Shout Out: Lydia Burrell

If you like music (and who doesn’t), then check out this gorgeously played slice of magestic pop from Alex “Lydia Burrell” Smith.

 

Yeah, that was great, I know. So now you should go buy the song as part of The Animals EP.

And don’t stop there…LB is a full band now, but not too far back Alex recorded a full-length by himself, with a little mix and production help from Jim of My Morning Jacket. It rocketh, so pick it up too!

Lydia Burrell on Facebook
Lydia Burrell official website
Lydia Burrell page at Removador

Preferential Treatment: Wilco

In Preferential Treatment, I take a band’s full-length albums and list them from least favorite to most favorite, with a bit of justifying commentary. I welcome your comments, whether they be disagreements or complete non-sequiters. (!) denotes an album that I consider a classic.

SUMMARY:

YHF > BT  > Stth > SBS > tWL > MA(W) > AM > AGiB > Wta

THE STORY SO FAR:

You don’t need me to tell you about Wilco, but here’s the breakdown: trailblazing folk-punk band (Uncle Tupelo) breaks up, budding songwriter (Jeff Tweedy) starts own band, creates incredible double LP (Being There), veers towards the avant-garde, creates masterpiece (YHF), band nearly falls apart, forms new outfit that may be the greatest live band of the new millenium (Wilco 2.0, my term), and keeps making great, if not classic, albums.

THE TREATMENT:


Wilco (The Album): I’ve commented elsewhere that the band’s eponymous seventh album seems like it’s played too fast, and I think that has something to do with making it Wilco’s most forgettable long player. It’s not that the songs are bad by any means, it’s just that that perfect sense of gravitas that provides an extra dimension for almost every other Wilco record is absent, and the songs here just seem to breeze by with nary a flutter. It’s a fairly intangible complaint, but I’ve seen Wilco live three times in the last several years, and they haven’t played one of the tunes here. If that doesn’t speak to how they feel about this set, then I don’t know what would. ("Wilco (the song)", "Deeper Down")

A Ghost Is Born: After 3 great albums and the dismissal of co-songwriter Jay Bennett (who did his fair share to make BT, Summerteeth, and YHF what they were), the odds for a four-peat weren’t in Tweedy’s favor. Ghost is a typical Wilco album: on one hand experimental, exploratory, and open-ended, on the other hand brimming with melody and a poet’s wit. In my opinion, the production seems a little sterile, and nothing confirms this better than the excellent live album Kicking Television that was released a year or two later, when Tweedy had filled out Wilco 2.0′s lineup. Songs that sounded a bit flat here sound alive and filled-out in a live setting. Not a bad record, but it is the sound of a band in flux, without a strong sense of where it is going. ("Muzzle of Bees", "Wishful Thinking")

AM: There was a time that AM seemed utterly forgettable, especially next to YHF or Summerteeth. It was never a bad record, it was just straight-forward and easily labeled as "mediocre". Being There always seemed like the band’s first major statement anyway. But time has been and continues to be kind to AM. It’s got that mid-90′s alt sound going, a bit of a generic mesh in terms of production, but the songs are remarkably strong power-pop affairs at root. As Wilco 2.0 has welcomed more and more of these tunes back into their setlists as regulars, things have come full circle, and AM cuts seem every bit at home alongside classics like "Via Chicago" and "Jesus etc." Absolutely worth revisiting if it’s been a while. ("I Must Be High", "I Thought I Held You")

Mermaid Avenue I/II/III: The Mermaid Avenue albums weren’t entirely Wilco affairs, but there’s enough that’s strictly Wilco between the three albums that you can consider their efforts as a standalone affair. Bragg generally gets top billing with these because of the more explicitly blue collar nature of his previous work, but Tweedy and the boyz deserve plenty of credit for setting Guthrie’s lyrics and musical vision in a more contemporary setting. And who can deny the greatness of Tweedy led numbers like "California Stars", "One By One", "Secret of the Sea", and even the silly "Hoodoo Voodoo"? There’s plenty to love among Wilco’s tracks, which are generally pensive, dreamy Americana at its finest. ("Hesitating Beauty", "When the Roses Bloom Again")

The Whole Love: This one is another grower. Although supported by fantastic bookends, don’t discount the slowly unfolding goodness of tracks 2 thru 11. "I Might" has a nice post-punk edge to it, and "Dawned On Me" and "Born Alone" are both understated but celebratory cuts that highlight the best about Wilco 2.0. The closer, "Sunday Morning", is a sublimely understated shuffler, and perhaps one of the greatest alt-country/folk-rock compositions of all time. ("Art of Almost", "Sunday Morning")

Sky Blue Sky: The first album featuring Wilco in its current and longest-lasting manifestation, it’s a grower. Tweedy’s songs are a bit more simple this time around, but this might be the first album where he sounds truly comfortable in his own skin, and thanks especially to the crack ensemble of Wilco 2.0 the results reveal themselves more wonderfully with repeated listens. It’s a pretty great nuanced guitar album, with standout "Impossible Germany" paying homage to both Television and Steely Dan (which – yes – might just be the most Dad-rock combination of all time). ("You Are My Face", "Leave My Like You Found Me")

Summerteeth (!): A radioactive power-pop detour before the descent into experimentalism, Summerteeth is Wilco at its catchiest. "Shot In The Arm" has, I think, been played in just about every Wilco concert since the record was released, but it’s the languid, lyrically dense "Via Chicago" that seems to define the wonder of this record. It can be overwrought at times, but how can you argue when repeated listens reward you with the glories of cuts like "When You Wake Up Feeling Old"? Sweet and savory, great for late night driving. ("Summerteeth", "I’m Always In Love")

Being There (!): Being There is the album that opened doors for Wilco, and the record where Tweedy overtook Farrar in the great post-Tupelo race for artistic cred. It’s a truly beautiful experience, an epic of devotion to middle America suburbia and 70′s rock mythos, a dreamed-out and completely personal concept album. At times starry-eyed and sentimental, at others an abandoned hard rocker, it’s a lovable mess, everything a double-album should be. Experimental alt-country before YHF was even a glimmer in someone’s eye. ("Far Far Away", "Sunken Treasure")

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (!): Welcome to earth. This is the Wilco record that changed alt-country forever. It was the record that turned me on to Wilco, and it was the record that made them the "American Radiohead" (even if that term doesn’t really fit all that well). Sure, there’s an epic back story associated with this album, from the label troubles to the exit of Ken Coomer and Jay Bennett, and a host of outtakes available for free, but the real triumph is the songwriting, pure and simple. The bells and whistles are a big help, but this one plays like a greatest hits record unto itself. Classified somewhere between Kid A and Rumours. ("War On War", "Poor Places")

In Memoriam: Jason Noble

last things last is not enough,
you can’t accept this
Don’t give in just yet
I hope that last things last
past these first charms
these pale charms
I hope that last things last
a hook or a flake
to hold on so you don’t break – J. Noble, “Last Things Last”

How does a music nerd pay tribute to the musician who literally transformed his notion of what music could be?

I have been slowly waking up to the fact over the last few days that the world has lost Jason Noble. My heart is broken for his family and friends. I stumbled across the website Actual Blood on Sunday, apparently Jason’s own work in progress in terms of a depository for his manifold creations. I see from the updates on his Caring Bridge site that he had journeyed to Bethesda in order to participate in a clinical trial, and that he had suddenly taken a turn for the worse on Friday. Not that I know, but my sense is that his death was painfully unexpected.

Again, my thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. I never met Jason personally, but I always got the impression from his work that he was a “larger than life” sort of individual, and a sweet heart nonetheless. So rich and unique was his aesthetic that I look back now and wonder how he didn’t become a world-famous producer on the level of Eno, but I have some sense that he deliberately chose a humbler path, a quiet life of community and locality, of friendship and personal collaboration.

I first came to Jason’s music in early 1995, when I bought Rusty on a whim. I had only become familiar with the local music scene in the previous year, and I was astonished to discover that Tara O’Neil, whose family had lived next door to mine a few years prior, was a member of Rodan, a band that was becoming a big deal locally. I’ll never forget popping that CD into the player in my dad’s car, surprised to find not a huge rock song, but the delicate, considered, drum-less and distortion-less “Bible Silver Corner.” Over the course of the next few years, Rusty became my favorite album, and it remains one of them today, so much so that (would you believe it) I had been actually considering contacting Jason and arranging some interviews to record the history of Rodan, a history heretofore essentially undocumented.

I came to Rodan too late to ever witness their live show, something I had to make up for by seeking out lo-fi bootlegs, but one magical piece of apocrypha that I eventually came upon was their 1994 BBC session with John Peel, which managed to capture the band on the cusp of recording their follow-up to Rusty. Captured in that set is my favorite Rodan tune, “Before the Train”, albeit in essentially instrumental form. However, Jason would later add vocals to it, a fact captured in a bootleg recording of their last ever show at Lounge Axe in Chicago on 9/25/1994. Despite the poor audio quality, it’s a pretty great document of Jason as band leader, visionary, and vocalist. Check it out:

Rodan – Before the Train (live) – September 25, 1994 – Chicago, IL

If there’s any one thing I love about the thing called rock music, it’s the guitar, and Jason was one of my favorite guitar players. No one played guitar like he did. He was my Eddie Van Halen, a self-taught genius who managed to coax heretofore unheard of sounds out of the instrument. Yet unlike Eddie, Jason treated the guitar with subtlety and romance, as a poetic implement rather than a wankerish tool (and really no disrespect to Eddie, but the divergence is clear). From “Bible Silver Corner” to “A True Lover’s Knot” to “Quiet Victories” to “Full On Night” to “Forecasting” to “A French Gallease” to “How to Draw Horses”, Noble’s work on the instrument was distinct and unforgettable.

But Jason’s guitar work was only one aspect of his art, a natural outgrowth of his unique creative vision. What impressed me about the handful of times I saw Rachel’s perform in the 90′s was the elegance of it, and Jason always seemed to be the mastermind of how it all came off. No doubt he was working closely with some incredible musicians, but there was a darkness, a sense of the numinous, that inhabited anything he touched. One need only look at the intricate artwork that accompanied Rachel’s albums to realize that, for Jason, the music was only one aspect of the creation. Every time I pick up my copy of Handwriting, I’m impressed by the beautiful heft of the 165g vinyl. Whenever I revisit The Sea and The Bells, I’m flabbergasted to recall that Noble penned what is essentially an epic poem for the artwork:

I check the night air
lifting the lantern up
I look over to the book on the desk
unfinished
It tells the story
I won’t be able to write the ending in anything but fire
the last page will be written in fire

I’ll also remember him as a brilliant master of ceremonies. Whether it was surprising the crowd with the Kentucky Derby bugler to open a Shellac performance, or his omnipresence on the Simple Machines Working Holiday Live CD, Jason was witty, good natured, and just weird enough to make you realize that he was usually improvising. There’s this altogether appropriate quote on track 16 from the poor guy who had to fill-in for Jason as MC at the Working Holiday show: “Thanks…I’m no Jason…I’m no Jason…”

Again, my heart goes out to those he was close to. I may have lost one of my favorite musicians, but they have lost someone dear to them. I wish them healing, hope, and consolation.

Requiescecat in pace.

419_Angel_sketch_92IMG_6231_web_noble

1. “Angel comes to child who has fallen down in the woods” sketch by Jason Noble, obtained from the website Actual Blood.

Initial Reactions (2012): Dirty Projectors, Damien Jurado, Welcome Wagon

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan [B]: Hints all over of a strong concept, but I have a really hard time connecting with this dude’s voice. I appreciate the fact that he’s not a mumbler, but he sounds a bit too soulfully controlled. The same applies to the songs, which are good, not great, but I’ll allow for the possibility that this is better than the first impression would indicate. ("The Socialites", "Gun Has No Trigger")

Damien Jurado – Maraqopa [B]: This is a moving album, and well played at that. The first half had me plotting ‘A’ territory, but things start to slack a little on the back half. Still, a pretty strong showing, and I’m guessing a grower. But what’s with the RATM cover rip-off? Yuck! ("This Time Next Year", "Museum of Flight")

 

Welcome Wagon – Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices [B]: This is a nice album. These folks wear simplicity on their sleeves, and the result is almost child-like in its folkdom. There are a few big highlights, among them a stripped down cover of The Cure’s "High" which is quite worth hearing. My one gripe is that this dude just sounds so much like his homey Sufjan. Still, prepare to be blitzed by pleasantry. ("High", "Would You Come and See Me in NY?")

Initial Reactions (2012): Smashing Pumpkins, Sun Kil Moon, Keri Latimer

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania [A-]: I’m dipping my toes in easily – it’s been a long time since BC unleashed something great – but this is some super-dreamy dream-rock and a really pleasant surprise. I get off the Pumpkins train right after Pisces, but Oceania resurrects all the things I loved about those first 3 albums, and commits a big prog-nerd embrace to update the sound. And hey, this is a full band effort – go figure! This could just turn out to be one of the best albums of the year. Welcome back Corgan.  (“Pale Horse”, “The Chimera”)

Sun Kil Moon – Among The Leaves [B]: AtL leads off with three great, RHP-esque tunes, and then settles for mediocrity. I was not a fan of Admiral Fell Blues in all of its noodling glory, and thus I find the AFB-esque tracks here to be the filler. Bottom line is this could have been cut by a third and been a really good album, standing in line with the finest of RHP’s work. But rather than our favorite mopey hipster, we get a worn out, cranky old one.    (“Sunshine In Chicago”, “Among The Leaves”)

Keri Latimer – Crowsfeet and Grayskull [B+]: If there was ever an album I wanted to love, it’s this. I was head over heels for Latimer’s (old?) outfit Nathan and their 2007 LP Key Principles. And while Latimer’s fallen angel vocals and lonesome tired melodies are all present here, the songs just don’t hit me on the same level as, say, “The Wind” or “Ordinary Day.” There’s no doubting this is a good album with a strong and worthy concept, but it doesn’t quite satisfy the hunger inside. (And how’s that for a fitting critique?) (“Mud and Slobber”, “Bloomington”)

Initial Reactions (2012): The Walkmen, Saint Etienne, Great Lake Swimmers

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

The Walkmen – Heaven [B]: From the big croon to the arpeggios to the vintage equipment, there’s much to love about The Walkmen, but it’s time they got difficult. Heaven is a good album, but it’s not a great one, and given that it’s their 6th or 7th in 10 years, that tells me that they need to tear it up and break it down. Maybe not all bands go through the mid-life artistic crisis, but I’m a fan of The Walkmen, and I happen to think they would benefit from one.  ("Line By Line", "Song For Leigh")

Saint Etienne – Words and Music [B]: The first 2 tracks are brilliant, a music lover’s manifesto, but despite a winning concept, it’s an early peak and a steep descent. Dig that cover though, great idea!  ("Over the Border", "I’ve Got Your Music")



Great Lake Swimmers – New Wild Everywhere [B]
: I wonder if "New Wild Everywhere" is an homage to REM’s "Near Wild Heaven." After all, much of the album reminds me of Stipe & Co.’s middle period, i.e. stripped back loveliness. From the lush strings of Miranda Mulholland to the easy-does-it earnestness of Tony Dekker pleasantness abounds, but I wish the band would inject more fight and angst into these tunes (except the title track, it’s perfect). As a wise man once said, a little pain never hurt anyone.  ("New Wild Everywhere", "On The Water")

Top Tracks 2011: In 80 Minutes or Less

I’ve given you 2011′s best albums. Now, behold, the year’s top tracks in 80 minutes or less, as selected by a distinguished panel of me.

Image(6)

NB: For about half these artists, I would’ve chosen more than one track (esp. Fleet Foxes, Twin Sister, Dawes, Real Estate). So there are some pretty great tracks that didn’t make the cut.

"Chinatown" by Destroyer & "Stop" by Twin Sister: It’s difficult for me to separate these two out, because I love them for very similar reasons. Both feature dueling male/female vocals, romantic themes, 80’s soft-soul ambiance, and just the right touch of silliness and excess. This was the sound of 2011 in my book.  (“You can’t believe/The way the wind’s talking to the sea/I heard that someone said it before/I don’t care/I can’t walk away/I can’t walk away…”)

"Calgary" by Bon Iver: I’ve never been an admirer of Vernon’s vox, but "Calgary" comes off like the omega to Another Green World‘s alpha. It is quite possibly the most unusual song I heard last year, and also, quite possibly, the very best. Amazing video too.

"It’s Real" by Real Estate: Although I missed the wonderful nostalgic haze of Real Estate’s debut on 2011′s Days, the band’s second LP featured some flip-floppingly breezy garage-pop goodness. "It’s Real" is perhaps the best cut, a sing-along inducing nugget that makes the case for Real Estate being one of the best bands on the block.

"Bedouin Dress" by Fleet Foxes: "Innisfree" is apparently some sort of mythical paradise of Celtic lore, and after hearing Robin Pecknold’s joyful paean to the place, I’m inclined, in the words of Liz Lemon, to "want to go to there." A huge stylistic leap for an already great band, and they nail it. (“And I can’t/No I can’t get through/The borrower’s debt is the only regret of my youth…”)

"Us Against the World" by Coldplay: Chris Martin has to be one of the most under-appreciated songwriters in the world today. True, I’m sure the guy gets "appreciated" mighty well in the pounds-sterling department, but the point is the dude can write a freakin’ song. It’s that point where Martin’s voice ascends into the lyric mimetically that slays me: "If we could float away/Fly up to the surface and just start again/Lift off before trouble just erodes us in the rain…"

"Dear Avery" by The Decemberists: Ready to weep? Listen to this song, envision that bit about grabbing the child "by the knape of [the] neck", and then realize that Meloy wrote this song from the perspective of a parent sending their son off to war. Like "Tears of Rage" without the bitterness(?), this one just makes you want to sigh hallelujah. (“There are times life/Will rattle your bones and will bend your limbs/You’re still far away the boy you’ve ever been/So you bend back and shake at the frame/The frame you made/Don’t you shake alone/Please Avery, come home…”)

"Civilian" by Wye Oak: Last year I included Wye Oak’s "I Hope You Die" on my best tracks list. This year, I’ve included the driving, downtrodden rocker "Civilian", a tune that seems to owe quite a bit to Neil Young’s folk-rock period. Builds from a circular guitar figure into a storm of distorted catharsis, it’s a harrowing take on loneliness, and features great drumming. ("Perfectly able to hold my own hand/But I still can’t kiss my own neck")

"Hard Times" by Gillian Welch: It’s a simple little story of the wearing down of sincere promises, a ballad of poverty, will, and the inevitable. I wasn’t greatly impressed by Welch’s 5th released last year, but this ranks among her very best songs. Listen to those lyrics, and try not to cry. ("C’mon sweet ol’ girl/I bet the whole damn world/We’re gonna make it yet to the end of the road/Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind…”)

"Million Dollar Bill" by Dawes: It starts with that slow-tempo drumming that instantly calls to mind The Band, Big Pink-era, fronted by Richard Manuel. It would be unfair and simply stupid to draw all things Dawes back to The Band, but with "Million Dollar Bill", they offer up something that is unmistakeably a tribute to one of their biggest influences, showing that they are every bit as capable of Robertson’s brotherhood of creating "melt-your-face" Americana. ("When it hits me that she’s gone/I think I’ll run for president/And get my face put on the million dollar bill")

"Turn A Light On" by Kathryn Calder: Of all the tracks on 2011′s Bright And Vivid, "Turn A Light On" most recalls the pleasantly noisy pastoral beauty of Calder’s 2010 debut LP. It emphasizes all of the things that have quickly made her one of my favorite new artists – the airy acoustic strum, the angelic melodies, the gracefully crafted harmonies and dissonant flourishes – and fits in perfectly with the album’s overall theme. ("Throw the table/It began to waver/The wine is cloudy too/So I watch it go/You wonder if/When it’s almost gone/So what’s the use/If you missed it all/We’ll make the rounds/But what’s the use…")

"In My Eyes" by Givers: One of the band’s more "downbeat" tracks, "In My Eyes" is nevertheless still pretty bouncy and catchy and all that. But there’s more texture here, a narrative arc more dynamic than some of the band’s more prominent tunes. The breakdown at the end is one of the band’s best moments, showcasing all of their strengths. Love those voices, love that tropical post-punk sound.

"Supercollider" by Radiohead: 2011 was the full realization of Radiohead’s independent dream. They released not only their shortest album to date, but a couple of outstanding non-LP singles as well. "Supercollider" is the best of the lot, a tense builder that recalls the bleak tunefulness of In Rainbows, the icy synthscapes of Amnesiac, and the utter brilliance of Thom Yorke’s voice.

"Ring Them Bells" by Sarah Jarosz: Oh Mercy! How did this one ever get dropped from the pile o’ Dylan classics? , Thank Jarosz for digging it up. Her voice owns it, and the bluegrass accompaniment weds it with humble joy. (“Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams/Ring them bells from the sanctuaries ‘cross the valleys and streams/For they’re deep and they’re wide/And the world’s on it’s side/And time is running backwards/And so is the bride…”)

"Days Like This" by Over the Rhine: The best cut on Over The Rhine’s latest wasn’t their own tune, but a composition by Kim Taylor. It’s the kind of simple song that lets the strongest of strengths shine forth for Linford and Karin…that voice, the moody instrumentation. Perfection. ("All I wanna do is live my life honestly…")

"Tree By The River" by Iron & Wine: An optimistic and warm address to Mary Ann. "All the thorns and the roses/Beneath your window panes…" A lovely peace of nostalgia.

"One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)" by Wilco: Gorgeous, epic, blissful, unsettling, final, hopeful, sad, wow. Holy blessings what an amazing song. Quite possibly the song that Wilco was destined to make. (“Outside I look lived in/Like the bones in a shrine/How am I forgiven?/Oh, I’ll give it time…”)

Initial Reactions (2012): Beach Boys, Best Coast, Bap Kennedy

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio [A-]: The Boys didn’t enlist Jack White to produce, so there is the cheezed-out sound. But be slaked by those opening harmonies. Enjoy the jingle of "Isn’t It Time." Marvel at the concept of "Bill and Sue." And just relish the fact that these well-advanced pop godfathers crafted a dirge for the closer "Summer’s Gone." TWGMTR isn’t a perfect album by any means, but it more than proves the abundance of greatness that is the Beach Boys. ("The Private Life of Bill and Sue", "Summer’s Gone")

Best Coast – The Only Place [B+]: Didn’t dig on Best Coast’s first album. Something about the "a-melodic drone" of the guitar, but I can safely say that the guitar playing here is jangly, sunny, and sprite-ish. Furthermore, the girl-group harmonies and Spector-ish flourishes realize an altogether lovelier sound. Now despite the presence of a couple of greats, the songs aren’t quite ‘A’ material. But the trajectory is on target, and I’m expecting big things from BCLP3. ("The Only Place", "How They Want Me To Be")

Bap Kennedy – The Sailor’s Revenge [B]: Mark Knopfler‘s production cred garnered my attention, but I’m pleased to report that Bap Kennedy has written a strong set of songs to boot. These are tunes shot through with a gentle sea, making TSR a reflective bookend to Fisherman’s Blues. Like any sea voyage, though it starts out full of promise, by the end it’s worn on you a bit, but all in all, you’ll keeping coming back for nothing more than the song of the sea away on that horizon. ("Shimnavale", "Jimmy Sanchez")

Initial Reactions (2012): Beach House, Sigur Ros, Japandroids

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Beach House – Bloom [B+]: I feel like an exacting a-hole when it comes to Bloom. After ranking Teen Dream #1 in 2010, I feel like I should be a little more excited by album 4. But the rub is continuity. Bloom sounds like the simultaneously-filmed sequel to a blockbuster, no creative break with the past but a gorgeous means of marking time. I should welcome that, right? But blame OK Computer and Kid A; blame Achtung Baby. The best throw it all away for greatness, and I can’t help but feel that Bloom under-delivers. ("Lazuli", "Other People")

Sigur Ros – Valtari [B]: Recently, Sigur Ros have expanded their sonic template (see the "streaker" album and Jonsi’s solo work), but Valtari is mostly a return to form. I won’t wax insightful about what the band are doing here – "creating magical sonic landscapes" seems sufficient – I’ll merely remark that this is a new Sigur Ros record, with two fantastic SR songs and six other lovely ones. There are glimpses of fresh ideas, but the band never really moves beyond a proven template. Thus, enjoyable, but unfortunately not great. ("Eg anda", "Varuth")

Japandroids – Celebration Rock [B-]: With Celebration Rock, we get a one-dimensional trajectory that, for all the RAWK!, reaches monotony in just three songs. Some tunes begin with potentially fantastic hooks, but it’s all a head-long plunge, all power ahead, all rocket pack into the empty vacuum. That’s the point, right? Party hard and all that? I was never a true punk though, and I expect nuance. CR is decent for what it is, but it doesn’t have the ability to expand beyond its own genre. ("The Nights of Wine and Roses", "Continuous Thunder")

Initial Reactions (2012): Norah Jones, Lower Dens, Zammuto

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts [B]: On its face, Jones’ 5th proclaims edgy style. There’s the risqué album cover (cf. albums 1-4), production by Danger Mouse, and the sassy, "is that Norah Jones?" hook of lead single "Happy Pills." Certainty: Burton works wonders with the arrangements. Trouble is twofold. The songs are decent, but none great. Furthermore, Jones’ delivery is still maddeningly mild. I was amped by "Happy Pills" – but further listening feels like falling off of cloud nine. ("Say Goodbye", "Out On The Road")

Lower Dens – Nootropics [A-]: The sound of an alien’s existential crisis? I know from the interwebs that this is high concept, but I won’t get into all that here. What I will say is that Dens makes some sparse (and oft frightening) soundscapes, and then populates them with neurotic cosmonauts. There’s a nice diversity to the song types, but a definite unity to the overall sound of the record. I’m pleasantly surprised by this one, and if you dig krautrock then go ahead and give it a whirl. ("Stem", "Propagation", "Nova Anthem", "Lion In Winter pt. 1")

Zammuto – Zammuto [B]: The Way Out was my first exposure to The Books and their last LP release. I dug it, so I was excited to see point-5-Books pick things up with Zammuto. Sounds Books-ish, what with the silly sampling, but there’s a post-rock band feel here as well. Sports some mighty fine tunes fer sure, but the problem is sequencing. The thick, frantic stuff is relentless until the last few tracks, when things slow down to pensive. More ebb and flow might have opened this one up. Not bad, not great. ("Groan Man, Don’t Cry", "Full Fading")

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.