.

While the title of the album never ceases to make me cringe, it is undeniable that on The Winter of Mixed Drinks, Frightened Rabbit is able to largely cultivate a more robust sound.  While the band made the wise decision of bringing back Peter Katis as their producer (he also produced Midnight Organ), they clearly were determined to create a more rich sound here on their third album.  This is something that they accomplished.  This was evident even early-on from the two singles, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” and “Nothing Like You,” which preceded the album’s release.  Both songs are more lively and crowded affairs than virtually any track off of their previous two albums, and while the bare-bones aesthetic of much of the music off Midnight Organs could be attributed as giving that album much of its charm, both tracks seem much more readily able to fill the shoes of a traditional single than anything you had previously heard from the band.

This does, however, lead to one of my complaints about The Winter of Mixed Drinks, though, in that sometimes I feel some of the wittiness and endearing tenderness of their previous couple albums was sacrificed in attempt to be a little more cute and catchy.  “FootShooter,” for example is a song that strikes me as being a bit too on-the-nose and cute for its own good.  It’s not that the song is outright “bad,” per-say, more just that it seems like the average work of a lessor band.  I found “Not Miserable,” to be similarly tedious, as it brought all the melancholy of the band’s better work, but none of the articulation that made that bleak subject matter endearing.  Both songs were the kind that were enjoyable enough on the first listen, but didn’t really hold up at all through any kind of repeat visits.

Fortunately, on the album’s high points, Frightened Rabbit seem able to combine their more intricate musical composition with the same biting lyrical content of their previous standout tracks.  Perhaps the best example of this is the track “The Wrestle,” which not only manages to be pretty damn catchy, but with lyrics like “the vice clinch of the struggle, I can’t give into the weight of, the clothe-less wrestle” it also manages to be one of the more inventive and interesting songs that I’ve heard about sex in a long, long, time — and make no mistake about it, with a subject as well worn as that, this is no small amount of praise.  Just as impressive is that when the song swells (a strange choice of words given the subject matter?) to its chorus, it is every bit as triumphantly hooky as the chorus on “Swim Until You Can’t See Land.”  I also found it worth noting that the band could be every bit as effective when the subject matter is a bit more playful, as was the case on “The Wrestle,” as when they are sounding bleak and heartbroken.

There were also some moments on this album where the band made some choices that I couldn’t help but find to be absolutely bizarre.  The forgettable “Man / Bag of Sand” is a primary example of this.  The song is essentially a loose rehash of “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” with some loose acoustic guitar and the vocals dialed way back.  This would struck me a strange choice to include as a b-side on a single, let alone being stuck in the middle of their album.  They virtually replicated this decision with the last song of the album, an alternate version of “Things,” that is basically just an acoustic version of the opener.  The fact that I wasn’t really over the moon for the first version of the track probably didn’t help to endear me too much to the this second incarnation.  Additionally, I was similarly lukewarm about the inclusion of “Skip the Youth,” which at six minutes-plus,  seems to kind of meander on far longer than necessary without ever really going anywhere in particular.  All in all, these three songs just seemed weird in contrast with the more fully-realized sound of the other nine on the album.

There is enough about The Winter of Mixed Drinks that I both really enjoyed and really did not, that I am not quite comfortable calling the LP really either a step forward or a step backward for the band.  In all actuality, it’s probably an example of the group moving sideways.  They may not have captured the same magic of Midnight Organ, but it is not as though there’s anything here that really turned me off to the band’s music. Frightened Rabbit shows signs of growth, but as often is the case, there are also some growing pains.  At least, though, the band seems as though they won’t be content with just standing still.

SCORE: 3.0 out of 5.0

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So, any rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.  Every time it seems like I am going to come out on the other side of my current barrage of job-related distractions, another whole set gets piled right on.  As such, I have a bunch of content that is saved as a draft right now, and I am just going to start posting it in bursts, at it has long since been any kind of topical for the most part.

First I am going to unleash some music reviews, I haven’t really had a chance to correct the spelling or grammar (likely similar to on this post) at all, so errors will have to be excused where found.  A couple of the more recent ones I will hold onto with hopes of cleaning them up a bit over the next day or so… but we’ll see.

See everybody on the other side.

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In the world of indie music, the pairing of James Mercer and Danger Mouse is a pretty huge one, even if it may seem somewhat strange on the surface.  Mercer’s work with his band The Shins is likely one of the largest, if not the largest, contributing factors to this decades trend of bringing indie music to a wider audience.  Meanwhile, Danger Mouse has not only been extremely busy, but with The Grey Album and his work as half of Gnarls Barkley, he has probably been behind some of the most “important” music in recent memory.  This being the case, there was a pretty insane set of expectations surrounding the collaboration between the two musicians.  But those who were paying careful attention probably shouldn’t have been too surprised that what they produced was a relatively understated, though mostly enjoyable, collection of songs.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that Broken Bells greatest attribute also probably marks their greatest defect, and that’s the bands ability to write consistently solid music.  There are not a ton of peaks and valleys across their self-titled album, all the songs are pretty steadily good.  While the plus-side of that equation is that there is not a single track that I would point to as being all that lackluster, there also aren’t any tracks that really strike the listener as standing out above the rest.  The album instead really seems to exist as a cohesive whole, something that is increasingly rare in today’s music.  Every single track seems to organically compliment the ones that come before and after it, and as a result the band seems content to thrill not in songs but in moments, in brief waves of inspiration amidst the overall sea of strong composition.

One of the ways in which the album occasionally distinguishes it’s stronger moments is through some inspired lyrics.  There are moments where there’s a certain darkness creeping into Mercer’s lyrics despite his sweet falsetto delivery of them.  On “The High Road” he sings; “a soldier is bailing out, he curled his lips on the barrel, and I don’t know if the dead can talk, to anyone.”  It is precisely lyrics like this, along with the “guts on your blouse” that Mercer croons about on “Sailing to Nowhere,” that create some of the most striking imagery on the album.  Mercer has always had the ability to make deceptively dark lyrical content sound conversely sweet, but Danger Mouse’s particularly moody production seems like it gives those moments of disturbing clarity a little extra bite.

While on the subject of Danger Mouse’s production, his work here is an interesting change of pace from some of his more hip hop and dance driven work of recent memory.  There is a murkiness to this album that is subtly different from what most listeners have probably come to expect out of the artist, and he manages to pretty on the money for the most part.  While there are moments where it seems like Danger Mouse aka Brian Burton is a bit out of his element (“Citizen” for example, where he sounds like he’s pandering to the Zero 7 crowd a bit too much), what I was most impressed with was how he largely seemed content to leave any personal flair behind and instead make music that was complimentary to Mercers voice and to the overall tone of the album.  Burton’s only real moment to shine comes on the album’s closing track “The Mall & Misery,” where it’s his shift from graceful strings to spirited guitars that mark the best aspect of the track.  The rest of the time it is about the cohesion between two different artists, who make it sound surprisingly free of any friction.

Despite the great amounts of professionalism on display across the LP, it seems to drag at times a bit more than it should.  This could probably be attributed to the fact that while the album is a great example of a flawless exercise in musical craft, it’s also pretty devoid of the hooks and messy improvisation that had made the two artists previous respective efforts noteworthy.  As such it occasionally creates the, probably unfair, impression that Burton and Mercer are just going through the motions, content to compliment each other, but never really step completely outside of their comfort zone to take any real musical risks.  I suppose that gun to my head, if I absolutely had to make a decision, I would probably pick “The High Road,” “The Ghost Inside,” and “The Mall & Misery” as being a bit stronger than the rest, but it’s really only by a hair at most.  On the whole, there are no tracks that really grab hold of the listener, demanding their attention.

This all being said, the album doesn’t have the same re-listen value that it probably should, considering how generally good it actually is, and make no mistake about it, the album is good.  Yet, perhaps because of the undeniable talent involved and because of how tight the production is, it’s at least bit disappointing. Disappointing because despite how generally enjoyable the music may be, you can’t really ever shake the suspicion that two talented musicians like these who are operating at peak form should sound a little more exciting than this.  For all of their charm, and Mercer and Burton both have an excess of that, there seems to be some small intangible element missing from this collaboration from making it truly great.  It’s one of those rare occasions where “very good” seems like settling.

SCORE: 3.5 out of 5.0

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So, as usual, the job has been insane this month, and has kept me away from here for a week and a half.  But, upon seeing this spot, the first trailer for HBO’s upcoming series Treme,  I have come running back.

My reaction?  Oh.  Hell.  Yes.  I can’t even put into words how stoked I am about this show.  I have heaped tons of adulation on David Simon in the past, and probably have even mentioned that based on The Wire and Generation Kill, he has earned enough good faith from me that I will pretty much geek out on anything he does.  However, looking at this first teaser, I don’t think there exists a world where I wouldn’t be super excited based on what I’ve seen.

The whole thing is light on characters and dialogue, but oh-so-heavy on mood and music.  I really like the the direction that this show looks to be heading in.  Hell, the final title shot with the trombone was enough to have me grinning from ear to ear.

New Orleans is a city that’s rich with culture and history, not to mention recent social and political developments, and that has always been largely reflected in its music.  This spot suggests to me that Treme is going to crush the musical aspects of the series right out of the park (for those of you who wonder whether David Simon knows his music as well as he knows his words, I suggest you check this out).

April 11th can’t come fast enough.  Here’s the official site for the show over at HBO if you want to check out more.

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There’s a great little article by Christopher Orr over at The New Republic that pretty much nails my own feelings about the “Avatar phenomenon” and how it will almost certainly translate into Oscar gold for the film.  The argument is that while Avatar is almost certainly not deserving best picture, there is an overwhelming possibility that it will be the last movie standing on Oscar Sunday for two reasons; Academy politics and money.  Orr writes the following:

Again, the issue is not merely, nor even primarily, that Avatar made so much money; it’s that The Hurt Locker made so little. The all-time lowest-grossing Best Picture winner to date (adjusted for inflation) is Crash, which made $55 million in 2005—more than five times Hurt Locker’s adjusted box office. About half as many people saw Bigelow’s picture in its entire theatrical run as saw Cameron’s on its opening day. For the Academy to elevate so small a picture over one so big would be wildly out of keeping both with its recent, much-discussed desire to keep the Oscars “relevant” to a mass audience, and with its lifelong prejudice in favor of films that succeed commercially.

I find his points to be pretty compelling.  Orr also aptly points out that while Sean Penn was probably not the most deserving nominated best actor last year (a suggestion that I happen to also agree with), he took the home the award for his performance in Milk.  He cites a possible explanation for this was the Academy looking to rebuke claims that they were out of touch with the gay community after Brokeback Mountain lost its own best picture race to the less celebrated Crash a couple of years prior.  The mere fact that this argument holds water and is in anyway credible in itself highlights what’s wrong with the Academy Awards.  They are so very much about politics and campaigning and so little about actually rewarding quality.

Now, I don’t have the same venom for Avatar that Orr does.  While he hated the film, I merely found it to be so-so and highly overrated.  I do think that the idea of that movie being celebrated as the best of the year, though, would be nothing short of ludicrous.  Like Orr, I’m of the belief that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was by far and away the best film of the year, regardless of how many people saw it.  However, at the same time I’m aware of the fact that regardless of how the Oscar race shakes out, the film is already something of a big winner.  The mere fact that it has been nominated and crowned as the front-runner has probably sent millions more viewers rushing to the television to watch it than would have experienced it otherwise.  As a (relatively) low-budget Iraq-war movie, it was never going to attract the viewers that a big, dumb, action movie like Avatar was.  But while even a best picture win will likely do little to expand upon Avatar‘s essentially maxed-out fanbase, even just a nomination has done exactly that for The Hurt Locker.

Cinema fans will have to take their victories where they can get them, I suppose.

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