Quick Review (LP): Cape Dory by Tennis

Tennis
Cape Dory
Fat Possum; 2011

My Rating: B (68/100)

Best Tracks: “Bimini Bay”, “Marathon”, “Take Me Somewhere”, “South Carolina”

According to Wikipedia, Cape Dory Yachts “was a Massachusetts based fiberglass boat builder which operated from 1963 to 1996.” So it figures that the indie duo Tennis, whose debut is inspired by a seven-month sailing cruise of the Atlantic states, would choose such a name. And what we have here is hyper-pleasant, mid-tempo indie pop. Reference points? Well, there’s a definite care-free, vacation punk feel to this record, so I’d have to go with Vampire Weekend on one hand, with a bit of the languorous songswells of Beach House undergirding things. Also, there’s a big helping of the oldie-but-goodie sensibility that informs the She & Him records. It’s all well and good, but Cape Dory is a record of fleeting pleasures. There’s not a whole lot to really jump on board with, perhaps owing to the fact that this was a record inspired by an escapist life at sea. But that’s OK. It’s highly enjoyable for what it is, and Tennis is a band full of promise. Their songs really grow on you, and I can envision great things coming from them in the not-too-distant future.

Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (3/5)
Consistency (5/5)
Songs (4/5)

AMG review
Pitchfork review
Sputnik Music review
Paste review
Metacritic reviews

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Quick Review (LP): Jawbox by Jawbox

Jawbox
Jawbox
Atlantic/TAG; 1996

My Rating: B-

Best Tracks: “Mirrorful”, “Iodine”, “Spoiler”, “Absenter”, “Desert Sea”

There are at least 5 great tracks on Jawbox‘s self-titled fourth album (see above). Unfortunately, the rest of the album’s songs come off like throwbacks to their early days (Grippe-era) or FM radio pandering, and the production is so sexed up and snappy that it robs Jawbox of the mighty noise that made For Your Own Special Sweetheart such a triumph. Just listen. Barocas’ drums sounds like firecrackers rather than bombs awash with sonic salvation, and Kimmy’s bass sounds tinny and flat, like something off of a Limp Bizkit record (no disrespect to her actual playing). And the songs? Take “Chinese Fork Tie” for example. The big rock chorus is awkward and goofy, especially executed by a band with as much substance as Jawbox. And the slick, cherubic background vocals on “Excandescent”? When you’ve got the vocal chemistry that Robbins and Barbot share, why go that route? In hindsight, I’m not sure if the band was trying to deliver a pop smash, trying a new direction, or something else. The eponymous album title this late in a career is usually not a good sign, and I think it’s an indicator of why this album fell flat as a whole, and also perhaps why it was their last. Not withstanding the handful of truly brilliant tracks, it looks like the inspiration was running dry.

AMG review
My review of For Your Own Special Sweetheart
My review of Novelty
My review of Grippe
My review of their first EP
”Mirrorful” music theory write-up from the Hooks blog

Quick Review (LP): III: Arcade Dynamics by Ducktails

ducktails arcade dynamics Ducktails
Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics
Woodsist; 2011

My Rating: B

Best Tracks: “Hamilton Road”, “Sunset Liner”, “Little Window”, “In The Swing”

If you follow this here music weblog, you know that I love me some Real Estate, so it should come as no surprise that I decided to give the third long-player from Ducktails, Real Estater Matthew Mondanile’s side project, a look-see. What we have here sounds essentially like demo workouts aimed at future Real Estate recordings. Now, I don’t know that that’s what these really are, but perhaps it’s better to say that this record demonstrates that Mondanile is no mere hired-hand. Is it good? It’s certainly not as solid as the material we’ve seen from Real Estate thus far, but it does have its moments.  “Hamilton Road” in particular is a pleasant bit of breezy, backporch bliss, and the rest of the record’s hazy, dreamy tunes approximate some of the less captivating (but nonetheless enjoyable) moments on Real Estate‘s Reality EP. I think it’s pertinent to say that over the course of six or seven listens, I most enjoyed partaking in this on the heels of Chris Bell‘s I Am The Cosmos. To that end, I think it’s best to view Arcade Dynamics as sort of a “back down to earth” record. For a bedroom effort, that’s par for the course, and if you’re a Real Estate fan (and if you’re not you should be), then give this one a shot.

AMG review
Pitchfork review
Bowlegs Music review
Sputnik Music review

Quick Review (LP): Seventeen Seconds by The Cure

seventeen seconds the cure The Cure
Seventeen Seconds
Fiction; 1980

My Rating: B+

Best Tracks: “Play for Today”, “Secrets”, “A Forest”, “At Night”

What an arcane little post-punk record this is. Perhaps R. Smith was indulging a fetish for moody horror films, or perhaps he was just really sad the 70’s were coming to an end, but The Cure’s descent into darkness begins here. Though I can’t bring myself to call it a classic or a masterpiece, I nevertheless really like this record. Appropriately though, I can’t seem to put my finger on what I like about it. The brothers gloom apparently caught a lot of flack when the record was released for making “film soundtracks” rather than pop songs, but The Cure are the only ones laughing about that now, especially when you consider that you can hear this album influencing whole genres of rock music right up to the present day. Think Spoon. Think Nine Inch Nails. I hear all of that. Great tracks? They’re here too. Look no further than “Play For Today” and “A Forest”, both of which take the minimalist post-punk of Three Imaginary Boys to a spooky new level. However, my favorite cut has to be “At Night”, which begins in a sort of monotonous drudgery but begins to spasm about with random bursts of noise. Why do I like it so much? I don’t know!?!? Weird, huh? Yes it is. Just like this record. Bottom line: the appeal of this record is as much a mystery as its substance. Now that’s insight.

AMG review
Pitchfork review
AMG review of “At Night”

Quick Review (LP): Dye It Blonde by Smith Westerns

Smith Westerns
Dye It Blonde
Fat Possum; 2011

My Rating: C

Best Tracks: “Weekend”

There’s been a ton of hype surrounding this record, and I truly expected I’d like it. After several listens, I can safely say this is a mediocre record at best. The band’s influences are obvious, and the music sounds almost exactly how you’d expect it to sound. Still, none of that’s really that problematic. I can handle derivative rock records. The problem with Smith Westerns is an utter lack of vocal talent. It’s a problem I see a lot these days. I recall seeing Wild Nothing last year and thinking the same thing. Give me a Freddie Mercury or a Liam Gallagher or, in Wild Nothing‘s case, a Robert Smith, and then you’ve got something. Without that, you need something far more interesting instrumentally, and the Smith Westerns just don’t deliver on that level. It’s obvious these guys want to make huge rock songs, but there’s far more gloss here than over-the-top glam. The keyboards sheen and the falsettos swell, but I can’t shake the feeing that this just isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Pitchfork review
Metacritic review
AMG review
Sputnik Music review

Quick Review (LP): The Long Surrender by Over The Rhine

over the rhine the long surrender Over The Rhine
The Long Surrender
Great Speckled Dog; 2011

My Rating: B+

Best Tracks: “The Laugh of Recognition”, “Infamous Love Song”, “Oh Yeah By The Way”, “Days Like This”, “Rave On”

Let me be honest: it’s been a struggle to get my bearings with this record. The band scored a couple of no-doubt triumphs mid-decade with Ohio and Drunkard’s Prayer, but their last one, The Trumpet Child, never quite grabbed me in the same way. The Long Surrender has, so far, left me with the same feeling. By my own reckoning, the best I could do was to see this as a hybrid of DP‘s intimate chamber folk and The Trumpet Child‘s hope-against-hope spirituals. I didn’t think that was enough, so I decided to read the liner notes. The album’s producer, Joe Henry, mentioned two of his own takeaways that stuck with me. The first came from the tattoo on Karin Bergquist‘s arm: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The second came from the memory of Linford Detwiler: “Leave the edges wild.” Sage words, I’d say. There’s some deep magic about this duo that urges you to stay the course. There aren’t any “wow!” moments here in the way of “Spark” or “Jesus In New Orleans”, but I think I know what Karin would have to say about comparing past efforts with those of today. The “fuzzy wuzzy” moment may seem a bit cringeworthy on “Only God Can Save Us Now”, but I’ll keep Linford’s admonishment in mind. Gratitude should always come first, even for a music snob, and I’m thankful that a band like Over The Rhine even exists, and that they allowed us in on great tunes like “The Laugh of Recognition” and “Oh Yeah By The Way.” Still, I’d have to say the record’s defining moment is the Kim Taylor-penned “Days Like This.” The no frills chorus – “All I want to do is live my life honestly” – drives right to the heart of what it seems to me Over The Rhine is all about. When all is said and done, it might just be that what Bergquist and Detwiler have given us is their most honest record yet, one that revels in the teensy, quiet victories that keep us all afloat.

Stereo Subversion review
My review of Good Dog Bad Dog

Quick Review (LP): For Your Own Special Sweetheart by Jawbox

jawbox for your own special sweetheart Jawbox
For Your Own Special Sweetheart
Atlantic; 1994

My Rating: A

Best Tracks: “FF=66”, “Savory”, “Breathe”, “Cooling Card”, “Whitney Walks”

The only problem with Novelty was the production. All I can say is that it sounded a bit off, sort of glossed and imbalanced. The drums, for example, popped with too much pizzazz. The guitars came off a little too metal. All that has been remedied on For Your Own Special Sweetheart, apparently by the efforts of Fugazi-standby producer Ted Nicely. With his assistance, the band made the defining Jawbox experience, an album that captures the band in all of their gorgeous, hyper-melodic dissonance. Everything – and I mean everything – about this record brims with sonic glory. The choruses are fist-pumpingly mighty, the drums and bass are pummeling and full, and the guitars are explosive and razor-sharp. The only drawback, and it is minor, is that the best material seems to be packed into the record’s first half. Still, it could just be that tracks 1-6 are so strong that nothing could compare, and to be honest, “Chicago Piano”, “U-Trau”, and “Whitney Walks” are all pretty amazing anyway. There’s no doubt in my mind that Sweetheart is one of the great post-punk records, and certainly Jawbox’s masterpiece. It’s a record that deserves to be listened to on full blast, so pop it in, crank it up, and savor every second.

Wikipedia article
Pitchfork review
AMG review

Career-In-Review: The Smiths

the smiths Overview
I like to think of The Smiths as Britain’s answer to R.E.M. After all, The Smiths released the “Hand In Glove” single right about the same time as R.E.M. released Murmur, and both bands feature ridiculously influential boy-wonder guitar players and controversial anti-frontmen. Unfortunately, The Smiths were never quite able to gel personally and artistically the way R.E.M.’s core members have over the years (it all might have been different if Andy Rourke had covered “Monster Mash” at the end of Strangeways, eh?), and the band died after four or five incredibly productive years.

The Smiths only released four proper LP’s (not gonna cover any of their live releases), and they never really made a defining statement in that format, which is unfortunate, especially for a band that was otherwise fantastic. For my money, I recommend beginning with the Singles compilation. While it is apocryphal, it’s pretty much a great listen from start to finish, and allows you to get a good feel for what The Smiths are all about. Their catalog of singles and toss-offs runs deep though, and in this age of MP3 downloads, there’s probably a couple of CD-R’s worth of great tracks in addition to the stuff on Singles to feast upon.

My personal favorite aspect of The Smiths’ music is Johnny Marr’s layered and luscious guitar playing, but there is no denying that The Smiths would not be The Smiths were it not for the utterly unique vocals and persona of Stephen Morrissey. Additionally, the work of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce often gets overlooked, but tracks like “This Charming Man” bear testimony to the fact that they were far more than bricklayers in the band’s creative endeavors.

Five Track Intro

1) How Soon Is Now?
2) This Charming Man
3) There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
4) Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
5) Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want

Studio Albums and other selected releases (*** = recommended album)

The Smiths (1984) — B — After releasing a couple of classic and hard-hitting singles, the band dials it back a few notches for their full-length debut. Spotty and uneven, but holds a few highlights. (R: “Reel Around The Fountain”, “Still Ill”) (see my original review)

Meat Is Murder (1985) — B — The first definite sign that when it comes to albums, The Smiths didn’t quite get it. Not bad, but its Morrissey at his most obnoxious, and the title track is ridiculous. (R: “The Headmaster Ritual”, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”) (see my original review)

The Queen Is Dead (1986) — B+ — Almost a classic, but it suffers from poor production. Features a number of “might have been great” tracks. (R: “Cemetry Gates”, “I Know It’s Over”) (see my original review)

Strangeways, Here We Come (1987) — B — The best side of vinyl the band ever committed from “Rush” to “Stop Me” – all down hill after “Last Night.” (R: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”, “Girlfriend In A Coma”) (see my original review)

Other recommended tracks: “These Things Take Time”, “Sweet & Tender Hooligan”, “Half a Person”, “Please Please Please…”, “Wonderful Woman”, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby”

Wikipedia article

Quick Review (LP): The King Is Dead by The Decemberists

decemberists king is dead The Decemberists
The King Is Dead
2011

My Rating: B+

Best Tracks: “Don’t Carry It All”, “Rox In The Box”, “January Hymn”, “June Hymn”, “Dear Avery”

Were it not for the bleating timbre of Colin Meloy’s voice, I’d probably own every Decemberists record. Surely there has to be a better way to create a hybrid of Morrissey and Stipe, no? As for this here slab o’ wax, while it’s certainly no masterpiece, it’s nonetheless an exceptionally strong set of songs, featuring all of the things that folks have loved about The Decemberists from the beginning. There are a few instances where it seems they might be loafing – “This Is Why We Fight” for instance – but otherwise The King Is Dead finds the band embracing Americana, with several of the tracks getting help from the vocals of Gillian Welch (who I hope has learned a thing or two from Master Meloy’s productivity, ahem). While there’s nothing so lovely as “The Engine Driver” (though the pair of hymns come close) or as soaring and accessible as “16 Military Wives”, this is a well-rounded folk-rock record that will please fans of The Decemberists and might even convert a few Welch fans.

Random observations:

– “January Hymn” recalls the pastoral college rock of late 80’s / early 90’s REM, and even The Smiths
– “Dear Avery” reminds me of Fleetwood Mac

Wikipedia article
AMG review
Metacritic reviews
Pitchfork review

Quick Review (LP): The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan

bob dylan the times they are a-changin' Bob Dylan
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Capitol; 1964

My Rating: B-

Best Tracks: “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, “Boots of Spanish Leather”, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, “The Restless Farewell”

I do wonder if this record is our document of Bob Dylan getting traditional folk out of his system. After all, it produced only one true classic, the title track, and even that song comes off as a re-write of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” The focal point of the songs is undoubtedly the lyrics, which are, for the most part, obsessed with the social injustice of the age. And it is a stark record, for the most part completely devoid of any sense of humor, and to a great extent that makes it pretty forgettable. Even “Boots of Spanish Leather”, one of the album’s best tracks, fails to impress, generously borrowing from the melody of “Girl From The North Country.” Other standout tracks march by with conviction, but in all honesty I still have a hard time distinguishing “Hattie Carroll” from “Hollis Brown.” I suppose for traditional folk purists, this must be a pretty fabulous effort from ol’ Bobby. Unfortunately, this is not the Dylan that butters my bread, for the good man protesteth too much.

Wikipedia article
AMG review
Blogcritics review